They left the house and walked over to a near-by pasture. Several horses trotted up to the fence at their approach and Paw reached up to stroke one on the muzzle. “Take your pick. How many ya need?”
Dale leaned his arms on the fence and watched the horses. “Just two.”
“You got a cart?”
Dale swiveled his head to look over his shoulder at Paw. “No. We’re riding them.”
“You got tack?”
“Tack? I’m not even sure what that is.”
Paw grinned. “It’s what you use on a horse so you can ride him, son. Things like saddles to sit on so you don’t fall off, and reins so you can guide the beast.”
“Oh.” Dale placed one foot on the bottom fence rail and dropped his chin on his arms. “No, we don’t have that either. We’ll have to find somewhere to buy some.”
Paw stuck his hands in his over-all pockets. “Tell you what. Since you were so honest and all, brought back the money you found, I’ll give you the horses.”
Dale stared at him.
“But tack,” Paw shook his head. “That I don’t have. I can give you a of couple halters,” he removed a hand from one of the pockets and gestured down the road in the general direction of town. “But you’ll have to go visit Jhopar to buy tack.”
“He’s the blacksmith in these parts. Nice fellow, but a tad pricey. Still, his stuff’s well made.”
Dale put his foot back on the ground, quit leaning on the fence, and turned to face Paw. “How do I find him?”
“Just go back to town and ask around for him. Kheri should know where his shop is.” Paw cocked his head and hitched his thumbs under his suspenders. “You ever ridden a horse, boy?”
A wide grin broke slowly over Paw’s face. “Well let’s see about getting you acquainted with a couple.” He climbed over the fence and hopped down on the other side.
Dale fought with momentary panic then joined him.
The horses eyed him, ears twitching suspiciously. One took a step closer and bent its head, sniffing at his clothes.
Paw took a small white cube from his shirt pocket. “She’s looking for sugar. Here, give her this.”
Dale took the cube and held it out to the horse between his fingers.
“Not like that son, you’ll lose a finger. Put it on your palm and open your hand up. Like this.” Paw placed a cube on his palm and offered it to the horse.
She snorted and accepted it with slobbery lips.
Dale opened his fingers and imitated Paw, cautiously holding out the cube to the horse.
The horse finished the one she had, then happily took the newly offered cube and munched on it.
Dale made a face and wiped horse slobber off his hand onto his pants. “Learn something new every day.”
Paw grinned. “You seem a might nervous.”
“Haven’t ever been around a horse at all, have you?”
Dale allowed himself a wry smile and shook his head. “Ah… no. But I don’t have much choice.”
Paw nodded, grinning broadly. “Figured as much. These guys will get you where you want to go, but you’ll be sore for a few days.” He stroked one of the horses while he talked. “Ridin’s not hard. Kheri can teach you how, I reckon. He’s not bad on a horse.”
The mare chose that moment to nip at Dale’s hair.
“Hey!” Dale jerked his head away and smoothed his hair back into place.
Paw chuckled. “She wants more sugar. Here.” He handed Dale several cubes.
Dale dropped most of them into his shirt pocket before giving the horse another one. “Here, leave the hair alone.”
The horse took the proffered cube and began chewing.
“Looks like you’ve made a friend. Think that one’ll be yours. Now,” Paw frowned and looked around. “Where is that boy?” He shook his finger at Dale. “You sure you know what you’re doing, son? I warned you, he’s trouble.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
Paw studied Dale and said nothing for several seconds before shrugging. “All right, suit yourself.” He leaned one elbow on the top of the fence. “But if you want to get going anytime today, you better go roust him out o’ the house.”
“I’ll be back in a minute.” Dale climbed over the fence, jumped down on the other side, and started for the house.
Kheri had just finished off his second plate when Dale walked back inside.
“Were you planning on eating all morning?”
Kheri looked up, startled. “No.” He stood quickly and his chair toppled over backwards, crashing to the floor.
“Then come on, the day’s not getting any younger,” Dale commanded, clearly annoyed.
Kheri’s face fell. “Coming,” he muttered. He picked up the chair and shoved it under the table before following Dale out to the pasture.
Paw leaned on the pasture fence watching Dale and Kheri walk across the grass toward him. A dark cloud had settled over Kheri’s face and he noticed the angry glare the young man threw at Dale’s back. That’s trouble brewing and no mistake, he thought, stroking his chin. Finally picked a fight with the wrong person it looks like. Got himself in hotter water than he knows how to get out of, I reckon. Well who knows, might be good for him. That boy’s fortunate the guards haven’t run him through by now, or tossed him in the Baron’s dungeons.
They reached the fence a few seconds later and Dale climbed over. Kheri followed, eyeing the horses and avoiding Paw’s gaze.
Paw turned around and leaned his back on the fence, stretching his arms across the top of it. “Kheri, see if you can make friends with one ‘o these.”
Kheri gave a curt nod, looking the horses over warily.
The horses regarded him just as cautiously, tails swishing back and forth.
He reached up and gently stroked the nose of the nearest horse.
He paused then tried again.
The horse relaxed and put its ears forward, bending its head down.
A grin spread across Kheri’s face. He rubbed its neck, talking to it in a low voice.
The horse flicked its tail and twitched one ear.
“You gonna let me ride you? Let’s find out.” He stepped up onto the fence, used it to help him climb onto the horse’s back, and rode off bareback across the pasture.
Paw lifted a corner of his mouth, watching Kheri as he rode away. “Looks like he’s found a match. Don’t suggest you try riding without a saddle, though,” he said without turning to look at Dale. “Mighty uncomfortable, ‘less you’re used to it.”
“I wasn’t planning on it. You said something about halters?”
“Yep. Let me fetch ‘em.” Paw climbed back over the fence and walked off toward the barn.
Dale watched him go then turned his attention back to his horse. She had discovered his shirt collar and decided to chew on it, nibbling at the corner. He pulled the collar out of her mouth. “Stop that. There’s no more sugar and that’s not edible.”
She tossed her head and bumped him in the chest.
Dale reached up and stroked her nose. “Demanding aren’t you? There’s still no more sugar.”
Kheri rode back up a few seconds later and slid down. “He’ll let me ride him.” He stared at his hands and picked at a fingernail. “Uh, Dale…”
Now what? Dale stopped petting the horse and turned to Kheri. “Yes?”
“Sorry I lost my temper,” Kheri mumbled. He hugged his arms across his chest and hunched over, staring at the ground.
“Apology accepted. I’m sorry I got irritated. I’m just very worried about the Gorg and any delay is hard to deal with right now.”
Kheri jerked his head up, completely taken by surprise at Dale’s reaction.
Paw ambled back to the pasture a few minutes later and handed two halters over the fence to Dale. “Here you are. You ever used one of these?
Paw gave his attention to Kheri as he gestured at Dale. “He don’t know nothing about horses, you’re gonna have to teach ‘em.”
Kheri gave a slight sigh and nodded at Paw before turning to Dale. “Can I have one of those?”
Dale handed him a halter.
Kheri turned it around in his hands then held it up. “This part goes over the horse’s nose and this under his chin. Like this. Watch.” He slipped the halter onto the horse and buckled it into place. “See?”
Dale looked at the halter in his own hands and silently activated the event log in his suit. Playback the last sixty seconds. Half speed. The air in front of his eyes sparkled and a slow motion, transparent replay of Kheri’s instructions began. He followed the playback as it ran, turning the halter around, slipping it onto the horse, and buckling it into place. End playback. Standard logging.
The images vanished and Dale glanced at Paw. “How’s that?”
Paw nodded, a pleased smile spreading across his face. “Nicely done. You’re a fast learner.”
Dale shrugged and said nothing.
Paw grinned at him and hitched his thumbs under his suspenders. “Be a little different when you try ridin’ her though.”
Dale forced himself to relax and smiled at Paw. “Thank you,” he said, extending his hand. “I really appreciate this.”
“Think nothing of it,” Paw grasped Dale’s hand firmly. “Always glad to help out a neighbor.” He shook the hand then turned to Kheri. “How long you going to be gone?”
“I don’t…” Kheri stopped in mid-sentence.
“Thought as much. Let me give you a piece of advice boy, whether you like it or not.” He pointed his finger at Kheri and the mirth vanished from his expression. “I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into this time, but don’t follow your usual tricks and get yourself in worse. You’ve been just a hair away from landing in the Baron’s dungeons for some time now. Everyone knows it. You know it.”
Kheri crossed his arms definitely and set his jaw.
Paw frowned at Kheri and continued. “And don’t look at me like that. Won’t do you any good to argue, facts is facts. You behave yourself, you hear?” He shook his finger in the young man’s face. “Don’t go giving Dale here any trouble and you just might live to see thirty.”
Kheri reddened, took a deep breath, and nodded sharply.
Paw turned to Dale. “Don’t take no lip from him. ‘Bout time someone took him in hand and made him straighten up. Come on, the gate’s over here.” He walked across the pasture and let them out.
Dale led his horse onto the road, waited for Kheri to join him, then turned back to Paw. “Thank you again. Your help is greatly appreciated.”
Paw smiled as he shut the gate. “You’re mighty welcome. Go visit Jhopar and get that tack.”
“That’ll be our next stop.”
Paw turned his attention to Kheri. “I’ll keep an eye on your aunt, so don’t you worry none. Things’ll be just fine.”
Kheri nodded silently, holding the halter’s lead tighter than necessary.
Paw latched the gate and waved then turned on his heel to stride across the pasture toward the barn.
Dale watched him go before turning to Kheri. “Don’t let it eat at you.”
“I’m trying not to,” Kheri replied through gritted teeth. “But it’s none of his business!”
“Regardless. Let it go. Let’s just go find Jhopar then see if I can actually stay on a horse.”
Kheri grinned at the image of Dale falling off the horse and started down the road back toward town.