Western Short Story
Jon Mark Hogg
Heading back from the outhouse, the fire of his cigarette caught my eye—down by the corrals. It wouldn’t be dawn for a few more hours. I had not notice Carol was up when I went to relieve myself. I didn’t see Ortega. I figured he must still be sleeping. An old half-washed out adobe house was what we lived in. It wadn’t exactly home, but it was better than sleeping out in the open. By the time I walked over to see what he was doing, he had finished saddling his favorite flea-bitten grey. He leaned against the saddle finishing his cigarette. He stared into the dark of the quarter moon and took another drag. The fail glow of the cigarette against his face showed worry.
I said, “You’re up early.”
“Ain’t been asleep.” He replied.
“You feelin’ well?”
“Go wake Ortega and get dressed.” He said.
“It ain’t dawn for several hours.” I said.
He climbed into the saddle.
“And saddle your horse.” He continued.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Just tell Ortega to watch the herd. Then come find me.”
He rode off northwest, into the dark.
Carol scared the hell out of me. I didn’t figure he liked me very much—can’t say I blame him. I was seventeen and didn’t know nothin’ bout working horses. But Mr. Stanton needed hands and I needed a job, so we came to an arrangement—I’d pretend to work and he’d pretend he was gonna pay me—and we’d see how it went.
I could ride and throw a lariat around a log, so long as it wasn’t movin’, but that was about it. I wasn’t a cowboy and didn’t really want to be. That didn’t measure much to a man like Carol.
Ortega cursed me for waking him. But when I told him what Carol said he pulled on his boots and was up and headed down to the corrals without saying another word. I saddled my horse. Ortega did the same standing right next to me. Neither of us said anything. Wadn’t sure what time it was. Might’ve been close to three.
After Ortega rode off I stood there a minute listening. Just sounds of the prairie at night. I climbed into the saddle. Something sure had Carol spooked. Maybe it was rustlers. I rode off in the general direction Carol had gone.
The light of the moon wasn’t much to go by, but after ten or twenty minutes I found him.
He was sitting still, staring off toward the dry arroyo that curved in a long bend from northwest to the southeast around our station. I pulled up beside him.
“What is it?” I asked.
He did not answer.
“Somethin’ out there?” I asked again.
Carol motioned off toward the arroyo.
This perplexed me a great deal, because I didn’t see nothin’. The moon, what there was of it, had gone behind the clouds and it was just off of pitch dark. I strained my eyes to see what I could tell.
“See him?” Carol asked.
“Yes.” I lied.
Carol never took his eyes away from the dark.
“Don’t lie boy.” He said. “If you lie ‘bout little things you’ll lie about big things and no man’ll ever trust you.”
“Yes sir.” I said.
“He’s out there, even if you can’t see him. He thought he’d catch us sleeping.”
“What am I supposed to be lookin’ for?”
Carol cut me off. “He’s moving. Stay close.”
Without Carol so much as touching the grey, the horse inched forward through the belly high grass. We crept, barely a walk. Carol paid me no attention, his eyes fixed on the darkness. We rode like this for long minutes. Then, for no apparent reason, Carol stopped and motioned me to do the same. A light breeze from the south moved the clouds off and the quarter moon shown through. I saw something move. I almost didn’t see him, but then he turned his head. It was a horse—far off, but there was no mistaking it. I couldn’t really get a good look at him and it was too dark to tell much. The horse did not move. He stared at us, the dark eyes never wavered.
“Want me to circle round him?” I asked.
Carol cut me off, “Ssssst!”
Carol didn’t move. Neither did his grey. For a second I thought Carol had stopped breathing. In a few moments the clouds shrouded the moonlight. The horse faded into night’s shadow.
“Well, he knows we’re here now.” He said.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“Keep an eye on him.”
“How do we do that in the dark?”
Carol said, “Cid here will be our eyes.” I think he must have noticed my confusion. “Cid smelled him first, once we got downwind of him.”
“I seen his tracks yesterday, and Cid was restless. A stallion can sense another one.”
“Whose is he?”
“Belongs to his self.”
Carol nodded. “Belongs to whoever can catch him and hold him. Closest thing to freedom you’ll ever see in your life.”
“What’s he doing here?” I asked.
“Our mares. He smells them.”
Carol’s stallion began to move again, crouched with energy as it stole through the grass. A true night horse.
“Shoulda brought the gun.” Carol said. “Now that he’s seen us, he’ll be mighty careful.” Carol said. “Might even go round. He’s too far for us to rush. He’s a damn fast horse. Nothin’ we got can catch him.”
“You know him?” I asked.
“Been awhile. Go find Ortega. Round the herd together. Get them in close and keep them there. If you get a chance, move as many to the corrals as you can as soon as its light.”
I rode off as quick as I could. I found Ortega and filled him in on what was happening. Within five minutes we had gathered the herd up and circled them in tight. I counted more than twenty good breeding mares.
“Was it Nightmare?” Ortega asked.
“He has a name?”
“What did he look like?”
“Sort of a coyote dun.” I answered.
“You seen him before too?”
“He stole five mares from us several years ago. His manada ranges far, but we haven’t seen him this side of Jim Ned creek in a long time.”
“Manada?” I asked.
Ortega chuckled at my ignorance.
“The harem of mares a stallion keeps.”
“What’s he want with our mares?”
“You like the señoritas, no? What do you think he wants them for?”
“Carol said something about moving them to the corrals.”
“That would be the best place to protect them.” Ortega said. “But the corrals are a long way off and we are not enough to hold them together in the dark. Besides, I have seen mustangs destroy a corral to get at the mares.”
“So what do we do?”
“The best thing would be to put him down.”
“Should I go fetch the .44?” I asked.
“No. I need you here.”
Ortega went off to far side of herd. I sat there waiting and watching the night. After a long while, the horses began to stir. Ortega began calling to them softly, reassuring them. I imitated him. We worked back and forth trying to hedge them in.
After what seemed like hours I started breathing easier—maybe Carol had run him off—and this would amount to nothing. About that time, I turned and out of the corner of my eye a shadow moved. I wheeled to look and there he was. The mustang had slipped in among the mares. I called out to Ortega, but heard no reply.
I shadowed the stallion as he worked his way through the herd, and tried to remain calm. My palms sweated. My head began to ache. It felt like my stomach had forced itself halfway up my throat. The horses stirred uncomfortably. The mustang was in among them, like a wolf in the midst of sheep.
So long as he stayed in the herd, and we could keep them tied in close, I thought things might be alright. But I knew eventually he would try to cut some out of the herd. When he did, if he were as fast and wild as they said he was, I’d have no chance once he broke out into the open. I wished Carol was here.
I thought about going straight in on the stallion to drive him off. But if I did, the herd would divide and scatter. That would only make things worse. I just stayed with him as best I could, shadowing him on the outside. I untied my lariat and took it in hand like I knew what I was doing. In my heart I knew, as green as I was I had no chance with that mustang.
The horses began to move against me. The mustang was driving them. He had taken over and rolled them to run in a broad circle. With each turn it grew larger.
“Hold ‘em!” Carol yelled from somewhere far off “Hold ‘em!”
The stallion made his move. He chose a small stream of horses and cut them out in front of, and across me, on my left. Seven, ten, twelve—I stopped counting. There was nothing I could do. But one mare was having none of it. She broke off and came running hard down my right. The stallion tore off after her. I didn’t have enough sense to let him go and go after the mares he’d left behind. Instead I held out my loop and gave it a tiny flick as he rode past. He ran right through it. As the rope played out after him I fastened it to the saddle horn just as quick and tight as I was able.
I was pretty proud of myself for an instant. That did not last long. I expected the line to jerk hard against his neck. I was ready for that. I wasn’t ready for what happened. There he was in the early light. He felt the rope fall around his neck and turned on a dime. The rope lay on the ground between him and me. He let the mare go, and with a cold stare turned back on me and struck in fury.
My horse reared to defend itself with me hangin’ on for dear life. A whirlwind of slashing hooves, biting teeth and the force of 1,000 pound horses tore the wind out of me. Blood, foam and sweat swung around in great streams—some of it mine. The pell mell battle seemed to go on and on, but it must have only been a few minutes. My horse couldn’t take this for long. The only thing I could try to do is choke him with the lariat. I tried desperately to stay in the saddle and coil it in.
Without warning, in a spasm of blood and dirt the world fell out from under me. It went dark for a split second as we crashed to earth. I wasn’t able to quite get free as we fell. My left foot caught in the stirrup under my horse. I struggled to get free. The stallion came down on my horse’s head like a war hammer, killing him. Then he turned on me. I was barely able to get my leg free just as he lunged. I stumbled and fell on my back. He would have killed me but for Ortega. His lasso came around the stallion’s head from off to my left. Ortega let out a long cry of profanity to the Mother of God as he pulled it tight. Before he could, the stallion charged at him.
Ortega must have expected it. He took off circling the stallion trying to stay out of reach and draw the rope tight on his throat. It was futile. In seconds the stallion would close the distance. But Ortega weaved and drew him off just far enough. The mustang’s neck snapped back quick as it came to the end of my lariat. It was still tied to my saddle horn. With the dead horse as anchor I took hold of it and pulled on it with everything I had to draw it tighter. Ortega dashed across to the opposite side of the stallion and we had him caught between us.
Then Carol appeared. He roped the horse’s front legs and in two stumbles brought the stallion to the ground.
“Choke him! Choke him out Ortega!”
In a few moments the stallion was gasping and choking. The color on his face took on a dark purple hue. It took minutes until the animal stopped struggling and fell limp.
“Enough Ortega!” Carol yelled. “Let up on him.”
The horse had passed out. Once we loosened the rope he breathed again
“You all right kid?” Carol asked.
I slumped down on my dead horse and began to vomit. While I sat there trying to recover, they kept the noose on him and staked him down so he couldn’t move if any fight was left in him.
Ortega helped me get the saddle off my dead horse and I rode behind him back to the house, where I caught a new mount. Once I was mounted again I rode off to find Carol and Ortega. They were moving the herd in. Once I joined Ortega, Carol rode off to look for strays. It was past midday before Carol returned.
“Found all, except a couple of ‘em.” Carol said.
Ortega said, “They’ll probably turn up.”
“If they don’t, we’re still damn lucky.” Carol said and looked at me. “If it weren’t for you we’d be in a sorry mess.”
That was the closest thing to a compliment I ever got from Carol. But, I didn’t feel pride, or accomplishment. I felt lucky to be alive.
“So what do we do with him now?” I asked.
We rode back out to where they’d staked the stallion down. He was snorting and we could tell he’d been struggling against his fetters. But by now it was mid-afternoon. After spending all day tied down in the hot sun, with no water, now he just lay still.
“I reckon he’s docile enough now to let him up. But keep your lariat’s on him snug, just in case.”
Once we secured fresh lariats around him, Carol undid the stakes and stepped back. The stallion didn’t get up quick. He lifted his head slow, and stared straight at Carol for a few seconds. Then as the circulation returned he stumbled to his feet, swaying for a second until he was sure his legs could still work. And that was it. He didn’t lunge at us or rear in defiance. He just stood there looking at us, sizing up the situation.
We had little trouble getting him back to the corrals. The old mustang corral hadn’t been used in years. It was a high fenced circle with hard cedar logs. You couldn’t see the stallion in it without looking through the space in between the logs. After a day or two of him stomping and snorting and trying to get out, he finally gave up. We went about our business and just left him there with food and water.
One evening I stepped out after supper and saw Carol at the corral. I walked over to see what he was up to.
“He ain’t ate a bite in three days.” Carol said. “Not sure he’s taken much water neither.”
“Think he’s sick?”
“He ain’t his self.”
“I expect he’ll eat when he’s hungry.” I said.
Carol headed toward the house.
Ortega made an attempt at taming him. He never could get him to take a halter or saddle. He could barely get close to him. Ortega just gave up and left him alone.
I stared at the stallion through the fence quite often over the next few weeks. He wasn’t the same horse that came near to killin’ me. Something had happened to him. The first few days he had stormed around the corral, testing it for weakness, trying to get through it. He even tried jumping over it but that high corral fence was designed to keep wild horses in. Every time he failed.
Week after week went by and nothing changed. The stallion grew thinner and thinner. He wasted away. It was a miserable thing to watch.
“Should we let him go?” Ortega asked Carol one day.
“Only a fool would let that horse free again.” Carol replied. I suppose he was right. But that didn’t make it any easier to watch such a magnificent animal starve himself to death.
I guess that really didn’t matter. We couldn’t let him go, and he wouldn’t let us keep him. So, they were long, slow, miserable weeks.
When I brought the subject of releasing him up again, Carol still protested.
“Wouldn’t make any difference anyway.” He remarked. “He probably don’t have enough left in him to go a hundred yards.”
“Then it sure wouldn’t matter if we open it, would it?” I said.
“Fine, open it then.” He answered.
Ortega went with me. He brought the pistol along, but there was no point in it. There was not much of him left in the corral. When we opened the gate the skeleton that used to be a stallion was laying against the far side of the circle. We left the gate open and entered the corral, each of us standing on opposite sides from the other. Carol stepped outside to watch.
We stood there eyeing each other for a long time. Even at death’s door, the stallion didn’t trust us. He lifted his head, and looked at the open gate, then dropped it again into the dust. He didn’t move, I guess because he didn’t think he could. But he kept eyeing that open gate and before long it was too much for him. He began to stir. It seemed like he was fighting against the weight of the world to lift himself off the ground. He liked to never get to his feet, but he did. Ortega tried to encourage the horse.
“Go on.” He said.
Carol stayed by the house—resignation in his eyes.
The stallion took a step. It was wobbly and unsure, but he stayed on his feet. Then he took another. He crept forward. Each step seemed painful, as if it took everything he had left in him. Halfway across the corral he fell hard. Ortega and I moved towards him. His spirit gave a loud snort of anger. We stepped back. He had a devil of a time regaining his feet. He continued moving forward, focused only on the open gate.
I shouldn’t have been surprised or disappointed when he collapsed, still inside the gate, but it broke my heart. I started to cry. Even Ortega looked upset. He tried once more to rise to his feet but couldn’t. He slumped down panting. He breathed with difficulty, but did not move.
Carol walked over to him, leaned down in the dust and petted the mustang for a good long while. The horse closed his eyes. Carol stood up and held out his hand to Ortega. Ortega handed him the pistol. Without any words or warning, Carol fired a single shot into the stallion’s head. He looked at us. He must have seen horror in our faces.
“Ain’t no freedom no more, for none of us.” He said and walked back into the house.