by Orson Scott Card
Deaver's horse took sick and died right under him. He was setting on her back, writing down
notes about how deep the erosion was eating back into the new grassland, when all of a sudden
old Bette shuddered and coughed and broke to her knees. Deaver slid right off her, of course, and
unsaddled her, but after that all he could do was pat her and talk to her and hold her head in his
lap as she lay there dying.
If I was an outrider it wouldn't be like this, thought Deaver. Royal's Riders go two by two out
there on the eastern prairie, never alone like us range riders here in the old southern Utah desert.
Outriders got the best horses in Deseret, too, never an old nag like Bette having to work out her
last breath riding the grass edge. And the outriders got guns, so they wouldn't have to sit and
watch a horse die, they could say farewell with a hot sweet bullet like a last ball of sugar.
Didn't do no good thinking about the outriders, though. Deaver'd been four years on the waiting
list, just for the right to apply. Most range riders were on that list, aching for a chance to do
something important and dangerous -- bringing refugees in from the prairie, fighting mobbers,
disarming missiles. Royal's Riders were all heroes, it went with the job, whenever they come
back from a mission they got their picture in the papers, a big write-up. Range riders just got
lonely and shaggy and smelly. No wonder they all dreamed of riding with Royal Aal. With so
many others on the list, Deaver figured he'd probably be too old and they'd take his name off
before he ever got to the top. They wouldn't take applications from anybody over thirty, so he
only had about a year and a half left. He'd end up doing what he was doing now, riding the edge
of the grassland, checking out erosion patterns and bringing in stray cattle till he dropped out of
the saddle and then it'd be his horse's turn to stand there and watch him die.
Bette twitched a leg and snorted. Her eye was darting every which way, panicky, and then it
stopped moving at all. After a while a fly landed on it. Deaver eased himself out from under her.
The fly stayed right there. Probably already laying eggs. This country didn't waste much time
before it sucked every last hope of life out of anything that held still long enough.
Deaver figured to do everything by the book. Put Bette's anal scrapings in the plastic tube so
they could check for disease, pick up his bedroll, his notebooks, and his canteen, and then hike
into the first fringe town he could find and call in to Moab.
Deaver was all set to go, but he couldn't just walk off and leave the saddle. The rulebook said a
rider's life is worth more than a saddle, but the guy who wrote that didn't have a five-dollar
deposit on it. A week's wages. It wasn't like Deaver had to carry it far. He passed a road late
yesterday. He'd go back and sit on the saddle and wait a couple days for some truck to come by.
Anyway he wanted it on his record -- Deaver Teague come back saddle and all. Bad enough to
lose the horse. So he hefted the saddle onto his back and shoulders. It was still warm and damp
from Bette's body.
He didn't follow Bette's hoofprints back along the edge of the grassland -- no need to risk his
own footsteps causing more erosion. He struck out into the thicker, deeper grass of last year's
planting. Pretty soon he lost sight of the gray desert sagebrush, it was too far off in the wet hazy
air. Folks talked about how it was in the old days, when the air was so clear and dry you could
see the mountains you couldn't get to in two days' riding. Now the farthest he could see was to
the redrock sentinels sticking up out of the grass, bright orange when he was close, dimmer and
grayer a mile or two ahead or behind. Like soldiers keeping watch in the fog.