There was nothing Storm could do when Poppy clopped across the stream except flinch at the noise. She also felt a twinge of guilt for pulling the mare’s head up when she lowered it to drink, but they didn’t have time for Poppy to dawdle in the stream. Storm was nearly vibrating with anxiety, and Luke’s knuckles were white in the mare’s mane. Poppy’s head bobbed in surprise at the urging pressure on her sides, but she splashed on through the water.
Nor was the path on the other side, strewn with round river rocks, a quiet passage. Storm began to consider a trick she’d only read about, which was to wrap cloth around a horse’s hooves to mute the unmistakable clip-clop. She was just about to remove her T-shirt and tear it into strips, then ask Luke for his, when they rounded a bend in the trail.
Poppy nickered a greeting. But neither Storm nor Luke welcomed the man who stood before them. Storm felt the boy shrink against her.
Lambert Poele held a rifLe in one hand and held the other hand before him in a stop gesture. He wore a long-sleeved cotton shirt and matching pants in a green camouflage pattern. Sweat had darkened the shirt to a mottled black. His long, disheveled hair and mud-streaked skin looked as if he’d been hunting for hours.
“At last,” he said.
Neither Storm nor Luke said a word. Storm’s mind raced to remember if she’d given Poppy a signal to pivot on her hind legs or if the horse had done it on her own. She wasn’t sure. All she knew was they had to do it again.
Maybe they could get behind some trees before he got that rifle up and aimed. Maybe he’d hesitate to fire. Maybe he hadn’t chambered a round.
Storm sat closer to Luke and hoped he’d pick up on her body language. She wanted to warn him, and ask him to hold on tighter. He must have felt her tension, because his fingers gathered in larger hunks of Poppy’s mane. He also straightened his legs, seeking a better seat, but didn’t have the experience to do it with stealth.
Poele let out a yell, “No!”
At the same time, Storm squeezed with her legs, harder with the right one, and simultaneously laid the right rein against Poppy’s neck to turn her hard into the narrowest part of the path. Poppy did it. She whirled. It was an unexpected move for Luke, who yelped with alarm and began to slide backward. Storm did, too, even though she knew what was coming.
Before she was even upright, the horse bolted down the path, in the direction they’d just come. This sent Luke even farther toward the horse’s rear end.
“Lie down,” Storm shouted. Luke would have to lie forward, which would put his weight up, and nearer the mare’s shoulders. Storm hoped he’d be able to drag himself forward with his grip in Poppy’s mane. Meanwhile, she grabbed with every muscle in her legs and tried to do the same, flattening Luke to the horse’s back.
Luke’s slide had pushed Storm back to where Poppy’s rump slanted downward, and her leg muscles, spent from holding on during the upward, twisting ride into the forest, could no longer grip the mare’s sleek sides. There she was, back near the animal’s tail, just like she’d done with Butterfly half a lifetime ago. But back then she’d been sixteen, her legs were accustomed to riding, and most important, she’d been able to grab the saddle strings.
Here, she had only the reins and Luke. If she held on, she would drag the boy off with her. So she let go, hoping she could roll off the path to a place that didn’t plummet her onto rocks six feet below.
At the same time, another gunshot ricocheted through the trees. It even seemed to echo, but that could have been the crack of her head and shoulder when she hit the ground.
Darkness gathered in her vision, while a searing pain pierced her upper chest. Storm lay in the mud, where she gasped like a gaffed tuna and sobbed with the knowledge of her miserable failure to protect Luke.
© Deborah Turrell Atkinson