The Deal with the Devil
By Claire Wolfe
August 27, 2007
Jennifer rushed toward the flailing colt and his maddened mother, stumbling to a halt just a few feet away. Bulldog pulled against the barbed wire, which cut deeper as he struggled. Mama lunged at the predator fence, threatening to trap her own legs in the wires. Horses screamed. Dust choked. Blood flew.
“Shoo!” Jen shouted and waved ineffectively from the “safe” side of the fence. “Shoo, Mama! Get away!” She didn’t know how to help Bulldog, but whatever else, she had to get Mama out of there. “Get away, Mama!” Jennifer thrust herself nearly within striking range, pushing her arms toward the horse. But it was as if she weren’t there.
With no idea what else to do, she drew her revolver and, staying as close to the horses as she could, fired straight past Mama’s head. The startled horse leaped backward. But not far.
Jen fired again. The .44 bullet zinged past Mama’s ears, the smell of gunpowder burned the horse’s nostrils. Mama reared and seemed ready to lunge forward again. Oh God, it isn’t going to work!
Jen gripped the gun tighter, flexing her sweating, bloody fists around it. She glared over the barrel, her eyes as threatening as the weapon. “Get. Away, Mama. Stay. Away.” Mama snorted threateningly and beat the ground with a hoof. But she kept her distance. “Now,” Jen told her, more gently but firmly, still keeping her in her sights, “I’m going to help your baby. I’m going to help. Okay?”
But when she turned to Bulldog, more panicked than ever after the gunfire, she thought she was likely to faint. Ribbons of flesh flapped over the wire. Bone flashed through blood.
“God help me, God help me!” Jen moaned through her own tears and blood. “I can’t do this.”
For a second, she considered shooting the little horse; his wounds and his predicament looked hopeless. Then a thousand thoughts went through her mind. Thoughts of how everybody would blame her for screwing up again. Thoughts about giving up. Finally, thoughts about how somebody had to do something … and there was nobody but herself.
Gun in her left hand pointed at Mama and right arm outstretched, she cautiously approached the terrified colt. “Hey, Bulldog. Hey, Bulldog, it’s me. It’s okay. Look at me. Look at me, okay?”
The colt still struggled and screamed. But finally, whether from exhaustion or desperation (Jen couldn’t tell), it finally focused its wild eyes, first on her face, then on her outstretched palm. Bulldog seemed to yield. His body came to rest, with his abused foreleg still held in the wire. He looked again at her palm.
A treat. Offer him a treat. Casting a wary glance at Mama over her gun sights, she patted at her pockets. Nothing there. Nothing to give. But … her palm slapped the multi-tool on her belt.
She tried to unsnap its holster and draw it out one-handed. For the first time, she realized she was wounded. Suddenly her hand began to burn and throb. But no time for that. Keeping Mama fixed with a glare as threatening as the gun, she crouched, laid the weapon in the dirt, and worked the Leatherman free.
“Now, just take it easy,” she soothed — as much to herself as the horses. “Take it easy. I’m going to help.”
Opening the multi-tool, she crept toward the nearest fence post. Snap. she broke through the bottom wire. Then the middle.
“Now don’t move, still,” she said. “Stay right there.”
Going wide to avoid renewed kicking, she crept to the next fence post, on the other side of the trapped colt. Snap. She cut through the two wires. The colt was free but didn’t know it yet. And not out of danger. Jen pictured him galloping away, trailing 10-foot strands of barbed wire, tangling, going down.
“Good Bulldog. Good Mama. Now stay still.” Both horses looked at her, frightened, restive, but no longer crazed. Across the pasture she could see the other horses, gathered in a tight knot, watching, but no longer manic.
“Okay. Now.” Jen had no idea what do to next. But she didn’t want the horses to know that. She looked around. Something to hold Bulldog. Something to stop the bleeding. Nothing. She looked at herself — and still moving slowly so as not to alarm the horses, but thinking in rapid-fire, she unbuckled her belt, slithered it out of its loops, then stripped off her blouse.
At the motion, both horses pulled back. But Bulldog, still aware of the wires at his legs, didn’t try to run. Nor did Mama.
“Good, good,” Jen soothed. Terrified, but trying not to show it, she approached Bulldog, eased the belt around his neck and rebuckled it. Then she reached down, very cautiously, and peeled the wires away from his feet.
“Now, come with me. C’mon. Just a little ways and I’ll give you a treat.”
Leaving her gun in the dirt, she led Bulldog, limping, toward the barn, where she got a halter on him and tied him securely to a ring in the wall. Mama trailed and watched suspiciously, but didn’t interfere.
Once the colt was occupied with a cup of oats, she crouched and slowly, carefully, picturing her face being kicked off, bound his ruined leg with her blouse.
Then she ran to the house, smashed in a window, crawled through it, and called Nat at Lyons and Yale Good Foods. Finally, she collapsed on the kitchen floor and cried.
* * *
“Mad at you? Hell no!” Nat scoffed as he sat at the table, watching the doctor stitch Jennifer’s hand at the kitchen sink. One of Nat’s old Pendleton shirts hung loosely over her shoulders to cover her missing blouse. She had insisted the doctor tend to Bulldog first, and hadn’t said a word about herself and her fears until that was done.
“Why would I be mad at you? You saved that colt’s leg — and maybe his life.”
Jennifer sniffled. “But it was my fault and I didn’t know what to do and what if I made everything worse and I even broke into your house and …”
“Oh, girl, stop. From what you described, I’d say what happened was a stingin’ fly got up that colt’s nose and him and every other one of them dumb animals panicked. They’re herd beasts. It happens, even with all the best bug spray and carefulness in the world. I’m jus’ sorry you had to be there alone. But girl, even if you didn’t do everything a more experienced person mighta done, you did great with what you had. A reg’lar little heroine.”
Jennifer sniffled again, colored, and turned away to watch the doctor work.
“Only regret,” Nat added, “is with that gash you won’t be shootin’ again for a few weeks. And just when Brad and me are gettin’ a bunch of kids together for you to take your classes with. Tonio among ’em.”
Jen looked up. “Not shoot?” she grinned. “No way. As soon as I can go back out to the pasture and find my gun, I’ll be shooting again. So what if it has to be with one hand? And I’ll beat Tonio. Left handed I’ll beat him. You watch.”
* * *
And she did.
“Damn, I’m glad I didn’t bet money on beating you,” Tonio laughed as he and Jennifer sat atop a shooting bench, under the shade of the tin roof, eating lunch. It was cooler today, but they were both sweating. In the distance, the younger kids practiced Mozambique drills under the supervision of Brad and Christian Goodin. “You’re getting good.”
Jen grinned. “You’re not so bad, either.”
“Yeah. But you’ve been practicing.”
“Didn’t have much choice, did I?” Jen laughed. “Practicing shooting. Shoveling horse poop. It’s my life.”
“You don’t seem to mind much.”
“Nope. It’s my job.” She plucked a potato chip, offered her brother the bag, then admitted, “Anyhow, I deserved to work hard after what I did. Really, I deserved a lot worse. Out there …” she nodded toward the real world, “they’d have put me in jail. And I’d have just gotten more screwed up.”
“Yeah It’s better here, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Different. Weird. But better once you get used to it.”
“Speaking of that, Jen … have you heard what Dad’s up to? What he’s trying to do?”
She looked at him, her expression tightening at the mention of the man who threw her out of his house. “I don’t hear anything out here. But I have some idea.”
“He’s trying to change this place. And he can’t see that if he changes it, he’ll end up ruining it, filling it with exactly the kind of rules and regulations and dumb ideas about ‘security’ and ‘civilized behavior’ that are making life out there …” he, too, nodded toward the mountains dividing Hardy County from the real world “… so bad.”
Jen shrugged. “He’s going to do whatever he wants. Nobody’s going to stop him — unless they kill him or something.”
“But where’s he getting the money, Jen? If he didn’t have the money, he couldn’t do it. And Nat says it’s not Delaval money.”
Jen shrugged again and took another chip. “There was … well, I saw something that week I stayed with him and Mirabelle. It isn’t much. But it stuck in my mind.”
“I was on his computer one day … okay, yeah, I was sneaking, but I was really bored, you know, and looking for something to do. And I saw this whole bunch of emails back and forth. ‘Re’ this and ‘re’ that. I couldn’t read them because they were all … gobbledegook.”
“Yeah. Encrypted. But I could read the headers. And they were all ‘re, re re’ the same subject. I remember this because it sounded so mysterious: ‘Contingency Plan: Worst-Case.'”
“Okaaay. But that could be anything. Delaval business. Something personal.”
“I’m not finished. All the ‘Contingency Plan’ email was to and from a dot-gov address.”
“Dot-gov? You’re sure?”
“Dot-gov. I’m positive.”
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB — saving writers from themselves one typo at a time. And to Oliver Del SIgnore, faithful font of ideas for stuck writers.