Cord Decker struggled to keep his horse under control as the ATV roared by, slinging grass and rocks from its fat wheels. The dun danced to the side and snorted.
"Watch where you're going with that thing," Decker barked after Cody. But the boy couldn't hear anything over the engine. Decker had a few choice words he'd like to expound to the kid, but there was a limit to what he could say to the boss’ son - without putting his job in jeopardy, anyway. It wouldn't make a lot of difference. Cody didn't have much respect for animals - least of all horses. He figured they were expendable relics of the past. He figured wrong. That ATV was tough, all right, but there were places it couldn't go - like the miles beyond its empty gas tank. Sure, the kid could store gas all over the ranch, but what was the point? Fuel for the horse was everywhere - and naturally renewable. Anyway, the boy was tearing up the range with that contraption. The little grass remaining on the west Texas spread was dried to a crisp with the drought. Cody was crushing the rest of it into nonexistence with his high speed turns and takeoffs. As if all that wasn't enough, now he was scaring fat off the cattle.
Decker groaned as he kicked his horse into motion. Harkin was spoiling his son, but that wasn't any of Decker's business. Right now all he needed to think about was getting to the cabin where he and the dun would be spending the next three months. The two of them were getting along in years, but that didn't mean they were useless. Shoot, he could live on half the food Cody consumed - and work twice as many hours without stopping. He shook his head again. Well, the boy was only fifteen. Maybe he'd grow up in a few years.
Ahead of him, only a plume of dust marked Cody's passing. The country stretched out deceptively flat. Hidden in the distance were deep arroyos and he knew them every one. So did Cody, and he'd broken down a lot of their steep banks with that ATV. It seemed the boy wasn't happy unless he had that vehicle in a vertical position.
Decker's horse plodded on through the crisp morning air and into the sweltering heat of midday, all the while following the tracks left by the ATV. Decker groaned. With any luck, the boy wouldn't get to the cabin first and eat up all his supplies.
The dun sure footed it around the edge of a deep ravine and minced around a patch of prickly pear. One thing about it, Cody couldn't depend on his ATV to make any decisions. Decker chuckled at the thought, and the dun lifted his ears, snorting as if he knew and understood the humor. Decker patted the horse's neck.
"You and I have been partners for a long time, old boy. Maybe some day that boy'll figure out what he's been missing."
The dun tossed his head, as if in agreement. Tending a line shack half the year didn't give Decker much time for socializing. Still, he enjoyed the solitude. The world was getting a little too fast-paced for him.
Decker pulled the dun to a halt and removed his hat, wiping sweat from the inside of the rim while he eyed a cloud bank building in the southeast. He'd be lucky to make it to the cabin before the squall hit. Cody should be there by now, so he'd miss out on all the fun.
Decker replaced his hat and clicked his tongue against his teeth. The dun tossed his head and started out again. The horse was also aware of the approaching storm, and he was eager to reach the shelter of the lean-to - as well as a little grain.
They were less than two miles from the cabin when the rain hit them. Driven by the wind, the drops of water carried stinging granules of sand. Decker donned his slicker and turned up the collar. The dun plodded on, splashing through puddles and finally pausing at the rim of a gully.
Below them, on the sandy bed, sat the ATV. Cody was busy working on it, tools spread around him.
Decker groaned. He'd never get that boy away from his toy. They'd be out here in this rain for another hour, and it was approaching dark now. He nudged the dun, but it balked, snorting its distrust of the slick chamfered edge of the arroyo. Decker dug his heals in, insisting that the dun move. He wasn't in any mood to argue.
The dun scrambled down the embankment and danced nervously across the shifting sand. He tossed his head and snorted in protest, and when Decker reined him in, he nickered and reared.
Cody glanced up from his work and gave the dun a sour look. "You need a key to shut him off when you’re done with him."
Decker grunted. "Looks like it must have worked on you're transportation, anyway. What happened?"
"I don't know," Cody said, tossing a wrench to the side in disgust. "It just stopped running."
Decker leaned forward in preparation to dismount, and the dun snorted again, dancing to the side. He threw his head up, ears back and nostrils flared. He had a wild-eyed look that made the blood in Decker's veins race. Decker reached a hand down to Cody.
"Quick, boy. Up behind me."
The urgency in Decker's voice brought the boy upright, but he eyed the dun distrustful. "I ain't leaving my 4-wheeler, especially not for ..."
"Now!" Decker barked. "We don't have time to argue the matter."
Cody wasn't used to taking orders from Decker, and maybe that was why he was paying attention now. At any rate, he stepped forward, placing his right foot in the stirrup Decker had vacated. Decker jerked on the boy's hand and didn't waste time checking on whether Cody was well seated before he gave the dun his lead. Decker felt the horse bunch beneath him and then they were racing across the sand, scrambling up the side of the gully. They could hear the water now - something the dun had heard long before they could. It came in a great wall as they reached the top of the arroyo. There they stopped and watched in horror as the deluge slammed into the ATV and turned it end over end, finally carrying it down the gully in a froth of muddy water.
They sat there in the rain, silently watching the angry water tear chunks from the bank below them. Finally Decker turned the dun toward the cabin.
"We'll look for your ATV in the morning. Let’s get to the cabin and dry out right now."
Cody didn't answer, nor did he have anything to say all the way to the cabin. When they dismounted, at the cabin, Cody took the reins from Decker's hand.
"I'll look after your horse, Mr. Decker. You go ahead and get a fire going."
Decker nodded, suppressing a smile. Yep, that boy was growing up all right.
This story is available in the short western story collection "HORSE OPERA," as well as in mini-book format.