If Wishes Were War Horses

by August Niehaus

 

They say there’s a war horse that lives over in Hideaway, New Mexico, whose hooves throw sparks like hellfire and whose breath could move the moon. They say the horse is made of metal from a fallen star, forged and assembled by some automaton god.

They say that horse grants wishes, if only you can gentle it long enough to straddle its shoulders.

They say a lot of things.

 

It was only June, and Hideaway was already thirsty. The channels down the sides of Tenmile Mesa sat bone-dry and dusty. A few of old Gracie’s cows died of thirst that morning, just lay themselves down and stopped moving before the sun finished rising.

A sudden clattering din around 9 a.m. drew me to my shop window, then to the porch, where I watched a gleaming horse thunder down Tenmile Mesa towards town, its hooves churning up chunky dried mud and clumps of jasper and dried-up sagebrush.

It skidded to a stop in the center of the street, tossing its metal head, stamping its feet and throwing sparks when they hit stone. No one moved. Every one of the 200-odd souls in Hideaway who wasn’t down in the mines or down by the river peered past curtains, over saloon-style doors, and through grimy windows.

I could hardly breathe. It had returned.

It was 10-year-old Sabina Huckstep who first worked up the nerve. She slapped the schoolteacher’s fingers off her wrist and ran out of the schoolhouse, slowing as she reached the horse. The beast rolled one chromed eye at her, but otherwise stood perfectly still.

Sabina and the horse stood like that for a long time, just looking at each other, sizing each other up. The thick, hot air kept sticking in my chest, kept rasping in the collective lungs of Hideaway.

Then the horse spoke, not from his mouth, but from deep in his chest, rumbling like a benevolent god. “What is your heart’s desire?”

Sabina considered, tipping her head, her hair gleaming like raven feathers. We could all hear her reply, as silent as we’d fallen, not even daring to breathe.

“Can I whisper it to you?” she asked the horse.

The great metal animal dipped its head and let Sabina tell it, right in its silver ear. Then it knelt down slowly so she could clamber onto its broad shoulders, her legs jutting out. She waved gleefully at the schoolteacher, and then the metal horse rose and broke into a dead run toward the desert, all in one fluid motion.

It was like someone had sucked all the air out of Hideaway. No one could speak. And then everyone spoke at once, bursting out of homes and stores and saloons to jabber and point.

Some could talk only of the horse: “A metal beast movin’ and speakin’ of its own volition? What have we done, to bring such a work of Satan upon us?”

“I wish I could take it apart, see what makes it tick.”

Others spoke in more hushed tones of Sabina: “Just like her mother, ran off eventually.”

“Desert might get her.”

“Who’s gonna tell her pa?”

I closed my eyes and swayed on my feet. Sabina wasn’t supposed to be the first. I was supposed to be the first.

No one said a word about his daughter when Sabina’s pa, whose name had long ago been shortened just to R., came back smudged and bent from the mines. He went straight to the saloon like all of us men did, and sat with the poker players to drink his customary half-bottle of whiskey.

I sat by myself at the bar and nursed a Mule Skinner and my dark thoughts. I thought about fateful storms and vanishing hoofbeats, and what would happen when they found out what I’d done.

I and Ackah and Cornelius waited for Jas, the would-be town doctor, to deal cards. Jas watched R. drink his whiskey down, one big gulp at a time, while his fingers deftly assigned them each their hands. Ackah and Cornelius looked at their cards, chuckled without mirth, and threw down small heaps of their meager miners’ salaries.

The sound of heavy hooves on sandstone rang out into the night like the high notes on a piano. Terror struck a chord in my heart. Jas’s fingers fumbled mid-deal, and somehow his gaze rose to meet mine. We all rose, everyone but R., and went to the doors to see.

Gleaming like a pistol in the moonlight, the war horse stepped delicately down Main Street. Sabina sat astride it, almost on its withers, swaying with its easy motion as if she’d been on horseback her whole life.

Relief and dread rolled over me at the sight of the girl, alive and well. This meant so much, so much that I could only imagine.

Sabina spotted Jas and her mouth pinched in an ugly line. Her hands were shaking. “You know where Pa is,” she growled. She wasn’t asking. Everyone in Hideaway knew who gambled together in the evenings.

I could taste Jas’s fear in the air: of the oncoming horse, of the furious girl riding it. He swallowed and shuffled his worn boots. “He’s—”

R. charged out of the saloon, knocking me out of his way. The bottle was still clutched in his fist, his mouth twisted in his permanent snarl. “Sabina Joarriba Huckstep, get the hell off that horse.”

His head rolled drunkenly, and he seemed to see the horse for the first time. His eyes bugged out of his head and the bottle shattered on the ground.

Sabina leaned down, her voice cold and hard-edged as she spoke words that cut her father and me both, if in very different ways. “The horse grants your deepest wish. Your heart’s desire. I wanted to see where Mama is resting. I meant heaven. But the horse took me to see Mama, Pa. I saw Mama in Saltlick Canyon.”

The knives in her voice cut into the cool night air.

I stared at his daughter for a long time. The horse switched its metal tail. No one said a word. Then R. turned to Jas and said, “My daughter don’t know what she’s talking about.”

My mouth moved of its own accord. “Yes, she does.”

R., Jas, the other gamblers, the saloon staff—everyone in the road turned to me.

“I made the horse,” I said, my voice shaking. I couldn’t bear to look at anyone—not Sabina, not the people who had trusted me as their gunsmith these last 15 years, and certainly not at my creation. “I wanted to protect Hideaway. I thought—an automaton—it stopped functioning, it ran away, its processes—” My vocabulary, my studies failed me at the sight of so many blank faces, so many canvases for outrage and uninformed fear.

R.’s fist came out of nowhere, striking me so hard on my cheekbone that the universe exploded into brilliant lights. I fell over into the sand and breathed a mouthful of dust while the chaos went on around me: R. shouting, Sabina screaming, Deputy Huerta barking gruffly as she appeared from her home above the jailhouse. Above all, the horse’s hooves stirring restlessly on the rocks, like coins shifting from hand to hand.

Sabina slid off the war horse’s back and walked straight-backed through the crowd, who parted for her. The war horse tossed its head and broke into a gallop, flying straight up the wash until it had to zig-zag up an impossible path. The metal beast reared at the top of the mesa, silhouetted in the moonlight for a brief instant, before vanishing over the edge.

The late-night crowd dispersed, murmuring. There would be more to discuss in the morning; I saw gazes shifting my way, and an uneasy weight settled into my gut.

Young Yesbel brought me a cold compress and helped me limp back into the saloon. Deputy Huerta dragged R. off to the jailhouse, intending to begin an investigation into the disappearance of Joarriba Huckstep the next morning, based on her collected reports of R.’s suspicious behavior and his unprovoked punching of the gunsmith.

But somehow R. got out and skipped town before light. I could hear them talking about it as I left my shop just after dawn the next day: the sheriff, the deputy, the mayor, the preacher, some of the other miners.

“We shouldn’t tell the folks in Redrock,” the preacher said as I walked up, “until we know if this is truly a miracle from the Lord God Himself.”

“When we do tell Redrock, or anyone else,” the mayor said carefully, “we ought to consider the financial future of Hideaway. Perhaps we can charge a small fee for viewings, and a larger fee for wishes fulfilled.”

Anger rose in my throat and became words I couldn’t stop. I pushed my way into the little circle. “You damn well keep your dirty money away from my horse.”

The mayor and the sheriff turned slowly to face me. They looked at each other, and the sheriff said, “Your horse, Bell?”

I faltered in my confident self-righteousness. The way he’d said “your” made it sound like a snare. “Yes, my horse,” I repeated, less certainly. “I built that war horse to protect Hideaway. I intended to wish myself, for a thousand-years’ protection. I still intend to do so.”

Something passed between the two men, and the sheriff motioned Deputy Huerta forward. She shuffled reluctantly towards me, shooting them a pleading look, and it was then I realized what they meant to do.

All too easily, they wrestled me into the jailhouse. I knew I was too old to fight the deputy or her brawny backup, and I didn’t want to hurt either of them anyway. So I mostly let them drag me bodily there, weeping tears of frustration.

Two years of futile searching in the desert, on the mesa, in the canyons, two of my best years, wasted. The horse had come back, and I hadn’t rushed to climb on and complete my decade-long experiment, my strange flirtation with hope and miracles. Now the familiar iron bars of the jailhouse, which I’d come to know intimately from the other side, stood between me and my finally seeing things through.

Just as it had the day before, the horse came charging down Tenmile at 9 a.m. sharp. I watched the people of Hideaway flood into the street; by now they’d all heard and wanted a chance to get their own wishes granted.

I felt sick, made a little mess in one corner and tried to kick the dust over it best I could. A commotion broke out and I rushed back to the bars despite myself. The mayor was pushing his way to the inside of the circle, citing seniority and authority, though no one was moving to stop him. He stood before the horse and ordered it to kneel.

“My wish,” he said loudly so all of us could hear, “is to see my legacy.”

I could hear the amusement in the horse’s snort, even as it knelt dramatically. Smiling smugly, the mayor whispered in the horse’s ear just like Sabina had done, then clambered on its back with all the grandeur of an estranged general returning to the front lines. He doffed his hat—and it was then that the war horse bolted, sending the hat flying and the mayor nearly so.

A few turned their glances towards the jailhouse, but by then the preacher started speaking and nobody was listening to anything else. He spoke of miracles, of God’s hand on Hideaway. I put my back to the bars and scratched drawings for a new horse in the dirt.

Barely an hour had passed, though most folks had already drifted away, when the war horse thundered back into town. I went to the bars and gripped them in bloodless hands, squinting into the sun.

The mayor clung to the horse’s back, shriveled sun-dry against the horse’s neck. He and the horse were both covered in a fine white dust.

The mayor threw himself off the horse so quickly he fell onto all fours. He staggered upright and pushed past the Reed family, just coming out of the general store.

I could see Rafaela Reed adjusting her spectacles to gaze up over them in bemusement at the mayor. “Sir! You look—that is, sir, what happened? Where did the horse take you?”

The mayor’s head swiveled dramatically, taking in the woman, her three young children and her delicate husband. “R. Huckstep is dead,” he said flatly. Then he whirled and disappeared into the general store.

I swallowed the gritty lump in my throat and sank down into the tiny corner of shade provided by the cell door. White dust. The only white dust near Hideaway was in Saltlick Canyon.

R. and his poor murdered wife Joarriba, dead in the same ravine.

I closed my eyes, fought back a pathetic sob, but it spilled forth, ashamed as I was. So many wishes, foolishly desired by those who knew no better, never meant to be fulfilled—they would come true because of my clumsy, brilliant, cursed hands.

Magic is magic, and there’s no telling what folks will do when they can feel it under their own two hands.

It began again the next day. Old Robert Neelley told the horse he had always wished to go spend his final days with his grandchildren on the Maryland shores. The war horse carried him away and came back riderless late in the evening.

Despite what the preacher’s wishes, word of the war horse travelled. The hubbub in Hideaway must have been the talk of Redrock on the cliffside, and Ruby Springs down by the river, and the hardy little towns and settlements beyond that.

Before the sun was even up on the fourth day, I woke to the sound of unfamiliar boots, hundreds of them, tramping up Main Street. When I went to look, I spotted faces I knew from Redrock and a few exhausted-looking souls from Ruby Springs streaming to line the street, bringing their dogs and horses with them. Soon I couldn’t see past the feet, and I closed my eyes to listen instead. I heard every damn wish; felt them too.

Two youngsters, both of them sons of miners, went to wish together. The horse took them both, and they were found weeks later in the brush tangled up in one another, smiling, like they’d gone to sleep that way and never woken up.

Little Yesbel ran out of the saloon one day and her brother Elan chased her down and tried to drag her off the horse as she clambered on. Elan grabbed her ankle and tried to pull her off the creature’s back, but when she screamed it seemed to trigger something in the horse and it reared up, throwing its hooves at the boy. Elan stumbled into the dust, long enough for Yesbel to wind her fingers in the wire mane and hold on for dear life as the horse carried her away. She did not return.

Eleline Casey from Ruby Springs got the baby she always wanted, from someone she didn’t expect. Ryan Thomas of Steadmill found his true love right there on Hideaway’s Main Street; the horse didn’t even bother to move, just cuffed the ground with one hoof until a woman stepped forward to try and calm it, and Ryan introduced himself.

Alden McAltraine and Maria Agullar got the dangerous love affair they always wanted—and its bitter end. Mothers went to their long-gone children. Children learned the fates of their missing parents. Fortunes were won and destroyed, gained and thrown away in bitter understanding. Love was no longer blind. Justice and injustice were served alike.

I lost track of the days, of the wishes. Sometimes Deputy Huerta had a razor with my breakfast, and she’d watch shyly while I shaved. She could never get more than a few words out, and I had little to say. My world was shrinking. I slept often, but I always woke before the 9 a.m. wish. I had to hear them. I had to know what I’d done.

At last, as the desert nights took on a bitter-cold edge, the number of feet blocking my view of the war horse thinned out. Maybe enough of the good folks around had seen their wishes come true. Maybe people stopped telling each other about the wondrous power of the war horse—because maybe to them, the power had been less than wondrous.

Whatever the reason, one morning right on time, the horse’s hooves beat their familiar rat-a-tat on the stones in the sandy road, and when I stood to squint bleary-eyed into the morning, there was no one waiting to be whisked away.

I gripped the bars with all the strength my breakfast biscuit allowed me. The war horse stood, glinting whenever it moved. Its wire tail swished away flies when they buzzed too close to its metal joints.

The sun rolled across the sky, the shadows moving with it. The horse tossed its head, whickered, then bolted, back the way it had come. My outstretched hand, my weak call, did nothing to change its path.

The next day, the war horse did not return. Nor the day after that.

On the third day, Deputy Huerta came in to the jailhouse, as she always did, but this time she had a big key in her hand. Tears sprang to my eyes. Somehow, leaving that cell was worse than sitting in it. Outside, I had to face those whose wishes had come true.

They were all there, gathered for one last long stare: Alden, Eleline, even Sabina Huckstep. Glaring at me. Blaming me for their cruel desires. Yet when I looked down at my hands, I didn’t see dust, but blood and tears.

No one touched me as I crossed the street on shaking legs to my shop. I expected a rock to hit the back of my head. No one spoke or moved or made any indication that they would rush me.

I closed the door and rested my head against the warm wood, and finally I let the tears come.

At some point, sleep claimed me, because the next thing I remembered was the clatter of hooves on my porch and an urgent thumping against the door I lay sprawled against.

I fumbled with clumsy fingers for the door and flung it open. The horse stood on the porch, tossing its head. When it tipped its head to look at me, I swallowed a muffled sound, though I had no more tears in me.

The metal down its flank rippled as if there were muscles beneath. Both of the horse’s ears went flat against its head.

“Easy,” I whispered hoarsely, “easy, there.” I raised my hand and reached it very slowly to cross half the distance between us.

The horse tipped its muzzle forward to touch its nostrils against my calloused, trembling fingers. I sucked in a ragged breath and raised my head. The horse gently shared its breath, and I heard its bellows-lungs opening to draw in mine.

At last the horse’s voice rumbled from its chest. “Tell me your heart’s desire.”

They were not the words I had painstakingly programmed into the automaton’s clockwork mind. I blinked furiously at the implications, then staggered forward and pressed my cheek to its warm metal skin. My sigh was as long as my years of labor and fear.

At last I found my words. “I made you,” I murmured. “I made you to protect Hideaway, because I never could.” I saw them in my mind’s eye, the nightmare I chased away by making things: dear Elizabeth, precious Edna, fearless little Andrew—and our wagon “Hopeful” spilled off the cliff by highwaymen. “You were supposed to grant my wish. You were built to give others what they want, to give me what I want. But I’ve seen what humans wish for. No more of that. Now…” I had to grasp for the words again. “All I want is to give you what you want.”

The horse gently huffed into my hair. At last, it said, “Climb on.”

I didn’t have the strength. The horse had to bow very low, its joints protesting their lack of oil. It was almost enough to make me climb off, fall into the heavy guilt threatening to pull me down. But then the horse turned its chromed eye on me, and I put my shaking hands on its shoulders and climbed astride with all the slowness of my years and the weight of my creation.

I pressed my cheek against its wire mane.

“Fly,” I said.

And it did. It rose on wingless feet above Hideaway, past the wispy winter clouds, up to where I could see the stars in a breathtaking tent overhead. My home of 15 years lay just below, less than a palmful of land, watered by that precious river. Tenmile Mesa was so small I could have pushed it over with one hand.

The war horse’s voice pierced the reverent silence.

“I want to join the stars,” it said. “When I left you, I went around the world, through time. I lay close to family campfires and I stood beside generals stirring their men to battle. There was something of the stars in all their stories and all their speeches. My purpose is to grant wishes, and there is no stronger wish for humanity than the stars.”

Its words felt like they came from somewhere beyond time itself—dreamy, ethereal, and ancient. I could feel how true they were.

“I want to protect Hideaway.” Something about sitting astride that great beast in the sky made me blurt my truest desire. “I want to keep them safe.”

“So we shall,” the horse said, and it turned and galloped into the heavens.

 

They say there’s a war horse that lives over in Hideaway, New Mexico, whose hooves throw sparks like hellfire and whose breath could move the moon, but instead keeps danger away from the little town. They say that horse grants wishes, if only you can spy it with its rider on their nighttime patrol.

They say that horse can be seen best on cold winter nights, when the stars are the brightest and the clearest.