Western Short Story
Clay Hartung, Kid Wrangler 
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Clay Hartung’s father said, on many occasions when talk turned to the family around a campfire or at a saloon with pals, “The boy was born on a horse, as far as I know. I was away on a drive at the time and his mother never told me anything different.” He’d chuckle and always add his final word, “The lady knew her way around the horses, too. You can say he was born with saddle and reins in his blood.”

When he was 16 by a few days he was chosen wrangler for Austin Peary’s second drive up the Chisholm Trail from his ranch near San Antonio, Texas to Abilene, Kansas, the railhead of the Kansas Pacific Railway. Hartung, as noticed by Peary on his first drive, was a master horseman from every angle, in the saddle, with the reins and with a rope. A few of the boys said he talked to horses in their language, as if the sensation of a hand gesture or a simple cough or shrug was enough of a message to be obeyed. “That boy’s got somethin’ goin’ on with all them horses, you ask me,” one of the older hands declared.

“You know what I expect of you, son?” Peary spoke directly on the day of the hire, without any curves in his talk, and wanted answers the same way.

“Yes, sir, I do,” Hartung said in reply. “Tend the horses so drovers never lack one. When danger comes, make sure I keep as many as possible in my control, where I can see and protect them.”

“You do that, son, and I’ll see that your share is counted out clean and accurate. You do your job and I’ll do mine.”

They shook hands.

At the end of the drive Peary’s cattle would be sold and shipped eastward from that railhead at Abilene. Hartung had about 80 horses to take care of in Peary’s remuda, each one had to be available as quickly as possible for a rider switching mounts or needing a new mount. Thus, the horses had to be kept separate from the cattle, each drover needing about 5 or 6 horses set aside for him for the duration of the drive.

Even before the drive started, Hartung had to train horses to accept his commands, like allowing flimsy restrictions to contain them, such as a simple rope enclosure or long tethers. Out on the grass, Hartung had to keep the remuda confined in some manner, usually by a hasty rope fence on good grass, which also had a hand in holding hungry animals in place.

As wrangler he had to know the horses each drover favored and be able to recognize them immediately at exchange, which could come up any time. Thus, he had to be good with a rope to catch and hold a horse, be able to saddle up quickly while the drover might visit the chow wagon. Now and then he could lean on the ramrod for help, usually an older man who was capable of every task on a drive, drover to cook, scout to doctor, ride drag or take the lead. But a wrangler was responsible at all times for the horses on a drive.

Out on the trail 16 days later, the first interruption came from a small group of Indians looking for meat on the hoof. They took three head with them in their flight, Peary nodding his head as if the exchange was acceptable. But the attempt at getting some of the horses did not go well with them, as Hartung managed to get all his remuda tucked safely into a small canyon when the Indians first made their intentions known, rising up from the depths of a wadi without having been seen by the lead scout, who had missed their signs and passed them by.

That did not set well with Peary. He chewed out the lead man for at least a half hour and finished by saying, “You get one more chance, Henry, and then you get drag if you don’t work it out. You could be there until we have to carry you home.”

Henry ate alone, away from the fire, then mounted up slowly and went out to do his share of night riding. Hartung, watching him disappear into the shadows of evening, checked his rope enclosure for the third time. He’d check again and again before night was over.

The next six days went fairly smooth, with a regular march each day, Peary apparently pleased with the distance traveled daily. He was talkative at the campfire, every so often halting his talk to listen to a soft lullaby coming from the edge of the herd, a night rider singing an old favorite, the cattle still, the stars wide awake in the velvet sky.

“Ain’t that some kind of a song, boys?” he said. “Makes me think of a neighbor when I was a kid back home, sitting alone on his dark porch and putting the whole night to sleep and everything in it.”

“Did you hear those songs all the way through, Boss?”

Peary thought about that and said, “Some of those songs are the kind you never hear the end of, they do the job so good.”

He rolled over on his blanket and fell asleep, the lullaby out on the grass fading away in the darkness, the stars in their slow roll across the heavens, the cattle still and silent.

The idyllic scene was broken up hours later with gunshots and the thundering sound of cattle rushing ahead of the gunshots, and a lot of yelling and men rushing into boots and calling for their horse and Clay Hartung up and in the saddle and holding his horses in the rope enclosure. Drovers mounted in a hurry, headed out to head off the stampeding cattle.

Six rustlers were trying to drive much of the herd onto wide open grass, one column of cattle breaking for the north and another heading almost due south, the herd split as planned.

Peary motioned to three men and they headed south along one part of the stampede, firing guns at intervals, trying to turn the herd back. Other men headed after the northward herd, all of them aware of the split-up attempt of the rustlers to divide not only the herd, but the company of drovers, and the remuda as well.

Hartung sat his horse, waiting for the attempt to run off his horses onto the prairie. In a piece of skyline light of the false dawn, he saw a rider coming down an incline near his horses. He rode straight at the last point where he had seen the other rider, and pulled his rifle from the scabbard. He held his horse beside one huge rock and as the mystery rider came by him, he knocked him out of the saddle with one swing of his rifle, butt first.

He had protected the remuda without firing a shot. “So far, so good,” he said to himself, thinking about the situation as he headed back to the temporary enclosure, hoping the rustlers had assigned just the one man to get the remuda on the run.

He found the horses excited, straining at their ropes, but holding in place. His presence seemed to calm them as the sound of gunshots, flatter, duller, came from further away, out on the wide prairie.

It took a few hours of hard work, some daring and clever riding, and accurate firing of weapons, but the rustlers were driven off, the herd re-gathered, and morning came with high sunshine.

When Peary and some of the drovers came back to camp, the chuck wagon busy, they found 16-year old Clay Hartung, drive wrangler, keeping company with a trussed up and hurting stranger sitting beside the fire. The stranger looked to be in considerable pain, remnants of blood on his face as well as on his shirt.

“He tried for the horses, Boss, but he didn’t get far,” Hartung said. “I didn’t ask him any questions. Figured I’d leave that to you.”

Peary nodded, looked at his trail boss and said, “What do you figure, Smiley?”

“A hundred head loose somewhere, but not with that gang. We run them clean out of here. Won’t be long I get most of them back. Leave a few for the Cherokee, Choctaw, or maybe Chickasaw. I saw them sitting up there.” Smiley Wescott nodded to the foothills. “I’d guess them to be Cherokee, but I ain’t sure.”

“That’s good hoping and good thinking, Smiley. Take who you want with you.”

Wescott sidle up to Peary and said, “The kid did a hell of a job, Boss, knocking our guest right out of the saddle without firing a shot. When you talk to our sore company here, ask him who was in the gang. See if you can find out if Bart Tuskin was one of them. I thought I recognized an old saddle pard. I see him again, I’ll run him in as a rustler. He never was too honest to begin with. This one’s name is Scotty O’Donnell. I got that much out of him.”

Wescott signaled to two men and the trio rode off.

Peary, standing above the captured rustler O’Donnell and said, “I’m not going to spend too much of my time with you, son. I got cows to move, but if I was you I’d tell me in a hurry who was with you. You know they ain’t coming back for you. So you best tell me who was with you, or I turn you over to the kid again. I know he won’t be so careful next time. I just told him to bring me a prisoner and he plain old-fashioned got me one. Tell me who was with you. If one of them’s Bart Tuskin, you won’t have to tell me. But I’ll make sure they figure you did. He one of them?”

“Yeh, he was with us. Purly Yates set it up.”

“Where’ll they hole up?”

“Up in the Mescalili country, in a cabin in one of them canyons. Miners were there once.”

“Well, son,” Peary said, “I’m not letting you go now, and I don’t like the idea of feeding you and having a man watch you all the time, unless it’s the kid. But when we get this herd delivered, we’re going up after them owl hoots. I’ll let you go then, but of course the gang will know you told us. We’ll make sure of that, so when the time comes, you better make fast tracks out of this country or they’ll be after you like their own posse.”

When the cattle were delivered to Abilene, Peary told his men what he was about to do concerning the rustlers. They all agreed to a man that something had to be done. As they were about to go off on the hunt, Hartung approached Peary and said, “Boss, can I talk to for a few minutes, away from the others.” The two rode off to the shade of a tree and talked for 15 minutes.

“Are you sure about this, Clay? Think this is the way to go.”

“I do, Boss. It’s a cinch.”

Three days later, shy of Mescalili country, Hartung began to race his horse back and forth across the prairie. Finally, after an arduous ride, he rode off in an easterly direction, his horse heated, tired from the run. About an hour later, after another shorter run, he rode his horse into the Mescalili canyon where the hide-out was located.

A look-out spotted him easily and warned the others. They surrounded Hartung quickly and brought him to a cabin at the deep end of the canyon.

“Who are you kid? What are you doing here?” one man said, obviously the leader of the pack.

“Hell,” said Hartung, “I found a couple of longhorns and was selling them to a farmer, a squatter, and he pointed out the brand on them. I never noticed them before. He sent his son to get the sheriff, so I split out of there in a hurry. I hope no one followed me.”

“Why’d you come up here? What was that brand the squatter saw? I got lots of questions for you, kid.”

“The brand was AP Square. I never saw it before. I ain’t never been up this side of the country. I just wanted to get out of the way if I could. This looked like a good place.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Clay Brady. From nowhere in general. Been alone for years, since my old man ran out on me.”

“Well, kid, my old man did the same thing. My name’s Purly Yates. This here’s Paulie and that’s Butch and this ugly one over here is Bart Tuskin. We’re interested in that herd or what’s left of it.”

“Well, there’s more than a hundred of them in a canyon back down the trail. I was able to drive them into the back end of the canyon and fence them up with some blow downs. But there’s no way I could handle them all, so I figured I could do a few at a time. I guess I picked on an honest squatter, not that you can find that many out this way.”

“You’re okay, kid,” Yates said. “We can join up and get them cattle into the right hands. We’ll share the cut. Be a piece of cake, them drovers long gone on their way.”

Hartung smiled and said, “Sounds great to me. Maybe I can get to talk to that squatter again, if you don’t mind.”

“You’re okay, kid. Sure, give him a piece of your mind. Ha, that’s good. Serve him right for blabbing.”

It was in the early evening, with enough tracks showing traffic on the way into the selected canyon, that the rustlers were pinned down by a solid crossfire and threw their guns down.

Hartung, leading the gang toward the blow downs at the end of the canyon, was able to duck in behind a sheaf of rock and hide from the cross fire.

Trussed and tossed on their saddles and on the way to justice, the rustlers were quiet until Yates said, “That kid lead us into this?”

“No, he really didn’t,” Peary offered. “It was one of your own that did that, Scotty O’Donnell, the one you sent after his horses. He got knocked clean out of the saddle by the kid, who’s my wrangler right now. Next drive, next year, he’s apt to be my trail boss. Boy’s got a lot going for him besides horses.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Purly Yates said. “How old is he.”

Peary qualified his answer, saying, “His pa says he’s 16. Could be 60 on a good day for all I know. But today’s one of his good days. You got to agree with me on that.”