Thursday, February 02, 2006

Black Horse

Remember, the SMS poetry contest I blogged about a week ago? Well, it turns out they have a short story contest too (this time on an infinitely more interesting theme - Black Horse) and this time I decided I would actually enter it, partly because I'm a sucker for challenges, partly because I have a lot less respect for my prose / fiction writing than I have for my poetry, but mostly because Megha apparently went to all the trouble to set up an online submission form, so I felt contributing a story or two was the least I could do.

So here goes, two stories, < 300 words each, on the theme 'Black Horse'. Or maybe just two versions of the same story? I don't know.

1

It was late in the afternoon when he rode into the courtyard and found the black horse tethered to the post. There was no warning. No tracks on the trail coming in, no tell-tale fingerprint of smoke in the sky. Just the undeniable presence of the horse tied outside his front door, ominous as an envelope, black as a cinder in the middle of this burning land.

At the sight of it, something inside him settled like a cloud of dust. He stopped his own horse some ten yards short of the fence, feeling, amazingly, no panic, just weariness and a terrible sense of loss. The recognition of a defeat already accomplished, that felt, to his aching mind, almost like relief. He would have preferred not to die - if die he was going to - with a three day stubble on his jaw or the taste of sand in his teeth. But there was nothing to be done about that now. He tried not to think of Mary and the child. The truth was a sun burning down on him, and the sky of his grief could muster no cloud against it.

After a while, he turned his horse around, started to ride away. Not that he expected to get very far. But as the yards fell away behind him, something very like hope began to take hold of him, a secret hoofbeat of a feeling, his legs tightening under him, urging the horse forward inspite of themselves. Suddenly the horizon seemed dizzyingly close. Could it be, he wondered? After all, the Rider had to sleep sometime. Maybe he’d got lucky, maybe he was going to get away.

Then the black horse whinnied, and he barely had time to flinch before the bullet hit him.

2

It is late in the afternoon when he rides into the courtyard and finds the black horse tethered to the post. The sight of it standing there hits him like a bullet. He slumps in his saddle, letting his horse take him halfway to the door, then slides weightlessly to the ground.

For a moment he considers running away. Distant mountains beckon to him, their horizon as thin as hope. No. He has nowhere to run to, nowhere but here, and sooner or later this moment will have to be faced. He rolls a cigarette and lights it. There is no hurry, no need to look for cover. The Rider is a patient man. He will wait.

It feels good to keep him waiting. Very carefully, he takes his gun out of its holster, empties it, cleans it. Then loads it up again, taking extra care with the cartridges, making sure they are the best he has. As though it mattered. As though a man could ever get more than one shot.

Another cigarette. When he moves at last, it is very sudden, the long minutes of waiting left smoking behind him, his feet kicking dust from the urgent ground. Not that he is hoping for surprise. He is just testy, on edge. He pets the black horse on his way in, though it his own heart he is trying to comfort. The fear inside him whinnies.

He can feel the Rider’s presence now, like an anxious ghost, waiting for him. He stands listening on the porch for a moment, feeling the floor creak under his weight. Then in one fluid motion he draws his gun, kicks the door open and plunges into the darkness, knowing that by the time his eyes adjust it will be too late.

P.S. For those of you who noticed, yes, I am going through an insane Cormac McCarthy phase. Still, it could have been worse. You should have heard the version of the story inspired by Ali Smith. No way that one would have made it past the censors.

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6 comments:

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Veru nicely done, Sir. But for THIS kind of story, Cormac M is just not in the same league as Louis L'Amour.

For example, in the second story, why would the protagonist burst into a dark room when he could smoke out the Rider? Not done, sir, especially from someone who is a student of spycraft and counter-intelligence!

J.A.P.

Falstaff said...

JAP: Thanks. But I disagree. I think you credit Louis L'Amour characters with too much intelligence.

If this had been a Louis L'Amour story then the protagonist would have burst in through the back window, felt a bullet hit him somewhere low down, turned in a crouch and fired with both guns at the Rider, the room resounding with the volley of the guns until the hero finally lost consciousness and finally came to with some woman leaning over him and his weatherbeaten old friend would come in and tell him that the Rider had been shot to doll rags and all the other bad guys had sorted themselves out while the hero was unconscious for two weeks, and the hero would have smiled and said, see - that's why you should never mess with a Sackett. (actually if memory serves, the first part of this version is very similar to the showdown between Kilkenny and what's his name (Royal Barnes??) in the little cabin overlooking Apple Canyon. I can't remember the name of the book now, but it's the first of the Kilkenny novels.)

Of course, that's still better than what would have happened in J.T. Edson (where the Ysabel kid would have streaked in on his 17 hand white horse, jumped in and killed the Rider with his bowie knife and then Dusty Fog would have come along and taken all the credit) or Oliver Strange (where a mild mannered rider named Jim Green would have walked in, let the rider get a full bead on him, and then killed him with a single shot, plumb between the eyes, and him shooting left-handed).

The McCarthy influence is of course primarily in the attempt to make everything metaphysical, which can be a little over the top at times, but you have to admit the man can write.

Ash said...

I like the first one better.

But... 'Mary' seems rather, well, out of place, I don't know why. The name just jarred.

Megha said...

You are kind, so very kind. *sniffle and customary wiping of lone tear and all that*

I quite like the second one.

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Excellent, love it! »