The sun prickled hot through my jean jacket. An impatient yank pulled the arms inside out and the buttoned sleeves coiled tight around my bony wrists.
Mort began to jump when he felt the reins tangle and the jacket began flapping around his head. He shook his head in irritation and my dirty, tanned knees were flecked with pink foam.
The scars across his tongue had opened again and remorse swept through the anger and deepened my frustration.
He just wouldn’t stop. He jigged, he leapt from side to side, a growl rattled low in his chest and vibrated up to my clenched hands.
Horses shouldn’t growl. Horses were supposed to nicker sweetly when you came to see them. They were supposed to be your friend, your best friend, not a quivering muscle mass of roaring, raging, lunacy, day after day.
This horse, this glowing, magnificent horse wanted nothing to do with my tentative gestures of friendship. He fought to run every time I was on him, he fought the bridle and he fought me.
I finally untangled my hands and slung my battered jacket over the barbwire fence. Mort jumped sideways, with the twist of a cat falling from a roof. I slid to the side and grabbed his mane to keep myself seated. By the time I found a precarious balance we were running flat out.
Fine. Let him run. We were headed away from the barn and I would just keep it that way until he was tired enough to walk, then we would come back.
Mort flew across the field, the pounding of his hooves dulled on the mat of dry prairie grass. I leaned back as far as I dared and watched the brilliant blue October sky flash overhead. The rows of suburban houses lined up next to the field blurred into the silhouette of a rocky canyon wall in a black and white western. I was an Indian, racing after the buffalo herd, a pony express rider trying to deliver the mail on time, Alias Smith, trying to find Jones, to tell him a posse was hot on our trail.
Mort relaxed and leveled out. He chugged like a freight train and the heady smell of his sweaty coat made me lean into his neck. His wet sides grabbed my legs and glued me to him. I urged him around the edge of the development and into the open fields between Academy Boulevard and us.
If we circled the huge field a few times he might come back to me and we could head home, if not, then we would go east into miles of undeveloped prairie. I’d ride him to Falcon if I had to.
Mort felt the tug of a rein as I tried to ease him into a big circle. He shook his head and jumped in the air. My seat suddenly didn’t feel so secure and I grabbed a bigger handful of mane with one hand and gave a savage pull on the reins with the other.
His angry growl turned into a roar and he jumped again before yanking his head forward and bolting. A huge surge of power from his haunches shot us forward and we were flying. I pulled at him again and he picked up speed, straight as an arrow, straight at the Boulevard.
What was he doing? Home was the other way. It was rush hour with the road packed with commuters burning along at 55 mph. They were never going to see us, they would think I would stop, if only he would stop.
We were headed in a straight line to my friend, Karen’s, barn. Oh god, oh God, we were moving so fast. Mort had abandoned all thoughts of home and was running to horses he knew, friends he could trust. I was not his friend.
The bumper-to-bumper traffic was coming at us with terrifying speed. I pulled again and got nothing but more speed. I had never gone this fast on a horse before and through my terror a flicker of excitement began. If I could control this, it would be like riding a dust devil, a hurricane.
We were going to cross Academy, that was a given. We were going to be smashed flat, I was sure of that too. Maybe, just maybe, the traffic would slow for a loose horse.
The ground raced by underneath us and my stomach flipped when I looked down. This was really going to hurt. One deep breath and I slid my leg over the side. I clung to him for a few seconds until the tip of my bare foot caught the ground.
A bolt of pain shot up my leg and I was jerked to the ground. I rolled and the world tumbled by, first the sky, then grass, then a glimpse of my horse disappearing from sight. My head slammed into the rock hard earth, the coarse grass scratched my face, a stone bruised my shoulder. I felt blood running down my legs and a stick poked a good hole in my side.
I finally stopped and lay flat in the grass, gulping and grabbing for air. With a pounding head and a crushing pain in my ribs I tried to sit up but I still couldn’t find any air. Was I just going to die here in this field? The sky spun in circles over my head and nausea rolled in like waves on a lake. I struggled to my knees and threw up in the grass.
The smell of my own vomit made me stand up and stagger after my horse. My nose was swelling and my knees and elbows were a bloody mess. A sharp, painful poke in my side let me know a rib or two were no longer where they belonged.
I limped to the side of Academy and waited until a gap gave me time to stagger across and made my way down the long dirt road to Karen’s stable.
Mort stood flirting over the fence with Karen’s mares. He waited while I gathered up his reins and was quiet when I leaned into his shoulder. I hated him. What was I going to do? He was way too much for me to handle. It had taken so long to get my horse and I had ended up with this one.
He wrapped his neck around me in a warm horse hug. I stepped back and stroked the perfect diamond on his forehead. His eyes were warm and soft and he gently lipped my bloody, scratched arm.
“Do you get it?” He seemed to say. “Do you understand?”
I didn’t. The ache from not knowing was so much bigger than the cuts and bruises all over my body. I wiped my bloody, snot-filled nose on his bright dun coat.
“There,” I told him, “war paint.”
I gingerly prodded my swelling face and wondered how I was going to explain this one at home. My parents could never know Mort had done it, not in a million years. They’d freak.
Mort followed willingly down the road towards home. It made sense to wait to get back on after we crossed Academy. I leaned on him to support my shaky legs and he slowed his steps to match mine.