Storm leapt over logs and wove his way around everything he couldn’t clear. His nose was stretched out as if reaching for the finish line at the Kentucky Derby. His breathing huffed above the pounding of his hooves and the breaking of branches. Niki hoped his strength and endurance would last until they were safely away from the armed men.
As the horse finally managed to put distance between them and the sound of the bikes, Niki took in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. The noise of the engines had all but faded when she dared her first glimpse up since entering the trees. The sight brought a gasp from her lips. The sheer drop off was the last thing she saw as Storm launched himself over the edge without hesitation.
Niki felt as if they were suspended in mid-air. She leaned back until her head nearly rested on Storm’s rump and prayed his feet would soon touch solid ground. The first contact with earth jolted her body, throwing her forward, jamming the horn into her stomach and forcing the air from her lungs, but she hung on.
The horse didn’t slow since any attempt to change momentum or direction would be impossible and would send them tumbling to their deaths. She knew the descent from the ledge had only taken seconds, but it felt as if they were moving in slow motion for an eternity. The horse’s hooves barely touched the ground as he fled down the slope. Nothing seemed real and the only sound she could hear was a faint ringing in her ears and the heavy labored breathing of the determined horse.
Her knuckles were white as she grasped the saddle horn with every ounce of strength she possessed. By the time Storm finally came to a stop at the bottom of the cliff, she wasn’t sure if she could let go without physically prying her fingers free. Her fingernails dug into her palm on the hand holding the leather reins so forcefully that blood trickled down her wrist, yet she didn’t feel the pain.
Niki took several deep breaths to steady her nerves and gently guided Storm around to look back at what they had just ridden down. Her eyes followed the impossibly steep, treeless, rock-strewn slope until her gaze rested on two men. They stood, stances wide, arms crossed, shaking their heads in disbelief. Niki glared at them for only a moment before reining Storm toward the trees and trotting out of their sight.
This scene from Big Horn Storm is a supreme embellishment, but derived in part from a cattle drive I was on as a teenager with my dad. We were taking the cattle to a high grazing lease for the summer. By the time we reached the steepest, last big push, the cows were getting tired and a few decided it would be easier to slide back down the mountain than to keep climbing. My dad was on a green-broke colt which wasn’t as surefooted as my palomino gelding, and getting a little tired herself with her heavier load. Anyway, my dad told me to go after them. I looked at him like he was mad, but nudged my horse, assuming he wouldn’t go if he thought it was too steep. He was a good cow horse, so didn’t hesitate to launch himself over the edge and follow the cattle. The slope was too steep and the dirt too loose to stop and I ended up beating the cows to the bottom. I still occasionally have those, “Man From Snowy River,” flashbacks, but the experience did help me write this scene in Big Horn Storm. My dad clearly had a lot more faith in the horse and my ability than I did, and thankfully he was right.