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 Changing Hands Chapter three

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Keays



Posts : 33
Join date : 2013-09-26

20131027
PostChanging Hands Chapter three

Changing Hands
 
 Colorado 1881

  It was the crickets that woke her.  She had fallen asleep stretched out in the tall, dewy meadow grass lulled by the susurration of the tiny insects.  It was quiet.  Dead quiet and nearly dawn.  The darkness still clung to the night, but off to the east was the rosy red glow of morning.  Karma lifted her silky neck, pricked her ears, and listened but heard nothing.  She peered through the gloomy dawn, but saw nothing.  Laying her head back down; the dried pasture grass tickled her nose. 

Eventually, she began to drift back to sleep when another noise pierced her consciousness; a bark dissolving into a yelp from one of the ranch dogs.  She recognized the dog’s voice.  It had been cut off before fully formed and the other dogs were silent.  While the language of the canines was foreign to her, the note of fear was unmistakable.  Normally, the dogs would bark several times during the night, raising an alarm about one thing or another that had upset their rest.  Raccoons were a problem on the ranch as well as the coyotes that stalked the hen house; but the dogs were the ones to be feared, not to feel fear.  Something was wrong and she knew it.

  Karma rolled up and scrambled to her feet.  Her heart was beating unreasonably fast and she felt her blood coursing through her veins.  She nickered once, twice, three times, until her friends roused from slumber and responded to her.   The yearlings gathered in a tight group, eyes and ears tensely focused into the darkness of the night.  They could see a small light bobbing through the thick trees that surrounded the back pasture.  Why were the people disturbing their sleep?   They never came out at night.

The scent of strange horses wafted through the air and settled on the group.  Karma whinnied as did the others and she waited expectantly for an answer.  It wasn’t long in coming.  Several whinnies shattered the stillness and then she heard the whispered cursing of an unfamiliar human.  She snorted and galloped off towards the far end of the field, the other colts and fillies hurrying after her; the alpha male colt bringing up the rear.  Reaching the fence line, the horses turned and stood their ground watching as a small group of horses and riders came through the gate to their sheltered pasture.

  Not fully understanding the dangers, the young horses watched in fascination as the interlopers jogged slowly towards them.  Karma saw one of the riders hold his arm to the side and shake open the loop of his lariat.  That rope!  She remembered the last time she’d seen a rope like that.  She been caught, trapped and the humans had hurt her terribly.  She could smell the burning flesh and hair as though it was yesterday.  It had taken much loving attention by the female human to soothe her terror.  She had learned a harsh lesson that day, but she had learned it well.  You could trust some humans, but others were to be feared and avoided.  She had to get away!

  Karma bolted off at a dead run surprising her herd mates.  Two or three ran after her, but the others took off in the opposite direction.  The response from the riders and mounted horses was instantaneous, loud curses erupted, and the ground shook with the sound of pounding hoof beats.  The rustlers broke off into two groups as well.  Two riders pursued Karma and her diminished herd while the other riders bore down on the rest of the yearlings.  She whinnied frantically to the bay alpha colt, who squealed in fury and rose to his hind legs to defend his band.  Three mounted horses surrounded him and ropes snaked through the air, one of them settling around his neck.  He reared again and struck out with his forelegs, but another rope tightened about his throat and drew tight.  He was trapped between two riders, who led him between them.  A third rider broke off from them and galloped across the pasture to join up with Karma’s pursuers.  She was galloping with all the speed she could muster, zigzagging across the field and bucking at the older, mounted horses who failed to keep up with her.

  “Zeke, head that bitch off!  She’s too fast for us.”

  “Let her go.  We can get two or three more.”

  “No!  That filly’s gonna be worth five times what those other nags are.  Head her off, dammit!”

  The chaos in the field was complete, the other yearlings dashed about crazed with fear, and one colt fell in his haste to escape.  He rolled over and lay on his side, shocked and frightened, but unhurt.

  From the direction of the farmhouse, came the roar of a rifle and the big human galloped into sight riding Karma’s mother bareback.  Both man and beast screamed in anger at the sight they beheld.  The rustlers had formed a wedge and Karma was backed into a corner of the fencing screaming in fear.  She snorted and tried to scramble up the wiring, tearing her skin in several places.  She felt the rope catch her and the noose snapped tight around her throat.  She couldn’t breathe!  A raw panic clutched her heart and she went wild with anger.

  She charged the big gray gelding in front of her and crashed into his chest driving forward off her hind legs with all her strength.  The horse gave to the assault and nearly went down, but he outweighed her significantly and quickly righted himself.  His rider, seeing his opportunity, slipped another lariat over Karma’s head and she was caught.  The third rustler was mounting his horse, after cutting the wire fencing and creating an opening for the other rustlers and the rest of the yearlings to escape through.  The two rustlers dragged Karma along as the third lashed cruelly at her hind end, driving her forward against her will.  She was terrified, but she was furious and screamed in rage.

  Her mama galloped down to the road towards the pasture fence at breakneck speed.  Without pause, she leapt off her powerful hind legs and cleared the wooden gate.  Landing heavily, her rider rocked forward, and scrambled to hang on.  He nearly lost his rifle, and by the time he had recovered, the rustlers had slipped through the fencing.  The mare pounded on, but the rider couldn’t get a clean shot without endangering the young horses.  He cursed and drove the mare on, grimly gripping her with his legs.  Shots whistled through the air around him and he pulled up.  It was too late, he couldn’t save the yearlings, and he wouldn’t risk his foundation mare any further.  He sat on the heaving horse, listening to the receding whinnies of the captured horses.  He felt sick.  The damn rustlers had taken their finest filly and best colt as well as the hopes and dreams of everyone on the ranch.

 
Wyoming 1892

 
  Milton Price was pissed off.  For five years he'd been grifting and scamming and pulling petty robberies just to get by.  Then finally he'd met up with Gus Orrison inside a jail cell and the two of them had gotten to talking.  Apparently, Orrison knew somebody who knew somebody who was planning on riding up to Devil's Hole and making that old hide out habitable again.

  Price had been skeptical.  He'd heard that place had been burned to the ground and it would take all the warm weather months and twenty fellas working every day to get it back to its former glory. And, that's if they could get the building supplies up there without tipping off the law that something was up. Orrison was adamant, though, he knew a guy who knew a guy who was getting it organized.

  It would be great, Orrison had insisted.  Devil's Hole was the most secure outlaw hideout in the history of the west and all they had to do was get it liveable again.  Perfectly located for both security and convenience, it was a warm place to put up for the winter and have the comradeship of being a member in a gang of like-minded companions.  Hadn't Devil's Hole been the most successful gang in Wyoming's history?  The name already struck fear into the hearts of the citizenry; all they had to do was build on it.  It would be great.

  Price had spent that night pondering the possibilities.  If enough men could be brought together, they could do it; get the Hole up and running again.  It might even be fun.  Certainly better than what he had, drifting from town to town, scraping out an illegal living and wondering how many more jail cells he was going to end up in before he got killed or hauled off to prison.  Hell, he had nothing better to do—maybe he ought to check it out.
 
  Now here he was, after putting in all that hard work helping to haul supplies up into the hills, building the support structures for a new barn, the bunkhouse, and leader's cabin; not to mention outhouses, cookhouse, smokehouse, holding pens, corrals and, let's not forget, the chicken coop.  Somebody had insisted they had to have fresh eggs all the time.  Sheesh!  What did they think this was; a freaking hotel?

  Yup, here he was.  Standing around nursing a throbbing ankle and surrounded by six lawmen none of whom seemed to give a rat's axx that he was hurting.  In fact, a couple of them seemed more concerned about the fact that one of their horses had run off!  Price was concerned about it too, because his horse had also run off and he was wondering how he was going to be getting back to town.  Surely they didn't expect him to walk all the way!

  “It's not your fault, Jed,” Joe was trying to commiserate his distraught companion.  “Actually it's more my fault than yours.  If I hadn't gone charging off ahead of everyone else, the two of them wouldn't have started racing.  That was stupid on my part, I wasn't thinking.”

  “Dammit,” Jed cursed.  “Who would have thought she would take off like that?  I thought she'd stay close to Gov.  What am I gonna tell Heyes?”

  Price's ears perked up at the sound of that familiar name but it didn't get the chance to go anywhere as that large deputy and the sheriff returned to the group.  He smirked slightly to himself as he spied the blood soaked shirt sleeve hanging in tatters around the sheriff's right arm.  At least he wasn't the only one who got injured here.

  Kid looked a little sheepishly at his friend.

  “Ah, Lom, I'm sorry,” he apologized.  “Here you got wounded and all I can think about is that damn mare.”

  “Well, that's alright Kid,” Lom assured him, “it’s not too bad, just a scratch really.”

  Kid?  Price started to pay real close attention to this conversation now.  He knew that Kid Curry had gotten his amnesty, but why in the world would he be helping the law track down his old gang?  Well, he surmised, it's not really his old gang is it?  But still, the name was the same.  Then he recalled hearing rumors back when Devil's Hole had been burned to the ground.  Rumors that claimed that Kid Curry had actually been with the lawmen on the train and had assisted in the killing and capturing of his old gang members!

  Price glanced over at the man in question and felt some serious loathing.  How could he do that to his old buddies?  Yeah, some people would go to any lengths to feather their own nests.  Heyes is probably in on this little escapade too, that's probably how he got out of prison after only serving a fraction of the time; he'd made a deal.  That's what he'd done!  And now the two of them were siding with the law to help track down and bury every single outlaw in the State.

  Price's hostile musings were cut short when Deputy Wilkins suddenly turned on him, grabbing him by the arm pulling him over towards them.  Price inadvertently put weight on his injured leg and stumbled.

  “Well, there.  Ha!'  Harker bellowed.  “At least it ain't broke.  You can walk on it.”

  “Walk!?”  Price complained.  “I'm in pain here.  I'm your prisoner that means ya gotta tend to my needs.  I ain't walkin' all the way back to town!”

  “I say you'll go where you're told to go!”  Harker bellowed back.  “And since you went and lost your horse, you'll walk!”

  “Weren't my fault one of ya shot him out from under me,” Price complained.  “Seems to me whoever shot my horse can walk, and I'll ride his animal.”

  A number of hoots and chortles followed this statement and Price started feeling defensive.

  “Well at least let me double up with somebody!”  He continued to protest.  “Ya can't make me walk all the way back.  I won't make it!  Besides, I'd slow ya all down.”

  Harker humphed and then glanced at his boss.

  “He does have a point Sheriff,” he said, as much as it irked him to be agreeing with this low-life.  “Your wound ain't bad now, but we best get it looked at by the Doc as soon as possible.”

  “Yeah!”  Price was quick to agree.  “Them things can turn septic real quick.”

  Everybody ignored him, but Lom considered the situation.

  “Injuries aside,” he began.  “If we want to get back to Porterville sometime tonight we can't be draggin' along a lame man walking.  It would slow us down too much.”

  “Why don't ya just leave me here?”  Price suggested hopefully.  “I'm sure my friends will come back and....”

  “We'll have to take turns doubling up with him so we don't wear out the horses.”  Lom continued, again ignoring the prisoner.  “Anyone else beside me get injured?”

  “Well yeah,” Price spoke up.  “I mean my leg got squashed underneath....”

  “Anyone else?”  Lom repeated.

  “Ah, yeah,” Joe admitted a little sheepishly.  “It doesn't sound like much, but I think I strained my finger trying to get Betty under control.  It didn't seem too bad at first, but it's hurtin' something awful now.”

  “Oh, here let me see that!”  Said Harker as he grabbed the young deputies injured hand.

   Joe sucked his teeth and pulled back.  “Ouch!”  He complained.  “Careful.”

  “Oh, sorry,” Harker stated, though not sounding too contrite.  “Well, c'mon over here. Let's get it taped up.  The Doc can take a look at it when we get in.”

  Joe and Harker left the group while Lom passed the handcuffs over to one of the temporary deputies.
  “Here Fred, cuff him will ya?”  Lom instructed him.  “Then let him ride with you for the first shift.  Hopefully going downhill we'll get back to town faster than it took us to get here.”

  “Yeah alright Sheriff,” Fred agreed though he didn't look too happy about it.  “C'mon you, let's go.”

  Lom and Kid stood where they were for a moment, neither one of them too pleased with the way this whole thing had ended up.

  “Dammit!”  Lom cursed.  “This is downright inconvenient.  At least with you and Heyes running the gang, and Wheat as well, you fellas stayed outa my town.  Now I gotta deal with a whole nest of two-bit crooks thinking they run the show again.  Dammit.”

  “Well that's what can happen when ya try to fix somethin' that ain't broke,” Kid philosophized.  “Maybe Morrison shoulda just left well enough alone.”

  Lom snorted.  “Like that was gonna happen,” he snarked.  “You know as well as I do the day of the outlaw is coming to an end.  It just irks me that I gotta deal with this problem one more time.  Still, we have us a prisoner now.  We get him back to town and see how talkative he's willing to be.”

  With that Lom moved off to get his own horse ready for the ride back home.  Jed stood and let loose a quiet sigh.  Where was Abi when they could really use her?  She'd get information out of that low-life before another day had gone by.  She could have also saved Jed the unfortunate task of having to tell Heyes that Karma had run off.  Yeah, that would have been a much better situation. 
 

  As soon as the outlaws were well within the cover of trees, they split up and turned to face the on-coming posse.  Much to their relief the majority of the lawmen had already pulled up and turned back, realizing that they were now vulnerable being caught out in the open while the outlaws had the trees for cover.  Still, three of the pursuers were within range and the leader of the gang raised his rifle and sent a warning shot their way.  It didn't seem to deter them so he sent another one, hitting the apparent leader in the arm and putting an end to the chase.

  “That did it,” he needlessly announced.  “c'mon, let's get outa here before they find their nerve again.”

  “But what about Milt?”  Orrison spoke up.  “We gotta go back for 'em!”

  “Not on your life!”  Duncan snapped back.  “It's too late to help him now.  Get goin'!”

  Orrison and Ames exchanged glances.  Neither of them was comfortable with leaving their friend behind but they didn't feel up to challenging the boss over it either.  Tom Duncan could be a hard man and though they had all decided that he was just the right kind of man to get the Hole up and running again, at times like this some wondered if he'd been a good choice.

  Still, everyone in the group turned their horses' heads towards 'home' and left their comrade behind.  They carried on; keeping the horses at a hand gallop that would cover the distance quickly but not wear the animals out over the long haul.  They still had many miles to go before getting back to the sanctuary of their hideout and they didn't want to use up their horses if that posse decided to come at them again.

  The afternoon wore on and there was no further sign of pursuit so the men gradually began to relax.  It was then that they took notice of the extra horse that had joined up with them and had been galloping along with the herd as though she belonged there.  Everyone had been aware of her before, but with other things on their minds no one thought to give her an extra look.  It was simply assumed that, along with Price's horse, this one had become separated from her rider and had simply joined up with the wrong gang.

  Now that the pressure was off, eyes were beginning to look her way.  The first thing that was noted was the easy lengthy strides that the mare took, covering the ground beneath her as though she were a sailing ship, and gliding upon a smooth ocean.  The next thing they noticed was that her reins were not hanging loose and dragging; they had been securely wrapped around her neck and tied as though she had been without a rider all along.  The next thing that was noted by all but one was that she was beyond their reach.  Tom Duncan was going to claim her, no doubt about it.  She was just too fine a horse for the likes of the rest of them.

  Sure enough, when the gang stopped for the night at the mid-way camp site the first thing Duncan did was catch up to that mare and give her a solid looking over.  He untied the reins from around her neck and led her around in a circle a little bit, watching the way she moved and the way she looked at him.  He smiled and stepping in closer gave her a pat on the neck. 

  Karma snorted and jerked away from him.  There was something about him that she didn't like.  As a matter of fact there was something about this whole situation that she didn't like.  There was nobody here whom she knew and she was beginning to get concerned.  They'd all been running together, having a great time until suddenly she found herself in unknown territory, running with horses that she didn't know.  She was nervous, but because of that nervousness and uncertainty she stayed close to the other horses.  Safety in numbers.  Stay with the herd.

  Now this stranger had a hold of her reins and she didn't like him.  She couldn't quite put her hoof on it, but something about him made her nervous.  She stared back at him, wild eyed and suspicious.  She didn't like the look of him, she didn't like the smell of him and she didn't like the harsh feel of his hands on her reins.  Then he touched her and her skin crawled.

  “That's alright girlie,” Duncan smiled and gave her another pat.  He chuckled as her whole body cringed.  “You'll get used to me.”

  He led her over to the other horses and leaving the saddle on her, he removed the bridle and fixing her up with a rope halter, he tied her to the picket line.  He gave her a small feeding of grain and then returned to the camp fire where a makeshift dinner was in the process.  Ames and Ed Davis were quickly getting some beans down their throats since they had pulled first watch and both men were hungry.

  “I'd say that was a pretty successful job, boys,” Duncan congratulated them all.  “The money we got from that safe will nicely finish up the work on the cabin.  Plus a little left over to split up among the rest of you lot.  Not bad for a few days on the trail, huh?”

  “Exceptin' we lost a man,” Orrison couldn't help but grumble.

  Strained silence settled around the fire. Ames and Davis stopped chewing.  Duncan pulled a flask out of his saddle bag and took a drink then sent a sneer Orrison's way.

  “We may have lost what you refer to as 'a man',” he commented, “but we gained one hell of a horse.  The way I see it; as a trade-off we've come out on top.”

 
  Heyes had sat out on the front porch most of the afternoon in anticipation of his friends returning.  He had finally gotten his letter to Miranda finished but he wasn't really satisfied with it.  His focus just hadn't been on it and he felt guilty about not giving her his full attention.  Finally though, he'd settled for 'good enough', folded it up and sealed it, then took a walk over to the train depot to drop it off with the other mail heading south.

  If he'd been thinking clearly, he would have waited for Jed to get back and write his own letter to his own wife and posted both at the same time.  But he wasn't thinking clearly and was desperate to find things to do to occupy his mind and body until the posse returned home.  He sat, trying to read his book but continually finding himself scanning the horizon in hopes of spotting the trail dust. 

  Supper time arrived and Heyes found himself, once again, sitting down at the kitchen table with just Martha for company.  The meal was simple fare, consisting mainly of re-heated left-overs from the previous evening’s meal, but Heyes didn't mind.  It almost tasted better on the second day and he wasn't really all that hungry anyways.

  Martha smiled over at him.  “You must learn how to relax,” she observed.  “You'll run yourself ragged allowing your mind to worry.”

  Heyes looked up from toying with his food.

  “Sorry,” he said with a self-deprecating smile.  “I guess I've been ignoring you.”

  “I'm not the one who needs babysitting,” she pointed out and Heyes frowned.  She smiled at his discomfort.  “I learned early on how to turn my mind away from worrying about him.  If I hadn't, I'd be a nervous wreck by now.”

  Heyes sighed and leaned back.  “Maybe you can give me some pointers,” he requested.  “I've never been able to shut my mind off, and you're right; it does run me ragged.”

  “The trick is to not try and shut it off,” Martha told him, “but to distract it onto other things.”

  Heyes nodded, “Like music.”

  Martha's brow creased.  “How do you mean?”

  “When I was in prison,” Heyes explained quietly, almost afraid to go back there, even just in conversation.  “I was having a hard time....”  Martha smiled sadly and nodded.  “....so the lady parson there brought some classical music for me to listen to.”  He smiled himself then, remembering his introduction to those masters.  “It helped—a lot.  I found that when things got too much I would simply send my mind into the music and for a while, anyways, I could escape from my life there and be someplace beautiful.”

  “That's good,” Martha commented.  “I remember at Jed's wedding, that Catholic nun brought you a music box and some records.  Was that from....?”

  “Yes,” Heyes brightened up noticeably.  “Apparently the reverend had herself a new music box and thought kindly enough of me to pass the old one along.”

  “That was very sweet of her,” Martha said.  “Obviously she knew how much you enjoyed it.”

  Heyes nodded, his thoughts returning home to his wife and daughter.  “We've sat in our living room, the three of us—well, four, if you count the cat—with the snow coming down outside.  We'd have the stove on and the lamps dimmed.  Randa would make tea or hot cider and we'd just sit together on the sofa, all three—four of us cuddling and listening to the music.  It would be so peaceful and loving.....”  He brought himself back to the present and looked up with an embarrassed smile.  Oh well, he shrugged.

  Martha laughed and gave him a friendly pat on the hand.   “It sounds lovely.  And what beautiful memories for your daughter to grow up with.  It must seem like heaven to her.”

  “It's heaven to me!”

  “I'm glad Hannibal, you deserve it,” she told him.  “Now, speaking of tea; would you like some?”

  “Yes ma'am!”

  “Good!  I have some shortcake here as well.  Maybe I can get you to eat that.”

  “Oh,” Heyes looked sheepishly down at his plate of hardly-touched supper.

 
  It was well past dark when they finally heard footsteps on the front porch.  Heyes and Martha were both on their feet instantly as the front door opened and Lom and Kid entered the cozy home.  Martha went to her husband, spying his torn shirt.

  “Lom you've been hurt!”

  “It's alright Martha, just as scratch.”

  “Just a scratch!?  Look at all the blood on your sleeve!”

  “Looks worse than it is.”

  Throughout this spousal exchange Heyes and Jed had locked gazes and held them.  At first, Heyes was grinning in relief at seeing his cousin back safe and sound, but it didn't take long for him to realize that something was wrong.  His smile turned into a slight frown while he waited for the other foot to drop.

  “You'll need to have the doctor take a look at it...”  Martha was insisting.

  “I know,” Lom assured her, “we're on our way there right now.  I just thought I'd stop in to let you know that we're back.”

  “Anyone else get hurt?”  His wife asked, concern for the other members of the posse coming forth now that her husband's condition had been assessed.

  “Yeah, Joe hurt his hand,” Lom told them.

  “His hand?”  Heyes asked.  “Somebody shoot him?”

  “No,” Lom assured him, “he had trouble controlling that mare of his, she got runnin' away on him and he had to fight with her to get her to come down.  It's actually hurting him quite a bit so he probably broke a bone in the finger or something.”

  “Oh,” Heyes nodded.  “Any luck with anything else?”  He was asking Lom these questions, but he was acutely aware of the Kid's uncomfortable silence.  “Did you catch up with them?”

  “Yeah, we caught up with them,” Lom told them with a disappointed sigh.  “We were hoping to cut them off at Old Stump Mesa, but we barely got there ahead of them and it turned into a dash for cover.  We got one of 'em in custody and you can be sure we'll be asking him some questions tomorrow.  Other than that....”  Lom shrugged, then leaned over and gave his wife a kiss on the cheek.  “I better get over to the Doc's and then make sure the prisoner gets settled in alright.  We'll be back home in a couple of hours.”

   “Alright,” his wife smiled.  “I'll warm supper for when you get back.”

  Lom nodded and, giving Jed a consolatory pat on the arm, exited the comfortable home to re-join the posse outside.

  “You must be hungry Jed,” Martha predicted.  “I'll get some supper warming for you right now.”

  “Ah, yeah.  Thanks.”

  Martha headed into the kitchen while Heyes and Jed stood and looked at each other.

  “Alright Kid,” Heyes finally broke.  “Spit it out.  What's wrong?”

   Jed sighed.  “Karma,” he said quietly.

  The blood drained from Heyes' face.  “What...?  Is she not with you?”

  “No,” Jed admitted.  “She joined up with us alright, but she got all full of herself...you know the way she gets,” Heyes nodded, a knot developing in his gut.  “Well, we started giving chase to those outlaws and Karma got to racing with Betty.  The two of them got out in front of us and I guess Karma spotted the other horses in front of her and then the race was really on.  You know how she hates to have another horse in front of her.”

  “Yeah.”

  “Well, she latched onto those outlaw horses and forgot all about us.”  Kid sighed regretfully.  “I tried to get to her Heyes, I tried to stop her but she's just so damn fast!  She disappeared into the woods along with the outlaws. She didn't come back.”

  Heyes just stood silently, his mouth slightly open, having one of those rare moments when he just didn't know what to say.  The minutes ticked by.

  “Dammit Heyes!  Say somethin', will ya?”

  “Ahh...well, umm.”  Heyes gave a feeble attempt.  “She’s with the outlaws?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Well, we'll just ride up there and get her back,” it sounded like a good idea to Heyes.

  “You know Lom won't go for that,” Kid reminded him.

  “Well, Lom wants someone to infiltrate the gang to get information,” Heyes reasoned logically.  “We’ll just go do that instead of waitin' on Wheat and Kyle.”

  “We're already on a job Heyes, remember?”  Jed again reminded him.  “Jesse's payin' us, we can't just....”

  “Well, we can't just leave her there!”  Heyes' voice was starting to rise as this news truly sank in.  “Besides we need her with us for people to identify.”

  “No, we don't, Heyes,” Kid told him.  “It would have helped but it's not necessary.”

  “This whole job is about tracking down her lineage,” Heyes pointed out.  “What's the point of we don't have the horse?”

  “Jesse has Ned and Daisy,” Jed reminded him.  “We need Karma's lineage but not Karma herself.  Heyes, I'm not saying she ain't important, I know she is!  All I'm saying is you can't go after her!  Leave it to Wheat and Kyle to get her out!”

  “Well I'm not leaving without her!”  Heyes insisted.  “If you won't help me get her back, then I'll go up there on my own....”

  “Heyes, ya can't do that!”  Kid argued, putting a hand on his cousin's arm.  “Ya know you can't!”

  Heyes shrugged the hand away.  “Why can't I?”  He demanded.  “What's to stop me?  Who's gonna stop me?  You!?”

   “YEAH!”  Kid was getting mad now himself.  “Yeah, Heyes, I will stop ya.  You know a condition of your parole is that you don't associate with known outlaws.  And now you want ta ride up there right into the thick of 'em just to get your horse back!”

  “YEAH!  I DO!”

"Well I ain't gonna let 'ya!"

“You're not gonna stop me....”

  Heyes made a move towards the front door quite oblivious to the fact that he was not dressed at all appropriately for a night-time ride even if he'd had a horse available.  Jed grabbed his arm as he walked by and Heyes took a swing at him.  Kid ducked and, without thinking, he gave his cousin a hard shove and sent him head first into the door.  Heyes grunted and fell to the floor.  Before Heyes could get his bearings, Jed came down on top of him and pinned him there.

  Heyes instantly started to fight.  “GET OFF ME!”  He struggled and kicked and tried to get out from under the full weight of his cousin.

  “Nope, I ain't gonna Heyes,” Jed told him.  “I ain't gonna let you throw away your parole and once you've had a chance to calm down you'll know I'm right.”

  Heyes continued to struggle, his anger making him refuse to see reason.  Kid bore down even more, pinning Heyes down so he couldn't get his arms into position to push himself up.  Heyes tried to twist and squirm his way out from under, but Jed wrapped his legs around him and quite effectively stopped his partner from even being able to move.

  “Dammit!”  Heyes cursed as he struggled.  “Get off!  You can't hold me down all night!”

  “Wanna bet?”  was the smug reply.  “Besides, I don't havta hold ya down all night Heyes, only until Lom gets back.  And you know what he'll say.  Now are you gonna calm down and be reasonable or would ya rather spend the night handcuffed to a doorknob?”

   Heyes gave one more valiant effort to dislodge his heavier cousin then gave it up as a lost cause.  Working all those years on Jesse's ranch had really done wonders for the Kid's physique.

  “Fine,” Heyes grumbled.  “You win.  I give up.  You gonna get off me now?”

  “Nope.”

  Heyes sighed.  He heard footsteps and looked over towards the kitchen door to see Martha's feet standing there.  Both men glanced up at her.

  “Are you boys done?”  she asked calmly.”  Your supper's ready Jed.”

  “Thank you, ma'am,” Jed commented from the floor.  “I'll be right there.”

  “Fine,” she smiled.  “Don't be long or it'll get cold all over again.”

  “No, ma'am, I won't be.”

  The feet turned and went back into the kitchen.

  Heyes gave a satisfied smile, “Your supper is waiting for ya Kid.  Ain't ya hungry?”

  “Yeah,” Jed openly admitted, “but it can wait.”

   Heyes' smile returned to snarky.  “I told ya you can get off me.  You've made your point.”

  “Ya sure?”

  “Yeah.”

  “You're not just sayin' that so's I'll let ya up?”

  “No.”

  “Promise?”

  “Kid!”

  “You promise me you won't try and sneak out of here later on and head up to the Hole on your own?”

  “I promise.”

  “You promise what?”

  Heyes let loose a long-suffering sigh.  “I promise I won't try and sneak out on ya later and head up to the Hole on my own.”

  “Fine.”

  Jed pushed himself to his feet and offered a hand to help his cousin get up.  Heyes snarked just a bit, but did take the offered hand and came up to his feet as well.  He put fingertips to the bruise beginning to form on his forehead.

  “Ya pushed me kinda hard into that door, ya know.”

  “Hmm.  Door looks alright to me.”



  After supper was done, Duncan returned to the picket line to take another look at that mare.  There was something familiar about her but he just couldn't put his finger on it.  It's like he'd seen her somewhere before but the penny just wouldn't drop.  He stood there for the longest time, his hand up to his mouth in concentration and gazed at her, both of them trying to put it all together.

  Karma stood there and gazed back at him.   She didn't like this man any more now than she had an hour ago.  There was that smell about him that she felt she recognized but just couldn't place.  It made her feel nervous, scared, resentful.  Her ears went back and she tossed her head with an angry snort.  She wished he would just go away.
 
  Duncan smiled and came up to her.  He ran his hands along her body and he could feel her muscles tense under his touch.  He didn't care; he touched her everywhere, running his hands down her neck and over her withers then around her girth.  She shifted and stamped a foot; he was getting far too familiar.  He patted her barrel then stroked her along her back.  She swung her head around and took a quick swipe at him with her teeth.  He brushed her away and laughed at her.  She snorted, really irritated now.
 
  He ran his hand over her rump and then down between her inner thighs.  She took swing at him with her hind leg but he was experienced enough with horses to not be within range of those back hooves.  He continued to stroke her inner thigh, first one and then the other.  He moved his hand higher up and then he stopped.  He could feel it there; the criss-crossing of scars left behind from an old wound.  He felt it again, with a little more pressure, just to be sure.  And then he smiled; he knew he'd seen her before.
 
 
Wyoming 1881


  The filly was tired.  These men had been pushing them beyond anything they had ever known before.  They travelled mostly at night and this made the going even more difficult for the young horses, but they weren't given a choice and they had to keep on going.  The only good thing about it was that it wasn't so hot travelling at night and they were able to rest through the cruelest times of the day.

  In the mornings, about an hour after sun up, the herd of yearlings would be pushed into some sort of natural enclosure or sometimes a roped-off corral made with the riders lariats, so the men could rest and get something quick to eat.  Shade was scarce, but as the sun worked its way across the sky, the horses tried to herd together taking advantage of what little shade they could find and swishing flies away from their companions' faces.  They spent most of the hot days sleeping and scrounging meager meals out of the sparse prairie grasses but none of the horses were getting quite enough to eat and they all began to lose weight.

  As for water, there just wasn't much to be had.  The herd did come across a watering hole on one of their night drives; whether it was by luck or good planning it didn't matter to the horses.  It was water and that's all that counted.  The small herd trotted quickly once they got the scent and didn't stop until they were all knee deep in the refreshing pool and drinking to their hearts content.  Half an hour later, they were being pushed onwards again.  They had no idea what was going on or why the men were pushing them so hard.  The fact that they were now 'stolen property' did not come into their consciousness; it had no meaning to them.  The horses simply knew they were being pushed
almost beyond endurance and all they wanted was for it to stop.

  After a week of difficult nighttime travelling, the men did not stop with the daylight hours and kept pushing the tired herd onwards, starting to climb up into the hills of Wyoming.  Deeper and deeper into the back country they went until they were hidden from civilized eyes and legitimate ownership.

  Finally, as the sun was creeping up to its zenith, the yearlings all pricked their ears and flared their nostrils with anticipation.   Before them they spotted human-made structures and other horses milling around in corrals, swishing their tails and EATING HAY!  The resident horses lifted their heads
at the sight of the newcomers and some sent out whinnies of greeting.

  Some of the yearlings nickered back through their dry throats and the pace quickened with the promise of food and drink and a place to rest.  They trotted down the hill towards the shabby buildings and didn't resist at all as the drovers pushed the horses through the entrance of a large corral and
closed the gate upon them.

  There was some scuffling, and re-establishing of the pecking order as all the yearlings tried to drink out of the water trough at the same time. Karma laid her ears back and aimed threatening kicks at the lesser beings as she pushed her way to the water.  Most of the others backed off, but three of the more dominant ones did not and they all dunked their noses deep into the life-giving liquid and sucked it down unto their thirsts were slaked.

  The other yearlings stood back and watched wistfully.  They swished their tails and licked their lips with anticipation of their turn at the trough. No one wanted to receive a nasty kick for their presumptuousness and so they waited until the four horses at the trough had their fill and casually began to move off to the piles of hay strategically scattered about the corral. The dominant colt ended up with the largest pile, naturally.  Karma laid claim to the next largest.

  A few minutes later, the other horses crept over to the unoccupied hay and started to eat.  Since the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, the newly claimed, lesser piles suddenly looked quite tasty to the stronger yearlings and they decided to check them out.  Ears back and heads
down they each, in turn, chased off another yearling from the hay and started to eat.

  The intimidated horses moved over to the hay piles the larger yearlings had just abandoned and began to eat again until the alpha animals realized what they had wasn't nearly as tasty as what they'd left, and came back with flattened ears to reclaim their original pile.  Things settled down briefly before the musical piles started again.

  In this way, as in all ways; the dominant horses got most of the feed while the smaller individuals settled for what they could quickly eat before being chased off to find another pile.  Even in domesticated herds, survival of the fittest was an instinct too hard to ignore and Karma made sure she got more than her fair share.  After all, she was the Princess.

  The young horses were given a few hours to eat, drink, and get settled before anything new was going to be added to their already stressful situation. After they had rested, things changed. All heads shot skyward as two men with ropes entered the corral and started moving amongst the yearlings slapping their lariats against leather-chapped thighs to get the herd moving.

  Karma snorted her irritation and, ducking her head, she lit out at a brisk trot around the pen.  The other horses scattered going in different directions in their efforts to get away from the men.  The horses were all broken to ground manners and were accustomed to humans coming to pay them attention, but this type of attention was not welcomed.  Heads and tails were up again and the dust rose in clouds from the hooves of the anxious animals.

  “Get that one!” one of the men ordered from the sidelines.

  “Which one?” was the enquiry from a young fella inside the corral.  “They all look alike to me!”

  The sedentary man shook his head and scoffed.  “How the hell do you expect to be any good at this if ya can't tell the good ones from the bad?”

  The youngster shrugged and watched in some confusion as the horses trotted away from him.  The second man in the pen came up behind the youngster and gave him a hard shove, nearly knocking him off his feet.

  “Hey!”  The younger man yelled in irritation.  “What the hell was that for!?”

  “He means THAT ONE!”  The second human pointed a deliberate finger at the copper filly.  “Get her separated.”

  “Fine!  All ya gotta do is say so...”

  The youngster slapped his thigh with the lariat and zeroed in on the princess.  Karma's anxiety level increased as she realized that she was being singled out.  Her head went down and she powered herself into a strong gallop over to the far side of the paddock.  Stopped by the high fence, she turned to face the predator, her head high and eyes staring.

  The human came at her from the other direction and pushed her back the way she had just come.  Her head went down and she took off again, forcing her way through the other yearlings that weren't quite fast enough to get away. She didn't care about them, she was desperate to find an escape route and
get away from her tormenter.

  She trotted around the fence line when suddenly the rope snaked out at her and she really panicked!  The end of it hit the fence, making a loud 'whap' and she pivoted to the outside, turning her hind end to the human and taking off again at a gallop.  'Whap!'  The snake whipped out again in front of her, turning her once more and separating her from the other horses.

  Finally she saw it—an escape route!  An opening in the fence that hadn't been there before suddenly presented itself and she quickly ducked into it to get away from that snake!  A gate was quickly closed across the opening to prevent any of the other horses from following her and she suddenly found
herself alone in this new enclosure.  She trotted around the circle, shaking her head and snorting her frustration.  This was supposed to be an escape, not just a door into another trap.

  She stopped at the far end of the pen and turned to listen to the commotion going on in the previous corral.  Men were sitting on the fence and yelling encouragement to the humans and Karma could hear the other horses galloping around in their efforts to escape.  She heard the snake hit the boards again causing her to jump and trot a few steps before stopping and trotting back to her mark.  She didn't want to get any closer to that snake than she had to.

  A human jumped down into her paddock, and looking through the boards to see what was going on next door, he suddenly pulled that gate open again and the dominate colt came running through the opening.  Quick as a flash, the gate was slammed shut and Karma and the colt found themselves in each other's company again.

  He trotted over to her and both yearlings stood and stared back at the men on the fence.  They waited nervously for what was going to happen next, but nothing happened.  Eventually all the horses settled down and relaxed. Evening fell around them and interest was piqued again as more hay
was thrown over the fences and everyone settled in to an appreciated meal.

  Tom Duncan and his brother Gerald cautiously made their way down to the Running Brand Ranch.  They had a nice little arrangement set up with the Mathison family.  The adult sons of that clan were the ones who did the real dangerous work of rustling. The young men were still of an age to think it was an adventure to sneak onto a ranch or someone's open range and help themselves
to the livestock living there.  They didn't differentiate between the various types of livestock; anything handy would do.  Horses, cattle and even sheep were snatched, driven to this isolated ranch in the Wyoming back country and penned in these very same corrals.
 
  Trusted buyers were quickly contacted and the bargaining would begin.  Not just anybody was invited to view the merchandise, only people who didn't mind taking on stolen animals, people who preferred to take on stolen animals.  It was a living and, if done well, a good living. They didn't have to go through the work and worry and expense of breeding and raising quality animals, they just simply had to sit back and wait. Eventually, and usually quite regularly, the Mathison boys would go on a raid and almost always come back with money on the hoof.

  This time they had outdone themselves.  It had been a little risky, cutting these yearlings out of a secure pasture, close to the ranch house but each man knew the results would be worth it.  Even in the dark they could see the quality of the yearlings and the alpha pair was more than impressive.

  As soon as they had the herd on the move to Wyoming, one of the brothers had broken off, riding into a small town to send a telegram.  They had known the Duncan s would be interested.  Those two were always interested in quality livestock, the cleaner the better.  And they never asked any questions about
where the animals had come from.

  The Duncan brothers knew they were expected at the Running Brand, but they rode in cautiously.  This was outlaw country and they had no desire to run into any gangs who might see two lone riders as fair game.  The Devil's Hole hideout was still many miles to the north but they were known to travel far and wide if they had a particularly good job to pull.  Neither Tom nor Gerald wanted to run into Hannibal Heyes and have to explain what they were doing there.

  For one thing, that gang wasn't above doing business with the Mathison family themselves.  If Heyes got wind of some quality yearlings up for grabs, he just might take exception to someone else riding in and scooping them up; best to be careful and avoid a confrontation all together.  If they were lucky, Heyes and his gang would be busy elsewhere in their territory, robbing some other fella.

  Good fortune stayed with the two brothers and they made the journey to the Running Brand without mishap.  Trotting down the lane towards the stockyard they both had their eyes on the pen holding the numerous yearlings and got a good idea of the quality that was there.  They exchanged knowing glances and silently agreed that they would have to deal carefully here.

  Riding into the yard, they dismounted in front of the house and were instantly met and greeted by the owner.  Hands were shaken all around.

  “Howdy Tom, Gerry,” the monarch acknowledged them through his handlebar moustache.  “Safe trip?”

  “Not bad,” Gerry told him.  “Didn't see nobody so that's gotta be good.”

  “Yup, usually is.  Frank!  Gus!  Get out here!”

  Two gangly looking fellas in perpetually soiled clothing made their way down the front steps, both wiping the remnants of lunch from their scruffy faces.

  “What's up, Pa?”

  “What do ya mean, 'what's up'?” the parent snapped back.  “You know the routine.  We got payin' customers here.  Get to work.”

  Both young men grumbled about being in the middle of lunch, but when their pa made a move towards them they both jumped to it and got down to business. The four men headed over to the main corral, and as a unit they stepped up on the lower board of the fence and scrutinized the yearlings inside.  The yearlings scrutinized them back.

  “Well they're not a bad lookin' bunch,” Gerald conceded.  “I suppose they're better than goin' home empty handed.”

  “What do ya mean 'not a bad lookin' bunch'?” the eldest son Gus snarked back.  “Them's the best lookin' yearlings yer gonna find in the whole damn territory.”

  Tom spit into the dirt and took another look.  “Well....” he grumbled. “Are they clean?”

  “You can see they ain't,” Frank shot back at him, “but that's an easy enough brand to disguise.  They already did us a favor by brandin' 'em on the inside of the thigh.  It don't take away nothin' from the look of the horse, and it makes it a damn sight easier to hide.  We can do it right here if ya
wanna pay a bit more for 'em.”

  Tom snorted at the joke.  “I can take care of the brands myself.”  He and his brother exchanged looks and they both shrugged.  “We're not impressed.”

  “What do ya mean?”  Frank complained.  “What's wrong with 'em?”

  Tom shrugged again then pointed his chin towards the second pen.  “How come them two are separate?”

  “They ain't part of the deal here,” Gus told him.  “This group goes as a package deal; them two ain't part of it.”

  “That so?” Gerald commented.

  The two brothers stepped down from the fence and ambled over to the second pen.  Gus and Frank exchanged glances and smiled.  They followed the prospective buyers over to the second fence.  Gerald and Tom were already up on the lower board looking over the two young horses.

  “One of ya get in there and move em' around a little bit,” Gerald told them. “I wanna see how they move.”

  Frank stepped down off the fence and grabbing his lariat, stepped into the corral to show off the livestock.  Gus Mathison Sr. stepped quietly up behind the group to keep an eye on proceedings.  He didn't want his sons messing this sale up.

  Frank slapped his thigh and the two yearlings snorted and trotted away from him.  Karma kept her eye on the snake and, arching her neck, she danced away to the far side of the corral, turning to face the
new threat.  The Duncan brothers exchanged quick looks that weren't lost on the family's monarch.
The buyers were impressed.

  “Push that filly out a bit more,” Tom instructed.  “Let's see how she  moves.”

  Frank shrugged and snaked the rope out towards the copper yearling.  Karma snorted in agitation and, powering off her hindquarters, she galloped around the pen, leading the colt along with her.

  “Okay, that's fine,” Gerald said.  “That's all I need to see.”

  The two buyers made their way over to the first corral and stepped back up onto the fence.

  “So,” Gerald began.  “I'll give ya $200 for the ten in here as long as ya throw in them other two for $10 apiece.”

  All three Mathisons laughed and chortled at the offer.

  “You're outa yer mind!”  Mr. Mathison accused them.  “Them two is worth $30 apiece if 'n they's worth a dollar.”

  “Fine,” Gerald countered.  “I'll give ya $50 for them two and $5 apiece for a couple of them other ones.”

  “Nope,” Mathison shook his head.  “That bunch goes as a package deal.  Ya take 'em all or ya take none.  We got other buyers interested.  Up ta you.”

  “Well now, we don't really need the whole bunch,” Tom stepped in.  “We got no use for them all.”

  “Come off it!” the old horse thief snarked.  “You can flip them yearlings, no problem, and you know it!  Don't give me that crap!  Stop playin' games. Let's get down to business.”

  Gerald smiled.  “Alright,” he agreed.  “Sure we can flip 'em, but we gotta clean up them brands and move 'em through outlaw country to our holding pens.  That's risky.  We could lose some of 'em.”  He stopped and rubbed his chin as he considered the options.  “I'll give ya $30 for them two and $150 for the lot in here.”

  “$40 apiece for them two and I'll accept $150 for the group.   You always move stock through outlaw country, ain't nothin' new there.”

  Tom and Gerald exchanged looks and started to walk towards their horses.

  “Too rich for us, fellas,” Gerald announced.  “Hope them other buys ya got lined up are serious.”

  “But...hey, Pa!  Where're they goin'?”

  “Shut up Frank,” Pa growled at him.  “Fine!” he called out to the disappearing money.  “You fellas are robbin' me blind but ya got me backed into a fence here.  Fine.  $30 apiece for them two and $170 for the group.”

  “$25 apiece and $160, final offer.”

  Mathison sighed and shook his head in defeat.  “Deal.”

  An hour later, the Mathisons were standing in a huddle and counting their money.  They seemed pleased.

  “Just wait until your brothers get back from huntin'!” the old geezer hooted, “they'll be downright floored.  Hooeee!  I thought them Duncan boys were better at this than that!”

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Changing Hands Chapter three :: Comments

Changing Hands
Post on Sun 27 Oct 2013, 11:33 pm by Keays
Driving the herd through the narrow gullies on their way across the mountain, the Duncan boys were thrilled to pieces.  
 
  “Can you believe it?” Gerald asked his younger brother, “That old hoot must be losin' it.  This is the finest bunch a' yearlings I've seen in a decade.”

  Tom chuckled and eyed the copper filly with admiration.  “They're gonna bring a pretty penny alright.  So much so, I might just be able to afford to keep one of 'em.”


  This next leg of the journey was not as bad as the previous one.  The horses were not pushed quite so hard and they were given more time to graze and recover from the night's journey before being expected to move on again.  It was still difficult going for the tender hooves of the yearlings but all of them were beginning to toughen up in more ways than one.
 
  Two evenings into the trip, the brothers were sitting down to a small campfire while the horses grazed nearby.  Everyone was feeling more relaxed and getting ready to commence their night drive when Gerald noticed dust rising into the air some distance off.  He gave his brother a smack on the arm and Tom looked up with a scowl.
 
  “What?”  he grumbled.
 
  Gerald pointed a chin in the direction of the dust trail.
 
  “Oh,”  Tom noticed.  “Shit.”
 
  The two men quickly gathered up their rifles just in case the company wasn't welcome.  Both glanced back at the herd of yearlings to make sure they were secure in the natural corral and not likely to be easily run off.  Then they faced forward again and waited for company to arrive.
 
  “Maybe they didn't actually see us,”  Tom hoped, though not too convinced of that himself.
 
  “They haven't seen us,”  Gerald assured him.  “They're following our trail from yesterday. It's gonna lead them right to us.”
 
  “Shit,”  Tom griped again.  “Coffee's still on.  Just act natural, like we're supposed to be here and we can offer 'em coffee.”
 
  “Yeah right,”  Gerald grumbled.  “Just be ready in case they start askin' too many questions.”
 
  The dust trail soon developed into two horsemen coming at a casual lope towards the makeshift campsite.  The brothers squinted at them as they approached, trying to decipher tin badges or anything else that might give them some idea as to who their visitors were.  No clues were forthcoming so the brothers simply waited until the horsemen trotted up to the gathering.  They sat their horses, all of them covered in dust and sweat, and scrutinized the trespassers.
 
  “Howdy gents,”  Gerald greeted the new-comers.  “How about joining us for some coffee?  Looks like you've had a hard ride.”
 
  The two horsemen continued to study the campers.  They looked at each other, nodded and then stepped down from their saddles.
 
  “Alright,”  stated the ugly one.  “coffee sounds fine.”
 
  “Good, good!”  Tom smiled and began digging out extra cups.  “Come.  Sit yerselves down, relax.”
 
  “Don't I know you from somewhere?”  one of the horsemen asked as they continued to stand by their horses.
 
  Both brothers tensed.
 
  “I donno,”  Gerald answered as nonchalantly as he could.   “We get around a lot.  Maybe....”
 
  “Yeah,”  the same ugly horsemen continued, and he brightened up, pointing at the younger brother.  “Duncan!  You're Tom Duncan.”
 
  The brothers turned and stared at the horsemen, trying to look past the grime and the sweat.
 
  “Lobinskie?”  Tom asked.  “That you?”
 
  “Yeah,”  the ugly one stated while his companion sent him a quizzical look.  “but drop the Lobinskie will ya?  I'm just plain Lobo now.”
 
  “Oh, yeah, sure!”  Tom came forward to shake Lobo's hand.  “Good to see ya. Whatcha been up to lately.”
 
  “Well, you know I been running with Devil's Hole for a few years now,”  Lobo informed him.  “Not a bad livin'.  Better than bein' out on yer own.”
 
  “Yeah, ain't that the truth,”  Tom agreed.  “Hey, ah this is my brother Gerald.”
 
  “Howdy.”
 
  “Howdy.”
 
  “Lobo and I used to run cattle down South Dakota way,”  Tom explained to his brother.  “Did alright until the local law found our stock pens.”  he started laughing.  “We had to high-tail it outa there or we'd a been hung up right on the spot.”
 
  “Yeah,”  Lobo agreed.  “This here's Hank.  He's ridin' Devil's Hole too.”
 
  “Howdy, Hank.”
 
  “Howdy,”  Hank greeted the brothers.  “Didn't you say somethin' about some coffee?  We've been riding most of the day, could use a cup.”
 
  “Oh sure!”  Tom poured them both a cup and handed them over.
 
  Hank and Lobo still continued to stand by their animals as they accepted the beverages.  The gazes of both newcomers couldn't help but drift over to the remuda of young horses.  Tom and Gerald made sure their rifles were handy.  Lobo and Tom might know each other but that didn't guarantee safe passage—not in this part of the country.
 
  “Fine horses ya got there,” Hank noticed.  “Where'd ya get 'em?”
 
  “We just bought them broomtails off a rancher over Carbondale way,” Gerald informed them.  “Gonna break 'em out and re-sell them.  A bit of a project for the summer.”
 
  “Uh huh.”
 
  Hank started walking over to the herd, leading his own horse along with him.  Gerald and Tom were feeling nervous.  Was this going to turn into a gunfight?
  Hank took a look at the animals, spat into the dirt and then returned to the group while drinking his coffee.  Lobo looked at him, waiting for his opinion.
 
  “Naw, they're all yearlings,”  he said.  “The Hole's got no use for yearlings.”
 
  “That's a shame,” Gerald commented, “We could have given ya a real good deal.”
 
  Lobo and Hank sent him a look that suggested he was an idiot.  Who had said anything about paying for them?
 
  “Ya know yer in Devil's Hole territory, don't ya?”  Hank asked the brothers.  “The boss gets a bit twitchy when strangers come ridin' through our lands.”
 
  “Oh yeah, I know,”  Gerald agreed.  “but we don't mean no harm to you fellas.  We're on business of our own.  You can let Heyes know that he don't havta worry about us.”
 
  “Well, I would,” Hank told him.  “Exceptin' Heyes and the Kid ain't runnin' things here no more.”
 
  “They're not?”  both brothers were surprised, not sure if this was good or bad.  “Where are they?”
 
  Both outlaws shrugged.  “Who knows,”  Lobo commented.  “They got other plans these days.”
 
  “Oh,”  Tom was momentarily speechless.  “So's Wheat runnin' things now?”
 
  “Naw,”  it was Lobo's turn to spit, “Santana's back.  He's lookin' for some more men for a big job he's plannin' if either of you's interested.”
 
  “Oh, ah...”  both brothers had paled slightly under their own layer of grime at the name of the Mexican bandit.  “No, no,”  Tom shuffled.  “We kinda got other plans ya know.”  He nodded towards the remuda.  “Ah, I thought Jim Santana was doin' time.”
 
  “He was,”  Lobo agreed.  “he got out.”
 
  “Oh.”
 
  Hank and Lobo finished their coffees, tossed the remnants into the fire and turned to re-mount their horses.
 
  “How much longer you boys figure you'll need to get outa Devil's Hole territory?”  Lobo asked as he settled in his saddle.
 
  “Oh ah...”  the brother's exchanged looks.
 
  “I'm sure we'll be well on our way by this evening,” Gerald informed them.  “You tell ole' Jim he don't need be concerned about us.  We'll be outa his way real soon.”
 
  “Good,”  Lobo agreed.  “If you're still snoopin' around here by Wednesday Big Jim is gonna wanna know the reason why.  Ya understand?”
 
  “Yeah, of course,”  Tom assured him.  “We'll be long gone.  Ah, what day is today?”
 
  “Monday,”  Hank informed him.
 
  Both horsemen tipped their hats and turned their horses away from the camp.
 
  “Best get movin', boys,”  Lobo told them.  “Good luck with them yearlings.”
 
  “Yeah, thanks.”
 
  “Be seein' ya.”
 
  The two horses galloped off and the brothers both released a sigh of relief at the same time.
 
  “Damn, that was close,”  Gerald cursed.  “You say you used to run with that reprobate?”
 
  “Yeah,”  Tom confirmed.  “He can be one mean son-of-a-bitch too.  It was worth losing our last string of steers just ta get away from 'im.”
 
  “I bet,”  Gerald observed.  “C'mon, let's get outa here.  Bad enough dealing with Heyes, but I don't want any part of Big Jim Santana.  That guy's crazy.”
 
  “You got that right, brother.”
 
 
  Once settled at the Duncans’ holding pens, the horses were given a day to acclimate
to their surroundings before Tom and Gerald got to work.  The second morning after their arrival, the horses were nibbling their hay in the corral, when they heard the door to the line shack open.  The bay colt lifted his head and sniffed the air.  Smelling the humans, he moved off to the other side of the corral with the other horses trailing behind him.

  Karma smelled them, too, but she continued to eat, keeping a close eye on the two men approaching.  Wariness and mistrust were becoming her constant companions, but she liked her food.   The older man was carrying a load of firewood in his arms; the other had a halter over his shoulder, a lariat in one hand, and two sticks in another.  He was watching her.  She snorted at the sight of the rope and backed off to join her herd.

  The men had treated them decently on the drive, not pushing too hard, allowing the horses rest, and giving them access to good pasture and water. But despite it all, the animals were suspicious of the unfamiliar humans and their presence made the horses nervous.  The yearlings began milling around
on the far side of the fence.

  Tom entered an empty corral and dropped the cut wood at his feet.  He pulled a small hand ax from his back pocket and quickly shaved off several smaller pieces of wood for kindling.  Soon he had a large fire going.  Gerald put the two branding irons he was holding into the fire to heat up.  Neither iron had a fancy brand attached, they were simply straight irons with one purpose.  To destroy the yearlings’ existing brands.  The Duncans had done this many times before.

  Gerald entered the horses’ corral and shook out the loop on his lariat.  The horses immediately panicked and ran helter-skelter about the pen.  Keeping his eye on the handsome copper filly, Gerald settled his rope neatly over Karma’s neck and she balked wildly as she felt it tighten.  He kept tension
on the line and walked slowly to her, hand over hand, talking quietly.  She pulled back against the tightness of the line, but her ears flickered back and forth at his words and she allowed him to slip the halter over her head without much fuss; she had been gently handled before and it held no fear
for her.  Gerald picked up the lead tied to the halter and slipped off the lariat from around her neck.  She relaxed as the terrifying snake was removed.  He led her through a narrow chute into the second corral but kept her well away from the fire.

  “Gerry, get ready to twitch that bitch.”  
 
  Tom walked over to where they stood and he slipped one end of a soft rope through the halter’s ring under her chin and handed it to his brother.  Gerald reached up and seized one of Karma’s ears, brutally twisting it.  She was shocked by the pain and the surprise, planting her feet as he held her halter and the end of the rope. She was irate but she couldn’t think about anything except the pain in her ear.  Tom walked to her hind end.  He quickly tied a slipknot into the rope and lifted her right hind foot before she could think about what he was doing.  She was trembling with fear.  He slipped the loop around her ankle and dropped her hoof.

  “Now, pull!”
 
   Gerald pulled the rope with all his strength as he let go of Karma’s ear.  Her hind leg came off the ground and Tom shoved her hard on the hip.  Before she knew what they were doing, she was sinking to the ground.

  “Sit on her neck!  Sit on her!  Keep hold of that damned rope,” yelled Tom.

  Gerald sat down directly behind her head and covered her eyes with his hands.  Karma was terrified and tried to get up but she couldn’t with the heavy weight on her neck and her back leg pulled tight against her belly. She screamed in rage and squirmed with all her strength, but she was
trapped.

  Tom ran back over to the fire and, using a heavy mitt, picked up one of the straight irons.  The end of it glowing bright red even though it was a sunny day.  He hurried to his brother and the filly.  Without any hesitation, he dragged the scorching hot metal through the lines of the old brand completely obliterating it.  Karma thrashed crazily with her forelegs but couldn’t find purchase.  She once again smelt her own flesh melting under the branding iron.

  “Let her go, Gerry.”

  Gerald jumped up, holding onto the lead, but Karma scrambled to her feet. She began kicking out her hind legs trying to rid herself of the scalding pain and tried throwing her head to pull the lead away.  The two brothers hung on tight and chuckled at her distress.

  “We’ll get the hardest one outta the way first.  Walk her around for a while; then get her snubbed,” said Tom, returning the iron to the fire to reheat for the next victim.
 
   Gerald walked the frightened filly around and around the pen until she began to relax slightly.  He opened a gate and led her into a third pen and continued walking.

  She was still blowing loud snorts through her nose.  The other horses watched from the first corral sensing her nervousness and fear.  Finally, she started to take stock of her surroundings.  This pen was the last in a row and it was slightly different from the others.  It was nearly twice the size of the last one, the fence was much higher, and in the center of it was a tall post sunk deeply into the heavy sand.  Gerald tied her tightly to the post.  She couldn’t move her head very far, but she stood quietly as she knew she was supposed to do.  Her humans had trained her well and, in her fear and confusion, she fell back on that training; waiting patiently at the post.

  Tom left the corral and walked over to the tack room, returning with a saddle and bosal.  Gerald stood by the filly and stroked her soothingly, trying to win her confidence back, but she wasn’t buying it.  Every time he reached out to her, she pinned her ears back and bared her teeth.  She was
outraged at the treatment she was receiving and she longed for a chance to sink her teeth into this man and savage him.

  Her attention was so focused on Gerald that she didn’t notice Tom approaching her again.  Tom put the saddle on the ground and picked up the saddle pad, rubbing it up and down her body.  She tensed at first, but soon relaxed to the pleasant sensation.  She’d been sacked out before and had always enjoyed it.  After everything she’d gone through, she craved comfort.
 
  He slid the pad onto her back and patted her, before turning away to pick up the saddle.  Tom turned back with the saddle in his arms and she spooked at the swaying girth and dangling latigos, trying to sidestep away, but Gerald was on the other side of her pushing on her hip.  Her attention on Gerald,
Tom slipped the saddle on her back and snugged the girth around her belly before she could protest.

  The two brothers backed away and left the filly alone with the strange, heavy object on her.  She tried to turn her head to look at it, but she could only catch a glimpse.  She kicked out several times and attempted to hop up and down, but the post kept her in place.  Finally, she ignored it. If she couldn’t rid herself of the horrid object, she’d simply pretend it wasn’t there.
 
   She stood quietly in the hot sun, unhappy and brooding on the ugly treatment she’d received.  These humans were awful!  Not at all like the kind lady human who had brought her treats and scratched her neck.  She couldn’t understand what she had done to deserve this punishment and her confusion made her afraid.

  Later in the day, the two men returned.  Karma eyed them warily as they came through the gate and crossed over to her.  Tom slipped the rawhide bosal over her nose and pulled the headstall over her ears tossing the reins on her neck.  She tried to twist away, but her head was held tightly to the post.  She snorted as Tom tightened the girth slightly and nodded to Gerald. Tom bent his knee and lifted his lower leg as his brother reach down, cupping Tom’s knee and ankle, and boosting him into the saddle.  
 
  Karma struggled floundering about, swinging her hind end from side to side.  How dare they!

  “Cut her loose, Gerry!” said Tom, settling himself deeply into the center of the saddle.  This one was going to be a firecracker and he knew it.
 
  Gerald cut the rope binding Karma to the post.  She lifted her head, surprised to be free, and Tom yanked her nose to one side and then the other throwing her off balance.  He squeezed with his legs to drive her away from the post and then he dug in his rowel spurs.

  Her response was instantaneous, she leapt off her forelegs and drove them down into the sand, stiffening her shoulders and kicking out her hind legs. Tom hung on easily, long experienced at breaking young horses.
 
   Karma was furious, she bucked and twisted, tucking her head down between her legs, but she couldn’t shake the man.  His laughter drove her on and she felt something snap deep inside her heart.  A blind rage seized her, and she reared wildly as her rider cruelly drove her forward with his spurs.  She tried everything she could think of shake him off but he hung on like a tick on an old hound dog, driving her forward again and again until, in desperation, she galloped madly across the pen.
 
    Tom, thinking she was going to swerve to the right or the left, sat back in the saddle readying himself
for a sharp turn; instead, Karma gathered her hind legs under her and lifted off the ground.  She crashed her forelegs through the top two rails, shattering them, and her momentum carried her up and over the remaining fence rails.
 
   Tom was thrown forward as she lifted off the ground and nearly unseated; then he was struck hard across the chest by the broken fencing and swept from the saddle.   He landed hard on the far side of the fence, rolling over several times, before coming to a stop.  The last thing he saw, was the filly galloping off with his good saddle still clinging to her back.
 
 
    The young filly galloped on and on as though the demons from Hell itself were chasing her to the ends of the earth.  She didn't care if she was being followed or not, she just wanted out of there, away from those men, away from the pain in her thigh and away from this strange apparatus attached to her back!  Occasionally she gave a buck trying to dislodge it but it wasn't going anywhere.  After a while even the flapping of the stirrups banging against her sides ceased to concern her and she simply galloped on. 
 
  Finally, the fear in her heart settled down and she stopped on high ground to take a look behind her.  She stood there, her whole body heaving with the exertion of her run, and she stared, eyes wide, ears up and nostrils flaring, looking for any sign of pursuit.  There wasn’t any.  She snorted, gave a good shake, startling herself with the noise and feel of the saddle.  She moved on not knowing where she was going, but knowing she had to go somewhere.
 
  By mid-afternoon she came across a creek that was deep enough to still have water flowing in it.  She was cautious, knowing instinctively that this could be dangerous for her.  Predators stalked the watering holes, laying in ambush for some unsuspecting horse to put in an  appearance.  Snakes weren't the only things that ate horses.
 
  She stopped on the edge of the clearing and drew air into her nostrils to pick up any information that might be floating round.  She didn't detect anything alarming and turned her attention to the cool water quietly flowing past her, just yards from where she was standing.  She licked her lips in anticipation but still she hesitated.
 
  One step out onto the bank, nothing happened. She lifted her head and scanned the far bank but nothing moved.  She took another step and still nothing happened.  That was it, she couldn't wait any longer.  She walked out quickly, stepping into the clear water and dropping her head she began to drink greedily.
 
  When she had swallowed five or six big gulps she raised her head again and with the liquid dripping from her closed mouth she did another quick look around.  All was still quiet.  She licked her lips again, sending water cascading down to splash back into the stream.  Her nose quickly followed it and she drew in even more of the refreshing fluids.
 
  Finally, having drunk her fill she splashed her way over to the far bank and trotted straight out onto the mesa to graze.  Luck was with the filly in this manoeuver.  She could  easily have been bushwhacked out there in the open but having had her drink in safety, it didn't occur to her to double check before heading out onto the grass.  Fortunately for her, she got away with it.
 
  The other thing in her favor was that Tom Duncan had placed a soft bosal on her head rather than a full bridle and rigging.  It was comfortable for her to carry around with her and did not impede her grazing at all.  As long as she could learn to keep the trailing rope from getting entangled in her legs she would be alright.
 
  The saddle was another matter.  It didn't really fit her back very comfortably and, though she was getting accustomed to it being there, she was gradually becoming aware of soreness in certain areas where the saddle was rubbing against her hide.  As the day wore on, the soreness was becoming more distressful but since there was nothing she could do about it she tried to ignore it.
 
  Karma grazed with relative contentedness until the shadows began to lengthen and evening was closing in upon her.  Again she felt instinctual nervousness take over and she knew she was in a dangerous situation.  A horse alone out on the open range was in enough of a dire strait during the day light hours, but once night time took over chances of survival became very dicey.
 
  She didn't know what to do.  Not having been born on the range, she didn't learn from her mother or from the other herd mares how to hide herself from predators, all she knew was that she needed to.  She again headed for cover but then she felt even more unsettled having high rocks and embankments looming over her in the dark, potential hiding places for numerous unknown terrors.
 
  She got herself under a ledge and stayed there, facing outwards in case anything tried to make a run at her.  It was the worst night of her short life, even worse than that night when those strange men had come and disturbed their sleep.  That night things had happened so fast and the yearlings were having to deal with it before they had time to think. 
 
  On this night, Karma's fears far outweighed the reality and she spent the whole of the night hours, shaking and sweating from imagined foes.  Her heart would leap and start beating twice as hard every time the coyotes sounded out their evening serenade, letting the world know that they were on the hunt.  She would back up deeper under the ledge and stand with head down and limbs trembling, dreading that something that truly did eat horses would find her and make a meal.
 
  When dawn finally came she was still alive, but she was exhausted.  She needed water again and grass so she took the chance and left her protective ledge and made her way out onto the mesa again.  This time however, she knew something was different.  Her head shot up and her ears just about jumped off the top of her skull.  Her nostrils flared as she picked up a very familiar scent on the early morning air.
 
  She whinnied loud and shrill and took off at a gallop, breaking cover without hesitating and running straight at the small band of wild mustangs.  Every head in the herd was already raised and looking in her direction wondering what kind of a fool would sound off like that, letting every predator in the area
know where they were located.
 
  As soon as the copper filly broke cover, the lead mare laid her ears back and rushed at her with every intention of ripping the hide from her frame.  Karma put on the brakes and quickly swerved out of the older mare's way; she kept on running when she realized that the other horse was still after her.
 
  Karma didn't understand.  Why wouldn't they be happy to see her?  Why was she being chased off?  Surely they must know the dangers that lurked out here for a horse on her own. Weren't they going to allow her to join the band?  That was unheard of!  Didn't they know who she was?  Didn't they know she was special?  Apparently not.
 
  Fortunately, the lead mare only chased her so far before backing off and returning to the herd.  Karma stopped and turned as well, hoping that she would be invited to join them.  But the body language from the bay lead mare let her know that she wasn't welcome.
 
  Well!  Karma had no intentions of leaving. How dare that mare treat her that way? Didn’t she understand how special Karma was?  Still, the mare was considerably bigger than she was and the filly noticed the older horse carried the scars of numerous fights.  Karma had no intention of being scarred any further and decided not to challenge the mare; however, now that she had found her own kind again she wasn't going to be so easy to chase off.  She waited just far enough away so that the mare wouldn't come after her, but not so far as to be totally isolated.  The morning dragged by.  The filly was thirsty, but she would have to go through the herd to get back to that stream or leave them altogether and circle around.  Neither option pleased her so she dropped her head and grazed, picking up what moisture she could from the damp grass.
 
  Morning slid into afternoon and Karma continued to graze, but her one eye was always on that lead mare.  The other horses in the herd tended to ignore her until one of the foals would allow its curiosity to take over and would try to come out to the interesting stranger and say 'hello'.  Unfortunately either the foal's dam or the lead mare would quickly intercept the youngster and send it in a long-legged retreat back to the brood.
 
  Karma continued to wait and to graze.  She could be patient, she wasn't leaving.  Occasionally she would glance over at the stallion on the far side of the mesa but he showed no interest in her.  He knew to leave this initiation up to the females and he simply carried on grazing; looking splendid until his particular talents of protecting or love-making were required.
 
  Evening was beginning to slide down again and Karma was getting nervous.  She didn't want to spend another night alone.  The small band slowly began to move off the mesa towards the stream.  The lead mare giving direction, knowing they all needed time to drink before night fully came down around them.  Karma watched from a safe distance, then followed, making sure she kept her eye on that mare.
 
  The band drank, spreading out along the bank and dropping their heads into the liquid, knowing that they were safe and protected.  Karma felt her thirst attack her again and she licked her lips in anticipation.  She wasn't used to having to wait her turn.  She was used to being the princess and it was others who waited for her.
 
  But not this time; whenever she took one step too close that lead mare would come snaking at her with ears back and teeth bared and Karma would have to hop to it quickly to avoid a blood-letting.  Finally everyone else had their fill of water and began to make their way back to the mesa.  Karma waited until the stream was clear and quickly trotted down to the water's edge to gulp her fill and then re-join the others for a night in the open.
 
  As the light began to fade Karma still watched that lead mare, hoping to see the invitation to come in, but none came.  The filly was getting nervous again.  She wasn't totally on her own this time but still in a rather vulnerable spot if a predator came lurking.  She paced back and forth, keeping that mare in her sights but making sure she didn't over-step her welcome.
 
  Darkness came down and blotted out the other horses from Karma's sight.  She could hear them and smell them but other than that she still felt very much alone.  She spent another long, anxious night hoping that nothing was going to attack her from behind and turn her into a meal.  What a waste!  She had so much more to offer than that.
 
  A gray, cool dawn gradually brought the herd back into existence and Karma snorted in greeting as she grazed in an effort to appear non-nonchalant.  The lead mare was again watching her and exhibited a certain amount of disappointment that the copper filly was still there; and what was that strange thing on her back?
 
  The mare stood silently, watching the filly.  Karma felt her heart give a skip as hope burst forth but she sure wasn't going to show her desire to this mare.  She continued to graze but still kept an eye on the boss and waited.  And grazed, and waited.
 
  Karma's head shot up, her ears pricked as her nostrils quivered with a silent nicker.  The lead mare had turned away from her.  It was a subtle move, probably not even noticeable to someone not familiar with the equine language, but Karma knew it and she instantly responded.  The mare swished her tail and casually sauntered into the midst of her band while Karma trotted over and joined up with the wild mustangs.
 
 Instantly, it was a free for all.  All the mares and yearlings were bumping one another out of the way in order to be the first to check out the new member.  Noses touched, and necks arched in the equine version of shaking hands.  Squeals reverberated around the mesa and front hooves struck out dangerously, but they hadn’t been intended to find their mark.
 
  Everyone checked out the hunk of leather sitting on the filly's back; none of them had ever been that close up to one of these things before.  Mares and foals alike sniffed it, rubbed their faces against it and finally bit it in an attempt to decide what it was.  It seemed innocuous enough though and everyone soon moved off to continue with their grazing.
 
  Karma settled in as well and despite the growing discomfort being caused by the saddle, she dropped her head and started to graze herself.  The stallion, now that she had been accepted by the boss, was showing her a little bit more attention.  It did not take any time at all for him to realize that she was still too young to warrant his attention so he returned to his own grazing and the art of looking splendid.


Changing Hands
Post on Sun 27 Oct 2013, 11:36 pm by Keays
Ten days later, Sid and Josh were sitting their horses on the top of a ridge spying on the herd of mustangs from inside the tree line.  These two men had been partners for a number of years, making a living in various different ventures many of which were on-going and over-lapping.  Rounding up the numerous bands of wild mustangs was just one of their livelihoods but it was lucrative enough.  Both men enjoyed working with the young horses so while they were still young and able they kept it going.
 
  They knew this band quite well, having brought them in on more than one occasion in the past.  The paint stallion tended to put some pretty nice foals on the ground and since he had between ten and twelve good mares rounding them up every summer to cull out the two year old colts was well worth the effort.  It suited both parties quite nicely since the wranglers only took the colts and left the fillies to become breeding stock for the future.  In this way the stallion didn't have to worry about any of his sons getting to the age of maturity and challenging their sire for rights to the herd. There were enough other stallions looking to increase the size of their own bands without having to deal with insurrection from within. 
 
  Sometimes Sid and Josh wondered if the paint stallion actually understood the process and saw the advantage to the deal because every summer it got easier and easier to round them up and get them into the home pens.  It was as though they had an unwritten contract and everyone was happy.  On this day, Sid, who had the spy glass, first noticed something different in the herd.  Adjusting the focus, he took a closer look and whistled.
 
  “What?”  Josh asked, suddenly interested.
 
  Sid offered him the glass and pointed.  “Take a look about mid-herd, a little bit behind old Lucy.”
 
  Josh lifted the glass and searched the herd where instructed. He froze and gave a low whistle himself.
 
  “Well, somebody sure lost a fine animal,”  he stated the obvious.  “Wonder if there's a brand.”
 
  “Only one way to find out,”  Sid told him.  “Let's go get 'em.”
 
  Josh put the glass away in his saddle bags and the two men split up.  They casually rode down the hill towards the band keeping to a walk or gentle jog, not wanting the spook the wild horses into a stampede.  The mustangs were used to this annual event but they were still wild horses and would take to the hills in an instant if the lead mare decided it was time.
 
  So the two men came down quietly, pushing the herd from either side to get them moving down towards the holding pens.  All the heads came up at once and watched the wranglers coming towards them, but Karma seemed to be the only one who was really nervous about it.  The younger horses were taking the cue from the older ones and the older ones were saying that this was not something to get upset about.
 
  Karma, however, had already had too many bad experiences with both humans on foot and the horse/human combination. She didn't trust either of them.  She was very nervous, trotting around inside the herd, and she didn't care what the others were saying; what did they know?  She didn't want to leave the safety of the herd but she didn't want to stay there either, so succumbing to the pressure of the on-coming horsemen, she galloped out in front and got the whole herd moving.
 
  Lucy was quick to catch up with her and gave her a quick bite on the rump to remind her who was boss.  Our princess was insulted at such rude behavior, but not wanting to leave the herd, she accepted the reprimand and dropped back into line.  Lucy took over the lead, slowing the band down to a more reasonable pace, being well aware that there were young foals and older mares who would have found Karma's rate of speed impossible to keep up with.  They might even injure themselves in an effort to do so.
 
  So Lucy led the herd in to the holding pens, knowing full well that within a few hours the majority of them would be set free to carry on with their own routine.  On top of that, those unruly and obnoxious two-year-olds would finally be gotten rid of and the herd could enjoy the rest of the summer in relative peace.
 
  Once inside the pens, Karma would not settle.  She trotted around the enclosure, wild-eyed and snorting, causing discontent throughout the herd.  Lucy had had about enough of her.  Finally, trapping her in a corner, the older mare let the filly have it with a number of swift, hard kicks to the ribcage.
 
  Karma was shocked.  Why was everybody turning on her?  Didn't they realize the danger they were all in?  But the blows kept coming at her and try as she might to get out of the corner, she was truly trapped and had to accept the punishment.  The one thing that saved her from too many bruises was the fact that she still had that cursed saddle strapped to her back.  She got battered, but not too bruised.
 
  Once Lucy finally let her go, Karma just stood in the corner and nursed her wounded pride.  Everyone else had finally settled down and there didn't appear to be any danger at the moment.  Karma didn't trust these pens and she knew that sooner or later those men with ropes that turned into snakes were going to put in an appearance and the pain would start all over again.
 
  Sure enough, they came.  Karma tensed and started desperately looking around for a way out.  None presented itself.  Just as before, the men with ropes began to separate individual animals from the herd and drive them through an opened gate and into another pen.  Karma stayed put in her corner and hoped that no one would notice her.
 
  Unfortunately, the copper filly was actually the main focus.  Once the five two-year-old colts had been separated, the two men both zeroed in on the yearling filly and put pressure on her to get out of that corner.  Karma tried to resist.  As the men got closer to her, she backed further into the fence but that didn't help her at all.  That dreaded rope snaked out and whacked the fence behind her and she reared, clawing at the railings of the corral, trying to break through or climb out. 
 
   Neither happened; the holding pens had been built intentionally to contain wild horses and one desperate yearling filly wasn't going to do too much damage to it.  She tried her hardest to break through, staying up on her hind legs and pawing at the stout poles, but all she accomplished was to chip off some bark.  The roped snaked at her again and she jumped away from the sound of it hitting the wood.  She stopped again and turned her bum to the man coming towards her.
 
  She tried to turn back, to get away, but suddenly he was there, standing in her path.  The rope shot directly towards her.  She shied away from it and stopped again, not wanting to go in the direction that she was being pushed.  But she felt that 'snake' actually hit her on her hind end and she jumped forward, kicking out at it.  She felt it whack her again and she bolted.  Suddenly, the fence opened up and another rope whacked the poles in front of her and before she knew it she turned and found herself in the corral with the five two-year-olds.  Dagnabbit!
 
  Much to the despair of the six youngsters, the gate to the other corral was opened up and the rest of the herd were free to go.  Lucy trotted out the opening with the other mares, foals, and yearling filly's following and the stallion bringing up the rear. The herd headed back out to open range.
 
  The mood in the second corral instantly escalated into a wild panic.  Finally someone was listening to the filly, finally someone believed her that this was not a good thing.  Finally, but too late.  The six animals galloped around their enclosure desperately looking for a way out, including the one Karma had tried and failed at; climbing over or breaking through the stout wooden poles.  The colts didn't have any more luck than she'd had and the air was rent with the frantic whinnying of the contained horses.
 
  The herd itself paid them no heed and continued on towards freedom.  If anything at all, the freed animals simply picked up speed and, transferring from a trot, up into a slow gallop they disappeared into a cloud of dust without so much as a fond farewell or a 'see ya later'. 
 
  The young colts were devastated.  The herd was their home, their family and they'd been abandoned to this strange place.  They finally settled down but stood together in one of the corners and tried to give one another comfort by staying in close proximity.
 
  Karma stood close by, but a little apart.  This was not new to her.  The loss of the herd at this point was not her main concern.  Sometimes knowing the future is worse than not knowing and she stood, alone and anxious, waiting for the next rope to drop.
 
  She didn't have long to wait either.  One of the men was soon back in the corral and heading towards her.  She arched her neck and blew out her stress.  She didn't wait for the rope this time, but quickly moved away from him and when the opening in the fence presented itself she nipped in there and found herself alone once again.  She stopped in the middle of the corral and just stood there, trembling, anxious, and awaiting her fate.
 
  On the other side of the corral, Sid and Josh were watching the filly through the narrow slits between the poles.
 
  “She sure is a looker,”  Josh commented quietly.  “A little beat up, but some fine breeding there; it's written all over her.”
 
  “Were ya able to see a brand anywhere?”  Sid enquired.
 
  “No,”  Josh admitted.  “Doesn't mean she don't have one.  She so covered in dirt it's hard to tell..  First thing we gotta do is get that saddle offa her.  Looks like it's been there for a while—no tellin' what kinda shape her back is in.”
 
  “Hmm,”  Sid didn't sound too enthusiastic but he knew as well as his partner did that the saddle had to come off.  “Well, let's get to it.”
 
  The partners walked around the corrals to the other side and entered into a circular round pen with a snubbing post in the middle of it.  There were a number of ropes of varying length lying on the ground around the post along with a large piece of cloth all ready for use.
 
  Josh quietly opened a gate and stepped into the corral and instantly had Karma's attention.  He left the gate open and Sid stood by and out of the way while Josh quietly pushed the filly into the new pen.  She trotted through the open gate and until she came to the far side, where she stopped and turned to face her oppressors.
 
  Josh came back into the round pen, closed the gate, and the two men stood assessing the situation.
 
  “Well,”  Josh finally voiced his opinion. “obviously she's been handled before but, by her attitude, I'd say none too gently.”
 
  “I'd lay good money that she's stolen,”  Sid commented.  “She's got real fine breeding so I'd expect the breeders knew what they had and what they were doin'.  Breakin' her out as a yearling?  Only somebody wanting to get her broke quick and flip her would do that.”
 
  “I find we are in agreement,”  Josh seconded.  “C’mon, we gotta get that saddle of her and we don't have time to play nice.”
 
  “Nope,”  Sid nodded.  “so let's just get her done and get it over with.”
 
  Nodding, Josh moved to the post and picked up the lariat.  He stood there for a moment, shaking it out and getting the loop ready for a toss.  Karma watched him anxiously, blowing nervously, and pawing the ground.  Every nerve was on edge, every muscle ready to react.  This was new, she didn't know how to respond.  The human was handling that snake, looking like he was getting it ready for something, but he wasn't looking at her and not making any aggressive moves towards her.
 
  She didn't know what to make of it until quite unexpectedly the human twirled the snake around his own head a couple of times and sent it flying straight at her.  She pivoted away from it, trying to get her legs organized enough to get into a gallop, but she felt that thing slide down her neck and settle upon her shoulders. 
 
  She ran faster to get away, but she felt it tighten and slide up to her poll.  She couldn't breathe and was jerked around to face the human whether she wanted to or not.  She reared and bellowed her anger, trying to pull back, even though she knew from past experience that it was no use.  They had her good to rights and the more she fought, the tighter the rope became, and the closer she was brought up to that snubbing post.
 
  Finally she stood, her wind cut off and her head so tightly snubbed that she couldn't rear or fight anymore.  She stood trembling with her legs splayed apart and her heart threatening to beat its way out of her chest.  She eyed these two humans, afraid of what was to come next, when one of them picked up the length of cloth and before she could react to him, he'd neatly placed it over her eyes and tied it snug.
 
  Totally blind now, she stood in anticipation of the worst.  She felt hands upon her, hands that didn't hurt, but caressed, and voices that were soft and encouraging.  Her ears flicked back and forth, not sure what to make of all this.  Humans were tricky so she didn't let her guard down.  Sure enough, she felt something wrap around her off-hind foot.  It tightened around her fetlock, lifting that leg off the ground, and somehow securing it there.  She tried to kick a couple of times but it went nowhere and so she stood on three trembling legs and waited for the end to come.
 
  Again she heard soft voices and felt hands caressing her.  A hand came up the side of her neck, petting her, and scratching her behind the ears.  She was tense, nostrils flaring, but all the hand did was slip under the headstall of the bosal and push the whole contraption over her ears to land with a soft thud on the ground.  She felt, but didn't feel something touching that cursed hunk of leather on her back.  She could hear it creaking and moving and felt something tugging at her as Josh tried to release the girth.  Karma tried to get away from it but could only succeed in hopping around. With her forth leg up in a sling, she was at risk of losing her balance and toppling over.  She remembered that happening before and didn't want a repeat.  As bad as this situation was, it would only be worse if she ended up on her back on the ground.  She trembled and braced herself and waited while the tugging continued.
 
  “Finally,”  Josh mumbled as he got the cinch strap to gradually loosen.  It  had been so caked with dirt he’d had difficulty releasing the knot. 
 
  He let the girth drop and taking hold of the saddle he pulled it and the blanket off in one swift motion.  Karma sucked wind as she felt the searing pain of skin tearing.  She tried to duck out from under that pain, almost falling to the ground.  Josh scrambled out of her way until she stopped thrashing and was able to get her balance back again.
 
  “Whoa, easy girl,”  he soothed her.  “I know that hurt.  Believe it or not, we're trying to help you.  So just take it easy.”
 
  He patted her and stroked her and spoke quietly to her. Her ears flicked back and forth in response to his voice.  It reminded her of those happy days when she was with her mother and the humans would come and talk to her, giving her tasty treats.  She was a princess and all those around her had known and accepted that.  She longed for those days to come back.  It was her right.
 
  But here she was; snubbed up to a post, blindfolded, and trying to stay standing on three legs.  What kind of treatment was this for a princess?  Didn't they know she could barely breathe?  She waited.  The pain in her back gradually subsided and she had to admit that it felt wonderfully cool now that the saddle was gone.  She wondered what was going to happen next.
 
  “Jeeze,” Sid commented, “what a mess.  We're not gonna be able to do anything with her until those sores heal.”
 
  “She's gonna need time to settle down anyways,” Josh pointed out.  “It's going to take time to get her to trust us now anyways.  Besides, I don't want to put another saddle on her back until next spring.  Give this baby a chance to grow up.”
 
  “Yeah, I know,” Sid grumbled, “another one we're gonna be feedin' through the winter.  Still, I suppose the price we'll get for her will make it up.  'IF' she's not stolen and the real owners come lookin' for her.”
 
  Josh smiled.  “Well, maybe they'll pay us a finder's fee for takin' such good care of their prize filly.”
 
  Sid snorted, “Yeah, right.”
 
  Josh didn't say anything but continued to smile as he carefully began applying salve to the open sores on Karma's back and girth area.
 
 She stood quietly and accepted the treatment.  It hurt but felt good at the same time and all of a sudden it occurred to her that these men weren't going to hurt her anymore.  She wasn't anywhere near ready to trust them as she knew how tricky humans could be but the darkness shrouding her eyes allowed her some measure of privacy and she started to relax. 
 
  It didn't take long for Josh to finish his administrations.  He gently ran his hands all over her body, getting a feel for her and to check for any more injuries.  He was careful around her hindquarters even with the one leg tied up. He'd known mustangs to still be able to get a kick in if they were really serious.  The horse would usually end up on the ground, but so would the person and Josh had no intentions of receiving a kick today. 
 
  The first thing he noticed was the dried blood spattered down the inside of her thigh.  He creased his brow, and taking hold of her tail pulled it out of the way to get a better look.  The area was covered in dried mud but he gently rubbed some of it away to see what might be revealed.
 
  Karma tensed, not liking him being back there and doing that.  She thought about kicking out but considered the consequences and decided not to.
 
  “Easy girl,” Josh soothed her, having noticed her tensing up again.  “You're alright.  Nobody's gonna hurt ya.”
 
  He took a closer look then turned to his partner.
 
  “Unusual place for a brand,” he commented, “but I think that's what that is—or used to be.  Someone's taken a straight iron to it and blotted out the brand that was there.”
 
  Sid looked disappointed.  “Just our luck; she is stolen.”
 
  Josh shrugged.  “Yeah, but I can't read the brand,” he said, “so if no one comes lookin', it's finder's keeper's as far as I'm concerned.”
 
  Sid smiled. 
 
 
Wyoming 1892
 
  Heyes paced. Joe watched him.  Curry wrote a letter to his wife.
 
  “I'm sure we'll get her back once we're done with this job,” Joe tried to console the horseless man.  “At least we know where she is.”
 
  “Hmm,” Heyes was not so easily convinced.
 
  Curry just kept on with his letter.  He knew there was no point in trying to placate his partner at this time.  He'd had his say the evening before and Heyes had accepted the wisdom of that, so leave it alone.  But Joe was still feeling guilty about his part in it and didn't know Heyes well enough to know when there was no point.
 
  “She might even break away and come back on her own,” Joe continued to speculate.
 
  “Or head back to the Double J,” Heyes pointed out.  “That's her home, not here.”
 
  “Then she could be waiting for us when we get back,” Joe tried to sound optimistic.
 
  “If she makes it!” Heyes snarked back.  “Anything could happen between here and there.  It's a long ways for a horse on her own.  She's not used to being on the open range, doesn't know how to deal with predators.  Somebody could see her and snatch her up, thinkin' it's their lucky day.  She could break a leg, drink poison water....”
 
  “Heyes will you stop soundin' like an old worried mother?” Kid finally had enough.  “I'm tryin' to write to Beth here.  Ya got anything ya wanna say?”
 
  “No,” he grumbled, “she's your wife.”
 
  Jed shook his head and with an exasperated sigh, returned to his letter writing.
 
  Heyes suddenly changed directions, grabbed his hat and headed for the front door.  Jed was on his feet instantly and scrambled over, just barely getting there first.  Heyes stopped directly in front of him and gave him an irritated look.
 
  “What?”
 
  “Where ya goin' Heyes?”
 
  “What are you—my babysitter?”
 
  “Seems like it, don't it?”
 
  “If you must know I thought I would go over to Lom's office and see if we can get some information outa the prisoner.”
 
  “Okay, well that's a good idea,” Jed agreed.  “Why don't we all go?”
 
  “I thought you were writing a letter to your wife.”
 
  “It'll wait,” Jed assured him.  “I can take it to the depot tomorrow when we go in to catch the train.  Got lots of time to finish it this evening.”
 
  “Fine!  Let's all go.”
 
  “Fine.”
 
  Joe hurried to his feet, suddenly realizing that he was being included in this.  He grabbed his hat and his gunbelt and joined the partners as they were heading out the door.  Five minutes later, Martha came in to the front room about to suggest lunch only to discover that she was alone in the house.  She laughed to herself and shook her head with a knowing sigh.  Men!  Hopefully, they would all be home in time for supper.
 
  The walk from the residential area into the main part of town was just long enough for Heyes to burn off some of his frustration.  By the time they were up on the boardwalk and actually having to dodge people, well, he wasn't exactly chipper, but at least he wasn't snarking anymore.  By the time they walked into the sheriff's office he was actually able to put a smile on his face.
 
  “Hey, Lom,” Heyes greeted the seated lawman.  “How's your arm doing?”
 
  “Howdy, boys,” Lom greeted them and got up to grab the coffee pot.  “It's alright.  Doc said just to keep it covered for now and it'll heal up alright.  I think Joe ended up with the worst of it.  Doc thinks for sure he broke a bone in there.  Are ya on something for the pain, Joe?”
 
  “Yeah,” Joe admitted.  “It's helpin'.  Just don't touch it.”
 
  Lom smiled and nodded.  “Want some coffee?”
 
  “Sure.”
 
  “How's our prisoner?” Jed asked.  “Give ya anything to go on?”
 
  “Not much,” Lom admitted.
 
  “Well, maybe he just doesn't like talking to law men,” Heyes conjectured.  “Maybe we should give it a try.”
 
  Lom shrugged as he handed out coffees.  “You can if ya want,” he agreed, “but I don't think he'll want to talk with either of you either.  Especially you, Kid.”
 
  “Me?” Jed was all innocent.  “What did I do?”
 
  “Turned traitor,” Lom answered bluntly.  “Seems he heard rumors about you joining up with Morrison to help take out your old gang; he thinks you're about the lowest snake that ever slithered upon the earth.”
 
  Jed appeared honestly hurt.  “Aw well, that ain't right,” he grumbled.  “I think it's time I set the record straight.”
 
  Lom shrugged and gestured for him to feel free.  “Just leave your gun here.”
 
  “What?  Do ya think I'm gonna try and help him escape?”
 
  “You know the rules, Kid,” Lom told him, “from both sides of the bars.  Just leave it here.”
 
  “Yeah alright Lom,” Jed agreed as he popped the colt out of his holster and placed it on the desk.  “I'm just teasin' ya.”
 
  “That's fine, so long as ya do it,” he looked at the other two.  “What about you fellas?  You want a crack at 'em too?”
 
  Heyes grinned as he pulled out a chair and sat down.  “Oh, I think I'll let Kid have a chance.  He's become quite assertive of late.”
 
  Lom sent him a look.  Joe sighed and sat down to enjoy his coffee.
 
  Jed made his way over to the cell where Price was laying on the bunk and listening to this whole exchange.  He sent the Kid a scathing look as the ex-outlaw came up to the bars.
 
  “Ya want a cup of coffee?” Jed asked him, offering him the cup.
 
  “No,” Price sneered at him.
 
  “Aw, c'mon,” Jed pushed.  “it's good coffee.  Well—it's alright coffee.  For jailhouse coffee that is.”
 
  Price just stared at him.
 
  “Okay, suit yourself,” Jed relented and took a drink from the cup himself.  “I hear you've picked up the wrong information about me somewhere along the line.”
 
  “Weren't wrong,” Price countered him.  “You turned on your friends—you and Heyes both.”
 
  “Well now that's where you're wrong,” Kid countered him.  “I did no such thing.  Neither did Heyes.  You been listenin' to the wrong folks.”
 
  Price sat up and stared at the Kid.  “You gonna deny you was on that train?  Ames said that Kyle said that he saw you there, side'n with the law.”
 
  “I can't deny I was on that train,” Jed admitted, “but it was pure chance that Morrison and his men were on the same one.  I had no idea there was a trap being laid.”
 
  Price snorted.  “Right.  Like I'm gonna believe that.”
 
  “It's the truth,” Jed insisted.  “I ain't no friend of Morrison's and that's also the truth.”
 
  “Yeah?  How come Heyes got released from prison so soon?” Price pushed deeper.  “He was in fer life and suddenly gets out after only five years?”
 
  Derogatory snort from Heyes coming from the direction of the office desk.
 
  Kid sent his partner a quick look then returned his attention to the prisoner.  “He wouldn't have got any time at all if he'd been willin' to turn on his friends,” Kid informed him, stretching the truth just a bit.  “If you'd read the trial transcript, you'd a seen that.  The judge came down on him hard 'cause he wouldn't do it.  All we did was convince the governor that the sentence had been too hard and he'd done enough time.  That's why he's out, not because he made any deals about turning on his friends.”
 
  Price still looked sceptical.  “Yeah, well how come you come after us then?  What'd we do ta you?”
 
  Another derogatory snort from the peanut gallery.
 
  “What did you do to us?” Kid asked as though it were an insult.  “You move into our old hideout and start up business again.  Now that wouldn't be so bad exceptin' ya took our name as well.  We worked hard to build up a good solid reputation as the Devil's Hole Gang and then you and what's his name just decide yer gonna step in and take it over?  How's that right?”
 
  “It weren't my idea to keep the old name,” Price defended himself.  “I got invited to join up after the plans had already been made.”
 
  “That don't mean ya had to keep our name,” Kid continued.  “Besides that, me and Heyes have been workin' even harder now to become law abidin' citizens.  You and what's his name, well you go in there and start op the old club again, using the same name; people are gonna start thinkin' that me and Heyes are back in business.  Rumors like that could get Heyes sent back to prison lickety split, and it wouldn't be doin' me any favors either.  Don't you fellas have enough of an imagination to come up with your own name?”
 
  “Yeah, but it's right in Devil's Hole Basin,” Price pointed out, getting all defensive.  “What else would we call it?”
 
  “I donno,” Kid shrugged.  “What about after the name of the leader?  Heyes ran with the 'Plummer' gang.  Then there's the 'Johnston' gang—oh but they're from Johnston County so I guess that's not much of a stretch.  But you know what I mean.  You fellas not got much confidence in your leader or somethin'?”
 
  “No!  He's a good leader,” Price insisted.  “He come up with this plan, didn't he?”
 
  “Yeah, but it seems he didn't mind leavin' you behind.”
 
  “Well that kinda stuff happens!”  Price forgot his own annoyance over that fact.  “I'd follow Tom Duncan anywhere—he's a good leader!”
 
  “Tom Duncan?” Kid asked and he smiled over towards the desk.  “The Duncan brothers?”
 
  Joe whistled.  That had been neat and clean.  Heyes smiled, pleased with the way his cousin had handled it.  Price looked ticked off.
 
  “Hey, that was no fair!”  He complained.  “You tricked me!”
 
  “Yup,” Kid agreed.  “Next time come up with your own name for your gang.”
 
  Jed gave an irate Price a quick nod and then headed back to the office desk and a re-fill on his coffee cup.  He pulled up a chair and sat down, grinning at his friends.
 
  “The Duncan brothers,” Heyes repeated reflectively.  “Didn't I hear that the older one got lynched for horse stealing?”
 
  “Yup,” Lom confirmed that, “about three years ago.”  He sat back in his chair and sighed.  “So, that's who's running Devil's Hole.”
 
  “And that's who's got Karma,” was Heyes' contribution.
 
 
  Tom Duncan nursed his second cup of coffee as  he stood in the early morning chill of dawn.  He was watching the copper mare eat her breakfast and smiling with satisfaction.  Just goes to show; that mare was meant to be his.  She even came back into his possession sporting a real fine saddle, too.  Much better than the one he had lost the last time he'd seen her, and certainly better than that hunk of leather he was riding in these days.
 
  Yeah, that was a real nice saddle.  Hand-crafted with intricate tooling all throughout the skirts and stirrup leathers.  It fit the mare real well, too, like it had been made for her.  Tom could tell, just by looking at the seat that it was of fine, soft leather that would make for a real comfortable ride.  Like sittin' in a rocking chair.  He could not have been more pleased with the success of this job.  Yes sir, that mare was meant to be his.
 
  Karma was watching him from the corner of her eye as she ate the meager serving of grain they had given her.  The human made her nervous.  She still couldn't place him but just having his eyes upon her gave her the creeps.  She swished her tail irritably as he continued to watch her until finally he threw away the dregs in his coffee cup to put his attention back to breaking camp.
 
  Karma snorted when she finished her breakfast and gave her whole body a shake.  As comfortable as her saddle was, she wasn't used to having it on all day and all night as well.  The sweat that had dried under the saddle blanket was irritating her and she wished she could get into the open for a roll.  She glanced wistfully over at the dew-covered grass and thought about how pleasant that would be but she didn't feel comfortable enough with these humans to make herself vulnerable like that.  So she waited.
 
  She could have untied herself during the night, but she had been tired after her exertions of the day as well as the nervous stress of her new situation.  And as much as she didn't like being here, the thought of heading off into unknown lands all by herself worried her even more.  The connection to the herd was a strong one even if the horses were unfamiliar.  In a herd she was safe, out there by herself she was vulnerable. She stayed put.
 
  Camp was being struck.  Beds rolled up and saddlebags tied onto the backs of saddles,  Girths were being tightened and bridles re-adorned for the final leg back to Devil's Hole.  Tom flipped the mare's reins over her neck and grabbed hold of the horn in preparation of mounting.  Karma tensed.  Her whole body tightened up and she began to shake.  She felt his weight in the stirrup and she tried to duck out from under him.
 
  “Whoa,” he told her, and, lickety split, his right leg was over the cantle and he was settled on her back.
 
  She stood stock still, her legs slightly splayed, head up ears back.  She blew nervously, her whole body shaking.  Tom chuckled and gave her a pat on the neck.  She flinched.
 
  “By the time this ride is over, you and I will have come to an understanding,”  he promised her.  “You'll know who's boss soon enough.”
 
  He gave her a slight squeeze with his lower leg and she jumped forward.  He stayed with her easily and laughed.
 
  “C'mon, sweetheart, straighten out,” he told her.  “You're fine.”
 
  He sat light in the saddle and Karma settled.  She snorted and relaxed a little bit, and allowed herself to be directed to the front of the herd, her favorite place anyways, and they were on their way.
 
  The going wasn't too bad and, though they were steadily heading up hill, it wasn't a steep grade.  The horses all kept up an easy lope for a good part of the morning.  Karma had settled even more and was actually enjoying the exercise again after her stresses from the evening before.  She stretched out and loped along quite easily, much to her rider's delight.  Indeed, Tom couldn't have been more pleased.  He knew he had seen promise in this filly all those years ago.  It was nice to have his opinion be proven right.  Someone had taken the time to break her out real nice, too.  She moved off his leg easily and had a soft, responsive mouth even when being directed by someone she didn't like.
 
  Yes, Tom was feeling quite pleased with himself when all of a sudden the mare put on the brakes and came to a screeching halt.  Tom came forward, crushing the brim of his hat against the mare's neck and very nearly being unseated.  He straightened up just in time for the mare to rear and pivot away from something on the ground.  Tom grabbed the horn and fought her mouth to get her under control.
 
  “What the hell?” he yelled at her.  “What in tarnation has gotten into you?!”
 
  The other members of the gang couldn't help but pull up and laugh at the mare's antics.  None of the other horses seemed too concerned and everyone just stood around, watching the show.
 
  “You got yourself a real prize there Tom!” commented Ferguson who was old enough to be Tom's father so didn't give a damn.  “Seems she don't like branches much!”
 
  The other fellas took direction from the old hand and started to hoot and holler.  They'd all been feeling a little put out about the way things had gone on this job.  First off they'd lost a man, and despite the leader's apparent disdain for that individual there were others present who had actually liked Milt Price.  Then the boss had somehow managed to take custody of a very fine horse.  Resentment had been growing and the smouldering mood found an escape now with laughter at their boss' predicament.
 
  Karma continued to dance and rear around the branch, snorting her fear of the creature on the ground, and her disdain for her rider. How could she let this idiot know that branches were dangerous?  They had a tendency to turn into snakes, and as every horse knew, snakes eat horses!  She knew they did—she'd seen it happen, well, almost!  But still, she believed it and believing it made it true.
 
  She reared and pivoted away again and once again Tom was scrambling to stay with her.  He finally got the mare away from the branch and she began to settle down, but his anger and embarrassment at the situation took over and he made a big mistake.  He took a solid hold on her mouth and with a loud curse, he dug in his spurs.
 
  Memory suddenly flooded back to the copper mare.  Spurs!  Her human never used spurs on her, and although she had felt the rowel of them from others, there was only one man in her past that deliberately gouged her with them.  Then Karma did something that she had thought she would never do; she deliberately and with calculated intend strove to get a human off her back. Her ears went back and with a bellow of rage she leapt up into the air and came down jarringly on all fours.
 
  Tom gasped as the shock went through his body, but he stayed with her and tried to get hold of her mouth again.  She was having none of it.  She knew him now and she wanted him off.  She ducked her head, bucked and kicked, bellowing her anger and frustration in trying to dislodge him.  Tom held on and raked her with the spurs; he wasn't going to put up with this crap from no damn horse!  He didn't care how fine an animal she was.  She was gonna learn who was boss.
 
  The audience really started to whoop and cheer as the pair put on quite a show.  Karma bucked and pivoted and kicked but she just couldn't get him off.  Finally, she gave a wild leap into the air and hit the ground running.  Her hindquarters powered underneath her, pushing her body forward in a wild gallop that sent dirt and tufts of grass flying into the group of on-lookers.  They laughed even harder, enjoying the spectacle.
 
  Karma ran, giving it all she had, the ground flying beneath her hooves.  She didn't care where she was going as long as she was headed downhill.  Her special human was downhill and suddenly she decided that back with him was where she wanted to be.  If this bastard on her back decided to come along; well, that was his choice.
 
  Tom however, had different ideas.  He grabbed the rein low down by the bit and began to haul the mare's head around.  She fought him every inch of the way, rearing and plunging in her gallop, fighting to keep going in a straight line.  The man fought back, pulling even harder on her mouth, trying to force her into a circle but she was mad and wasn't giving in to him even if it meant galloping sideways.  She wasn't going to give up.
 
  Out of the blue she put on the brakes and had the satisfaction of feeling the weight of her rider shift.  She grabbed the advantage and leapt to the side, getting out from under him even more.  As a final farewell, she bucked, came down hard, and pivoted around, swinging him out of the saddle and sending him flying.
 
  She did not look back.  She powered into a gallop and was gone.  The last thing Tom saw before he lost consciousness was that dark copper tail flying like a banner and that beautiful hand-crafted saddle disappearing in a cloud of dust.
 
 
To Be Continued.
Re: Changing Hands Chapter three
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Changing Hands Chapter three

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