Rainbow Horses Sample Chapter

 

 

RAINBOW HORSES:

Prologue

A woman was sitting on the concrete barrier in the middle of the 405 Freeway. Every passing motorist with a cell phone had called it in, jamming 911. The motorcycle cop en route requested backup even before he got to the scene. He figured she was either high on something or a potential suicide. Either way, he would need to block a lane of traffic on either side while he talked her down. It was four in the afternoon, well into rush time. This was going to be a mess.

He hoped not a bloody mess. He’d cleaned up a bad one along this same stretch of freeway only last week. Correct that, he told himself, as his eyes followed a deep scrape in the concrete to where the woman was sitting. Below her were sparkles of broken glass and a black slid mark. He sucked a deep breath. It was the exact spot of the earlier accident.

A week ago, he’d arrived too late. A couple of passersby had broken a widow and tried to pull the man out. No luck. Didn’t matter. He was already dead. Nothing to do, until the fire truck arrived, but push back the would-be rescuers and other gawkers.

As the cop parked his bike and pulled off his helmet, he shook his head to clear the old scene. He hoped things turned out better this time. Still he could see this getting out of hand fast. As soon as the other units arrived and began blocking the lanes, traffic would back up for miles. Then the news helicopters would start circling overhead, broadcasting live. Next to car chases, they loved suicides-in-progress. Even more than bloody messes, he hated being at the center of a media circus. He needed a quick solve here, something that allowed Los Angeles to keep driving.

That, of course, depended on the woman. She was in her early thirties, wearing blue jeans, a yellow T-shirt, and sandals—the sturdy walking kind. She didn’t look suicidal, although he wasn’t sure how to explain that initial impression. Something about her expression, maybe. In fact, there was something so familiar about it, as if he thought he ought to be able to recognize the expression, as if he’d seen it before, which was odd because he hadn’t encountered a lot of women sitting on freeway barriers.

“You can’t be here,” he said, loud enough to rise above the freeway noise.

She didn’t look up; didn’t acknowledge him.

He glanced over his shoulder, making a quick assessment of the area. There was a car pulled off on the side of the road, maybe thirty yards away. He could barely make out the plates from that distance, but managed to call them in before turning back to her.

“What are you doing?” he tried.

“Listening to the music.”

That’s it, he thought. Her expression is exactly like someone listening to music. Only that didn’t make sense. There were no headphones, i-pod, no boom box, only the noise of the passing cars and his radio. Someone at the office had already gotten the parked car’s information. It was registered in two names. One was the man who died here last week. He tried the other.

“Are you Samantha Nielsen?”

This time she looked up.

“I’m sorry for your loss, but you can’t be here,” he repeated. “It’s not safe.”

“I have to figure it out.”

He paused wondering what part of it she meant. Life? Death? The current chaos whizzing past them in two directions?

“The music,” she added, as if she could sense his confusion.

“What music?”

She touched her forefinger to her temple. “His music. He was a musician, a composer. I’ve been hearing his music inside my head from the moment he died. It never stops. Even when I sleep, it’s the soundtrack to my dreams.” She bit her lower lip and shook her head slowly. “He’s trying to tell me something.” She fingered the top edge of the gash in the concrete. “I don’t think this was an accident.”

He didn’t think it was either. It had been listed as an accident only because most suicides accelerate into barriers. This one swerved. He studied her a moment. On the surface she looked the typical California girl, a pretty blond with blue-eyes and a tan, but the attitude was wrong. California girls sought out therapists, grief counselors, or gurus. They didn’t wander into the middle of a freeway hoping to figure it out by themselves.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Drinkwater, Idaho.”

“Where’s that?”

She looked around, as if taking in her situation for the first time. “Long way from here. One of the places that hasn’t been paved over yet.”

“And now you’ll go back?” he asked, knowing that was his fate, sooner or later, when being a cop finally got to him. His unpaved place was a corner of Kansas best described as a flatness of wheat.

She nodded.

More cars whipped by. More horns blared. The backup unit would be arriving soon. He wanted her to get away. She didn’t need the trouble this was about to become.

“His music was his life. I knew that. I wish I’d paid more attention. I don’t think I ever really listened. Not like I should have. Now I can’t get it out of my head.” She paused. “You probably think I’m crazy.”

The real crazies didn’t think they were crazy.

“You can’t be here,” he repeated. “It’s not safe, and it’s going to cause a lot of trouble. Unless you’re trying to get arrested or make the late news, I suggest you let me walk you to your car.”

She slid off the barrier, brushed her pants, and said, “I have a daughter, waiting for me.”

“In the car?” he asked.

She shook her head. “At home. Safe at home with a friend. Only we’re never really safe, are we?”

He didn’t want to agree. “She’s going to need you,” he said instead.

(end of prologue)

 

According to the old stories

seven horses guard the seven directions . . .

 

 

 

 

 

The red horse guards the east–

direction of new days and unknown roads.

Courage rides the red horse.

 

Part One

Three and a half years later . . .

Sheriff Samantha Nielsen was driving along a narrow dirt road, listening to her dead husband’s music, when, without warning, wild horses crashed through the brush onto the road in front of her. Her first thought was to wonder if her husband had been distracted like that—off on a wave of song—when he drove into a concrete wall. Her second thought was that she might also die.

She swerved, barely missing a big gray—the stallion. With him were five or six duns and a spotted colt, or, maybe, two colts. She couldn’t be sure. The swerve sent her truck into a skid. Steering furiously, she fought to keep herself from going into the spring-swollen stream on her right and being swept down river. It didn’t help that on her left was a sheer rock wall. Even worse, the cliff’s uneven ridge created alternating patches of bright sunlight and deep shadow, both equally blinding. Most of the time, she had no idea how close she was to the edge of the water or anything else. Finally the truck fishtailed and banged to a stop against a large rock.

The horses, unhurt, ran along the road ahead of her to where the stream widened. Then they splashed back into the water, churning up enough spray to sprinkle the sunshine with rainbow. That unexpected beauty took what breath she had left.

Local Indians believed that White Bead Woman, a goddess, made the horse. It was to be the medicine animal that completed the world. Knowing that, White Bead Woman took great care with her work. She used red stone for the heart, small cloud for the mane, and black cloud for the tail. She caught distant thunder for the hooves . . .

 

Sam shook her head. She couldn’t recall when she’d first heard that myth. Didn’t matter. Spin a story. Say a prayer. Sing a chant. Take what comfort you can. One moment you are on the rough road to somewhere. The next moment, wild horses jump in front of your truck. Or people die—her husband—without rhyme or reason, unless, of course, you choose to believe the made-up stories. In the case of her husband’s death, some of those made-up stories were being whispered behind her back.

She sat a moment longer, watching the horses. The bank on the other side of the stream was wider. As they ran, they fanned out and then, one by one, disappeared around a turn in the canyon. As if to confirm that he was still there, her husband’s music rose on a swell of percussion that hinted at horses’ hooves.

Nice touch, she thought.

The music wasn’t real. It was something only she heard, somewhere deep inside her head, but it was a comfort—a constant, always there. More like, always there because he wasn’t. She knew the first time she heard it that something had happened to him. Her immediate impulse was a wave of despair, but the music wouldn’t go there. The music was his. He had been the dreamer—the one who lived light, always laughing, never a care for tomorrow. She was the one who moved in with him to make sure his bills got paid. When she gave birth to their daughter, he asked her to marry him, an act so responsible, so completely out of character, she’d laughed, thinking he couldn’t be serious. She never trusted happiness. In one sense or another, she was always waiting for the crash.

This one wasn’t too bad. She assumed the throb in her head meant it was still attached. The fact that she could draw a deep breath, without pain, also seemed a good sign. His crash had left her in worse shape. If not for their daughter . . .. She paused to reshape that thought.

For their daughter’s sake, she’d figured out a new life. She was the Sheriff of Drinkwater County, Idaho. She’d been the sheriff for three years now—up for re-election soon. Hard to believe.

Her job had brought her out here, all by herself, driving this rough, rock-strewn road. Rain was her worry. If she were to be caught in a flash flood, she would have no place to run. For that reason, she hadn’t been entirely inattentive. Even as she listened to his music, she’d kept an eye on the weather as well as the road. Ironically, in the catalogue of possible catastrophes, she hadn’t given wild horses a thought.

She rubbed her head where it had slammed into the side door. She could feel a bump beginning to rise, but she didn’t think it would be too bad. Airbags might have helped, but, out here, in the middle of nowhere, everyone disabled airbags. In a place where the nearest tow truck was half-a-day away, deployed airbags only complicated getting back on the road, which was what she needed to do.

With that thought, she opened the door and climbed out to assess the damage. She noted a new dent in the bumper and a crease along the back rear panel. Neither were the first scars her truck had acquired in the line of duty. Then she climbed onto the dented bumper to check her antennae. She had three, but none picked up anything behind this cliff. Likewise her cell phone had been out of service for at least an hour. In other words, she was “down a dirt highway,” the local expression for being out of contact and miles and miles from anywhere. Since that was a description that fit most of Drinkwater County, being on your own was pretty much the norm.

When her husband crashed, she picked up her daughter, packed a few things with memories attached, and came home. Never mind that home happened to be one of the most desolate places in America—more than desolate, dying. It was one of the ironies of the twenty-first century that the wide-open spaces of the American West were not disappearing. They were growing. Huge areas outside cities like Denver, Santa Fe, Boise and Phoenix were losing population at the rate of seven per cent a year. At that rate, in a few decades, there would be nothing left but ghost towns and interstate highways. Even in Idaho, most people had never heard of Drinkwater. Never mind that her county—the jurisdiction she sheriffed—was larger than the state of Massachusetts.

To make a long story short, there weren’t many jobs in a place like Drinkwater. The old sheriff was retiring. She ran and won. The night she celebrated her election at the Stagecoach Saloon, her husband’s soundtrack was a reworking of epic themes from old western movies. He had hated westerns, so she had to figure the music was an expression of his amusement. She had never minded being the responsible person—the only adult in their relationship, but she wouldn’t be mocked. Halfway into the evening’s festivities, she excused herself, stepped into the alley behind the saloon, and told him to change his tune. The music stopped for almost a week.

When she was sure everything was ok up top, she jumped down and looked underneath, checking for leaks. She didn’t see any. So far, so good, she told herself. Then, as she straightened, she caught the sound of an approaching vehicle, normally a good sign. However, she recognized that particular low, diesel rumble. Only one rancher on this end of Drinkwater County made that much noise, and she wasn’t necessarily referring to his loud, oversized pickup truck.

 

On a good day, Sam managed to make-nice to Bill Willoughby. She wasn’t sure this was a good enough day. On the other hand, she didn’t really have a choice. She was the sheriff. He was one of Drinkwater’s three county commissioners. That meant he voted on her budget. More like he seemed to think counting pennies was a good use of her time. Actually Willoughby’s money issues had nothing to do with her budget, she knew. He still wasn’t sure she was up to the job. Everybody knew that she’d been elected mostly because she was a Nielsen woman. Being a Nielsen woman still counted for something in these parts. The real question was whether or not she was enough of a Nielsen woman to match her mother and grandmother’s reputations. Willoughby doubted it. So did a lot of people. For that matter, there were days when she doubted it. The difference was that Bill Willoughby didn’t pain himself to pretend otherwise. Maybe that made him honest. Maybe wild horses never looked back—another local myth.

Sam started the engine and pulled the truck away from the rock. It seemed to be running fine. Having established that fact, she was tempted to put it in gear and keep going, but good sense got the better of her. She cut the engine and waited.

Six minutes later, Willoughby arrived. “Good thing I came along,” he said.

She got out and slapped the hood of her truck. “No problem. Everything’s fine.”

“What happened?”

“I spooked some horses. Or they spooked me.”

He circled her vehicle. An older lanky rancher, who’d worked around trucks and cattle all his life, Willoughby clearly thought it was up to him to decide the depth of her damage. He looked under for leaks, checked the antennae, and then lifted the hood. She  wasn’t sure what he expected to find under there. Didn’t matter.  By that time, she’d already figured out that he was showing off—entertaining Hollywood in the guise of the two young men who were riding with him.

She knew they were industry people even before they introduced themselves. She knew the type. Her husband had been scoring his third film, riding an emotional high, thinking he’d finally made it in the business, when he crashed and burned—literally.

These two were brothers, Miles and Simon. The older one, Miles, followed that introduction with an apology. Turned out that Willoughby was the one who’d scared up the wild horses. He’d been trying to impress his guests.

“I’d never seen wild horses before, except in pictures,” Miles observed in a voice with a full deep range. He’d obviously had voice lessons. No big deal. Everyone in La-La Land had had voice lessons or acting lessons or both. In her husband’s crowd, she’d been the only exception.

“Do you see wild horses often?” he continued.

“Not spooked like that,” she answered, tossing the words in Willoughby’s direction.

Willoughby offered no response. He still had his head under the hood of her truck, looking around.

All that time, Simon, the other brother, had never lowered his camera. She also knew his type—industry geek. She stiffened when he panned the camera in her direction—never liked herself in pictures. She didn’t need this. She had a job to do, but, obviously, she wasn’t going anywhere until Willoughby finished whatever he was doing. She settled her hips against the side of her truck to wait him out. That’s when she caught Miles looking her over.

“You’re the sheriff here?” he asked.

She nodded. Being short, blond, and female didn’t fit most folks’ notion of a rural, wide-open-spaces sheriff.

He continued to look.

She wondered why. Hair cropped short. No time for make-up. Usually she tucked the tan shirt of her sheriff’s uniform into a pair of faded blue jeans, and she was done for the day.

When he realized he was staring, he looked away, and said, “This is quite the unique place—wild horses and all.”

Yeah, and he was from California where the air was solid and the earth moved.

(the finished book will be approximately 350 pages/divided into seven sections named for the seven rainbow horses)