by Eric D. Goodman
Dustin prepared the horses for another day of riding. The sun had barely risen, but he’d already put in a few hours. Earlier, he’d made breakfast—eaten three eggs, bacon, toast, and gravy—and brewed a pot of coffee to fill his Thermos. He went to the stables, loaded the horses into the trailer, and hit the road from his home farm in South Shore, Kentucky, to his job across the river at Shawnee State Forest in Ohio.
Once at the state park, he went to the riding stables, set the horses out in their individual stalls, made sure they had plenty to eat, and turned the sign on the post from “closed” to “open.” Then he kicked back in the wooden rocking chair, crossed his boots on the split-rail fence, and drank the last of his coffee from the plastic thermos cup.
It was just after seven when his first customers of the morning came along. He set his coffee cup on the wooden side table and approached the family of four: man, woman, teenaged girl, little boy.
“Howdy.” Dustin tipped his cap.
“Morning.” The father of the family looked about forty, clean cut, business part in his hair. Looked like a talking head on the news, only he wore a flannel shirt and blue jeans. The woman looked about the same age, maybe a little younger, with wavy blonde hair and makeup that made her look too done up for a camping vacation. The girl giggled, already petting the horses tied up to the split-rail fence, talking to them in a syrupy voice that he imagined she once used on her dolls, or might use on a man in a few more years. And the little boy stood behind his sister, looking at the horses like they were some kind of wild animals, not quite sure about them. Dustin smiled.
Beyond his initial “Howdy,” Dustin didn’t say much, just stood there and waited for the man to talk. The man was reading the sign and the sign pretty much said all they needed to know.
Horseback Riding: 45 minutes, $50
1 customer per horse, Must be 6 years or older
Your guide today is two-time national rodeo champion Dustin Coomer
Dustin looked down at the dirt and turned over a rock with the toe of his boot. He waited for the tourist to say something. Finally, the man opened his mouth.
“So, you’re open?”
“We’d like to ride, I think.” The dad mentioned it as though he hadn’t been sure half a minute before, as though they hadn’t come all the way out here knowing that they wanted to ride.
Dustin looked at the man from beneath the brim of his cap. “All right.”
“Can my son ride with me?”
“Nope. Only one person per horse, like the sign says.”
“But he’s little, and kind of uneasy about riding a horse.”
“How old is he?”
“Well, then, he’s plenty mature enough to ride his own horse.”
“Do you want to give it a try?” the dad asked. The boy shook his head and backed away.
“Ain’t nothing to it,” Dustin said. “When I was your age, I was riding and roping cattle. You can ride. We can put your horse between your mom and dad.”
“It’s safe, isn’t it?” the mom asked.
Dustin chuckled. “Ma’am, riding a horse is a lot safer than riding a car.”
“No, I mean out here, with all the animals.”
“Ain’t no animals gonna hurt you,” Dustin assured. “Safer here than a city.”
“All right then,” the father finally committed. “Four.”
“That’ll be two hundred.”
The dad had it counted out and folded up in his pocket already, like he’d already known the price, had already seen the sign by the park entrance or looked it up on the computer. Dustin sized up the four of them and selected the best horse for each.
“I want this one.” the teenage girl stood before the big black stallion.
“That one’s mine.” Dustin gave his favorite a playful swat. “That’s Romeo. You’ll get Smokey. He’s more suited to your pretty little frame.”
He walked over to the father. “Daddy, you get Charger. Mommy, you can ride on Buttercup. And son, you get the best horse of all. You get to ride Wild One.”
The boy didn’t look thrilled. Dustin was tempted to tease the boy a little but decided against it. Better not to lose two customers since the mom would probably sit out with the boy, wouldn’t think to let her baby out of her sight unsupervised for an hour. Dustin needed the money.
A few minutes later, they all sat in their saddles (with a bit of help) and began riding the trail up into the treed hills.
The dad took in a deep breath of fresh morning air. “It’s beautiful country out here.”
So, this one’s going to be a talker. “Yup,” Dustin agreed. “Between the rivers and the mountains and the woods, it don’t get much better.”
“We’re from Cincinnati.”
“That was the plan. But we decided to get a hotel.”
“Guess that’s more comfortable.” Dustin smirked. These city slickers probably couldn’t figure out how to pitch the flimsy tent they bought at their local mall.
Dustin led the horses. They were not tethered, but they all knew the path and only deviated once in a while to grab a mouthful of grass or weed. The horses climbed the path of dirt and gravel up the hill, up the side of the mountain, the trees all around them. If not for the gravel, the path would’ve been too muddy to navigate—for tourists—and he’d have closed down for the day. It had rained all night, but the sun shone bright now. He looked behind him to make sure everyone was in line. The dad followed Dustin, then the girl, the boy, and the mom.
The dad asked, “So, you were in the rodeo?”
“Yup.” Dustin wrote it on the sign to impress people, to let them know he wasn’t just a stable buck. He used to be a living legend. He’d been somebody before starting his own business. He’d had status before trading it in for security. “Kentucky State Champion three times, rode the circuit about eight years, two-time National Champion.”
The dad’s nod bounced with his horse. “Guess there aren’t very many older rodeo stars still working,” the guy said. Dustin took this as a way of asking why he’d quit the rodeo instead of making a life out of it. Dustin was accustomed to such questions.
“Broke my legs twice, pelvis once. After I broke my pelvis, I had to take it easy. I can still ride, love to ride. But I can’t do the tricky stuff no more. You don’t see very many daredevils out there much more than thirty.”
“What did you do? In the rodeo, I mean.”
“Oh, a little of this and that. I roped steer, rode bulls, did some bull fighting. It was a bull that broke my pelvis.”
“Wow,” the dad said.
“Wow’s right,” Dustin said over his shoulder. “Two thousand pounds of rodeo bull crashed down right on top of me. I’m lucky to be alive.”
Dustin made light of it, but truth be told, when it happened, he didn’t think he would live through the ordeal. Riding the bull, fully expecting to be thrown but not expecting the bull to fall over with him still riding, not expecting it to crush him beneath its flexing muscle and kicking legs. Dustin was used to the bucking, but it was unusual for a bull to fall over. During those seconds, as the hide-brown ground came toward him, as he still straddled the muscular bull, Dustin counted himself as good as dead. When the bull finally stood and Dustin was still conscious, he found that he couldn’t stand up himself. He couldn’t move or feel his legs or anything from the waist down. He’d expected the bull to come back for him, to trample him, and lifted himself to his arms, trying to drag his useless body off to the side. He knew he didn’t have the strength or time to make it, that the bull would be on him before he could cover two feet of dusty distance. But the rodeo clowns got to the angry bull first, some of them distracting the bull, others pulling Dustin out of harm’s way. His doctor told him the same thing he’d told him after past injuries: that he should hang up his rodeo hat. This time, Dustin decided to listen.
His own dad hadn’t listened. His dad was a rodeo star, too, and had taken Dustin with him on the circuit as far back as Dustin could remember, back when he was four or five. By the time Dustin turned six, he was riding alongside his dad. By the time he reached ten, he worked in the rodeo himself, in solo acts without his dad. When Dustin was fifteen, his dad got killed by a bull.
Now a dad himself, Dustin had a boy of twelve in school. He didn’t want such a risky life for his son. That’s why Dustin opened his own business, taking tourists out for rides. He’d conned himself into appreciating the beauty of a slow trot across the forested mountains instead of longing for the thrill of cowboy stunts. When he started, he enjoyed the peace and quiet of Shawnee State Forest, the beauty of the mountain paths, river views. Truth was, sometimes he longed for a little more excitement.
“Ask him about the animals,” Dustin heard the mother saying to her husband. The husband cleared his throat.
“So, how about those animals?”
Dustin looked around them for evidence. “Oh, we see some deer out here pretty often. Squirrels and bunnies and chipmunks. Once in a while you might see a bear or fox. Wolf or coyote.”
“No, I mean Chillicothe.”
Dustin swatted at a fly on his neck. “Chillicothe?”
“Haven’t you heard? It’s all over the news.”
“I ain’t seen the news since yesterday morning.”
“Oh my God, he doesn’t know.” The woman’s nervous voice grew higher in pitch. “We need to go back to the car.”
“Don’t worry,” the dad assured her. Then he addressed Dustin. “Some crazy guy let loose a bunch of wild animals in Chillicothe. Just last night, around five o’clock.”
For the love of God. Dustin sighed and took a look around them. The new park ranger, in charge of notifying recreation vendors, always seemed to forget about him and his operation, forgetting to tell him about things like early closings and severe weather conditions. But there’d never been news like this to share before.
“They couldn’t have made it this far, right?” The woman’s voice didn’t sound so sure. “It’s safe out here, right?”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Dustin comforted. “There ain’t never been any animal attacks out here.” But Dustin was a little worried at this news and considered cutting the ride short as he tried to do the math in his head. Lions . . . tigers . . . leopards . . . panthers. He didn’t really know his wild animals that well, but based on what he did know, he figured some of them could travel from Chillicothe to this area in twelve, thirteen hours. Perhaps paranoia was playing tricks on him, but he began to consider it likely. Shawnee State Forest seemed a welcoming place for such an animal to hide. Away from the city, lots of open space, trees and brush. “Just to be on the safe side,” Dustin suggested casually, “let’s go ahead and mosey on back.”
He heard the woman worrying aloud as he turned his horse around and passed them all. “Oh, it’s not safe, is it? You think they’re out here?” His horse now stood next to the woman instead of the man.
“Everyone just pull on one side of the reigns and turn your horse around. We’ll just mosey on back, nice and easy. Ain’t nothing to worry about. Nice and peaceful out here.”
Dustin wished he could have turned the whole train around, so the man rode at his back instead of the woman. She sounded worried even when she wasn’t making a noise. But he didn’t say anything to upset anyone. He tried to ride casual, looking about him for signs of unusual life. He convinced himself he was just being paranoid—just another ten minutes and they’d be back to the stalls. No predator in its right mind would come to these parts to attack people when there was an abundance of wild animals. “Almost back,” he assured the family.
Shawnee State Forest was quiet. Songbirds chirped in the distance. He heard two deer scurrying out of the woods, crossing the trail behind them, then leaping back into the trees on the other side, down toward the river.
Then, he heard the snarl, the feline growl, heard the leaves and tree branches rustle, then not rustle, as though the animal had left the surface. Dustin looked behind him and saw beyond the terrorized faces of the woman, the teenaged girl, the little boy. Their father had fallen off his horse—or rather, had been knocked off by a large, spotted wildcat.
“Help him, help him, help him!” the woman screamed.
“Dad!” His daughter cried out in a shrill voice that Dustin hoped would drive off the cat.
“Kill it,” the boy cried. “Just kill it!”
The dad flopped his arms beneath the leopard, apparently hoping to hit it, but not focused enough to aim as the cat sat on top of him. The leopard looked up at the screaming people around it and growled. The horses all broke into a frightened gallop—fortunately in the direction they were headed, along the path.
“Stay on the horses,” Dustin yelled to the family as he jumped off his. “They’ll head back to the stable.” Dustin ran to help the pinned man. The guy grasped around him with one hand, as though for a stick or rock to hit the cat, while his other hand was beating the leopard in the skull with the palm of his hand to no avail. The cat had a grip on the man’s shoulder and was clamped down. He opened his jaw every few seconds, then clamped down again, as though to get a better grip, or to cause more punctures, more damage, perhaps seeking out a main artery for a quick kill. Dustin saw a large branch on the ground near the path. He took it and beat the cat across the head with the blunt branch. The leopard backed off just a bit, just enough for the man to scoot back, crawling crab-style on his hands and feet out from under the cat and off the path. Dustin beat the leopard on the back and across the face, but the wildcat didn’t back down. Dustin tried ramming the blunt end of the branch into the leopard’s face, which seemed a little more effective than swinging. Dustin stepped slowly back, putting distance between him and the cat. Then Dustin charged, ramming the leopard in the face again. The leopard swept up the tree in a flash, regaining its strength on a high branch about the same size as the one Dustin held in his grip.
Dustin kept the branch close to him and his eye on the leopard, but he walked over to the man. “Can you get up?”
“I dunno,” the stunned man said, as though he didn’t even know what he was saying. Dustin helped him find his feet. The city slicker had lost a lot of blood; he looked as pale as a dead man.
“Let’s walk back.” Dustin dropped the branch and draped the man’s arm around his neck, pulling his limp body along.
“Tell . . . Karen . . . that I . . . love her . . . tell the . . . kids that …”
“Enough of that.” Dustin didn’t have patience for dramatics. He was scared for this man’s life and his own. Dustin looked back every few steps, knowing that the leopard was fast and could be on their backs without a second’s warning.
Dustin could see the stable ahead, just a hundred feet away, and he could see that the woman had locked herself and the kids in their car. She screeched into the phone, undoubtedly to the police. Dustin wondered whether this tragedy would get him shut down. Would blame fall to him, or to the nut in Chillicothe who let these animals out? He wondered whether he’d have to give up the business and sell the horses and find another way to make a living and support his wife and boy. He wondered whether he’d live to do it.
Instead of looking at the stable and wondering, he realized he needed to look behind him. When he turned to look, he saw the leopard drop out of the tree. It sprinted in their direction. Dustin saw it looking at him and the other man, sizing them up, determining the easier meat. The leopard leaped—seemed too far away to have begun his leap—and then flew toward them. He almost looked like he was going to soar over them. As though he had rudders to control his altitude, the leopard adjusted his path as he came down on them. The leopard targeted the weaker, injured man. The dad fell to the ground with a scream, and the cat snarled and clamped his jaw around the man’s shoulder while standing on his back.
Dustin pulled out his hunting knife. He jabbed the cat in the shoulder and it flinched, turned to face him, then dug his claws into the lifeless body beside him. The leopard turned away from Dustin and proceeded to drag the body toward a tree, as though it planned to pull the corpse into the safety of the branches. Dustin wasn’t sure whether the man was dead or alive, but he knew he didn’t want this cat to go free. He stabbed it again with his knife, in and out of its right front upper leg, then he stabbed it in its face. The cat let out a snarl and batted a paw at Dustin. Dustin jumped on the leopard, wrestling it away from the still body, and sliced the blade of his knife across the cat’s throat. After a few moments of struggling, of avoiding the cat’s sharp claws and large canines, the cat went limp.
Just like the man.
The woman and the kids were crying, hyperventilating, not believing what just happened before their eyes.
Dustin knew what it was like to lose a father to an animal. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I tried to . . .”
The woman screamed at him. “You should have stopped it! You should have told us it wasn’t safe!”
“Mommy, is Daddy gonna be all right?” the little boy asked.
“I killed the leopard,” Dustin offered. But, of course, no one gave a damn about that.
“Can’t believe you didn’t stop it!”
“Mom.” The daughter wrapped herself around her mother.
“Is Daddy gonna be all right?” the boy asked again. Dustin wanted to pick up the boy, but he knew it wasn’t his place.
The ambulance arrived from Southern Ohio Medical Center, and the Portsmouth police came minutes later. By the time police arrived, asking Dustin to relay the story, the medics had already put the man into the back of the ambulance and rushed away. One of the police drove the family to the hospital—the wife was in no condition to drive—and Dustin figured that he’d end up delivering their vehicle to their hotel or a shopping center or something, because he knew it would be too traumatic for the woman to come here again. Dustin took the officers to the leopard.
“Get Chillicothe on the horn,” said one of the officers—Heaker, according to his metallic tag. “Let Roscoe know we got one of the leopards.”
“What else is out here?” Dustin asked.
“We’re not certain.” Officer Heaker looked him in the eye. “But they’ve got animal experts tracking them. Said there could be two leopards and a tiger coming in our direction.”
“That don’t sound good.” Dustin looked at the dead leopard.
“We got the good end of the stick.” Heaker looked around them, into the woods. “They think a black panther and a whole pride of lions are headed up to Columbus. And Chillicothe’s just crawling with wild beasts.”
“Hard to imagine.” Dustin lifted his cap and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“Yeah, don’t I know it. I’d get my horses barned up if I was you. And stay inside with your family, if you got one.”
“Yep,” Dustin said. “Be a good idea to close shop for a few days, I reckon.”
As Dustin prepared the horses for the ride back across the river, he thought of his son. He decided to pick him up early from school. He couldn’t help but thank God it was the other father, and not his son’s father. Not a nice thought, but an honest one.
About the Author:
Eric Goodman is a full-time writer and award-winning author of literary fiction. Setting the Family Free is his fourth book. His short fiction and travel stories have been published more than a hundred periodicals, including The Baltimore Review, The Pedestal Magazine, The Potomac, JMWW, Barrelhouse, Scribble, Grub Street, Syndic, and New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers. Eric reads regularly from his fiction on radio, at book festivals and events, and he curates and hosts the popular Lit and Art Reading Series, today’s longest-running literary salon in Baltimore. Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com, where you can listen to radio readings, read excerpts and stories, and more.