With a departing salute, Heller turned Big Boy toward the trail to Charlie. Following behind, two pack horses shuffled along, forcing him to give an occasional redirecting tug on the tow rope.
For the better part of an hour, he navigated the trail without trouble. But then clouds appeared, dark and ominous. As the path narrowed and grew steeper, rain started to fall. First, small bits of spit, then larger drops, finally, as sheets. The ground, already moist, softened further, and mud started clawing at the animals. They began to stumble, particularly Big Boy. First, he slipped to the right. A tug on the reins got him back. Then he slipped off to the left.
Then Big Boy went down on one knee. The sudden move pitched Heller forward and nearly off the animal. He leaned back as far as he could and yanked on the reins. “Up! Up!” he cried. Thankfully, Big Boy stood, but a whoosh of air escaped the horse’s nostrils, and the girth strap went slack.
The saddle began to drift left. God damn you, Sarge! Leaning as far right as he could, Heller grabbed at Big Boy’s shoulder, but it did no good. The horse was as wet as he was, and his grip slipped. His boot flopped out of the stirrup as the saddle kept moving. Like a torpedoed ship at sea, he continued to slide until under the horse. The map board struck the ground first, a corner plowing a furrow in the mud. The torque flipped him over onto his stomach. His other boot came free, and he flopped face first into the sea of muck beneath the accursed horse’s hooves. Pushing up with his forearms, he struggled to breathe. The back of his helmet smacked the map board, which bent and rebounded, forcing his face forward into the muck. Dirt filled his mouth and nostrils.
I’m going to drown in mud. Dear God, please don’t let that horse sit on me. Heller clawed his way clear of the dirt and spit out a mouthful of goo. Twisting his torso, he looked up and made eye contact with Big Boy. Is that bastard smiling at me? With a shake, the horse shed more water, most of which fell on Heller’s head. The beast grunted then lifted a foreleg out of the muck and whipped it backward.
Had he not had a board tied to his back, he might have had a chance to avoid it. But he couldn’t. Clang! The gigantic hoof connected with Heller’s helmet. Stars sailed across his field of vision. After the world swam back into focus, he looked up. Big Boy was gone. Then a shadow appeared. Oh, no. The other pack horses lumbered along, staggering over him. One stepped on his back, which was, thankfully, protected by the map board. Still, the animal’s extra weight shoved him face first once more into the mud.
Silence. Heller pushed himself up, then stood. Rain spit in his eyes as mud fell in chunks onto the ground. Isn’t this just great? He turned and looked up the trail. No horses. A massive bolt of lightning lit the sky, tossing clarity on his surroundings. At least there’s the trail. I’ve got to keep going and hope I find them.
Something made noise ahead of him and was closing rapidly. He looked up to see Big Boy racing toward him. Ah-ha! He positioned himself to grab the reins as the beast got closer.
But Big Boy had other plans and charged. Damn you. Thwack, the animal’s massive chest plowed into Heller. His helmet sailed off, and he hydroplaned several feet on his back, courtesy of the map table strapped to it. He stared up into the dark sky. I’m going to kill that horse.
Once more he climbed to his feet. Where’s that blasted helmet? He spotted it laying upside down a few feet away. One side had a huge gash where Big Boy tried to mash his brains. With a quick grab, he snatched it off the ground and slapped it on his head. Water poured down his neck. Great, filled with rain.
He turned and started walking up the trail. Thankfully, within a few minutes, he found the pack horses; their tow line had tangled around a fallen branch, preventing them from wandering further.