Wild Horses

By: Claire McEwen

CHAPTER ONE

THE ODOR OF sagebrush rose spicy and rich as Nora wove between the low bushes. The crunch of the dry soil beneath her hiking boots fragmented the evening silence. All the scents and sounds of the high desert were magnified after dusk.

She shrugged her pack up higher, the tools, notebook and water bottles she carried heavy on her shoulders. The glamorous life of a plant biologist. There was nothing like the freedom and beauty of the Eastern Sierra landscape. But at moments like these, her muscles wobbly after fourteen hours on the trail, she wondered what it would be like to have a regular job. Maybe one that left her with some energy to go out with friends after work.

The image of herself dressed up, out for drinks or even some dancing, had her smiling wryly into the darkening night. Who was she kidding? She had no friends around here, and drinking and dancing had never really been her style. Her hot date tonight would be with her laptop and her notebook. After such a long and productive day, she had a ton of new information to organize. The hulking shadows of deserted storage buildings loomed into view, set at the top of the small rise ahead of her. Everyone had gone home already, and the Department of Range Management compound was silent. Nora couldn’t wait to be home, too, and beneath a hot shower.

An unfamiliar metallic clank stilled her thoughts and halted her steps. The sound came from the direction of the corrals, where wild mustangs, captured from the surrounding area, were waiting to be auctioned off. Nora had seen them, dim silhouettes in the dawn light, as she’d hiked out today. They’d been huddled together in one corner of the exposed, dusty corral, as if seeking comfort in each other’s company. She heard the clanking again. Maybe one of the horses was restless. Or could a predator be nearby, upsetting the poor captive animals?

But what should she do if coyotes, or a mountain lion, were harassing them? She moved quickly, keeping her footsteps quiet as she jogged toward the storage buildings. Maybe there was some kind of tool there that she could use to scare predators away.

Then the sound of metal slamming into metal ripped through the night again. And her heart slammed against her chest in answer. She froze and tried to calm herself—a gate must have come open, that was all. Then a man’s voice sliced through the night, shouting, “Go!” The command was distinct—and so was the answering whinny.

Nora felt an instant of gratitude that the intruder was human—at least she wouldn’t have to take on any coyotes. But the thought was interrupted by a heavy rumbling sound. Hoofbeats. Hoofbeats accompanied by shadows, darker than the darkness, thundering down the hill toward her. The mustangs weren’t in their pens anymore. They were panicked and heading her way. They’d trample her.

She raced toward a boulder a few yards away and threw herself in front it. Gravel shredded her skin on impact. She gasped as the tools in her belt stabbed into her hip and side. The sound of hooves was deafening, almost on top of her now. She didn’t dare look up, just rolled over and over until she was against the boulder, wishing fervently that it was a much larger piece of rock.

Then the horses were everywhere. Flooding around her measly shelter, so close she could feel the current they created in the air. The cacophony of their hoofbeats eclipsed her scream. She could hear them breathing and grunting as they swerved to avoid her rock. Pebbles, churned up by hooves, pelted the bare skin of her arms and legs. She screamed again, hoping to scare them, to divert their course away from her. But they just kept coming.

Pulling her pack over her head, Nora prayed it would protect her skull from the flying hooves. Cowering underneath it, her world narrowed to her next breath, her blood thundering almost as loudly as the wild horses stampeding around her.

Then they were gone. Instantly, blissfully gone. Their terrifying noise fading as the herd fled into the dark desert night. She lay still, the weight of her pack pressing her cheek into the soil.

The usual evening stillness returned, almost as if none of it had happened. Except it had. Nora had the tears on her cheeks, the stuttering heart, the ragged breath to prove it. Every nerve was on alert, every inhalation felt precious with the knowledge that she could so easily be lying here trampled, no breath in her body.

She hugged the earth, whispering a prayer of thanks. The gravel was rough beneath her cheek but she welcomed the discomfort—it meant she was still here. She closed her eyes and inhaled the dusty smell of soil and of life. She wanted, more than anything, to just go home.

She lifted her head and sat up stiffly, rubbing her hip and side. She would have some huge bruises tomorrow.

Heaving herself off the ground, Nora shouldered her pack and hobbled up the last gravelly rise to the storage sheds. She fumbled with the metal latch, her fingers trembling so much they were almost useless. Finally she got the door open and set her tool belt down just inside. She shut it, the latch a little easier to manipulate now as the adrenaline slowly drained from her system.

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