Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Skykicker - Award-winning Short Story by P.A. Bechko

This week I'm offering part one of my award-winning shortstory SKYKICKER, to be completed tomorrow with part 2. Share with friends and enjoy.

          It was going to snow.  She knew it for a fact, but she kicked her dependable roan ahead anyway, casting a wary glance toward the darkening western sky.

           It would hold off for a while yet, it had to.

          Nora had made and executed her plans with a meticulous eye to detail.  She'd worked out tactics and she intended to have that damned mustang stallion in her corral by nightfall. 

Skykicker she’d named him.

For months she'd watched him, followed him and his little band of mares, keeping her distance, admiring his many strengths and what they would add to the bloodlines of her string; and all the while she'd been scheming.

            Skykicker was a powerful golden stud in his prime, and wild as a prairie wind, not a horse she'd be able to just run down and rope.  He was too swift, too agile and too damn smart for that.  He could outrun everything west of the Mississippi, and he'd have the advantage.  No rider to slow him down.  He'd fight, too; probably turn on her. 

            Today everything was in place.  A string of her best horses, were positioned along the route the stallion and his band most often frequented.  All of the remounts were reasonably fast, dependable and strong of wind.  Changing horses along the way would help her keep that stud running.  She would wear him down.

            Nora spotted Skykicker and smiled.

            The leaden sky drooped nearer the earth.

            "Come on Red," she softly urged her faithful gelding a little faster.

            The big-boned roan with the broad, dish-shaped nostrils gave an anxious snort of the sort he always produced when they neared the stallion, and stepped up the pace.

            "Today we're taking him home."

            She stroked the horse, leaning into the warmth radiating from the animal's bowed neck and huddled deeper into the folds of her sheepskin coat.

            Nora's slight build was no great burden to the striding horse, but the weight was more than the wild stallion would be carrying. 

The tie-down of her hat bit beneath her chin.  Ebony hair billowed beneath the brim, rippling behind her in a sooty cloud.  Her pale blue eyes glittered with silver lights when she turned them once again toward the bilious heavens.  Red snorted again.

            "It'll hold off," she told her equine companion confidently.  "Don't you go worrying about it."

            The roan wasn't worrying.  She was.  Her best animals were waiting.  The most steadfast, each would, one after the other, head for the home corral when she left one mount for another.  She'd chosen Red for the first leg because there was only one horse swifter with more bottom than Red in her string; Shadow, a small, fleet-footed filly picketed at the last stop.  It was Shadow she would depend upon at the end, but still, she worried.

            Because now was only the beginning.

            The powerful golden stallion was moving.  He whickered to his mares, trotted from one side to the other and finally, head lowered, nipped at their heels to press them forward.  He ignored the woman's presence as he always had; as Nora had planned that he would -- in the beginning.  He would not look through her much longer.

            "This is it, Red.  Let's make it good."

            They took the slope at a controlled trot.  Nora looked out across the broad, curving valley toward the distant mountains.  Clouds gathered in those mountains, boiling ominously upward.  Their glimmering coal black edges swept toward the sun, reaching out to engulf it.

            The snow wasn't going to wait.  She’d worked this ranch alone for too long since losing her husband.  She wasn't about to be stopped now by weather!

            The small, tight band of wild horses trotted smartly, but not beneath the lash of panic.  They flowed with the land, moved with the silky grace of a clear creek's water.  Manes tossed by the rising wind, they loped easily at the stud's bidding.  He was nothing less than a king and his subjects obeyed when he gave a command.

            "He's moving them to storm shelter," Nora observed.

            Red's ears flicked toward her.  Then, whether he felt her excitement or the bite of the coming storm, he moved along faster, tossing his head against the restraint of the bit.

            The woman sensed his eagerness, felt the gathering of large, powerful muscles beneath her, and let the reins slide between her small rawhide-gloved hands.

            The strong, steady roan surged forward.  He hit a gallop in a stride, a raw-boned run in a few more.

            "Easy," the slight woman said to the big-boned roan.  "Keep it steady, Red.  We're not in a hurry yet."

            She lined the horse out, let him find his stride and settle into it.  His gait was steady as a metronome.  She smiled into the bitter wind.

            The stud and his mares were aware of Nora and big Red, but not running from them yet.  Just keeping the distance between them acceptable.

            The roan edged closer beneath her guiding hand.  He added speed gradually lengthening his stride until Nora was draped over his stocky neck.

            She and Red were flying, her cheeks stinging and red from the cold.  The heavy gray clouds dragged nearer to the ground threatening storm weather, an all-out-hell-raiser.

            It was time to up the stakes.  She touched her heels to the gelding's sides.  God, how Red loved to run.  If he hadn't been gelded as a colt he would have been a prime stud in his own right.  He leapt forward at Nora's urging, stretching to the limit.

            The change in their speed and attitude brought Skykicker's head up and around with a jerk.  A high-pitched squeal from the stallion both challenged Red and sent his mares before him at a quicker pace.  Red kept coming and the stud went to full flight.

            One of the mares, Nora noted, was pregnant.  Due to deliver by the size of her.  That should slow him down!  But in the meantime the beauty of the wild herd on the move was breathtaking.  Fleet and nimble as deer they raced up the valley, manes and tales flowing a calico of color against the dreary hues of early winter.

            Nora allowed Red to set his pace.  They ran on, all of them, the wild horses and the steady roan string horse.

            The stallion turned his mares and Nora grinned, not denying herself the enthusiastic whoop of victory which sprang to her lips.  They were running hard now.  The mares would begin to tire.  Her remount awaited down the valley.

            The drum of hoofbeats thrummed loudly in her ears, a rolling pulse of thunder.  Red was tiring.  His strides reluctantly shortened, breath came quicker and he stumbled galloping around the base of the last hill.  Nora urged him on, asking for it all.  And the noble red horse answered her call, driving on as they swept up-valley into the maw of the oncoming storm.

            The golden stallion raced along beside his mares, head up, alert.  The horse near foaling, was slowing, dropping back.  The stud squealed his frustration and nipped at her haunches to encourage her, looking back at Nora with what could only be described as disdain.  He ran with ears pricked and tail streaming like liquid gold on the wind.

            Her roan gelding was beginning to labor when Nora spotted Windy picketed on the side of a hill replete with dried fodder.  The horse's head came up from grazing as the thunderous presence of the wild herd pursued by Nora, bore down upon him.

            "You've done fine, Red, just fine," Nora yelled into the gelding's ear as the first fat snowflakes fell from overburdened clouds.

            The snow was coming down heavily by the time Nora vaulted from Red's back, pulled the next horse's picket pin and managed a flying mount, Pony Express style, as the animal lunged forward and hit his stride.  Red ran alongside the chestnut for a few paces, seemingly disappointed to be left out.  Then, exhausted, he dropped further and further behind.

            Windy took up the chase like he'd been looking forward to it, hoofs digging into nearly frozen ground.  Nora urged him to greater speed, and they ate away at the distance separating them from the flying stallion and his band.

            Skykicker shrieked a warning and challenge, an unearthly sound only a stallion in high fury could utter.

            Nora clung, burr-like, to Windy's bare back, fists wrapped in taut leather reins and coarse horsehair.  She was grateful for the protection of chaps and coat, and they pressed on.

            Without the burden of a saddle, Windy ran like his namesake, into the snow falling now horizontally.  The smaller horse's gait was not nearly as smooth as Red's, but he was swift and game.  Nora silently congratulated herself on her decision to go without the saddle.  She rocked with Windy's gait, but her seat was firm.  The ground passed beneath them in a blur.  The snow did nothing to inhibit their progress yet and Windy gained steadily on the wild bunch.  Almost imperceptible at first, his shorter strides came ever more swiftly.  He ran stretched out like his belly was going to sweep the ground and she hugged his neck, giving him the play he needed to lunge forward.

            Together Nora and Windy topped a rise, the horse wheeling to slash diagonally down the far side.  They picked up the skirt of a steeper hill, cut across it, and bolted across the stream, half frozen, on the other side.  Never once did falter or misstep.  She moved with her tough little mustang string horse, muscles warming with the exertion and she no longer felt the intense cold of the surrounding air.

            "Go Windy, go!"

            Nora unleashed a heartfelt rebel yell, shifting forward on the mustang's withers as he took another leap ahead.  His thick, coarse mane slapped her repeatedly in the face until she was sure it was red as fire, but she laughed out loud and tapped her heels again to the horse's flanks.  Windy tossed his head and from somewhere down deep inside, gave her more.

            The space between pursuer and pursued closed rapidly.  She was on that stallion's tail, right where she wanted to be.  In the distance, Nora spotted her third horse, Buck.  Not so swift as either Windy or Red, Buck was solid and that was what she was counting on.

            Skykicker moved with fluid grace, hardened muscles flowing silken beneath that golden hide.  He herded his mares toward the northwest, in Buck's direction. 

            Her second mount still strong, Nora was ready to change to her third.  The stud could not run easy for much longer, and the animal, more intelligent than most, would be aware of the growing threat of her continued presence.  Shifting her position to Windy's best advantage, feeling the strain in her own muscles at the prolonged run, she leaned a little to one side, peering through the steadily falling snow toward Buck.

            Stolid and strong, the washed out buckskin colored horse waited patiently, head up.  Buck was always curious, always observant.  Rarely was he so absorbed in his grazing or anything else, that he wouldn't take a moment to give the world around him a good look.  Now he was aware of the thundering herd heading his way.  He'd be aware of her as well.

            The stallion, a shimmering golden blur in the snowfall, bolted ahead, racing alongside his mares, nipping and squealing, forcing them off their course, causing them to swerve onto a new path that would take them even closer to where Buck was picketed.

            "That's your first mistake!" Nora called to the flying patriarch.

            She eased Windy's stride, giving him a breather, watching Skykicker carefully.  The stallion pushed the mares some more, then with a shriek and a bound that took him off at right angles to the rushing band of wild mares, he shot like a bullet in Buck's direction.

            Nora knew in her gut what was coming the instant the stud changed direction and that knowledge brought a chilled lump born of fear to her throat and a cry of denial to her lips.


            She lunged Windy after the stallion, watching in horror while Skykicker headed for Buck like a runaway freight train.

            He knew.  Godamn him, he knew what she was about!  And he was out to cripple her remount!

            At an ear-piercing scream from the wild mustang, Buck pivoted at the end of his line, turning to meet the stallion's charge with stoic acceptance.  Neck bowed, head up, ears pricked forward, he didn't retreat and Nora wished he would pull that damned picket pin and run.

            Buck half rose on hind legs as the mustang came at him and Nora hear the audible slapping thud of the collision of horseflesh vibrating through brittle air stilled by winter's snow.  Skykicker struck with a snake’s speed, powerful jaws reaching out to catch Buck on the side of the neck, tearing out a chunk of hide and flesh.

            Buck squealed in pain, thrashed out at the stallion with his forefeet and twisted his head and neck away from the stallion's attack.  Blood streaked his pale buckskin hide.

            Windy covered ground with amazing speed, but it wasn't fast enough.  Nora leaned into the wind, bellowing at the mustang king.

            "Let him go you bastard!  This is between you and me!  Run!  Run or I'll put a bullet in you!  I swear to God I will!"

----END PART ONE  - come back next week for Part Two, the conclusion

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