A groom, in the course of his service to the private stables of a much-admired ambassador, found himself in the vibrating belly of a specialized cargo jet. He was not alone in that place. A veterinarian and an armed guard were there as well, all three men secondary to the purpose of the flight, an entourage for the ambassador’s horses. Three fine hunter mares stood quiet as cargo, neatly slotted into caution-yellow container stalls; a black, a blood-bay, and a sun-golden sorrel, all pedigreed and proven, sound and glossy. In a fourth stall, also breathing grassy warm into the caustically clean atmosphere of the jet’s interior, was a new acquisition of the ambassadorial stables; a piebald pony gelding intended for the use of the great man’s young daughter.
And the plane’s nose pointed east like a weathervane in an unwavering wind, seeking the capital city of the nation of the ambassador’s new posting.
The plane’s interior lacked carpeting and soft inset lights and upholstery; all the fittings that might, on a passenger flight, have given any illusion that the craft was anything other than a flimsy, rattling aluminum tube. Nonetheless, all four horses stood calm and nuzzled mesh bags of feed, indolent under the influence of mild sedation. The men perched on fold-down metal slats, each aware of an uncomfortable burden of responsibility.
The groom closed his eyes. He had seen maps of this country, though he’d never been east of the prairie before. He knew that if there were a window, he would look out over grass and grass and grass, so far below it might be billowing velvet. There might well be a painterly smattering of clouds interspersed between the belly of the plane and the ground. The angle of the clouds to the sun, or some kind of diffraction of the light, or an interference pattern in the plexi of the hypothetical window might tint the clouds in undulating spectral shades. The groom had ridden in other planes, seen these kinds of things.
He opened his eyes.
“Long flight,” grunted the veterinarian.
No one answered. The groom tipped his head, resting his cheek against the tincan skin of the compartment.
“Might be nice if there were some women along,” commented the veterinarian.
The guard and the groom rolled their eyes.
“Stewardesses,” specified the vet. “Then we’d have coffee, too.”
The guard sighed, bored.
“I think the term is flight attendant, now,” muttered the groom.
The vet smiled tightly, and, seeing that neither of the other men was inclined to respond, allowed his sneer to creep from his lips down his throat to his larynx, there to color his voice. “Stewardesses, I said. Women. With coffee. Stewardesses.”
The guard contemplated the toes of his boots through heavy eyelids.
The groom stood from his little folding seat. He rolled his shoulders. The cords of tendons showed in his neck as he waggled his head slowly to the right, then the left. Pressing his hands together, he interleaved his ropy fingers and bending them cracklingly backwards, locking his elbows, stretching the hoop of his arms to twist his shoulders until they popped, grudgingly.
The vet picked his nose.
The guard dozed, his legs extended into the aisle. The groom stepped over the guard’s boots, passed between the two paired rows of horse stalls on his way to the minimal latrines at the aft end of the cargo compartment. On his way back, he paused next to the piebald pony’s compartment. He extended a finger through the perforated steel of the upper divider. The pony ignored him.
The groom made for his seat again. As he passed the guard, he reached down and deftly unsnapped the guard’s holster. He’d abstracted the holster’s contents, an ugly small-caliber pistol, before the big man’s eyes had even opened fully. The veterinarian slumped empty-eyed from his seat to the floor, even as the snap of the single shot brought the guard fully awake, open-mouthed in the first inarticulate burst of an exclamation. The groom took aim again and fired, and the guard had nothing further, ever, to say.
The groom proceeded to the cabin. He stood behind two oblivious earmuffed men, and he dithered for a moment. He guessed that the one on the left must be the real pilot, and wondered whether it mattered. He took aim and fired, ending the life of the man on the left. The copilot spun in his seat, jerked, finally, from his narrow world of instrument and glassy altitude, and apprehended at once the corpse of his partner and the looming lanky form in the cabin door.
“Take us down,” said the groom.
The copilot nodded and mumbled a burbling, teary appeal.
The groom lowered his weapon slightly. “Take us down,” he said again.
The winds near the ground were high, and the prairie was not as flat or as smooth as it might have appeared from the air. Still, the plane found gravity and met the dusty ground, the vessel bumped to a halt, and at length the landing engines shuddered and stopped. The groom advanced upon the trembling copilot, who sat, still strapped into his seat, still weeping wordlessly. The groom fired, then thumbed the safety back into position and shoved the gun into his belt.
In the cargo cabin, the horses sighed and idly switched their tails. The groom yanked mightily on a red handle and an exit ramp lowered with a mechanical creak. One by one, the groom unloaded the three priceless mares from their stalls and led them, balking and stumbling, down the narrow ramp. Once their hooves met solid ground, he removed their halters.
Inside the plane, the pony snorted, nervous.
Outside, the black and sorrel mares lowered their heads to graze. The bay nibbled at the highest tufts of grass, but kept her head up. In this unfamiliar place, her ears swiveled to catch sounds of danger. The groom took a seat on the edge of the ramp to observe the small, newly feral herd. The piebald stamped a hoof to resound, booming, in the hollow space of the cabin, and the groom roused himself. He returned to the cargo hold and opened a large standing locker. There he found a bridle and saddle that would fit the piebald gelding. He entered the final stall and readied the animal, finally leading him by the bridle reins down the ramp and into the afternoon sun.
Outside, he draped the reins over the pony gelding’s neck. He bent to gather pebbles. With his fistful of stones grasped in his right hand, he mounted and turned the pony gelding’s head westward, away from the herd, away from the plane, and away from their erstwhile destination.
The groom did not bother with the stirrups; he was a tall, gangly man, and the pony was stout and short, so that the man’s legs might easily dangle clear to the animal’s knees. The groom kept his own legs bent, his calves wrapped to the gelding’s sides, to avoid tripping his mount.
The pony balked, unwilling to leave his companions, but the groom prodded with his heels and clucked his tongue. The gelding was a finely trained animal, and had no choice but to obey. For the first few miles, the mares followed, but the groom turned in the saddle every so often and tossed pebbles at their heads and necks, and soon enough they turned and wandered away.
The groom and his piebald pony proceeded at a slow trot, not towards the capital city of the foreign country, but backwards, westward, sunsetward, and, for the groom, homeward. The day was warm, and their pace was not fast, but neither was it easy. Salty patches of sweat spread across the shoulders of man and mount.
They moved through a haze of cerulean and dusty green, their progress startling grasshoppers into gymnastic leaps. The bright sky dimmed with the end of day, and the groom pulled the gelding up and watched as, dead ahead, the sunset blazed ruby and tangerine and then, for the merest moment, bottle-green, fading finally to a deep indigo that seeped into the grass itself and turned the air cold with night. The groom dismounted and looped the reins twice around the pony’s neck to keep them out of the way. The animal dropped his head and cropped at the long grass.
The groom loosened the cinch of the pony’s saddle to grant him a bit of comfort. Then, drawing the gun from his belt, he walked several paces away. Facing a horizon of unbroken black, the groom pointed the muzzle at the ground and fired a single shot. The gelding startled and raised his head, but the groom returned to him and, cooing quietly, laid a hand against his neck. The piebald sighed and returned to his grazing.
The pony locked his knees and slept standing up that night, and the groom leaned against the saddle and did the same. They awoke to the sudden dawn, the prairie sun merciless even before it crested the horizon. The groom mounted and directed the gelding westward once again.
Not long past noon, the groom sighted a dark line of mountains hovering on a cushion of mirage on the curve of horizon. There, tucked in among the foothills, farther than it appeared but near enough nonetheless, he knew he would find his home. He spurred the pony into a canter, and they kept that grueling pace until the gelding was lathered and blowing. Then the groom pulled his mount back to a trot, and they proceeded in that fashion, alternately faster and slower, until they reached the city in the western hills.
The tall grass gave way to modest, dust-scrubbed houses dotted along dirt tracks, and finally, as the afternoon wore on, to the orthogonal city itself. The groom dismounted to spare the pony’s hooves on the concrete sidewalks. He led the animal this way and that along the city’s grid, their route angular and certain, until they reached an alley behind a small, dim public house. The day had passed into evening, late enough that the alley was cast into bruised shadow and the pony stepped carefully, uncertain of his footing. The groom tied the reins to the handle of a steel-sided garbage skip, slapped the dust from his trousers, and entered the pub by its back door.
The space was occupied by men of indeterminate elderliness and deliberate stillness, seated in small clutches in the dim corners. The bar itself glowed like a first-act stage underneath a series of long, naked neon tubes. A bulbous television hovered in a spidery cage above the bartender’s head.
The groom approached the bar and asked the fat, jaundiced bartender where Toby could be found.
The bartender responded that he’d never heard of any Toby.
“You know Toby,” insisted the groom. “Toby, old drunk Toby.”
The bartender shook his head.
“What about Andy?” asked the groom.
“Andy with the mole on his neck? Or Andy with the funny voice?” said the bartender.
“Neither of those,” said the groom. “You know. Andy. Andy with the very long hair.”
The bartender shrugged. “No such animal’s ever been in here.”
“Shit, Ben,” said the groom, incredulous, “you know Andy.”
“I’m not Ben, I don’t know Andy-with-the-very-long-hair, and I don’t know you,” said the bartender.
The groom narrowed his eyes and nodded. He considered for a moment. “I’ll have a beer,” he said.
The bartender opened a bottle and wiped the neck with absent-minded courtesy. He set the sweating vessel in front of his customer.
The groom sipped. He set the bottle down, rotated it a quarter of a turn, and lifted it to his lips again.
At length, the groom spoke. “You know what such animal there is?”
“What such what?” said the bartender.
“If there’s no such Andy-with-very-long-hair animal, then that’s as may be, but there is a piebald pony animal.”
“What?” asked the bartender.
“The pony. My pony. My daughter’s pony, out back.”
The groom proceeded, between lingering sips of several beers in succession, to tell the story of the hijacking in gory detail. He explained that he had done what he’d done to give the pony to his own daughter, who, he was sure, was every bit as important as the ambassador’s daughter, and probably smarter and kinder and a better rider as well.
“Bullshit,” piped an old man. This specimen and his compatriots had stayed seated, silent till now, in respective corners, but had cocked their heads to listen.
“Bullshit, you brought a plane down,” muttered another wheezing customer.
“Bullshit, you stole the ambassador’s pony,” said another.
“I did, I did though,” said the groom.
“Bullshit,” the bartender grunted.
“Turn on the news,” suggested the groom. “It’ll be all over the news.”
The bartender poked a fleshy finger through the television’s cage and manipulated buttons until an image appeared.
A half-hour of local news flickered through the pixilation of a bad transmission or a pirated stream. There were various small disasters, sports scores. The weather had been, and would continue to be, dismally hot and dry. All the state of the world and especially this part of it wafted over the heads of the quietly tipsy old men, but there was no mention at all of a missing shipment of ambassadorial horseflesh.
“Well,” said the groom, “but where did I get this, then?” He patted the spot on his waistband where the pistol ought to have been, but the cold weight had abandoned him somewhere on his long ride.
“Shit,” he said. “Well, fine, but then you come and see this animal, and tell me it isn’t there, then.”
The groom, the bartender, and as many of the old men as could easily rise and hobble, all trooped out into the alley. The hours had slipped silently past, lubricated by cheap beer and the long strange story, but even in the dark of full night it was clear that there was nothing in that lane but the men themselves, and garbage.
The bartender elbowed the groom in the ribs, suddenly almost jovial. “Very funny, guy. You had us all going. Very funny. It’s the first time in a long time I’ve heard a yarn like that, or fallen for one.”
The groom jogged up and down the alley, whistling ‘hither,’ but the pony did not appear. The groom shook his head violently, hoping to clear his vision, but he succeeded only in arousing a thin upwelling of nausea. He swallowed with difficulty, peered again down the alley’s length as if the animal might have reappeared. He turned, then, and loped off along the road.
The bartender shuffled along behind for a while, shouting. “Hey! Hey, horsethief, you’ve run up a tab,” but the groom was a fitter, faster man and the bartender soon laid off the chase.
The groom ran serpentines and spirals around the city looking for the pony, but the animal was nowhere in evidence. He checked parks and graveyards, but didn’t find so much as a hoof print. As dawn lifted the smell of ozone off the plains and scattered it along the city streets, the groom found himself on the doorstep of his own home in the poorer precincts near the paper mill’s belching cone and the algae-choked waterfront. He slunk inside and crossed the warm, narrow space of the single room. Moving tattered dolls and stuffed animals, he took a seat on the edge of his daughter’s bed next to her gently snoring form. He shook her gently until she stirred. With tears hovering in the corners of his eyes, the groom told his story, this time sparing the worst of the bloody detail.
“I wanted to get you a pony,” he said. “I tried. I tried to get you a pony, and I couldn’t, but I will tell you this…”
He told his daughter that now there were three of the world’s finest thoroughbred mares on the plains, cropping grass all free and wild, and the little girl’s eyes fill with wonder. He described his gangly legs dragging flap-soled boot-toes in the prairie dust, and the girl giggled. He yawned, and the girl yawned too.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t bring you a pony,” he said again.
She patted his quivering shoulder with a gentle child-chubby hand.
“It’s alright,” she said. “It’s alright.”
Early dawn filtered through dingy windows as he settled down, exhausted, to sleep on the margin of the narrow bed.
The groom woke alone in his drab cottage. No daughter, no dolls, no toys were anywhere around, only his cot, an old-fashioned stove, a bulbous television, a dirty cracked mug. Flimsy gray curtains showed the last pale rays of the sun; the day had passed while he slept. He sat on the edge of the bed and rested his head in his hands, and he waited.