User:Eirik/Tug of War
Tug of War
Shawn unlatched the trailer door and gently lowered it to the grass while Sherman shifted on his hooves. The huge chestnut Percheron was anxious to leave the cramped confines of the trailer and Shawn was more than willing to oblige. "Come on, boy," he said gently as he grabbed the lead line and tugged gently back. Sherman was familiar with the drill and stepped easily out of the trailer even when the whole thing rocked back and forth from the shifting weight.
Once the horse was safely out, Shawn held him and let him graze on the close cropped grass while he looked over the competition. There were a lot of horse trailers scattered around the field behind the fairgrounds, but only a half dozen draft horses that he could see. He recognized all of them and smiled inwardly. All of his old neighbors in the county had fine horses, but not a one equaled his own. The closest competition that Sherman would have in pull would be the young Belgian that Old Man Billings had been raising from a colt, but Shawn had seen the horse training. It was a powerful animal, but a bit lazy. There was little doubt in his mind that he'd be walking away tonight with the first place prize.
It was only fitting. He'd done it every year for the last fifteen, without fail.
"Shawn!" yelled a voice from behind, "Shawn Beckett! How're you doing?"
Shawn turned and spotted the man leading an older Appaloosa mare. He smiled, "George! Haven't seen you since the last fair. How are you doing?" He glanced toward Georges trailer but didn't see a draft next to it as he expected. "Where's your entry?"
George rolled his eyes. "What's the point? You win every year. Besides, Cossack was getting a bit long in the tooth for this. I retired him."
"That's too bad," said Shawn with mock sympathy, Cossack had never been much competition anyway. He was surprised anyone entered the pulling contests around here anymore, to be honest. George wasn't the first one to pull out. The only real competition was in the mule division, which wasn't until this evening. "He was a good horse." He looked over the mans' shoulder as a new truck and trailer pulled into the field, one that he didn't recognize. "Who's that?"
Turning, George shrugged. "Not sure." He thought a second, "Oh, I know. Those are the folks that bought the Morton place last fall. He's been raising sheep and chickens. He's got a lot of drafts, too, I heard." Shawn watched the truck and trailer pull in with a wary eye. He'd heard snippets about these folks, but nothing all that solid, and that made him a little nervous.
George excused himself to go and lunge his mare while Shawn tied Sherman up to the trailer. While he unloaded his harness equipment, he kept an eye on the new comers. He saw a middle aged man and his teenage son get out of the pickup truck and head to the trailer door. As he watched, the door swung open, and Shawn felt his heart skip a beat. The horse was easily as large as Sherman.
It wasn't until the animal was firmly on the ground that he relaxed a little. It took a few minutes before he could even place the breed and he realized that it wasn't going to be a problem. It was a Suffolk, a relatively rare English draft horse not known for winning these kinds of contests. In fact, Shawn couldn't recall ever even having seen one in person. They simply weren't that common in the United States. They weren't even that common in England. With a smile of knowing certainty, Shawn went back to getting his winner ready.
Edward leaned against the inside wall of the trailer, lost in thought. He didn't feel like being out here today, even if it did get him off the ranch for a day. He had never shared his fathers' obsession with ranching, horses or competition. Edward just wanted time to get settled in a new place for once. His father wouldn't allow that, he needed help taking care of the animals. Just a few weeks shy of his sixteenth birthday and he had no friends to share it with.
He'd been in this town for almost six months and made no friends to speak of. He and his father had moved around almost yearly since his mother had run out on them almost a decade ago. Edward could barely remember her now.
"Boy! Get out here and help me with Spruce," yelled his father from outside the trailer.
Shuddering a little, he stepped out into the light. He could never figure out why his father had named this horse Spruce, after a town they had lived in three years ago. No matter how often he heard it, the name always sent a shiver up his spine. Bad memories, he thought. "I'm coming. I thought that the pull wasn't for another couple of hours."
He father stopped brushing the chestnut Suffolk and looked at his son. "I need to you keep an eye on him while I go and register." He handed the brush to Edward, "And make sure that you don't give him any apples."
He just nodded and took the brush. Sometimes he was sure that his father cared more for the horses than for him. They had a barn full of them, after all. A couple of mares, one long past breeding age, and a half dozen stallions or geldings. He bred them occasionally, but usually bought them at odd intervals. The one consistent thing was the breed, they were all Suffolk Punch. He'd gradually replaced his mixed stable with them over the last decade or so. It was another of his fathers' quirks.
Spruce was sniffing at the apple chunk that was being offered on the sly when something caught his attention. Edward followed the horses' gaze to see a large, older man approaching. He seemed friendly enough, but there was an odd glint in his eye. "Good morning!" he said with cheer that wasn't in his expression as he extended his hand. "Shawn Beckett."
Taking the hand out of habit, Edward smiled warily, "Edward Collins. How are you?"
The man chuckled, "Good, good. Fine animal that you have here," he said, warily patting Spruce on the neck.
"My fathers'," he admitted, "I'm not really much of a horse person."
Shawn nodded and continued to rub the horses' neck. "He's a beauty. Entering him in the show?"
"The pull, yeah," he replied.
The glint in Shawn's eye got a bit more wary, but the friendly expression didn't change. "Really? Perhaps you've heard of me and my horses. We've done pretty well in these parts with that competition."
"Sorry, no. Like I said, I don't follow those things much." When the man seemed slightly disappointed, he added quickly, "My father might have, though. But we are new in these parts."
The elder Collins came around the trailer at that moment, "Your father what, Edward?" he asked in a flat voice as he eyed the man stroking his horse.
"Oh, this is Mr. Beckett, dad," he said quickly. "I thought that you might have heard of him."
Collins seemed to search his memory a little while he shook Shawn's hand. "Beckett? Beckett? I had a farm hand named Peter Beckett a few years ago when we were in Iowa, but he quit and left town while we were still there. You a relation?"
Shawn's smiling features seemed to get a little hard, his face just slightly flushed. "No, I can't say that I am. I own a farm on the other side of the county. Raise corn, mostly. I've made draft horses something of a hobby, though."
A light seemed to go on in Collins mind. "Ah! You're the one they were talking about at the registration table!" he said in a tone that Edward recognized as phony. "They told me you were the favorite today."
"You could say that," he said with a more genuine grin. "I've had champion Percherons for a decade and a half. Sherman over there is my latest champion," he said pointing his thumb over his shoulder. "Won last year, hands down."
"Really?" said Collins absently as he picked up a curry comb. "Ever pull against a Suffolk?"
Shawn was taken aback by the comment, but took care not to show it. "No, can't say I have. Why?"
Collins just smiled and handed the comb to his son. "I hope you haven't already cleared a space on your mantle, that's all." He turned away and walked to the trailer.
Shawn exchanged a glance with Edward, then turned and stalked back to his own horse.
"Come on, Sherman," he whispered into the horses ear. "You can do it." Stepping back, he snapped a whip in the air and shouted, "Pull! Pull! Pull!"
The small crowd got into the act as the huge horse started moving forward, towing the heavily weighted sled across the field. The thick leather straps strained and groaned under the weight, but the horse didn't seem to break a sweat. He leaned heavily into the weight, taking short, quick steps as his wide hooves dug into the hard earth. He picked up speed with each step and with the cheering of the small crowd.
They passed between the flags, Sherman still moving forward like he could pull it across the county. Even as Shawn pulled back on the reigns, the horse seemed to want to keep pulling the massive weight further and only stopped reluctantly. Agitated, he snorted and shuffled his hooves.
Shawn didn't even glance at the board, he knew that their time was fantastic, better even than the previous year. He leapt off the sled and ran to the side of his panting horse and rubbed his neck hard. "Good boy!" he yelled gleefully. "Good boy!" The horse leaned heavily into the rubbing, craning his neck to just the right spot.
Several members of the fairgrounds staff ran out to help Shawn unhitch Sherman. A tractor rolled out to tow the sled back to the starting point while Shawn led his champion off the field. He stole a look at the three competitors that had gone ahead of him. He didn't even have to look at Sherman's time to know that he had easily beaten them all. There would be a sixteenth trophy on that mantle tonight.
"Up next," came a voice over the loudspeaker, "a new competitor: Spruce, driven by Martin Collins."
Only mildly curious by the newcomer, Shawn turned his attention from his horse to the field. The oversized Suffolk was already being strapped into the harness, looking very calm, almost sleepy. Collins made a final check of the straps, then nodded to the officials that he was ready to go.
A split second after the timer started and the crowd started to cheer, the crack of the whip on horseflesh could be heard across the arena. Spruce woke instantly, and the sled broke free of the dirt and started moving forward across the field. At first, Shawn didn't see anything to worry about, but as the cheer of the crowd got louder and louder, he began to feel a pit in his stomach. No! He can't!
The Suffolk, clearly straining against the heavy weight, his tongue lolling out between his teeth, crossed between the flags with seconds to spare. There was no sign of elation in the owners face, no sign that he knew he had been victorious. He simply stepped off the sled and undid the straps from Spruce.
Shawn felt weak in the knees. It wasn't happening! He couldn't have lost to some upstart horse breeder like this! He couldn't! Everyone knew that he owned the finest drafts in the county, maybe even the state!
Frozen in his spot even as his blood boiled, he caught a glance from Collins in his direction. Etched clearly into those cold features was a smirk.
Edward was waiting at the fence for his father and Spruce. He had shuddered hard as the whip had struck the flesh of the poor animal, but it was certainly far from unexpected. As much as his father loved to raise his horses, he expected them to all be winners no matter the cost. Edward knew of at least two young stallions back in Idaho that his father had broken from his unrelenting training.
Once his father had stayed on the field long enough to get his congratulations, he led the horse toward Edward, handing him the lead line. "I'm going to watch the last couple of competitors, but it looks like he won. Take him back to the trailer and get him ready to go home. I'll be along in a little while."
Edward felt like making a snide comment, but bit his tongue. The simple fact was that he wanted to get out of here as soon as possible. He'd known to expect this, anyway. His father rarely stayed for any event that he wasn't a part of, and once he won he rarely wanted to stick around. He just collected his trophy and prize money and took off.
Leading the tired Spruce away from the ring, the friendly horse tried to nuzzle him in the back of the neck. Edward just stepped to the side and shot the stallion a dirty look. He could never figure out why this animal had so much affection for him. Around his father, Spruce barely worked unless forced, but he seemed to light up near Edward. Of course, Edward was usually the one that fed the huge draft, slipping him forbidden carrots and apples from time to time.
He tied up Spruce at the back of the trailer and began to stow the harness. He closed the lid on the wooden box and turned to see Shawn Beckett standing at the end of the trailer, a polite smile frozen onto his stony face, his eyes narrow. "I just stopped by to congratulate you. You've got a hell of a horse."
Edward didn't come closer, he was sure that Beckett was about to explode but was somehow managing to keep himself under control. "I can pass the message on to my dad, he's the horseman of the family."
Beckett nodded stiffly, "I know." He shot a murderous glance at the innocent horse who stiffened at the glance. "You know," he muttered angrily, "You ruined..." his voice trailed off as he turned away and stalked off.
Edward felt bad for the man. He had a feeling that he was just as competitive as his own father, and it had to be hard to lose like this. With a heavy sigh, he walked over to Spruce to check his hooves just as the elder Collins approached carrying a trophy loosely in his hands. "Congratulations," he said flatly.
His father barely looked at the trophy, tossing it into the front seat of the pickup and slamming the door. "Crap prize money around here. It was better at the Dakota Fair, if you'd believe that. It'll barely pay for his feed." He gave his son a hard look. "He's not ready to go yet?"
Edward shook his head. "No, give me a couple minutes and I'll..."
"Never mind, you're worthless," he muttered. "I'll do it myself. You just put back the harness."
Biting his lip, Edward turned from Spruce and grabbed the last of the harness equipment. His father never seemed to be in a fouler mood than when he won. "Oh, Mr. Beckett stopped by to congratulate you."
"Yeah, right," muttered his father. "He's a bit upset at me. One of the officials told me that his life revolves around this event. About time he lost."
Edward just sighed and turned away.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me about his horses?!" yelled Shawn. "You could have warned me before I made a damn fool of myself!"
Shawn paced back and forth in the old store, kicking at the wooden floor and screaming at odd intervals. His targets today were the two men who sold him his horse feed and supplies, Jack and Bob. "Will you lay off, Shawn? It's been three days!"
He shot the man a murderous look. "I have to deal with this everyday until I can take that damn title from him next year! A godamn year!"
Jack, the owner, just leaned back in his creaky wooden chair, "Will you just lay off. Sherman was a good one, but you've got others. What about Panzer?"
He rolled his eyes, "Panzer? She's too old! I don't have anything in my stable that can beat him by next year!"
"Then buy one. Just stop moaning about it," muttered Bob.
"Oh sure, horses are a dime a dozen. The price of corn is through the floor, I can't afford to buy a new draft now!" He finally stopped pacing and just fumed in place. "What the hell am I going to do?"
He heard a chuckle behind him, but turned only in time to see the door slam shut. An older woman passed the window, leaving the store without buying anything. "Who was that?"
The men behind the counter shrugged, never having so much as spoken to her, and the conversation quickly went back to the lost pull until long after the sun had gone down.
Two tumblers of whiskey later, Shawn was finally feeling his body loosen up. For the first time in days, he felt like he could sleep for a little while. Of course, that's when there was a knock on the door.
He glanced only momentarily at the clock on the wall. "Who the hell would be here after midnight?" he muttered as he pulled himself out of the easy chair. He went to the door and looked though the peephole. He stopped his hand from reaching for the baseball bat in the umbrella stand. A large, older woman was hardly a threat. He pulled open the door cautiously. "Can I help you?"
The woman looked up at him with the biggest brown eyes that he had ever seen. "I think we have a mutual problem, and I want to help you. Can I come in?"
"Ma'am, it's after midnight..." he started.
"How would you like to defeat Collins at his own game next year?" she said simply.
His interest piqued instantly, and suddenly the hour didn't seem that late anymore. "What are you talking about? You have a horse for me or something?"
She smiled, "Can I come in, and I'll tell you the whole story."
He bade her in and sat her down on the sofa. "Why the secrecy?" he asked. "Is there something I should know about Collins?"
She almost smiled, "How much do you know about him?"
He shrugged, "Just that he's new in town and he's got some freakishly big Suffolks."
The woman nodded, "He does at that. Even breeds some of them, but that's not his real secret." She stopped a second, then reached into her oversized handbag, pulling out a long leather strap. "You recognize this, Mr. Beckett?"
It took him a second, but he recognized the strap. It was a part of the harness that fit around the belly of the horse like a belt. "Sure, it's a surcingle. Why?"
"It was Mr. Collins' until recently. I doubt he even knows that its gone yet." She chuckled, "Though I hope he will soon enough." She held it in her hands like it was a snake. "It ruined my life, too."
Beckett was a little confused, but he was sure there was more to this story. "How? Did he beat you with it or something?"
"You could say that." She sighed and looked at him. "I had a daughter once, years ago. She married him, had a son, then vanished one day. I'm sure that Collins did her in, but I was never able to prove it until I did some deep digging into his past." She handed the surcingle to Beckett. "The information I found out about this was accidental, but once it was in my hands, so many pieces fit." She sighed, "But I could never explain it to you. Ever."
By now, Shawn was beginning to think that this whole exchange was the result of too much stress and too much whiskey. It was making about that much sense. "What is so special about this thing?"
She sighed. "It's just easier to show you, I think." She stood and started for the door. "Come with me a second."
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
She chuckled, "You'd think I was nuts if I told you. It's easier to show you."
Wary, but curious, he followed the woman outside to the front lawn. She stopped when they were clear of the porch. "Okay, put it on."
He blinked, "Excuse me?"
"The surcingle, wrap it around yourself," she said like she was talking to a small child. When he didn't immediately start to put it on, she stepped over and grabbed it out of his hands. "Like this," she muttered as she wrapped the long strap around his waist and fed it through the loop loosely.
Shawn was about to protest when he suddenly felt the need to take a deep breath. Even as he did, his shirt buttons all popped off as one. "What...?" he managed to say as his whole body strained against his clothes. He heard the seams pop on his pants as he looked down to see his bare thighs poking though, white skin rapidly covering up with chestnut hair. His feet slipped out of his shoes as his ankles rose higher on his leg, his toes seeming to expand at the same time. He looked at his wrists, finding his fingers doing the same thing.
His body lurched forward, and he used his new hooves to break his fall. His body felt heavier, more solid, but out of balance. His head was getting heavier, his vision getting more muted. The scents of the cornfield were getting stronger as he felt his nostrils getting larger and larger...
Abruptly, the sensation of getting larger stopped, and he had the vague sensation of the strap being removed from his body. Almost as fast as it started, he could feel his body getting smaller and smaller. It wasn't until that moment, as he saw he was looking down on the old woman by a good two feet, that he realized how much bigger he had gotten, easily as large as one of his Percherons!
The woman wrapped the surcingle up in her hands while he slowly turned human again. "I trust you understand now, Mr. Beckett. I could have turned you into a horse completely, but it isn't safe. Unless you plan on doing it forever. You're left with certain attributes after the fact, no matter how short a time you spend as one." She dropped the strap to the ground.
"Why...?" he managed to say as his throat started to return to normal.
She touched the strap with he foot. "My daughter ended up one of his heard years ago, as have so many others. People vanish when he moves, Mr. Beckett. Drifters, hitchhikers, pests, even the occasional child," she said bitterly. "Someone needs to take revenge on him for all that he's done. I had planned on doing this myself, but I can't. I can't do it." She looked at the more human than horse man, "I don't have the will or the talent to get my revenge, so I need a tool, someone that will do it for me." She looked hard at the man. "After what I heard today, I don't doubt that you're the one."
The woman turned and walked into the night. Beckett started to follow, but stumbled, his arms and legs too much horse and too much human to be of much use as either. By the time he got his balance back on two feet, she was gone.
He picked up the surcingle and looked in the direction she had walked. It felt warm to the touch, and somehow he knew his prayers had been answered.
Edward locked the door to the tack room and switched off the light. For a moment, he was in near total darkness, only the sounds of the horses scraping around their stall or the occasional distant bleat of a sheep to break the calm.
He looked at the luminous dial on his watch and sighed, it was almost midnight. He had hoped to finish the tasks his father had piled onto him by nine so he could meet some of the guys from school down at the diner. He didn't know them that well, but they had seemed friendly enough.
His father, though, sunk that plan with little effort. There were a million things that needed to be done on a small farm like this, and for the time being his father had no farm hands. The ones that had worked for the previous owners had all been given their walking papers when his father took over the place. It left a lot of work for just two people. Shutting and locking up the barn, he started for the house and some much needed sleep.
"Hey kid," he heard a husky, whispered voice say from the darkness.
Edward stopped and looked. The voice was familiar somehow, but he couldn't place it. For the moment, he wasn't afraid, though. What could happen in the middle of the sticks like this? "Who's there?"
"I need some help," said the voice from the darkness. "My car broke down and I need a hand."
Edward was starting to feel nervous. The speaker was just outside of his sight, only a few feet in the darkness between the barn and the house, and he couldn't put a face to the voice. "Come up to the house and we can call a--hey! Umph!"
The man tackled Edward to the ground, knocking the wind out of him. He struggled to scream out, but a hand closed over his mouth as he gasped for air. He tried to grip at the hands, feeling them only pinch against a ring. A sack was pulled forcefully over his head, and then his arms and legs were bound together by expert hands. Roughly, he was dragged away from the house, across a field and pulled under a fence.
Edward couldn't even fill his lungs enough to breath, but he soon felt himself hoisted into a truck, heard the engine start, and drive off. He struggled with the ropes as much as he could, panicked beyond anything he had ever felt before. He didn't have any idea who had taken him, or why. His father had some money, but not enough to risk kidnapping over, and neither he nor his father were all that important.
And that voice had seemed familiar.
The truck drove for a while, just how long Edward couldn't guess, before it finally settled to a stop. The only sound in the world for a few precious seconds was a million crickets.
The door swung open and Edward heard footsteps on the gravel roadway. He tried vainly to get free, but it was too late now. He was in the lions' den. A hand roughly came down and pulled the sack off his head. He blinked a few times, his vision clearing. "Beckett?" he asked incredulously.
The older man nodded grimly, but didn't say a word. He dragged the boy out of the truck and toward the barn still tied up. Edward continued to struggle, but the ropes around his ankles and hands were simply too tight. With the strength of a man who had spent his life on a farm, Beckett dumped the bundled Edward into a stall and slammed the door shut. For a long moment, the only sound in the barn was Edward's heavy breathing. "Nothing personal, kid," he said, breaking the silence.
Edward stared at the man. "What did I do to you?" he asked fearfully. "Why are you doing this?"
Shawn sighed and shook his head. "You wouldn't understand, kid. You wouldn't understand." He paced back and forth, a little nervously, rubbing a faded spot on his ring finger.
To Edward, it looked like the man was having some second thoughts, or was still trying to convince himself that this was really what he wanted to do. "Please, Mr. Beckett, let me go. I won't tell anyone, not even my father."
The mention of the senior Collins brought a steely look from Beckett. "Your father," he muttered. He let the words just hang in the air, then stepped into the shadows. He returned a moment later carrying a long, leather strap. Edward recognized it instantly as a part of a draft horses harness, and instantly held his breath in, waiting for the blow.
Beckett watched the young man brace himself. "I'm not planning on beating you, kid." When the boy didn't relax, his sat down on a hay bale, fingering the strap. "Your father embarrassed the hell out of me at the show, you know. I've been trying to think of the right way to get back at him, to win again." He fingered the strap a little more. "I had planned to do this to your father, right up until tonight in fact. Then it occurred to me, what's the sport in that?" He laughed. "This way, he loses next year to his own son."
Edward's head was swimming, both with fear and confusion. "What are you talking about?"
The man seemed to reach a final choice, then stood up with the determination of one who knew what needed to be done. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a small hunting knife. He ignored Edward as he started to cry out in terror. There was no fear of him being heard, the nearest home was over a mile away. With care, he neatly sliced through the boys shirt and pants, not bothering to tear them off save for a bare spot around his midsection. Quickly, he wrapped the surcingle around Edward's midsection, then sliced through the ropes binding the boy.
Edward tried to scramble to his feet, but was pushed back to all fours by Beckett. "Stay right there, it'll all be over soon enough."
Sucking in a huge breath, Edward felt his sliced shirt fall away. Eyes white with terror, he looked at his arms as the skin and muscles started to reshape themselves. He screamed, a sound that didn't sound human anymore, and tossed his head back, feeling the tickling of a new mane on his neck and back.
Shawn watched the transformation occur under the dim light of the barn. He carefully kept his face passive, as if he saw this kind of thing everyday. As the boys bulk continued to increase, his hands and feet grew into massive hooves, and a long tail hung to the floor. A coat of perfect chestnut color covered his white skin, unmarred by a single patch of white. As his bulk reached its final levels, Beckett tightened the strap around the new horse's body, making sure it wouldn't slip off.
The former young man stood quietly in the center of the stall, staring at his fore hooves with white eyes, working his lips. His sides heaved, but otherwise he remained still. Beckett finished tightening the strap, then stepped to the front of the young Suffolk stallion. He put his hand under the horses head and brought it up slightly, making sure that one of the terror-filled eyes was looking right at him. "You'll do what you're told, Edward. I control you utterly now. If you want to be human again, you'd better play along. If you don't, then you'll be like that forever." He patted the horse on the neck. "If you decide to be a pain in the ass, if you ever try and escape, then I'll just get rid of you."
He stepped to the stall door and shut it behind him. As he locked it, he glanced at his latest acquisition, "And if you don't win next year, you're dead." He slammed the latch shut and turned off the light, leaving Edward alone in the dark.
Morning brought a strong realization for the young man: Last night had been no dream.
He blinked his eyes, trying to get them to focus more solidly on the wooden walls of his stall, but after a few tries realized that it was as good as it was going to get. He could still see in color, but there was a washed out quality to things, details not as apparent.
What even his reduced eyesight couldn't miss was that he still had hoofs where hands should have been. He laid his head down heavily on the straw, trying to comprehend what had happened, but he couldn't do it. His thoughts churned with nothing connecting. It didn't make any sense!
"Time to get up, Edward." The horse moved his head just enough to see Beckett standing at the stall door. He looked a little ragged from the late night, but he had a certain glint in his eye. "Can't have you sleeping all day. We've got to get you ready for next year."
Edward laid his head back down and sighed. It had to be a dream. It couldn't be real.
The latch was unbolted and the door swung open. Beckett poked the huge draft horse with the tip of his boot. "Don't make be grab the whip, boy. I'm not in the mood." When the horse laid still on the floor of his stall, Beckett slipped a riding crop out of his belt and slapped him on the rump. The horse jumped suddenly, and quickly rose to his feet. "Good, now we're getting somewhere." He couldn't miss the murderous look in Edward's eyes. "You don't go getting any ideas now, understand?" He waved the crop under the horses' nose, "I'm the only one in the world who knows what you are."
Edward felt his ears flatten, giving away his mood. He wasn't sure yet how to operate this new body, but he was reasonably sure that he could flatten Beckett given the chance. The only thing that stopped him for now was fear. He didn't know how to change back, and if he killed Beckett, animal control would probably put him down.
Animal control. He couldn't believe he even had to consider it.
He turned his head a little to look over his new body, feeling his heart pound with fear as he did. He looked like any number of his fathers horses, thick and sturdy. He could feel the muscles in his neck as he moved his head. He felt the blood rush to his fur covered cheeks as he realized for the first time that he was naked, and that the parts that normally a polite society demanded be covered were hanging out for all to see. He unconsciously shuffled his hooves a little, trying to make them less obvious.
It was only then that he realized that the surcingle was still strapped around his body, snugly around the trunk of his body. He reached back with his teeth to chomp at it, to remove it from his body, but felt a solid slap on his muzzle from the riding crop.
"Don't you do that," snapped Beckett. When Edward turned his gaze back to the man, he could swear that for a moment he was white faced, but it was hard to tell with his new eyes. "If that strap is ever removed incorrectly, you will be a horse forever." He smiled thinly. "If you want to be human again after next year, then you'll do as I say." Beckett stepped back out of the stall, shutting the door tight behind him. "Some of my hands are coming through here in a little while, they'll be feeding you. If you do anything to make them suspicious..." he let the threat hang in the air, then walked down the row of stalls.
Edward struggled to keep his head straight as he stood, alone in the stall. The simple fact was that he could get out in a second if he wanted too. He had spent enough time around horses to know that he could have the stall door knocked flat in a split second and be free, but fear prevented him from doing it. If he escaped, he feared, he might never be human.
He turned and looked at the leather strap that around his chest, binding him to this body. For a moment, he thought about simply ignoring the warning from Beckett and tearing it off. He even touched at it with his lips, feeling the thick leather in his teeth. It would be nothing to simply snap it in two.
The sound of footsteps coming up the walk caused him to pull his teeth away. He couldn't decide if Beckett was lying or not. For now, he wasn't willing to risk being a horse the rest of his life.
Beckett reappeared at the stall door with a young man at his side. "Whoa! You really took that loss serious! This looks like one of Collins' horses!" He eyed him suspiciously. "You didn't..."
Beckett laughed, perhaps just a touch nervously. "No, no. I didn't take one of his horses. I bought this guy a couple days ago. Fight fire with fire."
Edward stood stiffly in the stall, watching. He didn't want to do anything to incur Beckett's wrath at the moment. He even let the young man cautiously stick his hand into the stall and touch him on the nose.
"Nervous one, isn't he?" asked the hand.
Beckett nodded. "Yeah, but he just got here last night, I'm sure he'll loosen up when things settle down."
"What's his name?"
Beckett seemed caught off guard by the question. "Well..." he stammered, "he came in with a name, but I don't like it. Too mundane. I was going to name him like my other horses."
The farm hand chuckled knowingly. "What are you going to call him? Somua? You've already got an Abrams and a Tiger."
That brought a more genuine laugh from Beckett. "Naw, he's a British breed." He thought a second, "Saxon."
Edward shuddered. Somehow, he had a feeling that this wasn't good.
Shawn walked through the doors of the general store, distracted. It was a few seconds before he realized that Jack had greeted him at all and was waiting for at least a polite reply. "Oh, hi," he mumbled.
"You look beat," said Jack. "Still tossing and turning over the pull?" he asked, then seemed to mentally kick himself for bringing up the subject.
"No, not anymore. Water under the bridge," said Shawn in a hollow voice. He turned to look at some of the shelves, not sure really what he came in for.
"Of course you're not," said Bob from the doorway to the backroom as he came out. "I heard from Mark that you got yourself a new pony. Giving up on Sherman so fast?"
Shawn didn't have a chance to say a word before Jack interrupted. "A new horse? Already? I thought that the money was too tight for that," he said with the suspicion of a shop owner who had been on the receiving end of too many conversations about the lack of money to buy new equipment.
"It's more than that," continued Bob without waiting for Shawn to respond. "He got himself a Suffolk, just like Collins."
Jack got suddenly serious and looked at Shawn. "Oh, that reminds me, you hear what happened?"
"What?" asked Shawn in a small voice.
"The Collins boy, Alan..."
"Edward," corrected Bob.
"Alan, Edward, whatever. Anyway, he up and vanished two nights ago."
Shawn felt like there was a rock in his stomach. He'd really never considered that there would be repercussions from the kidnapping. At least he wasn't likely to be a suspect. "I hadn't heard. Any idea what happened?"
Jack just shrugged. "Sheriff Langford isn't saying much. His father called in the other morning when he didn't find the kid in the house. Hasn't been seen since the night before."
"I think he ran away," said Bob. "Collins doesn't seem like the best father in the world. Cared more for his horses than his kid."
Shawn bit his tongue. If what he'd been told by the woman the other night was right, there was a good reason for that. "I really don't know Collins, so couldn't say. Hope that the kid is alright, though. Seemed nice enough."
"You met him?" asked Jack, surprised.
Reluctantly, he nodded. "Yeah, met him at the show. Only saw him that time, though. Seemed good with the horses." He couldn't think of what else to say, wondering if he'd already said too much. "Look, I hate to cut this short, but I have a bunch of errands to do today. Can you guys load some sacks of feed into the truck?"
The two men eyed Shawn oddly. It wasn't like him to set aside a conversation for something as mundane as errands, no matter how important. "Sure, anything else?"
Nervously, he turned and started down an aisle. "I'll find it, thanks."
"No problem. Say, what happened to your class ring?"
Shawn looked at his hand, the spot where the ring had been feeling very bare. He'd not removed that ring in at least 20 years. "Lost it the other day in the fields," he said simply. He hadn't seen it since the night he got Saxon.
The men looked like they wanted to say something, but just shrugged and headed out of the store to get the grain. Shawn stopped at the end of and aisle, out of sight, and gripped a shelf to keep himself from falling. His knees felt weak and his stomach was turning. He couldn't believe that he was doing this. He'd turned a perfectly nice, innocent kid into a horse for God's sake!
With a couple of deep breaths, he steadied his nerves. It was too late to back out now.
Far too late.
Edward, now Saxon to all who cared to know him, bent his head down and took his first mouthful of grass. He'd nibbled on it absently many times over the years, but never seriously tried to eat it. He chewed the grass a few times, then swallowed it.
It tasted odd. Not bad, but not really that great. It was definitely different, though.
He continued to graze in the paddock while he thought. What the hell was going on? How had Beckett done this to him? And how was he going to turn back?
He didn't really have any reason to doubt Beckett at his word that this would all be over in a year, but why should be believe him either? He moved around the edge of the paddock, grabbing mouthfuls of grass and weeds. He toyed with trying to make a run for it, get across the county and to his father. Maybe if he could make his father understand what was happening...
Edward looked around the paddock. He needed to buy himself some time, first. Maybe get an ally here. None of the workers at the farm seemed to have any inkling of what was happening. If he could communicate with one of them, tell them who he was, at least one would help him. There were a couple of farm hands at the back of the barn working on a combine, but no sign of Beckett. It was now or never, it seemed.
Tentatively, he tipped a hoof up and looked at the ground. Maybe he could scratch a message into the dirt, get one of the hands to understand. He touched the tip of his hoof to the ground and started to draw it back. He made a long, straight line.
What the hell? That wasn't what an "H" looked like. Was it?
He stood there, heart beating again. What did the letters look like?! He couldn't remember!
He tossed his head, agitated. He felt like crying, letting out a mournful whinny. This couldn't be happening! He was completely cut off! He started stamping around the paddock, kicking and screaming. It couldn't be happening! Some of the farm hands ran over to investigate the sounds of a horse in distress. They stood at the fence, watching the massive draft wail as he stomped on the ground.
Once Edward had calmed down a little, wasted from the moment of realization, he saw Mark climb the fence and walk carefully over toward him. Edward stood still, his sides heaving. He tried to keep himself calm, reminding himself that Mark was just a worker, not the man who did this to him.
He allowed the man to gently rub him on the neck, then heavily leaned into him. Mark stumbled with a grunt, but didn't fall. "You okay, boy?" he asked quietly as he ran his fingers though the horses mane. Mark carefully hooked the lead line to the halter and started leading him toward the barn.
"He okay?" asked one of the mechanics.
Mark nodded. "Seems okay now," he said as he led the horse through the gate. "Saxon's been pretty nervous the last couple days, just got here you know."
The horse followed the farm hand slowly, head low, his shuffling hoof beats reverberating on the ground.
Edward shook the sleep out of his eyes. It took a moment for him to realize that he was waking while standing. It didn't bother him as much as he thought it was, but he met it with just a deep sigh.
He struggled to remember how many days had passed since he lost his humanity. It seemed like at least two weeks, but he couldn't be sure. It was past the point where he still thought it was all a long, bizarre nightmare though. The days were now beginning to blur together in a repetitive pattern of feedings, training and grooming.
Dim light poured through the windows of the barn, to Edward it felt like it was too early to get up, but the sounds of rustling from down at the other end of the barn indicated that food was coming soon. He would have killed for pancakes at this point. Hay and grain only went so far before it became monotonous.
A now familiar feeling brought a slight flush to the skin under the fur of his cheeks and he stretched out his body, hearing the sound of urine hitting the floor. Just as the smell hit his nostrils, he spotted movement outside his stall. He felt his face get hot and he tried to move a little to make it less obvious, but it was pointless. The young farmhand didn't say a word, just filling the feed bin and moving on. Watching a horse doing its business was hardly interesting.
Edward was simply beyond the point of being mortified. It was one of the countless indignities that he'd had to suffer because of this battle between his father and this nutcase. He tapped his fore hoof against the floor for the millionth time, hearing the sound of iron on wood. Before Beckett started his training last week, he'd gotten a farrier out to put shoes on him. It wasn't an unpleasant experience, but one more sign that he simply wasn't human anymore.
The vet check, the feedings, crapping in open fields, people talking about him while he's standing right there, speculating about gelding of all things, they all had taken bits of his human self image and crushed it. As far as the world was concerned, he was nothing more than another draft horse.
The worst part of it was that no one seemed to know he'd been kidnapped. Edward had heard some of the stable hands talking about his disappearance, and that the Sheriff thought that he was a runaway. In Edward's long periods of grazing, all he could imagine was the Sheriff showing up one day, having figured out that the mysterious new horse was somehow the missing teenager.
He wasn't holding his breath.
"Good morning, Saxon."
Edward looked up to see the bane of his existence, Beckett, standing at the stall door. He had never used his real name since the morning he was renamed. The horse, though, was terrified of the man. It was impossible to know what the man needed before he would be allowed to be human again, and he had to play the game. Trying to ignore him, he took a mouthful of feed and chewed slowly.
"Ready to do a little training today?" he asked in a slightly sing-song voice, one that Edward had realized he used with all his horses. Turning off to the side, he looked at the stable hand. "Can you get the harness ready? I'm going to do some work with Saxon today."
The young man stepped up to the door. "Sure," he said, jutting his chin at the horse that towered over him. "Why do you leave that strap on him, though? Shouldn't you take it off sometimes?"
Beckett turned a little white, then red. "Mark, don't question my training like that, and leave that strap on there. In fact, don't touch the straps at all with Saxon. He's a special case, and that strap must stay on. Got it?"
Mark looked confused, but nodded and turned. "Okay, no problem. I'll get the harness."
Beckett watched the young man leave, then turned briefly back to the horse, started to say something, closed his mouth and walked off.
Edward continued to eat, this body took a huge amount of food to keep running and he wasn't going to be doing much grazing with a bit in his mouth. He couldn't stand the taste that the steel had when it was covered in grass pulp. He was left alone for almost a full half hour before someone came and led him from the stall by a lead line. The farm hand started to groom him, a feeling that wasn't all that unpleasant.
Letting out a long, slow breath, Edward settled in for another day.
"Pull!" he shouted thought the still morning air. "Pull!" He felt the sled lurch under his feet as the oversized Suffolk pulled it with ease across the field. When the pace slowed too much, he snapped a whip in the air near the horse's ear, "Pull! Pull!" he shouted again.
Shawn watched from the sled as the horse moved. It was really poetry in motion. Saxon may not have always been a horse, but no one would have doubted that for a second. His chestnut coat rippled as his solid muscled form strained against the weight of the sled. True to the reputation of the breed, he was a willing animal. Saxon had allowed himself to be harnessed up completely without a fuss, and had so far willingly pulled heavier and heavier sleds of weight. At the rate things were going, it would only be a few months before he was pulling more than any horse he'd ever owned.
He felt a few pangs of guilt at the thought, remembering the source of the animal he watched. He knew deep down that there was no way that he would be able to keep this horse past the next pull. Once the title was regained, the boy would have to be returned.
Saxon seemed to sense his loss of concentration and slowed up, snapping Shawn back to the here and now. With a snap of the whip, he shouted, "Pull!"
The smell of feed woke him again.
Opening his eyes, he closed them again. It was still the barn wall, with its bare boards and soiled hay covered floor. It was a nightmare that wouldn't end.
"Saxon?" he heard a young man say, "Feeding time!"
The horse opened his eyes again and looked at the young farmhand. Edward really liked the kid, he was probably the most friendly of the hands here. He vaguely recalled his face from high school...
Edward stopped his thoughts a second. High school. He hadn't even thought about that since this all started. By now, school was back in session. He hadn't even realized that this kid only showed up a couple times a week. Since he hadn't seen him in days, Edward guessed that it was Saturday.
He stepped up to the stall door. At his full height, Edward towered over the young man. The boy produced a bit of carrot, which he eagerly took and chomped on. It wasn't even that he liked the things much, but it was a different taste than grass, grain and hay. With a sigh, he realized that he couldn't remember what a pizza tasted like, or the little rush from a can of coke. The memories were fading.
The farm hand rubbed him a couple times on the nose, then moved on down the line. Edward started eating quickly, trying not to taste it as it went down.
"How's the new horse working out for you?"
Shawn glanced down the aisle he was browsing on, "Fine, Craig. Why do you ask?"
The man just shrugged, a slight frown on his face. "Because it's conversation. You've been pretty touchy the last two or three months, you know," he said with a tone that suggested he'd been waiting to say it a long time.
"I've had a lot on my mind lately," muttered Shawn. "I've been trying to train Saxon for weeks, and he's almost ready to really weight test. When I'm not doing that, I've got a few hundred acres of corn to get planted, so I've just been a little run down, okay?"
Craig backed off a little, wary that one of his best customers was getting mad. "Okay, okay. Sorry I asked. I just wanted to see if I could do you a favor, that's all."
"Favor?" he asked suspiciously. "What kind of favor?"
Craig pulled out a notepad. "A friend was by here the other day from upstate. He knows someone with a few Suffolks who is interested in breeding them. I didn't think that you were going to cross Saxon with one of your Percherons, but you haven't mentioned..." His voice trailed off in a shrug.
Shawn cocked his head, thinking. He'd never considered breeding Saxon at all. The simple fact was that the horse had shown no interest in any of the mares on the farm, in heat or not. But breeding could be the best of all possible worlds. He'd get to keep the horse after the pull this summer, and with a little encouragement, he was sure he could get Saxon to go along with it. "Can you give me the number?" he asked.
For just a moment, it had looked like a hand.
Saxon stared hard at his hoof, sure that just a moment ago, it had looked so different. Right now, he couldn't see it, but he was sure of it!
After several long minutes of staring, he gave up and turned back to the water trough. He didn't even notice the metallic and mossy flavor of the water anymore. All he knew now was that it was wet.
His thoughts went back to the hand. He looked again at the hoof, sure that there was a hand there again. He could almost feel the fingers...
What did the fingers do? Had it really been so long since he had them that he couldn't remember what they even did?
He tapped the hoof solidly on the earth, not feeling anything remotely like a finger. He turned back to the water and started to reach his muzzle in, then stopped. The face looking back at him wasn't right. It couldn't be. It wasn't a horse at all, it was human.
He blinked in surprise, and then it was gone.
Flipping through the pictures, Shawn felt a smile grow across his face. "These are beautiful," he said. He flipped two over, looking at their basic physical statistics. "Too small, though. I want a mare as close to Saxon's size as I can. She's two hands smaller, and this one is a hand and a half!"
Craig glanced up from his newspaper, wishing now that he'd just sent Bob over with the pictures rather than done it in the store. "Like you've been so fond of saying, Saxon's a big one. You're not likely to find a mare his size. I don't know why you don't just drive up and look at them in person?"
"Can't leave the farm," he said. "At least, not until I'm pretty sure about this. It's expensive, you know."
Craig nodded and tried to read more of the sports page, "Well, just decide if you're going to bring the two lovebirds together, then I won't have to hear about it, anymore."
Shawn started to make a snide comment, but the sound of the door opening cut him off. He glanced up from the photos and felt his body grow ice cold, his knees weak. If he hadn't already been leaning heavily against the counter, he was sure that he'd have fallen on the floor.
"Morning, Craig," said the senior Collins as he walked into the store. "Have you got my order ready?" The man didn't look the same as he had a few months ago at the pull, though it was hard to tell how he was different. He didn't seem as arrogant. The glint in his eye wasn't as malicious.
The shopkeeper nodded, "Bob's just getting it all set in the back. It's probably too much for your truck, though."
He considered a moment, "That's okay. Whatever doesn't fit I'll pay for delivery." He looked at Shawn, "You're Beckett, right? Shawn Beckett?"
Shawn tried desperately to force a smile and held out a hand. "Good memory. We met at the fair."
Collins nodded with a grim smile, "Sure. No hard feelings?"
There was a pit in Shawn's stomach, "No, of course not." He saw Craig roll his eyes ever so slightly. "I was impressed by your horses."
Collins nodded, his eyes ever so slightly narrowed, "I heard. You picked up a new Suffolk yourself. Excellent choice. Giving up on your Percherons?"
"No," he said nervously, "just trying something new this year. I do still want to win."
Collins nodded and started to fish out his wallet. He paused a moment while counting his money and glanced at Shawn, "You grow corn, right?"
He nodded numbly.
"We'll have to talk business at some point," he said. "I'm planning on expanding into pigs next summer and I'd like a local supplier. The new yuppies pay top dollar for corn fed pork."
Shawn didn't really respond, just nodded dumbly and mumbling, "Sure, sure."
There was an uncomfortable silence while they waited for Craig to count out the change. The shopkeeper took a serious look on, "Any word on your boy?" Shawn winced at the question, but neither man noticed.
Collins shook his head sadly, "None. I don't think he ran away, no matter what the sheriff says. After his mother left, we were tight." He sighed, "You mind keeping his poster in your window?" he asked. He glanced at Shawn and back at Craig, "I think that someone around here knows something."
Shawn coughed, "I'm sorry, I've got to run. Gotta make some calls, and all," he rattled off quickly. He waved to the two men as he left, "Good luck to you!" He ran out the door, clutching the photos of the mares.
What was he?
The horse stood in the pasture, feeling the wind in his mane and trying to think. Saxon was getting concerned, but it was getting hard to remember even why he was worried.
He was a horse, but something was bothering him. He felt like he could remember being a human once. He thought that he remembered walking on his hind legs, but that just didn't seem right. It couldn't be.
But it just didn't seem right.
Thoughts crossed though his mind. Stray thoughts, places, names. Some just had no meaning, others bothered him.
Who or what was 'Edward'?
The smell of clover on the wind broke through his thoughts, and the name wasn't important anymore.
Shawn stared at the photo for a good, long time. Something about this bothered him, but it wasn't like he hadn't done things like this before. It was perfectly normal and natural to breed horses. He did it all the time.
So why did this one bother him so much?
Deep down, he knew the answer. Saxon wasn't just a horse, but it wasn't something he allowed himself to think about. Just because he wasn't born a horse didn't change things. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up.
But on some level, it still didn't seem right.
He looked at the photo of the massive, beautiful mare. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the colt that would come from their union.
Setting down the photo, he reached for the phone.
Saxon stood at the end of the pasture, staring down over a low hill. The fenced in field was beautiful, even to his dim eyes. The grass, green and lush from the recent rains, looked and smelled delicious. The horse blinked a couple times, aware that on some level this just didn't seem right. Grass wasn't supposed to be eaten.
But it did taste so good.
There was something in the air, too. The humans around the farm seemed to be acting strangely, with slight grins when they looked at him. Beckett even seemed to be smiling near him for the first time. For some reason, it made the horse even more nervous than before.
From across the pasture, he could see activity near the barn. Curious, he started slowly walking toward the commotion. A large trailer was pulling in, and a few of the farm hands were gathering around it. He stopped, curious but wary. He cocked an ear forward while he reached down to graze, the scent of the newcomer just beginning to tickle his nostrils.
The words that the humans were speaking came clearly to his ears, but for some reason most of them didn't seem to mean anything anymore. The realization sent another chill through his body, but he didn't know where to place it. Somehow, he just knew something important was missing now.
The scent of the new horse had something familiar about it, but he couldn't decide what it was. Even when it walked off the trailer and he realized that it looked much like he did, he didn't know what to make of it. Saxon knew there was something missing in his mind, but what it was just wouldn't connect. The men surrounding the new horse were talking and laughing, then suddenly turned and looked at him. One of them pointed, and a chill went through the horses body.
He didn't know why what he was seeing bothered him so much, but it did. Turning on his hooves, he ran back over the hill to the safety of solitude.
Shawn sat back in his easy chair, feeling the tired muscles in his legs relax for the first time all day. This farm took a lot out of him, more than most people knew. It felt like he had walked from one side of the cornfield to the other, twice.
He sipped at his beer and closed his eyes. At least he would finally get the breeding over with tomorrow. That stallion, the finest that he'd ever owned, would make a fine sire. The mare he'd borrowed for the occasion was something special herself. The foal they'd make would be the start of a new rise in his prestige. In no time, he'd be the owner of the finest Suffolks and Percherons in the county.
He only hoped that corn prices would go a little higher so he could afford them all.
There was a solid knock on the door. Thinking that it was one of his farm hands, he pulled himself out of the chair and went to the door, swinging it open. He froze on the spot.
"Mr. Beckett, we have to talk," said the older woman as she brushed past him.
They turned as faced each other in the foyer. "What about?" he asked innocently.
Her eyes narrowed. "You unbelievable bastard. You're no better than he is, you know that?" She folded her arms in front of herself. "What the hell are you doing to my grandson?"
The words had a hard impact on him. It had never crossed his mind that this woman was Saxons' grandmother! "What do you mean?" he asked. "You never said anything..."
"I expected you to take care of my worthless son-in-law!" She spat at his feet. "You really have no idea what you've started, do you?" she asked. "He knows what you've done, you idiot! He put two and two together as soon as he realized his son and the surcingle were gone! You missed your chance to do anything!" Her face got red, "You had the chance to get revenge on the man, and you lost it!"
"I thought that turning Saxon into a horse..." stammered Shawn, intimidated by this little old lady.
"Edward! His name is Edward!" she spat. "And if you think that this is some kind of revenge, then you have no idea who you're dealing with!"
Shawn suddenly got angry. "If you were so interested in getting this done a certain way, you should have given me a hint! Now get the hell out of here!"
She glared at Shawn, but headed for the door. "Mr. Beckett, you'll be lucky if you make it to the end of the month, I think." She paused and sighed. "Because of you, my grandson is gone along with my daughter and the man responsible..." she shrugged and walked out the door.
Shawn watched her leave his house, heading for the trails out toward the pond. Once she was gone, he seethed in the foyer for several minutes before turned back to the living room. Passing his chair, he went straight to the liquor cabinet, pulling out a large, old bottle of Scotch. Taking the bottle and a glass, he went back to the easy chair for the rest of the night.
Saxon knew something was different, but didn't know what. The humans were not acting right again this morning, and his routine of sleeping, eating and working was being broken. His ears were perked up in a questioning posture as the line tied to his halter was tugged, bringing him to a paddock on the other side of the barn.
The new horse was there, noted Saxon. He smelled the horse from a distance, clicking in his head that this was like the other mares in the barn, only it looked like him. She was big and chestnut in color. She didn't move, though, even when the humans in the paddock with her stroked her neck.
As Saxon was lead in, he could see that her hooves were bound so that she would not move. Her tail was swishing about in an agitated state, her ears flat back. She seemed to know that something was up, and didn't like it one bit. Saxon, on the other hand, was getting more deeply confused. He could see the mare, smell the enticing scent from her, but it wasn't making the right connections in his brain.
As the humans started to lead him closer to the mare, the connections started to come together, but not in the way that the humans expected. They wanted him to mate with her! That had to be it!
The stallions' stomach turned, and his confusion deepened. He should be delighted at this! He was a stallion, and stallions mated with mares! That was the way of the world. For some reason, though, this stallion couldn't take the thought.
Because only animals mated with animals.
Oh my God! What's happened to me? came the thought unbidden, in clear words for the first time in weeks.
Edward was back.
He swung his head back and forth, looking at the half dozen hands sitting around to watch he show. The one holding the lead line suddenly got wide eyed, then the rope was ripped out of his hands as the massive stallion reared back kicking.
There were shouts of confusion that Edward didn't catch, but not now because he couldn't understand them. He fell to his forelegs and swung back with his massive hind hooves, shattering the wooden gate. Spinning around, he galloped away as fast as he could.
Through a haze, Shawn heard a distant pounding on the door. A young voice was shouting, "Mr. Beckett! Mr. Beckett, come quick!"
Despite the urgency of the voice, he could only manage to roll out of bed, the half a bottle of scotch still throbbing in his head. He slipped a robe on and stumbled into the hall just as Mark burst in the door. "What are you doing?" he asked, holding his head.
Mark looked embarrassed, but scared. "Mr. Beckett, Saxon just escaped!"
Shawn blinked a few times, clearing the sleep and pain from his eye. "What?" he said in a grunt. "What happened?"
Mark explained the whole situation, that the horse had flipped out just before covering the mare and burst from the paddock. "Todd and Frank are already going after him..."
Shawn felt sick, and not just from the alcohol. "Good, I'll get some pants and join you." He jabbed his finger in the boys chest. "You get that horse in a hurry, got it?" Mark nodded and scurried off.
Shawn stumbled back to the bedroom, grabbing a pair of jeans and a shirt off the floor. Pausing only to take some aspirin, he looked at his reflection, looked at the haggard man looking back, and shuddered.
Edward didn't know where he was when he finally stopped running. The world had passed as a blur in his blind panic and rage. When he finally calmed enough to stop running, he found himself standing near a stream in a small gully, hidden by overhanging trees, he stopped and took a long drink.
For the first time in weeks, he was thinking clearly.
He shuddered as he realized just how close he had come to fully descending into the world of the animal that Beckett had turned him into. He had been only a few seconds from mating with that mare! The thought brought a bitter taste to his mouth, and he snorted a few times in annoyance.
He looked again at his reflection in the water. He was definitely still a horse, no sign of the human inside. He sighed, shuffling on his hooves. What did he do now?
He thought about running back home, trying to get his father to understand what had happened and helping him, but he couldn't think of how to do that. The animal brain that he had seemed to cut him off from writing, and his father didn't have the patience for charades with a horse. He tried to think of anyone else in the town that he might be able to get help from, but he kept drawing a blank. The simple fact was that he didn't know anyone.
He turned his head to look sadly at his body. The thick surcingle was still strapped around his body. He felt his anger boil up. It was that which had been the source of all her problems! Maybe if he got it off, finally, it would allow him to turn back!
He hesitated only a moment, remembering the warnings that Beckett had given him about taking it off. After six months, how is he going to explain where I've been? He ran the words through his head several times.
Before he could change his mind, he reached back with his mouth and grabbed the surcingle with his teeth. It slipped a little, and with a few tries he managed to get the buckle around. He tugged at it a few times, feeling the steel twist under the pressure even as the leather dug deeply into his flesh. It only took a few minutes for him to pop the buckle off the surcingle and it slipped easily off his body and fell to the ground.
In the same instant, he felt his body start to get smaller.
With a growing sense of relief, he watched as the smooth chestnut coat pulled into his skin, as the bulk of his body got smaller and smaller. He looked hopefully as his hooves started to change shape, the horseshoes nailed there biting into his flesh a moment before they fell off to the ground. His thick, black lips pulled back into a smile. It was over!
Just as his heart started to beat faster in excitement, it all stopped.
His jaw dropped open, and a whinny escaped his lips. No! he screamed in his mind. It can't be like this!
Edward was still more horse than boy.
Rope in hand, Shawn started out in the direction that the horse had run. Thankfully, he realized quickly, it had run in the wrong direction. He had a feeling that Saxon was going to go for the Collins farm, and the safety of his fathers farm, but that was to the west. The horse had run to the north.
"I'm so sorry," stammered Mark. "We just didn't expect him to run like that. I mean, who would..."
The boys voice continued, but Shawn tuned him out completely. He had to find that horse! If it got away, there would be hell to pay! He climbed the fence at the end of the property and stumbled down the hill, following the deep hoof marks in the soft earth. "At least he won't be that hard to track," he muttered.
"Yeah, that's right," said Mark nervously. "We'll find him in no time."
Shawn glanced at the young man, his mind working. He didn't really know what he was going to find when he located Saxon, but he had a feeling it wasn't good. "Do me a favor and run back to the house, grab my phone and run it back here. Saxon is going to be nervous enough without a lot of us surrounding him."
"But won't he be too much for you to handle?" asked the boy seriously. "He wasn't happy when he left."
Shaking his head dismissively, he waved the kid off. "No, I'll be fine." The boy shrugged and took off. Shawn passed through the read acreage of his neighbors field, thankfully at fallow now or he'd have to pay for the crops, too. The hoof marks led through the back fence, literally, and into some hills. Mark caught up with him, passed off the phone, and raced back to the barn with instructions to get the trailer together in case they needed it.
For over an hour, he passed through the hills, trying to follow the tracks. As he walked along a stream, though, he was sure he heard something nearby. The sound didn't seem that familiar, though it felt like it was equine, but almost like sobbing. Slowing his step, he cautiously peered around a tree, and felt his jaw drop open. It was Saxon all right.
It was Edward Collins, too.
It was hard to tell what he was looking at, but it wasn't either horse or human. There was no coat of hair on the misshapen body save for a bit of a mane left clinging to a distorted neck. His body was vaguely horse shaped, but was much smaller than it had been before, perhaps the size of a pony. His tail was gone, and his hips were twisted at an odd angle, halfway between human and horse. His hooves were at some bizarre halfway point, not hands or feet, but not hooves either. The head was the most twisted, though. The eyes were distinctly human, and filled with pain. Human ears, and a mouth and nose that were nearly horse-like, but seemed attached to a human face somehow.
Shawn shuddered, feeling his stomach tie up in knots. The horse had gotten the surcingle off, he realized. This was the result. "Oh my God."
Edward heard him through his grief and turned to face his tormenter. He struggled to run, a piercing cry of terror breaking the silence. His legs weren't horse-like enough anymore to run, though, and he couldn't stand on two legs. Instead of running, he fell onto his face, sobbing.
Shawn approached the boy, trying to put a face of confidence on. "I told you what would happen if you took that off," he said. "Why did you do that?"
The horse started at him, fear in his eyes.
He reached down and picked the surcingle up off the ground, running it cautiously through his fingers. He wasn't so sure he even wanted to touch it anymore. "If you'd just have kept it on, none of this would have happened." He clucked his tongue. "If you'd just gone with the program, then everything would have been fine. All I wanted was for you to be a good horse for a few months. Now look at you."
The boy sobbed, scared beyond clear thought.
Making a show of thinking, Shawn sighed. "This isn't as bad as it looks," he bluffed. "All I have to do it put this back on you now. It has to stay there for a while, but we can take it off in a few months and all will be well. Okay?"
Saxon laid his head on the ground, eyes half closed. Taking it as an invitation, Shawn reached the strap around the twisted form, silently praying that this would work right. Almost the moment that he pulled the buckle together, the coat of hair started to grow back, and the horse started to reappear from the ruins of that form. It took only a few moments before the complete Saxon was laying on the forest floor, seemingly too tired to move.
Struggling to keep his hand from trembling, he slipped the rope around the neck of the horse. Once Saxon had given up, he rolled sullenly to his hooves and was from the forest.
He felt numb all over.
He walked behind Beckett for a long time, wondering if he should try and run for it, try once again to get away. If he could only tell someone, they'd be able to force Beckett to turn him back!
But no, not now. He wasn't even sure that what he'd done today would mean his doom. All he could do now is bide his time and wait.
He didn't see any of the workers around when he got back to the barn with Saxon. They were presumably off doing their jobs, or looking for the horse themselves. He still wanted to breed the animal when he got the chance. He'd spent enough money to get the mare down here that he wasn't going to miss the chance, but not right now. He'd hold off until the next day, when they could prepare something a bit more secure than the paddock.
He led Saxon into his stall and slammed the door shut, shooting the horse a disappointed look before turning away. He spotted Mark coming down the other side of the barn. "Mr. Beckett? Sheriff Langford is here to see you."
It didn't register as anything at first, he didn't really know the sheriff, though, so it was odd that the man was here. He nodded to Mark, "Where is he?"
"Out by the house. He's been here an hour or so." He looked at the stall, "You found Saxon?"
Shawn felt a chill. Something was up if the Sheriff had been here that long waiting. "Yeah, yeah," he said absently. "Give him some water, will ya?" Without waiting for a response, he turned and walked toward the house.
The sheriff, a fit middle aged man in a tan uniform, was leaning against the porch railing, looking over Shawn's truck. He glanced up and nodded without a smile, "Mr. Beckett?" he asked.
Shawn nodded. "I am. What can I do for you?"
The Sheriff pushed himself to his feet. "You've probably heard about the Collins kid?" he asked. "He up and vanished about five months ago?"
Shawn nodded nervously, "I heard, sure. Wasn't he a runaway?"
Langford nodded, "We've been keeping that as a possibility, but I've never thought so. Runaways usually don't leave without taking something along. You know, picture of their family, some clothes. That kid didn't even take his wallet. No, we think something happened to him."
Shawn looked at Langford for a long minute, disquieted by the silence. "So what brings you to my farm?" he asked.
"Well, the investigations been kinda slow, you understand. We've had little to go on, really. That was, until just the other day. Collins was having a field cleared to make way for some new sty's, he's going to raise pigs you know, and one of the workers found this," he said holding up a battered ring.
Shawn managed to retain his composure, but he could feel the color drain from his face. "Interesting. What's that?" he asked in a small voice.
"A class ring from Van Buren high. Can't quite get the year off it, though. Tiller knocked it around pretty good. Could be '73 or '93." The Sheriff looked hard at Shawn, "You graduated in '73, didn't you?"
Not knowing what else to do, he nodded, "Yeah."
"Craig down at the feed store mentioned that you'd lost a ring. This, by chance, belong to you?" asked the Sheriff carefully.
"Couldn't be," he said quickly. Pausing for a second, he blurted, "Dropped mine into the pond fishing. Maybe someone hooked it and brought it up?"
"I see," said the Sheriff, his foot tapping lightly on the wooden deck. "How about we have a little talk about that?" he asked.
"Sure," said Shawn. "Why don't you come in?"
There was a long pause, and Shawn heard footsteps coming up the walk behind him. He turned and saw a deputy carrying a familiar shirt, cut down the back with a sharp knife. A shirt that he had thrown into the trash himself that night. What the hell was it doing here? "No," said the Sheriff, "I think that we'll be more comfortable down at the station."
Shawn started to protest, then sagged. It was over, he knew. Even if he told the truth, they'd never believe it. As soon as he felt the sheriffs hands on his wrists, he spun around and slugged the taller man in the jaw. Taken off guard, and possessing a glass jaw, he fell solidly to the floor.
The deputy, taken just as off guard, dropped the shirt and tried to grab his gun. Beckett was on him in a second, pulling the gun from the surprised mans hands and slamming it across his face. Before either could recover, he raced for the barn.
He managed to get to the barn door, swinging it shut and slamming the lock down. He turned to see the shocked look on Marks face. "Mr. Beckett?!" he yelled, "What's going on?"
He looked down the length of the barn and saw that Saxon was tied to a cross tie while Mark had been grooming him. Running over, he yanked the clips off and grabbed the horses mane. With the strength of a man in a panic, he pulled himself onto the horses back and kicked it solidly in the ribs. Saxon, still deeply confused and sorting out his mind, reacted as a horse and took off.
"Go!" screamed Shawn as they raced through the rear barn door and started toward the pond. Saxon ran as fast as he could, his massive frame not built for speed. It wasn't long before the man pulled back on the mane, and shouted "Whoa, whoa."
He slid heavily off the back of the horse and collapsed to the ground, sobbing. "What's happening?" he sobbed. "How could it fall apart like this?"
Saxon looked down at the man with a hard eye. He was beginning to realize what was happening. He snorted and stamped a hoof.
Shawn looked up at the horse standing over him, "Go ahead and kill me, you bastard. You ruined me! You did it!" he picked up the gun and pointed it at the horse. "You destroyed me!"
"Beckett! Drop it!"
Shawn Beckett turned abruptly, startled by the shouting behind him. Unfortunately, he swung around with the gun still in his hand. The Sheriff let lose with one single shot from his service revolver, sending the kidnapping suspect sprawling to the ground, screaming and sobbing.
Edward felt his a deep coldness in his heart. His hope for rescue seemingly destroyed when Beckett was shot. He felt a horrible sense of irony. His one hope and dream since the day that he was first transformed was that the police would find out. Now, the police were here! His months of torment, the waiting and wondering about what Beckett would do to him, were over now.
But what would happen now?
The horse was sure that Beckett was never going to allow him to be human again. There had been no reason for him to allow it. Why risk the boy talking? Possibly finding proof of his bizarre transformation. It would have been far safer to keep him a horse, either forever on the farm or sell him to some distant owner.
With a shudder, Edward remembered that dog food was still made form horse meat.
But with a spring in his step, he trotted around the paddock. It was going to be all over! There was no reason for Beckett to hide the truth now! Assuming that the man survived his wounds, it would have to be better to go to prison a kidnapper than a killer.
The police led the horse back to his stall, talking all the while about how amazing it was that it didn't react to the gunshot. Then they left, leaving Edward alone.
The night came, and there was no word.
The next day came and went, and still nothing.
The farm hands still came around, but none of them were talking much. They were feeding the horses, tending to their needs, and not talking much. Edward was never so starved for news as he was now! He needed to know what was happening! After a week without any word of Beckett, Edward started seeing new men on the farm.
There had been cops searching the fields since that morning, of course. After them came the men in suits with clipboards. A couple of them even examined Edward from head to toe, making notes. It didn't take long for him to realize that things were horribly wrong. These men seemed to have no idea what he was. They simply talked about his physical condition.
Edward soon realized that things were much worse than he'd ever realized. Beckett was in deep trouble. He'd survived the bullet and now had to survive the lawyers. The horse knew that it was unlikely he was ever going to see the man again, and with him perhaps the only hope of his ever turning back.
That night, after getting appraised for sale and hearing the word 'auction' bandied about in the barn more than once, Edward knew that he had to escape again.
He waited until it had been dark for a long time, at least a couple of hours. All of the farm hands were long home, and the house was still dark as it had been for days. Edward knew that a deputy had been hanging around the farm every night since Beckett was taken away, but he seemed to stick near a cruiser near the front of the farm. He'd be easy to avoid.
With a slow, deliberate motion, Edward reached his massive head over the top of the stall door and unlocked it. With a slight kick, the door swung open. Edward stepped with incredible lightness out of the stall and made for the door.
Stepping into the moonlight, he looked up at the sky and sighed. This time, he'd make it. No blind rushes, no fear. He'd get off this damned farm and live in the forest if he must. He'd never be owned by anyone again.
First, though, he'd find he father. If he had any chance of ever being human again, Edward was sure that his father would find it.
It was surprising how easy it was for a horse that weighed more than most cars to hide. Edward had followed roads that he didn't know well, making wrong turns and trying to keep to the bushes. Whenever he'd seen the lights of a truck, he'd managed to slip off the road and into the brush. Given the color of his coat, he was sure that anyone who caught that brief glance of him thought he was a deer.
He was just lucky there were no poachers among them.
It took hours for him to get to the other side of the county, the sun was just beginning to lighten the sky ever so slightly. He felt his heart begin to pound as he found himself in more familiar surroundings. The smell of sheep mixed with the smell of pigs. As he crested a hill, he almost thought that he was in the wrong place, but he blinked a few times and realized that his father had been busy the last few months. Pig sties were covering what had been a farm field.
The sight of Spruce is what made him know he was home. The massive stallion was standing in a paddock, dozing. With a spring in his hooves, he made for the house. His heart was aching with anticipation. He and his father had never had the best relationship, but he missed the man. He only hoped that he could make his father understand what was happening.
He walked across the silent farm, seeing a light pop on in an upstairs window as he got closer. He almost thought he'd been spotted, but realized that it was only five o'clock. Torn for a moment by indecision, Edward paused in the middle of driveway, thinking. How was he going to do this?
He was still standing there when his father walked out the door and spotted him. At first, there was anger in the man's eyes. "Damn!" he heard his father mutter, "Spruce got out again." As he got closer, he frowned. "Hello, who are you? You're not Spruce."
Edward stood his ground as his father got closer. He tried to look completely relaxed, but the truth was that he was nervous as hell. He could feel his ears perked up, and his tail flipping back and forth in an agitated manner, but he kept his hooves solidly on the ground and his head low.
The senior Collins took several careful steps forward and slowly touched the horse on the neck. "Where did you come from?" All he got was a gentle and content nicker as the massive horse tried to rest his head on Collins shoulder.
Slipping away, Collins ran a hand down the back of the animal, stopping at the leather strap that was still bound around the horse. To Edward's relief, it had never been removed. The horse was still trying to figure out a way to explain everything when his father looked up, his eyes moist. "Oh my God. Edward?"
"Beckett tried to tell me that you were a horse," said Collins. "I went down to the hospital to confront him, you see. I thought he was nuts! I mean, I thought he had killed you, and then he tried to sell me some cock and bull story about a magic strap and his new Suffolk..." He sighed, "You understand why I didn't believe him."
Edward nodded sadly, still unable to speak. The belt was still wrapped around his body, his father explaining that he didn't know how to remove it correctly. "Beckett tried to tell me that it was all someone else's fault, that he no idea how to work the belt." He shook his head, "I wish I knew what to believe."
Edward nuzzled his father heartily, feeling a glimmer of happiness. He wasn't a human again, but at least he was home.
Collins looked out of the barn and at the brightening day. "Look, son, the Sheriff is going to notice you missing at the Beckett place any time now, and he'll come looking here first. I need to square some things first." He smiled, "I don't know how I'll explain it, but I'm going to keep you in my sights until we have a way to cure you, got it?"
Edward whinnied his approval, jumping a couple of times in place. His father had taken this so well!
After hugging the newest resident of his barn, Collins turned and walked back to the house. Once inside, he closed the curtains and sat down in a chair, grinning.
"What the hell is so funny?"
He looked up to see his mother-in-law coming down the stairs. "He's back."
It took her a second to piece that together. "That idiot kid of yours?" she asked. "About damn time."
He shrugged. "You know how he can be. He's always been a nervous kid. I'm guessing that he was pretty much lost in there for a while." He smiled, "Glad that we found that ring. I was wondering when someone was going to find the shirt and pants."
She grinned, "They haven't found the pants yet. I'm going to put them by that old well later. Should be fun to see them dig up the thing looking for him." She chuckled and rubbed her hands together, "Might even get Shawn Beckett the chair."
"They don't do the chair anymore, it's an injection," he corrected with a grin.
"Whatever," she sat down herself, her eyes narrowing at her son-in-law. "Think he'll figure it out?"
He shook his head, "Naw, I doubt it. We'll leave him like he is a couple more weeks, then remove the strap. He should be completely a horse by then. After that, it's just a matter of time." He smiled broadly. "Worked on his mother, his friend from Spruce, that hitchhiker you picked up in Virginia..." his voice trailed off.
"Oh, knock it off," she muttered, giving him an evil look. "You do realize that this didn't work out as I'd planned, don't you? Beckett was supposed to be the horse. I never wanted it to be Eddie, not yet anyway."
"It's fine," he said, "Edward will make a fine horse." His eyes narrowed, "What do you care? You were never around anyway!"
She didn't answer, just shot him a long, withering look.
Out in the barn, the newest member of the Collins herd, future pull champion and sire to a dozen foals, dozed fitfully, confident he had made good on his escape from evil.