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Right Out of Nowhere
By Laurie Salzler
Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Laurie Salzler
All rights reserved.
RONI OATMAN HOPED this log was the last big piece of crap she had to clear from the trail to her family's cabin, the remoteness of which made it ideal for a Search and Rescue base camp. She'd spent nearly all of three days moving branches and other debris the winter storms had left in their wake. Roni's grandpa used to call it "winter's pruning."
A few logs along the Selway River had swept up onto the trail during the melt. She'd had to chop out a section of one, but this one was small enough to tie a rope to the root ball and drag it off with the horse. Those had cost her some sweat and choice curse words, but for the most part, she was relieved this year's cleanup was uneventful.
She guided Sparky along the cleared trail and turned her thoughts to past experiences with the Search and Rescue team. Suddenly she was aware of lying on the ground as soft, warm breath fluffed the hair off her forehead. She couldn't yet to gather the gumption to open her eyes. She wasn't sure if the landing knocked her out, or if she'd just had the wind pushed out of her lungs so abruptly she didn't know where she was.
Muffled chewing and the scent of wet grass next to her cheek finally enticed her to look. Big nostrils attached to an even bigger red nose, which led to a huge body, hovered next to her left cheek. Sparky pricked his ears forward, breathed in her scent, and snorted, spewing snot and other unidentifiable crap from the depths of his sinuses.
"Jesus Christ!" Roni sputtered and wiped her face with both hands, while uttering more curses through pursed lips. She sensed more than felt two hooves moving near her armpits and took her slime-covered hands from her face just in time to see the horse take another step. He stood calmly, straddling her. That wasn't so much of an issue as was the penis that dangled part way out of his sheath. "Goddammit, Sparky, if you take a piss on me, I'm going to do a Lorena Bobbitt."
Roni wiggled her way out from under him. She sat up. Too fast. She plopped down on her back, and the air in her lungs rushed out from a jolt of pain in her side.
"Damn you, Sparky."
She thumped her fists on her thighs. She closed her eyes again and waited for the stars floating behind her eyelids to disappear. She finally dared open them and noticed how the cloudless blue sky made the white birch bark stand out. Then she realized how much her ass hurt. What the hell happened? She'd been riding Sparky, and in the span of a millisecond, he had snorted and spooked. The next thing she knew, she lay splayed out like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz after the flying monkeys pulled out his innards. She pushed herself onto her elbows and took stock of the rest of her body parts. Everything seemed to be in one piece.
Roni looked over her left shoulder at the reddish chestnut-colored horse grazing under the nearby trees. His reins dangled from his bridle as he lifted his head. He flicked his ears forward and looked in her direction.
"What are you looking at, you big oaf? You're the one that dropped me here," she said, leaning back on her elbows.
He wouldn't go far. He'd been trained to ground tie shortly after he'd come to the ranch a few weeks ago. Any time his reins hung freely on the ground, he believed himself tied. She flopped down, gazed up at the sky, and replayed how in the hell she ended up on the ground.
"Okay, I admit, I was probably daydreaming, enjoying the sunshine, and listening to the wind rustling through the aspen leaves." Roni spoke loud enough to make Sparky pause his chewing. "But there was no reason for you to act like you did," she said in a bitchy tone. "At least none I could see."
Much to her amazement, her Stetson still sat on her head, although the back part of it lay crumpled against her neck. A raven mocked her from above with its raucous call, and she resisted the urge to throw something at it. She cautiously rolled onto her side and got up. She blinked hard for several seconds and waited for the dizziness to stop. A shower of pebbles previously imbedded in her backside rained onto the ground with a plinking sound. She pulled her hat off and ran her fingers through her hair. On the back of her head a small goose egg had formed right in the middle of her scalp. "Great, just great."
She did her best to straighten the smashed back of her hat, walk to the horse, and unhook her canteen from the saddle. Fortunately, she'd refilled it not too long ago from the stream she'd followed for the past couple of miles. After taking a swallow of the cold water, she wondered whether her brain freeze was from the icy water from the snow melt high in the mountains or from the impact her head had made with the ground. The handkerchief in her back pocket would have to suffice for a cold pack. She pulled it out, dumped some water on it, and held it to the back of her head. It hurt like hell and she closed her eyes for a minute, but her efforts weren't alleviating any of the pain.
Thankfully, the cabin was only another hour or so up the trail, deep in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho. She'd been looking forward all day to sleeping in a soft warm bed rather than in her bedroll on the hard cold ground. But she'd have to hurry to make it before dark. When the sun went down in these mountains, so did the temperatures. It wasn't uncommon for them to drop thirty or forty degrees, sometimes more, overnight.
Five years ago, Roni had become Search and Rescue (SAR) certified. Because of this area's ruggedness and nearly impenetrable landscape, the Forest Service depended on locals like her, people who knew the topography, in emergencies. Known for its steep gorges and alpine lakes on the west side of the mountains, the wilderness was a favorite for extreme backpackers, white-water rafters, and kayakers. Although the Forest Service for this region had its headquarters in Elk City, an old gold mining and logging town, Roni's base was the cabin her family had owned for generations.
Three days ago, her dad had dropped her off at the trailhead, along with Sparky and enough provisions to last about five days. The cabin, barring any break-ins by human, bear, or other, had enough stocked canned food to last until her brother, Jeff, brought the rest of the supplies up behind her. She expected to have a couple days of peace and quiet before then. Once she made it to the cabin, she'd have to radio the Fenn Ranger Station to confirm her arrival. They'd relay that message to Mike Hart, her contact with the Forest Service in Elk City.
She capped the canteen, looped it over the saddle horn, and tried smoothing some more of the creases out of her hat. She reformed it the best she could, brushed some leaves off, and settled it back on her head. She shot a dirty look toward the horse, and even though she knew he couldn't have cared less, it still felt good to do it.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a tawny movement in the woods from where she'd come. Instantly on alert, she collected Sparky's reins and mounted in one smooth motion. She didn't have to wait long to see the animal the brown hide belonged to. The cow elk circled around them, grazing as it wandered through. The horse's strong scent covered Roni's, so the elk kept its own pace and disappeared into a thick patch of alder.
Roni patted Sparky's neck and wondered if it'd been the elk that caused him to temporarily lose his sanity. At the moment, he calmly listened to its movements and chewed his mouthful of grass.
"All right, you, let's get moving." She urged him forward with a light squeeze of her legs and pointed him up the trail.
Fir and pine trees displaced the white-barked aspen and green willow as Roni rode farther up the mountain. Soon the sound of hooves on creek wash muted as they entered the thick pine forest littered with fallen needles. The canopy of the old growth forest was thick, dark, and quiet. The birdsong she'd heard along the creek was almost nonexistent except for the call of a raven overhead. Roni wondered whether it was the same mocking one from when she got thrown. The creaking of the saddle leather kept time with Sparky's breathing. The persistent roar of the river below echoed off the side of the mountain and provided a melodious backdrop to the ride.
She looked around with the air of a child having just come to a birthday party. Though she hadn't been here for seven months, the mountains remained the same, but the cloak of trees, the wildlife, and the weather patterns were always new for her to rediscover. The purest of air entered her lungs and strengthened her body and soul. Like an old friend she hadn't seen in years, it wasn't until she returned to the mountain's shadow that she realized how much she missed it.
A slight frostiness chilled her the higher they rode. In combination with the almost constant wind, the ice pack four thousand feet above lowered the temperature several degrees between the river bed and where she reined Sparky to a stop. Roni reached behind her and pulled her fleece coat from the back of the saddle. She just finished buttoning it when she heard a voice.
"Ve-ron-i-ca." Each syllable resonated through the trees. And on Roni's nerves.
"Shit." Her dream of a few days of solitude at the cabin vanished with the echo of her little brother's voice. Five years her junior, Jeff stood just over six feet, and towered above her by a full seven inches. If it weren't for his height, the handlebar mustache, and shorter hair, they might be mistaken for twins.
"Veronica, I know you're close," he sing-songed in his deep baritone voice.
"Damn it!" She looked around but there was no place to hide, and Sparky was too tired to make much of a run for the cabin, which was still a hard mile away. She backed the horse into the shadows of the pines.
"You can't hide from me, Veronica."
"God, you are so annoying," Roni said quietly. Sparky stood still, surely grateful for the break. He raised his head and perked his ears in the direction of the voice and the noise of several pack horses as they appeared.
"Where are you, Veronica?"
Roni swore under her breath. Someday she would make him pay. Convinced that he had no idea where she was, she waited until he and his string of horses passed by.
"Do you really want to follow me, Roni?" Jeff turned around in his saddle and looked right at her, blue eyes twinkling with amusement.
I should have known better. Roni laughed. They'd been playing this hide-and-seek game since they were old enough to ride. More often than not, Jeff would win. He was an excellent tracker, a talent Roni would pay dearly to have. She wasn't too bad, but her brother's keen eyes didn't miss one bent blade of grass or misplaced twig. More than once he'd gone off to other parts of Idaho to track some lost soul.
"Crap," Roni said. "I thought for sure I'd get to the cabin a few days ahead of you this time."
"Admit it, sis. It would be a cold day in hell that I couldn't find you. Plus, you did such a nice job of clearing the trail for me that I made pretty good time catching up to you." He reined his horse in and waited for her.
Roni snorted. "You have such a huge ego. One of these days, when you least expect it ..." She didn't bother to finish her threat. He'd heard it before and always ignored her.
She moved Sparky to the front of the line, and they rode in companionable silence through the towering pines. Roni appreciated the calming effect offered by the vast area. She sat back in the saddle and let her thoughts wander.
She had often wondered whether her parents had chosen to have a second child just to keep her company. Before Jeff was born, she used to spend a lot of time with the ranch hands. They'd taught her how to throw a rope, although more often than not, she'd end up hopelessly entangled in it. She learned how to cuss a mean streak too, but the hands made her promise not to use her newly learned words around her parents so they'd all, with any luck, stay out of trouble.
Roni speculated with amusement that her parents had conceived her brother the night after her mom caught her with a wad of chewing tobacco tucked in her cheek and juice leaking out the corner of her mouth. She had her mouth washed out with soap that time.
Several minutes passed before Roni heard Jeff chuckling behind her. She sighed heavily and waited for the inevitable interrogation.
"He tossed you again, didn't he?"
"No, he didn't toss me again," she said in a snappish tone.
"Right. So, how come your hat is all scrunched in the back?"
"I fell asleep with it on last night."
"Uh-huh." A few seconds elapsed. "What was it this time?"
Roni felt the heat of a blush rising up her neck. Before either of them knew how to walk, their mom had stuck them in the saddle. Learning how to ride at such an early age, before they knew what fear was, had its advantages. Their ease and confidence around horses made them the area's trainers of choice. It embarrassed her that Sparky had been able to off-load her and not just once. Today was the fifth time in as many days.
"Who the hell knows?" Roni said, more to herself than him.
"I said I need to blow my nose. Geez."
"I'll let it go for now only because you'll tell me eventually. You always do."
Roni hated that he was right, but they'd been each other's closest confidants ever since Jeff uttered his first word ... her name. She pulled the damp handkerchief from her back pocket. A few pebbles fell from underneath her coat and rolled under her butt. Her subtle attempt to stand up in her stirrups to get rid of them failed. She heard Jeff snort and knew he was trying like hell to stifle his laugh. She whipped her head around and tried glaring at him but found herself laughing too. His face had turned fire-engine red in his attempts to hold it in.
"Shit, I have no idea what it was, or how he even does it. He's so damned fast I'm on the ground before I know it." Roni took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. "The other day he did it, and I found myself staring at his knees."
"You better hope Dad doesn't find out. He'll give him back to old Charlie to use for bear bait."
"Charlie shouldn't even be the ranch foreman. He's good at buying and selling string horses for Dad, but that's about it. I'm surprised he bought Sparky off that racetrack in California. But I guess the guy he got him from didn't tell him the horse was aggressive toward the thoroughbreds he was supposed to be ponying."
"It's probably a good thing you weren't there when he tried to beat it out of him." Jeff snorted. "When Sparky reared and fell over on top of him, you would've been jumping for joy."
"You bet your ass I would have. Then I would've finished what Sparky started." Roni allowed a wicked grin to cross her face as she thought about beating the crap out of Charlie.
"I heard him telling Dad that after his ribs healed, he was bound and determined to teach Sparky a thing or two. Breaking a horse means something completely different to that man."
Roni turned around in the saddle. "I suspected as much. That's why I decided to work with Sparky and use him for the ride up. It sure is nice to see Chenoa in that string behind you though."
"I figured you'd be happy to see him. Anyway, he looked lonesome after Dad pulled out with you."
"I thought bringing Sparky up here would help settle him down," Roni said over her shoulder. "It frustrates me to no end that I can't figure this horse out." She shrugged, not yet willing to admit defeat to herself or to Jeff. She was tired of dwelling on it so she changed the subject. "How's Bethie?"
Roni missed her best friend who also happened to be Jeff's wife. She'd met Beth when her family had moved to the area just before Beth had started her freshman year in high school. Roni was a senior at the time, and for the next year they spent almost every minute together. Because Jeff had been a well-behaved shadow, they'd let him tag along. After Roni left for college, Beth and Jeff continued to hang out together. They'd told her that they missed her so much they'd sought comfort in each other. She guessed that's how they eventually fell in love. The age difference wasn't an issue, and they married not long after graduating from high school. In two months, Beth was due to have their first child. Although Beth was normally in shape and quite active, her parents thought it best she not make the trip up in case the baby decided to come early. There'd be no easy way to get her to a hospital if she was in the mountains.
Excerpted from Right Out of Nowhere by Laurie Salzler. Copyright © 2016 Laurie Salzler. Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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