Western Short Story
After what seemed like weeks of dreary, rainy weather here in New England, Sunday dawned warm and sunny, so after attending 7:30 Mass I decided to take my horse Yankee out for some riding and patrol time. Yank and I are volunteers with the Connecticut Horse Council Volunteer Horse Patrol.Members of the patrol help park rangers and personnel from the Connecticut D.E.P. in assisting visitors to the state parks and forests.
Once I saddled up, Yank and I headed for the Town of Clinton Land Trust properties of Buell Forest and Taylor Ridge, which are close to the stable where I board Yankee.The trails in those areas aren't heavily used, so I didn't bother with my uniform. I just put on my jeans, long sleeve denim shirt, neckerchief, and my cowboy boots and hat. Due to the prevalence of Lyme Disease in this area, which was first discovered in Lyme, Connecticut, which is only about ten miles from Yankee's stable, I always dress this way to help avoid picking up ticks, no matter the time of year or how hot the weather.
I had been riding for about an hour and was alongside the Indian River when Yankee pricked up his ears and sniffed the air, a sure sign that someone or something is nearby. As we rounded a bend in the trail, we came upon a gentleman who was out exploring the woods along with his five year old grandson, Dylan, and his two dogs. Of course Dylan was all excited to see a horse and, to his eyes, a cowboy. Dylan was also all wound up because he'd outgrown his old cowboy hat and only the day before had gotten a new black one, just like the one I was wearing. (I don't wear my good Stetsons when I'm riding, since Yankee thinks it's funny to pull my hat off with his teeth, plus with low branches and dust my cowboy hats take too much of a beating when I'm in the saddle, so I have this beat-up black cowboy hat I wear on the trail).
Dylan's granddad Bernie (at first I thought he was Dylan's dad... he sure didn't look old enough to be Dylan's granddad) told me Dylan couldn't decide whether he wanted to be a biker or a cowboy when he grew up. Bernie also related how he and Dylan watch all the cowboy movies on The Westerns Channel, that Dylan knew who Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were, and also that Dylan even owned a Roy Rogers and Trigger pocket knife.
While I was talking with Dylan and his granddad, Dylan was petting my horse, who loves attention, especially from kids. Dylan worked his way from Yankee's right shoulder to his nose to his left shoulder, all the while looking up curiously at me. Finally, Dylan brought up the question that he'd obviously been dying to ask.
"Mister, how come you aren't wearing your cowboy pistol?"
I explained to Dylan that I wasn't allowed to wear a gun while on duty with the Horse Patrol. (In actuality, I've never owned a gun, except for the cap pistols I had as a kid, and the ones I use now when doing shows at the senior centers and public libraries). I then kiddingly asked Dylan if he could draw and shoot like a cowboy. He and his grandfather both said yes, so of course I, still being a kid at heart, especially when I'm in the saddle, couldn't let that challenge pass. I braced myself for a showdown.
"Draw, cowboy!" I shouted.
Dylan and I jerked our "Colts" (the index finger and thumb sixshooters kids have used as pretend pistols for generations), and naturally I let Dylan beat me to the draw. As he aimed and fired, I yelped in feigned agony, clutched my stomach as if Dylan had just put a bullet through it, and collapsed over my horse's neck. Dylan was thrilled.
We had several more gunfights while I was still in the saddle. Dylan shot me in most of them, but I also managed to gun him down a couple of times. In one, I thought I'd finished him off, but Dylan never went down. Instead, he came back with the retort heard innumerable times in games of cowboys and Indians.
"Your bullet just grazed me!"
He then proceeded to plug me yet again. I dropped over Yankee's withers with Dylan's bullet in my chest.
While I was still lying slumped over my horse's neck, Dylan came up with his next question.
"How come you don't fall off your horse when you get shot like the real cowboys (okay, the movie cowboys) do?"
I explained to Dylan that at my age I wasn't about to take a chance on breaking any bones by falling out of the saddle and hitting the ground. However, I did tell him I'd get off my horse so he could gun me down once more and then he and his granddad would see Yankee's "wounded cowboy" trick.
Yankee does several tricks, including giving kisses, hugs, and handshakes, and he will steal a bandanna from my shirt pocket. However, his absolutely favorite trick is what I call the "wounded cowboy". I act as if I've been shot and fall face-down to the ground. Yank will then shove at my side with his muzzle until he rolls me onto my back, then he will nuzzle and lick my face until I "come to".
Of course, Dylan wasn't about to give me the chance to get all the way out of the saddle. He nailed me in the back as soon as my right foot hit the ground and my left was still in the stirrup. I gave Yankee his voice cue "He shot me, Yank!" as I spun, then dropped to the dirt in front of him. Yankee immediately put his nose to my ribs and shoved at my side until he flipped me onto my back, then nuzzled my face until I came back to life, much to Dylan and his granddad's delight.
Needless to say, we had to repeat that performance several times. Yankee, being the good-natured horse and ham that he is, stood stock-still, putting up with me as I flopped all over and under him while Dylan shot me over and over, again and again. Even when I ran out of the horse treats that are Yankee's reward for performing, he still nuzzled me back to life every time I was shot down by that tow-headed five year old gunslinger I'd now nicknamed "Dylan the Kid".
We must have had twenty or more gunfights, and like me Dylan died pretty good in some of them too, staggering and spinning dramatically before flopping to the ground "dead" when I shot him. He also sure knew his cowboy language. Dylan knew what an ambush was (I found that out the hard way when he sprang up from where he'd hidden behind a fallen log and shot me in the back), and also a lot of the other old West slang, as I soon found out in one of our gunfights.
In that gunfight, Dylan looked me straight in the eye as we got ready to draw.
"I'm gonna gutshoot you, Mister!" he growled.
We both drew, and Dylan promptly shot me four times in the belly when he beat me to the draw. I jackknifed and bit the dust. Sure enough, Dylan the Kid had gutshot me. He knew exactly what that expression meant.
I got even, though. In the very next showdown, I drilled Dylan right through his bellybutton. Dylan screamed in feigned agony as only a five year old boy can while he grabbed his belly, doubled over, and pitched to the dirt.
Before he even bounced back up, Dylan shot me again. I crumpled to the ground, and now we were both lying in the wet leaves and mud, blazing away at each other with our imaginary sixguns, laughing uncontrollably as we shot each other again and again.
Finally, it was time I had to move on. Before I rode off; however, there was time for some more fun.
Dylan had been pleading to take a ride on my horse. I had reluctantly told him and his granddad it wasn't allowed to due to liability reasons. However, after having shot it out with Dylan, I couldn't just ride away. I broke the state and Volunteer Horse Patrol rules and put Dylan into the saddle to give him a short ride on Yankee. As we headed down the trail, Dylan kept yelling joyously at the top of his lungs.
"I'm riding a real cowboy horse!" he shouted repeatedly.
When we returned to where Dylan's grandfather was waiting, naturally we had to have a few more gunfights. Dylan was just too reluctant to quit our play, and frankly I wasn't quite ready to give up either, although by this point I was certain my body was going to be feeling the effects of all those falls by the time I got home.
When I was at last ready to get on Yankee's back and head for home, I told Dylan to shoot me while I was climbing into the saddle, and I would show him another of Yankee's tricks. When I mounted, Dylan shot me as soon as he could aim at my stomach over my horse's back, while my left foot was in the stirrup and I was swinging the right over my horse's rump. I fell belly-down across Yankee's back, to show Dylan and Bernie how my horse would carry a "dead" cowboy slung over the saddle.
Dylan pleaded to have just a couple more gunfights before I left, and of course I couldn't refuse him. In one, I shot Dylan, and he dramatically staggered into a tree before spinning around and falling face up right in front of my horse. Yankee instantly dropped his nose to nuzzle Dylan back to life. The look on Dylan's face as Yankee nuzzled him was priceless. And I was totally surprised, as Yankee has never done that to anyone but me.
But how did Dylan return Yankee's favor? He looked up at me as he aimed at my chest.
"You didn't get me, Mister! I was just playin' possum!"
Dylan the Kid plugged me dead center and shot me off my horse.
Yep, the boy knew his cowboy stuff, all right. Played dead until he knew I didn't have my gun at the ready, then promptly let me have it.
I promised Dylan one more trick from Yankee before I rode off. I explained to Dylan that if he shot and killed me, Yankee would take his dead rider home.
Dylan got behind me and shot me in the back. I grunted in pain as I arched in death agony, then crumpled over Yankee's neck. Trained not to move unless I am fully seated and upright in the saddle, Yankee stood stock still until I whispered to him.
"Take me home, pardner."
Yankee slowly walked off carrying his "dead" rider slumped in the saddle.
As I rode off, Dylan the Kid's final words to me weren't "Good-bye" or "It was nice meeting you." No, Dylan had a much more appropriate farewell.
"It was nice shootin' you, Mister!" Dylan shouted after me.
I whirled my horse and shot that five year old gunslinger right through his belly. Two can play the game of possum.
I honestly don't know who had more fun that afternoon, me, Dylan, or his granddad Bernie. All I know is for an hour or so I felt like a ten year old again, playing cowboys with my best friend. Every one of the worries and inhibitions of an adult disappeared that day, at least for awhile, as Dylan and I shot it out. And surprisingly I never felt one ache from all those gunbattles and the falls I took.
As an author of Western novels, and one who loves the history of the American West, our frontier heritage, and this country's own unique hero, the cowboy, all of which are reapidly being forgotten, it did my heart good to know there are at least a few youngsters still learning about that heritage. And it wouldn't surprise me if Dylan the Kid does indeed grow up with a love of the cowboy, horses, and turns out to be a next generation Western author.