Hooves. Dust. Cracked red rock. The heat of July.
The heat didn’t bother Orson or Wells. They were surrounded by a 115 degree haze and yet acted as they always did: playful – racing through the canyons of Utah. The buzzards in the area (Tim and Ralph) circled above, watching the two kick up clouds of dust in their wake. “Damn young bucks with nothing better to do,” Tim said. “It’ll be years before we can pick the meat of their bones,” Ralph replied.
Ignorant to the dismay above, Orson and Wells pressed on through the flatland. Orson’s hooves struck the ground with such force it sent ripples through his spine and through the ground below, connecting the two in shared vibration. The friction graciously provided by the dry, baked, cracked rock below propelled his body forward, ahead of Wells.
But Wells was only steps behind. If Wells opened his mouth, he might well be able to nip Orson’s hind – a trick he’d tried in previous races. A lone juniper tree loomed in the distance some 100 yards ahead. Its contorted branches teased a reprieve form the unrelenting sun.
The rock quaked with the force of their hooves, Wells forcing his head forward in the hope his neck muscles may provide the advantage he needed to beat Orson, to reach the shade of the juniper first.
Much like every drip of water in a 5 mile radius, the 100 yard gap evaporated in an instant. Orson plowed forward past the juniper, inches ahead of Wells.
Orson whinnied with victory: “Not this time my friend!”
Wells panted in reply: “Another 50 yards and your were mine.”
The two rounded back to the shade of the juniper and knelt down.
“Why do we always do this in the middle of the day?” Wells asked rhetorically.
“Yeah yeah, because we love the challenge.” Wells finished and the two laughed together in the shade of the juniper.
“Besides, you gotta shape up if you’re gonna get Jules back,” Orson added.
Wells paused. “I miss her.”
“I know you do friend.”
The two knelt together in the shade of the juniper and napped as the sun began to fall from high noon.
Hours later the two raised each other and cantered off back toward Still Rock. Their mountain sanctuary rested on the horizon, three hours away by hoof. It offered water, even a glimpse of snow if you could make it high enough up its cliffs. Orson and Wells had made their first climb months ago, and they always retreated there after an afternoon baked by the sun.
They walked alongside each other across the arid plane. Boulders, massive red rocks flanked them on either. Some lay stacked upon one another in perfect balance – for now. Perhaps one day they’d fall, give in into gravity and rejoin the earth below. But for now they rested at ease with their own might.
Some of these boulders spent centuries being carved by the wind, sculpted by the sand and dust and rock which the wind carried, which scraped carelessly against their edges. The majority of these boulders, titans of their land, cracked and crumbled under their own weight. But some, a lucky few, were sculpted in such a way they became self reinforcing, a parabola, a red arc stretching across the planes. Orson and Wells walked under this arch now.
“What do you think of the West?” Wells asked.
Orson took a deep breath inward, filling his lungs with the hot desert air. He looked to the east, then to the west, and then toward Still Rock ahead. It occurred to him that he could bolt, set off at full gallop in any direction, without warning, and there would be nothing to stop him, nothing to impede his movement, not before his own lungs gave out. “I feel free here,” he said finally. “Like I can go anywhere, do anything.”
“Hm,” said Wells. They carried on in silence together toward Still Rock.
Two hours later the two found themselves at their usual watering hole, about a half mile up the cliffs. The chirp of birds, the slither of lizards, the tremble of fire ants all returned to their ears.
“With water there is life,” said Orson.
“And flies,” said Wells.
Wells bent down to lap up the water and as he did felt the coarse bristles of a rope slide over his main. He jerked his head in reflex, tightening the rope around his own neck.
“What the fuck!” Wells shouted, reared in revolt.
“Wells!” Shouted Orson, who had a better vantage, who saw the slaver on his beaten down steed some 25 yards away, who saw the coarse brown rope tethering friend to enemy.
Orson took off toward the slaver at full gallop. They’d had run ins with his kind in the past. Brute force, they’d learned, was the best course. Scares the shit out of most slavers.
Orson charged, and as he did caught a glimpse of motion out of the corner of his eye. Seconds later he felt the weighted rope wrap around his legs binding them together, his torso continuing forward unabated sending him crashing into the dirt below, toppling over himself.
Dazed, he looked up from the ground and saw Wells being yanked by two slavers away from him. Wells whinnied and fought as the two dragged him further toward the cliff’s edge. Orson fought to get up, attempting to tighten the tendons in his legs, but he felt only a complete and utter darkness fall across his gaze.
Orson’s head fell to the ground again and the last thing he heard was Wells shouting his name before he passed out.
Orson’s binds remained tangled around his legs when he woke up. He began to pull them free one by one and rose to his hooves as the world spun around him. He stumbled, first to the left, then to the right as his body realigned.
Wells, his only thought.
Hoof marks dotted the ground sporadically, dirt kicked up in every direction.
Tim and Ralph sat on a nearby rock. “Lost your pal, huh?” Tim said.
Orson ignored them, studying the ground, sniffing for Wells’ scent.
“We know where he went,” Ralph added.
Orson raised his head and eyed the two, stepping forward just enough for Ralph and Tim to fly backward in panic.
“Where.” Said Orson.
“It was old farmer Jeffries,” Tim croaked, “he’s the one that took your friend. Been nabbing pretty little horses like yourself in these parts for years.”
“Probably went back to his ranch along the banks of the Colorado,” Ralph added.
“Northwest, bout five hours away as the vulture flies, another three hours by hoof. If you hurry you might make it just by dawn.”
Orson reared back toward the hoof marks and set off at full gallop. He tripped, fumbled and stumbled his way down Still Rock, back to the flatlands at its base. The sun started to sink into the horizon as Orson bolted across the plane and set off toward the Colorado. He reached the river’s banks a couple hours later and carried on though the night, guided by a full moon reflected across the river.
When the sun started to break over the horizon, Orson knew he was close. But it was closing in the final distance that proved to be the most difficult. Days passed by — how many? — with no luck. As time stretched on, Orson found himself weighted by unbearable fatigue. From head to hoof each muscle, and each muscle connecting those muscles, ached. His tongue was nearly immovable, glued by the dry heat to the floor of his mouth.
Water. Food. Orson knew he couldn’t keep on without these forever. Nature forced him to spend more and more of his time just fighting for survival, entire mornings consumed just by the hunt for sustenance – and still his weight began to dwindle. As his body grew weaker, so too did his will, and his confidence that he would ever find Wells.
But he kept on, slowly exploring in concentric circles, moving back and forth along the river’s edge. It was the morning of perhaps his 12th or 13th day in search of Wells that heard it – the faint tortured cry of a rooster. He followed that dreadful cry, breaking into a canter as it grew louder and louder, until finally, Orson found himself at the edge of a tree line, about a hundred yards from the farm’s edge, about a hundred yards from the twisted timber that enclosed the property.
Orson surveyed the farm before him. Previous encounters with slavers taught him their usual ways. Sheep, pigs, cattle – they roamed “freely” from pen to pen. Cattle dogs were usually there to guide them, which is what Orson was watching happen now just on the other side of the fence. In the middle of the pens was the big red barn, the one where Orson knew they kept horses and others like himself. He knew that’s where he’d find Wells.
“He’s not coming back.” Said a grave and gravelly voice from the timber shaded wood behind Orson.
Orson turned toward where the voice came from and from the brush emerged a horse similar in stature to himself, but with one eye glazed over in white.
“Who are you?”
“Doesn’t matter who I am. But your friend? The one they brought in a half moon ago? He ain’t coming back.”
Orson snorted. “What are you talking about? These damn slavers roped him – I watched it happen with my own eyes.”
“Oh I know son – seen a hundred horses taken by that man, the one you call a slaver. And I seen a hundred horses given a chance to leave – and I tell you not a damn one does.”
“I know the horses you speak of Pale-Eye, but those domesticated steeds were born there, born to the farm, they don’t know any better. They don’t know what life could be outside of their prison.”
“Doesn’t matter son, freeborn and slaveborn alike find their home here. But I ain’t here to argue with you – I’ll help you get to your friend, I’ll help you see for yourself.”
With that, Orson’s ears perked up: “You know how to get to the barn Pale-Eye?”
“Oh sure son – stayed there many years myself. It’s easy because they ain’t got to fear anyone runnin’ away.”
Orson eyed this pale-eyed stranger. He had no reason to trust the gravel-coated horse, but he also had no reason not to trust him – and frankly he was weary, worn down by days of searching.
“Alright Pale-Eye, lead the way.”
That night the horse now known as Pale-Eye guided Orson to the farm’s edge, to a crack in the timber, to a fracture in its security. Pale-Eye pushed his nose under one of the timbers and used his great main lift it high in the air, snorting as an instruction to Orson to pass through.
Orson did, and Pale-Eye followed behind him letting the timber fall down his back. He took the lead again, guiding Orson through the sheep pen they’d arrived in. There were some bayyys and baaas, but the sheep were tired from the day and mostly kept to their huddle in the corner of the pen – terrified of the two strangers.
They walked along together in the soft moonlight toward the red barn.
“Don’t forget son – I did warn you.”
“Enough Pale-Eye, let’s just find Wells.”
They walked in silence from then on. It was only a minute or two before they found themselves at the gate of the barn. Orson notice it was unlocked, even slightly ajar.
“Is one of the slavers inside?” He whispered.
“No,” Pale-Eye replied and then pushed the door fully open.
Orson eyed Pale-Eye, and then stepped past him into the barn. A lone lantern hung in the middle, providing a muddled glow aided by the dull golden shimmer of hay. Orson saw the same stalls he’d seen a dozen times before, rows of horses tucked away neatly into their little cubes – contenting themselves with nibbles of hay as they await their daily dose of “freedom”.
He walked forward gently, a few horses neighing in awareness of the outsider. And then, tucked away in the back corner, he saw his friend, he saw Wells.
Without thought Orson cantered over shouting his name in whisper, “Wells!”.
Wells looked up from his nap and shouted back in excitement, “Orson!”
They brushed noses as Orson continued, “I was losing hope I’d find you.”
“How /did/ you find me?”
“Tim and Ralph of all creatures pointed me in the right direction, but I spent days searching before I heard the rooster.”
“That damned rooster,” Wells said with a laugh. “Guess he’s good for something.”
“I guess so. Now come on, we gotta get you out of here before one of the slavers wakes up.”
“Wait, Orson, we were wrong about this place, about the slavers. It’s wonderful here.”
“Look around friend. This place has it all. Water, food, women – anything a horse could ask for.”
“Wells, you’re locked in a cage right now.”
“You’re being dramatic Orson – I’ve plenty of space to roam around in here,” he said with a brief circular trot, “and during the day we’re free to roam the land, perhaps even go back to Still Rock with a rider.”
“A rider? You mean one of the slavers?”
“Orson, listen, if you just stayed for a few days you’d understand. Believe me, I hated it at first too, but then I started to realize – I have everything I need /right here/, and I don’t even have to fight for it. It’s all procured for me by the riders. How many blazing hours have we spent in the desert without so much as a glimpse of water? How many days have we spent without a proper meal? Hell, how many weeks have we spent seeing no other creatures besides those fucking vultures?”
“Wells, you are a prisoner here. The riders – slavers – whatever the fuck you want to call them, they’re keeping you here so they can use you for their damn projects.”
“Orson, don’t you get it? It’s comfortable here. I have everything a horse could ever want. Look, just look at my trough over there. It’s practically overflowing with carrots, there for whenever I feel a craving. And it’s like that every day – every day one of the riders brings another bucket of carrots just after dawn like clockwork. I mean, look at yourself Orson, you’re withering away. I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt.”
They stared at each other in silence for some time. Orson didn’t know what to say, couldn’t believe what Wells was trying to convince him of. He looked back toward the entrance of the barn and saw Pale-Eye, who simply nodded in understanding.
“So that’s it then? You’re staying here?” Orson asked turning back toward Wells.
“I am,” said Wells. “I wish you’d stay with me. They’d take you in just as they took me—“
“With torturous ropes?”
“With love and comfort and adoration – with food and water and shelter – free from the perils of the wild—“
“Imprisoned by the slavers of the land,” Orson interjected, which was then followed by silence as it was clear neither of them was making headway.
“I never thought you’d be one of them,” Orson said turning away, making his way back toward the entrance of the barn, and then muttered to himself, “Slaveborn.”
Wells heard the name and turned to console himself with a carrot.
“I can’t believe you were right,” Orson said to Pale-Eye as they passed under the broken timber again.
“I told you son, no one leaves.”
“But why? How can they stay trapped in that place?”
“Because it’s easy son, because everything they need comes to ‘em.”
“But how can they enjoy it? How can they appreciate a carrot fed from the bloodied hand of a slaver?”
“No matter where it comes from, what matters is it’s convenient.”
“But how can you appreciate something you didn’t earn yourself?”
“I got nothing for you son. Folks just ain’t made for the wilds.”
For years afterward, Orson would return to the farm from time to time. On some nights, guided by a full moon, he’d sneak in and say hello to his forgotten friend. Orson would tell stories of his travels, of the places he’s seen, of the struggles he’s endured, of the wild horses and boars and even bears that he’s met. And Wells in kind would tell of the riders who guided him, of the cattle he helped herd, and of the endless streams of grains, carrots, and apples with which he filled his belly.
After their talks, Orson always felt bad for Wells. He thought Wells eyes had grown dull over the years, absent the spark they’d had years ago while racing through the red rocks. Wells, too, felt bad for Orson whose body looked weary with age, like it might fall apart on a moment’s notice.
After Orson’s last visit, he walked back to Still Rock and began to make the climb. His old bones trembled as he jumped from cliff to cliff. He knew his time was coming, that Tim and Ralph might finally have their chance. /Damned birds/, he though with a laugh and continued up the mountain.
With his end in mind, Orson pressed on past his usual watering hole, the one he and Wells once shared. He continued to climb up the cliff’s of Still Rock, onwards and upwards (with frequent rests), until he reached its peak just before daybreak.
He stood there, atop Still Rock, looking out to the valleys and canyons that surrounded him as the sun broke over the horizon. He felt its warm glow fall across his face, lighting up flatlands below. Orson took a deep breath inward, filling his lungs with the cool morning air as he’d done for years. He looked to the east, and then to the west, and then toward the Colorado. He thought back to his year’s roaming these lands, racing through its canyons, climbing its peaks, enduring its infernal heat, and he smiled.