The men were drinking in the pub when she came in naked. Covered in mud, her gooseflesh was gleaming with the redness of mountain dirt transmuted. One arm was absent from her right elbow. The gleaming wetness gathered there and glistened, blood-like. There seemed so much of it that the barman, used to the fights on Friday nights between men who’d overdone their liver’s patience and carried resentment in their fists, rushed in with a towel ready to wrap it. Yet there was no wound at all. The elbow was a stump, like it had never been born at all. They felt abashed, recognising they too had believed her wounded, but had not moved at all to stem the flow. She shrugged off the towel, but accepted the hi-vis quilted coat belonging to one of the loggers. He did not miss it, passed out as he was under the pool table. Her feet were cold, she said. The youngest of them, staring, removed his boots and passed his socks gently, as if she was his younger sister or his lover. No one could be sure which from the look in his eye.
They were no stranger to odd events. Forty years before, a landslide on the mountain had decimated the town. Many of them had gone off in teams, and come back with shaking hands like returned soldiers of the war. Any outsider to the tragedy would think that the passing of time would heal the wounds they carried. Yet they were not victim to the nights where the screams of the buried pierced their dreams as their hands moved with dream picks and axes to free the trapped. Some of the men drank to dampen their senses, particularly of the smell of death, which they cried never left them, and the drinking would keep the noises at bay. The dead were thus part of the mountains too. After time, they became part of the ordinary life they lived. It had been with so long that they could not hope to imagine it any other way. Sometimes, they would hear old lovers call to them, or daughters who’d they’d failed to dig from the earth. The blacksmith had woken once with his shovel in his hand, ready to decapitate his mother with it’s dull blade. He had thought she was his dead brother come to claim him, like so many of them who felt the keenness of survivor’s guilt. The men at the bar had laughed at that story, beards a-trembling. Yet no-one thought it was funny, because they all had a story like that one. Thus, a mud soaked naked woman was no real surprise, and for a moment, they may have even seen her as a sight for sore eyes. For a moment.
‘The horses are eating each other,’ she murmured. At first they laughed. She was soft and quiet as she repeated the words, as if she was testing the sound of them in her muddied mouth.
Old Jack cleared his throat and the men turned to him, expectant. His lungs rattled in the way of men who’d spent their life by campfires. Everyone knew that he preferred the open spaces. It was he that remained trapped the longest, before bursting from the mud and stumbling home three days later. Even in the pub, he’d stand by the door, as if ready to bolt at any moment if the sky fell in like it did that day. The mountain folk would warn him about the river fires he'd light, telling him he’d set the forests ablaze if he wasn’t careful. They felt sorry for him, though, in his loneliness. No one knew what became of Mrs Jack the day of the landslide. She had only been in the small town for a week after he’d wed her in the city and brought her to his childhood home. They’d forgotten her because they’d never known her. Only as Jack’s late missus, a name in the roll call of the deceased. Jack never had much to say, but when the moon was full, he would talk as if the bright night was drawing confession from him. Rant, almost. We would have both died. I had to leave you. Someone would pour him another pint, or take him home to his lonely bed, or both, depending on the mood. Given his usual reticence, when he cleared his throat, the men turned to listen.
‘Lost your way, love?’ His voice was both tender and nervous, no one could tell which.
‘I’ve been looking for you for such a long time’ she said. She spoke to him as if she had missed him so. Her eyes were blue against the red dirt. It was then that the barman decided to call the police, but remembered the sergeant was in the pub beside them. He always was on Friday nights, and had one too many like the rest of them and had forgotten he carried a badge. The best thing was to pour a whiskey straight, and pass it to her, filling the awkward silence with words. He asked her if she was lost, whether she had family to contact, what had happened, should they call anyone, and so on. The sergeant nodded, vaguely thinking that that was the job he should be doing. He was more captivated by the curve of the top of her young breasts visible beneath the jacket. This wasn’t a good look, he knew, and everyone knew he was looking, but be damned if he could look away.
‘The horses are eating each other’ she repeated. It wasn’t an insistent repetition, merely another statement of a fact she was holding onto. Each time she spoke, she stressed a word in a different manner, as if she believed that the telling of the fact in a particular way would finally reach her audience in the way she intended. ‘The horses are eating each other. The horses are eating each other’. Mesmerised, the men did not speak, in the way men can be when they have schooled themselves in silence. To be silent is better than to let the floodgates open and reveal what horrors were in their hearts. They felt sorry for her and some wished for a woman to take charge and whisk the stranger away to their folds. How would men know what to do with lost lasses?
Outside the wild brumbies were screaming and roaring. ‘For fuck’s sake,’ one of the men cried, nervous now 'what’s got into the buggers?’. He was a horseman too, or was once, before he broke his leg in three places in the landslide, and his hip as well. But he heard the brumbies all the time, tuned into their movements. For years now the wild beasts had been taking over the mountains. There were so many of them that they’d find them on the roads, flanks heaving, ribs exposed, dying of starvation. It was as if they were begging for the mountain folk to shoot them. It was his job to cull them, back then, but everyone had a hand in it too. He still missed the thrill of chasing the horses. He enjoyed the culling they’d do with shotguns from horseback. He justified the killing by agreeing with the conservationists who argued they were ruining the mountain lands. His wife, however, had left him because she had known he had killed in a different way. Of course, the cull as unsuccessful, because it would have been far more effective to shoot from choppers. What he remembered, now, and clearly, was the noises they made. He knew their snorts as their nostrils flared in the cold valley air. He knew their heavy pants as they thundered past. He was familiar with their snort, snicker and whinny.
What made him nervous was that rarely would they squeal. A screech or a roar, from a horse, meant ‘if you don’t stop what you’re doing, I’m gonna be real mad.' Sometimes, facing the barrel of the gun, it seemed to mean: ‘If you don’t get out of here, I’m going to come for you’. His shot would prevent that stampede, always. Listening to her talk, he wondered what would have happened if the gun missed it's fire.
The woman was silent now, and looked at Jack again. The mud was beginning to dry on her skin. Her eyes became mist, the colour of the stream where the men had frolicked as youths. It was muddy after the mountain collapsed and they became scared to fish there. The water course had changed after the mud slid over it, like them, following a different God to what it did before the disaster. Her lips moved quiet in the fluorescent light. They moved closer to hear her, smell her. Oh, the sergeant wanted to taste her, so much was his longing. They were close enough to be improper. One man’s crutch pressed against her flank as if about to begin a slow dance. Another moved her muddied hair from her shoulder, brushed it from her forehead, tucked it behind her ear. Another brought his lips close to her neck. Still, the horses screamed. They worried that they would not be able to hear her over the din, and thus nuzzled closer. All impropriety was forgotten in the din and expectancy.
Jack remembered the stream, alright. It was right next to them when the dirt and mud and trees and rocks slid down the river. It wet her picnic dress and seeped all the way to her waist. In the dark he could not tell if the fabric was truly water or blood but her moans told him what it was alright. His fingers had bled as he had looked for an opening in the pitch darkness and he had not discovered a way out but had found the place where she was held by the mountain. On the second day she was delirious, murmuring of wild horses. He lay in the dark and stroked her hair. On the third day, the wild horses came, snuffling around their grave. He had thought she had called them in, such was the madness of the claustrophobic dark. One of the creatures must have dislodged a rock, for the light shone through and he knew then that he would live. What dumb luck was it that brought the bush beasts stumbling past the fallen mountainside?
As he stumbled away from the grave she had called his name and he heard it for miles, even if the distance made it impossible. He could not blame himself for leaving her. Would not. After three days of waiting for them to come he had to leave or he would die himself. The brumbies had trotted after him for miles before they let him be. It was unusual behaviour for beasts but then, nothing about abandoning your wife to the mountain earth was usual. It took him a day to stumble out, and the men half a day to ride back, but they could never find the spot or Jack couldn't remember where it was, in his fever of loss.
The men were closer now to her lips, and could hear her now. ‘If you don’t give me Jack,' she breathed, ‘I’ll let them in'. It was as if it was a song she was giving them, rather than a horrific command. 'If you don’t give me Jack,’ she breathed, her good arm stretching outward between the men toward the old man and the stump held tight by the hold of the high-vis: ‘oh, I’ll let them in’.
Yet the men's spell was broken by a deeper loyalty now. They formed an instinctual line between the girl and the old man. They had protected their own for a long time now, as fingers curled around beer glasses and the four decades past. Tight lipped and fierce, they refused reporters, developers, new arrivals and new rules. They had helped Ern lash loose iron roofing in storms, killed Tom’s sheep when they succumbed to disease and he had no heart to do it, buried Andy’s children when the twins were still-born and passed around a hat afterwards to pay for the arrangements. Men were quiet, but they were brave, in their way. When the going got tough, it was these men who had experienced the wrath of the mountain that were going to last, and they’d fight for their own, always.
‘The rock,’ Old Jack moaned. They turned to look at him. ‘The rock had pinned your arm. I couldn't get you out. How did you get out?’.
He walked toward her, crying, as the door opened, and the horses entered.
This was posted on the block chain two years ago, and I got a huge whalevote from it. It probably got me addicted to Steem. I reposted this for #showcasesunday for @galenkp, on his suggestion. It threads in inspiration from a few news reports over the years, amd echoes of places I have been, both in real life and the dark corners of my imagination. Images from t'internet of brumbies, wild Australian horses. Hope you enjoyed it. It is funny how two years distance can make you want to rewrite the whole darn story. I may well do, over the summer. I feel quite attached to this one. It has been a while since I have written a story, and I do miss the days of writing contests on Steem.