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User:FelixSagittarius/At the Ranch Pt 9/9

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At the Ranch
Preceded by: At the Ranch Pt 8/9
Succeeded by: At the Ranch Epilogue
Separator r left.png  At the Ranch Pt 9/9 "Sayin' Goodbye, Sayin' Hello"  Separator r right.png
Tales from the Blind Pig story universe

By Felix Sagittarius


"Welcome, brother," I said, again. "To a wider life!" I released him from the tight hug I'd given him, but kept my hands on his shoulders. Pastor Svenson, my brother from experiences we had shared, had just found the way to go from SCAB horse to SCAB centaur, with all the opening of options having hands and a voice again could give. He was still somewhat dazed from the transition, as I had been earlier when I first changed to centaur.

"Take your time, get used to this. See again how beautiful the world is in color!" I said.

"I, I, I never thought...I can talk, too!" he said. "Oh, praise God, praise God!" He put his face in his hands and cried.

After a short while, he shook his head and took a deep breath. "Thank you. Thank you. Parsifal, my blessing upon you!, and you, my brother! This is a gift beyond all hope!"

"Brother, with this gift, we have work to do," I said. "I prayed to Epona about showing you this. She indicated that all, all the SCABs here on the Ranch should be able to do this! And that we, who now know the way, have to show them, so that they also can have their chance."

"There is more," I continued. "Martin, my friend and lawyer, has said I have a firm court date, and the judge wants to interview me in person. So, they will be coming for me in a month, and I probably won't be back. So, we have a great deal of work to do with just our own people, let alone the rest, in that time. But, if HHS finds out we can change, I don't know what they'll do. So, until I leave, we must appear to the staff as horses, and use the tap code for communication with them, although, in private, among us, we can do as we will."

"I see," he replied. "Well, I've never been afraid of work, and this is going to be plenty. But the level of joy will balance it!"

"My friends, there may be some complications," Parsifal said. "There are usually two choices to make the first time someone reaches for change. Here is the other." His human form went to horse again. Pastor Svenson gasped, having only seen the change from centaur to human, then we both watched as his form shivered all over, then collapsed to something resembling an anthrohorse. His head was very equine, with the ears on top and a short strong neck, but the body resembled a very strong humans covered with horse hair and there was a short tail. The legs were digitigrade, and ended in hooves, but the hands were split into three fingers and a thumb on both hands. I recognized it immediately - Stoney! Parsifal tried to speak, but only got horse noises. After a moment, he stopped, closed his eyes, shivered again and emerged as himself.

"As you can see," he continued, "The form has some drawbacks, and some advantages. The big problem is it isn't possible to know which change line leads to which form the first time. And after the first change, the unused line fades and becomes very hard to see. Doesn't happen for me, but I have other problems, which come with being a polymorph. But, if the person isn't happy with the choice, careful study during meditation will show the other, however faintly, and a change can be made. It does take a lot of effort, though. The best way I've found for a correct selection is imagining how you wish to look, then choosing. Understood?"

We both nodded.

"Good. Now, I truly wish I could stay and help, but there are good reasons for why I can't," he said. "If I can, I'll be back when we come to get James, and I can try to work with any problems in the fairly short time we'll have then. And with that, I believe its time to go."

He walked over to the log and dressed again, while I showed Pastor Svenson how to go back to equine. He followed, dropping back to his horse form. Then we both escorted Parsifal and Martin to the gate. Once there, Martin turned and said. "Remember, James, I'll be back in a month, to pick you up."

I nodded, then tapped out, *I'll be waiting. Eagerly*

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I found that being part of the herd was now becoming exciting. We carefully looked for the people who has experience with meditation techniques, yoga, and such, and quietly showed them the new change. Inevitably, they were overwhelmed and cried, blessing us. but then, we had to teach the techniques to the others, and that took time. And, there were chores, fence riding and such, which the Pastor was introduced to, and I did regularly.

Even so, life in the herd could at times be boring. I'd agreed to learn to pull a cart or carriage, along with almost everyone else in the herd. If nothing else, it passed empty time, and we still had far too much of that. I'd been training with a buckboard this morning, and the instructor had unharnessed me and sent me back to the barn for lunch. I was munching on Horse Chow when Mr. Jakes appeared at my stall door with the Director. I nodded politely to him, and waited to hear what was up.

"James," the Director said, "I need to have a stretch of wire checked after that nasty windstorm yesterday. All my experienced people are out doing checks in other sectors, and I know you know this one, having been through it a couple of times. So, I'm assigning a new hire rider to you to get it done. The trouble is, he's very new, and with everyone busy with repair work, there hasn't been time to brief him on what you people are like. He's never worked with a SCABs person before. I was going to send him with another rider, but with damage repairs to the barns and other buildings, and the need to check the rest of the area, I just don't have any choice. I'll let you decide - will you do it, please?"

I replied, *Of course, sir. I'm always available for something like this, and I don't see any problem with a new rider. I'll wait here, and you can send him over.*

"Thanks, James, I knew I could count on you. Ted," he continued, turning to Mr. Jakes, "lets see how the repairs are going, after I call young Johnson to come and collect James." They continued talking as they walked down the aisle, fading into the distance.

I returned to finishing the Chow in the trough, and waiting for this 'young Johnson'. It didn't take long for him to show up, as I heard footsteps and whistling as he came down the aisle. I stuck my head out to show him where I was, and he dropped his saddle on the rack out in front of the stall.

"Hello, fella," he said, then reached up and looked at my halter, where my name was engraved in the leather while he stroked my nose, Then said, "Yep, James sure enough. You 'n me's goin' for a ride, feller."

I started to tap out a *hello* but he slapped lightly on my nose, startling me. I snorted at him and he said, "Seems like every horse on the ranch does that. Something in the water?" He tugged on my lower lip, I opened my mouth in protest, and he shoved a bit in it. A bit! He continued with setting the bridle in place and fastened it behind my ears. Suddenly, I realized, he thinks I'm a horse! No one told him about me being a SCAB!

He tugged at the reins and I followed him out into the aisle. He tied me - tied me! to a ring, and proceeded to put on the saddle blanket and saddle. He pulled the cinch up tight, then kneed me - I whuffed in protest, and he pulled the cinch the last little bit tighter. He knew horses, all right, but, I'm a SCAB! All he had to do was ask...but he didn't know that. I looked for Mr. Jakes, or someone else to complain to, and realized the barn was empty.

"Oh, man," I thought, "This is going to be interesting..."

Johnson checked me over carefully, then checked my hooves. Inspection done, he swung up into the saddle and settled himself. Then he leaned forward, and I walked out the barn door. We proceeded over to the supply cabin, and he got the necessary equipment - wire cutters, wire, pliers, food for himself, and a bag of oats for me. He carefully loaded it all into the saddlebags and on my back, then got directions to the area, being new. I could have just taken him there, but he didn't know that. While I was waiting, tied out front, nobody came by - they were all busy with repairs.

Having checked that everything was secure, Johnson climbed into the saddle, pulled my head around, then indicated a walk. I obliged, and we were on our way. He opened the first of several gates, led me through, then tied me while he closed it. At the next gate, the area between them being tight, he said, "I wonder how well trained you are? Can you stand and come to command? Let's see."

I nodded, and he laughed, "Ha, just like you understand me!" I nodded again, but he was getting down to open the gate and didn't notice. He dropped the reins on the ground, and I stood still while he swung the gate over, then came to his call. "Damn, you are trained good!" he said. "That'll make this run a lot easier!" He stroked my nose, then swung back up, and we headed for the last gate and on to the job.

We both spotted a break almost immediately, and fixed it. I positioned myself so he could get what he needed from the bags, but he didn't notice, being absorbed by the work. I grabbed a few mouthfuls of the tall grass along the fence line while he was twisting the ends together, then, repair done, we headed down the path. I spotted a break, and turned toward it, as he obviously hadn't seen it. He pulled my head around and asked for a trot. I tried to turn back to the break, and he hauled me toward the way we'd been going. I protested with a nicker, and he smacked the back of my head!

I grumbled and decided to cooperate. He hadn't seen the break, and didn't understand what I was doing. Well enough, I'll teach him as we go, I thought. We spotted the next break at the same time, and the fix-it routine was the same, as it was for the next several. I didn't have a chance to show that I could spot them. While he was working, I chowed down on the tall grass along the fence line, which was quite tasty. But the next break was big enough to take a lot of time.

Something, probably a small uprooted tree, had caused serious damage, breaking two posts and a lot of wire. He fished the broken pieces of the posts together and lashed them tightly with the old wire, then used the new from my saddlebag to restore the fence. This took the better part of an hour, and after he had the supplies, I spent the time grazing on the tall grass. I found a pool and got a drink, then deliberately wet my forelegs to show Johnson there was water nearby. He was pleased, as he'd come close to emptying his canteen in the heat. The work done, and from what I saw, done well, he asked me to show him the water. He had a long drink, washed his face, then filled his canteen. He climbed back into the saddle, and we went on down the wire.

I saw another break he missed, and again tried to turn toward it. He said something unpleasant, and spurred me. Oh, Gods that hurt! I screamed and leaped to a gallop, trying to run away from the pain! He let me run for a bit, then pulled me down with a tight hold on the reins.

"All right, you idiot jughead, now stop that stupidity," he said. "Do it again, and I'll rowel you good. Understand?"

I nodded, and we turned back to inspect the wire we'd passed. This time he saw the break, and fixed it. I grumbled, but there wasn't anything I could do, short of abandoning him, and I wasn't going to do that.

We rode on, finding several more breaks and tending to them. By now, I was getting a bit tired, and that may have been a part of what came next. I noticed another break, and not thinking, swung toward it. As promised, he raked me with the spurs! I shrieked and took off like a rocket, running as hard as I could. Johnson crouched down in the saddle and used the reins as a lash to drive me on. I ran for almost two miles, then slowed, gasping. He let me slow to a halt, then got down and looked at me. Head down, panting in great gasps, I looked back.

"I warned you, you stupid jugheaded bangtail, and I meant it," he said. "No more of that looking for the tasty stuff along the fence line, okay? Do it again, and you'll run again."

I nodded, wheezing. He waited until I was breathing easily again, then gave me some water.

"Now, we'll go back and look at the fence we passed while you were running," he said, and got back into the saddle. We did the stretch at a trot, finding only the break I'd seen. By now, it was starting to get late, so after fixing it, we headed for the little area set up for night camps with a stone firepit and a cistern. He removed the saddle and blanket, then gave me a quick wash down and brushing after inspecting my hooves. He got out half of the oats, and set them out for me.

Then, while I was eating, the final insult - hobbles. He put them on my legs, and tied them tight. I protested, but he ignored me. He kindled a fire and started his dinner. Finished, he washed the dish and the pot, then set out his bedroll. He rooted in the saddlebag, and came out with a rather battered book, then sat by the fire to read.

I drifted away a bit, grazing, then drowsed a while. I woke around midnight, and looked to see the fire had burned down to embers, and Johnson asleep. I started grazing, and thinking on the day. He'd hurt me, then insulted me, and I wasn't going to just let it pass. I thought, and drew up a plan for the morning.

The night passed quietly, and I spent more time snoozing. But, as the faintest sign of dawn lit the sky, I put my plan into action. Going to centaur, I untied the hobbles, something a horse couldn't have done. Then, returning to horse, I picked them up in my mouth and walked over to where Johnson lay sleeping. As I'd hoped, as the dawn grew brighter, he began to stir.

I dropped the hobbles on him. That woke him up, but he was still muzzy as I grabbed his boots with my lips and backed away. He woke fully and tried to flip off the blanket, only to discover the hobbles. He looked at them for a moment, then recognized them and jumped up to look for me. I was standing, looking at him, several yards away.

He looked at my feet, and saw that the hobbles were gone. He said, "Now how did you get them off? Must not have tied them well." He laughed, then saw the boots.

"Oh, hell. Come back here, James, give them back, and I'll get your breakfast," he said.

I looked directly at him and shook my head, slowly.

"Damn, don't go chewing on them, they ain't cheap. Bring 'em here, fella, I'll give you some sugar," he said in a wheedling tone.

He still didn't get it. I sighed, then set the boots down, stepped over them, closed my eyes, and reached.

I opened my eyes, unbuckled and removed the halter. I crossed my arms and said, "We have some things to discuss."

He turned ghost white, took several steps back then sat down abruptly.

"Oh, my God, oh, my're a SCAB?" he choked out.

"Rather obviously, I believe," I said. "What did you think, that I was a stupid horse?"

"But, but, they told me all the SCABs were in a pasture of their own, and you were in the barn! I thought you were a horse," he said. "One set aside to train new people on until we met the SCABs!"

"There are no horses on the ranch, no cattle, no animals, nothing but SCABs," I said. "I was in the barn having lunch after training to pull a wagon. The Director asked me to take you around and check that part of the fence. You obviously weren't told about the communication link we set up, the tap code, right?"

"Tap code? No, I wasn't. This is my first day here. I spent the morning filling out forms, getting a bunk assigned, and so on. I was at lunch and the Director said he had an area that needed checking, and to pick up James in the barn. Nothing about anything else, there wasn't time," he said. "I grabbed my saddle, stuffed the remaining paperwork in the saddlebag, and headed down to get you."

"Typical, a screw up. I've seen it happen a lot, when I was human. Why don't you get those papers out, and take a look?" I said. "The code's probably in there."

"You know, this is weird, talking to a centaur that I spent a day riding as a horse," he laughed, shakily. "No one said anything about that either!" He dug into the saddlebag, and pulled out a handful of papers, and started looking through them.

"Ah, is this it?" he said, and handed me a page.

"That's it," I said "That's how the SCABs talk with the humans on the ranch. All of them, cattle, llamas, even the buffalo. Do you see how it works?"

I worked on showing him, and we got it down to the point where he understood me. "This is the dance the horses were doing," he said. "I thought there was something wrong with them!"

"Well, that's cleared up, okay?" I said, and he nodded. "Just one other thing, and I'll let you get your breakfast."

"What's that?" he asked.

I picked up the boots and jingled the spurs. "Loose these damn things. Please. You wouldn't believe how they hurt. And you're a good enough horseman to be able to do without them, right?"

He nodded again, and I tossed him the boots.

"Now, if you'll put out the oats, I'll go back to horse," I said. "Oh, another thing. Equine, my eyes aren't as sharp as yours, but I see breaks in continuity. When I turn aside, I see a break, not a nice patch of grass. Got it?"

He nodded again, still somewhat dazed, and I dropped back to horse. I picked up the halter with my lips and walked up to him for him to put it back on.

He looked at it, then said, "You're really in there?"

I tapped out, slowly, *Of course I am, where else would I go? Thanks to that cursed virus, I'll never be human again.*

He shook his head, and put the halter back on.

We spent the rest of the day finishing up the checks and repairs. He treated me with a great deal more respect, and at lunch he actually chatted with me, using the tap code. We finished at the gate, and he opened it for me. I snorted to get his attention, then tapped out *I'm going to give a good report on you to the Director. You did a very good job on the wire repairs, and I liked the way you did that stretch with the broken posts. You really know horses and horsemanship too. And, if you don't mention the centaur bit, I won't complain about the spurs and the hobbles, okay?*

He blushed, then laughed and said, "You've got it!"

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All in all, it had been a long month. Inspection trips, teaching, helping Pastor Svenson, getting exiled to the cattle and llamas by missing Morning Count so I could instruct them, and get their people working on changing - I couldn't get to the others, but the head bull promised he'd show and teach them himself. I kept a careful count of the days, off in a small patch no one disturbed, and I was getting a little antsy. Then, early one afternoon, the Director and my friends Martin and Doc Malcolm appeared at the gate, asking for me.

I trotted up to the gate and gave a whinny of welcome as I recognized them. Halting at the concrete tap pad by the gate, I rattled off a greeting in Morse to Martin. The Director looked confused, expecting the familiar tap code and not understanding Morse. Martin smiled at the greeting, then explained to the Director what I'd said and about Morse code.

The Director shook his head, then said, "Well, you've had another trick up your sleeve, eh? Well, James, these gentlemen have documents from the Federal Court in Kansas City, stating that Judge Burke wants to interview you. They have brought a trailer to take you there. I've contacted my superiors, and have been told that it'll be all right for you to go, as long as it's at their expense. Do you understand?"

I nodded, then tapped out, "Yes sir, I fully understand. I want to say good bye to my friends here. I'll come to your office after I'm finished. Is that all right?"

"Certainly," he replied. "I understand completely."

They turned and walked over to the buggy the Director had taken to using instead of his golf cart, climbed in and headed back to the office. I watched them go, then went back to the herd.

I said farewell to my friends with deep regret, but we all knew what it would mean if I could get the Judge to allow me to return to an 'ordinary' life. I promised to have someone call with the outcome, even if it was just that I was on my way back. Then, I opened the gate and trotted off for the Administration building.

I had to wait, but only a short time before my friends appeared. They opened the trailer, then placed a blanket over me for warmth, and wrapped my legs to prevent injury. I climbed aboard for the long ride to Doc Malcolm's farm, and away we went.

It was a long intensely boring trip, without Wideload to talk with, and the scenery of the Flint Hills in fall is dull, to say the least, to a horse's eyes. I spent a good bit of time dozing, and doing some thinking on what I would do if Judge Burke freed me. We made several short stops, for food and bathroom breaks for the humans and one in a small isolated park so I could have one. I was deeply relieved to finally see the farm swing into sight! Doc pulled into the back, shut down, then got out and stretched, as did Martin.

They opened the trailer and let the ramp down and, carefully, I backed out. I stretched and walked around to loosen up, then headed off for the barn, followed by Martin and the Doc. Once we were there, I told Martin I was going to change, and to warn Doc. After he did, I reached and went to centaur.

Doc gasped, turned pale and took a step back.

I said, "Hello, Doc!" and reached out to shake his hand. "Thanks from the heart for all your help, and I'm glad to be able to say it!"

He grinned, somewhat shakily, and took my hand.

"Wow," he said, "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it! Even with Martin's warning, that was unexpected!"

"Well, we've got plans to make," I said. "Martin, how is this going to go?" We spent the next couple of hours talking over the upcoming court appointment and how we were going to handle it, then we checked out the Talking Box to make sure it worked. They left, and I dropped back to horse, ate the oats Doc had put out, and went to sleep.

Early in the morning, Doc roused me. I ate and used the manure area, then went for a run around the pasture to stretch my muscles. Martin showed up, and they got me loaded into the trailer. They put the Talking Box in the truck bed, carefully wrapped against damage. Doc started the truck, and we headed downtown for the Federal Courthouse. The trip through the usual morning heavy traffic had me very nervous by the time we got down there - it had been a while, and I was seeing it from a very different perspective! It was looking like a nice day, if cool, and I was eagerly awaiting the chance to show Judge Burke what I could do

We pulled up in front of the courthouse, and Martin climbed out, picked up his briefcase, and headed in to notify the Bailiff we were there. Doc headed off with me to find a parking area where he could fit both the truck and trailer, which took some looking. He finally found one, parked, then let me out. I stretched, then looked around. Doc unwrapped the Talking Box, and untangled the harness.

I lowered my head, and he slid the Talking box into place over my right side, and buckled it down securely, then he carefully wrapped the mike in place. I reached back, flipped the power switch, and listened to the faint whine as it came to life. I rattled off a quick test message, and Doc confirmed it worked in text mode. I flipped the other switch and said, "Can you hear me now?" Doc laughed and said, "I sure can!" I reached my head into the truck bed and retrieved the rather badly battered piece of oak I used as a sounder, and carefully slid it under the harness. I gave myself a shake to settle everything, then we started walking.

It was a long walk to the Courthouse from the parking lot, and we were stopped a number of times by people wanting to know what a loose horse was doing down here. The looks on their faces when I explained was priceless! We eventually arrived out front, where Martin was waiting for us, as were Mr. Fennix from SCABS United, and Mr. Anson from the ACLU. I greeted them happily, glad to see them and for their support.

"Everything's set, the Judge arranged to move his court to a first floor courtroom, and the Bailiff will send for us when it's all ready," Martin said. "Remember, you're on your best behavior here. They do have an all species washroom, if you really need it. Now, relax, and we'll soon have you loose."

I nodded, then said, "I'm still very nervous about this."

"Don't be," Martin replied. "I know this Judge, and he's very fair in his rulings."

Mr. Anson nodded and said, "We've worked with him, he's good and careful."

A TV news van roared up and slid to a stop near us on the street. The reporter and a cameraman jumped out, while the van driver set up the internal antenna to link to the station. The reporter hurried over and introduced himself, then said the station had gotten several calls about a talking horse walking through downtown saying he was going to the courthouse. He asked Martin if this was the horse, and Martin started to reply. I stamped a hoof, getting the attention of everyone.

"Why not get it straight from the horse's mouth?" I said.

The reporter turned a bit pale, gulped then said, "Why not?

He asked my name, and why I was down here, and I explained while the camera guy filmed the somewhat bizarre encounter. Traffic was stopped in front of the courthouse from people staring out the car windows! Eventually the police showed up, and got things moving again, albeit very slowly. The reporter, realizing this was probably a once in a lifetime chance, milked it for all it was worth, and I happily talked about the change, how we'd built the Talking Box, Morse code, and my time on the ranch.

An Officer of the Court came out, found Martin and talked to him for a moment. Martin came over and said, "I'm sorry to put an end to this, but Judge Burke is ready for us now."

The reporter asked the Court Officer if they could come in and broadcast from the courtroom, and the Officer said he'd ask the Judge. He disappeared for a few minutes, then came back and said, "If it's all right with you folks, he'll allow it. He's not real happy, so keep it low key." We agreed, and the reporter and cameraman went over to the van to pick up a tripod for the camera, cables, and other stuff.

Doc Malcolm and Martin took a few moments to put leather bootees over my hooves, to spare the floors inside. "Ready?" Martin asked. I nodded, then said, "lets do it." He put on the last bootee, then we walked over to the door and headed for the courtroom. Martin, Mr. Anson, and Mr. Fennix led the way, I followed. Doc Malcolm put a hand on my shoulder, and we walked together. My hooves made a dull clumping from the bootees on the polished stone floor. The reporter and cameraman tagged along behind us.

The courtroom was almost empty; very few people knew about this. But a few, alerted by the TV report and having some free time, filtered in to watch the fun. The people from HHS were in the front row on one side, Martin, Mr. Anson, Mr. Fennix, and Doc Malcolm took the other, and I stood in the aisle. The TV crew set up in one corner and tested the camera and connections. The reporter was using a hush mike, and doing sound tests with the station. I rubbed my nose on my leg - a nervous gesture.

Martin was relaxed and happy. This was his environment, where he made his living, and it was the first time I'd seen him at work. Doc Malcolm was here as a professional witness, as well as a friend, Mr. Anson and Mr. Fennix were here as support. The HHS lawyers were the typical sleek types you see on TV, fat from Government contracts and work. They wanted to seize everything I had and send me back to the Ranch for the rest of my days. I shivered a little, getting more nervous by the moment.

The Bailiff walked out into the court, along with several Officers and the Court Reporter. "All Rise!" the Bailiff cried, and the people came to their feet. Judge Burke entered from behind the Bench and stood behind his chair. I spread my ears and lowered my head as a sign of respect. "Take your seats, please," he said, seating himself. He picked up and whacked his gavel, then said, "Court is now in session." The trial was underway.

"We are met here in the matter of James Maxwell, SCABS patient VS The Department of Health and Human Services, hereafter described as HHS, in the matter of the aquisition of his assets to pay for his care at their Ranch Department." he said. "I have requested that said patient, Mr. Maxwell, be transported here so that I may speak with him and see if he can live as a private citizen, or still requires the services of HHS and its Ranch Department where he has been housed since he underwent Change caused by the virus known as the Martian Flu. I note that Mr. Maxwell is present. Mr. Lawrence, this is him?"

Martin rose and replied, "Yes, your Honor, This is Mr. Maxwell. He is here to demonstrate that he does have the ability to speak through the mechanism you will note on his right side. We hope that, having shown that ability, you will release his assets to him, and allow him to resume a normal life. I have spoken to him since his arrival and he is willing to reimburse HHS for the moneys they have spent repairing the house which was damaged on the day of his change, and the moneys spent in packing his belongings. He has also noted that his automobile is now useless to him, and will allow it to be sold, after certain equipment is removed."

One of the HHS lawyers stood and waited for recognition. The Judge said, "Yes, Mr. Jenks?"

Mr. Jenks said, "Your Honor, may I examine Mr. Maxwell, to assure ourselves this is really him? Our people at the Fair Pastures Hostel sent a photo and description, and we want to be sure this is him."

The Judge nodded, then said, "That's fair. Mr. Maxwell?" I looked directly at him and raised my ears. "You will let these gentlemen look you over." I nodded in reply.

Mr. Jenks walked over and looked at me. "Mr. Maxwell?" he said. I snorted, then nodded. "Excuse me, but we have to be sure." I nodded again, then stood stock still as he compared my features with the picture, and matched the other features mentioned in the report, down to the color of my off rear hoof.

"Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Maxwell. Your Honor, according to the report, this is him, sir." he said, and returned to his seat.

"Well, now that Mr. Maxwell's identity is fully established to the satisfaction of everyone, let us proceed to the crux of the matter. Mr. Lawrence, will you please assist Mr. Maxwell to approach the Bench, so that I may speak with him?" the Judge said.

Martin rose and came to my side, then opened the gate in the railing and led me forward. I carefully placed each hoof as I passed through the gate, then raised my head and walked forward. We stopped before the Bench, and I again lowered my head in respect.

"Mr. Maxwell, I have been informed that the mechanism I see on your side will make it possible to communicate. Will you please demonstrate it for me?" Judge Burke said.

I nodded then turned parallel to the bench so the Judge could see the Talking Box. I lifted my forehoof so that Martin could remove the bootee. That done, I carefully removed the oak plank from my harness and set it on the floor. I reached back and flipped the power switch, and the screen glowed to life.

"Your Honor?" said the HHS lawyer.

"Yes, Mr. Jenks?" the Judge replied.

"May I approach, so that I may observe? The view is blocked from here." Mr. Jenks said.

"I will so allow," said the Judge.

Mr. Jenks walked up to where he could see the screen.

"Good morning, your Honor," I tapped out, and the words appeared on the screen . "I am James Maxwell, a SCABS survivor, and I am here to show you that I can speak with this unit, which we call a Talking Box."

"Well!" the Judge said. "I'm impressed, but I was told you can speak with it as well?"

I nodded, then reached back and flipped the 'voice' switch. "I certainly can, your Honor, thanks to my friend Martin and a very clever engineer, who built this whole setup for me," I said.

Judge Burke raised his eyebrows, and the HHS lawyer jumped a bit at the surprise of me talking.

"So, you do have a form of speech!" the Judge said. "You're tapping your hoof, and getting a voice out?"

"Yes, your Honor," I said, looking at him. "When I Changed, I realized I could still use Morse code to talk to my Ham Radio friends, if no one else. I asked Martin for an old code reader I'd sold him, and he decided to go to the engineer instead, and this is what they came up with. I tap Morse Code, the microphone picks up the sound and sends it to the equipment, where each character is recognized and output to the screen and stored to assemble into a word. When a pause between words is recognized, the computer looks up the word and finds it in the memory, and sends it to the speaker, which is why there is a slight delay there."

"Very clever," Judge Burke said. "Too bad most fully changed SCABS don't know Morse. That box could be very useful."

"Your Honor," Mr. Jenks said, "this doesn't change the fact that Mr. Maxwell is still a horse, and horses need care and attention he can't get off the Ranch without great cost. We are still prepared to help Mr. Maxwell have a full life there, at our expense, and are willing to allow him to take the Talking Box with him. To do that, we are requesting the release of his assets to us, to pay for his treatment."

"Mr. Maxwell, HHS has a very strong point there." Judge Burke said. "I have a list of your assets here, and even with the sale of the house, you won't be able to get the care you'll need without outside help. As a horse, you have no way of making a living, and the level of expense for your living alone will very quickly eat that up. I'm very sorry, but unless you have some ideas about this, I'm going to have to rule in favor of HHS."

I sighed. This was where I had to show what I could do, and, for some reason I was nervous about it.

"Your Honor," I said, "I learned something recently that will have a bearing on this. May I show you? It may be a little startling"

"If it has some bearing on this decision, please do." the Judge said.

I stepped sideways, away from the bench. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, then reached.

I heard gasps from all over the courtroom. I opened my eyes, reached up and removed the halter, then turned to speak to the Judge, who looked stunned, as did Mr. Jenks.

"Your Honor, I was recently taught how to do this." I said. "In this form, I have hands, and my own voice. I may be a bit bulky, but I can do almost anything a regular human can, including working for a living. May I petition the court for the return of my assets, and may I be released from the care of HHS, that I may get on with my life?"

"Well! I wasn't expecting that!" Judge Burke said, shakily. "I've worked a lot with various SCABS, and thought I'd seen almost everything. but, wow, a centaur! That's new to me! I'm going to need to think on this, and look at a couple of recent decisions." He picked up and whacked his gavel, then said, "Court is ajourned for thirty minutes."

"All rise! Court is ajourned for a thirty minute recess!" called the Bailiff, and the Judge disappeared into his chambers.

We walked back to the other side of the rail, where Mr. Anson and Mr. Fennix had huge smiles on their faces. Mr. Jenks went over to speak with his people, then went outside the courtroom to call his office. The reporter and the cameraman came over to do a short interview. I explained that, yes I could do this as I wished, no, I couldn't become human, and yes, I really could make a living in this form.

Mr. Jenks walked in, looking rather dejected. He went over and spoke with his staff, then came over and asked to speak with Martin. They went off into the hall. I watched, puzzled. I turned and asked Mr. Anson what that meant.

He had a huge grin, and said, "It means they want to figure a way to concede. You've won! But don't show it yet."

I smiled, anyway. Martin and Mr. Jenks came back in, and the HHS man went over to speak with the Bailiff. The Bailiff nodded, then disappeared behind the bench with Mr. Jenks. Martin came over and whispered the same news to me, then sat down, smiling. The HHS lawyer reappeared in a few minutes, and sat with his group.

The rest of the half hour dragged, then the Bailiff reappeared, with an "All Rise!"

Everyone stood, and the Judge came in and took his chair. He whacked his gavel and said, "This court is now in session. Please be seated. In the Case of James Maxwell Vs. the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS has conceded and I have ordered Mr. Maxwell's assets to be reassigned to him at this time. Case is hereby closed. Bailiff, are there any other cases?"

The Bailiff said not at this time.

His Honor said, "There being no further business, this court now stands adjourned." He whacked his gavel again, then walked behind the dias and disappeared.

We all got up and filed out of the courtroom, grinning like fiends! Once we were outside, I thanked Martin for all his help, and Mr. Anson and Mr. Fennix too. Doc Malcolm said there'd be a party at his place, and we all parted happily.

Doc Malcolm and I headed back for the truck, and , as we went, I noticed something - I was cold! As a horse, my fur had kept me comfy, but now I had nearly naked skin again. I mentioned it to the Doc, and he had us head down a different street to a small place he knew of.

He ducked inside, and a moment later was back with the manager of the haberdashery. The manager looked at me and boggled for a moment, then turned to the Doc and said, "What the hell?"

Doc explained that I was cold, and needed a sweater, shirt, jacket, and a hat or cap. The manager looked again and said, slowly, "Just the human part, right?"

I said, "Yes sir. I'd be very greatful to you - it's cold out!"

The manager shook his head, then said, "I'm going to need measurements, and I don't have a stepladder. so how..." He paused as I lay down, then continued, "Ah. Alright, let me get my equipment."

He went back into the shop, and reappeared a moment later. A small crowd had gathered to watch as he took various measurements and wrote them down. He vanished through the door, and I said, 'Thanks, Doc! Uh, I don't have any cash on me."

Doc grinned and said, "I'll cover it for now, and you can pay me back. I have that collar at the house with your stuff in it, and I'll get it for you when we get there. Ah, any choice of color for the clothes?"

I said, "Black will do for now." He went in to speak with the manager again.

It turned out that I was on the large end of the sizes, but that they had clothes that would fit me. They took a few minutes to cut the tails off the shirt (I had no pants to put them in, after all!) and edge it so it wouldn't unravel. I passed the time talking with the crowd, explaining a little of how a horse sees the world for a couple of equestrians, then letting a small boy pet me. Then, for the first time in far too long, I got dressed. I set the cap on my head at a jaunty angle, then got to my hooves to finish the walk in style!

There is an old saying, that 'clothes make the man'. Dressed, I finally began to feel human again. My life, and my future, now lay my own hands.



Preceded by:
At the Ranch Pt 8/9
At the Ranch Succeeded by:
At the Ranch Epilogue