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Driving Thunder

driving thunder


Estimated reading time — 7 minutes

Lane Brandon cursed himself for remembering.

Out here, it was easy not to. Freight trains, barrooms, cathouses, jailhouses – all those belonged back in Denver. He’d come west to rope and tame mustangs, not to be at a hostler’s beck and call. Thus he’d enlisted his fellow groom, Gordon Plowman, who’d wanted anything but to farm.

For three years they’d worked, bled and broken bread together. Now Lane found himself alone.

He clicked his tongue. Thunder, his quartz-gray steed, quirked his ears forward and moved out.

If I make it out of Colorado, I’m home free, Lane thought.

He supposed he might already be in New Mexico. Then he smirked at his wishful thinking.

Men on the run always had a long way to go.

Around him, few plants had found the guts to face the April daylight. The Rocky Mountains stood in the near distance, eternal sentinels, guarding him yet allowing for his freedom. Overhead the sky stretched wide, as did the expanse of hard-packed ground.

The land would protect him. The land forgave and forgot.

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What sheriff, used to three square meals a day and the comforts of city life, would forsake them to track him over hundreds of square miles? What bounty hunter would do the same? Killers were killers, but Lane had only taken the life of one man. Others had slain many more.

Which raised the question: Had he truly murdered his friend?

The former rancher swallowed the thought along with bile in his throat.

He held Thunder to a cantering clip, making sure not to ride too fast or too hard. Both might prove deadly. The trick was to maintain a pace ensuring distance, but not at the grueling price of fatigue.

His spirits rose to their zenith along with the sun. Today was a strong day, as his father had once said. Lane, a boy back then, had asked how a day could be strong. With a grin, his old man had replied:

“If it keeps you alive.”

All of Kit Brandon’s days should have been strong, but they had waned, then ceased at age forty.

Memories, memories! Lane hocked and spat, suddenly digging his spurs into his charger’s flanks.

Thunder bolted.

Although startled by his brash move, Lane thought it to his advantage. If anyone were looking for him out here, they’d be confounded by his veering off course. What had spooked his horse, and for that matter, him? To conceal his tracks further and make it seem like he had been frightened, Lane led Thunder in a zigzag pattern among the vegetation that had managed to sprout.

At high noon, he stopped to gnaw on strips of jerky and refresh himself and his stallion. The craggy face of a soul hardened by years of toil stared at him from the depths of a rocky stream. Twenty-five he was, yet looked twice that. The occurrence three moons ago had aged him.

He knelt and splashed water over his mug and hair, relishing the sting of melted snow.

Thunder approached his master, lowered his head and nickered. Lane stroked his muzzle.

Gordon Plowman? He’d forever been talking, talking, talking. Horses had no need for words.

After standing and dusting the dirt off his knees, the fugitive assessed his situation. In four days and three sleepless nights, he hadn’t encountered anyone else. True, he’d avoided them. True, he’d headed straight for the wilderness outside the ranch he and Gordon had founded: the Double J. True, he’d fled in the dead of night under a full moon. Who could or would have trailed him?

The few badge-bearing authorities that had the nerve to tame the wild frontier? Probably not. They roamed around, but right now they were likely trying to round up some cattle rustler. In Denver he would have been the target of a city-wide manhunt. Out here, property trumped life.

So if the long arm of the law didn’t stretch this far, what did? The lariat of frontier justice.

Lane felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle.

He didn’t like the look of those clouds, either.

Above and behind him, the heavens shone hazy-bright, the color of fresh sheets. Far ahead of him, rain-burdened clouds swelled near to bursting with the hue and the distant sound of thunder.

If I ride hard, that storm won’t catch up to me before I reach the state line, mused Lane.

Getting in the saddle once again, he gripped the reins with unusual tenacity.

“Hup!”

With a rear and a gallop, Mr. Brandon and his sole companion began their race against the firmament.

As he sped across a landscape known as much for its unforgiving nature as its beauty, the wanted horseman had no more time for recollection. Ifs and buts, whys and wherefores: all of them be damned. Hair streaming with sweat, hat momentarily abandoned, Lane clenched his teeth against the onslaught of stinging grit. He squinted his eyes nearly shut. Thunder would see him through.

Speaking of which, Lane realized he’d have to go *through* the fast-approaching natural hazard.

He swore. Behind him, an ominous rumbling.

Pulling on the reins to signal an abrupt downhill slope, he eased Thunder into the one obstacle that every rider prayed he didn’t have to traverse in the rain: a box canyon. Did he close his eyes? Bow his head? Despite the sweat and dirt streaming down his face again, Lane did neither.

He’d once felt the hand of God guiding his life, but since when was the Lord on a murderer’s side?

“King David,” Lane reminded himself. “Had a man killed, then took his wife. I’m better than that.”

Was he? Gordon Plowman’s posse wouldn’t think so.

Ranching was hard work. It was also lonely. By and large, you didn’t get to pick the men who spent long days and longer nights with you: tending and toiling, sharing and washing your plates in the mess hall, staring at the stars when the bunkhouse ceiling proved too great a constraint. You couldn’t afford the luxury of good company when fair-to-middling was all you had.

At first he’d thought Gordon was fair. Then, at the end of their tenure, Lane had learned better.

I didn’t murder my partner. It was self-defense, pure and simple.

The walls of the box canyon towered over Lane, reminding him of walls he was keen to avoid.

“We’ll make it,” he told Thunder, laying on a spur kick with the verbal encouragement.

The horse agreed. His hooves pounding a cadence that no drummer boy could match, he flew along the canyon floor, undeterred by burrs and rocks. He knew the stakes as much as Lane did.

More rumbling. In the corners of Lane’s eyes, flashes of lightning argued and answered each other:

“You cheating me, Brandon?”

“On the contrary,” Lane had said, hands on hips – near his pockets. “It seems you’re cheating me.”

No. No. Not now.

“Just because it seems so don’t mean it is.”

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A crack split the roiling Colorado sky in two.

Rain poured down in a sheet of blades, making half-mustang and rider suffer death by a thousand cuts. It soaked Lane through to the skin, rendering his jacket and chaps useless and his forgotten hat worse than useless. It really would hold ten gallons if this deluge kept up.

The floor of the box canyon went right from mud to stream. Soon it would hold a river.

“I’ve seen the books.”

“Have you?” Gordon Plowman had sneered. “I wasn’t aware you even knew how to read.”

“You bastard.”

“Call me what you like, partner. The fact remains: you’ve been shorting me wages and horses.”

“I had the idea for the Double J. You’re just along for the ride. You’re my lieutenant, Gordon.”

Mr. Plowman had grinned with his square yellow horse teeth. “Would you mind spelling that?”

Another rending of the heavens. A fresh scourge of rain lashed the two mortals at its mercy.

Thunder quickened his pace. Lane clutched the reins tighter, on his horse and in his mind. He let the storm fill his ears, mouth, eyes and nose. If he weren’t careful, it soon would.

“Never mind,” Lane had said, stepping closer. Advancing. Threatening. “Tell me something.”

“Why should I?”

“Because your life depends on it.”

In the driving rain, as he drove Thunder, Lane convulsed as if a thunderbolt had hit him.

“We’ve spent three good years together, you and me. Talked of everything under the sun, ‘cept for one little notion. I asked you time and again. You always ended up changing the subject. Why is it that in all the time we’ve run this place, you’ve never told me your reasoning, Gordon?”

“My what?”

“Your reasons. In small words you can understand, why’d you come out here?”

Gordon had shrugged. “Double J sounded good. Wanted to make it real. Tame mustangs like you.”

“Why go to Denver with me at the drop of a hat? You said you had a family. Why leave them?”

Plowman had grinned again. “Had to. Got boring at home, tending to my wife’s every whim.”

“Is that right?”

Lane’s hands had clenched into white-knuckled fists three days ago. They did so now.

The water in the canyon reached Thunder’s galloping knees. The rancher spurred him on:

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“Hyah! Hyah!”

“My Mary Nell was a pretty thing, but she was always a-jabbering. Making me work like a slave, too,” Gordon had said, crouching defensively against Lane’s belligerent posture. “Do this. Do that. Too much and never enough. Then there were the kids: Betty, Josie, Mark and Sam. Always getting underfoot. Getting in trouble. Making all sorts of messes. Dirty clothes and dirty diapers. Have you any idea how much they reek? More than horse manure, let me tell you. That’s why I came.

My days back home? Is that life for a man? I tell you, is that any kind of life for a man?”

Lane’s fists had drawn tighter, his brow furrowing with a suspicion that had never made itself known until Gordon Plowman – a former groom, husband and father – had asked that fateful question.

“Where are they?”

“What do you mean by that, my soon-to-be-ex-partner?”

“Where are they?”

“Haven’t I been good to you?” Gordon asked. “Haven’t I done the grunt work while you were too busy getting new buyers for our latest mounts? Haven’t I shoveled out stalls and scrubbed them down? We didn’t always have hands. I was one of yours for too long. Now I’ve been claiming what’s mine.”

“What’s ours, you son of a bitch.” Lane had been jolted, but he’d pressed on. “Where are they?”

“Who?”

At that moment, Lane had brandished his hunting knife. He’d made no move until he heard.

At this moment, trapped between steep granite walls, the only thing he heard was roaring water.

“Your family.”
He’d counted seconds: one, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand. “Tell me.”

What was that, up ahead in the here and now? A break in the landscape. Lower water. Incline.

Lane kicked his spurs with all his might.

The half-mustang, scared out of his wits, bucked him off.

Finding himself in the churning, slate-colored flash flood, Lane Brandon shouted at Thunder.

His horse, however, didn’t hear him as he surged forward and galloped up and out of the canyon.

A surge of gritty backwash gushed into Lane’s mouth. He remembered one more grisly scene:

“Paradise,” Gordon had said. “Green pastures where they shall not want.”

That had given Lane Brandon all the chance and the reason he needed to rush his comrade. Even a blade to the gut hadn’t stopped Gordon’s jaw from running. That mouth. Those teeth. That laugh.

Never mind Plowman’s pals. Never mind the law. Life’s only law was brute survival.

Lane wouldn’t have left Gordon to die if it hadn’t been for the man’s braying, hee-hee-heeee. . .

It was the last sound Lane heard, from his own lips, as the floodwaters drove him past Thunder.

Credit: Tenet

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