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By Jennifer Macarie Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Jennifer Macarie
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Herders
A loud whinny jarred Meagan from her dream of walking through a cool forest of towering pines. Instantly alert, she sat up and looked around. The sun had yet to clear the horizon; only a faint wash of gray on the distant hills heralded the dawn.
In the penumbra, a herd of horses milled restlessly in front of what looked like a narrow curtain of pale mist hanging from the sky. The whinny had come from the lead mare tethered nearby. She pulled against the rope and pawed the ground, her tail swishing angrily.
Meagan scrambled out of her sleeping bag, pulled on a pair of pants, and fastened a worn pair of leather chaps around her legs. She rolled up her sleeping bag and stuffed it in a threadbare backpack already full of supplies. She glanced at her brother, still sound asleep, and shook her head fondly. Looping her lasso over her shoulder, she untied the lead mare. The mare snorted and trotted to her place at the head of the herd.
Meagan prodded her brother with her foot. "C-come on."
"Why do horses have to wake up so early?" The groan ended in a huge yawn as her twin brother Carl sat up stiffly and climbed to his feet. He coughed and pulled his bandana up over his mouth as he rolled up his sleeping bag and packed. "I hope the herd is heading for some greener pastures, this dust is getting to me."
Meagan nodded in agreement: this planet had been as dried as an old bone. She tossed her lasso over a sorrel filly's head, bridled and saddled the horse, then swung into the saddle and adjusted the girth, all the while watching the herd. One by one, the horses moved through the curtain of mist, parting it with their narrow heads before slipping past and disappearing. "Carl!" she shouted hoarsely as she caught sight of the stallion.
Carl grabbed his saddle and whistled, and a gray horse with a white face trotted out of the herd and approached him, ears pricked, nostrils fluttering. "Hey, Boo," Carl said, and he scratched the horse's broad forehead.
"Hurry!" Meagan cried. Her filly snorted and tossed her head, eager to be off.
Carl finished tightening the girth and swung into his saddle, checking to see that his saddlebags were in place and his hat securely fastened. "All set!" he said, wrapping his horse's mane tightly around his hands. "There's the last one. Hiiiiyaa!" he yelled, and dug his heels into his mount's sleek sides. His horse snorted and broke into a gallop.
Meagan closed her eyes and let her filly have her head as she entered the mist. It did no good to try to see anything during the passages. Swirling winds carried sand and grit, and if you didn't keep your eyes shut you could go blind. Her parents had told her that often enough. She was nearly nineteen now, old enough to know almost everything about the passages-except nobody knew why wind and sand filled what should have been a vacuum.
She crouched low on her horse's back, gripping the saddle with all of her strength as strong winds buffeted her from all directions. Despite her bandana, dust from the passage clogged her mouth and nose. Meagan held on, kicking the sorrel filly forward. It had almost finished. She cracked one eye open. The final barrier loomed just ahead, a madly swirling wall of mist and sand. Now! She gritted her teeth and hunched her shoulders, dreading the loud thunderclap that always accompanied this part. Her horse shot through as if she'd been ejected from a cannon, and they careened out to the other side where the rest of the herd waited.
They stood knee deep in blue-green grass beneath a pale lavender sky. Her mount shuddered once, very hard, then snorted a cloud of dust out of its nostrils and settled down to graze. Meagan heaved a sigh and patted her filly's glossy neck.
Carl arrived out of the mist wall at the same time the herd stallion did, and soon after they crossed it, the mist curtain evaporated. Where it had been there was nothing but endless, blue prairie with a high, red cliff rising out of it in the distance. Carl batted the dust off his hat. "Well, this looks like a nice place," he said, looking around. "Do you know where we are?"
"It l-looks like Tauii 3," said Meagan, checking the star-map on her watch.
"I wonder how long we'll be here." Carl didn't sound anxious; he was busy shaking sand out of the pockets of his coat.
Meagan sneezed loudly and sighed. "I hope there's a p-place to b-b-bathe."
Carl laughed. "There's so much dirt caked on me, I could probably grow seeds."
They rode for the better part of an hour, keeping close together but speaking little. Occasionally, Meagan would look at her brother. He rode easily, sitting deep in the saddle, his hands light on the reins. His hat was off and his seal-brown hair ruffled in the breeze. He kept it long as was the custom with the herders, tying it in a ponytail. Meagan's hair was long, dark, and straight, too. They both had pale, freckled skin and almond-shaped eyes that were so dark brown they looked almost black. When Carl was tired, his cheekbones pressed against his skin. Right now, they were both tired and parched.
"What are you thinking about?" Carl asked her.
Meagan shrugged. "N-nothing." She didn't like conversation. Her stutter made it hard to talk. Before, she used to chatter like a little jaybird. She could remember her father teasing her about it. But now instead of words there was a huge, tight knot in her throat that kept the words locked in her head, out of reach.
Carl had no such problems. He talked enough for the both of them. "Back home, rain is pounding on the glass domes, water running down them so thick it's like being inside a waterfall." Carl cocked his eyebrow at her. "Just think how lucky we are to be outside, not cooped up in some underground city for six months. It's a good thing the settlers found Home Planet. Can you imagine if they'd landed somewhere else?"
Meagan shuddered at the thought. The settlers had left Mother Earth eight centuries before looking for seed planets to colonize. A storm had blown them off course, and they'd landed on Home Planet, where huge herds of horses seemed to appear and disappear like magic. But it wasn't magic. It was a sort of telekinetic energy the herds used to escape the electrical storms that swept Home Planet six months a year. The entire planet was inhospitable when the lightning storms raged, so the herds of horses left, voyaging through space to other planets.
The settlers hid in huge underground stations and built the bubble dome cities in order to survive the storms that battered Home Planet. Some pioneers learned to follow the herds, riding along with them, mapping their course with star-watches and searching for new planets. It wasn't easy being a herder, but Meagan and Carl had grown up following their parents. Their parents had been herders, and after they disappeared in a raid, Meagan and Carl had continued to herd, following their small band of horses across the galaxy.
Meagan sighed and dug her chin into her bandana. She missed her parents and her little sister terribly, but hated to dwell upon it. It made the knot inside her throat grow huge and feel as if it would burst. Instead, she tried to catch sight of a likely campground.
* * *
The grass on Tauii 3 grew rich and plentiful. The lake they'd found nestled in a large shallow valley, and whispering eucalyptus-type trees along the shore cast cool shade. Meagan and her brother set up their camp next to a fallen tree, using the branches as a framework to form a large tent.
Flocks of purple quail nested in the tall grass, and Meagan went egg hunting every morning. Carl and Meagan had electronic books to check for edible plants. They'd been to Tauii 3 before and didn't need to check to know that the water cabbage was tasty, but that the gray berries on the low bushes were too sour to eat.
Horses stopped there often, so Meagan and Carl were not surprised when, after one week, another herd appeared, its arrival announced by a clap of thunder and a shimmering gray curtain of mist on the horizon.
"A big herd," said Carl, climbing on the fallen log to see.
Meagan grimaced. She didn't like strangers and the news it was a big herd made her nervous.
Carl patted her shoulder. "It's all right. Why don't you wait here? I'll go catch Blue and hold him. I hope he gets along with the new stallion. I'd hate to have to tie him up."
They looked at each other and identical expressions of worry creased their faces. As children, they'd always known what the other was thinking. Because they were twins, they tended to be introverted. Since their parents had disappeared they'd become even more eremitic, staying all year with their herd and hardly touching base except to get supplies at the smaller trading posts.
"I'm sure they'll be nice folk," said Carl.
Meagan hunkered down in her coat and stared at the fire. "As l-long as it's not the Sk-Skeeter clan," she muttered. She'd had the ill luck to spend a whole summer with the Skeeters on Tauii 5 with only a small amount of grazing land and one waterhole. The Skeeters were a surly family and their leader, Mike Skeeter, always had a whip in his hand ready to punish whichever horse or family member angered him.
Silently, Meagan watched as the big herd came to the shore to drink. She was relieved when the stallion came into view; it wasn't the Skeeters' skewbald, it was a golden chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail.
Carl had caught their stallion and held his tether tightly. The horse snorted and squealed as he caught scent of the newcomer, but Carl spoke firmly and tugged hard on the rope. "Quiet, Blue," said Carl.
Blue's nostrils fluttered, but he was silent. The gray stallion's eyes were shining though, and Meagan knew if they let him go he'd leap over the fallen tree and try to fight the new stallion.
It's the rowdy Jeffries brothers, she thought to herself, digging her chin into her bandana and watching closely as their rangy, chestnut stallion cantered into the water and plunged his nose in deeply. Water moved in knots up his muscular neck as he drank. Meagan admired the way the sun glowed on his bright red coat.
The Jeffries rode alongside their herd, whooping and yelling. Meagan winced at the noise, but to do the animals justice, she and the Jeffries didn't drink until their horses had been watered and their mounts had been unsaddled and rubbed down. They cared for their horses before caring for themselves-the sign of a good herder.
"Hey Carl! Hey Meagan!" Luke Jeffries, the eldest of the five brothers, slapped his hat against his chaps raising a cloud of dust as he walked over to shake hands. "How are you? He doesn't bite, does he?" he asked, patting Blue on the shoulder. "You can let him go, our stallion's too old to pick a fight."
Carl shook Luke's hand. "Hey, Luke, glad to see you. Do you want some coffee?" he asked. "It's still hot."
"Sure. Kevin! Steven! Jason! Boyd! Come on over! It's the Cadet twins! They've got coffee, and Meagan is as talkative as ever!" He winked at Meagan.
He might have expected her to wink back at him or say something polite, but she simply sat down and rummaged in her saddlebags for sugar, feeling her face grow warm. Why couldn't she banter and joke like everyone else? Instead, when someone tried to talk to her the knot grew so tight she felt like choking. Words she wanted to say stayed locked inside her, growing bigger and bigger until sometimes she thought they'd explode. But they never did. The words just became more tangled inside. Luckily, Carl always seemed to know what she was thinking. With him, she never needed words.
Meagan peeked over her shoulder, but thankfully Luke had left, and his brothers hadn't charged over to say "hey." Luke was now busy helping his brothers set up a temporary corral for his horses for the night. He didn't seem upset that she hadn't said "hey" or got up to chat, and she let out a sigh of relief.
The sun dipped below the horizon and the air cooled. Glowing fire moths and giant dragonflies flit over the tranquil lake as the horses settled down for the night. Stars twinkled above. The three pale moons of Tauii 3 rose, and mosquitoes and widgets whined.
Carl lit the campfire, and as was customary with herders, politely invited the newcomers to have dinner with them. Eggs and flapjacks were served on tin plates, and the Jeffries offered a can of syrup to go with them. After dinner, Luke played his guitar while Kevin, Steven, Jason, and Boyd sang folksongs in harmony. The campfire died to orange embers as the night deepened.
Meagan washed her plate in the lake and walked away from the campfire. She hated noise, and the bustle and loud laughter as the five brothers teased each other and told endless stories exasperated her. They never seemed to stop talking or singing. They reminded her of a flock of loud pine-jays. Quietly, she walked through the herd patting her favorite horses, with Blue, the stallion, walking slowly behind her. When she got to the far side of the lake, she stripped and washed, wishing that she were alone so that she could have some light. She wandered back to the camp, unrolled her sleeping bag, and crawled inside. The Jeffries camp was set up too close for her taste, but she was too tired to fret about it and soon fell asleep.
* * *
"Yaaahooo!" The cry ripped through the morning, cracked the air wide open, and sent a flock of ducks flapping skyward. There was a tremendous splash. Meagan opened her eyes and peered out of the tent flap. The Jeffries had tied a rope to the highest branch of the tallest tree leaning over the lake, and now they were swinging out over its silver surface and dropping from impossible heights, screeching all the while.
She groaned and pulled the sleeping bag up over her ears. If that wasn't bad enough, they didn't have a stitch of clothing on.
"Yaaahooo! Hey, Meagan and Carl, come swimming with us!" Luke's cry was cut off by a huge splash, but his brothers took up the chant.
"Meagan! Meagan! Carl! Carl! Come swimming with us!"
Meagan pulled the covers tighter over her head. "M-make them stop," she begged her brother.
Carl strode out of the tent. "That's enough!" he cried. "Leave my sister alone and get some clothes on! You're acting like savages!"
"We are savages!" Steven yelled. "We like being savages!" SPLASH!
His brothers laughed so hard they choked. Jason grabbed the rope and swung, his yodel broken off by a gigantic splash and more laughter. The three boys in the lake started taunting Kevin and Boyd, still in the tree. Boyd took the rope and edged out on the branch. "Hey, Meagan, watch this!" he called, and then slipped. There was a crash and a cry as Boyd fell out of the tree. Instead of a joyous splash, there came an ominous thud followed by silence. Instantly, the laughter ceased.
"Boyd!" Luke surged out of the water and ran onto the shore. The other brothers flung themselves out of the lake, slipping on the mud in their haste. Carl sprinted out of the tent while Meagan muttered angrily to herself and pulled her jeans on. She was just buttoning her shirt when Carl came back to the tent.
"W-what did the silly fool break?" she asked, tugging on her collar to straighten it. When he didn't reply she glanced at him. He was very pale.
"He broke his neck," he said. "Come on, they need us."
Meagan felt suddenly numb. She followed her brother, wishing she could call back her words, wishing she could push time back just five minutes, just enough to give her time to yell, "Be careful, Boyd!" But time marched on. Nothing stopped it. It wouldn't be slowed, or reversed. She reached the base of the tree and knelt by the boy. His face was turned toward her, his eyes cloudy.
Luke cradled his brother's head in his lap. When Meagan arrived he looked at her and his face twisted sharply. "He'll be all right," he said in a broken whisper. "Just let him rest a bit."
Jason and Steve stood shoulder to shoulder, pressed together as if they were holding each other up. Kevin was still in the tree; his arms were wrapped around the trunk, his face pressed against the rough bark. His shaking made the leaves rustle.
Carl looked up and said very gently, "Kevin, why don't you come down?"
Meagan didn't speak. She took Luke's right hand and pulled it away from Boyd's shoulder, then clasped his left hand. When Luke let go of his brother, she slid her arms beneath Boyd's body and lay him straight on the ground. She pulled her health-pack out of her pocket and scanned the boy's chest. She didn't need to look at the silver dial to see what it read. After a minute she stopped and slid the health-pack back in her pocket. It was useless now. She carefully pushed Boyd's eyelids down and crossed his arms over his chest, resting her hands for a moment on his skin, feeling the heat slowly leaching out of his body. She sat back on her heels and looked up at Luke. "I'm s-s-sorry," she said.
He closed his eyes, uttered a muffled sob and started the death chant.
Excerpted from Horse Passages by Jennifer Macarie Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Macarie. Excerpted by permission.
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