Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Hoss by Christine Boylan
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A natural disaster turns a woman into a modern Highwayman in this suspense story from TV writer Christine Boylan.

Hoss

Her gun was empty. The Suited Man had no way of knowing that, though. Berke leveled the revolver at his forehead; atop her piebald mare and accounting for heights, this meant shooting from the hip.

"Stand up and pay up," said Paul, gently nudging his black Arabian forward.

"Yeah, pay up and shut up," said Jack, whose own horse now blocked the road the suited man had walked in on.

The Suited Man twitched, as if his nerves couldn't decide whether to break laughing or crying. "Let me get this straight," he said, his right eye screwing itself inward. He rubbed the stubble on his face, to calm the eye spasm. Unsuccessful. "You're robbing me?"

Before Berke could answer, Jack leaned forward, feigning boredom, and grunted. "Yup. Give us everything you've got, or Berke here shoots you."

Berke flinched, just slightly, at the sound of her name.

The Suited Man handed his one bag up to Jack, who began rifling through it. The Suited Man waited. Paul sat uneasily back in the saddle, took a second to steady himself, and shook his head at the Suit. "Keep going. Everything."

Now the Suited Man was digging into his pants pockets. Berke noticed the frayed cuffs, the hard instep creases on his dress shoes. Three days he'd been walking, most likely. Almost through the canyon and set upon by three robbers on horseback. Unlikely but not impossible. He crouched in the center of the circle of horses, turning out his empty pockets like a vaudeville bum. He shrugged. But as the sun dipped down behind him, Paul spotted a glint of chrome in the man's vest pocket—

"Give us the phone."

Suit pulled out a battered iPhone. "It doesn't have a signal—please. I need the address I'm trying to get to—"

"Don't need no address," Jack chimed in, looking up from the Suit's last possessions. "The place you're looking for is either under water, or not."

At that, not so much a joke but a statement of the obvious, Jack the Ass cackled for a solid six seconds. It reverberated off the trees. Berke figured they lost two targets for every one of Jack's outbursts.

The Suit cradled the phone in his palm and caressed it with his thumb to find what he needed. He took a last look at the screen and sighed, as if at the pain of remembering how to memorize. He handed the phone up to Jack and said: "It isn't worth very much. Look, there's a Red Cross station two miles up. I saw a sign for it. That's why I walked up this way. We could go together. You could give me my stuff back and rob them instead."

Berke nudged the reins with her left hand, and Misty daintily stepped left, opening up the circle to grant Suit passage. "Get gone," said Paul. The Man in the Suit could have run away, but he walked ahead even more slowly than he had approached.

Paul stuck out a booted foot and kicked his pinstriped ass as he went. Jack started up his cackling again, really letting loose and closing his eyes in the warm glow of the late-afternoon sun. Paul smirked. "Good job putting that sign up, the Red Cross thing."

Berke nodded. "Helps foot traffic." The real Red Cross couldn't get where they were, trapped between a huge desert and a vengeful ocean. Five days on and there was no sign of any real aid.

"We'll take what we can get," said Paul. He grimaced and steadied himself in the saddle.

Berke grinned, even if it didn't reach her lips. That bastard is saddle sore.

Paul covered his discomfort by beckoning at Jack: "Give 'er."

Jack tossed the Suit's bag over. "Nothing much. Coupla' Zone bars. T-shirts. Men's small, though."

"I'll take them," said Berke. Jack and Paul hadn't worn a men's small since age eight.

They steered their horses off the main path, into a clearing. "Getting slim out here," said Paul, peering at the sinking sun.

"This hyena's scaring away the quarry," said Berke, thumbing at Jack.

Jack gave her the finger. Paul shook his huge bald head. "No one passing this way now. They're either wet and dead, or dry and..."

"Fled," said Jack, the Ass, shaking and cackling again.

Berke kept quiet. She'd spied a sizeable survivors' camp halfway down in the foothills on her way up here this morning. They looked shell-shocked, newly arrived, wearing jewelry and designer clothes, layered on when they had to abandon their homes. They carried impractical bags containing wallets stuffed with paper money, bank cards, IDs, things that made them rich only weeks ago. They huddled together. They thought their ordeal was over.

"We should move. This spot's done."

"We should hold," said Berke. "We control this switchback. Can't get a car through here, right? People have to pass through on foot, and they have to pass. Unless you want to go back to chasing cars?"

Paul shook his head, smiling with his mouth only. His suspicious eyes were all over Berke. "The lady's right."


The lady was right. You had to cross the hills in order to travel anywhere now. And Paul and Jack seemed relieved to take orders, even obvious ones. Even from a woman who had appeared out of nowhere. She had only known the other members of her crew for about forty-five minutes before she pulled the gun on the Man in the Suit and acted like she'd been stealing all her life. When they first crossed paths at the switchback Berke caught a glimpse of Paul's black Arabian and pulled her revolver.

Paul laughed. "Honey, I can see that gun is empty. You better aim over a man's eyes if you want to fool him into being afraid of you."

Berke nodded, caught. "It's just a deterrent," she said, holstering the gun.

Paul and Jack were hungry and hesitant to part ways, since Berke was well supplied with protein bars, bottles of water and even some donuts she'd taken from an earlier encounter.

"No hard feelings, then." She tensed her knees and Misty started forward a step.

"I'm Paul," he said, to stop her. "That's Jack...Jack the Ass, we call him."

"We?" "The guys at the office," said Jack, shrugging. He was a sunken man between broad shoulders. He chuckled nervously.

"No more office, now. We out on the range. Ain't we," said Paul.

Berke nodded slowly, guessing this put-on twang was not their office patois. She watched Paul's horse duck his black-and-white head. Watched Paul shift in the saddle.

"Hey, look," said Paul, eying her calm demeanor and bulging backpack, trying to be friendly, "you and me have the same license plate." He pointed to his horse, who flicked its mane at him. He was right. The brands on the horses' left shoulders were the same: Two crossed x's, one short and one long and arranged like the center lines of a compass.

"That's funny," she said. "Where'd you get that horse?" Berke asked.

"Oh, had it forever. Where'd you get yours?"

"He's the wrong size for you."

Jack started cackling. Paul took the cue to lighten his tone again: "Horses come in sizes?"

Misty moved closer to the horse Paul was riding and nuzzled him. Berke reached down and patted her neck. Easy girl. Easy.

"They like each other," Paul said. "Good sign. Maybe we should work together. Probably not safe for a woman up here alone."

"Probably not," she said. She looked at him. She had a bag of food, a strong horse and a gun. And now she had a question. So she nodded. "My name is Berke."

Paul and Jack the Ass had been walking and starving for the entire five days since the earthquake and waves hit. Somehow they found a horse, the docile chestnut gelding Jack now rode, saddled but riderless, chewing grass off on the wild side of Mulholland. The chestnut was a good boy, and Jack, though loud and ignorant, also knew how to ride, having grown up on a farm in Nebraska. Paul had acquired the horse he rode sometime later, and it was clear to Berke from the way he gripped the reins in his fat fists and jammed his toes downward in the stirrups that he had never ridden a horse before that day. Berke pressed him on the horse's provenance.

"Why, you gonna write about it in your little pony book? Man's gotta have secrets, don't he?" Paul spit on the ground for punctuation.

"It's not much of a story," said Jack.

Paul shut him up with a look, then turned to Berke: "Tell you what: You hold up whoever we catch next. If we get a good haul, I'll build a campfire and tell you all about Black Beauty. Good?"

Once Paul and Jack had spent half a day on horseback, the bright idea must then have occurred that the added height gave them power and surprise, so they got it into their heads to chase cars and steal food or supplies from the ones they could catch. Fuel was probably scarce; terrain was difficult for city cars to manage. They won a few chases, probably hurt more people than was necessary.

Berke didn't work that way. She patiently explained to them why it was easier to hold one position and rob passersby. Anyone who wanted to escape the flooding or search for loved ones on the other side of the hill had to cross this road.

"If this is the only freeway left, then we control the freeway," said Paul. "That's a nice place to be. We're, like, Freewaymen."

"Highwaymen." Berke couldn't help herself.

"Not on the west coast."

"They have a catch phrase, when they rob people. 'Get up and give it!' That's not right..."

"It's 'Put 'em up, step aside,'" said Paul. "That's what they say."

"Freewaymen!" repeated Jack, with gusto. "And women," he said, batting his eyelashes at Berke.

"Shut the fuck up," she said.

Just then, Misty quivered and then the ground shook and then the entire mountain rocked, and Jack did indeed shut the fuck up. He looked at Paul. Paul looked through the trees. Berke just breathed, slowly, patting Misty's neck. These aftershocks were reassuring, somehow. The stillness that followed the quake and the waves gave over into movement. Nature's way of saying that things would go forward.


Berke had no trouble guiding Misty up and down the terrain of the canyons and hills of Los Angeles. Before five days ago, before Berke was Berke, she learned to ride from a rich man named Scottie in the rocky cliffs and salt air around Malibu. She worked as a stable muck at a ranch that sat between the edge of the ocean and the crust of the mountains.

She savored her job, because it had a strict process and dedicated tools. She became adept with a shavings fork and pink rubber gloves. She learned the hard way that a stall floor needs to be completely dry before new shavings can be laid on, to make a bed for the horse. She used a broom and a pitchfork, and found each and every one of the horses knew her by smell, and became docile to her touch. She made their beds. They were grateful.

But she didn't know how to ride. Not then, not at first.

Scottie and his sister Leigh were bored that summer, and that was a mercy to Berke. They were English, the children of some West End producer who relocated to Burbank to make a TV show. Scottie and Leigh never talked about Daddy or TV or What Had Happened to Mum. They just rode their horses.

Scottie rode for fun, but Leigh was an equestrian. She rode dressage at the Grand Prix level, and drove her white filly out at five every morning for drills. Both took a liking to Berke soon after she started working at the stables. "None of these American louts is going to appreciate the quality of your work," Leigh said. "No offense."


Berke mucked out the stables from five to eleven and then again from five to seven, and Scottie seemed always to appear at noon, looking for someone to go riding with. Berke referred him to the office, where new riders were paired with appropriate-level instructors and experienced riders were paired with each other.

"What about you? Are you available?"

"I don't ride."

He laughed. Not at her, but. "Why not?"

"Can't afford it yet. In a few weeks, when I catch up on rent, I can do the basic lessons and buy a helmet and—"

And that was that. No one from the stable office complained, because Scottie paid for everything he used and Berke rode only in her free time. Berke didn't want to accept Misty, or the riding lessons, but Scottie wouldn't hear of it.

"Fair trade, innit? I give you riding lessons and you keep me company. I wouldn't be caught dead with any of the bastards at this place. Come on, today we're doing this great steep trail I found. No one goes up there, it's madness!"

Once or twice a week Leigh joined them, and she taught Berke a few basic competition jumps. Misty quite took to it, but Berke enjoyed watching Leigh, the deadpan aristocrat, make her leaps around the course.

Steep trails became a daily ritual. Scottie and his horse led Berke and Misty up and up and then down and down to the rocky Malibu shore. Down was more difficult, but Scottie told Berke she had a natural talent.

"Not for riding, mind you. For following directions."

"I like process," she told him, and blushed.

Five days ago, they were carefully riding up a declivitous trail, the crashing sound of the shore behind and beneath them. It was almost two in the afternoon. The sun was hazy overhead. The air had been still, plasma-like, for a week, but a breeze had broken through late morning after a moderate earthquake. Scottie had been on about it for the entire ride.

"So that's what they call 'earthquake weather,' then? Gets hot and awful for weeks, then there's a horrible racket and you're knocked out of bed, and then the air moves again?"

"The only people who were knocked out of bed were sleeping until noon."

"Fair play," he nodded. "Those things don't scare you? You're a tough one, Hoss."

Berke laughed. "They happen all the time. That was only a four-point-something. It's natural and normal. If we haven't had one for a while, then you need to worry."

Scottie leaned back a bit, barely tugging the reins to stop his horse. He had the soft hands of a veteran rider: relaxed and curled, just barely holding on. Only amateurs pulled and gripped. That was the second thing Scottie taught Berke: tense hands, tense horse.

Berke stopped Misty and turned around to look where Scottie did. They were high on the side of the mountain. Below and inland, through a series of twisting paths, was the ranch. Below that was the shore. They watched the water lap forward and then recede. Two o'clock and the tide was beginning to go out.

For the first time in her life, Berke felt uncomfortable in a silence. "Not a lot of earthquakes in England," she said.

Scottie shook his head, looking out to the ocean. "In the Navy, they have submarine plate shifts all the time. Fun, those. Makes for rocky sailing. But you've got the water beneath you, so." He turned his mossgreen eyes on Berke. "I would very much like to take you to dinner tonight."

"What?" she looked away. Where. Eyes. Rock. Horse. Water.

"After work." He cleared his throat.

"Uh—hey. Is that normal?"

Scottie was taken aback for a beat, until he followed Berke's gaze to the ocean. The tide had gone out. Far out. The water was running away from the shore. Back, and back, and still back.

From their perch it looked like half a mile of seabed was exposed. Algae stuck to wet sand in clumps. Fish jerked and flipped for air. Shells sparkled in the sunlight.

"It's a drawback," Scottie said. He reached over and grabbed Berke's arm. Squeezed. Tense hands.

"What does that mean?"

"A big wave's coming. Right now, it's pulling back like a slingshot. Go up—remember the path we did last week? All the way up. I'll meet you there. Leigh's down, running the course. I have to go get her." He turned and clicked his tongue and his horse took off back down the path.

"Scottie—"

"Meet me there! Higher up. Go."

And he was gone.

Berke didn't go directly to the meeting place. She stopped at the ranch, and that was when the first wave hit. That was five days ago.


Berke sat on the ground and cleaned her gun. The boys remained on horseback, in case any loot walked by. She squinted up at them in the sun: "Hey, Paul?"

"What?"

"You never told me—"

"What?"

"—about the horse. You said you'd tell me where you got him. He's very pretty."

"Aww. Well, course you think so. Doesn't every girl want a pony?"

Jack started in with the laughing. Again.

"Did you steal him, Paul? Because that's bad-ass. If you did," Berke said, spinning the empty chamber and laying the gun aside, out of sight.

Jack took the bait first. "You killed that kid, right? And stole his horse? He—"

"Shut up, Jackass. The kid was already dead, okay? He was busted up. So we left him there—we didn't start him dying; we weren't going to finish him. His fault, anyway. Kid was out there on his own, the fool. We took his food and his animal and we left. He kept calling out after his damn horse—'Samantha! Samantha!' Kid was so dumb, he didn't even know he had a boy horse. That's why I call him Buck. Isn't that right, Buck?" He patted the horse; it lashed its mane at Paul's arm.

"That's some story," said Berke. Paul was uncomfortable under her stare. Her eyes got grayer and darker.

Jack chuckled, trying to open a can of tuna. He said, "Misty and Buck must be brother and sister."

Paul used his dirty sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead. "Probably born on the same farm or something," he said to the ground.

The brands on the horses' left shoulders were the same: Two crossed x's, one short and one long and arranged like the center lines of a compass. According to the 2007 California Brand Book, only fifteen horses in the entire wild state could wear that brand. Those fifteen all belonged to the Sunset Ranch. And by Berke's reckoning, no more than five had survived the waves. She knew every horse she tended. Only one of those was a black Arabian with sabino white markings on its face.

Paul stood up and turned around to see that Berke had mounted, and was looking down at him. "Some story," she said.

"Paul," she said.

"Yeah, Berke."

"I'm taking your horse."

"Excuse me?" said Paul, but his laughter had a tinny edge, a rasp.

She leveled her gun at his forehead. "Stand and deliver," she said.

Jack started laughing, looking from Berke to Paul and back. "That's it! That's what highwaymen say!" His cackle rang out, then ran out. Neither Paul nor Berke moved.

Until Paul tried to inch closer. But he couldn't get the horse to accomplish that subtle a movement. So he leaned his bulk forward, further onto the Stallion's neck.

"I know something you forgot," he said.

Berke kept the gun level.

"You ain't got bullets."

Jack was shaking his head now, frowning and scared, and Berke realized there must have been some fights on the family farm. She took her eye from Paul for a second, tilted her head slightly left. "Go on," she said. "Get out of here."

Paul took that window of attention deficit and swiped a meaty paw at Berke's hand and the gun. She snapped back and the gun went off.

It just...went off.

Dust kicked up as Jack the Ass rode his horse on the wind as far away as he could. Her gun was empty, except for the one in the barrel. The one that's too close to see.

Misty shook from the recoil. Berke took a breath. Process. She holstered her gun and patted Misty until she started breathing normally again. All right, girl. All right.

The Arabian, riderless now, took three steps and stood next to Misty. Of course. They had the same license plates.

She dismounted and that's when she saw Paul, lying on his back in the dust, bleeding through his ugly shirt.

She had had one more question for Paul. She had meant, all this time, to ask him that last question in the last minute, but the last minute happened five minutes too soon. She leaned over him now as he bled out:

"Where."

Paul was crying. "Where, what, you crazy bitch? Where's the doctor you're gonna get me, huh?"

She leaned over him and pressed her palm over the spouting hole in his chest. "No doctor. Your lungs are filling with blood. When I take my hand away you can count backwards from thirty...twenty, in your condition, and that'll be it."

He stared at her. He got it. He seemed matured and younger at the same time, all in that stare. "Where. Where what?"

"Where did you find that horse."

"You can keep the horse."

"I'm looking for the rider."

"He's probably dead now."

"Probably?"

He didn't answer. She lifted her hand from his chest, the sudden loss of pressure let the blood spurt disturbingly from the wound.

"Jesus!" Paul screamed, all his composure lost. "Put it back!!"

She put her hand back down. Where.

"Eight miles. Down. The other side. He was half-dead when we left him. And the waters."

"But you didn't see him die."

"No but—"

"Was he alive when you left, Paul?"

"Yes. Yes, he was. I didn't hurt him. I just took his horse. I'm sorry."

She nodded. All right.

Paul looked up at her. "You're Samantha."

"Yes."

He grunted. Swallowed. "Take your hand away."

She did.


When the sun rose she rode Misty and led the Arabian, whose name was Keller, out of the switchback. She would hit the survivor's camp and re-stock her supplies. Then forward. She had someone to find. Deeper into the landscape. Over the hills. And down.

About the Author

Christine Boylan is a New Yorker who lives in Los Angeles. She has written for the pulptastic TNT show Leverage for the past three seasons, spent a summer at the ill-fated but well-loved Day One for NBC and is now working on the tropical medical series Off the Map for ABC. She's written a number of stage plays and lots of comic books, was once a Fulbright scholar and is an habitual Scotch drinker.