Photo from My-Walls.org
THE RIDE OF YOUR LIFE
by E.C. McMullen Jr.
With apprehension, Caleb looked away from the Oldster, to see the rising dust cloud over the mountain’s rocky crest. The horsemen were coming for him. How could they raise such dust on a rocky mountain?
Shaking his head, Caleb forced this question down. No distractions. Focus.
He was standing on a mountain. Rock! Could he really be feeling the ground shake from those things, those horses hoofbeats?
Damn it! His mind fought to betray him with needless, needling questions. He had to focus on the here. The Now. The Moment.
It was the horses with the Oldster. They pawed the ground in anticipation. It was their impatient hooves that rumbled the mountain.
“Your wish is now, Caleb,” the Oldster intoned with deep gravity.
His wish: Caleb was closer than ever before to his wish. The very presence of the Oldster proved this.
Caleb’s wish would come true: Immortality. But the Oldster grants the wish with a price. Not all are worthy of their dreams.
“At the edge of the river,” The Oldster said, “await the spirits of your wish, your eternal youth: the feline and canine, in a balloon.”
Caleb turned his head to look into the valley, and sure enough, a hot air balloon; bright colorful dot on the rugged desert landscape, was inflating.
“Your will, Caleb, and only your will alone, will get you there in time. Allow anything to slow you down, anything at all, and your life will leave without you.”
Caleb’s rational mind had so many questions. His brain wanted to pick apart everything the Oldster said, everything that was happening, and analyze it right down to the minutia. But that was his mind’s attempt to blur the moment, to procrastinate. No time in Caleb’s life ever required more concentration than now.
“Choose which horse you’ll have for your vitality, as you and the horse will become one.”
All the horses were eager to run, but only one was looking right at Caleb as if she knew him.
“Every minute you ride will be a year of your life, and the horsemen of time will chase you down, as surely as the storm of death behind them.”
Caleb looked back to the mountain’s crest. Of course. It wasn’t the dust of riders. That was a desert storm.
Caleb chose the horse that chose him. She took the bit without hesitation. He swung up and over her back, and with merely a nudge of his bare boots into her flank, she shot off so fast she nearly left him behind.
Down the mountain they went, watching only the switchback trail rushing toward them. The Horse had a mind of her own, and was quick to react and act, so Caleb didn’t need to steer her clear of the treacherous dangers of the path, he only needed to hold on.
The balloon ahead was upright and expanding. It would be rising soon. He had to reach it before it was beyond reach.
As fast as they rode, sound was still faster, and Caleb could hear the thunderstorm, and the horsemen behind them. They weren’t gaining, but they weren’t falling behind either.
Yet through all of this, every bit of it, Caleb was a man of science. His rational, curious mind reeled with unanswered questions and demanded that he stop and analyze everything. Pick it apart, and figure it out.
It told him that he was really still back in a dry river bed, dying from exposure and dehydration. No immortal ‘Oldster’ had come to save him. All of this was a sunstroke hallucination.
His horse, which he hadn’t bothered to name in his rush, began to slow from exhaustion. The sound of his pursuers grew louder.
The riders were fast approaching. Caleb was pursued by no ordinary cowboys, but heatwave hell furies riding out of the mouth of morning’s dark from a Lewis Carroll nightmare.
‘The teeth that bite, the claws that snatch!’
With fear’s icy panic, Caleb brought all of his knowledge to the fore. Instead of questioning anything, he forced himself to answer everything.
“Impossible physical feats are achieved because we believe!” He howled to the sky. “Stamina and endurance because we believe!”
A part of his mind, as if a distant observer, dismissed his words as cornball.
‘You’re smarter than that,’ it sneered.
Yet Caleb shouted down his doubts even louder.
“The perfect Omnivore can be created by nothing more than a few thrown switches on the spiral ladder!” he shouted.
Caleb’s yelling on the outside beat down the negative nattering voices within.
“Immortality is possible!” Caleb roared. “It’s locked within our DNA!”
His horse ran faster, making time.
‘Think,’ his doubting side told him. ‘This is fantasy. Supernatural.’
“All reality is natural by definition!” Caleb crowed. “So this too is real!”
Now was not the time to question, but do. With immortality there would be time enough to research all of this: pull the veil of mystery from the truth.
Somehow, some way, with someone, the primitive creature that was the Oldster, made a deal for immortality. Eventually it outlived everyone it ever loved, then everyone it ever knew. Then everything it ever knew, and eventually its own species.
It saw another dominant species rise and thrive and eventually die. It saw humanity rise and thrive. Everything was eventual. Even the loss of hope: Caleb felt it with the Oldster. There was no human definition for the word ‘Alone’ as acute as the very presence of the Oldster.
Just learning what it endured in a life that spanned millions of years had, according to the creature, put every other human off the idea of its proffered immortality. They chose instead to welcome death.
But not Caleb. His desire of knowledge, to see what was on the other side of everything, understand it, know it, and create from it, was unquenchable.
“My thirst is unquenchable!” Caleb shouted.
His doubting side whispered ‘Failure!’
Thunder from behind. The lightening strikes and rider’s hooves shook the very air in shockwave.
Caleb laughed out loud at his terror, as Horse and Man, they moved swiftly across the valley floor, toward the river and balloon.
So concentrated was his focus, that sometimes he felt as if it was he, running across the valley floor on two legs. Then, just as swiftly, he could feel all four of his hooves galloping across the desert.
“…you and the horse will become one,” the Oldster said.
Caleb laughed again and they gained speed. Yet as Caleb looked toward the balloon, he saw it skirt a bit across the ground. It was so light now, that a mere errant breeze could move it – and it moved farther away.
Soon it would be rising beyond his reach.
Caleb kicked his boot heels into his flanks – the horse’s flanks – their flanks.
“Faster! Faster! Faster!“
So it was that Caleb, man and horse, rode furiously toward water and clear blue skies: as eternal youth slowly rose before them, and death thundered from behind.
Story by E.C. McMullen Jr.
Photograph: Photographer Unknown. Stock image available for free at My-Walls.org.
Music: Ghost Riders In The Sky. Performed by Johnny Cash. Penned by Stan Jones.
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By E.C. McMullen Jr.
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Also look for my story Cedo Looked Like People, in the 2013 anthology, FEAR THE REAPER, edited by Joe Mynhardt and available in Paperback and eBook.