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Western Short Story
Shadow, Dog, and the Cowboy
John Richard Marsh

Western Short Story

I sat on the back porch shooting at black crows in the corn field across the road. Their good luck was I had a .22 rifle, so I didn’t hit any. Dog and I ate breakfast at dawn. I drank hot, black coffee just the way I liked it along with scrambled eggs. Dog had a couple of carrots. Strange animal. Today was just another day for us with nothing specific to do. Same as yesterday and the day before that, and so on. Dog got his name from a John Wayne movie. I like old westerns. He was an abandoned dog that showed up one day and never left. Now, he’s my only companion.

The phone on the kitchen wall rang. I ambled inside to answer.

“Howdy,” I said.

“Is this Paul?”

“Who is this? I ain’t buying nothing.”

“Okay, I’m not selling anything. This is the grocery store lady. How’s that multigrain bread working for ya?”

I chuckled. “Oh, it makes a ham sandwich sort of nice. How did you get this number?”

“Bev, at the store gave it to me. That okay?”

“Sure.” I smiled to myself. I liked Bev. Nice gal.

The grocery lady went on. “I know you don’t know me, but I have a favor to ask you. Now before you say no, just hear me out.” She took a deep breath. “I have an abandoned horse that was staked in front of a house, left with hay, oats, and a water faucet dripping until it all run out. He’s in pretty bad shape. You can see his ribs, hips, and tail bones. He may be too far gone.” She paused. “I learned you were quite the horseman in the day. Any chance you could care for him?”

I didn’t need another headache. “I have enough things dying around this ranch without people bringing me more.”

“You know Doc Powell, the vet? I was going to run the horse by him and have it checked out first.” She paused.

I felt myself caving. I hated seeing animals suffer. “Well, if he says the animal could be saved, bring him by the house and I’ll take a look at him.”

“Thanks, Paul, I owe you.”

Late in the day, an old rusty Ford pickup with an equally rusty horse trailer pulled into the driveway. A woman climbed out of the pickup and strode toward me. Must be the grocery store lady. I had no idea what her name was. She was medium height, slender, a little older than her voice sounded, about my age, fiftyish. She had an interesting face, great smile, and a golden tan completion. Some gray sprinkled in her long brunette hair.

She extended her hand. “How you doing? I’m Ruby and you’re Paul, right?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She pointed at her trailer. “Doc says the horse is malnourished. He gave him antibiotic shots just in case of disease. With a little care, he should be okay. It looks like I found him just in time.”

I strolled to the trailer with Ruby. She undid the latch on the gate and together we lowered it. The creature standing in the trailer was one sad looking little horse. I stepped into the acrid smelling trailer, ran my hands over the boney, neglected animal. Whoever did this should swing from a rope until they quit kickin’.

The horse shied, snorted, and danced away. “Whoa, boy. I won’t hurt you.” I stroked his matted mane and neck, ran my hand over his withers, shoulder, and down his forearm to his hoof. Shoes were in good shape as were his legs. Thank goodness.

“What ya think, Dog?” I asked my friend sitting at my feet. “Any chance we can help a guy out?” I turned to glance at Ruby. “Does he have a name?”

She grinned. “Not that I know of.”

“I think we’ll call you, Shadow. Okay by you, Dog? He seems to be a shadow of his former self.”

I undid Shadow’s lead rope and tugged him out of the trailer. My pasture wasn’t used much and was overgrown with knee-high grass. Shadow could help me trim it off.

Ruby followed me over when I opened the gate and released the horse into the pasture. “If you don’t mind,” she said. “I’ll stop by tomorrow afternoon after work, to check on Shadow”

“Okay, we’ll be here.” Together, me and Dog watched Ruby sashay to her truck and back out. “Real nice lady,” I said to no one in particular. Dog barked his agreement.

I ruffled Dog’s scruffy head. “Dog, I think this is going to cut into our recreation time.” Dog’s tongue lolled out at me. I always thought he was smiling at times like this. “The crows may appreciate that.”

The next day, new chores began in earnest. I cleaned out a stall in my stables, spread clean straw around, added a trough of fresh water, and made a nice place for our guest to stay. Shadow’s mane was so matted, I had to trim it down to the neckline and the tail was so tangled, I cut into a short bob.

Shadow seemed to like the warm soap and water I used to wash him down. His big dark eyes said thank you for every kind gesture. What sort of mongrel person would treat an animal so badly?

Dog gained a new friend, someone to pal around with. That very first night, he stayed in the barn with Shadow, sleeping in his stall.

Most nights I grieved for my Maggie as I sat on the porch alone. Life just wasn’t the same since she passed. She always gave me a reason for living, patched up my broken bones from whatever stupid thing I had done. I’m not sure why she loved me for all them years, considering all I put her through. But I sure did miss her.

The following day was different from most. Dog and I had a purpose. Shadow got his hooves checked out and I did some work on them, combed and curried his coat until it glowed.

As the days and weeks went by, Shadow and Dog would meet me at the stable door for our long walk to the mail box. This gave us things to do. Shadow acted more like Dog than a regular horse. We walked down to the big creek. Sure enough, trout were swimming. May have to bring a fishing pole next time. I did a couple of times and Dog and Shadow sat on the bank and watched me reel in dinner.

On our way back from one of our walking journeys, we ran into two young men, nicely dressed in slacks, white shirts, and ties. They said they were on a mission and paid their own way for two years to serve the Lord. Interesting, they liked helping folks. They stopped at the house on a couple of days in a row and cleaned up Maggie’s flowerbeds and mowed down the front yard’s weeds. They wouldn’t take any pay just lemonade.

I had an awkward visit when Ruby stopped by. She looked real good, all dressed up like it was Sunday-go-to-meeting time. She brought me Shepherd’s pie and some sweet dessert stuff. She really liked what I had been doing around the place and was impressed with how good Shadow was coming along. Her smile was infectious. I found myself liking it when she smiled at me and Dog and Shadow.

I made a little saddle for Shadow to help me carry tools around, sort of like a pack mule would carry, so I could fix things without dragging my heavy tools with me everywhere. New idea from Shadow. He liked the mule work, but he did expect a carrot every so often. I was pleased he put on weight and filling out. No more bones showing.

Miss Ruby invited me to church on Sunday. I wasn’t sure exactly why, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt since things around the ranch were looking and functioning better. Had to be some of the Big Man’s doing, right?

Out of the blue, right after church I get a call from my daughter, Peggy. She and Andy, along with my five-year-old granddaughter, Andrea, wanted to stop by for a visit. Something bad must’ve happened, cause they never came to see their old dad.

Their marriage hadn’t been stable for a long time. I hadn’t seen them much since her mom’s funeral. Peggy would call occasionally. We just never had too much to talk about. Then there was the little girl. Andrea had some kind of a sickness where her body wouldn’t develop to full grown size. She, on the other hand, was fully developed mentally. I wasn’t sure how to deal with that stuff. So, I guess Dog and I retreated to someplace safe when they came by.

Shadow, by this time, had blossomed into a very fine Shetland pony. He had no issues from his mistreatment. Thank the good Lord. His dark coloring, long mane, gentle, good-tempered nature, and intelligence made him something special, so good to have around the ranch, and a great addition to mine and Dog’s life.

Sunday afternoon arrived and I wasn’t sure how to act around my own daughter. Maggie always did the family stuff and I just showed up and kept my mouth shut. What should I say? How could I say I am sorry?

My only family drove into the yard. The car door opened, and a little person climbed out and ran right up to me. “Where you been?” She fisted her tiny hands on her narrow waist. “I keep looking for your old truck to come to our house.”

I opened my mouth, then snapped it shut, not sure what to say. “Well, we ‘ll have to change that.”

Peggy hurried to me. “Dad, I’ve missed you so much.” Tears began to flow. “I didn’t know how to fix us’—she pointed between herself and me—“and my marriage, too.” She stepped closer and embraced me.

Shaken, I could only pat her back.

When she released me, I shook Andy’s hand. “Are you okay?”

He half-smiled. “I’m getting there. I figured it was my fault Andrea has … her health problems. The long hours at work and drinking sure did not fix anything.”

I understood his grief. “Come on into the house and let’s talk.”

Peggy took my arm and we walked toward the house together. “Dad, I made everything I could think of you liked to eat. My idea was we couldn’t fuss if our mouths were full.”

I chuckled. “Good idea, sweetheart.”

Just about the time we got to the front door Andrea let out a blood-curtailing scream and grabbed my pant leg. Yep, right beside the screen door was a very large, black German Shepherd. Dog scared the heck out of Andrea. “That’s Dog. He and I are friends,” I told her.

She narrowed her little eyes like she didn’t believe me.

When he got inside, Dog tried to lick her, but she was not buying it. “No,” she said to him.

“Do you like carrots?” I asked her.

“Yeah, sort of.”

“Follow me.” We walked to the fridge. I retrieved some carrots, and as she sat on my lap, we fed Dog. He sat up, rolled over, laid on his back, wagged his tail, and she made a new friend.

Lunch turned out great but, in the middle, we had a surprise guest drop by—Miss Ruby. She came to check on Shadow. And maybe that wasn’t all she came to check on. Not sure how to handle this, I suggested we all go visit Shadow.

That turned out well. Shadow behaved like a true show-off with all the attention we showered on him. Andrea fell in love with Shadow, hugged him around the neck, and cooed to him. He, in turn, fell in love with the little girl. Dog was having too much fun jumping around and barking for his share of the attention.

Peggy and Andy sought help to solve the problems in their marriage. As it turned out, they discovered life wasn’t perfect. They were working hard to make a go of it. I was proud of the two of them.

Miss Ruby turned out to be a sweet, wonderful lady. I thoroughly enjoyed her company and wasn’t so lonely anymore. Just maybe, she’ll become permanent part of my life. Time would tell.

Peggy, Andy, and Andrea came over most Sundays. Ruby, too.

Andrea came more often and trained Shadow to be a show pony, working hard to perform in a rodeo. The small horse responded well to the gentle touch of the loving little girl. Dog was supervisor of operations. I had something I’d thought I’d lost for good—my will to enjoy life. The black crows have flown off somewhere else. That’s okay. I have other things to do now.

The real story is: a broken horse, abandoned dog, and a lonely old man got a second chance to relish life once more. We all need a little help from others.

If you see someone in a grocery store or a filling station and they look unhappy, share something of real value — A GREAT BIG SMILE!