Western Short Story
The day started off like a patient set free of a doctor’s office, pain done and gone, the sun sliding across the Great Plains of Texas, like fleeing Mexico, all of it coming at once, when Blaze Barkley saw the dead horse, nothing around it moving, not even an animal chewer or a hungry bird having folded its wings for the respite.
It had been a noble stallion, black as Hell without the fires, its legs frozen by death, nor a cowboy, once its rider, in sight. Death, here in front of Blaze, was ultimate death, Hell here and gone, last breaths taken most likely on the run.
He wondered: Where’s the cowpoke who rode that animal to its death? Or carried him this far and no further, on what kind of duty?
Blaze had been alone most of the day, its second half well underway, the sun like a lifted Hades finding room in the sky, probably paying all Hell for it.
But a dead horse, for all its service, was left as carrion.
He looked high and low about the area, doing loops and cross-loops to cover the whole of the area, and found not a sliver more. Disappearance complete. But eyes and mind seeking what really was not seeable, visible, eye-catching to even a wizard at detection.
The rider, for sure, did not crawl off, or stumble away, without leaving travel marks, none apparent, only mystery abounding, a whole ton of it, and nothing else. Shading his eyes, he looked overhead and didn’t see a single bird in the sky, neither eagle or hawk or any rabid and fast eater of carrion, and what might have been taken aloft to a nest dozens of miles away, for other beaks to learn the art of rending meat from bone, the whole circle of life about.
Then, by some provision, he felt a tumbling underfoot, as though buffalo by the hundreds were on the move or a herd of cattle or an orderly march of troops in blue uniforms. He could not detect which source came to him, but it was company of a kind.
Blaze, welcoming the sight of company, rode toward the blue-cast troopers, leaving the dead horse behind him.
The lieutenant leading the troopers, hailed him loudly and said, Sir, glad to meet a stranger out here. We are looking for a lost comrade, last seen two days ago. Have you seen anybody, any signs in your travels?”
“Yes’ sir, I have,” Blaze said, “behind me lies a dead horse with no rider in sight, and no tracks of how and when he left the dead horse. I’d say the horse has been dead since yesterday, but, strange as it seems, not any signs of carrion-eaters as yet at the dead animal.”
“Was it a noble black stallion, a likely cavalry horse, and when I say black, I mean at the depth of that color, black as a new stove?”
“That’ a good description,” Blaze answered, “coal-black, stove-black, but a mystery that pulls my mind in many directions, for there seems to be no answers at all to the mystery or mysteries of a dead animal, to put it in a higher mode.”
“Do you, sir, mean there’s no way in your mind that the rider got away from his dead horse without a single trace of his leaving?”
“Absolutely, sir,” Blaze replied, “it knocked me for a loop, still does. I cannot figure how he departed the scene, or how his horse died. There appear to be no marks or wounds to say how he died, but I didn’t pursue his cause of death any farther than that. I didn’t roll him over to check out the carcass. That was beyond my queries, I’ll tell you outright.”
“Oh,” said the young officer, “my name is Lieutenant Charles Ordway, and I’ll fill you in on the possibilities to your satisfaction, after I talk to one of my sergeants, Excuse me, for the moment,” and he trotted back toward the column that Blaze had quick-counted to 36 riders in blue uniforms, each one taking advantage of a pit stop to rest themselves and their mounts.
The lieutenant and one man, with three stripes on his uniform, gabbed and gesticulated and gabbed some more, with the non-com shading his eyes from the sun, wetting his thumb to measure the wind drift and direction, and went back to more gabbing and more hand motions.
Blaze wondered if they were having some kind of argument and were trying to smooth the edges they had brought upon themselves, but he soon discounted that theory, for they had put their heads together as if to keep their discussion from the ears of the other troopers, each one leaning toward the two gabbers, trying to understand the unheard, the unknown.
At length, with no one to talk to him as the troopers stayed in their ranks, and Lt. Charles Ordway came away from the ranks and walked slowly back towards Blaze, slow enough to say he was studying some way to explain at least some part of the mystery, about the dead horse and the missing rider, framing a statement of explanation,
Blaze noticed that the officer never once looked behind Blaze to look at the dead horse, even though it was near enough to discern some facts or information about the horse and its rider, now and for a decently long period, nowhere in sight.
He approached Blaze with a cloudy look still on his face, still maneuvering his thinking, reaching for moments of sanity, temperance, patience, if at all possible, in any measure, in the situation around them
“Sir,” Lt. Charles Ordway said to Blaze Barkley, cowboy, wanderer, still mystified, “what I am going to tell you, as clearly as I can what kind of a situation we have here, one that will set your mind to rest about these parts of mystery.”
He coughed once, hand over his mouth, more like it was a pause to gather himself for forthcoming explanations, then said, :The rider of the dead horse is or was one of my men, Corporal Hugh Hayes, a brilliant mind in the ranks, a man of foresight and ingenuity, who has been working on a special procedure and test for something new in the ranks,” and abruptly said, “have you seen any of these traveling shows that come along out here in the West everyone in a while, and if you have, what do you remember about them?”
Still mystified, maybe a little more than he had been, Blaze said, “I have and remember kids playing mostly and eating popcorn an blowing up balloons and letting them free to float upwards until they ran out of air. They were charmed by that.”
“Precisely,” said Lt. Ordway, and clapped his hands and an easy joy coming over his whole person. “Corporal Hayes, of this troop, was working on a special assignment, as a volunteer, on a new application.”
“Which was?” Blaze said in a hurry.
“The use of balloons in deserted or lonely places like out here on the Great Plains.”
“Like, how so?” blurted Blaze.
“Like getting away from a site in a hurry, and going straight up in the air and out of sight.”
Blaze Barkley saw Corporal Hayes pushing his horse too hard, the animal toppling to its death, Hayes using the self-inflating balloon in part of his pack, maybe heading northwest the way the three-striper had indicated with his wet fingers.