They say the horses don’t come if you’re good. They don’t come if you’re bad, neither. They only come if you’re in between, if you’re a border thing like they are.
“Same as every other warning,” Jack said, while he oiled an old pair of reins. “Be as good as you can or the bogies’ll eat you.”
“Or be as bad as you can.” Uncle Jess spat off the porch into the sagebrush. “I can’t abide a man who won’t make up his mind. Neither can they.”
I wasn’t sure that explained it, but I settled back to cleaning my rifle. I’d said enough about the horses. Any more and Uncle Jess might think I was taking after Mary Alice, and I didn’t care to visit that kind of worry on him.
Now Mary Alice wasn’t a good girl, and she wasn’t a bad girl either. She was a girl who liked a pale-eyed drifter, the way girls do sometimes, and awhile after he drifted on she was a girl in trouble.
Townsfolk ain’t any meaner than other people but they ain’t any nicer, and I guess Mary Alice couldn’t take it. She left that little girl in her cradle, half a day old, and hiked out in the middle of a red dust storm. Just started walking, slow and steady.
She stopped on top of Devil’s Hill, and I’ve seen the stains up there. She left enough blood ain’t no one could have survived it, much less a tiny thing like her, but they didn’t find a body. Only hoofprints, churning that patch of soaked dirt like a whole herd spooked and trampled past.
Some say don’t be stupid, coyotes must have took the body. And there’s plenty of coyotes out there, and there’s sure plenty of mustangs. But Mary Alice’s little girl never listened to no one, and four years after her mama disappeared she went out walking to the crossroads.
I was in town that day, bringing a colt to be shod, and I saw her pass. When she didn’t come back, I rode out looking.
I didn’t find any hoofprints, down at the crossroads. But I didn’t find Mary Alice’s little girl, neither, and not a mark stirred the dust to show her path. Just the breeze, playing sly ’round the saltbrush.
Old Bill the blacksmith only sighed, when I told him about that empty crossroads, but his nephew took sharper interest. Sometimes I maybe wish I’d held my tongue, that day. Old Bill’s nephew was from the older territories, back where it’s more settled, and he’d come out looking for things to tame.
He went out into the canyons, just him and an armful of rope, and for two days the wind blew hard. On the third the sheriff rode out looking. He found hoofprints up on the clifftops and Old Bill’s nephew down in Beggar’s Canyon, thrown onto the red rocks. Just left there, with half his bones broke and the crows pecking out his eyes.
I’d argued plenty with the townsfolk over why the horses didn’t take him–if he was too good, or too bad, or just too certain what he wanted. There was no knowing now, they’d tell me, and maybe better not to.
That didn’t answer no question at all, and wasn’t much longer before I hiked out to Devil’s Hill. I took my rifle, in case of Jack caught me. Just practicing my aim, I’d say, not looking for anything. Not chewing over the whys I couldn’t answer, like a dog with a scrap of hide.
But those whys still nipped at me, as I stared over the flats. The canyons spread behind them, stone spine-curves and rib-hollows. I could just see the two ridges topping Beggar’s Canyon. I wondered what I’d have seen if I came looking while Old Bill’s nephew was out there.
Maybe nothing. Maybe the townsfolk were right, and any fool could get himself tossed off a wild mustang, and any girl could get her body eaten by coyotes and her daughter’s too.
But those same folk told their children never to walk the crossroads, and when the red winds swept down they spat hard and made a sign against evil. I couldn’t figure which way to think, as I lay there with my rifle, and I stared out toward the canyons like they’d tell me.
That was when I saw the horse running far off ‘cross the flats.
I didn’t mean to shoot him.
The sheriff just stared at me when I said, and I don’t care to guess what expression Jack and Uncle Jess had when they heard. I didn’t go home after I shot the stranger, just dropped the rifle like it’d turned to a rattlesnake and backed away like it was coiled up and hissing to strike.
The rider lay crumpled and dark on the plain, no matter how much I wanted him to get up and wave and even come after me cursing with his own gun. He just laid there, ’cause I’d shot him dead.
His horse ran on, black against the heat-wavery red flat. A horse like any other, no reason to think elsewise. For sure no reason to explain why I’d pulled the trigger, that yank-and-give of old metal. No reason at all to account for the hope that’d caught in my throat like glass, and broke to shards when the stranger fell.
I saw the stranger’s horse tethered later in town. A pretty young thing, it was, even all foamed and sweat-streaky. I walked past it shake-kneed as a new calf to confess I was a murderer.
The sheriff put his hat down on the desk and rubbed his cheeks, like if he waited long enough I’d unsay it and go away. But there was no unsaying a dead man’s shape in the dirt, and that rifle was still lying on the hillside and that horse was still standing in the street with an empty saddle. I twisted my fingers ’round my red bandana and waited.
“Well, now,” the sheriff said finally. “Well, now, Eliza Jane.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. Folk weren’t clustered around the doorway, even though it was open, but wasn’t no one who didn’t know by now what had happened.
“Why did you do it, Eliza Jane? Why’d you want him dead?”
“Didn’t, sir.” I swallowed achy through a dust-dry throat. “But I was out practicing my aim, and I don’t know if I meant to shoot him but I did.”
I couldn’t speak what I’d really thought to the sheriff, watching me so earnest. Couldn’t say that when I sighted down the barrel I spotted a rider and a dark horse running, saw them and thought they were maybe something else, creatures mixed from dust and wind and heat-shimmer, and for a long hard moment I’d been so certain that if I pulled the trigger I’d find out it was true.
And then the rider fell, and the horse was flesh, and I’d murdered a man.
The sheriff frowned. “If you were practicing your aim, was it accident? Killing ain’t murder if it ain’t on purpose.”
“It wasn’t accident, sir,” I said. “But I can’t rightly say it was on purpose.”
The sheriff frowned more at me, then shook his head, then sighed. “Anyhow you look at it, a man’s dead. I don’t know, Eliza Jane. You’re not innocent but you’re not full guilty, either. You’re somewhere in between.”
My fingers stilled in my bandana, and I jerked my head up in sharp sudden hope.
Realization rose storm-fast ‘cross the sheriff’s face.
“Oh, Eliza Jane,” he said, and he understood enough, because his voice was accusing beneath the tired.
I stepped off the sheriff’s porch and marched down the street, not looking left or right. No one would have met my gaze anyway. A breeze curled over the ground, patting red dust against my boots. Snorts of warm air brushed my neck.
No one called my name, as I walked down to the crossroad, but I thought I heard a little girl giggle. Or maybe it was just a branch creaking, or a lost crow echoing out of the canyons.
The wind began to rise as I planted my feet and waited.
Maigen Turner lives in Southern California, among canyons empty of horses but full of sage scrub. She studied zoology yet has no intention of working in a zoo. When provoked, she will discuss both books and fishtanks at extreme length. She appears on Twitter as @Spartezda and blogs erratically at spartezda.livejournal.com.
The story of the horses–or rather, those who seek them–grew from three songs: Chris LeDoux’s cowboy tale “Caballo Diablo”; Johnny Cash’s cover of the murder ballad “I Hung My Head”; and Calexico’s version of “All the Pretty Horses,” a lullaby as sinister as it sounds.
Photograph by Dietrich Krieger of Horse on the Gehrenberg, near Deggenhausertal-Wendlingen, Bodenseekreis. Used with permission via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.