This short story was written for a literary magazine I edited in college.
The oppressive heat scorched us even with the sun just peeking over the horizon as I threw a saddle over the back of my horse. The colt was a bit jittery, but he was only a three-year-old with plenty of miles in front of him. This ride through the Badlands of southwest North Dakota would be perfect for tiring him out and making him concentrate on the job at hand.
‘Course, I thought, that’s the same reason I have for bringing Abby out here.
My daughter was still sitting in the cab of the pickup, the old AM radio turned up as far as it would go. The old mare she would be riding was saddled and tied to the beat-up old stock trailer, the bridle still hanging from the saddle horn. “She’s not going to make it easy for us, is she?” I murmured to the colt as I tightened up the cinches—the front, then the back.
With the colt in tow, I walked back up to the pickup and knocked on the driver-side window. The teenage girl inside glared out at me but reached over to pull the keys from the ignition. After she slammed the passenger-side door of the old Ford, she tossed the keys across the box. I caught them, but the sudden motion spooked my colt and in an instant he was pulled back at the end of the reins.
“Easy,” I soothed. “Easy.” Calming the colt, I pocketed the pickup keys. By the time I had turned, Abby was mounted on her old mare with the reins hanging loose. I felt a brief stab in my heart at the sight. She looks just like her mother.
I swung up easily on the colt in one smooth motion, and he stood solidly on all four legs without moving. I smiled slightly. “Come on, Abby, let’s go.”
By the time the sun was fully risen we had already vanished from sight of civilization. In the wilds of the Badlands, I felt at home. Though the days of the cowboys spending weeks in the wild watching herds of cattle or riding fences were long gone, there were still a few of us that longed for those times.
Abby rode a few strides behind me for well over an hour. I finally tugged the reins gently to slow the colt until she came alongside. “Isn’t it a beautiful morning?” I asked. Silence was the response. “Come on, Abby, please,” I said quietly. “I brought you out here so we can talk. No running away for either of us.”
“After three years,” she said flatly, “you finally want to talk? Three years?”
I closed my eyes as the old ache flared up again. Three years. It’s been three years since I lost her. “Yes,” I said simply. “I know I haven’t been a good father, but we need to talk. Please.”
“Fine. Talk. Doesn’t matter—you can’t bring Mom back.”
The ache threatened to overwhelm me. Three years ago, my beautiful wife Sara and I had been in a bad accident on the way back from a horse sale. She had been driving while I had slept. The SUV driver had been drunk, and smashed headlong into the pickup. Sara had died instantly in the impact, and I had walked away from the accident with only a few bruises and scrapes…and a shattered heart.
For two and a half years I had crawled into a bottle, drinking my breakfast and every meal afterward. The settlement payment had been more than sufficient to support me and our daughter, but I had stopped being a father. I had stopped being anything at all for that long stretch. I hadn’t cared about anything—not my daughter, not my family, not my ranch. Nothing had been able to penetrate the whiskey-tinted fog that surrounded me.
But finally, I had emerged from it. It was still a struggle. There wasn’t a day I didn’t miss my beloved Sara, but I slowly found a way to manage the pain and loss. However, in those two and a half years, my daughter had become a stranger to me. When she needed me most, I had let her down. Her grief had been as strong as my own, but I had isolated myself even from her.
“I’m sorry, Abby,” I said quietly. “I’ve been a lousy father, I know. But it’s time for us to leave Mom behind us.”
“So now you can just leave her behind? You can just forget about her?” The venom in her voice surprised me even now. “You think everything can just be fine now? Dad, you abandoned me when Mom died. I’ve been living on my own for all this time, and now you want back in my life?” She snorted and kicked her horse, moving ahead of me on the trail.
We rode in silence for another hour, dropping further into the rugged beauty of the Badlands. I marveled at the nearly untouched country as we rode on.
I struggled with my thoughts. The problem with Abby’s accusations wasn’t her tone of voice, but rather the truth. My daughter, the one thing left in the world that truly mattered to me, had grown up while I had been grieving. She was a senior in high school now, and she clearly thought of herself as an adult.
My colt started crowhopping under me and I was jolted back into the present. Gathering the rein I pulled the colt into a spin, taking away his momentum until he slowed. I squeezed tightly with my legs, anticipating each jump, riding his momentum. “Ho, dammit!” I shouted as I pulled up the slack, tucking his nose in. The colt finally slowed, shaking his head in frustration at the tight rein. As I finally brought him to a full stop, I saw that Abby hadn’t looked back, hadn’t even stopped.
Sighing, I released the reins and cued the colt forward. She really does hate me. I’m not even sure she’s wrong to do so.
I turned my eyes skyward as I fell into shadow. Distracted with my concerns for my daughter and the antics of my colt, I had neglected to watch the skies—and what I saw now scared me. Oh, no. The thunderhead to the west was clearly bearing down on us. A storm was coming.
“Abby!” I shouted. “Abby!” The girl’s horse turned so she could face me. I pointed at the approaching storm front. “We need to head back, now!”
She glanced to the west, and her expression as she turned back to face me was pure fear. Her personal feelings toward me aside, she knew the danger of the approaching storm. “Can we make it back to the pickup?” she shouted back.
I hesitated. We had been riding for hours; the pickup was miles behind us. “We have to try,” I decided. “Let’s go!”
The temperature was starting to drop as we raced toward the pickup. Gone was the leisurely walking pace we had set out on; now we were pushing the two horses hard, trying to get back to the pickup before the storm could catch us. My eyes flicked back and forth continually, looking for any sort of cover.
If the storm caught us, I knew, we would be in trouble. In the dusty clay knobs, the footing was generally sure and there was little grass to be had for grazing—the inhospitable conditions saw to that. However, when the storms blew in, they were not to be trifled with. The dry clay that provided such solid footing became a slimy mess nearly impossible to traverse; the gullies and washouts would channel feet-deep fast-moving water dangerous to cross. The mighty winds and driving rains and dropping temperatures would turn the beautiful Badlands inhospitable.
Even as the two horses raced through the rough terrain as fast as I dared, I knew we wouldn’t make it in time. The storm was blowing up on us too quickly, our horses were tired, and my colt was scared. If I pushed him any harder, I would risk him spooking out from under me and leaving me on my back staring up at the darkening sky.
Still we rode on, trying to at least find cover to ride out the storm. These nasty storms tended to be squalls: they came in quickly and pounded hard, but passed just as quickly. If we could find some cover, I figured we could manage to ride out the storm and then make our way back to the pickup, even if we would be chilled and soaked to the skin.
The rain had begun now, a steady drizzle, and I knew we were still a half hour away from the pickup even at the frantic pace we were pushing our horses. We had lost the race. Making a snap decision, I called to Abby as I pulled up the reins. “Abby, off your horse, now! It’s about to get very slippery.” There was available cover, but it wasn’t what I had hoped for—a couple of scraggly pine trees that came up to my chin. It was almost nothing, but it was all we had.
As we dismounted and crouched down in our pitiful cover, the skies opened up and the rain began to come down in sheets. I could only grimace as my clothes soaked up almost instantly, feeling like ice against my skin. Abby’s head was down, the water streaming through her hair. The old mare was partly over her, sheltering her from the downpour; I didn’t dare do the same with a young colt who might trample me by accident.
Then the hail came.
Pelted by those hard nuggets, my colt—already past his tolerance for the whole affair—spooked. I clung tightly to the reins as he dragged me down away from my cover. I started laughing as I stumbled to my feet, hanging on tightly as the poor bewildered horse jerked hard against the reins, but I refused to budge. I had to hold on for both our sakes’. If he spooked and ran off now, I’d have to walk out and he would likely get hurt in the slimy clay hills.
“Dad!” Abby screamed. “Dad!”
I barely heard her over my struggle with the colt and couldn’t afford to turn my head to answer her. A few seconds later, though, I was surprised as another horse moved past me—Abby’s old mare. An instant later the mare was alongside the colt, and his fighting ceased abruptly as its worries were eased by the presence of the older, calmer horse. Its frantic fight to escape was over.
Beside me, Abby stood tall and firm, her hands tight on the reins to keep her horse under control. I reached out with one hand and drew her to me, and in the pouring rain, pelted by hits of hail, we clung tightly to each other until the hail ceased. The rain continued to fall, but we were already soaked and it no longer mattered.
The storm would take another half an hour to pass, I was sure. But the storm clouds that mattered had already broken.