Knight of the Ribbons - Chapter 1

The great big gray thoroughbred was already dead.

But even as a corpse he was the fastest horse Clay Logan had ever ridden.

Clay had heard that a man can run a horse to death. He runs because he has a great big heart, because he loves to feel the wind in his face, and because he knows his master desires it of him. He runs to feel the freedom, like an eagle over a mountain canyon. But a horse with real heart can outrun that heart if he is pushed to run and then never urged to temper his speed. He foams and gasps, and his big, loyal lungs surge for air, but the time comes when there is not enough. That big heart seizes up, along with all his power, and he falls, a fall that, if his owner loves him as Clay loved the gray, will shake the very earth.

Clay Logan had listened to such stories since he was able to hear, to understand and to reason. But that type of thing did not happen to Clay Logan. He was horseman through and through. Another man, perhaps. But not Clay Logan. Everything there was to know about man’s partner, the horse, was entrenched in the deepest recesses of his mind. His daddy had patiently taught him all he needed to know about his equine companions over the course of his twenty-six years. He could feel a horse’s pain, sense when it was struggling, or short of breath, or continuing to run only to please its rider. Clay Logan did not kill horses. Beneath his loving hand, a horse grew eagle’s wings and it flew.

So Clay and the thoroughbred flew on that deepest, darkest of nights. They coursed like the zephyrs, along the damp, rutted Ohio lanes of Defiance County, past the dark farm houses and the lonely country inns, never pausing at the crossroads. The doctor’s house couldn’t be more than five more miles. They would reach it, and then the horse could rest. He would trade animals and reward Domino, his beautiful gray, with a much-deserved night in the doctor’s barn, where the hay would be lush and the corn rich and sweet and deep yellow.

For now they had to drive like an Ohio hailstorm. They had to pound down these moonlit highways like a pack of hounds was baying behind them, bent on tearing them to bits. He just couldn’t leave Samantha in so much pain behind him, great with child, crying out for him in their bed . . .

The horse was breathing in great gushes of air. Froth was flying back at Clay. Now and then it spattered his face. The great ribcage heaved between his knees. The horse had begun to saw back and forth with his neck, surging harder and harder, moving to the yells of his rider, his master, his friend.

There was no warning. Domino was strong and beautiful, alive and running. Then he was gone.

A stumble. A grunt and a vast, ragged, tired sigh. They were going down, earthbound like a spine-shot stag. Instinct made Clay throw his arm up in front of his face. It was all he had time to do.

He hit the packed dirt hard, and the horse flipped sideways and spun him over its side, tearing his feet from the stirrups. Clay landed and rolled, he didn’t know how many times. He smelled the dust and the sweat, tasted the blood in his nostrils and mouth, saw the sky spinning. The bright moon whirled above him, zipping past, and then it was gone. He tasted dirt in his mouth and felt cold ground against his cheek and hands.

Trying to sit up, he fell back down and retched, vomiting and lying almost in it. He was able to roll onto his back, but he couldn’t rise. His eyes spun this way and that, seeing stars. In moments he realized some of them were real, not simply darting about in his dizzy brain.

He again tried to sit up, using his left hand, but it buckled and threw him on his face once more. He lay there and tried to catch his breath, aching all over. Finally, he made another attempt to rise, this time using his other hand. He struggled to a sitting position, drawing his knees up. Looking around, he was in time to see the last great breath of silvery, star-lit steam seep from the nostrils of the gray thoroughbred.

Now he noticed the ringing in his ears. He felt suddenly very sleepy, and he tried to remember what he was doing here. Why was one of his boots off? Where was he, for that matter? He looked around, seeing dim orange lights in distant houses, black trees swaying against the midnight blue skyline. He started to push up again, and this time he saw his left forearm buckle midway, and once again he fell. The fall was accompanied by searing pain like he’d never felt before.

Feverishly, he rolled onto his back and raised his arm over his head, staring at it until his eyes focused. His forearm was bent at a strange angle. He almost fainted.

And then he remembered Samantha . . . Samantha!

He had to get to the doctor. His wife and child were in trouble! Struggling to his knees, he crawled to Domino, cradling his broken arm. He lowered his good hand to touch the horse’s chest as his eyes fell on the animal’s face. Its great brown eye was open to the night, and a big tear had rolled over the bridge of its nose.

With an involuntary sob, Clay lunged to his feet. He almost fell again and had to stand there, keeping his eyes shut for a few moments. Finally, he opened them again and saw in the distance a smattering of dim reddish yellow lights. How far were they? Two, three miles? It didn’t matter how far. He had to go.

Looking around, he found his other boot near the dead horse and sat down on the horse’s side, somehow managing to get his boot on one-handed. Then he looked toward those distant lights again. He started that way, in stumbling steps at first. Then his strides became more sure, and after trying to go at a run for a minute or so he settled back into a fast, long-legged pace that let him hold onto his broken arm, easing the pain. Samantha!

A heart-wrenching feeling seized Clay, and he stopped for a moment and saw a vision of his little wife, dead. He squeezed his eyes shut and forced it away. He wouldn’t entertain those horrible visions. He would force them out of his mind, will them gone. He wouldn’t let Samantha die, a death foreseen, like the deaths of his parents.

He sped on, walking as fast as he could, easily five miles an hour. He could feel his feet getting sore in his riding boots, but it didn’t matter. They could get skinned for all he cared. At all costs he would reach the doctor.

It was half an hour later that the lights began to define houses, little red brick homes and some of clapboard, many with trim little picket fences surrounding their yards. The village enveloped him, many of its buildings altogether dark and still. Dogs began barking, and back in the shadows someone yelled and a goose honked tentatively. Clay sped on. A couple of tom turkeys began to gobble, and they didn’t stop until he was beyond hearing range. What in the world was wrong with those turkeys, awake at this time of night? Everyone knew birds roosted and slept at night.

At last he reached the hanging shingle that said DOCTOR, and he pounded on the door. A lantern began to glow after a minute or so, and a forty-some year-old man in a nightshirt at last pushed open the door.

"You’ve got to come with me, Doctor," Clay managed to say. In his head he sounded completely calm.

"Settle down," the doctor ordered. "Take some deep breaths. I can hardly understand you."

"My wife—" Clay turned and pointed back the way he had come. "She’s in trouble, having our baby."

"Jane, run and get Nathaniel to hitch the dray," said the dark-haired doctor over his shoulder, grasping the gravity of the situation. "Tell him to put Linus and Bear in the harness. They’ll be the best night horses."

Still in a bit of a daze, and breathing way too fast, Clay waited at the door until a black rig came rattling around the corner of the house, a colored man a little older than the doctor driving it. By now the doctor had returned from another part of the house, and he was hastily dressed.

The colored man jumped down. "Here you go, Jim. Drive safe and good luck." He shot a worried glance at Clay.

"Thanks, Nathaniel," the doctor said and sprang onto the seat of the dray. He looked down at Clay, who was struggling with his good hand to get up on the seat.

The doctor swore as he glimpsed Clay’s broken arm, and his mouth dropped open. "You can’t come with me like that!"

"Well I am," said Clay. "My wife is in trouble." With that, he heaved with all his strength and fell across the seat, then pulled himself erect. "Go!"

He pointed the way, and the doctor guided his horses around and flipped the lines at them. They stepped smartly down the street, but he kept them at first to a long walk.

Clay sat there for a few moments with his anger building, then finally turned. "Make them run! She can’t hold out by herself."

The doctor’s hand came down and touched Clay’s good forearm, gentling it to sit on his thigh. "You have to know horses, son. You can’t just run them into the ground and expect to get what you need out of them."

This comment shut Clay Logan up, as a vision of Domino flooded over his mind. He sank back against the seat and clenched his teeth, trying to think the best of what was happening at home. His arm throbbed with excruciating pain, but not as horrible as the pain in his heart.

Although in some corners of the world Clay Logan might have been considered young, he was a well known and respected man in Defiance County and beyond, known as the most natural stagecoach driver in hundreds of miles. They called him, embarrassingly, the Prince of the Road. His grip was like a vise, his forearms like corded steel. He could guide a coach at speed around the worst of curves on the muddiest or snowiest or iciest of roads. He had been readying himself to handle the lines since he was four years old. People would come out to wave at him when his coach passed by, to stare in awe at the Prince of the Road and his four beautifully matched chestnut geldings. He was gallant, brave, a hero of the people. Such was generally believed of any coach driver, but there were those who said, because Clay had the gift, that he was the greatest, the most revered of them all. To Clay, more than any other driver on these Ohio byways, was applied the heroic name, knight of the ribbons.

And Clay knew horses. He was legendary for that knowledge as well as his deft handling of the lines, also known in stage driving circles as ribbons. That was what made this ride back home so long and painful, the horrible knowledge running through his mind that he had killed a magnificent thoroughbred that he could have saved had he but applied everything he knew to that ride. Domino . . .

He couldn’t stand to look down fifteen minutes later when they rolled past the gray. The doctor hardened his jaw but didn’t look over at Clay and said nothing.

The pain overtook Clay’s entire body, and cold sweat stood on his face and trickled down his cheeks, his neck, his chest and back. His body went from cold to hot and back again as they drove, and several times he thought he would have to vomit over the side of the dray. But they kept rolling through the night, and the rhythmic clopping of the big horses’ hooves, the sliding, metallic rattle of the steel wagon tires mesmerized him and seemed to make the pain recede into the darkness of his mind.

The world was black and dreamlike, but he remembered stopping the doctor at his little house, and he recalled jumping, almost falling, from the wagon seat. He ran to the house, where inside several lamps glowed dim. Samantha lay on a four poster bed in a room with pale yellow walls. The sheets were thrown down low, and she was soaked with sweat. And between her legs on the bed it was pooled, while handprints made of it stained the sheets and blankets . . . blood. The blood of his wife.

Clay didn’t want to touch Samantha. He didn’t want to find out yet if she was going to move. But he had to. He reached out slowly, and his fingers felt her sleeve, which was warm. She turned her head slowly, and a smile broke over his face. In her arms she cradled a tiny bundle. Her lips moved when Clay spoke her name. She smiled, and pent-up tears rolled down both sides of her face.

"Oh, my Clay. He would have looked like you. Just like you."

He stared, and soon realized the little bundle was as still as a deserted house. There was no crying, and no rise of breath. And when he looked back at Samantha her eyes were fading, and the doctor, with his stethoscope over her heart, closed his own eyes before turning his head to look up at Clay. He looked down at all the darkness on the sheets and blankets, and in his head he must have been estimating the amount of blood that had left the woman’s body. Her face was ashen, hardly a hint of pink in the dim lamplight.

Her eyes seemed to stare through Clay and up to the ceiling. Her lips moved breathlessly. She gasped a huge breath, and it seeped out. Five seconds later she took another, and it made almost a moaning sound as it left her. It was ten seconds before she drew another, and he never heard that breath leave his beloved wife, for it dissipated in cold silence.

The doctor was standing now, his stethoscope dangling from his grip, both hands hanging at his sides. Vast sadness swam in his eyes as he watched Clay. Clay looked away, and then, exhausted, he slumped on the edge of the bed. He remained dead quiet while the doctor set his broken forearm. All pain had vanished, and only complete loss and nausea remained. He stared at the floor and felt the tears burning behind his eyeballs, but none came.

And then he heard those words that would haunt him for the rest of his life: "If only I had been here an hour sooner, son. I might have saved them both."

Lying in bed some hours later, Clay stared at the ceiling. He was bone tired, but sleep seemed to detest him: It wouldn’t come. Vague, waking dreams caromed around in his head. Visions of Samantha making breakfast, which he knew she would serve him when he awoke from the daze he was in. He remembered that a man had been here, and the man had been telling him why there were splints on his arm and how long they should remain before the swelling went down and they could put on a cast. He looked down, studying the cotton-wrapped splint and once again wondering what it was doing there. Then an angel came down and darkened the room, and Clay Logan was asleep. An hour later, the yellow Ohio sun broke over the bare gray bones of the March treetops.