“And tell me again,” Will said, “just why are we out here at two in the morning?”
It was not lost on him that a minute or so before they had passed a sign proclaiming they had crossed into Wild Horse Mountain territory, and moments later, a sign with a horse on it.
It explained the empty horse box they’d brought along, and the earlier statement by his friend Chad, that he was planning to catch a brumby and break it.
Chad was full of good ideas like that, especially after a dozen drinks.
“We’re on an adventure, Billy boy. Just roll with it.”
Last adventure I’d just rolled with saw us explaining to Sherriff Daley why we shouldn’t be locked up and the key thrown away.
“I’m trying, but seriously, you brought Charlene?”
Charlene was Chad’s latest girlfriend and the one, he said. So were Fergie, and Donna, and, well, I forgot the last one; she had lasted almost a week. But this one had lasted longer than the others, and I detected that same devil-may-care attitude in her. I put that down to the fact she was the daughter of the town preacher.
“She wanted to see what we get up to. The girl’s got an adventurous streak. What can I say?”
No, for starters. I doubt her family would be happily bailing her out of jail. Maybe with her along he might show a bit more common sense.
He slowed, then turning at the slip road, stopped in front of a locked gate where there was a road leading into the forest, and a sign saying that only authorised personnel could pass.
“Is this private land?” I asked.
“Forest service. Government land. The sign’s there to keep the fools out.” He held up a key. “My uncle knows a man who knows a ranger who says so long as we don’t kill anything it’s fine.”
“And you’re thinking catching a wild horse is going to be easy? I assume that’s what we’re here for?”
“I thought I explained that earlier. How hard can it be? I watched a video on YouTube and it’s easy. We’ve both been on a cattle drive and passed with flying colours. Just think of it as catching a bull, only a little larger, but no horns.”
I think trying to do that at night and in the dark might be slightly more complicated than he’s considered, and, as for having the skills necessary, back then there were a half dozen experienced cowboys there to back us up.
I shrugged; there was no changing his mind once it was made up. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I muttered under my breath.
“Exactly.” He handed me the key and I got out.
I looked back and could see Charlene acting a lot more animated than before, so maybe she was on board with this crazy scheme.
I unlocked the gate, opened it, waited until he drove through, and then closed and locked it behind me.
The discussion between Charlene and Chad was still going on when I got back in. From the part I heard it seems she thought he was taking her to a secret lookout, not go brumby hunting, and him saying they could do both. I got the impression she was not keen on catching a horse.
Whatever happened, it was going to be an interesting few hours.
Chad was the sort of person who when everything was going great and everyone was on board with his scheme, it was fine. When the hiccups in the master plan started to happen, that’s when things start to fall apart.
After an hour’s slow crawl through the forest over a track that gave the pickup and following trailer a good workout, Charlene was losing interest.
So was I, but I’d learned not to express my sentiments.
“So,” she said, “where are these horses?”
“Here. They’re everywhere, they’re always running all over the place.”
Except they were not. Not tonight anyway. And just then I remembered reading that the county administration had decided it was time to move the horses on so they could carve out a chunk of land for camping, hunting and fishing. The conservationists were up in arms, the hunters were rubbing their hands in glee, and the campers were saying fools with guns were an accident waiting to happen.
A loud bank and what sounded like a gunshot hitting the side of the horse float was enough for Chad to stop, douse the lights and kill the engine. I disabled the lights that went on when the doors opened.
Suddenly it was dead silent. I was sure I could hear my heart beating.
Then, the silence was broken by another shot, so loud we all jumped.
I was first out of the pickup, just in case they were shooting at us. That prompted, in the next breath, who was shooting at us, and why?
Chad and Charlene came around to join me.
“What the hell just happened?” Chad asked.
“Gunshots. Perhaps the hunters have decided not to wait until they got county approval. We’ll have to tell the sheriff, get on his good side. We just need to find out who they are.”
No need. A minute or so later there was yelling carried on the night air.
“What the hell are you doing. The boss said no advertising our presence.”
“I saw a car.”
“It’s the main track and there’s going to be cars. Get back to the camp, and you want to hope whoever you shot at doesn’t call the sheriff.”
I looked at Chad. “We’ll wait a few minutes then get moving again.”
“What’s going on?” A visibly shaken Charlene wasn’t too happy about what had just happened.
I could have told her that a night out with Chad provided enough excitement for a week. Things always seemed to happen around him.
“Hunting season started early,” Chad said.
“We’re not going to get shot are we?”
“No.” Chad sounded positive, but there was no way we could know what those people were doing.
I got up and checked the horse float for bullet holes and instead saw a scrape along the side made by an overhanging branch. There was no sign of a bullet hole, but it didn’t explain the loud bang we all heard.
When I came back, I said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Another half hour passed in silence until we came out of the forest into a clearing that was visible in the twilight, a cloudless sky and full moon giving the whole area a strange eerie feeling.
Chad drove on the track that skirted the open area and stopped by a dilapidated hut. Lights off and engine off, once out of the car the silence was rather strange to a person who lived in the city where there was constant noise.
Chad had a rough hand-drawn map he got from a friend of a friend, that looked a lot like the clearing with a hut exactly where we had stopped. It was as much of it as I remembered until she spread it out over the bonnet of the car.
He then switched on the light of his phone.
We gathered around like conspirators.
“We’re here.” He pointed to the X that marked the hut. His finger then followed the track around further to a point where a lake bordered the clearing, with another X. “A watering hole for the wildlife, and quite often where the horses come. This whole clearing is where they gather.”
Gather they might, but not tonight. It was light enough to see the edges of the clearing, the forest beyond, and the shimmering surface of the lake in the distance. It was enough to see nothing was stirring.
“Perhaps,” Charlene said, “they knew we were coming.” There was no mistaking the sardonic tone.
Maybe she had already been on one of his wild goose chases. This wasn’t my first rodeo.
The silence was broken by the sound of a horse, coming from the direction of the lake.
We turned to look, and the first thing I saw was a horse, yes, but there was a rider on it. Followed by another, and another, until at least ten came out of the forest and into the open.
“What the hell…” I heard Charlene mutter.
Perhaps against a dark background, they hadn’t seen us. Or they had and were ignoring us. They stopped for what looked like a short drink break then continued to follow what must have been a path across the shoreline of the lake, and within a few minutes had disappeared into the forest.
“Local tourist adventure rides up to the lookout at night where they look at the stars,” Chad said.
“And you know this…” Charlene sounded like she would have preferred that to what Chad was taking us on now.
So would I, if I had a choice.
“Is the lookout accessible by car?” I asked, now getting the feeling it wasn’t.
“A 4×4 maybe, but the most direct route and easiest is by horse. But we’re not here to look at the stars. I’m going down to the lake. You two?”
“I’m staying here,” Charles said, shivering.
I could tell she wanted to go home but was too afraid to say anything. And by her body language, I didn’t think this relationship between her and Chad was going to last much longer.
“Then stay with her Mike. I won’t be long.”
With that, he headed off towards the lake.
“He’s stark staring mad,” she said when he was out of earshot.
“Chad had some crazy ideas sometimes, but his heart is in the right place. At least with him, what you see is what you get?”
“You think? What’s your excuse?”
“Being here? He’s helped me get through some rough times. My parents were killed in an accident when I was 13. He convinced his parents I should stay with them because otherwise I’d finish up in the foster care system, and they did. I guess I’m the little brother he never had. What about you?”
“Sad story, I needed someone to teach me to line dance. He made it fun. This isn’t.”
“Why’d you agree to come?”
“I thought we were going to the lookout, at least that’s how he sold it. Not catching horses. Can he even ride a horse?”
“His uncle has a ranch with cattle. We’ve been going there mustering every year for what seems like a lifetime.”
“He asked me to go with him this year.”
“Then do. I could do with a break, go to the city, see what I’m not missing.”
The surrounding silence closed in on us as the conversation dries up. Talking to girls was not my forte.
“He’s taking a long time,” Charlene said about ten minutes later.
It mirrored my own thought. How long could it take to walk to the water’s edge, see there was nothing to be found, and come back.
A loud bang, like the sound of a rifle, punctured the stillness.
“Was that…?” She said.
“A gunshot? Sounded like it.”
I went over to the back of the car and pulled out the rifle Chad carried with him, hidden under the seat. It surprised me the first time I discovered he travelled around with a gun. It wasn’t loaded, but it didn’t take long to load. I put some extra bullets in my pocket, just in case.
“You coming?” I asked. If anything happened to her, I knew Chad would be angry. “If someone is out there shooting people, it’s not s good idea to be here alone.”
She didn’t need to be asked twice.
“You know how to use that?”
“Unfortunately, yes. Coyotes.”
We both stayed on the track skirting the open space, just to make it harder for anyone likely to be aiming at us until we reached the knoll above the lake. It was the one place where, if there was a shooter. we would be most vulnerable. Neither of us stayed there for longer than a second, perhaps two, before heading down the 50 yards to the water’s edge. A quick scan showed no sign of Chad.
At the water’s edge, she said, “Where is he? If this is one of his games, then I don’t like it.”
I knew Chad, and I also knew he was capable of pulling a stunt like this. If he was, I was going to be very annoyed.
Facing the knoll, I heard a soft splashing sound behind me and turned.
He was not more than 20 yards out in the water, face down.
I dropped the rifle and headed into the water, swimming the last few yards, but I knew, the moment I reached him, he was dead. The hole in the side of his head was unmistakable. I brought him back to the shore and dragged him above the water line, then checked for a pulse.
Then I realised Charlene was not there, where I’d left her, but further along the beach. She had picked up the rifle, and by the way she was carrying it, she knew how to use it. Had she heard something?
Behind her, one of the horsemen arrived with a riderless horse and stopped next to her.
“What’s going on?” I asked. I was hoping it wasn’t what it looked like.
“This has nothing to do with you, Mike. Justice has been served.”
Justice? What justice? What had Chad done to deserve a death like this?
“Amy Potterdam. Just because you own the law in this County doesn’t mean you can get away with murder.”
Amy Potterdam? All I could remember about that was a girl had died in unusual circumstances at a party he had attended, if only briefly. Someone had claimed that he had given the girl the spiked drink that eventually killed her, but witnesses and evidence had proven otherwise. The fact his father was the County Sherriff had no bearing.
I watched her climb up on the horse and take the reins. I stood and started walking towards her. “This is wrong.”
“Don’t come any closer, or I will shoot you.”
I didn’t stop. I didn’t know what I was going to do, or if there was anything I could do. I just knew I had to try.
They say you don’t hear the bullet that has your name on it.
© Charles Heath 2023