Serving the Sentence
by Erastus Centaur
©2003 Erastus Centaur -- all rights reserved
It had been a long flight -- four flights over a twenty-four hour period, actually -- to get from Cincinnati to Mongolia. That was followed by a jeep ride that felt just as long as it bounced over the bad roads and rough terrain. And now, as Rose pulled the jeep into the camp, David expected to feel a sense of wonder at the start of an adventure. Instead, he felt his heart sink.
This was David's first job at an actual paleontology site. His advisor at the University of Cincinnati had assured him it was a wonderful opportunity to work with the top-notch team from the University of Montana. Looking over the camp here in northern Mongolia, he had his doubts about whether this opportunity was all that wonderful. The job might be to do a paleontology survey -- his area of study -- and it might look good on a resume, but northern Mongolia was out in the middle of nowhere.
David tried to keep in mind that it would only be for the summer, May through August, a mere four months. Then he would be back on a modern American university campus in the fall with all the amenities of modern civilization. Why had he thought paleontology was a good idea for a major?
Because, he reminded himself several times as he surveyed this desolate outpost, dinosaurs were so cool. And he was in Mongolia because a lot of dinosaur bones were found here.
Rose brought the jeep to a stop. "We're here. Let's get you settled in a tent."
There were perhaps ten tents scattered around the site, though they didn't look like the Boy Scout variety. They had canvas tops and sides, of course, but they were big enough so one could stand up inside and large sections of canvas could be opened for ventilation.
The tents were on the edge of a grassy plain, the Steppes of Central Asia, nestled against the foothills of a mountain range. When he looked across the plain, David was reminded of the prairie of Kansas -- or what the prairie might have looked like before it was divided into farms. Much of their work, however, would be in and around the hills.
They hadn't taken a dozen steps from the jeep when a man appeared from a tent, eyed David critically for a second and turned to Rose. "Rose, I thought we told you this wasn't a nursery. What are you doing bringing a child to camp?"
David felt himself shrink before the onslaught. He has just turned 21 and had completed his junior year! He was not a kid. His looks had given him away again. As he had learned through encounters with the police and bartenders, he was treated like he was 15, official documentation to the contrary notwithstanding. His height -- five foot seven -- his pale complexion, his brilliant red hair, his inability to grow a satisfactory moustache or goatee -- though his latest attempt at a moustache was still on his face -- all contributed to the impression of lingering childhood. His mother had tried to tell him it would work to his advantage when he was 42, but that was still a long time away and no help at the moment.
"Oh, shut up, Jack," said Rose. She turned to David. "Don't mind him. He's our resident grouch."
Jack had a burly physique and cultivated a tough-guy image, a combination that made many people -- not just David -- fearful. He wore cutoff jeans, a bright red tee-shirt, whose message was thankfully obscured by a leather vest. Both his hair and beard were brown and short, his visible face tan and weatherbeaten. His forearm tattoo did not say "Mom".
Jack grunted, but with a bit of a sneer on his face. He disappeared back into his tent as Rose steered David into a second one. Another man was inside, this one with better manners. "Hi, I'm Zane. You must be the new kid."
Though not great manners. According to David, if he had great manners there would be none of this "kid" nonsense. David shook hands anyway -- at least he was polite -- as he briefly considered if it was worth the effort to protest, "But I'm not a kid!"
Zane had hair nearly black with a neat salt-and-pepper beard. He was tall enough to be respected, but not so tall as to intimidate. He was slender, but you could see his strength.
David claimed the empty cot and proceeded to unpack his backpack and stow his few belongings. He was suddenly glad his brother Matt had offered the backpack, allowing him to avoid showing up lugging a suitcase and looking even more out of place.
As David approached the mess tent an hour later he had no trouble hearing Jack talking to Rose. "How 'bout you coming over to my tent? Say nine-thirty? I can even guarantee some privacy."
"Give it up, Jack," said Rose. "The answer hasn't changed from the other hundred times you've invited me to your tent."
"Couldn't have been that many. We've only been here two weeks."
"The answer is still no."
He reached a hand towards here cheek. She swatted it away and marched into the ness tent.
At dinner, David met the rest of the team. There was Amos, an imposing black man, the kind of guy that seemed rooted in the practical yet was thought of as the camp philosopher. David was impressed that he had completed a doctorate.
Sitting beside Amos was Piet, a Swedish blond. David had never seen hair such a brilliant golden-yellow, though David wasn't one to talk when his own was such a bright red. Piet's parents had used the Swedish spelling of his name, even though his parents were born in Wisconsin. Piet was the mechanical expert, a necessary person when vehicles were so far from civilization.
Next to Piet was Taki, the son of Japanese immigrants, who was an expert on really old fossils. David suspected he would learn a lot about trilobites from Taki. Taki also defied David's stereotypes by being six foot three and an excellent basketball player.
There was Ivan whom Rose introduced as 'the foreigner'. Ivan responded with what appeared to be an old joke, "I'm the foreigner? My home in Moscow is so much closer than yours that I'm almost a local." Ivan was also a student, almost done with his Masters degree.
On the other side of Amos was Chaz, a Texan if there ever was one, whose Stetson only left his head when he was asleep. His hair was dark and short and he had a well trimmed moustache. David was relieved that Chaz was only a couple inches taller than himself. The main job for Chaz was serving as translator with the locals, though he could identify fossils as well as anyone else.
There was Lily whose hair had been bleached by the sun. She doubled as the camp nurse. It was Lily who took one look at David's fair skin and asked if he had brought sunscreen. She gave him a large bottle with stern instructions when he said he didn't. She did not want to see him in her tent with sunburn.
And finally, David met Professor. The 'old man' probably had a real name, but nobody ever told David what it was. David doubted that anyone knew. Professor's hair had gone white, his face had become lined, his beard was bushy, his head and general physique were round. If he had been sitting in a classroom instead of a tent, he would have been wearing tweed with elbow patches.
The job of the team was to survey the surrounding area for the likelihood of fossils. Much to David's dismay, that meant any type of fossil, and probably wouldn't include dinosaur bones. Their work involved analyzing the type of rock and its age as well as looking to see if there actually were fossils in the rock.
Ah, well. His advisor back in Cincinnati had assured him that working as a grunt at this site for a summer would add appropriate luster to a resume, something about 'paying the dues'. Next time, David would be in more of a position to choose a site with higher chances of finding dinosaur bones. Always next time.
Over the next few days David settled into camp life with its lack of privacy, barely tolerable food -- he understood the reason for the bottles of ketchup at every meal -- and the camaraderie amongst fellow sufferers.
David got his first real taste of local culture when the trader pulled his truck into the camp just after breakfast at the end of the week. There weren't any nearby stores this far from the nearest town, so the trader had volunteered to bring supplies to them -- at a price, of course. He was a local that visited many of the area's nomadic tribes as a roving general store and news service. Chaz translated for Rose as she listed the supplied she needed, then translated the stories the trader had to share as they sipped coffee.
David's first encounter with Jack was a mere glimpse of what Jack could dish out. David frequently heard, "Come on, ya wimp!" or "Real men would just do it," or "I don't know why we even bother with a child like you." These comments came whenever David showed the slightest hesitation about climbing rope ladders, carrying any kind of a load, or simply getting his hands dirty.
Rose was the one David felt most comfortable around due both to the chance to talk in that long ride from the airport and to her faint resemblance to his Aunt Bess. After watching Jack's fourth dinner proposal David finally got the nerve to ask, "Why is Jack so mean to me?"
"It is something I figured out within a couple days of meeting Jack. Everyone else in camp will probably agree, but there is no way to verify it without asking Jack -- and asking Jack is like talking to a brick wall," said Rose. She studied David for a moment. "Sorry. Just because it is obvious to me doesn't mean it is obvious to you." She sighed. "The way I have it figured is that Jack is obsessed with being macho."
"That much is obvious even to me," said David. "But why?"
"You would have to ask Jack -- and don't expect an answer. He'll only get annoyed that you asked. All I can tell you is how you fit into it."
"How I fit in?"
"Yeah. Jack is obsessed with macho, but it was obvious to me at first glance he'll never get there. Then he has to look at Zane every day. Zane can get closer to Jack's macho ideal simply by opening his eyes in the morning than Jack can accomplish in a lifetime. My guess is that Zane's physique and personality just happens to match Jack's goal. Jack has to work at it, and is undercut by his own personality."
"So Jack hates Zane for being what Jack can't be. It makes some sense, but I still can't see why Jack bothers."
Rose ignored the comment. "And now we come to you. What do you think about the macho image."
"Not very much," said David. "Everyone I've known that has talked about macho has been a bully -- usually attacking me."
"And why attack you?"
"I'm short and look young." David shook his head. "They're bullies."
"In other words, it is because they know you can't defend yourself." She held up a hand to stop the protest that wasn't coming. "Whether you really can or can't usually has nothing to do with it. As you said, you look like you can't. How many of the fights after those attacks have you won?"
"I wish I knew." David let out a sigh. Rose waited. "I think about it a lot. I'm not very big or strong. I think it is wrong to fight."
"And on a macho meter, how would you rate?"
"How important to you is that macho meter?"
"Like I said, it isn't."
"That's why Jack hates you. You're the opposite of Zane. You want to have nothing to do with the macho ideal and Jack doesn't understand why you don't and thinks that you mock him in your refusal to attempt it."
"So what do I do about it."
"Endure it. There's not a lot you can do. It is Jack's problem. I know that understanding is supposed to bring compassion, but I'm afraid understanding the group dynamics doesn't bring us much closer to understanding the man. I know it is going to be a long summer for you, but it will be for all of us, at least when dealing with Jack."
"If Jack is such a pain, why is he even here?"
"Because he's good." Rose saw the answer didn't quite satisfy David. She sighed and looked off into the distance. "Because he can identify fossils faster than anyone else on this team and do it with greater accuracy. It is strange that he can put up with someone not knowing their stuff, but not with someone that he thinks isn't doing the work."
Professor made sure that Piet and Taki trained David in how to use the rope ladders safely and how to do some simple rock climbing. Taki tried to assure David that they did not survey the steepest cliffs. David tried to assure Taki that it didn't matter as he -- David -- wasn't going to be the one doing the surveying then.
Two weeks later, it was David's turn, his protests having been completely ignored. They -- David, Zane, Jack, and Amos -- were at the edge of a canyon. It was steep but not deep, though it would still hurt if you fell over the edge. It wasn't very wide either. There was just enough space at the bottom to walk on either side of the stream, which was currently dry.
The side of the canyon looked a lot steeper than David liked. Amos ignored the complaints as did Zane. Jack said, "Come on, ya wimp! A real man ain't afraid of a little height. A real man would even use the rock climbing rope, not this sissy ladder!"
So much for David not being the one to survey steep cliffs.
Zane and Jack lowered the rope ladder over the edge of the canyon. David watched carefully to make sure it was anchored firmly. Jack saw David's gaze and said in mock horror, "What? You don't trust me?" David rolled his eyes but said nothing.
David put the two-way radio over his head and said, "Testing."
Amos, wearing the radio's mate, responded with, "Roger."
David nodded. He also checked that his digital camera and GPS receiver were clipped to his belt and were working. Amos started the recorder that would allow their commentary of the rock to be transcribed later.
Jack said, "Come on, kid, quit your dawdling." David glared at him for a moment, then eased himself over the edge and started down.
At each change in the rock formation, David paused to report on the color and type of the stone, whether it had visible fossils, how many rungs on the ladder he was from the top, and what the GPS gave as his altitude. He also took a few pictures. It didn't take long for the GPS to indicate that there were no satellites "visible."
An hour later, David was describing the lowest visible layer of stone. "The top of this stratum is still ten feet, uh, three meters above the canyon floor. It is sandstone, pink in color, and seems to be aaaaaaaaaa..."
Amos winced as pulled the headphones away from his ears for a moment because of volume. He quickly recovered. "Dave!" Both Zane and Jack stared at Amos. "David! Are you there?"
Jack said, "The kid can't even manage a ladder."
"Quiet!" said Amos. "David! Answer me!" After a pause, Amos turned to Zane, "Can you see anything?"
"Not until the dust settles," said Zane. He tugged on the ladder. "I don't feel his weight on the ladder at all."
"David! Answer me!" cried Amos. Still nothing. "Should someone else start down?"
Before anyone could answer, Amos held up his hand for silence. "I heard a groan," Amos said softly. "David!"
Amos heard another groan, then faintly, "Yeah." After another short pause, "I'm here Amos."
"David, what happened?" Zane relaxed a bit on hearing that question. It wasn't filled with alarm. David had responded, at least.
"Just a sec -- the radio got knocked off." For a moment Amos heard rustling, then David's voice was clear. "I fell," said David. "Um. Since I'm still holding onto the ladder, it looks like the ladder broke."
Amos relayed the information to Zane and Jack. Jack muttered, "Little twerp," under his breath.
Zane glared at Jack. "And who was in charge of inspecting the ladder?"
Jack glared back. "I inspected it! Who knows what the fool kid did?"
"Are you hurt?" said Amos into the radio.
"Well," David paused, doing a physical inventory, "I think I have a bruise or two and I definitely have a headache from the bump on the back of my head. I also had the wind knocked out of me. I only fell a couple meters."
"Can you reach the end of the ladder?"
"Since I'm buried under about ten meters of my end of it, no, I can't."
"What does your end of the break look like," asked Amos. "Does it look frayed or cut?"
"Just a sec. Let me find it." A pause. "It looks cut."
When Amos relayed the news, Jack said, "Stupid kid can't even use a ladder right." He caught Zane's glare. "I mean, look! Get someone who can't stand still and the ropes rub against a rock outcrop which acts like a knife."
"Let's save the pieces to verify all that," said Zane.
"How about climbing on the rocks up to the end of the ladder?" Amos said to David.
"It looks pretty sheer and I don't have a rock-climbing rope. Didn't need one with the ladder."
"And where is that rock-climbing rope, Jack?" Zane asked pointedly.
"Back in camp," Jack said with a scowl. "Didn't need it with the ladder. Besides, the kid's no good with the rope."
"It looks like you're stuck down there for now," Amos said to David. "We'll have to send someone back to camp and get another ladder. Hold on. I'll stay up here and keep the radio on."
Hold on, he says, thought David. Holding on to my end of the ladder isn't going to do a thing for me. He felt recovered enough to first sit, and then stand, letting his end of the ladder fall in a heap.
Zane hauled up the top part of the ladder and inspected the broken end as he went to the jeep. Jack grabbed it out of Zane's hand to study it himself, then waved it Zane's face. "Yep, rubbed against an outcrop. Stupid kid." The ladder was stashed in the jeep and Zane and Jack took off for camp after assuring Amos they would be back as soon as possible.
After several minutes of silence, Amos said, "You OK, kid?"
"Yeah, I'm OK. It can't be too bad if I'm able to walk around. The headache is fading."
"Perhaps you should keep talking," said Amos. "Head injuries can do strange things."
"Yeah, I suppose. What should I talk... sshhh." David's voice dropped to a whisper. "I hear something coming."
David turned to the approaching sound. He was sure his yelp had attracted whomever it was that was coming. The locals in the area didn't seem to care for the research team. Would they try to take it out on him? He didn't have anywhere he could go except farther up the canyon. There weren't even good places to hide.
By the time he decided he could do nothing, the noise came around the last bend. It was a horse. Much to David's surprise, it was a horse without a rider, a horse without a halter. In this horse culture, a horse without a halter of some sort was strange.
The horse came up to David and began to look him over. It went over to the broken ladder, still where David had left it, studied it a moment, pawed the broken end, then looked up the canyon wall. How does a horse know about rope ladders?
The horse was far enough away and standing at an angle so that David could tell it was female. He might be a city boy, but he knew enough to tell mare from stallion. She was a beautiful animal with dark brown fur and black legs, mane, and tail. She had a white stripe from between her ears almost to her nose.
David studied her studying the ladder. If a horse got into the canyon then someone as small as himself could certainly get out.
Well, no. He should wait for Zane to return.
The horse completed her inspection of the ladder and came back to David, again looking him over carefully. He reached out a hand to pet her, which she allowed. He said, "That's a good girl."
Amos spoke over the radio, "Who ya talkin' to?"
I forgot all about the radio, thought David. "That thing that was approaching turned out to be a horse."
"Just a horse? No rider?"
"Yeah, that's the strange part. This is a beautiful mare and there is no halter or anything. I thought all Mongolian horses were tamed and owned, but this one doesn't appear to be."
"I thought so too," said Amos.
The horse stood beside David for a moment and let him pet and admire her. She then put her nose against his chest and pushed, just enough for him to take a step backward.
"Whoa girl! What's that all about?"
"What's what all about?" said Amos.
"This horse stuck her nose on my chest and pushed me!"
David stroked her nose a while longer and idly thinking about horses in general, when she gave him another firm push in the chest. "Whoa!" He managed to avoid falling by grabbing the part of her mane that hung between her ears. She didn't move until he had a chance to steady himself. Then she pushed at him again. This time he was ready and sidestepped her. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
She pushed at him again, more gently but more persistently. David took a couple steps back, then he looped his arm around her neck and stepped beside her. "I think this will work better."
That seemed to satisfy the horse. She proceeded to walk towards the direction from which she had appeared.
David followed for a bit, then stopped, pointed upward, and said, "I can't go with you. I'm supposed to wait for my friends."
Amos chuckled through the radio. "Good luck arguing with a horse, kid. What is she doing?"
"I guess she's guiding me out the way she came in."
"David, are you sure that bump on the head didn't scramble your brains?"
"My head's fine, Amos."
The horse gave David another determined push with her nose. He caught his balance, then circled around her back to the broken ladder. She ambled over and pushed with her nose again. Definitely determined, though in no hurry.
"Amos? I gotta feeling she won't take no for an answer."
"David, please stay put! Zane called on the cell phone and said they have a flat tire. He said he called Piet, who is going to grab the other ladder and walk out to them. They're only a kilometer from camp. It will take some time for Piet to get there and to get the tire changed."
"Zane and Jack can't change a tire themselves?"
Amos chuckled. "They probably can, but Piet will get there before they finish."
The horse pushed again. David stepped back and found his foot blocked by a large boulder, causing him to sit on it. The horse turned so that her flank was in front of his face. He didn't have room to stand up. He swatted at her. She didn't move. He pulled his legs up and scrambled to stand on the boulder. He stepped to the side. She moved to stay in front of him. He stepped again, she still barred the way.
"Amos? I just figured out what his horse wants. She wants me to ride her."
"She may want it David, but you're the human. Just stay put."
David sat on the boulder with his feet pulled up. The horse waited a moment, then swung her head around to face him. She blew air through her lips, making a sound that sounded exactly like an exasperated parent. She then pushed him in the chest again. He grabbed onto the boulder to hang on, then swatted her on the nose. She didn't move away. She pushed again.
"Amos, this crazy horse in being awfully persistent. She won't let me just sit here. She keeps pushing me with her nose. I'm going to have to ride her."
"Have you ever ridden a horse before?"
"No. There aren't many horses in Cincinnati."
"I haven't ridden one either," said Amos, "so I can't give any pointers. Look David, your story is getting way too weird. I'm wondering if that bump has you seeing things. A horse insists you ride it? That's crazy."
"I'm not seeing things Amos! This horse is actually pushing me."
"Perhaps I should tell the guys to bring Lily along."
"No, Amos. I'm fine."
"It sure doesn't sound like it."
David looked the situation over for a moment. He realized why the horse guided him to the boulder. He was up just high enough so all he had to do was turn around and sit on her back.
He did so. He was amazed that the horse stood patiently until he was well settled with legs on either side and a good grip on the mane. As soon as he was settled, the horse ambled in the direction she had come.
"Well, Amos, I'm off. I don't know where I'm going."
"David! Every so often I think Jack is right about you. Either that or that bump knocked all sense out of your head. I'll personally make sure Lily has a good look at that noggin of yours when we get you back to camp."
"My head's fine! There really is a horse down here and she insists that I ride her. I can't just sit down here with a horse this pushy."
Amos sighed, "At least you can keep in contact, David. Give me your GPS when you can."
The horse didn't move very fast, which was just fine with David. It gave him time to study the sides of the canyon. He reported his general direction and some interesting features to Amos as long as he was in radio range.
Even though the radio was silent, David didn't dare turn it off. "Well, old girl, I guess we're on our own."
In her slow, plodding walk, she made her way down the canyon. David was hungry, but had nothing with him to eat. After twenty minutes by his watch, the mouth of the canyon appeared. Beyond it was an empty rolling plain.
Shortly after the horse stepped into the plain, a man came riding up up to David and the horse, shouting as he came. He was obviously a local, though dressed a bit fancier than most of the local men, with a horse decked out with similarly fancy trappings. This one definitely had a saddle, not like the one David was riding. David didn't understand what the man said as it was all in Mongolian.
As the man got close, David decided it would be better to be on the ground. He managed to slide off the horse's back, but didn't nail the landing and ended up on his butt. Ah well, he was off. He got to his feet to face the man as he set the radio back on his head.
Much to his surprise, the man didn't approach David. He got off his own mount and faced the horse that David had ridden. It sounded as though the man was gearing up for a mighty argument with hands gesturing wildly and an aggressive stance. But with a horse?
Much more to David's surprise, the horse talked back! It was a sweet, rich feminine voice that seemed to manage the Mongolian language effortlessly. A horse that talks? Whatever she was saying, she said it with as much vigor and volume as the man. She pawed at the ground as if to emphasize a point or two and her ears went back and her tail swished wildly. If David hadn't been hearing the voice come out of a horse's mouth, he could easily have imagined the two were husband and wife in the moment before the dishes started flying.
David's radio crackled. Amos was saying, "...there? David! Come in please! Are you there?"
As soon as Amos took a breath, David said, "I'm here."
"Good to hear you. What's your GPS?"
"Hold on." David pulled his locator out of its holder and activated it. He read off the coordinates.
"Got it," said Amos. "We're still above the escarpment. There is a road nearby that will get us down. We should be there in a few moments. What's all that racket?"
"You're just going to say that I'm now hearing things. You know, a bump on the head? You might as well wait and see for yourself."
The man turned to face David, though he stayed near the horse. He began to sing. After a moment, David decided it wasn't quite singing. It didn't exactly have a melody. It seemed somewhere between song and chant. What is this? Am I trapped in some kind of Mongolian musical? The man won his argument and now gets to sing about it?
It became almost hilarious as it appeared the horse wasn't quite done arguing and kept interrupting the song. The man would have to break off singing to answer her.
David heard the jeep approach and turned to see it come along the face of the escarpment. He waved and turned back to the singer.
The jeep pulled up alongside. Piet was driving this time. "Come on, David. Hop in."
David leaned over to peer in. "Hi guys. Glad you found me. This is incredible," he sid, waving towards the man and horse. "That horse can talk!"
"Sure it can," said Jack. "You've obviously been out in the sun way too long, not to mention delusional from a head wound. Get in the jeep."
"No, no. The horse really spoke!"
"Come on David," said Zane with exasperation, "the sooner we get you in the car, the sooner you can get treated."
"I keep telling you I'm fine!" David backed up when he saw Zane's hand come toward the window. They'd have to get out of the jeep now.
"That does it!" Piet yelled as he shut off the motor and yanked off his seatbelt. A moment later, Piet was standing beside the jeep with his mouth hanging open as he stared at the horse.
The horse really was talking! Actually arguing. Right there, just a couple meters in front of the jeep. The song had been interrupted again. It soon resumed.
Now that the engine was off the others could hear it too. Amos and Jack got out of the far side of the jeep to listen and Zane came up beside Piet. All four mouths hung open.
"See? I told you I was fine!" said David.
"We're still gonna get your head checked," said Amos, absently.
They listened for a few minutes. "Anybody have an idea what the words mean?" asked Zane.
"The only one that knows Mongolian is Chaz," said Piet.
They listened for another moment. "Just think kid. You get to hear a real slice of Mongolian culture." said Amos.
"It's kinda neat," said David. "I wish I knew what it meant. I wonder why no one heard of Mongolian talking horses before."
"Is that all you guys have to say?" asked Jack. "It's kinda neat? Your brain has truly been fried. This is a talking horse! Start talking to agents! Get them on David Letterman as a Stupid Pet Trick!" Jack muttered several profanities.
"We need to be getting back to camp," said Piet. "Rose will have lunch ready soon. Her food is so much better hot than it is cold."
"And leave a Talking Horse meal-ticket just standing there? Where's your phone?"
"It's not going to be that simple," said Piet. "What agent is going to take your word for it? Besides, you can call from camp."
"We at least have to take a picture of this guy so we can find him again. Then we can get Chaz here to talk about coming to America."
Amos took several photos of the man and the two horses. The man had stopped singing and had a wolfish grin on his face. The five of them got back into the jeep with Zane moving over to make room for David.
As soon as David grabbed the doorframe to get into the jeep, the Mongolian started shouting and walking towards the jeep. The horse also stepped forward and tripped the man, sending him sprawling against the hood and bumper. David froze halfway in, eyeing the man carefully. The man recovered his balance and began to climb onto the hood and began to sing again. The menace in his eyes frightened David who quickly climbed in and shut the door.
To their amazement, the horse began to sing too! The Mongolian turned to her and waved and shouted, but she ignored him. After a moment, he returned his attention to the men in the jeep and his own eerie song.
Piet started the motor, but was unsure what to do next. The Mongolian merely knelt on the hood and sang. It wasn't really a good idea to put the jeep in motion with the man kneeling there, but the menace Piet saw was spooking him too. This was no longer a bit of cultural display.
"Let's get out of here," said Jack. His tone implied he felt it too.
Piet didn't want to hurt the man, so started backing up slowly. The Mongolian kept his position for a moment, then slid off. He didn't interrupt his song.
Once the man was off, Piet gunned it. Their backward motion kicked up sand at the Mongolian who kept right on singing.
It was obvious they were not going to be followed, so Piet spun the jeep around and took off along the escarpment.
"Man, that was weird," said Amos. He turned so he could see Jack. "Still want to get an agent for this guy?"
"No," was Jack's quick reply. "He's way too creepy even for me."
Amos looked over at David. "You OK kid?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Maybe that'll get some sense into that thick brain of yours," said Jack. "Keep you from doing fool things like wandering away." Jack continued on his tirade, to which David rolled his eyes and then tuned out.
After Jack wound down, the conversation ran on for a few moments about talking horses and creepy locals, then slowed to a halt. Amos put the topographical map back across his lap and tapped their position with a finger. It started to rain, developing quickly into a cloudburst. "I thought Chaz said it wasn't going to rain today," muttered Piet as he turned on the wipers.
Zane glanced at David, who looked completely lost in thought. "Hey kid, what are you thinking about?" asked Zane.
"Huh?" said David. His mind was a million miles away.
"Are you sure you're OK? Not suffering from too much sun or that bump on the head?"
"I keep saying I'm OK," said David. "Nobody listens."
"So what were you thinking about so hard?"
"Clydesdales," David said absently.
"Clydesdales?" asked Zane, surprised. "The beer commercial horses?"
"After spending the morning on that black and brown mare, you are thinking of Clydesdales?"
"They were my favorite horses when I was little, not that I ever got a chance to ride one. Today was the first horse ride of my life," said David. "I think I got the hang of it by the time I got off."
Zane wasn't quite sure what to ask next and within a few seconds, David looked lost in thought again. "So," said Zane. David glanced at him. "Do you think lunch will be any good?"
"When was the last time it any good?" growled Jack.
The question didn't seem to penetrate David's brain. The zoned out expression continued. "David?" prompted Zane. Maybe the bump had affected his brain in spite of his protest to the contrary.
With effort, David roused himself. "I think what I like best about Clydesdales is the shaggy hair around the hoof." David was quiet for a second. "That and how the shaggy part is white in contrast with the rest of the body."
It was time for another tactic, thought Zane. "David, can you tell us anything about the canyon? Was there much water in it?"
David looked at him strangely for a moment. "Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be a horse?"
"Can't say that I have," said Zane.
"Cut the foolishness kid, we need to know what that canyon is like!" said Jack, his voice getting loud.
David ignored him. He didn't even roll his eyes. Zane said, "Cool it Jack. Something strange is going on here. This isn't a good time to hassle the kid." Zane turned back to watch David.
Amos pulled out his phone and dialed, "Ah, Rose. Amos here. I think David is beginning to suffer from his head wound. Could you ask Lily to be available to meet us when we drive up? Thanks, dear. Bye."
"A horse is so big and strong," said David in a dreamy voice. "It can gallop so fast. I wonder what it would be like to be that big and strong."
"You can get to be strong by playing a sport like a real man,' said Jack. "A runt like you will never be big."
Zane put an edge in his voice. "I said cool it!"
Jack had a frown on his face and was ready with a comeback when David spoke again. "Have you ever wanted to gallop into the wind with your mane and tail flying out behind you? Just enjoy the freedom? The exhilaration?"
David paused for a moment. Zane glared at Jack. Jack glared back but kept his mouth shut. The wipers, even at top speed, seemed to do little against the rain. Amos could see the concern on Piet's face in trying to decide between hurrying for David's sake and driving safely.
David said, "Since I told you about my favorite horse, what's yours?"
"Thoroughbred," blurted Piet. He seemed surprised. A moment later, with much more deliberateness he said, "Yeah, Thoroughbred. I hadn't thought about it in years, but I was fascinated by race horses when I was a kid." He paused. "Thanks for reminding me, David." Another pause. "I think the kid is right. Galloping across the plains sounds pretty good right now. It would sure beat being stuck in this old jeep bouncing along in this excuse of a road and trying to see through this rain. Chaz really missed the weather report this time."
After a long silence, Zane said, "I've been thinking about how much I liked the stately quarter horse, the noble mount of the American Cowboy. A real man's job." He smirked at Jack. Jack frowned back. Zane paused for a moment. "I wonder what it would be like to be harnessed to a stagecoach? I'd use my strength to open the prairie."
"You guys got it all wrong," said Jack. "Ain't no horse better than the Arabian. That one has them all beat on strength, speed, and style. Ya need a horse bred by those noble men of the desert."
Zane said, "No, Jack, you're the one that's got it all wr-" About then, Zane saw the look in Jack's eyes. Jack didn't care if his claims were accurate, but he was quite willing to defend his views. Zane wasn't interested in a fight, even a verbal one.
They were all quiet for a moment, listening to the rain.
"Guys, this is really weird," said Amos. "I barely knew what a horse was as a kid. I've hardly seen one since. I've never had a favorite breed and don't know any of the ones you all have mentioned. I do know the beer commercial horses, but didn't know the name. In short, I know next to nothing about horses and don't care to learn. So why is it ever since Piet started talking about his favorite I've had an image of a black and white horse floating behind my eyelids? I never knew horses were colored like that. I'm sure I've never seen one."
"You mean a zebra?" asked Piet.
"Nah, not stripes. This horse has splotches."
"Sounds like a Pinto or a Paint," said Zane.
"I've heard of a Pinto car," said Amos. "There really is a kind of horse called Paint?"
"Sure is," said Zane.
Amos closed his eyes for a moment. "Yeah, I can see it. I see a white horse that looks like it was splattered with a can of black paint." He paused. "Or maybe it's the other way around." He paused again. "But that still doesn't answer my question. I didn't know this kind of horse exists. Why do I see it in my head?"
No one had an answer.
"We're not just talking about horses to humor David, are we?" said Amos with a bit of alarm. After a pause, when no one commented, Amos went on, "I wonder what it would be like to have a rider?"
"That sounds way too kinky. A real man would not let himself be ridden," said Jack.
Amos pounced on an opportunity to tease Jack. "Maybe so, but I think you would look great wearing leather straps." He winked at David.
Even David laughed at that one as Jack bellowed, "That's not funny!" They laughed a bit harder when Jack got a strange expression on his face that seemed to imply leather straps wouldn't be so bad, come to think of it.
The laughter subsided and the jeep became quiet. Even the rain had tapered off.
Then Jack said, "The Arabian is still the better horse."
Lily was waiting when the jeep pulled into camp. David knew it was futile to evade her, so went to the medical tent willingly, avoiding rain puddles along the way. The rest of those in the team followed out of concern and were soon joined by Professor.
Lily examined David's head as she said, "So what happened that made Amos so concerned?"
"He didn't believe me when I told him a horse found me in the canyon and started pushing me around and then when I told him the horse sang and also when he thought I was daydreaming about Clydesdales."
Lily glanced at Amos. He nodded. Lily said, "I understand his concern. There aren't any bumps or scratches on your head. We had better check reflexes." She got out a penlight to check for proper dilation in his eyes. "Did the rest of you hear singing?"
Piet glanced at the others before daring to answer, "Yeah. Female voice out of a horse." Jack looked like he didn't want to admit it, but he nodded with the others.
Lily checked David's knee reflexes and a half dozen other things as she asked, "And the daydreaming?"
David jumped in. "I don't know why they were picking on me 'cause Piet thought pretty hard about Thoroughbreds, Amos thought about Paints, Zane thought about quarterhorses, and Jack thinks the Arabian is better than the others."
Amos said, "So you were paying attention, kid." David nodded.
"I don't see anything wrong," said Lily, "though you might want to take it easy this afternoon." She turned to the other men. "If you heard a horse sing too, I had better check you over as well." She saw protests start to develop. "But it can wait until after lunch."
"I think," said Professor, as the group turned to go, "you had better take a moment to tell me all about your little adventure."
Amos sighed and began to talk.
At lunch the whole team gathered under the protection of the mess tent to celebrate Ivan's birthday, a chance to show him how Americans celebrate. Ivan was presented with a cake and the appropriate number of candles. They all sang the birthday song and everyone presented him with some type of gift, most often one that was a gag of some sort. Rose took lots of pictures with her digital camera. As soon as it appeared the sky was clearing, the party spilled into the rest of the camp.
As she surveyed the wreckage of the party, Rose was the first to notice something strange. There were leftover hamburgers. All five who had been in the jeep had eaten a very large lunch -- Lily had commented that she had never seen David eat so much -- and all five had avoided the meat. "Jack. A big man like you is eating vegetarian? I'm surprised."
"I have no idea why, Rose, the burgers just didn't look good today," said Jack. Rose could see him shudder at the thought.
This was a switch. Rose knew she wasn't a great cook, but her burgers were palatable -- at least, as the rest joked, if you put enough ketchup on them. But, bad as they were, Jack hadn't refused them before.
Rose shifted her eyes from Jack and studied David for a moment, another one who had been willing to eat her burgers. "I didn't think I would ever say this to you, David, but did you shave this morning?"
"Yeah, I did," said David, as he brought his hand to his cheek. This was a surprise. There was actual stubble there and it wasn't just a little bit, either. He ran his fingers across his face. It actually felt like he was capable of growing a thick beard, and he knew that such a beard had never grown on this face before. Perhaps he was one of those 'late bloomers'. Perhaps having a thick beard would get Jack off his back.
Perhaps pigs will sprout wings. He had attracted Jack's attention. "Stubble looks ridiculous on you, kid, especially the white around your mouth. You're not enough of a man to have a beard. And where'd you get those weird ears?"
David touched his ears. That was odd. The curl along the top edge unrolled into a point.
As David brought his hand back down, he noticed that there were a few more hairs on this arm than he remembered having -- and he remembered not having many at all -- and even more strangely, while the sparse hairs on his arm were red, the ones on the back of his hand were white. He checked the other arm. Same thing. Strange upon strange. He ran his fingers through the hairs on his arm, then through the stubble on his chin again. Was it a bit longer? "Rose, do you have a mirror?"
She disappeared for a moment to get it.
David felt an odd pain in his abdomen. "My belt feels tight," he said.
"I'm not surprised, with the way you were packing it in during lunch," said Rose, handing him the mirror. "Did you miss breakfast and try to make up for lost time?"
David set the mirror down on the table while he checked out the belt. He didn't seem fat -- his abdomen didn't jiggle anymore than it had before and he didn't look bloated -- but the belt was definitely too tight now. He undid the buckle and watched the ends retreat a ways into the belt loops. That relieved the pain a bit, but not entirely. The seams of his shorts looked a little strained. They would have to go. "Excuse me." He picked up the mirror and headed into his tent. His boots didn't seem to fit right.
Once inside, David took off boots and socks and stripped to his briefs. Men, faced with the female doctor, tend to become bashful. That was definitely the case David faced with Lily, the camp's sole medical staff, and he would no doubt have to face her soon. While his khaki shorts were tight, his briefs still had some give to them.
By the light of sun coming through the open screens of the tent, he could see several things that were wrong.
He had a lot more body hair -- chest, legs, arms -- than before. He didn't exactly have a lot -- he had noticed that Zane had a lot more -- but when one had so little any increase was noticeable. The hair on the top of his feet was white like the hair on the back of his hands. The rest of it was the expected brilliant red. His middle toes seemed large, as did his middle fingers. His class ring was loose and the hairs on his arm were getting caught in the spreading links of his watchband. He took both of them off.
He picked up the mirror. His beard looked to be on loan from someone capable of growing a thick beard who hadn't shaved in a week. Even more strange, the area he had tried (and failed) to cultivate into a mustache and goatee was now white, not red as Jack had said. How had his body managed that trick?
His ears definitely had points to them. His nose looked big and round. "Lily!"
He heard a bit of commotion outside the tent. Several voices seemed to babble at once, Jack's loudest among them. Lily stepped into the tent. "Something's wrong!" David wailed.
He was about to launch into his catalog of complaints, when Lily held up her hand. She held the edge of the tent so she could see out while speaking to David inside. "It seems it is happening to the others too. Piet and Amos now have thick stubble and the ears of all four of them look a little pointed."
Once she finished speaking, Lily came over to David, "Is there anything else that's different?"
David only got as far as showing her the white hair on the back of his hands before the other four came into the tent. "Waistline is getting tight," said Piet. "We might as well make this your infirmary. We aren't all going to fit in your little medical tent." All four proceeded to take off everything but their briefs. Even the personification of macho can get bashful in front of a female doctor.
While they stripped, Lily went to get Professor. His quick eye took in the situation within a couple seconds. He disappeared and could be heard talking a moment later. "Something strange is going on with our team members. I have no idea what. Just to be on the safe side in case this is contagious, Taki, Ivan, and Rose should head out to one of our nearby survey sites. You might even get some work done while you're out there. Please keep your phones on. Sorry Ivan, the party is over. Chaz, I'm sorry I might be putting you in harm's way, but please stick around. We may need you to translate. Rose, I would like to use your camera. Chaz, please find my tape measure."
Professor came back into the tent, camera in hand, to check on his team. "Do any of you feel ill or are in pain?"
He got a chorus of nos in reply. David said, "Well, only when my shorts were too tight."
Professor surveyed his team. Each man thought he had more body hair than before. Piet's and Jack's were the expected yellow and brown. Zane's seemed to be a variety of shades of gray, similar to the salt and pepper of his beard and not like the black of his hair. Amos had the strangest. His body hair had areas that were ghostly white against his black skin and other areas that were black. These areas were small and numerous and seemed almost chaotic.
"I hope all of you will consent to a few pictures and measurements. This is strange enough that I would like a record." He poked his head out of the tent for a moment. "The rest of the team is gone. Let's do this in the light." Ever the scientist, though Piet.
They each stood in front of the tent for a photo. While Professor downloaded them into his laptop, Chaz and Lily took measurements and asked the men about clothing sizes. Professor brought up the latest photo of David and positioned it beside a photo of David taken during the party.
The differences were striking. "David, it appears your neck is lengthening, and your nose seems to have gotten a bit fat," said Professor. He then added, "Check your ears too."
David grabbed the mirror for another look. It seemed his nose now took up the entire center of his face and was much rounder. His ears had grown a bit and had several red hairs at the point.
In the process of touching his ears, David again noticed his fingers. The middle one was half again as wide as the others and the whole of the last joint stuck out beyond the end of its neighbor. David showed his hands to Professor, who took pictures.
A moment later, David whispered, "Professor, I think my briefs are getting tight. What do I do about Lily?"
"Think of her as a doctor, not a woman. I'm sure she has dealt with male anatomy before."
David made a face, too bashful to believe Professor.
"Chaz," said Professor, "I think we need to give our friends at the medical center a call. I may not be a doctor, but this is not in any way normal."
Chaz grabbed the cell phone and dialed, then spoke in Mongolian. After much less time than Professor expected, Chaz shut off the phone. He had an amazed expression on his face. "I started describing symptoms and the dispatcher laughed at me! Of course, if I had heard those same symptoms I would laugh too." He shook his head in wonder. "Then she said that I had better get off the line because there was an emergency of some sort up in the hills. I guess we're under Lily's tender care."
David whispered to Professor with a grimace, "The briefs gotta go. I think they're about to split." Professor could see the leg holes were now quite tight.
"It's OK, David, you can take them off. As our medical staff, Lily has seen such things before."
David blushed across his nose and forehead, the only parts of his face not covered with hair, but obeyed. He grasped the waistband of his briefs and tugged downward, working the poor garment over a body now much too big for it.
When he got the band low enough for his manhood to spill out, he turned and even brighter shade of red. What a thing to reveal before onlookers! David wanted to dash into any nearby tent, but that was simply not possible with his briefs around his knees. He felt frozen in place from embarrassment.
Jack gave a low whistle in appreciation of its size, then said, "David, I'm impressed. How does a guy with a cock like that manage to act so wimpy? You should be proud, not embarrassed."
"It, um, didn't used to be like this," David stammered. It was a huge thing, reaching halfway to his knees with a coloring that was darker than the rest of his skin. David was afraid to touch it or even think about it. He didn't want it to stiffen, not in front of Lily.
Jack's chuckle showed his delight. "If that is one of the benefits of whatever is going on, then bring it on!"
Jack had a big smile on his face as he struggled with his own briefs. The smile faded quickly when his own manhood was revealed -- it wasn't any larger than before.
Zane said, "Don't worry Jack. Remember that David starting changing before we did." He turned to Amos and Piet. "Well guys, I suppose we should also strip to show the big guy we're all in this together."
They did so. Each assured Jack that his own manhood hadn't grown yet. Jack was now the one embarrassed as even mild mannered Piet's manhood was bigger than his own. And everyone could easily see that.
Now that he was naked, Amos started tracing the outlines of the many white patches of body hair. He would inspect a patch, then stare off into the distance or close his eyes. After a moment, he would move onto the next patch. He looked so deep in thought that no one wanted to disturb him.
Professor noted the pattern of patches while Amos inspected himself. The hair on Amos' hands and feet was white, but with lots of small splotches of black, like a densely spotted Dalmatian. The hair on his arms and legs was black with splotches of white. Across his torso, front and back, were a large number of white spots about the size of the professor's fist, all crowded together.
After ten minutes Amos picked up the mirror and inspected his head. His beard was black, the hair on top of his head was black, though it was now straight instead of curly. He tugged at a few of the straight hairs. The new hairs on the left ear were black, the ones on the right ear were white. When he was done, Amos turned to the group and said, "Are you guys still thinking about horses like we were in the jeep?"
"Yeah," said Piet with a surprised look on his face. "Now that you mention it, even the party couldn't shake the image of a Thoroughbred floating behind my eyelids." David, Jack, and Zane nodded in agreement.
"I've had that image of a Paint in my mind the whole time as well," said Amos. "I think I know what's going on. We're becoming horses."
"Aw man, don't joke like that," said Jack with derision. "Men don't become horses."
Amos glared at Jack. "I would hope that is simply an automatic reaction of your little brain and quick mouth. Something is going on here as you have noticed." Amos paused for a breath. "Consider. The pattern of my white body hair matches the markings of the Paint that I see clearly when I close my eyes. The white hair on David's hands and feet and in his beard suggest the white stockings and white face of the Clydesdales he talked about. Zane's hair darkens to black on his hands and feet and suggests a dapple gray with black stockings. Your own hair also darkens at his hands and feet suggesting a brown horse with black stockings."
"Your whole theory is based only on hair color?" asked Jack.
"Not at all. That's just how I figured it out. Look at David's ears and nose. Horses have pointy ears and rounded noses. Check out his fingers and toes. Horses have only one toe on each leg."
"That's still crazy," said Jack.
"Do you have a better explanation of why your body is changing?" Jack shook his head. "I didn't think so."
Zane said, "Your theory might be right, but if David is becoming a Clydesdale, I would expect brown fur, not red. And though I can't say I'm an expert on horse breeds, I've never heard of a yellow Thoroughbred." He nodded towards Piet.
"Sorry," said Amos, "I don't have an answer for that."
"So what triggered the change?" asked Piet.
"I don't know for sure. Since the five of us are affected and no one else seems to be -- though I know it may be too soon to tell -- it must have been triggered when we were together and no one else was around. The first time that happened was when we pulled up alongside David and listened to the horse talk and sing."
"So you think it was the horse that did this?" asked David.
"The ride back in the jeep certainly didn't make it happen." Amos paused for a moment. "It probably wasn't the horse. That man was pretty creepy. My guess is he did to the horse the same thing he is doing to us."
"That still doesn't answer how or why," said Piet.
"No it doesn't. I don't have those answers."
"In other words," Professor said, as he gathered his thoughts, "you had an unfortunate encounter with a local who put a curse on you, no doubt because you violated some taboo which you have no knowledge of. I might even theorize that he installed an image in your brain and told your body to reshape itself to match."
They fell silent for a moment as they recognized there wasn't any way to refute the theory. Professor said, "From what I see of David, another round of photos and measurements are in order. If you are willing, I'd like to take several close-ups of various features." He looked at David expectantly.
There was no mistaking Professor's meaning. "Um." David swallowed hard. "I guess."
The close-up of David's manhood -- to David's extreme embarrassment -- showed a gigantic specimen hanging to his knees now considerably darker in color. It was backed by a large and very hairy ball-sack. The legs on either side were also quite hairy.
David was now standing with his heels off the ground, balancing on the balls of his feet. His feet were now long and slender tipped with one very large toe and four tiny stubs.
David's hands were photographed next, showing the back of one and the palm of the other. Professor even put a quarter in David's open palm to show scale. The hands were now narrow with one large and long finger tipped with a thick nail and four short ones. There was a lot more hair now emphasizing the change from red to white at the wrist. David could still grasp a cup, but couldn't grasp a pen or hold onto Professor's quarter.
Jack examined his own strange hand and said, "We seem to be quite well equipped to give someone the finger. I doubt we could avoid it."
The next close-up was of David's head, both from the front and the side. His nose was now huge, beginning to push between the eyes and moving the mouth forward. Hair was now growing on his forehead and nose. This hair was white across the whole nose, the white extending up around his eyes to his hairline. His ears had grown some more and were attached higher on his head than before.
Enough hair had grown on the faces of the other men to show what their markings would be. Amos was developing a white star in the middle of his forehead, bright in contrast to the black hair around it. Piet had a blaze from hairline to between his eyes, though there wasn't much contrast with his yellow hair. Zane had a stripe the whole length of his nose, the rest filling in with dapple gray. Jack was also developing a star surrounded by brown hair.
Full body shots of David, front and back, showed a noticeably longer neck with a ridge of red hair down the back of it to the shoulder blades, a much more barrel shaped chest, a lot more body hair -- though David's pale skin was still visible -- and a stub of a tail that was already covered with red hair. His arms seemed to hang funny. His shoulders were pulled forward and seemed to swallow up a bit of the upper arm and the elbow now bent forward rather than inward.
Photos were also taken of the other four men, whose features were similar, though not as progressed as far as David's. The exception, which was distressing to Jack, was that their manhood refused to grow.
About the time that Professor was done dumping the photos in his laptop, David said, "I don't want to be a horse."
"So change back," said Professor.
"I don't know how. I don't even know how I'm changing into a horse."
"I don't know either." Professor turned back to this laptop.
Lily had an inspired thought. She came over to David and began to stroke his neck.
Zane said, "When we were in the jeep, David, you dreamed about galloping across the prairie. Perhaps you can think about actually doing that."
"That might have sounded fun back then but it doesn't now. How am I going to meet a nice girl when I look like a horse? I won't be able to go to a dance or even graduate! I'd rather go to a dance than gallop across the prairie."
"Zane," Professor said, "Would the elder that did all this volunteer to undo it?"
Zane laughed. "No, he won't undo it even if we said, 'Pretty-please with sugar and honey on top.' That was one weird and scary dude. It seemed like he was doing it for a very particular reason. The only other time I saw an expression like that was when I was a POW back in 'Nam. My captor had that same grin on his face when we both realized I was in his control and there was nothing I could do about it. No, this dude isn't going to change us back until his purposes are satisfied. And I don't particularly want to be around him long enough to find out what his purposes are. I'd rather be a horse for the rest of my life than be under his control."
Professor could see David didn't like that news and needed a distraction, so he asked David to recount his flight from Cincinnati while Lily stroked his neck.
The next photograph of David's head showed a shape that had clearly departed from human, though it didn't yet look right for a horse head. His face was much longer than before; the muzzle had pushed between the eyes. The hair on his nose and forehead had now obscured his skin. His ears were too wide for horse ears and too pointed for human and perched high on the side of his head.
Professor asked David to turn around, then clapped his hands behind David's head. Both ears twitched towards the sound. "Try to figure out how to move them," said Professor.
David moved his hands to the ears with the intent of wiggling them by hand. He found his arms and fingers didn't move right, his big finger was longer than he thought it was, and his ear had moved. He jammed his thickened nail into the side of his head before he found his ear, then discovered again he didn't have enough of a thumb to grab the ear.
"I hate this!" he wailed. His rising frustration looked like it was about to boil over.
Lily resumed her stroking along David's neck and behind the ears, though now it was a bit of a reach. David relaxed as he leaned into it. After a minute he was able to endure more photos.
The photo of his body showed that his arms had shifted forward more and that more of his upper arm seemed to be swallowed up by his torso, which was longer and rounder. He now had flanks. His tail was longer.
Professor wiggled David's tail. "This is another body part you didn't have before. Try to move it yourself."
Jack said, "Sorry, Professor, you're not wiggling my tail." His voice was halfway between an apology and a leer. He reached behind himself, but found with the changed position of his arms, he couldn't reach his tail. "Lily, could you wiggle my tail for me?"
Jack's expression may have been hidden behind fur and a new bone structure and now unreadable, but his tone of voice made his real wish unmistakable.
"Sorry, Jack," said Lily. "You'll have to get someone else to do it. I'm not touching your tail."
The next photo was of David's hands. The nail had thickened to cover the entire fingertip. The joints of the finger had reformed into recognizable fetlock and pastern -- it was Zane that supplied the terms. The hand had lengthened into the cannon; the only evidence that it had been a hand was that it was a bit wider than what was normal for a horse and there were four stubby nails along the sides.
The photos of David's feet and legs showed a condition similar to his hands. Since David was teetering on the fetlock, he was much taller than Professor, a view he liked very much. He realized he couldn't support himself like that much longer and would have to sit. He was afraid that if he did, he would never stand on two legs again.
Again, David was embarrassed when the photo was taken of his groin. There was now a patch of fur across the base of his member, the start of his sheath.
"So why is it David's cock is so immense and even has the start of a sheath and mine hasn't grown at all and is still hanging in the breeze?" said Jack. "Did this curse simply forget my cock? What kind of a curse is that? How can I be a proper stallion with a cock this small?" There was panic in Jack's voice.
"Cool it," said Piet, "Whatever the problem is, it affects us too."
"I wonder," mused Amos, drawing out the thought, "if this curse is waiting to play a big trick on us." That got Jack's attention. Amos looked like he was enjoying the tease. "I wonder if this curse is going to make us female."
"Don't say that! Don't even think it!" Jack bellowed.
"After all," Amos was downright laconic, "A herd needs only one stallion and it appears that David will get the job."
"That little twerp isn't worthy of being a stallion!"
"Watch out. You probably haven't noticed lately, but 'that little twerp' is now bigger than you."
Jack got as far as saying, "This is so unfair!" before lapsing into a string of profanity.
Professor disappeared into the mess tent and reappeared with a mug of tea. Piet said, "Chaz, could you get some coffee for me? I don't think I would fit in the mess tent anymore. Anyone else want some?"
"What do you want it in, a bowl?" chided Chaz. "I doubt you could manage a mug."
I don't think coffee is a good idea," said Lily. "Since all you guys avoided meat at lunch, I suspect your digestion is mostly horse by now. I don't think coffee for a horse is a good idea."
"Not that it's all that good for a human," muttered Zane.
"If you are hungry," said Lily, "I'm sure I can find something suitable."
"Yes, I'm hungry," said David. The others echoed him. In a moment, Lily was back with several bunches of carrots.
David worked a carrot between his two long fingers and tried to pick it up. "This isn't going to work." A moment later, he said, "Hold on. I got it." He had the carrot squeezed between the two thick nails. He then found he couldn't bring it to his mouth.
"I guess you're going to have to lean over and grab it with your lips," said Lily. David's eyes widened. "Sorry, David, but you had better get used to it."
David leaned over, lost his balance, and put those thick fingernails on the ground. He looked down and let out a ragged sigh. On four feet. A big symbol that his humanity was just about gone. Lily was quick to begin scratching him between the ears again.
Dave was still hungry, though. He reached with his lips and found it quite easy to snag the carrot. He bit down on it. "Ow!" No longer having fingers to investigate the problem, he spat out the mouthful -- including a metallic tooth. "My crown fell out!" He investigated with his tongue. "That's strange. When it was put in, I remember the dentist shaped what was left of my tooth into a point. It isn't a point anymore; it feels like a regular molar." Lily could see David's tongue working around his protruding mouth. "I can also feel a gap between my front teeth and the rest."
Zane said, "That's normal for a horse. There's no need for canine teeth when you're not a carnivore and the molars need to be close to the jaw joint."
David spat out another chunk of metal. Lily said, "My guess is that another chunk of filling just got expelled as your teeth reformed as horse teeth."
"How many teeth does a horse have?" asked David.
"I don't know," said Zane. "I suspect we'll be able to count teeth soon."
Davie eyed the carrot. "I'm still hungry." He took another careful bite, then finished off the carrot. Before biting into the next carrot, spat out another filling. "I think that's the last one." He proceeded to eat carrots as fast as he could. The other four were now spitting out occasional fillings as they ate.
When the carrots were gone, David said, "I'm still hungry."
Lily got a loaf of bread and proceeded to tear off chunks and set them on the table. All five of them ate as fast as she could tear. She went back for the rest of the bread and carrots, then all of the apples. When that disappeared, she brought out all the fruits and vegetables she had.
"Fuel for growth," observed Professor as the horses devoured the camp's resources. "However, I must insist that you switch to grass if you are still hungry. We have to eat too."
David said, "Yuck," but changed his mind once he tasted it.
The men grazed quietly while they submitted to another round of photos and measurements, including photos of the mouth and a count of teeth. All had 42 of them, in much better shape than some had been in a long time. Other measurements were done a little differently this time as all five of them were now standing on four legs.
David looked a lot more like a horse than a human, though there were details that didn't quite look right. It was the little things. Ears that didn't quite seem to be in the right position, head not quite in proper proportion, arms -- forelegs -- that didn't seem positioned quite right, hindlegs that weren't the right shape, barrel that looked quite scrawny, mane that looked too short, and tail that looked like a bushy bottle brush instead of a long cascade of hair.
Lily stopped calling out measurements to Chaz when she measured Jack's tail and legs. "What's going on back there? Why so quiet?" said Jack.
"You're just fine, Jack," called out Chaz. "Everything is as it should be. That is for someone turning into a horse."
"Oh, no. You can't fool me. There is something you aren't telling me." He stuck his head between his forelegs. Lily and Chaz stepped back out of the way "Damn. There seems to be too much fur in the way. I can't get a good look."
Jack carefully turned to face Piet's flank. "Hold it there a moment, would you Piet?" Jack stuck his head under Piet's belly.
"Jack!" said Piet, "I'm not that kind of guy," but he didn't step away.
"All in the name of science, man." Jack now got one eye where he could see where he wanted. "Yours shrunk!" He pulled his head back. "I'm sure of it! It's just a nub, and your balls are tiny too!" He stuck his head between his own legs again. "That means I can't see mine because it isn't there!"
The panic was rising in his voice. Lily put down the tape measure and came up to Jack. "Calm down Jack. Take it easy." She reached to scratch him behind the ears.
He stepped aside -- clumsily -- to avoid her touch. "You don't understand! That means I'm not going to be a stallion! I can't be a woman. I'm a man! I have a dick! I have balls! It can't be true. I'm not some silly mare!"
Jack was fully into his panic now. He pranced around and shied from everyone's touch. Since he wasn't used to four legs yet, he also stumbled a lot. Lily was afraid he would hurt himself. Jack wouldn't respond to anyone's voice. His ranting had turned to general profanity and his gyrations became wilder and more clumsy.
"Someone get some rope," said Professor. "Lily, do you have any tranquilizer?"
"The rope is with Taki," said Chaz. "He heard about this morning's problems and wanted to make sure he had enough to get out of any canyon."
"I don't have enough tranq for a horse," said Lily. She almost had to shout to be heard over Jack's ranting.
Just then Jack bumped up against a tent. It collapsed, harmlessly. The touch and movement spooked Jack, who simply fled. He was clumsy on four feet and found he couldn't go on two. Even so, he quickly outdistanced Chaz.
Professor ran for a jeep -- to discover one was at the worksite and the other was inoperable. Piet had been working on it when he was called away to change a tire and help search for David.
A sound off to her left drew Lily's attention from Jack's disappearing form. She glanced over to see that David's eyes had gone wide. She started talking in a soothing voice, "It's OK David," as she walked over to him and put her arm around his neck and scratched him behind the ears. Lily kept up her reassurance for several minutes, even after she heard a long shuddering sigh from him.
"Thank you," he said. "I was getting very close to taking off like Jack did." He turned to Amos. "You look so calm. I almost completely freaked out. You've just turned from man to horse. How can you take it so calmly?"
"Well, kid, I don't sweat the things I can't change. There are things I have control over and things I don't. I had no control when my body shifted from human to horse. No need to sweat it. I do have control of my attitude about being a horse. If the cosmos decides for some strange reason that Amos is to be a horse, then I say, let me enjoy the experience while I can. Is it scary? Sure. And sometimes I can even enjoy a good scare. That would at least bump me out of any ruts I might be in."
"But this has taken away everything that makes you human!" said David.
"Not everything. Not by a long shot. I can still talk, and I would bet I haven't lost one bit of my intelligence."
"Are you sure?" asked David.
"What's eight times twelve?"
David was startled by the question. "Uh, ninety-six."
"A horse can't do that. I also believe that I am still human because I still have a soul. I still understand God." He paused for a moment. "At least I understand as much about God as I did before and as much as any human can."
"How do you know that?"
"I was meditating on God and various religious concepts during the course of the change so that I wouldn't panic like Jack did."
That satisfied David. He wasn't going to lose his mind.
Professor called the worksite. "Has anyone discovered their belt is way too tight?"
"Nooo..." said Rose, "What kind of question is that?"
"I'll explain when you return and it is safe to do so now."
"We're on our way. Taki is getting hungry."
The jeep arrived back at camp just before sunset and Professor and Lily came out to meet them. "I need to talk to you before you get into the camp. It seems that five of our team, David, Amos, Piet, Zane, and Jack, encountered a curse of some kind. The curse has changed all five of them into intelligent horses."
"Professor, this has got to be one of your crazier practical jokes," said Taki.
"No joke. Amos," he called out, "please come over here."
Out from behind a tent came a beautiful Paint horse. It approached the jeep, though its movements suggested it had to think about each step. Rose said, "That's a beautiful horse!"
Taki said, "That horse may have beautiful markings, but the horse itself seems scrawny, gangly, and a klutz."
Rose glared at Taki a moment, then turned back to Professor, "Where did you get it?"
Professor said, "Why don't you say hello, Amos."
"Hi, guys." said Amos. "I'm glad you think I'm beautiful."
Hearing a horse speak was shock enough, hearing it speak in the voice of Amos was almost too much.
Professor raised the camera and snapped a picture. "I just love your expressions."
After recovering from the shock, Rose bounded out of the jeep and gave Amos a hug. "I love horses! Always have."
Taki climbed out, but didn't move very far. "You aren't using ventriloquism, are you?"
Ivan stayed in the jeep. "Professor, this can't be good."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't remember the details, but there are old Russian legends about men that become horses. If these horses remain in camp, I'm afraid I must go home to Moscow."
"I'm sorry if you must go, but you're being foolish. The curse that affected David and the rest can't affect you now."
Ivan didn't look convinced.
As they walked into camp -- Rose with a hand on Amos, Taki looking puzzled and hanging back, and Ivan bringing up the rear -- Amos told his part of the story. Amos introduced Rose to the new David, Zane, and Piet.
Of course, Rose immediately asked, "What happened to Jack?"
"He fled," said Professor.
"You didn't go after him?"
"You had one jeep and Piet had left the other one in pieces."
"The change was too much for Jack?"
"What do you mean, 'not exactly'?"
"David is the only stallion."
Rose's laughter could be heard far into the night.
"Now ever so gently adjust your wrench counter-clockwise. No, no, the other direction." Taki glared at Piet, who was speaking. "Um, sorry, you're looking down on a bolt pointing up. I mean counter-clockwise when looking from the bolt head."
It was a strange sight -- a horse sticking its head under the hood of a jeep. But the jeep needed to be put back together and Piet was the only one with the expertise. And Taki was the one chosen to be Piet's hands.
Taki didn't know anything about car repair. For that matter, neither did Rose, Lily, Chaz, and Professor. That left Ivan, who wouldn't go near the horses. At least Taki knew what a wrench was, even if he didn't know what direction to turn it.
It had not gone well. Piet had to explain everything.
But they were almost done. Piet was using his good hearing to tune the engine. "A little more. Oops, a tad too much. Ease it back just a hair. There! That sounds good."
Since the horses had eaten so much of their supplies, breakfast for the humans was rather strange -- eggs and sausage and nothing else. The horses themselves had grazed for their breakfast. Ivan ate his breakfast in his tent, to be as far from the horses as he could get. The discussion as they ate had been about how to track down Jack and then about what to do next. The discussion hadn't gotten very far.
When Taki shut off the motor, the team could hear the trader's approaching truck. Rose was delighted that the trader chose to come that day as it saved her the long trip into the closest town to replenish all that the horses had eaten. She was also surprised as he had been there only two days before. Why would he come back in less than a week?
He came slowly that day. Tied to the bumper of his truck was a rope with the other end around Jack's neck. The trader was being kind as Jack was still clumsy on four feet. The trader wasn't on any particular schedule anyway.
When the truck stopped and the trader got out, Professor and Chaz were there to meet him. Lily went straight to Jack an put her arms around his neck. The trader walked around to the back of his truck as he said to Chaz, "I wonder if this beauty might belong to you." He saw Lily. "I guess it is true." He untied the rope from around Jack's neck.
"Yes, this is one of ours," said Chaz. "How did you know?"
Lily said, "Jack? Jack, are you in there? Jack, it's Lily. Jack, please speak to me." As she spoke, she stroked Jack's neck and scratched him behind the ears.
"Hi, Lily," said Jack after a minute. His voice sounded weary.
"Are you OK?"
"I'm alive. Is that enough for now?"
Lily continued to stroke the sweet spot behind his ears. "I suppose it is."
"It's a long story," said the trader.
"It always is," said Chaz, "and we want to hear every word of it. It isn't very often we encounter men who become horses. I'm sure we could trade your story for the one about what we did when our team members transformed."
"I think a lot of tribes around here would find that story entertaining," said the trader.
"I'll bet", said Professor, once Chaz had translated.
"Before we sit for your story and mine," said Chaz, not translating Professor's comment, "we should get today's trading taken care of. Men tend to eat a lot as they transform."
Lily guided Jack back into the camp, where Amos and Piet made a big deal of welcoming him and Rose worked hard to hide a smirk. The rest of the team helped with storing provisions, including oats and lots of extra carrots.
Rose laid out coffee for the trader -- everyone else got their own -- while the trader settled in to tell his story. Humans and horses gathered 'round with Ivan making sure he was as far from the horses as he could get and still listen comfortably.
"A strange plague struck the horses of Mongolia," the trader said. "Our animal doctors don't know what it was. It came, did its devastation, and vanished before outsiders could come in to identify it. Our herds were decimated, losing as much as fifty percent. Since much of our tribal culture is centered on the horse and a man's wealth in this region is measured in horses, this was a calamity.
"One small tribe high in the western mountains held an ancient wisdom which allowed their members to become horses. The quality of the horses they sold was legendary. They even managed to escape the Communist purges by keeping the local officials supplied with the best horses in the country, the offspring of their time as beasts. Those officials knew it was a bribe, but needed the horses for the army that was facing both Russians and Chinese across the border.
"After the plague had done its work, this tribe volunteered to teach its wisdom to others to allow tribes across the country to replenish their herds and pull themselves out of poverty. They weren't good judges of character, so taught that greedy fellow your team encountered.
"The wisdom allows our people to replenish our herds by taking the form of a horse and bearing horse children. The person that is chosen for the task keeps the form for at least one birth. They may then choose to remain a horse or to become human again.
"We, of course, treat our own in horse form differently than we treat our horses. One of our own is never harnessed and never ridden. They are not beasts of burden. It would be a dishonor to do otherwise.
"As part of my rounds, I met yesterday afternoon with the tribal elder that your team members encountered. I have never trusted him, having found he is greedy and ruthless. I would do a favor for any other person I meet in my travels. I will not do one for him as he will make sure it is to my disadvantage. If anyone had asked me, he wouldn't have been given the wisdom. He used blackmail so that he and his wife were included in the party that traveled to the western mountains.
"This elder commented that he had used the wisdom, but the new horses had wandered away and he was concerned for their safety. He asked if I would watch for them and let him know where they might be found. He even offered a reward -- a very small one -- if I would bring any horses to him or to direct him to them.
"The horse that found your boy is the elder's wife. He had forced her into helping to replenish his herd. She is so angry with her husband she has wished to stay in horse form. She would rather have a stallion mount her than her husband. He can do nothing about that. She made sure I knew her part of the story as well. She found the boy. She knew flash floods frequently hit the canyon and that it wasn't safe to stay in it for very long. She offered herself as a guide, then as a mount. She knew the possible result if anyone saw the boy on her back but didn't expect her husband to be waiting at the mouth of the canyon.
"When the elder found another man using his wife as a mount he declared that such a man had insulted him and must be sentenced to join his herd. He ignored the protests of his wife that the boy was innocent, that she only did it for the boy's safety. If anyone should be punished it should be her. The elder was unmoved.
"The wife convinced the elder to make your boy a stallion instead of a mare. He agreed as he thought the hair color was unusual and knew that a stallion would produce more offspring, spreading his unique color through the herd. Those horses would then fetch a higher price."
David interrupted. "The wife isn't telling all the truth. She may have offered to be a guide, but she was quite insistent that I ride her by backing me up onto a boulder and then blocking my way off it. Since I didn't know about the taboo, I decided it was easier to ride her than not. I think she was in on the scam. I think she wanted to have some red-furred offspring of her own."
"Our stallion speaks!" joked Jack.
The trader said to David, "You may be correct as she has been as much of a problem as her husband. Yet it did rain yesterday." He went on with his story.
"When more of your team appeared and took the boy away, the elder quickly convicted them of being horse thieves. That tribal law applied as the boy had already been convicted and the wisdom had been set upon him though it had not yet taken effect. In the eyes of tribal law, he was already a horse. The sentence for a horse thief, at least in this time of rebuilding the herds, is to become a horse and help with the rebuilding. Many mares are more useful for that task than many stallions. Besides, he already had a new stallion in the boy.
"The wife influenced the application of wisdom by using a bit of wisdom of her own. The punishment for a horse thief is to become a horse permanently. She used her wisdom to make it temporary as they are foreigners. She could not prevent her husband from using the wisdom."
Professor said to the trader, "I'm wondering if you could help me understand a little detail here. You said that humans that became horses were special, they were never harnessed. Then you said that such horses were treated just like natural horses under tribal law." The trader started to smile at about this point in the translation. "Am I the only one that sees this contradiction?"
By the time Chaz finished translating, the trader's smile was quite broad. He replied, "When I spoke before, I was repeating the lie the elder had used. In tribal law, taking a human in horse form is kidnapping, not theft. The penalties are quite different. You can see that this particular elder was going to treat your team members as horses, not as humans."
A shiver ran along Zane's spine, a shiver that had a lot farther to travel than before. Amos noticed Zane's reaction and said, "I quite agree."
The trader drained his mug and asked for more coffee. Chaz took the opportunity to drain his own, then to refill both mugs. The story paused until the translator returned.
Zane whispered, "David, ask him what he means by temporary."
"Ask him yourself."
"You're the stallion, David, you need to care for your mares."
"Huh?" said David.
"Zane's right," said Amos. "We'll explain later. Just ask the question."
Chaz wandered back with two mugs of coffee and resumed hi seat. David said, "Um, what did the trader mean when he said it's all temporary?"
"Very good," whispered Zane as Chaz translated the question.
"Your teammates will remain horses for now," said the trader. "No one knows how to undo the wisdom when it is applied to the wrong person. Though the sentence was not appropriate, it must be served. There is no parole. The sentence will automatically be lifted for each mare when she gives birth to a foal and that foal has been weaned. The sentence will be lifted for the stallion after he sires at least one foal and all the foals he sires have been weaned. This is true whether they mate with each other or with normal horses. A return visit to the elder is not necessary."
Nor advisable, thought Amos.
David interrupted again, "You said the normal sentence for a thief is that he becomes a horse permanently. You then said the wife made it temporary. She lied about trying to protect me. How do we know she isn't lying again?"
"Very good question, David," said Amos as Chaz translated. "You might become a good stallion after all."
"She didn't lie," said the trader. "There really was a flash flood in that canyon yesterday. I'm sure you saw the rain. If she had not gotten you out of the canyon, it is likely you would have drowned in the flood as some hikers almost did in another canyon. They kept an emergency team busy for the whole afternoon. You must not have any experience with flash floods. You don't know how quickly they arrive and how deadly they can be. Your choices were essentially between becoming a horse and being dead."
David's eyes got wide.
"Chaz, you heard to the weather report yesterday," said Professor. "Didn't you hear about the chance of floods?"
"Yeah, I heard it," said Chaz. "The forecast said nothing about rain or floods."
Chaz was soon translating for the trader, "The Mongolian weather service is a joke. Everyone assumes it is wrong."
Professor indicated the next question was to be translated, "You said the wife chose to remain a horse. How does that work?"
The trader said, "When the sentence is lifted, the wisdom will evaluate the mind. If there is a desire to become human, the change will begin. If the person is content as a horse, he will stay as a horse. Any time after that, as long as there is no pregnancy or foal to nurse, a simple wish will trigger the change.
"As they no doubt have figured out by now, your teammates have kept their human intelligence and their ability to speak. They will find that they cannot whinny like a horse, but only sound like a human imitating a horse. However, as long as they don't speak or demonstrate their intelligence, no one will know they were originally human. We even sent a DNA sample for testing and the report indicated it was normal horse DNA. Their foals will be normal horses, with normal horse intelligence. No one will be able to tell the offspring apart from the real thing."
Amos pondered all that, then said, "But wouldn't an x-ray of our necks show the voice box of a human instead of a horse?"
The trader paused for a moment. "I don't know and don't think anyone has bothered to try that. There aren't many x-ray machines around here. It might also be that you have kept your human voices through the wisdom. A human voice box should sound different coming from the inside of a horse's head," he circled a hand around his forehead, "but it doesn't."
David said, "How long might I expect to be a horse?".
"You don't know much about horses," said the trader.
"I grew up in a city," said David.
"You will be a horse for at least two years."
"Two years!" Jack nearly shouted. "I do not want to be a mare for two years."
"Oh, shush," said Amos. "There's not a damn thing you can do about it. Deal with it."
Jack's reaction was obvious to the trader even without translation. He said, "Yes, two years. The first mating season won't happen for six months as it takes that long for the mares to be adapted to their new form and the first eggs to ripen. Pregnancy takes nearly a year." Jack groaned when that was translated. "And weaning can take as much as another six months."
As Chaz translated, the trader had time to think about what he had said and was ready to speak again. "It is now late spring. Six months from now will be late fall. The mares probably will not go into heat before winter. That will add another few months."
Before Jack had a chance to speak, Amos said to him, "Yes, I know it will seem like a long time. Just remember we're all in this together." Jack grumbled at that comment.
The trader waved a hand towards Jack. "This morning, I found this brown mare out in the bush. I could tell from the shortness of the hair of the tail that she was recently changed from human. I guessed that this must be one of your team members, based on the story from the elder. I would be doing a great wrong if it was a member of your team and I took her back to be a part of that man's herd. I thought it better to first see if she belonged here. From the way she was greeted and from the way she replied, I am sure I did it the right way.
"The council of elders is aware that this elder did not follow tribal justice. He acted on his own rather than taking his complaint to the council. He did not give the violators the chance to refute his evidence or offer any of their own. He applied the wisdom to foreigners. Those are just the violations from this particular case. However, because he knows the wisdom, members of the council won't want to bring him to justice for his wrongs. Whoever attempts to do so will probably spend time bearing a foal for their efforts. Most council members won't take that risk."
David was looking pretty glum after that recitation. "Is there no way to deal with this guy? I don't want to spend any time in his herd."
"But as the stallion, you'd be able to mate with all those mares!" cracked Jack. "Wouldn't that be worth it?"
David ducked his head and felt his face get warm, even if the others could no longer see him blush.
The trader said, "Perhaps there is a solution. The council may not act out of fear they will become horses. You already are." He paused dramatically and Chaz took the time to translate, then went on. "The elder's wife, the horse that rescued the boy, has decided that her husband has gone too far and something must be done before he uses the wisdom on someone else. If you are willing to help, she will do her part."
There was silence for only a few seconds before Zane said, "I'm in."
"Me too," said Amos.
"Piet?" said Zane after a moment of silence.
"Yeah", said Piet, "I'll help."
"Jack?" said Zane.
Before Jack could answer, Amos said, "I think Jack is still recovering from yesterday."
Jack bared his teeth. Zane sensed that both Amos and Jack understood something they weren't going to talk about.
David tried to be unobtrusive as he stepped backwards. Since they were all staring at him for his reply, it didn't work.
Amos said, "There's plenty of time to teach him to be a stallion. We can leave him out of this one."
Zane turned back to the trader. "You can tell her she has the help she needs. Is there a plan?"
It was time for Chaz to tell the other side of the story. Since he was a witness, there was no need for someone else to tell it while he translated. Everyone else drifted away, the humans to resume their duties and the horses to commiserate on their fate and the likelihood that the story Chaz told about them would be embarrassing. Once they heard the trader's laughter, they were sure of it. There were little ways to make Chaz pay for that later.
Once the stories had been properly bartered and the demands of hospitality had been satisfied, the trader had a chat with Professor to explain how to get his horses through Mongolian customs. He then left to find the elder and his wife -- and collect the small reward for supplying the location of some missing horses.
It was mid afternoon when Zane, who was keeping watch, saw a dust cloud on the horizon. "He's here." She, Piet and Amos went out to meet the visitors so that the elder would see none of the humans in camp. Ivan had long before buried himself under his clothes and sleeping bag in spite of the warm air.
The three horses stopped a kilometer from the camp. As their nemesis and his retinue approached, they tried to look like placid horses, ignoring the outer world, quietly cropping grass. Amos had no idea what such a horse actually looked like. He just followed Zane's lead.
The elder was mounted on a horse, which Zane assumed was not a former human. Behind the elder were five more men, also mounted. The group stopped ten meters away and studied the three browsing mares.
The elder spoke. Zane imagined that he said, "Alright men, let's round 'em up." He urged his mount forward and was surprised when his comrades did not do the same. He harangued them for a minute or two but none of them budged.
The trader said the elder's wife would tell the others of the tribe what her husband had done and suggest they guide the elder into a trap. She had apparently done her work well.
When the elder started to sing the three mares took action. They had an element of surprise as the elder had turned his back. Amos came up on the elder's left and pushed at him with her nose while Zane came up on the other side and pulled on a sleeve with her teeth. The song faltered as the elder tumbled to the ground with his right foot caught in the stirrup. Piet was there to roll him onto his back and pin him with a hoof. His struggling was no match for a determined horse. Zane took great care to place a hoof on his neck and firmly crush his larynx. All three mares left the elder gasping on the ground and walked back to camp. Let his men deal with him now.
Amos eyed Zane and thought of her ruthlessness in dealing with the elder. I'm sure glad that old soldier is on my team, thought Amos.
Professor turned the evening meal into a business meeting. "It appears our season has been cut short. We will have to spend tomorrow morning packing as I work out how to get our horses back to the States and get the rest of you assigned to other teams."
As the rest scattered to their evening tasks, Professor had a meeting with the horses.
"It appears we have more than two years before this curse runs its course. The question is what to do during that time.
"The first problem is what to tell your families. I can't answer that one. It is up to you. I can put my official stamp on anything you come up with.
"The second problem is where to live. Unless anyone has other ideas, I will assume the easy part of the answer is that we go back to Bozeman, buy a ranch, and move you into it. Now we face the hard part of the answer -- how to pay for a ranch. From David's youth, I will assume he has no money -- meaning not enough to make a difference. As for the rest of you, I will also assume that for the next two years, your assets are frozen for the simple reason that none of you can produce a signature."
Piet said, "I don't need a signature to get money out of an ATM."
"How much money do you have in that account and where is an ATM that doesn't have a built in camera?"
"Oh," said Piet. "As you said, not enough to make a difference. And you certainly don't look like me. Then again, I don't look like me."
Professor continued, "Since I am the leader of this team, I am at least partly responsible for your welfare. I have a proposal." He paused to quiet an internal debate. "When we get back to Bozeman, I will buy a ranch within commuting distance of the university with my retirement savings. This will provide a place for you to live over the next two years. Unfortunately, professors are never paid well and finances will undoubtedly be tight on my salary. In return, I ask that once you return to human form, you provide for my retirement in some manner, perhaps by buying the ranch from me."
"Sounds fair enough," said Piet. "I thank you for your offer. I'm sure we can agree on a way to keep you from being a pauper in your old age."
David said, "I'd be glad to help out too, though I have no idea how I might do that. But why not simply sell the ranch yourself when we are done with it?"
"Because our offspring will need a place to live," said Zane. "The only way we are going to return to human is to produce at least four foals. I can't imagine we would want to sell them or otherwise abandon them."
"I guess you're right," said David.
"I'll contact a real estate agent to get things rolling," said Professor. "With luck, we'll have something by the time we get to Bozeman."
Ivan approached Professor as soon as the meeting with the horses broke up and the five beasts had moved away. Ivan had his duffel bag packed. He set it by his feet once he drew near to where Professor sat.
"I must leave immediately," said Ivan. His eyes darted from horse to horse. "What the trader said sounded similar to the old Russian legends. I remembered a bit more. The legends told of men captured by foreigners and turned into breeding mares. The foreigners then take their captives back to wherever they came from. Such stories are used to scare boys that are becoming men. Telling such a boy that if he isn't careful, foreigners will ride out of the sunrise, capture him, turn him into a mare where he'll spend the rest of his life birthing foals is a highly effective way to get that boy to obey you."
"It sounds like you heard that threat several times when you were about thirteen," said Professor.
"Yes. Many times." Ivan shook his head and sighed.
"You're being irrational," said Professor. The curse cannot rub off on you and the elder can't sing the curse anymore. It can't happen to you."
"I can say with my brain that you are correct. However, my heart says differently. Though it may be foolish, I can't stay in the same country as this curse. I've already booked a flight."
"I suppose you need a ride to the airport."
"Oho!" said Taki. "What is this?" There was a note of triumph in his voice as he held up a stuffed dinosaur toy he had pulled out of David's cot. It was bright green, about the length of Taki's hand, and had a small bandanna about the base of its neck. Much of the velveteen had been worn away.
Since a good number of the team no longer had hands, the job of packing everyone's personal belongings had fallen to Taki and Chaz.
"That's Sinclair," said David. "Please be gentle with him. I don't think I could replace him."
"Sinclair?" asked Taki.
"Yeah. According to my mother there were Sinclair gas stations back in the sixties. They used a green brontosaurus like this one as their logo. Mom gave this guy to me when I was nine and I've kept him ever since."
"And you still sleep with him?" The incredulity was dripping from Taki's voice
"But stuffed animals are for kids!"
Amos saw David's ears go back. "Cool it, Taki!" Amos said. "You're supposed to be packing David's belongings, not commenting on whether he fits your definition of manhood."
Taki turned to Amos and pouted, "Why pick on me? Jack does this kind of stuff all the time!"
"Actually, I pick on Jack too. It just never seems to do any good. On the other hand, when you grow up --" David could hear the sarcasm. "-- I doubt you want to be just like Jack."
Taki went back to packing.
The five horses couldn't ride in the jeeps so Professor kept his cell phone humming trying to arrange horse trailers.
That's when he found out that when a Mongolian wants to get a horse from one place to another, he rides the horse. Horse trailers were unheard of. He had to rent a delivery van to hold one horse and a flatbed truck for the other four. It wasn't all that safe, but there wasn't a lot of choice.
Exporting five horses was time consuming, but routine, as horses were a already a major export. Professor relied on forged documents of clean health and of sale, graciously supplied by contacts provided by the trader (with suitable payments, of course).
Chaz, Taki, Rose, and Lily left the team at the airport. They needed a job for the summer and Professor had arranged for them to join another paleontology team -- at the other end of Mongolia.
Professor arranged for a horse transportation company to fly his team from Mongolia to Los Angeles. The fee for the horses was huge, though it did include passage for Professor.
That didn't make the flight any shorter or make jetlag problems any easier.
Once back in America, customs went fairly smoothly. The forged documents didn't even cause the officials to blink. There was one thing the horses simply could not avoid -- the three day quarantine while their blood was checked for diseases.
There was a disadvantage of a horse with a human mind, that being the boredom. The only thing they could do to relieve the boredom was to talk -- but only when there were no humans around. And when humans were around, David would get lost in his thoughts and come close to panic as he contemplated his predicament. Fortunately, Amos was in the next stall and could nuzzle him or whisper into his hear.
Jack spent most of the time sulking about the indignity of it all. The other four took advantage of the time to get to know each other and share life stories. They might as well -- they would be stuck together for two years.
As far as Zane was concerned, the most important part of the discussion was around one of David's questions. "What did you mean when you said I had to ask the trader that question because I was the stallion?"
Zane tackled the first part, "Though we have human minds, our sexuality is that of the horse. If we are going to produce foals, we're going to have to do it the horse's way. You are the stallion and we are the mares."
"This is gonna get weird. I keep thinking of all of you as guys. I'm not into sex with guys."
"When we come into heat," said Zane, "Your body won't respond to us that way. We'll be female enough."
"So I let my body do its thing, right?"
"It isn't that simple, David."
"A mare rejects a stallion she doesn't consider worthy. He can't just have the right equipment. He has to act like one too. At the moment, you don't act like a stallion."
"How do you mean?"
"You're way too timid," said Amos.
Zane added, "A stallion is in charge of things. He protects his mares from danger."
"You guys know so much more than I do. How can I protect you from danger when you can recognize it so much faster than I can?"
Zane said to Amos, "I see our work is cut out for us." Amos nodded.
"We'll start with something simple," said Amos, "your name."
"What's wrong with my name?"
"I bet," said Zane, "that your mother always called you David."
"So that is your childhood name. You are a stallion now. It is time for an adult name."
"But that's the name on my birth certificate. Don't you guys use the name on your birth certificates?"
"I do now", said Zane. "My childhood name was Zaney. I put a stop to that as soon as I could. I think I was about 8 at the time."
"So didn't Zane become a childhood name, since you were only 8?" asked David.
"No, it didn't. Here's the distinction. When you are born, your parents pick out an official name for you. But when you are young, they rarely call you by that name. As they grow up, most people make a break from what their parents called them. This amounts to a declaration of independence. Their official name has nothing to do with it. For some people, it is a time to take up their official name, for others, it is a time to declare which nickname they prefer."
"What about the rest of you? Did you also make that break?"
"My dad always called me PJ. The J is for Jarron," said Piet.
"My older sister called me Scooter," said Amos. "That was one of the hazards of having the same first name as my father."
"My younger sister was called Betsy," said Zane. "She was only five when she insisted on Elizabeth. It didn't take my brother and me long to call her E-Lizard-Breath. She now introduces herself as Liz."
David chuckled at that one, then grew serious. "So what do I choose for a name?"
"Anything you want, kid. It's your choice," said Amos. "Though most people choose a version of their official name. The important thing is that it is your choice."
"I guess you can call me Dave."
"You guess? A stallion is more definite than that," said Amos.
"My name is Dave."
"That's much better, kid," said Zane.
"And stop calling me kid!"
"Yes, of course," said Amos. He nodded appreciatively. "In return, you will have to stop referring to your mares as, 'you guys'. For the next two years, we are not guys."
"I guess I can do that, though it will take some practice," said Dave. "I hear your deep voices and my mind thinks about guys. Will you ladies also change your names?"
"Well, actually, I'm rather fond of Piet. I think I'll keep it, even if the gender is wrong." Amos and Zane decided to do the same.
The conversation paused for a moment. Then Dave said, "I got to be thinking about what you said a moment ago. You described yourselves as 'my mares'. My dad tried to make it clear that a man doesn't possess his wife."
"In talking about humans," said Amos, "your dad is correct. However, we are horses, at least for the moment. We form herds with a head stallion. Human standards don't apply to us."
"These quarantine quarters have got to be the most boring place on earth," said Amos. "And it is only three days! I think I've now gotten everyone's life story except Jack's. I can't imagine living in a stable to be much better, though. My mind needs some stimulation."
"I think I know what we need," said Zane. "A barn with an internet connection. Well, five computers with internet connections."
"Do tell," said Piet.
"I'm sure that modern computers could come with voice activation, or at least joysticks we can operate with our lips. Each of us could have a computer in our stall and let the internet stimulate our minds."
"There's a lot of garbage out there," said Dave, "and I've glanced at a good deal of it. I doubt that a gal with a doctorate would find it able to stimulate her mind."
"There are also a lot of very worthwhile things," said Amos. "For instance, you could continue with your studies. I'm certain the university has some online courses. And you will have four tutors on hand."
"Nothing like being put on the spot," said Dave.
Zane said, "All this is going to cost money. Professor said he is on a tight budget."
Amos wiggled her ears. "I guess the first lesson will be in sales and negotiation."
Dave was prompt in asking, "What do you mean, 'first lesson'? Who's gonna do the sell job?"
"You are," said Amos. David looked at her in surprise. "You're the stallion."
"I think I'm gonna get very sick of that phrase."
"Here are your horses, sir; They've passed quarantine. I must say they are the most ungraceful horses I've ever seen."
Once the trailer's door closed, Amos said, "Ungraceful, are we? Hey Dave, make a note of that. We'll have to do something about it."
At the first rest stop outside the Los Angeles area, Professor opened the trailer to let the occupants out for a stretch. He was probably disobeying several laws, but didn't care.
"I didn't want the quarantine manager hear me talking to you," said Professor. "I have some news for you. The real estate agent in Bozeman found a ranch for us that looks to be large enough, cheap enough, and available. During the last three days, I was in Bozeman and gave them a deposit. I also put my house up for sale.
"There's just one catch. Real Estate closings never happen overnight, at least not honest ones. It may be a week or two before we can move in. Fortunately, an old friend has space on his ranch for a while."
It took three nights to drive from Los Angeles to Bozeman. Dave was happy not to be in the horse trailer when the temperatures in the desert hit 100 degrees in the June afternoons. They weren't in an air conditioned building, but being under a scraggly tree was better than inside the trailer. At least he didn't have to worry about sunburn.
To keep Dave's mind off his situation, Zane had them singing all the raunchy sailor and army songs he knew. Professor didn't pay any attention to the stares from people in passing vehicles who had heard singing horses.
Luke met them when Professor rolled to a stop. He was amazed when Professor merely lowered the ramp and said, "Here we are. Everybody out," and five horses got themselves out the trailer in an orderly fashion without any guidance from Professor. Luke was also amazed that none of the horses had a halter and that Professor dismissed his concern. He was even more amazed when he saw the five horses in the light and could see the quality of horseflesh standing there.
"You old Devil," said Luke, "How in the world did you afford horses of this quality on your teaching salary?"
"Let's just I'd like to keep an air of mystery."
"I bet no one has said that about you since before you married Bess, God rest her soul. I've always appreciated that you work hard not to be mysterious."
"Someday, Luke, I'll tell you how I came to own these fine animals. But if I do, I'll either have to kill you or get you drunk." Luke smiled when Professor winked.
Luke turned towards the house and shouted, "Hey, Stan. They're here!"
In a moment, a teenager appeared, looking like a young version of Luke. Stan had sandy hair and a pretty decent moustache and goatee in contrast to his father's flecks of gray and clean shaven face, but the two had the same six foot height, narrow face, slim build, blue eyes, and quirky smile.
Luke was saying, "Now that he's graduated from high school, it is getting harder to keep him busy. Five more horses should do it."
Stan had veered from the men to the horses and was inspecting them carefully.
"So what are their names?" said Luke.
"The stallion is David. The mares," Professor pointed as he ran through the names, "are Piet, Amos, Jack, and Zane."
"Mares with guys' names? I thought you were more traditional than that."
"Hey, I didn't name them."
Stan gave a low whistle. "Mighty impressive horses, Professor. But I can't help but notice a couple strange things."
"Do tell," said Professor.
"Someone gave their manes and tails a strange trimming, and I don't know anyone who would trim the feathering of a Clydesdale like that." Stan did a bit of a double take. "Not that I've ever seen a Clydesdale this color before." He pulled up Dave's left forehoof. "And I've never seen a horse without shoes that had a hoof in this great of shape." Stan stood and stroked Dave's neck. "I can call the farrier and have him come next week."
"Sounds good," said Professor.
Dave looked at Professor with alarm. He ignored the look.
By this time Stan had worked his way up to Dave's head. "No halter?"
"You won't need it," said Professor. "Tell them what you want and they'll do it."
"Weird," said Stan.
When Professor came to visit a few days later, Dave ambled over, but made sure Stan was in the barn before speaking. "Oh, man. That barn sure stinks in the morning! It is a good thing that Stan is prompt about mucking it out."
"Besides that, how is everything?"
"Stan's a good guy. For a horse, it's a great place. The problem is that I'm a horse."
Professor stroked Dave's nose. "Still feeling panicky about that?"
"Yeah. Stan's been good about giving me a good scratch when I come up to him, though every time he does so he calls me Davey. I don't like that name. Stan also knows how to give a good brushing, that is the best... I hear him coming."
Stan came through the barn door, "Oh, hi, Professor!" He came over and put his arm around Dave's neck. Dave lowered his head a bit so Stan could idly scratch between the ears. It was obvious to Professor that man and horse did this a lot.
"I gotta tell you, Professor, I've never seen such beautiful horses or such weird ones."
"Weird in what way?" said Professor. Dave could see him suppressing a grin.
"I've never seen housebroken, um, barnbroken horses before. Their straw is clean each morning, but as soon as I let them out, they relieve themselves in the corner of the field."
Professor let his grin show. "Barnbroken horses. Anything else weird?"
"Yeah. You were right. It seems they understand every word I say."
Professor only nodded.
"And here's the really freaky part. I took old Blue around the paddock to put him through his paces and soon your horses are in the middle of the paddock and seem to be studying what Blue is doing. Pretty soon, they seem to be trying it for themselves, like they've never done it before. I shifted Blue to a trot and I can see all five of them practicing the trot. I shift Blue to a canter and all five of them are soon trying the canter, though they don't seem to be doing it well. I let Blue open up to a gallop and they watched that one for a long time before trying it. The brown mare, um Jack, is still having trouble with anything faster than a walk. But this one," he patted Dave's cheek, "was soon switching easily between the various gaits." He concentrated on stroking Dave's nose for a moment. "About the only gait this fella doesn't know -- and only because Blue can't do it -- is the harness racing gait."
Professor thought he could see a blend of questioning and challenge in Dave's eyes. "And what's that?"
"Oh," said Stan, "that is a trot in which the legs on the same side move together."
Dave pulled his head away from Stan's fingers and moved off a few yards. He stood there a moment as if deep in thought. Then he carefully stepped forward with both right legs and then both left legs. Soon he picked up speed and was trotting smoothly around the paddock. After a full circuit Dave came back and welcomed Stan's fingers between his ears.
While his fingers worked, Stan stared at the horse with his mouth hanging open. It was a full minute before he found his voice. "That's incredible! You're such a smart horse, Davey. Perhaps you could be taught dressage."
Professor could see the hint of pleading in Dave's eyes. "Stan, I don't think he likes to be called Davey." Stan snapped his head around to stare at Professor. "Do it too often and he might step on your toes, and I daresay a ton of horse resting on those toes won't feel so good."
A second later Stan snapped his eyes to his left boot. Dave had shifted his weight and was now using a forehoof to exert a gentle pressure on Stan's toes.
Stan gulped. "Okay. Dave it is." He looked Professor in the eye. "So are you going to tell me where you got these guys?"
"Perhaps when you're old enough to drink."
"That's still three years away! Why wait that long?"
"Because you'll want a drink after I tell you the story."
The ranch was actually described by the real estate agent as a "ranchette," though that meant there were thirty acres, not three hundred or thirty thousand. The acreage was divided into a paddock and five pastures as recommended for grazing horses. The long dirt drive ended in a "parking lot," an area large enough to turn a truck and horse trailer around. Along the right side of the parking lot was a two bedroom house made of logs, which was actually quite well made, with a porch along the front and down one side. The barn had a large central area with five stalls on either side with a hayloft above them and a tack room in the back. A lane lined with trees went from between the house and barn back into the pastures. The ranch was the kind of place where someone with a day job could enjoy horses in the evening and on weekends, but not make a living from it.
In other words, it was ideal in both size and price. It was also ideal in another respect -- the house and barn were reasonably well insulated for Montana winters.
Alas, there were other things that were not ideal. The builder had expected horses to be horses.
Dave found Professor on the porch. Zane and Piet were around the corner -- where Dave could see them -- offering silent support. "Uh, Professor, could I talk to you?"
"I would prefer you call me Dave now."
"Oh? Well. What would you like to talk about, Dave."
"Um, the girls and I --"
"-- uh, Zane, Piet, Amos --"
"So they are the girls now, are they?"
"Uh, yes sir. They are mares after all."
"Quite. Go on."
"Um, we would like to have some improvements made to the barn."
Professor prompted, "And those improvements would be..."
"Um, let's see. At the top of the list is, um, five computers with internet access and voice recognition software."
"And you need them because..."
"Because, um, I could continue my studies while confined to this form."
"That would account for one of the five."
"And the others need a computer so their brains don't go soft from boredom."
Piet slowly shook his head.
"And how do we pay for them?" said Professor.
"Um, I'm not sure. Perhaps use education discounts or perhaps we can do some telecommute jobs?"
Piet slowly shook his head again.
"Hmm. I'll have to think about it. You said you had a list of things?"
"Yeah. Um. The next item is the barn door. We can't operate the big barn doors ourselves. Zane is concerned that if there is a fire, we couldn't get ourselves out. It is no problem now as you have been leaving the door open, but it will be a problem this winter."
"For the same reason, we need latches on our stalls that we can operate ourselves."
"Um. We don't mean any disrespect, Professor, but Zane, um, I mean all of us, are concerned something may happen to you. With the doorknobs you have, we can't come into the house and check on you."
"I doubt you would fit through the door anyway."
"Maybe not, but Piet and Jack can or at least can get in far enough to sniff out a problem."
"Once we have Internet satellite or cable, it won't be too much more to also connect that to a television. It, um, might even be cheaper."
"Television? You actually watch that stuff?"
"Yeah," Dave said defensively. "I, um, can't exactly hold a book. And to avoid making it look like the TV is for horses, it would look good to have a comfortable chair there."
"Television, Bah! Though I see your point. Anything else?"
"A clock. I can't exactly, um, wear a watch anymore."
"A clock. Anything else?"
"I think I have only one more. Since our goal is to produce foals, at some point the girls are going into labor. That means we may need to have you summon a vet, maybe even in the middle of the night. We need an intercom between the house and barn with some kind of alarm on it. Piet thinks we should make our end as simple to operate as possible. We can't use a pencil to hold down a talk button and talk at the same time."
"Hmm." Professor thought for a moment, long enough for Dave to start swishing his tail in agitation. Professor got up, went inside, and was back a moment later with his laptop computer. "A person that complains had better be willing to do something about it." He set the laptop on the floor of the porch. After another trip inside, he placed a speakerphone beside the laptop and connected the laptop to it. "Claiming the barn is a fire hazard is a bit vague. I need more detail. It will be your job to research appropriate doors, fasteners, and internet connections."
"You want me to do all this?"
"You're the stallion," said Amos from around the corner.
Dave groaned. He eyed the laptop. "I don't think I can type with hoof or lips."
"Oh, sorry," said Professor. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a pencil. "I think the big eraser on this one will do nicely."
"Telecommuting jobs? Are you out of your mind?" said Piet.
"Calm down!" said Amos, "Don't be so hard on our man."
Piet sighed. "OK. Dave, you do get points for talking to Professor about the state of things around here and you do get points for original thinking. It's just that paleontology can't be done over the internet. We have to see the rocks. We have to pick them up and turn them over and see what is on the other side. We have to feel them with our fingers." He held up a forehoof for emphasis. "No, telecommuting isn't gonna work and I only know paleontology."
"I think our man is right," said Zane. "We need to help out in the finance department."
"But how?" asked Piet.
"I don't know," said Zane.
"Since we can't come up with something using our human brains, can we do something using our horse bodies?" asked Dave.
"You know," said Zane as she pawed the ground, "our man may have something there."
"What do you mean?" asked Amos.
"The Mongols had this thing about never putting any kind of harness on their transformed humans."
"How could I forget?" said Piet. "That's what got us into this mess in the first place."
"But does that taboo hold for us? Think of it another way. Have you ever worn leather? Have you ever played bondage games?" Jack's head popped up over the gate to her stall. "Have you ever intentionally given control of yourself over to another person?"
"This sounds extremely kinky," said Piet, "if not downright dangerous."
"I wouldn't do it with just anybody, only with someone that I trust would never actually harm me. But that act of submission can be a real rush."
Amos chuckled. "I don't think we could do that kind of thing with a human, and I certainly wouldn't want to do it for money."
Zane laughed too. "No, no. Not that. Getting dressed up in tack -- the halter and saddle and such -- might actually be enjoyable. And the submission would come in responding to a rider. What I'm proposing is that we work as a riding club."
Jack's head disappeared behind the stall gate again.
Piet pondered it a moment. "That just might work. Though we won't be able to talk while we have customers on the grounds." She doodled on the floor with a hoof. "And if we are open to the public, there will no doubt be lots of young girls that would be glad to groom us, a detail that has been lacking of late."
She turned to Dave. "Perhaps you can work with Professor to set it all up."
"Yeah, I know. I'm the stallion." Dave grumbled. He thought for a moment. "I wonder if we can get by with a halter that doesn't have a bit. I'm not too interested in having that thing in my mouth." The city boy had learned a great deal about tack during their stay with Stan.
"I'm sure there are such things," said Zane.
"And what do we do about being the most ungraceful horses around?" asked Piet. "People coming to a riding club do not want clumsy horses."
"Stan mentioned something called dressage and said I might be a natural," said Dave. "If we spend some time learning it, I"m sure we won't look so clumsy."
"So are we agreed?" asked Amos.
"Well, fine!" came the voice from Jack's stall. "But those little girls are not allowed to put bows in my mane!"
Zane said, "Once this riding club is in operation, part of being the stallion is knowing who is approaching and making a reasonable guess as to whether the visitor is friend or foe. That means when the club is open, you position yourself so you can see who is coming and going."
"But what if I'm out on the trail with a customer?"
"Then I guess you can't watch the approach, can you."
"So then why bother?"
Amos answered this one. "It may be more of the symbolism than actual guard duty. There won't be a lot you can do and still make people think we are actual horses. Even so, symbolism may count for a great deal come mating season."
"You've got one strange place here," said the guy from the computer company to Professor. The nametag above his pocket read, 'Kyle'. He went on to say, "It was strange from the moment I turned into your drive. I can see four horses in the field and it looks like the red Clydesdale is leading the others through the steps of a dance. About the time it hears my engine, the red one leaves the others to their dance and paces me up the drive. Then you ask me to install the dish by the barn and lead the wires into it and have me set up the computers in the stalls. Nobody has asked me to do that before and this is Montana. And the whole time I'm doing it, that red horse is watching every move I make. I couldn't get rid of him. Really strange."
The workers had just left. The new doors for the barn didn't fit. It would take a week for replacements to arrive.
"Sorry girls," said Dave, "I blew it."
"So why didn't you ask for help?" asked Zane.
"Because I'm the stallion and I'm supposed to be in charge!" snapped Dave.
"Being in charge," said Zane in a mild tone, "does not mean doing it all yourself. It also means knowing what your limits are and delegating the task to the person most knowledgeable or most capable for the task."
"So why was I the one to research all the repair work needed? Why wouldn't you let me delegate it all to one of you?"
"Because," Zane said wearily, "even when delegating, the one in charge still needs to know what is going on. And in your case, having you deal with the contractors taught you how to be less timid and how to deal with things that go wrong. You're becoming more of a stallion."
Dave put Zane in charge of tack, though Dave took an interest in all that was involved and the choices that were available. There were several debates about what type would be best. They were all pleased with the result. They chose Labor Day weekend as the best time to hold the grand opening of a new small riding club.
"Good afternoon, Stan." Professor was leaning against the open doorway of the barn. Dave had just heard Stan's pickup door slam. "I'm glad you could come over to meet with me. I have a job for you for which you come highly recommended."
Stan appeared in the doorway and shook Professor's hand, grimacing as he did so. "You'll have to excuse my reaction, sir. Whenever my father says those words, it is a task about as tasteful as mucking out the horse stalls."
Professor laid a hand on Stan's shoulder. "I'm afraid there will be some of that, though with these barnbroken horses, there won't be much." He chuckled. "But the job will also be much more." He waived an arm to include the horses. Each one was in its stall, with its head poking over the gate, watching Stan carefully. "I have decided to put these freeloaders to work." Stan smirked. "And the best way to do that is to turn this little ranch into a riding club. I'd like you to run it for me."
"What do you mean by, 'run it'?"
"Keep the horses groomed and the tack in good shape. Saddle them up for customers. Keep the customers happy. Keep refreshments stocked. Collect the money. Do any advertising necessary. In other words, run the whole thing."
"What kind of pay are we talking about?"
"The horses might quibble with me about this, claiming they will be doing all of the work --" Stan smirked again. "-- but you can keep fifty percent of all the money brought in. The more people who ride, the more money you get."
"Sounds fair enough," said Stan. "You, um, said I come highly recommended for this job. I haven't run a riding club before, so who gave the recommendation?"
"Dave did. He likes the way you groom him."
"Dave did?" Stan was incredulous. "Dave's a horse. How can he tell you about the way I groom?"
"Remember I said I couldn't tell you where I got these horses until you were old enough to drink?"
"Um, yes, sir."
"If you're going to work here, you need to hear the story. Would you like a Coke? Sorry, I can't offer you anything stronger." Professor indicated two bales of straw in the middle of the floor. "Perhaps we had better sit..."
Dear Mom and Dad,
Yes, I've been getting your emails, but things have been a bit hectic and strange around here and I've been too busy to reply. I'm writing now as you need to know my change of plans. I won't be able to come home before the fall semester begins. I've felt I haven't been myself lately, but don't fret.
I'm getting a handle on the situation. Physically, I'm feeling as strong as a horse and mentally, I'm learning to deal with the stress of life here.
I guess I'm feeling contrary enough that I'm going to use a trick that Uncle Nick used to pull. I'll tell you a few different versions of my summer and leave it to you to decide what is true.
* While in Mongolia, Professor was so impressed with my work that he offered me a position on his staff even while he gave me a scholarship to finish my studies here in Bozeman. Unfortunately, I'll be so busy with classes and international travel that I won't be able to come home for holidays or the summer and won't have time to see you if you came to visit.
* While in Mongolia, I ran afoul of the locals who laid a curse on me. The curse turned me into a horse, a beautiful red Clydesdale. I'm now living on Professor's ranch outside Bozeman working as part of a riding club. If you come, I'll be glad to give you a free ride.
* I've dropped out of school entirely. Well, not quite. I mop the floors every evening after the students have gone home. It doesn't pay much but even the janitorial staff here at the university gets free internet access and email accounts. It wouldn't do to visit as I sleep under a different bridge every night.
Any way you look at it I can still receive email and letters through the university.
Pass on my congratulations to Matt on getting engaged. Suzy sounds like the perfect match for him. I hope the engagement is a long one. If not, my situation here may prevent me from attending the wedding.
Nell gave directions as Erin drove. "Turn left here. This is it." Erin loved horses and checked out new riding clubs as soon as she heard about them. Nell wasn't quite the fanatic, but was willing to be dragged along. Quite willing, in fact. The weather was perfect for a late summer ride.
"Look at that!" said Nell.
"Look at what?" Erin's eyes darted around the drive. They weren't about to run over anything.
"The horse that's pacing us, off to our left."
Erin stole a glance. "Wow!" She jammed on the brakes. The horse obliged by slowing down too. "I've never seen a horse that color!"
They both got out of the car. The horse was on the driver's side so Erin got to it first. As Erin got to the fence the horse stuck its head over it. Erin quickly stroked its nose. "Aren't you a pretty one!"
While she stroked, she looked the horse over. A fanatic like her would, of course, be able to recognize breeds. She told Nell, "All the classic markings of a Clydesdale -- white face, white legs with feathering, strong build -- but I've never seen a Clydesdale that was a match for crayon red. This must be one-of-a-kind. I wonder about the lineage? He's certainly healthy looking." She pulled a bag of apple slices out of her pocket. One comes prepared when visiting horses. The horse ate each slice eagerly as it was offered.
"Come on Erin. As beautiful as he is, one horse does not make a riding club."
Erin turned to the horse. "Do you think we should go find your stablemates?"
The horse very clearly shook his head. The human action looked so strange when being done by a horse. It sent Erin into a howling laugh. When she subsided, she said, 'I know dear boy, you want to keep me all to yourself." The horse nodded. Erin laughed again.
Erin patted him on the nose one more time before the women climbed back into their car and drove slowly on up to the barn. The beautiful red stallion kept pace again.
Stan came out to greet them. Dave strolled up to the fence beside the barn at about the same time. "Good morning, ladies," said Stan, "What can I do for you today?"
While Erin was good at sizing up horses, Nell was as good at sizing up men. Stan looked rather harmless. He had all the trappings of being offspring from an area ranch, a guy wanting out from under the thumb of his father but still wanting to work with horses and not at all ready to do it on his own. Nell figured Stan looked old enough to have finished high school. She guessed this was a job to make a bit of money while he decided whether he wanted to go to college.
"You haven't been open very long, have you," said Nell.
"No, just opened for business this past Saturday."
As would any straight male teenager with a beating heart, Stan sized up the woman. From their clothing, both looked to be experienced riders. The one that had spoken was taller, almost to his own six feet. She had blond hair that just brushed her shoulders. The other was about a half foot shorter with dark blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. He guessed that the were in their early-20s, old enough to have finished college (and from the car, it looked like they had), but not yet interested in settling down.
"I've never seen that color on a Clydesdale," said Erin.
"Yeah," said Stan, "He's a strange one, though the mares don't exactly seem to be standard issue either."
"Now you have me interested."
Stan gave a whistle. Amos, Piet, Zane, and -- reluctantly -- Jack came up to the fence.
Erin studied them for a moment. "I see what you mean. I've never seen a Paint so highly decorated, a dapple gray quarterhorse, a brown Arabian, and the strangest of all, a yellow Thoroughbred." By then she was at the fence, stroking Piet on the nose. "Does the owner have an idea of their worth? I imagine they are worth a lot."
"If he does, he hasn't told me," said Stan. "Shall I saddle up a couple of them for you?"
The women nodded and Stan led them in through the main door of barn. Erin watched as the five horses brought themselves in through the door from the paddock. Each one seemed to pick out a stall and stand in front of it. Four of the horses clustered at one end. The brown Arabian stayed by herself at the other.
Erin made mental notes of little differences from the typical stable -- the orderliness of the horses, that Stan didn't lead them around, the aloofness of one. She noticed that the stall latches were much newer than the wood they were mounted on and had a crazy notion that horses could operate them if they had a mind to. She wondered if Stan really watched the TV that was in the central area. He probably didn't have time during the day and wasn't around in the evening. She also noticed a couple other strange features. In each of the stalls that appeared to be claimed by the horses there was a large something covered by heavy canvas cloth. Erin quashed the thought that it looked to be about the right size for a computer monitor on a card table. The last oddity was in the red stallion's stall. She was sure that was a stuffed dinosaur toy sitting on the windowsill.
Erin glanced from horse to horse and said, "Before I mount up, I like to know my horse's name. I feel a bit better connected that way. Will you introduce me?"
Stan got a sly smile on his face and came up to the red stallion. He turned to Erin and said, "To do that, I need to know your name." She told him.
In formal tones, Stan said, "Erin, I'd like you to meet Dave. Dave, may I present Erin."
"Glad to meet you, Dave," said Erin. She caught on to the game and gave a small curtsey."
Dave extended one foreleg, curled up the other, and lowered his head. The image of seeing this horse in this barn bowing like a circus horse sent Erin into another fit of laughter. She caught sight of the here-we-go-again look on Stan's face and laughed even harder.
When her laughter had quieted, Stan said, "I know these are mighty strange horses -- you have yet to see how strange." Stan proceeded with the introductions. "The Paint is Amos." He patted her on the side of the neck. Amos bobbed her head. "This beautiful Thoroughbred is Piet. The owner said to use the Swedish spelling. Don't ask me why; I don't know." Piet also nodded. Stan moved over to scratch behind the ears of the dapple gray. "This one is Zane." Zane did a curtsey. "And the last one --" Stan had to take several steps to get to the aloof animal. "-- is Jack." Jack seemed to glare. "And that is the staff of The Mongolian Riding Club."
Erin had been stroking Dave's nose through most of the introductions. She said, "Why do all the mares have male names?"
"The owner said that they were named before someone thought to check the gender."
The women laughed again.
"And why the Mongolian name?"
"The owner said it was in celebration of the Mongolian horse culture. He recently did paleontology work there. So which of these fine horses should I saddle up for you?"
"No contest," said Erin, still stroking Dave's nose. "I'll take Dave here." Dave looked like he was enjoying the attention very much.
"It's a tough choice," said Nell. She had slipped between Amos and Piet, petting one with each hand and glancing back and forth between them. Finally, she turned to Amos, "I hope you don't mind, girl, but I'd like to ride Piet today. I'll ride you some other day."
Stan may have been young, but Erin could see he knew about riding. It didn't take him long to saddle up Dave for Erin to ride and Piet for Nell.
"Why don't their halters have a bit?" asked Nell.
"Because the owner forbids it and the horses seem to do just fine without it."
Once on the trail, Erin did find her horse easy to control, or to put it more accurately, needed less control than other horses. It didn't take the two women long to relax and let the horses choose the route. They soon turned to talking about a frequent topic.
"So did Hank ask you out?" asked Nell.
Erin let out a short laugh.
"That's not a good sign," said Nell.
"I spent a lot of time hinting about my ideal date. He completely ignore the hints -- or didn't realize I was hinting. Either way, the message didn't get through."
"So where'd you go?"
"The rodeo! Aarrgh! I hate rodeos! I think all that bucking is cruel to both the horse and rider and Hank thought that was the best part! Needless to say, I don't see Hank in my future."
"So what do you consider the ideal date?"
Piet saw Dave's ears twitch.
It didn't take Erin long to answer. "A picnic at a spot only accessible by horseback." She had a dreamy quality to her voice. "Up on a hill or mountain would be nice, though I'd settle for spreading a blanket out in the middle of a field."
"Sounds wonderful!" said Nell. She was quiet for a few moments, then asked, "And what would you put in that picnic basket? Wine and cheese?"
"No. Heavens no. I hate wine. I don't know why, but alcoholic drinks taste disgusting to me." She paused for a moment. "Though cheese, on the other hand, cheese is good. I would enjoy sampling a wide variety of cheese. And damn the arteries!" She giggled. Another pause. "I guess I would want a variety of crackers for the cheese and a good mixed fruit salad."
"As long as he leaves out the honeydew," said Nell.
Erin laughed, a hearty sound. "You're not going to let me forget that story, are you." She smiled a toothy smile at Nell. "Yes, as long as he leaves out the honeydew."
Once back in the barn, Erin and Nell volunteered to groom their mounts. They long ago learned that the task was an enjoyable one for themselves and the horses and the caretakers usually enjoyed the break. Stan was no exception. Besides, it gave Erin a chance to more closely inspect the horses and assess the quality of the stable.
Erin decided Stan was a pretty good groomer. The Clydesdale looked well cared for. She also decided that this red Clydesdale was an exceptional animal and wouldn't mind having this one for her own.
"Stan, do you think I might be able to buy this one?" She patted Dave on the flank.
Dave's head came around to look at her.
"You'd have to talk to the owner," said Stan.
"How do I reach him?"
"Here's a card with his phone number, but don't expect a quick reply. He's a professor at the university and is swamped with all the problems of the start of the term."
"You're about to take matters into your own hands, aren't you," whispered Nell.
"You know me too well," Erin whispered back as she patted the stallion on the nose.
The women were back a week later and brought a man with them. Erin was saying, "These are such unusual horses. I'm sure you'll recognize that when you see them."
"You keep saying that," the man said. "I keep having to remind you that while I am checking them out as a favor to you, you don't know if they are for sale."
"Everything is for sale at the right price."
"My mother isn't."
As the three of them got out of the car, Stan gave a whistle. Three horses appeared.
"Stan, this is Gary. He is a friend of mine. He works as an inspector at the Livingston horse auction," said Erin. "I asked him to determine what these horses are worth. Don't worry. He is doing it for free as a favor for me."
She saw the three horses were Amos, Piet, and Zane. "Where's the Clydesdale?" asked Erin.
"Out with another customer. He should be back soon."
Erin felt a pang of jealousy. "Well, we can look at these three while we wait for him."
"You're right", said Gary to Erin. "I've never seen a yellow Thoroughbred, much less one of this shade. And it certainly isn't paint or dye."
He examined each horse in turn, including Dave and Jack, once they returned, and made notes on a clipboard as he went.
When he was done, he gave Erin a summary sheet and a copy to Stan. "These are excellent horses. Each one is top quality and shows the best traits of its breed. The unusual colors add to their value. It is a shame there aren't papers on any of them. Even so, I'm sure breeders who aren't so interested in lineage would love to improve their stock, or perhaps even start a new breed."
"So what do you think they are worth?" asked Erin.
"The stallion could go for a half million and with one exception the mares could fetch a quarter million each."
Gary expected a gasp from the humans. He hadn't expected to hear gasps from the horses.
Gary continued, "The exception is the Thoroughbred." He walked over to Piet and gave her neck a pat. "Without proper registration, a Thoroughbred is useless for breeding. It's just one of the quirks of the breeding system."
Erin said, "I guess I won't be buying this one." She patted Dave. "I'll have to be satisfied just riding him when I get the chance." She turned to Stan. "Are you sure it is wise to use such valuable animals as a riding club?"
Stan could only shrug.
That evening, after Erin had a ride on Dave and Nell on Amos and after Stan had left for the day, Dave said, "Half a million! Wow! I could have Professor sell me. That would certainly improve things around here and I'm sure whoever bought me would keep me in luxury."
"Sorry," said Amos, "That would be unethical. What would you do if you bought a horse for a half million and after only one breeding cycle, this horse turned into a man? I dare say that man wouldn't have long to live. Or do you like being a horse so much that you want to stay one the rest of your life?"
"At least I could get rich on stud fees."
"I doubt you really want that," said Amos. "First, the money would go to your owner, not you. Second, I doubt you are the type that can love 'em and leave 'em. It isn't the mare so much as the offspring. Some men can donate sperm and have no further thought of any possible offspring. I think that is highly irresponsible."
"But these offspring will be horses! They won't be human."
"But you aren't all horse. You will want to form an emotional attachment to them."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"What is this!" said Jack. "Has our big manly stallion gone soft? If you won't sell his offspring, then sell mine."
"I think," said Amos, trying to be as diplomatic as possible, "we had better wait until you have offspring. You might change your mind then."
Erin came to visit often, always choosing to ride the red stallion. Nell made sure she took turns on each of the mares.
Dave looked forward to Erin's visits. He almost always met her along the drive and paced her to the barn. He paid attention to her throughout her stay. There was no doubt why Erin always rode him.
After a couple months -- when Erin began to come less frequently due to the snow -- Amos said in a gentle voice, "You're falling in love with her, aren't you."
Dave only let out a long sigh.
The next nineteen months were going to be long ones.
Two men appeared on an Indian Summer day in mid November. Their pickup was about ten years old and had numerous small dings all over it. The bottom edges of the doors were just getting serious about rust. The men were clean and well groomed, but their clothes looked worn -- holes in the jackets and rips in the jeans.
The taller one selected Dave as his mount for the day, his partner chose Piet. They paid Stan in cash and were soon heading down the drive and along the road.
The men were silent until they were past the edge of the property. The shorter one broke the silence, "You've got a plan for this place, don't you, Fred."
"Otherwise you wouldn't have spent our scarce resource for a horse ride."
Dave wiggled his ears to let Piet know he was listening.
"Yeah," said Fred in an easy manner, "The computer dealer in town told me the owner of this place bought five computers along with network boxes and cables. I figure we can come back tonight and clean them out. That dealer said he knew where we could unload 'em. Make a couple grand on it."
"So why spend money on the horsies?"
"Well, Rick, part of it is to get the horses used to us so they won't make trouble later --"
"But they'll be in the barn. We'll be heading to the house."
"-- and part of it is I like horses. Didn't Kyle tell you anything about me when he suggested me as a partner?"
"Yeah, he did. He just didn't mention you were a horse nut."
"Then he left out the most important part."
"So how we gonna do this job?"
"I checked that the professor that lives here is on a field trip so there shouldn't be anyone in the house. The stableboy will likely leave at sunset to go home to his mama for his supper. So after we have our own supper, we come back and lift those computers."
"You saved enough money for our supper, didn't you?"
"Yes, I saved enough money for our supper."
Dave had to smile to himself at the mocking tone of voice.
The two men turned to idle chatter, which Dave listened to just to be sure there were no more important details. Even while he listened he did his best to enjoy the nice weather while it lasted. Most of the leaves were off the trees, but the land had a golden glow about it.
After the two men climbed into the beat up pickup and eased on down the drive and after Stan had gone home, Dave said, "Listen up, girls." He paused to wait for Amos and Zane to stop talking. "Today's customers heard from the computer dealer in town that the professor owns five computers. They intend to come back this evening to steal them. I think we need to do our part to nab a couple bad guys. We'll have a few advantages on our side. One, they think the computers are in the house, not out here with us. Two, we outnumber them five to two. Three, they don't know we're on to them."
"We know that, Dave," said Jack.
"You just shush," said Amos. "Our stallion is taking charge. So what if he is stating the obvious."
"Here's what we'll do," said Dave. "Amos, you stay by the phone and call the police when they come."
"Excuse me, Dave," said Zane, "I don't think the police will come just because some bad guys drive in. Besides, we really can't tell the police that we overheard them talking."
"Your point is?" said Dave.
"We have to wait until they do something criminal. Fortunately, just getting the door open is enough for a charge of breaking and entering."
"Oh," said Dave. "Makes sense. Then we only need to keep them in the house until the police arrive." He thought about it a moment. "But won't the police want to talk to the person that called them?"
"Nah. Police get anonymous tips all the time. It will be the police that are the witnesses to the crime."
"Then we're clear," said Dave. "Back to the plan. Here's what we'll do..."
When Dave was done, Piet said, "You know, it might even be fun to talk to them."
"And give ourselves away?" said Dave.
"Who's going to believe them when they claim horses talked to them?"
Zane said, "I'm not so sure. They may want to take revenge on the talking horses once they're out of jail."
"No problem," said Amos. "By the time they get back to us, we'll be back to human."
"I just thought of something," said Zane. "They know we will be here. It's a good idea not to eat anything they offer as a way of a treat. All kinds of things might have been added to it."
"Very good point," said Dave. "Any more comments or questions?" There were none. "Let's take our positions."
It was more than two hours in a breeze that was getting downright cold before the battered pickup came up the drive with its lights off. Dave wasn't worried about them hitting the fence as the sodium light on the barn gave off plenty of light. The two men got out of the pickup leaving the doors open to avoid the sound of closing them. They made their way to the house.
Once they got halfway there, Dave tried to look like he was ambling along and just happened by and wanted to greet his rider.
"Well, hello there Dave," said Fred. "I didn't expect you to be out here in the dark." He reached out a hand to pet Dave on the nose, which Dave allowed. Fred then did exactly what Zane had expected; he pulled some apple slices out of his pocket.
Though they were very tempting, Dave ignored the treat and pulled back a step. "Wow," said Fred. "That is the first time I have ever seen a horse refuse some apple."
He reached out and petted Dave on the nose again before proceeding to the door. Dave followed them onto the porch. It took Rick only a minute to pick the lock. As soon as he turned the knob, Dave flagged his tail several times.
Amos, who had been standing in the doorway of the barn with a pencil in her mouth, walked over to the speakerphone and tapped out 9-1-1 then dropped the pencil. When the connection was complete she calmly said, "Hi, There is a robbery in progress here." She gave the location. When the dispatcher asked for a name, she said, "I'd like to stay anonymous."
The thieves opened the door. Fred took off his hat and waived it at Dave and said, "Shoo!" Dave didn't move.
The two men very carefully eased themselves in through the door in in the same way that a person would try to slip in while making sure the dog stayed outside. Dave found their efforts amusing but kept quiet.
Once inside, the thieves turned on the lights and began looking around for five computers.
Dave operated the door latch with his lips, glad that he had convinced Professor such non-standard handles were a good idea. He stuck his head and neck through the open door. Getting his shoulders through would be a bit of a squeeze, but at the moment, that was the point. Dave followed the sound of footsteps through the house.
Zane tracked the men from room to room by keeping track of which lights were turned on and watching the men through the windows from the side yard.
It didn't take the men long to see that the computers were not in the house, or at least not in plain sight. They also couldn't find the nest of cables to indicate a computer inside a desk. Time to cut their losses.
As the men returned to the main door, Zane flagged her tail to signal Piet at the door off the kitchen.
The thieves found their way quite completely blocked by Dave. "You latched the door, didn't you?" said Fred.
"Yes, of course I did," said Rick. "I'm not some idiot."
Fred took off his hat again, waived it in Dave's face and hollered, "Shoo!" Dave didn't budge. He yelled a few more times getting quite close to Dave's face.
Dave lunged at the hat, grabbed it in his teeth, yanked it out of Fred's grasp, and flung it to the floor.
Both men stopped, startled.
"That's quite enough of that!" said Dave.
The men's eyes bugged out and their mouths dropped open.
"And no you won't find five computers in this house," said Dave. "All of them are in the barn for the horses to use, right where they should be."
The men turned and fled through the house to the kitchen door, not bothering to turn on the lights along the way. In the dark and in their haste it took several moments to figure out how to work the door's lock. They finally flung the door open and started to dash through it but found Piet's head in the way. Piet carefully and deliberately pushed the men back into the kitchen until he filled the doorway in the same manner as Dave.
The two men were too surprised to protest.
"Hey Dave!" said Piet, shouting to make sure Dave at the other end of the house could hear him.
"Yeah!" said Dave, just as loud.
"How soon until the police get here?"
"Well," said Dave, "I reckon no more than ten minutes."
"Do you think these thieves will get a lighter sentence if they snitch on their informant?"
"Probably. It would be worth a try."
"Sounds good to me," said Piet. "Dave, wasn't Kyle the one that installed our systems out at the barn?"
"And these two losers were sent to the house? Hmm. Sounds like a double cross to me."
"That it does," said Dave.
In a quieter voice, Piet said to the thieves. "You guys might as well have a seat until the police get here. Make yourselves comfortable. You might even find a beer in the fridge."
It was only eight minutes before the police arrived. The driver muttered to his partner as their headlights swept over the house, "These guys must be fools to let the horses out, then leave the doors open in November to let the horses into the house."
Dave backed out of the door when he heard the squad car stop. He stayed on the porch until the police led the two men out. On the way by, one cop said, "They'll probably try an insanity defense with the way these guys are yammering about horses that talk."
Once the thieves were in the car with one cop, the other came around to lock the doors and round up Dave and Piet, who went docilely. Zane had already slipped back to her stall.
"Dave, what do you know about horse breeding?" asked Zane. It was a blustery November evening, the kind that is just right for keeping the internet humming.
"I suppose what everyone knows," said Dave.
"And that is?"
"Um, mating season each spring, probably May. A foal born nine or ten months later at the end of winter."
"You've got a curse on you and you don't check out the specifics on how to rid yourself of it?" snarled Zane.
"Please, Zane, don't be so hard on our man," said Amos. She turned to Dave, "It seems we keep forgetting you don't have your degree yet. What year have you finished?"
"And what classes are you taking online right now?"
"You tutor me every evening, Amos. You should know."
"Well, um, it's rather difficult to do a science lab right now, so I'm studying Shakespeare's Plays and Comparative Religions."
Jack chuckled. "Real useful."
"Shush, Jack!" said Amos. "Don't mind her," she said to Dave. "In other words, you haven't yet taken any senior level science classes."
"Yeah," said Dave. "Why do you ask?"
"Because it is in the senior year that you get deep into such things as verification. How is it you know something? Can you trust it? If you're going to make it as a paleontologist, you don't want to base your research on common knowledge because you will be wasting your time. Your advisor or your colleagues will throw it out. You have to verify what you know.
"And now you have to get out from under a curse. The rules are simple. Produce offspring. Wean them. Don't have another pregnancy in progress. But can you answer a simple question: How long after a mare gives birth does she go into heat again?"
"I don't know. But why should it matter?"
"It may matter very much. If she goes into heat before she is done weaning, she may be pregnant again before the curse can be broken. That means she'll have to endure life as a horse for another year. And if you did your part as stallion, it would be another year for you as well."
Dave's eyes got big. "I, uh, guess I need to start a class in horse breeding."
"I suspect," said Amos with a wink, "that Zane brought up the topic because her browsing led her to something useful."
"That I did," said Zane. "It took some digging, but I found the webpages for the University of Missouri School of Agriculture. For some reason, these things aren't found through a standard search engine."
"So what did you learn?" asked Dave.
"That we need to clear up several of your misconceptions."
"Somehow I knew that was coming back around to me."
"First of all, mating season doesn't start in May. A mare can go into heat as early as mid March. Second, it isn't a one-shot deal. A mare will cycle into heat every three to four weeks after that."
"That's a relief," said Jack. "I'd hate to have to wait a whole year if our man here," her sarcasm was obvious, "wasn't man enough for the job."
"Oh, I don't think that will be a problem," said Amos. "The curse laid on us made us horses primed for breeding. I'm sure we will all be quite fertile."
"To put your mind at rest, Jack," said Zane, "it says here that Dave will be able to produce about five ounces a hit, containing about 6 billion little guys. He'll be able to produce enough hits to keep fifty mares happy -- and there will only be four of us."
"The most impressive male of any species and it's not me," muttered Jack.
"Actually, the stats for whales are more impressive," said Amos.
Zane continued, "The sperm will live for about 24 to 48 hours. The egg survives for about six hours after being released."
"In other words, Dave," said Piet, "to improve our chances, you'll need to load us up about once a day for the whole week we're in heat."
Amos glanced at Dave and noticed his eyes. "Are we embarrassing you with all this talk?"
"Your wimp factor kicking in again? You should be delighted in all this," said Jack.
"Oh shush," said Amos. "Dave, are you a virgin?"
Dave visibly gulped. "Yeah."
Amos turned to Jack and glared. "Not a word from you!"
Jack glared back.
"And you are uncomfortable," said Amos to Dave, "because you want to save yourself for a future wife, such as Erin, and you don't like the idea of sleeping around."
Dave could only nod.
Amos glared at Jack for a moment, then turned to Dave again. "I admire your intentions, Dave, but, unfortunately, with this curse hanging over us you don't have the luxury."
Amos let Dave think about it a while, then said, "Anything else, Zane?"
"Yeah. Gestation is about twenty-five days short of a year."
Piet said, "Ouch! That's a long time to be so uncomfortable!"
"I bet you are remembering your wife trying to get out of a chair in her last month."
"Strange that we were just talking about whales!"
"You're thinking in human terms. We have four legs to support the extra weight and that weight is proportionally less."
Dave said, "I don't mean to be intrusive Piet, but you hadn't said anything about a having a wife. Does she know about you now? What about your child?"
Piet said, "The short version is we were divorced. She got custody then remarried. I haven't been able to see my boy in about a decade."
There was silence for a few moments before Jack asked, "How long after birth will the little brats stop using us as their meal ticket and let us return to human?"
"According to this website," said Zane, "a foal will naturally stop going to its mother after six months."
"First you spoil our day by saying it will take nearly a year before the brats pop out," said Jack. "Then you do it again by saying they don't let go for another half year. And it is still four months before mating season even begins!"
"Cut the yammering," said Zane. "I'm not done yet. That was the natural way. We can safely start 'encouraging' them after four months. That gets you back to human two months sooner."
"Saving two months is not much of a comfort when I've still got nineteen months as a horse! Changing back today isn't too soon."
Zane turned back to her computer. "For us, this will be an important detail. A mare will go back into heat about three weeks after giving birth."
Amos nodded. "That's long before a foal is weaned. We'll have to do something to keep from being trapped in the curse."
"But don't couples simply abstain when they don't want kids?" asked Dave. "We can do the same."
"Oh man, listen to that! A male willing to give up sex!" said Jack.
"Actually, very few humans use abstinence as a form of birth control," said Zane. "And even fewer use it successfully. The sexual urge is just too strong. And since horses pump out pheromones, I'm sure the urge is much stronger."
"So what about contraceptives -- pills and such?"
"I doubt there has been much research into a pill for horses," said Zane. "And I'm sure there aren't horse condoms." Jack snickered. "That's because surgery is relatively easy. It doesn't make sense for us to have surgery just a few months before the curse ends. And I doubt you want to become a gelding." Jack gave a hearty laugh. "It might ruin your chances with Erin once you're human." Dave backed up until his tail brushed the back of his stall.
"I think we're back to abstinence," said Amos. "And the only abstinence that works is enforced. Dave, we're going to have to get you out of here once the foals are born."
"But you're in heat only one week a month," said Dave.
"With four mares, it is unlikely we'll be in heat the same week," said Zane.
Professor brought an artificial Christmas tree to the barn in early December. Stan happily decorated the tree and placed a few more decorations around the barn. The riding club was essentially closed, though not officially. Stan still came by every day to feed and groom his charges and, if necessary, plow the driveway for Professor.
Stan was amused when six small gifts were waiting for him on Christmas Eve. After he opened them, he went to each horse in turn to give his thanks and a scratch between the ears.
Stan, of course, stayed home on Christmas day.
Not long after his usual breakfast time, Professor came into the barn pulling a child's wagon full of presents.
In spite of Professor's attempts, it was a somber day. Professor had to open each present, which included a horse blanket from Professor himself for each of them and a passport wallet for Dave from his parents. They had each gotten Professor something -- scarf, sweater, and other such barn clothing -- from their riding club earnings, but then had to ask Professor to write a check. It made them all feel very dependent.
It was not the kind of Christmas Dave had looked forward to as a child, and his childhood was only a few short years before. Once Professor had opened the last gift and had slipped a blanket on each of them, Dave quietly left the group and stood staring out the window of his stall, occasionally rubbing his nose against the old dinosaur toy on the windowsill. There wasn't even snow on the ground.
After the third sigh, Amos crowded into the stall with Dave. She simply stood there for a long moment, offering comfort with her presence, then said, "How's my stallion doing?"
"Oh Amos! I don't know if I can go through with this. I just don't think I can be the stallion you need me to be. I wish I were back in Cincinnati with Mom and Dad and Matt."
"Dave," Amos said gently. "You're doing just fine."
"I guess I had better answer each of your comments. Can you go through with this? Let's talk of the alternative. Do you want to kill yourself? You might find it very difficult to do without hands, though the Buffalo Jump near Three Forks could serve the purpose. But this is a temporary problem. It has an end. You will either decide to remain a horse or you will return to human. Killing yourself it too permanent a solution."
Dave's voice was quiet. "No, I wasn't thinking of killing myself."
"Then you go through with it. A lot of life is just getting through it. Now for the next question. Can you be the stallion we need? Think about all that you've accomplished over the last six months and about all you've learned. Compare your first call to a contractor with two weeks ago when the satellite dish went out. You aren't timid anymore."
"You're just saying that."
"Am I? Think about it."
Dave was quiet.
"Now I can't get you to Cincinnati today, but that was the reason why phones were invented."
It took only a few moments for Professor to get the speakerphone into Dave's stall and to dial the number. All the others moved away as the phone rang to give Dave a feeling of privacy. Even stallions needed Mom on occasion.
"David! It's so good to hear your voice! Where are you?"
"I'm in Bozeman. I've missed you..."
A police car pulled up to the house mid afternoon in early February. The two officers knocked on the door. Professor welcomed them in.
Dave had, of course, paced the squad car and headed for the barn. the mares either saw the car or saw Dave flag his tail several times. They entered soon after Dave and gathered with him around the intercom.
Since no one wanted to ride in February any more than December, Stan had already completed his chores and had gone home.
The intercom soon crackled to life. Professor could be heard saying, "I hope you don't mind allowing my stableboy to hear about this."
"Not at all," said a deep voice.
"You were saying?" prompted Professor.
"I was saying that there were two robberies yesterday that you need to be aware of. The first was at the auction appraiser's office in Livingston. The thieves ransacked his files and apparently stole several of his appraisals. He thinks that one of them was for your horses. Do you happen to have a copy?"
Professor could be heard rummaging through his desk for a moment, "Ah, here it is."
"Yes. It shows your horses are very valuable. That leads to the other of yesterday's crimes. Another rancher reported that his stallion was stolen at about 2:30 last night. He says his horse was appraised by the same man for $350,000, a bit more than your mares. The appraiser claims that file was another one stolen."
"Professor, we have reason to believe the thieves will target your barn tonight. Your horses, especially the stallion are a prime catch for them."
"What can I do?"
Another voice spoke, much higher than the first one. "We need you to stay out of the way. The thieves probably won't use bullets as a half million dollar horse that's dead is worthless. They will use tranquilizer darts and a dart loaded to put a two thousand pound horse to sleep will kill a two hundred pound man. A dart in your toe could be just as deadly as a bullet through the brain. So even though you want to protect a half million dollar investment, your life isn't worth it."
"I can understand that," said Professor.
"Beyond that," said the higher voice, "we're not sure yet. We've planned a stakeout around your place tonight, but we have a dilemma. We want to protect your animals, yet we would also like a way to track down the horse that was stolen yesterday."
The deep voice continued, "Here's how you can contact us." Dave could imagine the cops handing over business cards, or whatever it is that cops use. "We will also keep you informed. Thank you for your time, sir."
"And thank you for the warning," said Professor.
A few moments later, the squad car could be heard driving away.
Dave said, "Well girls, any suggestions?"
Zane said, "I think the --"
"Hold it right there," Jack interrupted. "You're not seriously going to put this kid in charge of our safety, are you?"
"Yes, Jack, we are," said Amos. "He is our stallion."
Jack snorted. "He may have the equipment, but any one of us, and especially Zane and his 'Nam experience would be a better choice to lead us. This isn't some little circus with clueless computer thieves. We're talking serious trouble. We're talking tranq darts, horsenapping, and either the possibility of an irate owner when we return to human or being bred so frequently we're trapped in horse form. Nuh-uh. I want someone with experience in charge."
Amos could see Dave's ears go back so stepped between them. "No, Jack. Dave is in charge. He has learned a lot in the last six months about delegating and accepting advice. I'm sure he will make sure Zane's experience is used."
"There you go hiding behind your women. A real stallion would speak for himself."
"All right, Jack," Dave bellowed. His ears were flat. Amos quickly stepped out of the way. "I've had enough. Out!"
Jack didn't move. Dave stepped forward. "I said, out!"
Dave took two more steps towards a surprised Jack. "Out! I mean it! You are not welcome in this barn."
Jack had put up with verbal rebukes from Amos and Zane. That was nothing. But no one had actually threatened her before.
Dave took another step. "I don't care where you go. I don't care if you ever return to human. I want you out of here!" Another step.
Jack held her ground. No one had dared to order her around before.
"I don't care if you ever regain your precious cock or if the horsenappers get you. Out." Dave could almost touch Jack's nose.
The barn was silent for a whole minute. Amos broke it, asking, "Do you think it was wise to expose her to danger?"
"As you keep saying, I'm the stallion."
"Of course, Dave."
A very long and very quiet minute later, Dave said, "You were saying, Zane?"
Zane said, "I think the police were hinting that they would like volunteers."
"Volunteers for what?"
"Volunteers to be a prisoner. Let the thieves nab a horse, but in such a way that it leads the police to the previously stolen horse."
"You mean using one of us as bait?" asked Dave.
"So why not just ask?"
"I don't think even the police would feel right about saying, 'A three hundred thousand dollar horse has been stolen. May we use your five hundred thousand dollar horse as bait?' On the other hand, the police won't turn it down if Professor makes an offer."
They talked for a while longer, then Dave spoke to Professor on the intercom, "We have a plan we'd like to discuss with you."
Zane was impressed with the number of cops that joined the stakeout. As darkness fell, Zane could look across the fields and see cop cars behind several clumps of brush. There were cops spread across the perimeter of the pastures. There were even two cops in the hayloft, which meant the horses had to act like horses, and a third cop who would stay with the horses until the intruder alert was given.
It was after three when the Oren, the cop on the floor, heard his walkie-talkie crackled. Mike reported a truck passing his position in the south pasture. Oren thanked him, and called up to the loft, "Tony, Walt, it is showtime."
Tony said, "Roger. Come on Walt, wake up."
Oren picked up the small radio beacon, turned it on, checked it with his receiver, then walked over to Dave's stall. "Come on, horsie, I've got a little treat for you."
Dave quickly and calmly swallowed the proffered beacon.
Oren went into the tack room to hide. He was surprised when the three mares let themselves out of their stalls and went quietly past him and out behind the barn. The horses had agreed it would do no good to expose them all to danger and that the thieves would want to work quickly, not bothering with horses they would have to search for.
Five minutes later, a truck came up the lane and pulled up outside the big door. It sounded like it was being backed up to the door. Dave waited until then to let himself out of his stall and stand near the big door. He had had a long time of undisturbed thought that evening once the cops climbed into the loft to consider things carefully.
Dave, and no doubt the police, could hear the thieves pick the padlock that had been installed that afternoon. The police were amazed at the lack of security and had insisted on at least the appearance that expensive horses were inside.
The door was pushed open. From the glow of the yard light, Dave took in the situation. The open back of the truck was just a few feet away. The thief that had opened the door was startled to see a huge stallion in front of his face. Another thief had the dart gun in his hands. A third, with a wary expression, was lowering the lift on the back of the truck.
Dave knew the he had a main task to accomplish, so let the thieves guide him onto the lift and, once the lift was raised, from there into the truck. As soon as his guide let go of his halter, Dave kicked him. He was satisfied to hear bones crack. The man went down, first screaming, then releasing a stream of profanity.
The dart gun was quickly raised and used. Dave felt the expected sting beside his tail and calmly lay down so that he wouldn't hurt himself in falling over.
Before darkness swallowed him Dave thought, it worked! He was going to be tranquilized sooner or later from the looks of the one with the gun and the thieves wouldn't hurt their prize in any other way. Might as well get in a blow for the good guys while he could.
When Dave awoke, he was sprawled on the floor of the truck. The light through the vents told him it was sometime after dawn. The truck was slowing to a stop. A moment later, the engine was turned off. Wherever they were going, they had arrived. A minute after that, the door opened. Dave blinked in the bright light and soon focused on a familiar barn door. Dave slowly got to his feet.
Oren the cop noted that Dave was awake as he unfolded the lift. He then climbed in to grab Dave's halter. Dave beat him to it by stepping onto the lift. The cop soon had Dave standing on the ground. Professor was there, as were the mares, though Jack kept her distance.
"Thanks for offering the use your horse, Professor. Two of the perps are in jail and the third will be there soon once his leg is in a cast. The other rancher also thanks you for helping rescue his horse." They shook hands. Oren then patted Dave on the neck. "From the report of that broken leg, I'm glad your stallion was on our side." The cop left.
Once the truck was out of earshot, Zane said, "So what happened? Was there a big shootout?"
"I have no idea," said Dave. "I just woke up. What happened here?"
"The cops radioed in that you were loaded into the truck, you kicked one of them, and then they sped away as soon as they could get the truck door closed. You must have spooked them, as they never came into the barn to look for the mares. A moment later the cops reported that they were in careful pursuit."
Professor added, "Officer Walt reported that they apprehended both the thieves and their contacts at a rest stop on I-90 twenty-five miles east of here. They were caught while money was changing hands. As far as the police are concerned, it is a pretty tight case."
The stories continued for several minutes, but soon most of them began to drift away. Amos said to Dave, "Thank you, Dave."
"For what? All I did was lie there in the truck unconscious."
"You put your life at risk for someone else, someone you didn't even know. That rates pretty high in my book. And your kick wasn't half bad either." Amos twitched his ears. "The cops that saw it were quite impressed that a horse would do such a thing. They promise not to get on your bad side."
"What do you mean, I put my life at risk?"
"Oh, I can think of a hundred ways in which that little adventure could have gone wrong."
"I think one will be enough." Dave's eyes were getting big.
"Only one? Then we'll go with the tranquilizer dart. You say you just woke up. That implies the dosage was a bit too high, even for a big guy like you. A little bit more and it could have killed you. And there is always the risk of an allergic reaction."
"So why didn't you tell me all about these risks before we got into this mess?"
"Because I realized it wouldn't have made any difference in your decision. It is good to see a stallion willing to risk his life for another."
Two days later, after another snowstorm dumped yet another inch of snow. Jack approached Professor as he was scraping the snow off his car.
'Good morning Jack," Professor called out. "Though it is mornings like this where I would much rather be in town instead of facing a commute over icy roads."
Professor took a good look at Jack, "How are you doing, Jack? Did Stan work things out?"
"Yeah, he stacked up bales of straw under the roof overhang outside the tack room. He even found a second blanket for me. I think he brought it from his parent's place." Professor had noticed Jack looked bulkier than usual. "It is such a relief to get out of the way of that aspiring dictator and his fawning groupies that I don't mind the cold."
Professor stopped scraping and turned to face Jack, but said nothing. It seemed the perception of Dave inside the barn had shifted.
"But my cozy living arrangements aren't what brought me out here to talk to you away from the others," continued Jack. "I was thinking about mating season next month. It's no secret that I think Dave is abusing his role as stallion, the little twerp." It certainly isn't a secret, thought Professor. He returned to his scraping while Jack talked. "I am pretty sure he will refuse me when I come into heat. I can't bear to be a mare for any longer that I absolutely have to. How about getting a stud service for me?"
The professor studied Jack for a moment, then sighed. "Sorry, Jack, the answer is no. We'll leave out the things you did to make the problem worse and look at only the practical and financial. This ranch runs on a shoestring, there is very little extra money. We can't afford it."
"I've got lots of savings!" protested Jack.
"And we can't get at any of it without your signature. We can't even use it as collateral for a loan. You know that."
"It doesn't have to be an expensive stud. I'm not looking to be the mother of the next Triple Crown winner!"
"And Dave's services are free. You forget the fifty percent success rate for stud services. You would have to at least double any quoted fees. But think of another aspect. We're talking about your child. Even if that child will remain a horse, you won't be happy being studded by any run-down, bedraggled, excuse for a stallion that we might find around here for the price we can afford. Compare that against Dave, who has been judged to be a very fine horse, worthy of siring your offspring. The answer is no."
"But that little twerp hates me!" sputtered Jack. "He'll refuse."
"Well, you have about a month to do something about that."
Professor climbed into his car, shut the door, and started the engine, drowning out the stream of profanities from Jack.
Dave awoke on the first warm day in March to a wonderful rich aroma. Dave doubted it was flowers because his body had never responded to flowers in the way it did now.
Dave tracked the aroma to Amos, who was already in the paddock. "Ah, here's my stallion," she said. "I've got an itch that needs a good scratching and it seems you are the only one equipped to do the job."
Amos studied the motionless Dave for a moment. "It appears I have embarrassed my stallion. I'm sorry." She ambled over to him and nuzzled for a moment. "While neither one of us can commit to 'Death do us part,' I want you to know that I love my stallion and I'm proud of what you've done over the last year. I would be honored to bear a foal for you."
Dave still seemed hesitant, so she said, "Though I can't offer a candlelit moment at the feed trough, I think what we need now is a bit of privacy. The space behind the willow in the south pasture should serve nicely."
Dave had a sharp need of his own so he trotted eagerly to the tree. His embarrassment didn't last long. A half hour later, Dave thought, so this is what it is like to be a stallion.
Piet came into heat two days later and Zane the day after that. With three mares, Dave was in heaven.
Jack came into heat the same day as Zane. She watched from the far end of the pasture as Dave made trips to the willow tree with each mare over the course of the morning.
Jack cautiously approached the group in the south pasture, hoping to be included. Dave chased her away. Jack sulked at the far end of the pasture for a while, but her need was too great. The physical need was bad enough. The thought of even an extra three weeks as a horse -- three weeks without her human form, three weeks without a cock, three extra weeks enduring the twelve-year-old girls that wanted to braid her mane -- was making her desperate. From the way Dave had been mounting the other mares, they would have no trouble satisfying the curse. They would get to return to human. She would be stuck as a mare. Damn that cocky little dictator!
Jack cautiously returned, stopping a safe distance away -- as close as she figured she could come without prompting Dave to charge at her, but carefully placing herself upwind of Dave. "Please, Dave."
"Go away," said Dave.
"I don't want to wait any longer than I have to. I want my cock back."
"That is not my concern," said Dave. He had taken a couple steps towards Jack. "My life might actually be better if you didn't get your cock back. All you did with it was torture me -- try to prove that your manhood was better than mine. We're all better off while you are female."
Jack backed up a step. "Please, Dave. I need you."
"Well, I don't need you. I have enough mares to satisfy me and to serve out my sentence. Just go away." He charged at her again. She fled.
It wasn't long before Jack was back. Again, she stopped a safe distance away and directly upwind of him. "Please, Dave. I'll make it up to you."
They all could see that Jack's aroma had an effect on Dave. He took a few steps to the side, then said, "It's too late for that."
"No, it's not," she protested.
"You're never going to change," Dave said. "But a year from now, I see two very nice possibilities. The first is that I'll be human and you will still be a horse. I can walk away and not have to deal with you again." He glared at Jack a moment.
Zane took that moment to say, "Dave, you will have foals by then, you may not want to leave."
Dave glanced at her and nodded. "I know. There is the other possibility. A year from now, the four of us take the ranch over from Professor, who moves back into town. Then I can sell your sorry ass to the highest bidder. I will relish the joke when the poor guy's mare becomes a human male a year later if he doesn't get you pregnant again before the little tyke is weaned. Now beat it!"
Jack fled again at Dave's charge, but slowly returned only a few minutes later. "Please, Dave."
"There are those that say persistence is an admirable trait. I'm sure they were never on the receiving end of persistent badgering." Dave stood there quietly for a few moments. Jack didn't dare move.
Dave said, "Jack, who's the stallion?"
"If there was any justice in this world, it would have been me."
"Wrong answer, Jack. Try again."
The mares seemed to be intent on watching Jack.
"I hate people on power trips," said Jack after a moment.
"I'm outta here," said Dave. He turned and began to walk away.
"Please, Dave!" The pleading was unmistakable.
"Who's the stallion, Jack." Dave stopped walking, but didn't bother turning around.
"Anybody. Who's the stallion."
Amos spoke up. "My stallion is Dave."
"Aw, you wimpy little bastards!" said Jack. "He's got you to play his power games too?"
Amos said, "In case you didn't notice Jack, you're a horse. You're even a female horse. And you're a female horse in heat. The rules of humans don't apply. The rules of a horse as part of a herd do. Dave is my stallion."
Jack muttered a few swear words. Dave waited.
"Your turn, Jack," said Dave.
"Dave is my stallion."
"You know girls," said Dave, "I don't think she means it. Do you?"
All three chuckled. Jack's ears went back.
"Try again. Bow when you say it."
"You pompous little runt!" Jack stalked off.
Dave waited. It didn't take long.
Jack broke into a gallop after only a few steps and circled the pasture. She arrived back in front of Dave, sides heaving. Dave waited.
After a moment, she spread one foreleg forward and the other back and ducked her head in an imitation of curtsey. "Dave." She was still breathing hard. "Dave. Is my. Stallion."
"Kneel," said Dave.
"You said bow."
"I changed my mind."
"Better yet," said Dave, "complete prostration."
Jack glared a moment, saw Dave turn away, and decided to comply. She quickly folded her rear legs and stuck both forelegs forward. She then placed her muzzle between her legs.
"You were saying?" prompted Dave.
"Dave is my stallion."
Dave came over and placed a hoof on Jack's withers. The other mares could see Jack grit her teeth. "And who are you?" said Dave.
Dave wiggled the hoof on Jack's back. "Well?"
Amos said, "Jack, the correct response is 'I am Dave's mare.'"
After a moment, Dave wiggled his hoof.
"I am Dave's mare," said Jack.
"Repeat all of it," said Dave.
"Dave is my stallion. I am Dave's mare."
After a moment, Jack moved a leg, trying to rise. Dave wiggled his hoof again. Jack returned her leg to where it was.
"Repeat after me," said Dave. "I will submit to my stallion."
"I will submit to my stallion."
"I will honor my fellow mares," said Dave.
"I will honor my fellow mares."
"I will respect my herd mates."
"I will respect my herd mates," Jack seemed to deflate.
"I will always use polite language."
"I don't know polite language," protested Jack.
"Then it is about time you learn. Say it."
"I will always use polite language."
"Very good!" Dave's tone was that of a parent to a child. He removed his hoof. "You may get up now."
Jack slowly got to her feet. Her tail twitched over to the side.
Dave said, "Get out of here. I'm too angry to enjoy it now. And I intend to enjoy it."
Jack's tail settled back into place as she walked to the far side of the pasture.
"Don't you think you were a bit hard on her?" asked Amos.
"Are you objecting to what your stallion has done?" countered Dave.
"I will agree she had it coming and that it is your place to give it to her. I merely observe that going overboard may cause difficulties in the future."
"So what if she stays a mare for another year. Maybe something good will come of it."
"Dave, at the moment you may be a stallion at the height of mating season, but you also have a human brain capable of understanding such ideas as compassion and forgiveness. It is one thing to go from wimp to self-assured. It is quite another to go from self-assured to cocky. The best leaders don't get a swelled head over it."
"Are you calling me cocky?"
Piet laughed. Amos continued after glaring at Piet. "What I'm saying is that a cocky leader tends to make life difficult for his herd. A true leader shows compassion and apologizes for his mistakes. You decide which one you are."
Amos could see Dave didn't get it, at least not yet. "I don't care about Jack," she continued. "She's been obnoxious for as long as I've known her. She can sit there as a mare for the rest of her days for all I care."
"So what's your complaint?"
"I do care about my stallion. I want my stallion to be the best possible stallion -- and human -- that he can be. I don't want the way you treat Jack to make you become like him."
"I don't get it."
"If you go on treating Jack the way he treats you, you begin to treat others the same way. Do you really want someone to think of you the way you think of Jack?
"Think about some of those Shakespeare plays we've discussed over the last several months. Why did Hamlet do what he did?"
"Avenge his father's death, which is another way of saying he went for revenge against his uncle."
"Very good." Amos was pleased that Dave forgot about being the stallion for the moment and slipped easily back into his student role. "And what did that get him?"
"What happened to all the other Shakespeare characters that went after revenge?"
"They usually die a miserable death. But that's exaggerated."
"True. Even so, Shakespeare is not wrong. Revenge -- paying Jack back for all the nasty things he said and did -- will drag you down. It may not kill you, but it will not improve you. Seeking revenge is not a healthy way to live. It will hurt you more than it will hurt Jack and it is your health I'm interested in."
Amos could see that Dave wasn't convinced, but enough had gotten through to that hormone-crazed brain to have a small effect. Dave began to pace.
"Dave," said Amos, "what was the other class you took this past semester?"
Dave had gotten used to Amos asking obvious questions. He knew that coming up with the answer usually clarified his thinking. "Comparative Religions."
"And why did I recommend you take that one?"
"Because religion is such a large part of a culture and so frequently at the root of conflict that it is important to understand at least the major religions."
"Might there be a secondary motive?"
Dave paused in his pacing. Amos could practically see the lightbulb turn on. "So that I might actually absorb some of the religious principles."
"And what is the principle behind the phrase, 'turn the other cheek'?"
"Um, let's see," Dave sounded like he was quoting a memory. "Some say an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say when a man strikes you on one cheek, turn and let him strike the other cheek as well." Amos waited. "It, um, means" -- the pacing resumed -- "that revenge doesn't work."
"Very good. Your quote was also reasonably accurate. Now what is the major theme of Christianity?"
"Forgiveness and love can overcome evil."
"Very good, Dave. You may yet become a stallion even Jack will be proud to know."
Meaning, thought Dave, I'm certainly not there now. "Why are we having this discussion now and not when I threw Jack out of the barn?"
"It's the difference between asserting your authority and abusing it." Dave stopped his pacing and faced Amos with a nod. Amos continued, "This is a lot to absorb all at once. Perhaps you should spend the next few hours away from your mares and contemplate what kind of stallion you want to be. Then we can discuss how you can be a stallion to Jack."
The next morning, having had a long talk with Amos and a long time to think by himself in the north pasture, Dave approached Jack in the south pasture. Dave was careful to not be downwind. The rest of the mares stayed near the barn to give them privacy.
"Do you want me to bow, kneel, or prostrate myself?" Jack asked with a bit of apprehension.
"None of that. I shouldn't have asked for it the first time."
"You bastard!" Jack growled, aware she could speak freely.
"I'm sorry Jack."
"You humiliated me!"
"I had a long chat with Amos. I overdid it. I'm sorry."
"I'm sick and tired of being a horse!" Jack wailed. "I want to get one with my life."
"I understand your frustration. I do too. In a moment, we'll take a step to make that happen."
"Why not now? Let's just get it over with."
"I don't want to do it out of a sense of duty and I don't want it to be rape. I want us to both enjoy it. I want to create offspring with a friend. Doing so with a lover would be better."
"You're not likely to get me to love you," growled Jack.
"Maybe not, but I'd like to make an effort. Jack, humiliating you was wrong. I apologize for doing it. Now, though my actions cannot be excused, they were provoked. In the time that I've know you, you seem to go out of your way to make others miserable."
Dave paused for a moment. Jack didn't take up the slack. "I will make a guess at the underlying problem. Rose thought it was obvious. The problem appears to be that you are hung up on macho. You hated Zane because he appeared to live it. You hated me because I didn't strive towards it. You hate yourself now because you are female."
Jack was still silent.
"Jack, being macho is irrelevant. It is a poor foundation for a personality. It is better to build a life on compassion, reverence, and a whole long list of other virtues our modern culture ignores."
Dave studied Jack a moment. Jack said nothing.
"There is something buried in your past that comes out as the need to be macho. Who better to tell than your stallion?"
Jack finally spoke. "You have a lot of strange things to say for a kid."
Dave wiggled his ears. "As I said, Amos and I had a long talk." Jack noticed that Dave said nothing about being called a kid.
"Amos has a guess too," said Dave. "She thinks your problems are wrapped up in your relation to your father. Jack, please tell me about your father." It almost sounded like a question.
Jack just stood for several minutes, then let out a long shuddering sigh. She said, "I think the first time I was afraid of him was at Christmas when I was about seven or eight. I had been asking my mother for a G.I Joe. I was delighted when I opened the box and found one. The figure was dressed in fatigues and had a black beard. As soon as Dad saw it, he yanked it out of my hands, threw it into the fireplace, and yelled, 'My son isn't going to play with dolls!'. I think my mother was as shocked as I was.
"My dog Star died when I was thirteen. That dog had been my buddy as long as I could remember and he was gone. Dad smacked me until I could choke back the tears. He said, 'Real men don't cry.'
"I was probably the smallest guy in 9th grade. Dad insisted I go out for football. He called it a 'real man's sport'. Mom objected, saying all the other boys were bigger than me and that I would be hurt. Dad insisted, saying a man shouldn't be afraid of a little pain. At the first scrimmage, I was tackled by the biggest kid on the other team. The impact cracked two ribs. Mom was furious with him.
"After my ribs healed, I was able to avoid sports, though Dad let me know how disappointed he was in my decision. To replace sports, I tried out for and got the role of the slob in The Odd Couple. Dad raised such a stink with the drama teacher that he dropped me from the play just so he wouldn't have to deal with Dad. I never figured out what Dad's problem was.
"Once, I slapped my girlfriend the same way Dad had slapped Mom. Her father hauled me down to the police station. When I saw Dad, he congratulated me on showing her who was boss. When I saw Mom and the pain in her eyes, I realized I could never strike another woman.
"I could never please him. He kept saying I was never enough of a man to satisfy him. Though I did a few things right, there were always so many other things that he didn't like."
Jack had finally run out of words. She stood there for a moment with her head drooping. Telling those stories to someone else had cost her a great deal. "So what do I do now?"
"According to Amos," said Dave, "the answer is both simple and hard. The simple part is to understand that you must live for yourself, not for your father. The hard part is actually doing it. Amos said it will take time. She also said that you may need to talk to me or her about it some more."
This would have been the time for a hug, if Dave had arms with which to give one. Dave rubbed his nose against Jack's. She flinched back a step but he persisted. He could hear she was breathing heavily from -- he assumed -- the anxiety of her tale. He circled around her so that he could come alongside and press his whole flank against hers and rub neck to neck. She didn't flinch, but he could feel her skin quiver and feel her tail nervously flick against his legs and back. It wasn't a hug, but perhaps it would do.
It would take a long time for Jack to heal. Amos said that much. One doesn't easily banish tormentors from the past. But Jack had brought the problem into the open and certainly could begin the healing process. That was all that could be expected for the moment. It was a start, enough for now.
Dave found Jack's story a bit overwhelming. How could a man be so cruel to his own son? What should he do with Jack's story? Was it enough, as Amos said, to just listen?
Dave waited for another long sigh, then waited some more. Finally, he could feel that her flanks were no longer quivering and her tail swished with purpose rather than with nerves. He saw her looking him in the eye. Her ears twitched.
Dave said, "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Amos and Zane have shared some tips on how I could improve the experience. Amos said it was memorable."
It was. It most certainly was. Jack would have never thought that the female experience could be so intense and satisfying.
When Dave and Jack returned to the barn Amos said, "Welcome to the herd, Jack."
A week later, the vet told Professor, "It looks like Piet and Amos are pregnant. It also looks like Zane and Jack get to have more fun with their stallion next month."
Predictably, Jack grumbled loud and long at the news.
Dave had a wonderful time with Zane during her second heat. Jack had gotten over her disappointment at least enough to enjoy it. The vet confirmed the second time took.
The leaves had started to turn color in late September when Amos told Dave, "I don't feel so good." She went to her stall and settled herself in the straw.
Dave found Stan. Stan called the vet and Professor. Even though the vet arrived promptly, there wasn't a lot he could do. Amos miscarried.
As soon as the vet left Dave squeezed into Amos' stall and settled down next to her. "I'm so sorry," said Dave. "I'm sorry that you've lost your child. I'm sorry that you'll be stuck as a horse for at least an extra six months."
"Thank you, Dave, my man. I appreciate that. But that little life wasn't just mine. It would have been yours too."
Amos paused for a moment. "But don't fret over being stuck as a horse for an extra six months or so. Believe it or not -- and I'm sure Jack won't -- I like my life as a horse."
The other horses were in earshot and with that comment they came to gather outside her stall.
"Think about it," said Amos. "As a human, I was an African-American male, tall enough to be intimidating. I was seen as a sinister character first, human second. The value of my PhD dropped when people saw my skin color." There were murmurs of protest, but Amos continued. "All of you knew me well so you disregarded my skin color. That was never true outside the department.
"But as a horse, I'm a beauty. Everyone exclaims over how my spots are so small and jumbled. People are attracted to me because of what they see rather than repelled by it. Add to that the feeling of the wind in my mane as I gallop across the fields, and my choice is clear. I'll take the horse, thank you."
"Don't you want to get back to family?" asked Zane.
"My wife died just before I went to Mongolia. It was why I decided to go. My son decided that a gang was smarter than his father. His initiation rite landed him in jail. I think our foals will cause a lot less trouble."
"But what about hands? And your cock?" asked Jack.
"Oh, I miss my hands all right, but enough of what I want to do with my brain, I find I can do through the computer. And as for my cock, it is highly overrated." Jack did not look convinced. "I'll admit that had I been given a choice, I would have become a stallion. With a choice between mare and human male, I'll take the mare."
Traitor, thought Jack, traitor to being one of the guys. But the subject was now open. Jack could express his own views. "As much as I want the life inside me to grow, I hate the thought of being pregnant. I hate the idea of me giving birth. And I hate the thought of the sweet little dears suckling on me. I want my cock back, the sooner the better."
"We are all quite aware of your desperation," said Piet. "Even so, I'll be glad when this is over with also. I've felt my life has been on hold. How 'bout you Zane?"
"Oh, I don't know," said Zane.
"Whaddaya mean, ya don't know? You've had more than a year to think about it, man!" said Jack. "You haven't made up your mind yet?"
Zane's ears twitched. "According to the curse, I don't have to decide until my foals are weaned. But I have thought of it. It has been a nice break. I might recommend it to some particular type A personalities at the university. Send them off to Mongolia and tell them to ride wild horses."
Several pairs of ears twitched. "I could probably guess which people you have in mind," said Jack. "But do you want to stay a horse?"
"Nah," said Zane. "As I said, it has been a nice break. but I want my hands back. Though I don't need to do it much, I hate typing with a pencil in my mouth."
"Dave, what about you?" said Piet.
"Well," said Dave, "I'd like a chance to make Erin happy and I can't pursue that as a horse."
Dave found that being the stallion did not shield him from teasing.
"When she's riding you she looks pretty happy," observed Piet.
"You know what I mean," said Dave. "I want to try creating a family with her."
Dave had hoped that Amos wouldn't come into heat before winter, but he awoke one morning to a familiar and enticing aroma. He felt himself respond and knew he had to act.
He saw Amos in the paddock on his way through, "Ah, my stallion!" she said.
Instead of going to her, Dave made a wide circle until he was upwind. "Sorry, my dear girl. I must refuse. Mating with you will only delay my chances with Erin. I don't want to risk it, especially since you plan to stay a horse anyway. I hope you understand."
Amos put as much tenderness in her voice as she could. "I do understand, Dave. Life would be so much simpler without this crazy curse. I would like a favor from you, though."
"Name it," said Dave. "I'll do it." Amos could see his tail swishing restlessly.
"I still want you to father my children. Perhaps you can make some donations to a sperm bank that I can use once you are safely back to human."
"I'd be glad to, Amos." He sounded quite delighted by the idea.
"So what will you do while I'm in heat? You look about ready to jump out of your skin."
"I'm going to the western pasture to get as far upwind as possible. Could you ask the other girls to come out and keep me company, and to tell Stan to come out with some hay? And perhaps with, um, a collection kit?" Amos barely had a moment to nod before Dave took off across the ranch at full gallop.
It was very early in the morning on an day in early March when Piet woke Dave and said, "It's time." Dave used the intercom to wake Professor, who came out to the barn in only a couple minutes.
"How ya doing?" asked Professor, once he was into Piet's stall. Dave hovered nearby. The others were all awake.
"I don't know why everyone says that animals feel no pain in childbirth," said Piet. "That is certainly not the case here."
"Is there pain all the time, or only during contractions?"
"Only during contractions."
"I'll call the vet." Professor pulled out his cell phone and the vet was on his way within moments. Since they weren't all that far from Bozeman, the vet was there in fifteen minutes.
Once there, the vet squeezed past Dave and got into Piet's stall. By then, Piet was lying in the straw with her head in Professor's lap. Professor didn't stop stroking Piet's neck while he turned to Dave and said, "I know you are the father, but please stay out of the way."
Dave moved to the side a step or two, but stayed where he could watch.
By the time Professor turned back to the vet, the man had an odd expression on his face. "I've never heard a man say that to a horse and I've never seen a horse respond that way." The vet turned to Piet, and ran a hand across her flank. "So what prompted you to call?"
"She's in pain."
"And what indication do you have of that?"
"She told me."
The vet turned to Professor with an obvious 'yeah, right' expression.
"Um... Have you ever heard of horse whisperers?" offered Professor.
The vet just shook his head and turned back to his charge. He conducted an exam. "She looks normal. Birth should be in a couple hours."
Just then Piet gasped, then let out a long groan.
The vet's head snapped around to look at Piet's head. "I've never heard a horse make a sound like that! It sounded almost human."
Professor said nothing. He kept stroking Piet's neck.
The vet continued, "But I believe you when you say she is in pain." He took some pills out of his bag. Piet accepted them eagerly.
Five more seemingly human groans came from the horse before they tapered off. There were no other complications and two hours later Piet gave birth to a filly.
She was a pretty animal, a strawberry-blonde color with a star like her mother's. The vet checked her over and assured Professor she was in good shape. She was standing within the hour as she should. The vet departed. Piet named her Topaz, a suitable horse name.
Piet let out a yelp the first time Topaz grabbed a nipple. "Oh man, that is going to take some getting used to -- as if giving birth wasn't enough of a psychological strain already."
A month later, the vet was back twice more. Zane gave birth to a dappled red colt who was given the name Logan. And finally, Jack gave birth to twins. The colt was the spitting image of Dave and was named Spike; the filly was reddish brown, similar to her mother. Jack chose the name Ruby.
Dave whispered to Jack, "Not content with just one, huh. Had to go and prove how macho you were and have two."
Professor was standing in the doorway of the barn when Erin and Nell drove up. It was a balmy Saturday in early April. The women had decided it was a great day for a ride -- and to see Piet's filly. "Hello, Professor," said Erin.
"I'm glad to see you," said Professor. "Don't be too quick to saddle up Dave. Jack and Zane have given birth."
The women raced through the barn and were soon in the paddock cooing over Logan, Spike, and Ruby. It took only a moment before Topaz insisted on being included in their attention.
When Dave was a boy and playing on the floor with his brother, he had wondered, when his father occasionally sat in the easy chair and watched them, why there was a smile on his face. As Dave watched his own offspring frolic with the women, he felt he understood his dad's smile. These children would never learn to speak, but they were healthy and beautiful. And they were his.
His heart about popped with joy when Erin came over to him. "Congratulations, Daddy," she said as she tenderly stroked his nose.
It was all he could do to avoid saying, "Thank you."
Alas, the moment was bittersweet. It was time. He had nearly missed the birth of Logan, Spike, and Ruby because he had been at the far end of the pasture while Amos and then Piet came into heat. Soon, he would have to contend with four mares in heat. More than likely, it would be one mare at a time.
While Erin still stroked his nose, Professor came up to them. "I'm wondering if you could do something for me, Erin. Could you keep Dave for a while?"
Her eyes lit up, as Dave knew they would. "Oh, that would be wonderful!" She faltered for a moment, "I don't mean to look a gift horse in the mouth --" she patted Dave's nose again, "-- but why?"
"It is best that I not breed my mares this year, and yet with mares this healthy, I can't seem to convince them not to come into heat." Erin laughed at that comment. "And I certainly don't want to geld Dave." Erin felt Dave fidget. "So having you take him for a few months will solve my problem with a lot less stress for Dave."
"I hope you are aware that the longer I keep him the harder it will be to give him back."
"Noted," said Professor with a grin. "I'll want him back by the end of June."
"Mating season is hardly over by then," said Erin.
"Perhaps, but I may want to use Dave myself. He is my horse after all."
Erin turned to Dave, "Then we'll just have to make the best of the time we have, won't we."
We certainly will, thought Dave.
"By the time you get back from your ride today, Stan should have all of Dave's things gathered up -- some feed, brushes, tack --"
"Oh, I've got brushes. I got them for my last horse."
"-- and his radio."
The radio was the lucky result of an internet search. It had several station presets that Stan had tuned for him and buttons big enough that Dave could jab by using a stick in his mouth.
"Yeah. He seems to enjoy it."
Without the radio Dave was sure he would have gone nuts. Erin's barn had space for a half dozen horses, but at the moment, Dave was the only resident. He missed the foals and watching them grow. He missed the company of his mares, especially tutoring by Amos. He missed his coursework and browsing the internet. Coursework was better than boredom.
At least the evenings weren't bad. More than not bad, they were actually quite good. It seemed as soon as Erin was home from work, she arrived at the barn with a saddlebag in hand. It took her only a few moments to get Dave saddled before they were off. They would go for about an hour before Erin decided that some clearing was just right. Then she would open the saddlebag for her own dinner and a generous supply of treats for Dave.
After eating and feeding Dave, Erin would pull out a novel and sit under the shade of a tree while she read. Dave would approach her from the side and stick his head over hers so he could read out of one eye along with her, though she took it as a desire for closeness and would idly stroke his nose as she read.
When the sun got low in the sky, she would pack up and remount. She would urge Dave -- who didn't need much urging -- into a gallop to get back to the barn before dark. Once there, she would give him a marvelously thorough brushing.
It was after a month of such evenings and Dave had a belly full of apples and carrots. Today's book was a romance, not what Dave would have chosen, but better than nothing. The heroine had just kissed the hero, who had pledged his love, but they now had to convince their families that their different backgrounds weren't an issue. The arguments put forth by the characters were more than Dave could take, so he pulled his head up. Erin absently let her hand fall away when he moved and he stepped back. From there he got a good look at the clearing and its wildflower and the early evening sun that made the flowers and her hair practically glow.
It squeezed his heart. You dear woman, he thought, you've been a faithful visitor as I served out the sentence of this curse. You've taken me in so the curse won't trap me completely. You've tended to my needs with generosity and kindness. I love you so. I love your hearty laugh and beautiful smile. I love your gentle manner. I will be glad when this damn curse is over with so I can court you as a man should, so that you might become my wife.
Dave glanced around the clearing. Yes, those would do nicely. He ambled over to some purple flowers, bit through the stems of a couple of them, used his flexible lips to hold on to them, ambled back to his love, circled around, and, while facing her, dropped the flowers into her open book.
She raised her eyes and looked into his. He held her gaze. She let the book drop to the grass, stood, and put her arms around his neck. "Oh, Dave." She hugged his head. "I've never had a horse give me flowers before. You're so sweet. These lupines are beautiful."
Lupines, thought Dave, don't those have something to do with werewolves? If they do, they're quite appropriate to the situation.
After a moment, Erin pulled back to look him in the eye, though she kept stroking his mane. She studied him for perhaps a full minute. "You're a strange one, Dave. What would a horse know about giving flowers to a woman? You wouldn't happen to be my Prince Charming disguised as a horse instead of a toad, now would you?" She studied him a moment longer.
Easy boy, though Dave. Don't react. Act like a horse.
Erin pulled on Dave's halter until they were standing nose to nose. "There is one way to find out if you are Prince Charming," she said in a husky voice and kissed him mouth to mouth.
Dave almost spoke -- almost cried out -- from the strength of the shiver that ran through him. Two years of practicing silence to protect his secret was strong and Dave violently tossed his head instead. Erin giggled at his reaction. Oh, that wonderful laugh!
On the way back to her barn, Dave struggled with an internal debate. One voice said, we keep quiet because there are too many crazies in this world who would love to put a talking horse on display. Another said, But this is Erin! You're in love! Stop right now and tell her! It's only another month, said the first voice. Then you can tell her all you want.
Forced weaning of a foal is simple to describe. Starting sometime after four months of age, put the foal and mother in separate but adjacent pastures for longer and longer periods of time. Make sure the foal has plenty of food and water. This will encourage the foal to figure out how to gain nourishment on its own.
Execution wasn't always so simple. Topaz didn't like the fence between herself and her mother and was quite vocal about her objection. And like many new mothers Piet had trouble with leaving a crying child alone.
Even though Piet had a rough time of it, it did provide time to get Dave back to the ranch when no mares were pregnant. Professor officially closed the Mongolian Riding Club before Piet changed back to human.
Knowing that a change was coming, Professor took pictures of all the horses. It was easy to get the five adults to pose in a variety of positions and groupings. It was quite another to get the foals to cooperate.
Dave found a moment when Amos was alone and told her the whole story of Erin's kiss and his reaction.
"Welcome to the fickleness of human love," said Amos, cryptically.
"Huh?" managed Dave.
"When faced with a beautiful woman, a man will do all kinds of strange and stupid things. I would guess this is the first real love of your life." Dave nodded. "Then it's no surprise that you don't know what to do, that your need for secrecy got in the way." Almost to herself Amos added, "Love between horses is so much simpler."
"So what do I do?" Dave's voice had a note of urgency.
"Love her." Dave still looked puzzled. "Instead of demanding that she love you, give her reasons to love you."
"And how do I do that?"
"You have to decide that for yourself. All lovers figure it out sooner or later. You'll do just fine."
I do hope it is sooner, thought Dave, and not later.
It was in early July and a full day after Topaz figured out she could feed herself when Piet asked an unexpected question. "Are any of you being bothered by flies?" After a chorus of "no", she went on, "I itch all over. Stan, could you give me a good brushing?"
Stan was soon wielding a brush. The reason for the itching became obvious -- Piet's fur was falling out. Stan summoned Professor, who was soon in attendance.
In spite the problems of shedding hair all over it, Piet requested a blanket to be laid across the straw, but Professor warned that all the extra mass has to go somewhere and it would be better to get the straw messy rather than the blanket. Reluctantly, Piet lay down on a bed of straw as she didn't want to be on her hooves when they changed.
Over the next few hours in between brushings, Professor documented the loss of mass, retracting muzzle, lost and reshaping teeth, shifting ears, reshaping legs, growing fingers and toes, emerging manhood -- and a tail that would not shrink and middle fingers and toes that wouldn't shrink enough.
Piet lay there as Professor used scissors to cut off hooves that were now only attached to the end of those large middle fingers and toes by slim nails. Piet then flexed all his limbs and muscles, especially newly grown fingers and toes. It was several minutes before Piet said, "Well, let's see if I can stand."
Professor helped him up. Once he was standing and while still clinging to Professor, Piet said, "How did we ever manage to stand on two legs?"
Professor guided Piet over to his computer and handed Piet a mirror. Professor then called up the first photos of the party from two years before. "I've wondered how complete the reversion spell would be. Let's make a list of everything that is different."
The obvious thing to put at the top of the list was the tail. It had not shrunk and had not lost any hair. It would now need to be trimmed to avoid dragging on the ground. Right below the tail in that list were those fingers and toes that were noticeably longer and half again wider than the others. The corresponding bones were large enough to create ridges through the hands and feet. It looked a bit odd -- and would probably draw comment, not to mention cause a headache when buying shoes and gloves -- but it was something he could live with, Piet decided, a small payment for his return to human form.
Piet's height and other dimensions were about the same as before, though he had less of a paunch and better muscle tone. That was easily be explained by the exercise he got as a horse and hadn't gotten as a man. It was enough of a difference that none of his clothes from two years before would fit. Professor had wisely stocked up on generic t-shirts and drawstring shorts. It was an easy job to split the back seam of a pair of shorts to allow for Piet's tail.
In spite of the tail, Piet was most definitely back to human and back to male, close to what he was before.
"Why does Piet have a tail?" demanded Jack. "I didn't see humans with tails in Mongolia. I certainly don't want to look like a freaky human."
"Gee, thanks, Jack," said Piet. "I actually like my tail and glad I kept it."
"No offense intended, buddy," said Jack, "but I don't want to be a human with a tail."
Amos said, "Jack, there's a sure way to avoid being a freak -- you could stay a horse."
"Spend the rest of my life popping out foals? No way! I do not want to go through heat or pregnancy again. I want to be a man again. And at this point in the program, I don't think I could convince the curse that I'm happy as a horse."
Much to Jack's dismay, she did go through heat one more time before convincing her foals to seek nourishment elsewhere. Zane did too, but was a lot quieter about it.
As a goodbye to the club, Dave took Stan on a camping trip into the nearby mountains while the mares were in heat.
Dave and Stan had gotten to be good friends since the riding club had opened. The friendship had taken root when Stan realized Dave was only three years older. Stan could swap stories of life in high school with Dave, stories that he would be embarrassed to tell to the other adults.
So this trip was a chance for Stan and Dave to talk about the future or tease each other or, more frequently, to be together as a couple of guys and not talk at all.
It was during this little trip that Stan had a suggestion for Dave. "From the quality of your build, your unusual color, and from the way Spike looks like you, I bet he could earn good money from stud fees."
"But they would be my grandchildren!" said Dave. "I couldn't have descendants raised by someone else!"
"In a sense that may be true, Dave. But they are also horses. You have to draw the line somewhere. I can see wanting to keep Topaz, Ruby, Spike, and Logan around, but I think you should save your sentiments for your eventual human children and let Spike be a the stallion he is. Besides, Spike could bring in some serious bucks. Think about it."
It was the third week of July when Professor documented Zane's transformation. Much to Zane's relief, the tail shrunk to nothing fairly early in the process, shedding its long hairs as it disappeared. Zane hadn't quite believed Piet when Piet said he was glad he kept his tail. Another early change was the emergence of Zane's manhood. That produced a sigh of relief.
"This is strange," said Piet, who was wielding a brush, "The fur is falling out of Zane's belly, but not from of his legs."
"Oh, man, don't say that!"
Professor said, "Zane, you know hiding from reality won't help." He moved to join Piet near Zane's legs. "Zane, hold out a hand." Zane did so, showing recognizable fingers and a palm already free of fur. Professor compared that to the legs. "Well, Zane, either your feet are going to change last, or you are going to need a farrier for the rest of your life." Zane groaned.
When the change was done, Zane's beard was gray as before -- Zane now preferred the term "dappled" over "salt-and-pepper" -- but his receding hairline had moved forward again. As a human, he had been in sufficiently good shape before that his muscle tone wasn't much different after being a horse.
But starting just below his crotch, legs that were within human norms for hairiness became covered in fur. Below that line each leg had recognizable gaskin, hock, cannon, fetlock, pastern, and hoof.
"Now what do I do?" said Zane. "I'm even freakier than Piet. I can't go out in public at all!"
Amos replied, "Actually, I think you can. Get some rubber horse boots to mask the sound and dress like a monk. As for what you do, you get on with your life. Perhaps one of us learns the trade of a farrier, or perhaps you stick to those rubber boots."
"I'm still a freak! And if I dress like a monk I'll have to act like one. I won't be able to go to a pool or to the beach. I'll have a hard time getting a woman to fall in love with me."
"Zane," said Piet, "You're still a good buddy. We can deal with it."
It was another full week before Jack could convince Spike he didn't need his mother's milk. The curse, of course, changed both Dave and Jack at the same time. This time, thankfully, Zane, Piet, and Stan could take turns wielding brushes as Professor documented progress.
Knowing the curse wasn't quite perfect, Jack was quite relieved when his cock began to emerge. He was disappointed -- for a few moments -- that when the skin of his forearm was revealed, his tattoo was gone. After some reflection, he decided that the tattoo was appropriate for his former life, but not this new one.
Zane took a break from his brushing go over to Professor and whisper, "Do the pictures you've taken so far show Jack's neck getting shorter?"
A few taps on the keyboard brought up a photo from the start of Jack's change. Yes, his neck was getting shorter. But his head had not changed.
"You're not telling me something," said Jack. "The last time someone didn't tell me something it was when I lost my cock. Come on. Out with it."
Professor said, "Your head hasn't changed at all, Jack. In Zane's and Piet's case, everything that was going to change had started by this point."
"Are you certain my head won't change?"
"Not a hundred percent, no. But my guess hardly matters as your change will prove me right or wrong in a couple hours anyway. I'm sorry, Jack."
"Sorry, he says. So I get to end up as a freak like everyone else! Well, I don't want to be a freak. I don't want to hide. I got this cock back and I want to use it!"
"Calm down, Jack!" said Zane. He moved around to Jack's head to brush between Jack's ears.
"I'll never be able to wear a tee-shirt again!" wailed Jack. By the time he said it, Zane's brushing began to take effect.
Zane said as he brushed, "Though you had made it tough on us for a while, I'm sure I speak for everyone here that we now consider you a friend. We're here for you Jack. We'll deal with freakiness together. We'll have our own little club of freaks. One horse spread among three men with their faithful talking horse companion."
Jack's neck did return to human size and position but he still had the same head he had had as a horse -- the same muzzle, ears, flexible lips, and white star set in brown fur that also covered his neck and spread halfway across his human shoulders. As Jack had said, there was no way to get a tee-shirt or pullover sweater past that muzzle. He was limited to clothing with zippers or buttons. And leather vests did not work with button-down shirts. Since Jack only had tee-shirts and that was only what Professor had bought, all Jack had to wear for now was one of those vests.
Dave was pleased with the "errors" in his return to humanity. He now had a normal -- more like above normal -- amount of body hair instead of than the few wisps that provoked teasing in the locker room. He was also now hung like a horse, still the stallion. Now Dave's manhood was considerably smaller than when he was a horse -- thankfully since he wanted a human mate -- but it was much larger than before and right at the top of the normal human range.
As with the others, Dave's transformation left behind a thick beard. The good part was that it was much thicker, a vast improvement over the wispy beard he had before. The bad part was that the moustache and goatee were white. Such markings may be normal for a horse but looked mighty strange on a human. Reluctantly, Dave concluded he would have to shave a beard that was finally thick enough to keep. The morning trim would be more of a task compared getting rid of the wisps in his former life.
Piet swished his tail as he looked over his fellow former horses. All of them now had some physical reminder of their horsehood. He said, "I didn't exactly have a lot of contact with the natives in Mongolia, but I don't recall seeing the physical oddities that we display. I'm sure I would have noticed a human with a horse tail, legs, or head."
Zane thought it over a moment, then said, "If I remember the trader's story right, he said our nemesis tried to make the curse permanent and it was his wife, the horse, that made it temporary."
"I remember. So?"
"So it is my guess that she wasn't able to override it completely. Either that or our hasty departure interrupted her spell."
"Meaning we inadvertently did this to ourselves," grumbled Jack.
Piet pondered all that. "That may be true for me and Zane and Jack, but the trader said Dave's curse was to be temporary from the start."
Jack laughed. "Come on Piet, use your brain. Consider a guy who has designed a spell to turn himself into a stallion. He has experienced one mating season to show proof of concept and is now ready to design the spell to return himself to human. What guy is going to design a spell in which he is not going to be hung like a horse when he is done? He's going to end up with the largest size cock he can. The only reason he wouldn't leave it horse sized is he'd never get a chance to use it. Women would see it and flee. The three of us just got on the wrong side of that equation. What man, if he has the power to turn another man into a mare is going to allow that man to have a big cock when he becomes human again?"
The weather was sunny enough the next day to have a picnic. The stated reason was that they didn't want to exclude Amos, but Professor suspected that the other four thought of the house as his domain, not theirs. They even seemed reluctant to come in to use the bathroom. He had seen them pulling down their shorts in the corner of the pasture.
The guys had hamburgers, though Jack found eating meat with horse teeth wasn't all that great of an experience. Amos had several soy patties and discovered that ketchup tasted pretty good to a horse. Why hadn't they thought of this before?
Professor started the conversation as the guys ate. "Now that your ordeal is over, what do you plan to do?" There was no response; the guys kept eating. "Perhaps we start with you Zane."
"Well. Um." Zane paused for a moment. Professor waited. "Now that I have hooves, I don't want to go public any more than I have to, even if I could pass as a monk. So, I'm looking for seclusion. As to where, I guess I first wanted to hear what Dave has planned."
"And why defer to Dave? Why not just follow your heart?" asked Professor.
"I, um..." He got a puzzled look on his face. "I don't know."
Professor turned to Piet, "How about you?"
"I guess I'm waiting to hear from Dave as well -- and no, I don't know why."
Another puzzled look. "Uh, the same I guess. With this face, seclusion sounds very good. I thought I had paid my dues over the last year. I went through being in heat, being pregnant, and giving birth to satisfy the Cosmos and get my cock back. But I find the Cosmos isn't done playing jokes on me. I get my cock back only to find I'll never be able to love a woman. She couldn't get close enough to this face. Yeah, seclusion sounds good. Whatever is good for Dave.""
Amos walked around the table and rubbed her head up against Jack's. Jack reached a hand up to pat Amos on the other side of her head. "Thanks buddy." said Jack.
After a pause, Professor said, "So, Dave, since everyone is fascinated with your future -- for some unknown reason -- what do you want to do?"
"I need to finish my degree and I might as well do that here in Bozeman. I very much want to see our offspring grow and be a friend to Amos. So if it is OK with you, Professor, I'd like to live here on the ranch."
"Actually, it won't be up to me to give permission." Professor could see the puzzled expressions. "I'm old enough that this commute is too much for me. I want to move back into town. Now that most of you have access to your money again, I would like you to honor your promise from a couple years ago and buy me out."
"Well," said Jack, "I guess I want to live here too. I hadn't thought of myself as owning a ranch, but moving away just doesn't seem right. And what could be more appropriate for a guy with a horse head than to live among horses? I'll be glad to pay my share to buy out Professor."
"I don't think I could leave either for the same reasons Jack gave," said Zane. "I'm sure there is enough space for me too. Put me down for a share."
Everyone turned to Piet. He was quiet for a minute before he spoke. "Though I like paleontology, I also like life in the city, such as one can get in Bozeman. These last two years were the longest I've spent out of town and for the first year, I merely endured it. But lately, I've felt that I can't leave, though I can't explain quite why. Of course, I'll put in a share."
Amos said, "Since I have to stay, I'd be glad to contribute all my savings for the effort. I guess it is about time we find out how to access the savings of someone who is incapacitated. I'll gladly appoint Dave as my Power of Attorney."
"Thanks for the offer," said Zane, "but I don't think it will work. When I had to do that for my father, an officer from the bank came out to see him to verify he was indeed incapacitated. Your money may be frozen until we can declare you legally dead five years from now. And even then, your estate will go to your son, not us."
Professor said, "It looks like I can put four names on the deed."
"No, that's all right," said Jack. "Putting it in Dave's name is good enough."
Professor blinked at that. "That sounds mighty strange coming from you Jack. You trust Dave that much?"
"Yeah, why wouldn't I?"
"Because of the way you described Dave a little more than a year ago, because of the four of you wanting to live here Dave is the one who is not contributing any money, and because he is still essentially a kid!" said Professor.
Dave let the insult go. A stallion secure in his position didn't worry about being called a kid.
Professor pondered the situation for a few seconds. "I think I know what's going on here." Professor paused again to think. "You guys are still treating Dave as if you were still mares and he was still your stallion. It appears the experience messed with your brains."
Piet glanced at Jack. "In some cases, that hasn't been a bad thing."
"This house," Dave waved an arm towards it as he spoke, "has only two bedrooms, right Professor?" Professor nodded. "So with four of us living here, who gets which room? Since I won't be contributing any money, I should probably get the last choice. Who should choose first?"
"It doesn't matter to me," said Jack. "I'd rather sleep in the barn."
"Same with me," said Piet.
"I agree," said Zane. "I wouldn't want to get hoof marks on the floor."
"Wait a minute, guys," said Dave. "Now that you're human, the barn is going to feel a lot colder in winter. You don't have to stay out there. The house is big enough."
"I'm sure we could pile on enough horse blankets to keep warm," said Jack.
After a moment, Zane said. "Dave, we appreciate the offer, but there really isn't enough space in the house. I don't like to defy my stallion, but there is a reason for our choice. From the way we look, it is doubtful we'll ever get close to another woman. We've all had our families or didn't particularly want one in the first place." Jack nodded. "You, on the other hand, are still quite young. There is a very good chance you will marry and need space in the house for a growing family. No, the house is yours. I've lived in a barn for two years. I can stay there many more."
"Jack, I thought you said you didn't want to be a freak because you wanted a woman. So why are you giving up on having a family?" asked Dave.
"Wanting a woman and wanting a family are two very different things, dear boy."
"We can add on to the house," insisted Dave.
"I doubt we have money for that right now," said Piet. "And once we do, I think it would be better to build a second house rather than add on to yours."
Dave could tell when he was defeated.
"Though I do have a request for improving the barn," continued Piet.
"Please, let's hear it," said Dave.
"Could we put a bathroom in the barn? Especially one that has a toilet where the tank isn't attached to the seat?"
Dave didn't work very hard to suppress a grin. "Yeah, I think we can do that. Let me call one of my contractor friends."
"Dave, now that you are safely human," said Amos. "Perhaps it is time to thaw out a sperm sample the next time I go into heat."
"Sure, Amos, that's what they're for," said Dave.
"I think," said Professor, "we should have a sample tested first. Who knows what the curse did with it?"
A week later, the report came back.: "While you claimed this sample contained horse semen, the only thing that seemed horse-like about it was the quantity of the sample. The DNA test shows the sperm to be human."
"I guess I'll have to wait until Spike and Logan are old enough," said Amos.
Erin watched eagerly as Nell drove them up to the barn. It was a month ago when Professor had said the club was closing with no planned date to reopen. She had respected Professor's right to use his own stallion as he wished, but it had been a whole month and Erin hadn't heard from either Professor or Stan. She needed to see her stallion. She had helped them out by gladly boarding Dave, so she should be seen as an old friend or even family, not a customer.
But her red stallion wasn't along the fence. The only time he hadn't been along the fence was when someone else was riding him and that couldn't be the case if the riding club was closed.
Nell brought the car to a stop near the barn. As they got out, they could see the foals clustered together as Amos hovered in the background. "The foals sure are pretty," whispered Nell.
As they got to the fence, they could see a man in the midst of the foals. About all they could see was his blazing red hair over the backs of the foals and his very human legs in amongst all the horse legs. With the way the foals were clustered, Erin was sure he was feeding them some kind of treat.
"Hello," he said, peering over the back of Spike, the colt that looked a lot like her red stallion. She noted that his hair matched Spike's fur -- meaning it would match her stallion's fur as well.
"Hi," said Erin.
The man gently pushed his way through the foals and drew up to the fence. It wasn't easy as he still had more treat to hand out. The foals slowly parted to let him through, then gathered around him again. Erin could finally see he was handing out slices of apple.
Once he got to the fence where no foal could come between them, She could see that he was perhaps younger and just a bit taller than herself, strong, and with no fat. She could see how gentle he was with the foals and admired him for it. She noted one more thrilling detail as he leaned against the fence -- he had quite a bulge in his shorts.
"I'm the new owner." He held out his hand, realized there was apple juice -- and horse slobber -- on it, wiped it on his shorts, and offered it again. She shook it as he said, "My name is Dave."
Erin laughed. "Won't you get confused with the red stallion?"
He shrugged and pulled another small bag of apple slices from a pocket. He was making sure each horse got several slices.
She watched him a moment. He had a cute face, with a lot of chin. "I bet your hair color is the exact same shade as the red stallion."
"So I've been told."
"You've never stood beside him and had someone compare?"
He stroked a few noses before turning to her. "Unfortunately, the red stallion is gone."
That was the one thing Erin did not anticipate. It sent an icy knife through her. "Gone! What do you mean gone! You kept Amos and the foals and got rid of the stallion?"
He sighed. "It's a long story."
"And you had better tell me every word of it. That was my favorite horse!" He could see the ice in her eyes. "And you had better start by answering a simple question. Is he alive?"
"Well..." He paused for a fraction of a second too long. "Yeah."
"That's a mighty strange answer."
"As I said, it really is a long story. And I promise I will tell you every word of it. Say perhaps over lunch?"
"You're not trying to get fresh are you?"
He held up his hands to stop her accusation. "Certainly not. Professor told me how important you've been to life around here. Lunch would be a way of thanking you."
"May I suggest a picnic? I think Amos could carry both of us -- she's the only adult horse here now -- and we could take it to a nearby field or ridge --"
"Piet, Zane, and Jack are gone too?" she interrupted.
He sighed again. "They're not too far from your stallion."
She shook her head, but didn't challenge him.
He continued. "I think I could pack a picnic in short order. Perhaps one of cheese and crackers --" He watched her expression. "-- and a bottle of sparkling grape juice." Her expression softened. "And I think I even have some fruit salad -- that doesn't have any honeydew in it. I may even know of a little clearing with some lupine flowers."
Her expression was now downright astonishment. "Why, um, sure. That would be lovely. You can be sure I'll hang on every word."
Nell tapped Erin on the shoulder. Erin hardly noticed. Nell said, "I think this is my cue to disappear. Call me if you want a ride home."
"Yeah, sure," said Erin, not taking her eyes off Dave's pleasant smile.
"It will only take a few moments to put it all together," said Dave. "While we eat, I'll tell you the whole story." There was definitely a twinkle in his eye, Erin noticed. "And I'm sure Amos would be glad to fill in any missing details."
"Yeah, right, I'm just dying to hear what Amos has to say."
Dave's smile didn't wilt from her sarcasm. He seemed so... confident, she thought, but not a guy who would force his way to what he wanted.
Piet had been in the hayloft when he heard Nell and Erin drive up. He opened the hayloft door, that large opening above the main door that allowed for a more direct route for storing hay. He leaned against the side of the opening where he had a clear view of the parking lot and of Dave feeding the foals. That position also hid his tail from view. Jack and Zane soon joined him, staying in the shadows.
The three of them watched Erin talk to Dave as Nell left, then they saw Amos trot up to the couple. Soon Erin went in through the main door of the barn just below them and Dave and Amos went along the fence to the paddock door.
Dave had worn a saddle perhaps a couple hundred times and had watched Stan saddle up the mares maybe a thousand times. But Dave knew watching someone was different from doing it himself, so he had practiced on Amos until he at least looked like he knew what he was doing.
Dave had made a fresh fruit salad every day, storing it in the refrigerator that had held snacks for riding club customers. The other guys had eaten it every evening for the last two weeks, though they were quite aware that Dave wasn't making it for them.
From the hayloft, Piet, Zane, and Jack could look into the central area of the barn and watch Dave saddle up Amos, then stash a saddlebag with the renewed lunch supplies. Dave then ducked into his former stall, grabbed Sinclair from the windowsill and presented it to Erin. Finally, they could see Amos, with Dave and Erin on her back, trotting along the lane and towards the closest hills.
"Do you think she'll believe him?" asked Piet.
"She may not believe Dave, but I'm sure she'll believe Amos," said Jack. Zane chuckled. "And if that fails," Jack went on, "all she needs is a good look at us."
"I bet," said Zane, "that this little ranch will have a lady of the house within a year."
"Where I come from," said Jack, "that's known as a sucker bet. The man who accepts that bet is sure to lose. Besides, I wouldn't want to bet against our stallion."