There the horse languished, writhing on the ground. Ned winced and turned his back on the scene. The look of pain in the beast’s eyes rattled him. He drove it from his mind, concentrating on the work that waited for him on his desk at the office.

         Ned fixed his cold gaze upon the trail that ran serpentine switchbacks down the sparsely forested southern slope of Sugarloaf Mountain. Every so often, he caught a glimpse of the fading sunlight glimmering off Old Harry’s pickup. He could see clouds of dirt billowing up behind the truck as the rancher sped down toward the meadow.

         Old Harry arrived at the grim scene one hour after Ned had called him on his cellular phone.

         “Sorry ‘bout this,” Ned said, eyeing the man’s boots. He could not bring himself to look at Harry’s expression. “Don’t know what happened. One minute I was riding along nice and smooth; the next, I was face down in the dirt.

         The horse kicked suddenly, its whole body shuddering violently. Old Harry knelt beside the horse, poured water from a plastic bottle into her mouth and over her head. He stroked her neck gently, frowning.

         “You’d think I’d never ridden a horse before…” Ned picked at dried blood on his arm. His feet sluggishly urged him away from Harry and the horse, closer to the truck. He watched the sun droop close to the distant ridgeline in the pickup’s windows, compared it to sunsets in New York. “It’s been quite a while,” he staggered, “Like I told you back at the farm. But I did grow up in the country. I’m no stranger to horses.”

         Old Harry stood and shook his head. Wordlessly, he walked back to his truck and began digging through the mountain of rubbish in the back.

         “I’ll pay you extra, for this, of course – I didn’t intend to leave you flat.” Ned contemplated the truck bed, then looked over his shoulder at the horse. In the twilight, flies already swarmed over its mangled leg. “And don’t think I’m the kind that will try to sue you – that thought never crossed my mind.”

         Old Harry paused momentarily, elbow-deep in the truck. The last relics of sunlight slipped behind the ridge crest.

         “How are you going to get her in the truck?” Ned almost immediately felt foolish for asking. He watched Old Harry pull a shotgun out of the truck. “Isn’t there some way to save her,” Ned pleaded, guilt overwhelming him. How would he recount this story when he got home? How could he put a happy spin on this nightmare? Ned forced himself to look at the animal. Its struggles had subsided. Old Harry’s presence seemed to calm the horse.

         Ned scolded himself for driving out into the country, for trying to reconnect with a past that he had abandoned. All the fond memories of his vacation would be eclipsed by this moment. “Is there anything,” he begged, “Anything you can do other than shoot her?”

         “Her name,” Old Harry grumbled, “is Ariel.”

         Ned cringed as Old Harry put Ariel out of her misery. The shot thundered across the face of the mountains.

         Ned heard a second shot, and then silence.

Lee Clark Zumpe, an entertainment columnist with Tampa Bay Newspapers, earned his bachelor’s in English at the University of South Florida. He began writing poetry and fiction in the early 1990s. His work has regularly appeared in a variety of literary journals and genre magazines over the last two decades. Publication credits include Tiferet, Zillah, The Ugly Tree, Modern Drunkard Magazine, Red Owl, Jones Av., Main Street Rag, Space & Time, Mythic Delirium and Weird Tales.

Lee lives on the west coast of Florida with his wife and daughter.

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