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New American Western
Saddlebag Dispatches




Western Short Story
The Unknown Horseman
John Duncklee


Western Short Story

The corral was circular, made from mesquite poles and posts Estacada style where the poles are laid between two posts on one end and two posts on the other. The poles are stacked as high as the builder wants them or as high as the builder has poles for. This corral was circular because the man who built it wanted it for training horses.

This particular day there were six cowboys sitting on the top poles of two of the sections of the corral. All twelve eyes were focused on a wild eyed three-year-old bay gelding that stood in the center of the corral occasionally shaking his head. The cowboys assumed that the horse was displaying his anger toward them since all six had tried to ride the gelding unsuccessfully. None of the cowboys had noticed the short Mexican man standing at the gate to the corral with his hands resting on the gate poles.

Two of the defeated cowboys had limped their ways across the corral to then hoist themselves up to the top poles for a place to sit. There the bruised and dispirited cowboys wondered who among them would be able to make this ornery bay gelding mind his manners. They also wondered if the bay would continue bucking riders sky high to fall onto the smelly floor of the corral. Some had ended up with green stains on their shirtsleeves and Levis. Two had acquired a few bloody scratches on the faces. None had escaped the embarrassment of not being able to ride the bay gelding that the boss wanted broken to ride.

The sun had crept higher in the sky and sent its heat onto the straw hats of the onlookers, except for one straw hat that the bay had kicked to pieces after dumping its owner almost into the corral fence. Some tipped up their hats and wiped the sweat from their brows with their shirtsleeves. None of the cowboys had anything to say, but they all heard the metallic click of the iron gate latch as it opened and moments later closed. All six perched on the top poles looked toward the corral gate. The short Mexican man had entered the corral and approached the bay gelding in the center of the corral talking all the way. “Que hubole,” he said to the bay (How is it going?”). As he got closer he talked steadily, “Aye que bayo hermoso, crees que eres muy bravo?” (Ah bay horse, do you think you are very wild?). “Pues, yo no creo. Tu pareses muy mansito, y somos amigos, que no?”(Well I don’t believe it. You appear to be very gentle, and we are friends, isn’t that right?). The man reached his open-palmed hand toward the bay’s nose. The horse directed his muzzle toward the Mexican man’s hand, and lifted his nose and curled his upper lip. The man spoke to the horse again. “No te dije que somos amigos?” (Didn’t I tell you that we are friends?”

The conversation continued between the Mexican man and the bay horse. The man stroked the bay on his cheek and then along his neck. Then the man reached down and picked up the bay’s left foreleg by the hoof. As he released the hoof the man patted the bay’s stomach and moved toward the rump. He ran his hand down the back of the bay’s left hind leg and took the rear hoof in his hand. The man patted the horse on the inside of his hind leg and released the hoof.

Back at the bay’s head, the Mexican man took a handful of the horse’s forelock hair in his right fist and led the bay over to the side of the corral where a saddle and bridle lay in the dust after the last ride by the sixth cowboy that now sat on the top poles of the corral wide eyed with mouth open in total amazement. The rest of the onlookers held the same pose.

The Mexican man slipped the hackamore’s braided rawhide nose band over the bay’s muzzle and the headstall over his ears, leaving the reins on the ground. Then he took the saddle and put it onto the bay’s back and eased the stirrups down to hang where they should. He reached under the horse’s belly and grabbed the braided, stranded cinch by its ring and brought it under the belly where he put the end on the latigo, a leather strap that holds the cinch and therefore the saddle on the horse. He wrapped the latigo through the two cinch rings, one on the cinch and the other on the saddle. Then he pulled on the latigo until the cinch was tight. He reached up and took a hold on the saddle horn and wiggled it to make sure all was in order.

“Bueno, joven, estas listo?” (Good young man, are you ready?)

The bay looked around at the Mexican man, then faced forward. The man lifted his left foot into the left stirrup, grabbed the saddle horn and swung himself up, throwing his right leg over the bay’s rump and down into the right hand stirrup. With the reins in his left hand and his right hand on his thigh, the Mexican man talked again to the bay, asking him again if he was ready. The man nudged the horse with his boot heels softly onto the bay’s rib cage. The bay started to walk.

The cowboys on the corral fence all had wrinkled brows in amazement. It was fortunate that it wasn’t fly season or their open mouths would have been buzzing. They followed the horse and rider around the corral as the Mexican man had the bay trot and then lope, then turn around and travel in the opposite direction. Dust rose from the floor of the corral from the bay’s hooves striking it. After a short while, the Mexican man reined in the bay in the center of the corral and dismounted. Standing at the bay’s head, the Mexican man took the bay’s cheeks in his hands and pulled on them slightly.

“Por seguro, somos amigos bayo. Que le vaya bien.” (For sure we are friends, bay horse. That you go well.)

The Mexican man left the bay saddled in the center of the corral and walked to the gate. At the gate he turned back toward the bay gelding and waved. “Adios, amigo,” he said.

Turning back to the gate, he opened the latch. Again the surprised looking cowboys seated on the corral fence heard the metallic clicking as the gate opened, the man passed through. Again the clicking sounded as the gate closed. The short Mexican man walked away heading toward the far end of the tall hay barn that was half full of hay bales. The cowboys heard a sound that they were not familiar with. They looked at one another, still with mouths open and quizzical looks on their faces.

“Who is that man?” the hatless cowboy asked.

“Never saw him before,” the cowboy seated next to him said.

Six voices came forth with various way of saying that nobody had ever seen the Mexican man before he walked into the corral and rode the outlaw bay. Just as they were all exclaiming about the man’s magical ride on the bay and what a horseman he was the boss and his wife walked up to the corral gate and opened it. Then, the couple walked toward the cowboys sitting on the corral fence and stopped in front of them.

“Have any of you seen a short Mexican man around here this morning?” The boss asked.

“He was here, rode that bay, and left,” the hatless cowboy said. “He talked to that horse in Spanish so none of us could understand a word.”

The boss, with a puzzled look on his face, took off his Stetson and scratched his head.

“Perhaps you fellows should become bilingual,” the boss’s wife said. “I saw him over on the other side of the hay barn a while ago. He got behind the wheel of a brand new white Cadillac, started it up, and drove off down the ranch road toward the highway.”