Monday, December 3, 2012
She was gazing out the window when Dash appeared, a big chestnut stallion with longer legs and a broader chest than a regular horse. A gray stallion, its lathered neck bent with weariness, plodded behind him.
Merry shot out of the office into the yard, and hustled both horses into the barn before any hands could interfere. The gray was no shifter; she’d learned to tell the difference, and spotted him right off. She guided him into a box stall and brought him a bucket of water. He slurped gratefully.
“Okay.” She whirled on Dash. “Who is he, where’s he from, and how’d you get a hold of him?”
The chestnut glanced around, then shifted. He tucked a horse blanket around his middle to fend off any comments from the hands. “A friend of mine called me up and asked me to take him on. Or maybe he’s a relative. Horse-shifter bloodlines tend to get a might tangled.”
Merry ran her expert hands over the horse’s body and legs. She noted every nervous ripple of hide her gentle touch evoked. Nor did she miss the old scars, or the more-recent bare patches on his flanks. Her eyes got stormy. “Somebody’s been mighty mean to this animal.”
“Not just somebody,” Dash said in the same ominous tone. “Your human nose ain’t up to it, but I can smell his last rider on him. You remember that Ravi Khan from down in Talbot’s Peak?”
“The one tried to wreck the haunted trail ride? This is his horse?” She laid her hand protectively on the stallion’s neck. The stallion nosed her hair. “No, he’s not. Not any more. I wouldn’t even hand over a scrub pony to that stripe-assed bastard.”
“Not asking you to. We got a big spread here, with the mountains next door. A horse could hide hisself out here for months. Years, even. And look, no brand. Can’t say for sure this is Ravi’s horse. He could belong to anybody.”
Silently Merry completed her examination. The horse stood docile and patient beneath her hands. Whether that was his temperament or due to Dash’s presence, Merry didn’t know and didn’t care. He wasn’t going back to the tigers. That was already a given. “He seems pretty sound,” she said. “Good breeding. Khan knows his horseflesh, I’ll give him that.”
“He should. He probably eats enough of it. Gray might make it as a saddle horse. Or a top-flight stud. The herd’s been needing one of those.”
“That isn’t up to me,” Merry said with a grin. “Let’s see what Ripley thinks about him.”
She gave the horse a rubdown and some grain. After he’d rested up they bridled him for a trip to the upper pasture. Merry mounted Dash bareback and let him set the pace, with the gray following along on a lead rope.
They found the saddle herd with little trouble. The gray’s ears pricked and he thrust his nose into the air. His whinny sparked a response, two parts curiosity, one suspicion.
Every head in the herd was turned toward the spot where Merry, Dash, and their guest emerged from the trees. Ripley, the band’s boss mare, tossed her raven mane. The stallion called a greeting. Merry slid off Dash’s back and tugged the bridle off the horse. Dash shifted and gave him a slap on the rump. “Go get her, cousin.”
The gray took off like a shot for the herd. Ripley stopped him with a warning neigh. They circled briefly and sniffed at each other before Ripley turned her back on him and nudged her band downslope. The stallion followed. They repeated their dance for the better part of an hour. By the fifth go-round the stallion was permitted to graze at the edge of the herd, though Ripley kept a wary eye on him.
Dash nodded, satisfied. “Bet you a carrot he’ll be running that band by nightfall.”
“Don’t be too sure. Looks to me like he’s already figured out who’s in charge, and he’s good with it.” Merry thought it over. “We should call him Hicks.”
“Not Bishop? He struck me as more of a Bishop.”
“Take another look. That’s no gelding.”
“Hicks it is.” Arm in arm, they watched the herd get to know its new addition. “I doubt Khan’ll make it up this far,” Dash said. “If he does, Ripley’ll handle him. I wouldn’t wish her on my worst enemy.”
“That’s because you’re a bloodthirsty ape. How about we camp under those trees for a spell and put that energy to good use?”
“Then you’ll be too tired for the ride back.”
“As usual, you underestimate a shifter’s stamina.” Dash lifted her easily into his arms and carried her toward a massive fir with heavy, drooping branches. “You didn’t bring a blanket, did you?”
“Got my jacket.”
“Good enough.” He ducked them under the tree.