The For Sale sign hangs askew and swings lazily in the early morning breeze that shimmies over the Dolores Mountains and runs down the long valley where the wild horses kick their heels. By the time the wind reaches the town of Broken, it’s exhausted.
The heat’s already settling in, and the low mist that touched down before sunrise has lifted with the turkey vultures and evaporated. A sadness clings to the warming air and the creaking sign that hangs from the church talks to itself, as if attempting to fill the space that’s been left behind.
A rider reins in his horse and draws up alongside the church and peers at the white clapboard siding with its peeling paint. Even the letters on the bulletin board have succumbed, and lie in a scrambled heap of unspoken words at the foot of the carved oak door.
He scratches his head. From the mesa overlooking the town, you can’t see that the church is for sale. You can’t see that the saloon beneath the hotel has run as dry as Disappointment Valley, or that the bank closed its doors long before the dust settled. He shifts his body, and the horse takes this as a sign to move. The muted sound of hoof on dirt joins the complaining of the For Sale sign on the church, and both seem amplified as horse and rider amble down Main Street. Thistletail jangles her bit and rattles air through her nostrils, the only sign that she has picked up on his unease. These two are accustomed to being alone, but in an abandoned town, ghosts linger.
“Story of our life, Thistletail.” The rider swats a fly from his sweating cheek and throws a glance at the boarded saloon doors. “Party’s already over.”
He feels her pace slow almost imperceptibly, and in an automatic motion moves his free hand back to the shotgun behind the saddle and his fingers close around the worn wooden stock. The horse has already pricked her ears, and is looking ahead, in the direction of the woodshed next to the stables at the end of town.
Thistletail stops in her tracks before they even see it coming, and plants all four hooves as the massive creature explodes from the shed. The rider has already leveled the barrel and takes aim, waiting for the mastiff to come within range. A warning shell smacks a hole in the dirt between them, but the animal keeps running. Within seconds it’s over, and the echo of gunshots ricochet off the far mesa, with the barking of the dog that’s already dead.
The horse trembles for a minute, watching the last resident bleeding into the dirt, as broken as the town it was protecting. Sliding the gun back into its home, the rider circles the horse once around the body, taking note of the cropped ears, and scars that tell of past victories. Stepping forward, the horse knows it’s time to go without having to be told. The rider looks back over his shoulder at the crumpled defender of this long-forgotten town and sighs. The horse flicks her ears back at her master as his voice breaks the quiet.
“That’s a darn shame, Thistletail. We could’ve used a dog like that.”
Alison Cooper is a UK artist and writer who resides in California. She loves the challenge of culling words to get to the core, and her short stories and flash fiction have been published in East of the Web, Everyday Fiction and 50-Word Stories.