Western Short Story
The Strange Story of an Italian Pinto
(or Death Rides a Long Shadow)
Charlie Danton rode a stolen horse from Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, and was bound to ride clear across Utah and into Nevada and then to California to look for a ship to sail. All he wanted was to be on the high seas forever, if it was possible. But the one thing he never realized was the horse he rode for that long journey, a black and white pinto, was unique among the breed because the markings on each side were so exactly alike that if one side was placed over the other side, they would coincide exactly; nobody had ever said that before about a pinto, or about this horse under him.
Never once did Charlie Danton, dreamer and horse thief, realize the unique patterns on the horse he was riding.
But two other people did.
And one of them was tracking him, had tracked him since the horse was slipped out on a late June evening from the elaborate barn of wealthy horseman and cattleman, Carlo Vespucci. The barn was at Vespucci’s ranch near Cheyenne Wells, a small settlement on the fork of the Smokey Hills River that had been started by a wagon train, supposedly bound for Santa Fe, including a wagon belonging to Vespucci’s uncle, Enrico. The uncle carried a good sum of money he had stolen from a thief who had stolen it from a bank in Philadelphia. The thief had pursued Enrico when he boarded a crowded train in Philadelphia and headed to New York in view of the thief. Enrico immediately departed the train on the other side and leaped aboard a train already underway for Chicago. He never saw the thief again, and ended up in what was to become Cheyenne Wells, in a wagon train.
The trusted tracker was employed by Carlo Vespucci, a man who would spare no expense to get this particular horse back in his barn, under his rein. The horse’s name was Double D, mysterious to most all people except for Vespucci who had named him, when he was a colt, “Double Digit.” He was not only proud of the animal but hoped to start a true and new line of horses with the same uniquely controlled lineage of the horse’s contour patches. “The animal has a black head and mane and odd patches like many pintos,” Vespucci had mentioned to the tracker he had hired.
The tracker was C. Carroll Cahill, a wizened veteran of a Civil War cavalry unit, only five years since he was separated from military service and nobody outside his company of cavalry ever knew what the “C” stood for. And never was an odd guess brought up when he was present. Since his termination from the military he had been a posse member a number of times, served as a deputy for two sheriffs, and had a reputation as a no-nonsense gent who could do any job as good as any man. He was a steady hand with a gun, in his hand or at his shoulder, rode like a demon in the saddle, and knew the stars as if he was born under a telescope.
Cahill had not seen the horse, but carried with him a map provided by Vespucci, and was told to memorize the map. It was a map of Italy. And the pattern on the stolen horse was an elongated patch of black on both sides, identical to each other.
“It’s the map of my homeland,” Vespucci had told Cahill. “A map of Italy. It’s a black elongated patch of black on the side of the horse … and it’s identical on both sides, one map on each side, a divine rarity I assume, and the horse has legs that are mostly white. The patch looks, because it is elongated, like a boot kicking an object, a long shadow on the flank of the horse.” He said it again to Cahill, “Like the map of Italy, or a shod boot kicking some odd piece such as the Indians did in one of their games. It’s as unique a bit of patchwork, and so coincidental, that it demands a bit of permanence.” He chuckled at his own thoughts, which came from him as he intended, “It is a way to honor my birth land in my new land by keeping Italy on the move.”
Cahill understood Vespucci’s inner drive and his reverence for his roots. He decided he would do his best to retrieve the pinto.
After talking to some drovers Cahill heard about a young man, not the drover type but a good horseman, they had seen heading to one town out on the trail, Canon City. The way from Canon City led to Salida, Ellsville, Peers Junction, and Grand Junction. The way to further points west.
In Cheyenne Wells, Vespucci said to his daughter, in the old language, “Don’t, you worry, my child, we have a good man on the job. He will find Double D for us.” She heard it as, “Non vi preoccupate, mio figlio, abbiamo un buon uomo sul posto di lavoro. Lui troverà doppia D per noi.”
“He is a good man who has much experience at battle, at survival, at coming out a winner in all his efforts. His name is C. Carroll Cahill and he is on the job already. I found him through a sheriff from Kansas who’s heading out to Colorado to mine for gold.”
His daughter said, “Why is one horse so important, father? Isn’t a horse just a horse? Cowboys ride them. Indians ride them. My friend said that many years ago the Spanish explorers brought them to this new land and set them free to run wild. I have seen many bands of wild horses. Why is this horse so important?” She heard her own words and after reflecting on them said, ”Just because I love him so much.” The horse as a colt had been given to her by her father for a birthday present.
“Come here, daughter and look at this.” He showed her a map of the Mediterranean Sea, and placed his finger on Italy, but said no more.” He waited.
Oh, Papa,” she said, Oh, Papa,” with her hands to her face in joyous surprise, “we have a real Italian horse, and not a Trojan horse.”
By good tracking, comments from people on the trail, from two bartenders in noisy saloons, he managed to follow the thief on the pinto past Salida, McKenzie’s Hill, Peers Junction and the apparent route toward Grand Junction. Cahill wondered how much Carlo Vespucci really wanted the horse, or if his pursuit was to satisfy the wealthy rancher’s vanity. He’d known men who would stop at nothing to assuage that stab at their vanity, their supposed loss of good standing, good faith, or plain anger. A few officers were that way in the Great War and he remembered each one as if their vain sins, and loss of good men, had only happened the day before.
And it was in Peers Junction in the Wild Mustang Saloon that he found out the name of his quarry, and a friendly and volubly on any and all topics a customer might instigate, tender, or offer as glib introduction.
His name was Seamus McClinton, the glibbest bar keep he’d met on all his journeys, and an instant connection to the Auld Sod. “From Tipperary I come, and is it Cahill from the same way? I imagine it is. We knew a ton of them before we landed here, me and me best friend Teige McGrath. Came along together all the way until the war broke out a mere month after we passed off the boat in Boston and he was taken for infantry and I had been able as a horseman at home and ended up in the cavalry out of New Jersey in real short order. I haven’t the slightest of where Teige is now and I landed near here after the war let me loose.”
“You good at horses, then, Seamus? How do you find it behind the bar?”
“Good I was and am, and nearer my Lord to heaven with decent suds here. There’s no place like home if you’re away from home,” and he laughed aloud and poured Cahill another beer.
“What do you think of the horses out here in the territories, Seamus? Any favorites? Riding style, speed? Can they run for a good part of the day? Any colors or breeds you like?”
“Well, now that you ask, Cahill it is, I ride one day a week, and I ride a borrowed pinto. I favor him, from a pal at the livery. Name’s Calvin Kirkness and he’s Scot but alright he seems for the matter. In fact, I saw a pinto there, just rode in from Cherokee Wells a few days ago, and ‘twas a sure fine looker. A black head and a big long black patch on each flank, and white feet, all pretty as a picture if you excuse the expression. A young good looking kid name of Charlie Danton who has his own dream. He’s headed for the Pacific Ocean and says he wants to sail the high blue seas the rest of his life.”
McClinton stopped only to take a sip of beer mug under the bar, only half empty.
Cahill was out of the Wild Mustang Saloon in half a minute and was at the livery in the same hurry.
“Hey, Calvin,” he hailed, “Seamus at the pub said you got to know my kid cousin Charlie Danton who rode in here a while ago and headed for California. I just missed him at Cherokee Wells, and again at McKenzie’s Hill. Did the boy say where he was headed to on his next stop? Is that animal he’s riding holding up well in your estimation? Should I worry about his mount?”
“Such questions you have on your aen. Oh, no sir, no worries there on that lad or that pinto. Both in good shape. He’s a handsome young callan and the horse is indeed a fine example of western horse flesh. Yes sir, he certainly is. Ought good.” He paused, as if to regroup himself, and said, “He took up a room at Maggie’s kip, the lad did, and could walk over the place ere he wanted to. But that bairn should be careful of them pirates out on the sea where he’s headed even as canny as he comes up. ‘T’is what the old gents back in Edinburra say, ’It taks a lang spoon tae sup wi’ the de’il,’ and he’ll find it on his ain.” His chest swelled as he spouted the old dialect, and a huge smile crossed his face.
Cahill found he could smile a reply at Kirkness’s quick and studied return in the language to set his place in the world, just the way McClinton did at the saloon. From the two sources he had found more information that at any stop en route or from any casual traveler met on the trail.
He might as well push for all he could until Kirkness shooed him off. “You gather where he might be headed, Calvin? Where I might catch up to him?” He laughed in return and added, “I’m not interested going aboard any fool ship with him and heading out there to God knows where, but I’d love to see him again and give him the blessings of the family. He say where his next stop might be, him and his pinto and no extra mount in case of trouble?”
“Plain and simple, he did; Grand Junction next on his route to the Great Ocean I’ve never seen and can no care less that I haven’t.”
Mounted, Cahill was off for Grand Junction in the half hour. Kirkness had further stated that “the lad was awa awfy early but yestady.”
Grand Junction, in its start, was below him in a wide sweeping valley as he descended a steep passage through many cliff formations on the northern side. The waters of two rivers were joined way out in front of him and he had been told by a mountain man to “be wary of them Utes, if you cross in front of them. They are a might restless now. I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me, but I don’t cross in front of them, like I’m passing over their land just to make a statement. Do be careful, sir.”
There was a cluster of buildings along the river, and one of them was a saloon with no sign overhead, no name on the front wall, but a long hitching rail along the whole front of the building. Cahill rode slowly into the small town, looking for the pinto, but did not see any sign of it, and he felt his parched throat make the first decision for him.
It was a small and crude place, but seven men were drinking at the bar. None of them appeared to fit the description that McClinton and Kirkness had provided, and Cahill felt immediately agreeable to a drink. He tossed off one glass of whiskey and pushed the glass back to the bartender. The second drink was tempered and relished with appreciation by Cahill, at whom the bartender smiled.
“You got some miles under your saddle, mister, ain’t you?” He nodded as if he had answered his own question and did not need a reply.
Cahill said, “You’re reading me correctly. Lots of miles. Trying to catch up to my nephew, Charlie Danton by name. He’s headed for the Pacific to find a ship to sail on and he’s riding a pinto.” He angled his head as if expecting an answer to what wasn’t offered as a question.
The bartender leaped right in. “You’re almost on top of him, mister. He came in last night and is probably taking a nap someplace. He’s a good looking kid, ain’t he, but was late at watering his soul and his needs. Probably be in soon. Said he wasn’t headed out until tomorrow, which ain’t here yet. But that boy shouldn’t go to sea. Be crazy to leave the lady’s behind him. He could name his number, he’s so good looking.”
“Any idea where I could find him? I want to give him a sendoff and the family’s blessing and head back myself.”
“Best to stay right here, mister. He’s bound to crop up soon as he wakes up. He’s got some kind of spirit in him, you ask me.”
At that moment a yell and a cry came from the outside. “Somebody stole my horse! Anybody see my black and white pinto? I came in on him yesterday! Someone stole him while I was sleeping!”
The yelling was accompanied by hustling and bustling noises and a bit of histrionics on the yeller’s part. “Nobody answered me! Did anybody see my pinto?” It sounded as if he had punched the door of the saloon.
Cahill rushed outside and saw the young man he now knew to be Charlie Danton, dreamer and horse thief, and one young man liable to be lynched for stealing a horse. Indeed, the young man was a handsome lad, blond as a daisy, clipped features that gave him an appearance of a fully experienced man though he had the unmistakable looks of a youngster just out of his teen age years, and a look in his eyes as though the sun would rise any minute, or a slice of the moon along with a scented breeze right off the prairie; a born romantic, Cahill surmised.
“Charlie Danton, I’m Cahill and I’ve been tracking you since you stole the pinto Double D from the barn of Carlo Vespucci back in Cherokee Wells. Do you admit that you stole the horse?”
“Oh, I just wanted a horse to get me to the ocean. He looked like he was perfect for me. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I just wanted a good ride.” He kept looking around as though some innocent bystander would bring back the horse that he had mistakenly taken. Nobody had that reaction, not in all of the small settlement of Grand Junction, in the bowl of a beautiful valley as wide as the eyes could scan and a view of steep and broad cliffs off to the north, right where Cahill had descended into the valley that two rivers had worn a path through.
“I love that horse,” Danton said, still looking at parts of the town as if the pinto would suddenly appear.
“So does the daughter of the owner,” Cahill said. “Her name’s Pia Vespucci and she misses her horse. She’s a most beautiful girl you could be dear friends with. I am being paid to bring the horse back to him and her and Cherokee Falls. Nothing else matters. That includes you, if you can appreciate the inference.”
He saw the sorrow settle on the young man’s face, along with a sense of resignation. It caused a sudden feeling of conciliation with Cahill. He decided he would look for alternatives. “Did anybody make a fuss about the horse since you arrived in Grand Junction? Show any odd interest?” The emblazoned map of Italy sat in the back of his mind like a flame had been lit.
Danton looked off the way deep thinkers pull the quizzical cap onto their heads. “Only one gent,” he said. “Kind of swarthy looking, like he’d been riding for a long run. He about screamed when he saw the pinto. Offered me a hundred dollars as soon as he could see his boss and get the money for sure. He practically jumped all over the place when he saw the pinto. I can’t imagine what one horse could do. Seemed kind of stupid to me; a horse is a horse. I have to admit he’s been great to ride, but he’s an Injun horse all the way.”
Cahill, thinking as hard as he could, found a plausible move. He grabbed Danton by the arm and walked back into the saloon. At the bar he asked the bartender, “Hi again. Do you know of a gent who works around here, a fellow who some folks call Albie or Alberto? I heard that means Allen in our lingo, but I’m not sure.”
The bartender said, “I don’t know any Albie around here, but I know an Italian cowpoke works for the Fortella spread. He’s Italian I know. His place is out along the south bank of the Gunnison. Name’s Guiseppe but most folks call him Jo-Jo. I think it comes from his family name of Jovanni. That’s him, Guiseppe Jovanni. He works for Anthony Fortella out at his spread.”
Cahill had followed some tuition working on him, once he remembered the map of Italy that Vespucci had practically burned into his mind. Now he was sure the fellow called Jo-Jo also recognized the patches on Double D and had stolen the horse.
Holding Charlie Danton by the arm, the pair left the saloon, hired a horse from a small livery and set off for the Fortella spread.
Cahill said to Charlie Danton, “Son, death has ridden a long shadow under you since you stole the pinto. You have a chance to avoid it right now. Don’t dare to use your gun on me or anybody at the Fortella ranch, including this Jo-Jo that stole the horse, or I’ll have to shoot you, and that’s my solemn promise. I was paid just to get the horse back. If you want to sail on the blue Pacific, you can go ahead. The horse is no good to you out there, you gotta admit. So shape up for what’s coming. It may get uncomfortable, a thief calling a thief a thief.”
“But he stole the horse while I was sleeping. Stole him almost from under me.”
“Didn’t you do the same thing to Carlo Vespucci and more so to his daughter Pia.”
“Is she really as beautiful as you say?”
Cahill saw the first stages of Danton’s breakdown … the dream may have been shipped aside for the time being.
In an hour they were at the gate leading to the Fortella spread that ran up along the river. In view of the ranch house they both saw the pinto being studied by three men, all exclaiming their joys by throwing their hands in the air and practically dancing in the barnyard.
“There’s my horse,” Danton said wildly, and immediately felt Cahill grabbing his arm.
“That is not your horse, Charlie. It belongs once and for all to Pia Vespucci. Don’t forget that for another minute.”
They were hailed by one of the three men who said, “Hey there, gentlemen, dismount and share a new joy with us.” He slapped the pinto on the back, and Cahill assumed correctly that he was the ranch owner.
Cahill dismounted after telling Danton to keep his mouth shut, and said to Fortella, as he dug the map of Italy out of his vest pocket that Carlo Vespucci had given him, “I hate to spoil your fun but I have been tracking that horse from Cherokee Wells and he was stolen by this young man here and the horse was stolen from him while he slept by one of you three, if I am correct.”
He held the map forward and said, ”The horse has the same patch as this map of Italy on both flanks. You can see that obviously.” He unfolded the map of Italy in front of them. “This is what led me here, across the whole territory to this place.”
“The man who had greeted them turned on another man and said, “Jo-Jo, you didn’t say you stole the horse. You’re fired.”
He turned to Cahill and said, “Who is the owner, sir?”
“The real owner is a 16 year old girl, Pia Vespucci from Cherokee Wells, whose father is Carlos Vespucci, obviously from Italy, as I assume you three men are.”
Fortella said, “Mio Dio, Carlos Vespucci è in Cherokee Wells?” His eyes went wild with delight. “Excuse me, sir, but I last saw Carlos 25 years ago when we got off the boat from Italy.” He clapped his hands, “And he has a daughter, Pia. Oh my. Does he have any sons? I have two and both married now.”
He was bubbly and excited. “I will fire my thief,” he said. “What do you do with this thief?” He pointed to Charlie Danton, now hanging his head in shame after seeing the joy spoiled in another man.
“I have no call on him now that I have the horse. This boy was going to find a ship to sail on the Pacific Ocean. That was his dream. I am not sure if it still is.”
“The sea takes many lives, young man,” Fortella said to Danton, “as this land does too, but one must make his way in the face of troubles. I think there are more troubles at sea than here on the land, but that’s for you to find out for yourself.”
Charlie Danton spoke for the first time to the three men of the Fortella ranch. “I guess I’d best go back and apologize to Pia Vespucci and her father. It is only right.”
C. Carroll Cahill was sure which way Danton’s life would turn once he met Pia Vespucci.