Western Short Story
John Joseph “Jack” Mabry, wrangler for the Cross-Bed Ranch in the Texas Panhandle, was as outspoken as any wrangler could be, demanding that his horses be given their honest due and good care “lest that cowpoke not doin’ so be fixed one way or another. I ain’t raisin’ and runnin’ chickens for the drive, but horses good as men and smarter that some I’ve known.”
Cowboys, we know, can say a hundred ways they’re in love, and here are a few of them:
He weren’t born, mister, he was made for me. Just for me. My horse.
Now tell me that ain’t some critter he’s sittin’ like he’s on top of the world. That’s a horse.
You think she’s got a chest. See what my horse brings with her.
See how he runs, the way his muscles move him along, like the good Lord took special attention.
I’d put everythin’ I own in the kitty, ‘ceptin’ my horse.
I’m sorry, Ma’am, but there’s only one love in my life right now, and it’s my horse.
Mabry was in the Hard Drive Saloon in Chapstown, the latest cattle drive for the Cross-Bed done and wrapped up, and was “dryin’ out a bit o’ the dust.” The saloon was packed with people, many of the drovers from the Cross-Bed in the crowd.
One ornery cowpoke from another ranch, in a loud voice as if saying at first, “I’m a big teaser,” actually said to Mabry, “Hey, Jack, I hear you’d rather kiss that horse of yours out front than a lady up the stairs.” He nodded at the set of stairs against the far wall and dumped off one of those “I’ve-done-him-good-for-now” grins. His name was Jake Parlee.
Mabry finished off his beer and said, “I’d kiss him a hundred times ‘fore I’d kiss that ugly face of yours, Parlee, and you can bet on that.” And in the same moment warded off the punch Parlee threw back at him, slammed him on the jaw with one punch, and watched as he dropped to the floor. “A good horseman don’t talk like that in mixed company, and him being the mixed company.”
Addressing the whole saloon, knowing he had everybody’s attention, Mabry said, “Just take a look at us, each one of us, and we ain’t the same without our horse, without those reins in our hands, that powerful body under us. I think our friend Parlee here knows that like we all do, but he’s got to find a way to make it known and not just tell his horse when he’s alone out on the trail or ridin’ guard or doing fence ridin’. It’s the only way we can really share our horse, less’n a pal’s mount goes down and he has to put it out of misery.”
Mabry, the barkeep, and the crowd of cowpokes sat around for ten full minutes before the cowpoke Parlee regained his senses, stood up groggily and gingerly, picked up his hat and walked out of the saloon. There was no mean look over his shoulder, no “I’ll get you for this” and no “We’ll meet down the trail sometime.”
It was cut and dried over, between horsemen, of one sort of another.
Or it ought to have been.
Two days later, in the evening shadows out on the trail between the Cross-Bed and Chapstown, some bushwhacker from the deepest shadows took a shot at Mabry, narrowly missing him. Mabry, firing back a spread of shots, not having seen a thing but figuring where the shot came from, ducked low in the saddle and lit out for town and the sheriff.
“I ain’t sayin’ Parlee did it, Sheriff, but he’s as close to wanting me dead now as any I knowed this whole time. He should know better’n talk down a man’s horse. It ain’t a fittin’ thing to do, him ridin’ a horse all day like I do most days, bein’ a cowpoke, herdin’, drivin’, runnin’ with them great legs under your butt.”
“You figure you got an idea where that shot come from, Jack?” Sheriff Bill Twisdell was already thinking of any others who might have a disliking for Mabry, who was a man well-known as stuck in his ways and beliefs. “We’ll take a poke out that way in the mornin’ and look around. Might find somethin’ interestin’.”
The pair was at the site in the early morning when the sun was introducing itself again, touching the shadows, the shapes in shadows and the shapes making the shadows, the long shadows getting shorter, the short shadows disappearing quick as bird to wing. Twisdell spent long minutes looking at every mark he noticed, in and out of the shadows. Sometimes the sun made notes for him, places to look at.
At one point he called Mabry to his side. “Look at this, Jack.” He was pointing to a mark on a boulder at the foot of a tree. “I’d say that you put a round off this here boulder, and it hit right there.” He put his finger on a spot of the curved surface of the boulder. “From this I’d say you figured the backstabber was close around here. If he’s stupid enough to do somethin’ like this bushwhacking in the first place, he’s stupid enough to leave some kind of sign. We just got to find it.” He looked up and added, “Course he might go on and try it all over again.” He leveled his eyes at Mabry, as if there was a dare in it, but the devoted wrangler never bit the chew offered.
Twisdell continued looking, studying every little patch of ground, tree or rock surface, and found where a bullet must have clipped a few young limbs, allowed sap to flow for a short time, but leaving a track for his keen eyes..
“You fired them five shots all in this area, Jack, so let’s go back over it again.” Then he said, “How long you been ridin’ that horse you’re on now, Jack? You sure do take a lot of stock in him. I tell you, some boys talk about that horse of yours, like a jealous bull in the corral.”
Mabry smiled and said, “Gone past seven years now, me bein’ on Hobo, Bill, and I’ll keep him 20 if I can last that long myself. He listens to me and I listen to him. Tells me a lot, he does. Lays his ears flat back on his neck tellin’ me he’s bothered by what I’m doin’ or where we’re goin’. When somethin’s goin’ on around us, like a critter or a stranger, he flicks those ears like he was a scout. When I feed him good or go easy on the proddin’, he puts them ears to the day comin’ at us, just like he’s happy to be workin’ with me. And I know pretty darn early when he’s sick, or got a belly ache or somethin’ like that, like he tells me with them ears, like they’re extra tongues talkin’ right at me.”
“He makes you jump, right, Jack?”
“Yup, like it’s his kitchen most of the time, and he’s the boss, like my mother was, bless her soul.”
Mabry continued to talk, then realized the sheriff obviously knew all the old stuff he was spitting out and was more interested in a sign he’d just found, making his hands fly up in the air, his head start nodding, like he’d just found a gold nugget at his feet and was lost in the quick study of it.
In between two rocks, in soft ground and not hard gravel, as if it had been put there by Mother Nature for surprise growth, but only a few weeds there at struggling, he found a boot print. All the signs were firm, measurable, and brought up images in Twisdell’s mind. “Way it sets, heavy-like, says he’s a big man, Jack. Lot bigger than Parlee, who ain’t much bigger than a boy waitin’ to ride a horse for the first time. Know any big men who want you dead quick as thunder?”
“Not that I do, Sheriff. Not yet, but they might be over the hill, around the bend in the trail like you say.”
While Mabry was talking, Twisdell’s eye caught something else in the ground. “Jack, did you come chasin’ in here after the shootin’?”
Didn’t do none of that, Bill. Why you askin’?”
“Well, it looks to me that there was two of them critters in here. Found a smaller boot print over here. Two of them for sure. A big man and a smaller man, or a tall man and a little man with a foot like a boy’s. Know anyone like that hangin’ out together? I sure don’t, but now we got a sign or two to keep to mind.”
“Funny pair for a match-up, Bill, how big and little get throwed together for a bushwhackin’.”
“Hey, Jack, my daddy used to say all the time, tryin’ to give me his best advice and countin’ on me listenin’, ‘Fools go on fool errands with other fools.’”
The event and the situation was squeezed down to a thing of the past, and life for Mabry the wrangler went on its working manner, until one of the cowpokes said one evening as he came back from a visit to his sister down-trail a dozen miles, “You was sayin’, Jack, about the big guy with a little guy.”
“I did say that a time or two,” Mabry said, “Why’d you spit it out now?”
“Down in Holbrook, just a few days ago, I saw a pair look like you said. One guy bigger’n a horse with his pard I first noticed ‘cause he was sittin’ down and wearin’ boots so small I don’t know how they made them, except for little kids and not for workin’ a horse all day long. Tiniest feet I ever saw and mounted with spurs, mind you like they was too big for them little boots. Then this big guy stands up first and the little one and it’s like a circus show, the pair of them walkin’ out like they was goin’ to do an act with the clowns in the carnie. There was a few laughs, but kind of covered up over ‘cause that big guy is as mean lookin’ as he is big.”
“Do you know who they are?” Mabry said. “Any names? Workin’ on a spread some place down that way?”
“One gent I heard say somethin’ about them workin’ at the Foxtrot spread, over in Galena, next town down to the river not more’n five miles or so.”
An hour later, when Bill Twisdell showed up at his office, Mabry told him about the two cowpokes working for the Foxtrot spread. “Big and little, just like you figured, Bill. You had them pegged on the button. How do we handle this? “
“You don’t, Jack. I’ll poke into this, look them up. Ask questions. My way. We got no connection to Parlee from where we’re sittin’ now. None at all from where I’m lookin’. You just take care of your horses and I’ll do the sheriffin’.”
Twisdell was a couple of miles out of town, on his way to check out the suspect pair, when he noticed, for the second time, that a rider was behind him, keeping pace. He nodded as if he had an audience, figuring the rider behind him to be a true lover of horses, Jack Mabry. He pulled his horse into small copse of trees and waited.
When he stepped out in front of Mabry, Mabry was not surprised at all and said, “I knowed you was someplace in there, Bill, because old Hobo here just told me to clear my eyes and keep alert. I’m just figurin’ to lend a hand case you might need it.”
They rode on as a tandem, idle chatter covering the time, watching the beginning of a drive starting to head up far across the range, a hawk make a kill not far from them and lifting off with a jack rabbit of good size, the scatter of prairie dogs at quick moments, until they saw the marker for the Foxtrot spread, a small, carved sign of good letters and one arrow pointing the way.
Twisdell, wearing his badge shining like a real star, rode right up to the decent-sized ranch house and a man and woman setting the porch at real relaxing.
“The woman looked up, smiled at the badge and kept on with hand work with needles. The man, in his late forties, happy-faced like he was pleased to see visitors, stood up, looked at Twisdell’s badge, and said, “Can I help you with something, Sheriff? This is my spread, the Foxtrot. This is my wife Mirabelle and I’m Sandy Hooks.”
Twisdell tipped his cap and said, “Ma’am,” soft but clear, and looked back at Hooks. “I’m Sheriff Bill Twisdell from Chapstown up the trail, and this here gent is Jack Mabry, a wrangler from one of our spreads back that way, and he was near bushwhacked by two men back a bit. We had an idea about things that bring us to your place.”
Hooks said, “That so?” and looked at Mabry and said, “Well, sir, I guess they was tryin’ to steal that horse off’n you. I’d settle for a few of him around here. That is some animal. Yes, sir, some animal. I spotted him before I spotted you, course I ain’t slightin’ you any, mister, ‘cause you’re ridin’ somethin’ special I could see all the way in here.”
Mirabelle Hooks was smiling at her husband as he spoke, though her fingers kept at their business.
Twisdell said, “What brings us here is a pair of dudes that travel together, a real big man and a pard that might be half his size. You have anybody like that in your bunkhouse?” And as if to prevent a lie or a cover-up from starting, he added, “We had a gent tell us somethin’ that brings us right here.”
Mrs. Hooks looked at her husband, her hands ceasing their work, the look saying to Twisdell, “Now don’t you do any lyin’, Sandy.”
“Strange you say that, Sheriff. We got a pair exactly like that, but I ain’t seen Big Boy all day. Fact is, I ain’t seen him since maybe noon yesterday. That’s Big Boy Benson I’m talkin’ about, one of my hands, a mean one at times I might add but his daddy and momma was good friends of mine and he gets some slack from me, but only some. He does have a mean streak in him. The other fella, Pippy, Pippy Andrews, a little Scotsman. is his regular pard, and scared to death of Big Boy but uses him as a guard of sorts, like you know what I mean.”
“This Pippy, is he around now?” Twisdell looked out over a ranch area neat as a beehive, maintenance and care evident in all the parts, the ranch house itself, fence posts and rails, corrals, a low-slung bunkhouse with one dormer, a major-size barn and two smaller barns, and two outhouses on opposites ends of the ranch house area.
“He certainly is,” Mrs. Hooks said, I saw him not an hour ago and he was going into the bunkhouse. He hasn’t ridden out yet that I’ve seen.” She went back to her needles after smiling an apology to her husband for beating him to the punch, telling on an employee before her husband had to.
Hooks said, “Let’s go see what he has to say about any of this. He might know where Big Boy is.” Hooks started off to the bunkhouse with Twisdell and Mabry behind him. He walked with a steady gait, with purpose.
Pippy Andres was smaller than Twisdell or Mabry had even pictured, much a boy as anything except for a sort of wizened, aged face of a 40-year old man, eyes narrowly apart, mouth small, and ears tight to his head. Small but sudden jerks of nervousness quickly took over him as he saw Twisdell’s badge and Hooks right behind him. It appeared he had no recognition of Mabry.
Hooks said, “Pippy, where’s Big Boy? We ain’t seen him since yesterday.”
“I know why you’re here,” Andrews said, his whole little body all aquiver by this time, the little boots, like toys, shaking on his feet.
“What’s that, Pippy?” Twisdell said. “Why are we here?”
Pippy Andrews, all as though the hanging shadows were coming down over him, said, “Parlee did it. Said we could have your horse if we got you. Said your horse is the best around. He knowed that all along.” He died saying that. Big Boy killed him when we said we missed killin’ that fella with the great horse. He’s down in a copse near the small bend in the river. Maybe the buzzards got him by now or the coyotes.”
He still didn’t recognize Mabry. “Then Big Boy tried to say he was going to keep the horse for himself, that I was a shrimp of a man, a boy of a man, and couldn’t handle that horse, so I shot him, the big mouth. He’s always the big mouth and I just wanted to get up on that horse like I was king of the grass and ride him all day long. That horse could ride me forever, any place I wanted to go. I know it.”
“Where’s Big Boy now?” Hooks said.
“Right where we left Parlee, in them trees.” He was standing, and looked out the bunkhouse window and saw Hobo tied to the rail of the ranch house.
It must have all dawned on him at that moment and he looked at Mabry and said, “Is that your horse, mister? Is it really yours? Are you the fella Big Boy shot at?”
He shook his head in wonder and awe, other resolutions dawning on him, and then he looked at Hobo again and said, “I just wanted to ride him all day on the grass, mister. Just one day all by myself and nobody, not even big mouth Big Boy sayin’ a word to me ‘cause they couldn’t catch up to me, me and your horse. Just one day.”
He closed his eyes, his little frame shaking all over, waiting for whatever came next, knowing that he had lost out on the ride of his life.