The year is 1917 and the first World War is raging. Meanwhile, our protagonist has seen too much and prefers escaping to Northern Ontario than serving in the military. Here then is the beginning of the sequel to Seven Stones, tentatively titled Shell Shock:
Steam rose from the backs of four horses as they struggled to pull a heavily loaded sled up a snow-covered hill. On either side of them, as far as the eye could see, trees too small for harvest were left standing amid large gaps where giant pines once stood. Behind the horses was a sled filled with the timber of once mighty trees, piled so high that even sitting at the lower end of the hill it stood taller than the magnificent draft animals.
One would have thought their task impossible, but the horses worked in unison with what the loggers standing nearby recognized as pride. Both man and beast tested their limits in this wilderness, and those that were not broken by their labor were changed by it nevertheless.
Within the muscles of the straining horses surged the very essence of life, the urge to test itself against whatever the outside world demanded of it. They were horses at the nexus of youth and experience at their work. And they pushed towards the summit without any conception of failure, nostrils flaring to release steamy breath into the cold morning air. An occasional whinny came forth like a grunt of affirmation as they pulled.
A man stood atop the pile of logs, holding the reigns. He shouted encouragement, but the horses needed no external motivator: their task was clear. And so they lurched, gaining inch by inch, until the first two horses stood upon the crest, and then the others. A final effort pulled the sled over the hump.
But there was no rest to be had upon the top, no slow transition to a gentler labor. No sooner did the sled reach the apex than the very gravity that had held the sled back now moved it towards them. Slowly at first, so slowly that it gave the horses an instant of relief, a brief sense of triumph. But quickly the horses found the situation had changed. Suddenly their burden had become a pursuer, like some predator out of their primordial past. Now they needed not to pull but to flee. And because they were harnessed together, they could not afford to give in to the urge to panic.
Behind them a thick rope was connected to the back of the sled, attached to a strange device that contained a series of pulleys on the other side of which was a group of men who sought to slow the sled’s descent. The driver pulled back on the reigns in order to remind them that he was in charge. It was his task to keep the horses from giving in to their instinct to panic, the powerful compulsions that had helped their bloodlines survive for untold generations. His was the hand that would keep them functioning as a unit.
Their pride and discipline held, although nervousness could be seen in their wide-open eyes and the involuntary tics that made their ears twitch and their tails tuck. Such discipline was more of an effort to them than the upward pull, more against their nature.
Large hooves found solid footing on the path that had been well prepared for them by those whose job it was to tend the ice road. Hot sand had been shoveled upon the freshly fallen snow. Behind them it was the men’s turn to pull, and they applied themselves with all the pride and animal intensity the horses had shown, intent on keeping the sled under control.
The horses were perhaps a third of the way down the hill that was a not so gentle twenty foot decline when the first snap of the rope was heard. Strong men stared helplessly at the quickly unraveling cords as the horses seemed to sense the danger. The men released the rope faster, hoping the horses could make it to the bottom while it still held. But the fiber continued to uncoil until with a last quick snap it let go.
No time seemed to pass between the snap and the look of terror that alit in the eyes of the horses. Panic arose in them but it was checked by their experience and awareness of the situation. Perhaps such knowledge resided not in thought but merely in muscle memory, still they were reacting to their predicament in a controlled manner. They needed to run, but they needed to run as a unit. They would have to keep pace with the load bearing down on them without straining unduly at their harnesses. They would have to use all the energy panic provided without surrendering to it.
The driver tried to help them in this, sought to provide direction and control. But the initial snap of the rope had launched the sled forward, so that he was facing his own battle to remain his perch atop the logs.
It was a single misplaced hoof that did them in, a slight break of the rhythm that kept them operating as a single entity. Even then they might have recovered had it not been for one of the horses in that back that was a little younger and newer to the job. Panic arose in him with an intensity that silenced any other concerns. Abandoning the thought of teamwork, he strained against the harness with all the life that was in him. The other horses still struggled to work in concert, but it was futile. There was no unity, no time to react as a team. Panic soon spread among them all.
In the mindless jostle of animals attempting to flee, it was a short time before one of them went down. It almost managed to regain its footing but by that time he had brought the horse next to him to the ground as well. The two front horses continued pulling madly, each in a different direction. Before the rear horses could get their legs back under them, the sled was upon them, the thick steel runners slicing effortlessly through muscles that short moments ago had spent their efforts providing the sled’s momentum.
The driver had already been thrown, or else had judged the situation hopeless and jumped from the impending disaster. Nobody would have blamed him—a jump from such a height would not have been made lightly. The sled did not get past the fallen horses before the reins tightened, tipping over the already top-heavy sled. Amid the noise of the crashing sled, of men hurling curses and logs breaking free from their restraints, the cries of the horses cut through the chaos. It reigned above the madness as the chief horror. All of their pride and vitality in the end had brought them nothing but this. Cursing and shaking his head as he walked down the path towards the horses, the foreman reached into his Mackinaw jacket and pulled out a pistol.