Western Short Story
Lots of folks down in south Texas still tell the story of the relentless search for one most prized horse stolen down Rancho Lobo way. They tell the story even years after the horse was stolen during the night of one of the greatest storms that ever roared in from the Gulf of Mexico. Like Hell was shot out of a cannon, they said of that storm, and calling it “The Night the Devil Broke Loose.” The winds, roaring like wild steam engines, ripped inland from the Gulf and cut a scandalous path of devastation more than 80 miles wide. Roofs of barns sailed in the air like wings of ungodly giant birds, windows in meager huts imploded before their scanty roofs came free. One small settlement not very far from Rancho Lobo saw every one of its buildings blown apart the way dynamite could do it. And the horse, a 6-year old stallion, a prized animal from the first day, went by the name of Chigger Boom and belonged to 16-year old Chuck Curtin, the son of a small rancher.
That’s going too fast for some folks, I’d guess, so we’ll have to go back to just about the beginning when Chigger Boom came into the world of Texas, near the grass town called Rancho Lobo that lasted almost 50 years, but folded up one night and died a sudden death in another weird storm from the Gulf.
But that’s beside the real story.
So, we go to the very beginning of the tale of Chigger Boom: On the wobbliest legs imaginable, resembling a bean pole ensemble, the foal managed to stand erect for the first time, and on the first attempt this day, with a bare breath in the air coming right off the grass as if it was squeezed directly from a flask. The excitement, so alive, climbed right up the two walls of the barn, and could have ignited the dry wood. Chuckie Curtin, barely grown himself, he too rail-slim from a meager diet of beans and bread and coffee thin as spit, marked the character of the colt with a demonstrative question, leaping in the air as he said to his father: “Ain’t he something, Dad?” They were standing in the idea of a barn, open on two sides to the weather, and not a nail left for pounding on the entire property.
The colt, on this first day, made tears come to Chuckie’s eyes. “He’s all mine, Dad? All mine? I ain’t never been so lucky. Call me Lucky Chuckie if you want. I’ll answer.” His father said he was growing the way he had, “like being 11 one day and forever old the rest of the way.” It was him saying a whole passel of lessons were picked up in one day of the worldly classroom.
Hollis Curtin, who had brought the colt through a difficult birth, smiled with appreciation and pride in his son and in his own good luck with the colt on this early morning. All troubles seemed insurmountable at first, but Curtin was further graced with simple patience born of a harsh beginning, his own birthright; he’d do what it would take for his only son, his only child, to keep an edge on the tough world, even if it was tenuous at best.
And do the same for the colt. Out here a man’s best friend was his horse. Some of his days his memory was long and then short; on other days, it was short and then long. He knew the difference at dawn.
On an early morning of another day, all the way back in the hills of Kentucky, his father had walked over the hill with his rifle over one shoulder, to go off to war. He never returned. That morning came back to him in one vision as clear in his mind as if it was earlier this same day. He had turned and waved, his father, and it was the way some men say goodbye for a long weekend, or goodbye forever. “Long as you can count, it keeps coming,” he heard him say.
“What are you going to call him, Chuckie?”
“Chigger Boom, Pa. His name’s Chigger Boom.”
“Where in tarnation did that name come from, son?”
“Well, Pa, I turn things over in my mind all the time, funny sounds and strange sounds and things that sound like music to me but really ain’t music. I just heard myself saying “Chigger Boom,” and that’s his name. Can I name him that?”
“He’s yours to name, raise, saddle in time, ride forever, if that’s what you want, Chuckie.”
Hollis Curtin remembered the day, in the back of a wagon on the edge of the grass, when Chuckie was born, and lucky to have someone who loved him from then on. It would be this way with the colt. Here, in the west, on the edge of the wild world, a man and a horse were closer than twins. The pair, when treatment and respect abounded, were abided in both directions, which a man could not get by without a good horse. The sooner a man learned that, the better off he was … and with the horse of his choice. Selection was important as the weapons he chose; one day, or more than one day, such possessions would save his life.
The way things were in the growing west, Chuckie was bound to face such a circumstance. He’d make sure the boy was ready, and the colt, this Chigger Boom, was a grand start for him.
He’d keep his eye on the boy, though he knew well beforehand the care that Chuckie would devote to Chigger Boom. With good care the young horse would be with Chuckie for 20 years and perhaps more. Some cowpokes of his acquaintance, the older gents of the herd crowd, said they heard of good horses with good care living into their 30s and early 40s, though the latter were not working horses for that long. With good care at all times, good food without stinting on it, proper rest at work, some horses were as good as sons, as good as fathers, to their riders. Curtin held that image for his son.
As for Chuckie he saw that spindly foal of the caricatured birth, stride into the colt, always moving toward that target of a stallion from that first day.
“Pa,” he said on his own 13th birthday, “ain’t Chigger coming along like we knew he would. Some of the boys over at the X-Bar-X have offered to buy him anytime, and each one of them have said it to me secretly like they don’t want the others to know they got a real interest in buying him.”
“You’ve done a great job with that horse, Chuckie. He stands out in the whole area. Someday they’ll be naming foals after him, like Chigger Miss or Chigger Jack.”
“Won’t that be something, Pa, and you were the one that brought him through that tough night right at the beginning. It’s like he was born by you and given to me and that’s as good as it gets for horses.”
“The part I like as much as anything is the way you can shoe him. You learned that like you were taught in school from the first day. I know you have something going on there that I haven’t picked up yet, but I’m working on it.”
“Oh,” Chuckie said, sort of surprised and yet excited, I got it fixed, Pa, so that I can find Chigger no matter where he goes. I could trail him right over Mount Constable and down the other side to the river.”
“Long as someone don’t have to change his shoes, huh?”
“Oh, Pa, you knew all along.”
“I knew something but I haven’t picked up the sign yet, though I sure did study it for a spell. It’s got to be pretty tricky, like you invented something new.” For a long moment he studied his son, and then he said, “You worried about stealing, Chuckie? Like somebody stealing Chigger?”
“It scares the heck out of me, Pa. Chigger’s like my brother, he’s my pard, and we’re best friends. It’s the way it’s supposed to be and I’m doing what I can to keep it that way. He’s almost five years old now and he’s all horse. I swear he is.” He stared at the horse across the corral and loved the great lines of strength and muscle that moved under his black coat. Chigger snickered as if he knew the attention being paid to him. The sun bounced in waves off his coal black coat like sheen off a pond face. In turn, the fence line beyond Chigger Boom seemed miniature in comparison to the great horse like he was a blaze of quiet energy.
“Do you see what I mean, Pa? Or hear it?”
Impressions were all over the elder Curtin as he studied this son of his. “You’ve won me over on all this, Chuck.” It was probably the first time Curtin had called his son by the grown-up version of his name, as if it had been earned, and wondered if the boy had missed it.
But Chuck Curtin looked at his father and said, “Thanks, Pa.”
A few nights later, as the story goes in most all quarters where it’s been told, Hell came right up out of the Gulf and dropped itself on the whole area, with Rancho Lobo in the middle. The storm rode in with the darkness at the end of a nice, peaceful cowboy’s day and the beginning of a night of terror and destruction, the wind roaring like the very demons it called upon, a howling and a force loose upon the land the way curses are administered, man and his property as fair game for the furies loosed.
The full bang of the storm hung over the land for the longest 12 hours in some people’s lives. Five people were lost without any trace of their departure, and others were hurt so badly it took months to get well again. Cattle herds were driven far apart, some never fairly reclaimed, and many barns and homes sustained damage that would take weeks to repair, if at all possible.
With the weariness of knowing that a bad element was always about in quick, new towns, there came at the same time of the storm those thieves and scoundrels of all makes and types looking for “the free stuff,” things gone loose somehow in the storm and therefore up to claim, as if “the free stuff” had been abandoned at sea like a foundering ship, with any interpretation of claim due for argument.
People in the town of Rancho Lobo started calling that night “The Night the Devil Broke Loose,” and that name stayed in the memory of a lot of Texas folks, even to this day, partly because of what followed it.
That night took an additional twist for the worse for Chuck Curtin, as some horse thief, bound for hanging for sure, cut Chigger Boom loose from the small barn and stole away in the night with him.
The Curtin barn, small to begin with, presenting smaller target to the powerful wind, sustained little damage, but it was clear to see that someone had slipped Chigger Boom loose from his stall, along with the bridle reins to handle him and a saddle to ride on.
That day started a long and sustained search by Chuck Curtin for his stallion, Chigger Boom.
Chuck’s father spoke first as the search was about to begin, the devastation and ruin evident in much of the area about them, “What’s all this gear piled beside your saddle bag, Chuck? You going someplace?”
“I’m going out to bring my horse back, Pa. He’s waiting on me, looking for me to hurry up and find him. I think he’s getting lonesome.”
“You be careful out there, Chuck. I can’t go with you. I have too much work to do here, but it’s okay for you to go. I know what’s working on you, but we have no idea the type of man who stole Chigger Boom.”
“Oh, Pa, that kind of man deserves what’s coming to him. That I know.”
The look in his son’s face had said it all for Chuck’s father. Out and out it all said confidence here was a two-way road.
The trail, as Chuck suspected it would, went away from the ranch in a direct northerly direction and died out almost as soon as it started. The horse thief was obviously dependent upon the storm to hide his tracks. He was right, of course, but Chuck Curtin had thought about the situation at a significant length. He had studied the land and all its characteristics and discounted certain routes of escape and promised he’d check out all others no matter how long it took him. Pursuit, his kind of pursuit, would leave no trace unturned and no chance not looked at. That’s why his saddle bag was filled with the necessities for a long trail ride. And other than what he carried, he could live off the land, or find sustenance as providence might supply.
The Saffron Hills were out in front of him, almost due north. The hills were a conglomeration of canyons, caves, narrow passes, and natural culverts that provided water release from small tarns in the higher cliffs. Tree lines came and went at the sign of earth ravage thousands of years earlier where rocky outburst and promontories came from deep eruptions.
The ride was a difficult one, his eyes always looking for a special sign in horse tracks. He found some tracks on crossing trails here and there, but none he was looking for. He was on the search for over a week. On two different occasions he had meals with mountain men who were on their way down to a town or on the way back. They were very solicitous of a lad looking for his horse.
“How’ll you find the right track, son?” one old trapper said as they sat before a late fire shooting the breeze. “That corker of a storm even raised the devil up here in the mountains. I damned near didn’t sleep the whole night through in my cave, the whole mountain sitting up as my umbrella. Only place to be in a storm like that one, deep inside.”
“I fixed it so I could find the track my horse would leave.”
The trapper, who called himself Jigger George, over which they had a good laugh, nodded. “Like you had worries before they came on you about this here animal you call Chigger Boom. That’s about the strangest name I ever heard for a horse, but of course I’m guessing at that. It’s different though. Like maybe it is up there in the high mountains and it’s just up to you and your critter and the cool air.”
He stopped talking practically in mid-sentence, and said, “You got yourself all prepared for what might come, like looking upstream on yourself and your horse and the mean sons a bitches you run into every now and then. That’s good on you, son. I had a dog I loved once, my last one, and believe it or not I called him Pal-O-Mine. Just like it sounds. Lost him on one half of a mountain. He’d a found me, that old Pal-O-Mine, if he was able to scramble, but I guess something got him. Bear or wolf or wild peccary at full hunger. Mean they is, so you keep all them critters to mind. It pays you in the end.”
With Chuck taking a first watch at the open fire, Jigger George was sound asleep in five minutes.
Later the next afternoon, well after Jigger George started back on his own trail, Chuck caught his breath under the lee of an overhanging cliff. The mountain rose like a palisade straight up making him dizzy to look up, which he did, hoping when he looked back at the ground he’d see what he thought he saw. The core of excitement was lit up inside him and he wanted to believe everything good around him, including what he thought he had seen on the ground.
Yes. There on the small piece of gravel and loam mix, the way you see a lone star sitting in the dark sky, was the marked shoe of his stallion Chigger Boom. His mount wanted to slip into the shade of the cliff and Chuck pulled him up short, wanting to make sure of the marking, not let it get distorted in any manner.
He hobbled his horse on a loose rock on the canyon floor after sliding off the saddle to check the sign closer.
It was Chigger Boom’s right rear shoe, with one shoe nail in a different spot than usual, where Chuck had positioned it himself. His breath caught up in his throat and acceptance sounded in his chest with a pleasant thrill. Up the canyon he looked and saw nothing, and noted the solid rock floor that Chigger Boom must have used passing through this way. But he had found the sign after this long search. The longing for his stallion mushroomed in him, and he remounted.
But portents abounded that day for Chuck Curtin, and it may be argued that he did not see them in his anxiety and excitement of getting near his stallion after a long search. Sight and sense may be interchangeable in one sector, but may also be disparate in another. Though he didn’t see anything, he might have sensed something, about himself or his surroundings.
The differences were working on him, as was foreboding, for Chuck Curtin did not know that this day he would kill a man for the first time.
As he started out of the canyon, away from the overhang, he suddenly caught himself, and began thinking out loud: “You’re rushing now, Chuck boy, rushing too fast. You found the sign you were looking for, so don’t rush without thinking. It’s late. They, whoever they are, or him, whoever he is, are not going much further on this day. They too have to pull up and sit down for rest. Just get some rest yourself, and get a start ahead of them in the morning. They have not found out about the shoe, so that looks like it will lead you right to Chigger Boom. Pack it in for the night, and rest this new mount of yours … he’s brought you this far in your search.”
He unpacked his gear, tied his horse off on a rock, and set about lighting a small fire. Heated coffee lifted its aroma and he ate a biscuit and a piece of dried meat heated in the fire, and set up his bed on saddle and blanket with his weapons near.
It took him a long time to get set for sleep, as it evaded him many times thinking about finding his horse. The fire dwindled down, a bare ember the final sign of its heat, and a single star showed itself over the ridge of the mountain wall opposite him. A mixture of contentment and excitement rearranged their forces within him and he felt the sleep at last begin to descend upon him. He closed his eyes against that lone star and let his body relax.
The single sound he heard, a loose pebble, a small stone dislodged from some position, brought him stiff on his blanket. The rifle, without any effort, came up in his hand and he rolled away from his bed as silently as he could. He heard another sound, like a boot scraping on a stone surface. His horse snickered and a hoarse whisper, born of darkness, settled into his hearing, as it said, “Shush, boy.”
His horse was a slight way down the canyon from where Chuck flattened on the canyon floor. He could picture the intruder with his hand, as kindly as possible, settling on the horse’s snout. The horse snickered once more and a hoof touched at a hard surface as he must have shifted his weight. The “Shush” came again, not quite as cautious as before, as though its rider, bedded for the night, was still asleep and had not heard any noise.
Chuck heard the slight click of a weapon as though a trigger was set, a safety released. Darkness leaned on everything, the whole night swallowed up.
It was providence then, that in a simple flicker of a last spark from the last ember of the fire, coupling with the light of a lone star overhead, that Chuck Curtin saw a dim shadow within shadows creeping near him. Chuck shifted his rifle into position, the sound sending a sense of danger back at the intruder, and the intruder swung his weapon into position where he thought Chuck was still on the ground. Chuck Curtin fired his rifle at a man for the first time in his life. The man screamed as the shot hit him, and in turn his weapon was fired. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the palisade. The next sound was the gurgle of blood in the man’s throat and mouth as blood spilled from him.
“We knew you were on our trail, kid. We seen you two days ago, but thought we’d lose you.”
“Where’s my horse? Who’s got him? Where’s he headed?”
“I guess I can’t hurt anymore, kid. My boss took that horse of yours. Loved him from the first time he saw him one night we went to town.” He coughed, spat blood. “I’m going to die, kid. I didn’t want any of this, but he’s hungry, the boss. Thurman Cosgrove’s his name. He’s headed for The Gloser Hills. Has a place up there.”
He coughed again, the strain wracking his body. “I guess I’ve paid him all I owed him, from way back. Just don’t let them wild pigs get me, kid. I know I can count on you for that. I didn’t want any of this. I knew it when we were at your ranch. That was a devil of a night. Some terrible screaming when we came across the prairie like the world was going to end.”
He spat again, the pain obviously growing. “I hope you don’t ever have to gun somebody else, kid. It hurts on your end, don’t it? It did for me the first time. I’m still sorry.”
In a twisting spasm that shook his whole body, he moaned again, gurgled again, spat again. The pistol fell to the rocky ground at his side with a sharp click. Out of the whole of night, sounds or silence came either at odds or associated with each other. A wolf howled from some dark recess elsewhere in the mountain range while Chuck’s horse snickered. And overhead a shooting star was silent in its sweeping trajectory, as if balancing all of life.
Chuck Curtin, caught up in the moment, said, “What’s your name?” He still held the rifle in his hands, waiting for an answer.
There was no response. The man’s name stayed with him, and Chuck Curtin buried man and name under a pile of rocks and stones. On a stake planted in the pile, Chuck Curtin scratched a message. It read, “He helped steal Chigger Boom and was sorry.”
The young stallion seeker, after saying due words over the body of a stranger, set out after his horse, his target the Cosgrove place in The Gloser Hills, a day’s ride away. He hoped that his second killing was not at hand, but he’d do anything to get his horse back.
He rode with intensity tying together all his energies, but at times knew the horse needed his rest too. Water from a stream and dry jerky was Chuck’s lunch. The sun was over his right shoulder for the earlier part of the day, and then, after hunger spoke its name at or near mid-day, rested on his back until he stopped to study the foothills leaning upward to The Gloser Hills.
To the end of his days Chuck Curtin swore that Chigger Boom, in a small corral with a rail fence, smelled him on the wind. The stallion snorted and snickered and raised such a clamor among other horses that three men came out of the small cabin to check on the disturbance.
“Hey, Boss,” one voice said, “it’s that new one you roped in. He must smell a cat out there or a bear or something he don’t like.”
“Yeh,” came a reply that Chuck could hear from his place behind a few trees. “I knew he was special the first time I saw him. We can go back in. It’s good he’ll let us know if anything gets close to the cabin. He’s better than a watch dog. Knew he was special all the way.”
The three men went back into the cabin, where a thin plume of smoke with aroma showed a cook stove was working. Darkness deepened and stars came out. A candle flickered in a window, then a lantern glowed and the window turned a pale orange. Once in a while a shadow passed its image across the window.
Later, well after midnight, with the cabin quiet, the lantern shut down, the orange glow gone, Chuck Curtin slipped into the corral and walked straight to Chigger Boom who seemingly stood at attention … horse and beloved master together again, his feeder, his trainer, the one who rubbed him down and kept him healthy, the one who fed him carrots and apples from his hand.
With that reception the three other horses stayed quiet as if under Chigger Boom’s spell. Beneath overhead planking Chuck found Chigger Boom’s saddle and saddle blanket. He cinched the saddle on the horse, mounted him and slowly lifted the bar at the gate.
Thoughts of the earlier killing came at him. He did not want to repeat that deed. To avoid one he leveled his rifle at the cabin, fired a single round that smashed the window and drove the horses out of the corral. Chigger Boom and his rider went ahead of their rush.
All animals were well out on the prairie before any of the men dared come out of the cabin.
Three days later, after a comfortable and happy ride, Chigger Boom and Chuck Curtin showed up at home. His father had already heard about the burial sign up in a canyon of the Saffron Hills, as had just about everybody in Rancho Lobo.
Many people in the next few years read that last testament for a man. The sign helped carry the tale wherever it was mentioned, in a saloon or barber shop or general store throughout Texas, and all the way to California and Montana and the other territories, about Chigger Boom and the Night the Devil Broke Loose.