Western Short Story
Ten-year old Sarah Gregson screamed in her bed at the back of the cabin where she lived with her mother and father and younger brother Teddie. Her mother Millie rushed from her bed, half asleep. “I saw him,” Sarah screamed again. “I saw him, up there on the hill, against the moon. I saw him. I saw the Lobo Killer. He’s the biggest wolf I ever saw.” Her mother hugged her. “You’ve been dreaming, darling. It’s only a dream.” Sarah settled deeply in her mother’s arms, struggling to find extra warmth. She exhaled a soft sigh, “It was him. It was.” Her eyes closed softly, accepting the comfort and security of her mother’s arms, the known odors sweet around her head.
The Gregsons, recently arrived, lived on a twenty-acre spread where the whole area around Midland, Texas had welcomed them, to the much smaller Howza City out on the plains. And then, in a matter of two weeks, that welcome was withdrawn with the mysterious death of six of their cattle. Word spread around Howza City that a huge lobo wolf was exacting revenge for the slaying of three lobo pups on the Gregson spread, The G Bar. Ralph Wilson, town crier who owned the barbershop, said often enough that he had no doubt it was a lobo killer. “When it comes down to pups, you know the female of the species gets the get-up-and-go every time out.” He managed to say it to every customer that came into his shop, finding a proper place each time to fit it into the conversation. It gave certainty, and fact, to the spread of the word.
Norv Gregson, heavy sleeper of the family, had heard Sarah’s first scream, but rolled over slowly when he felt his wife instantly leave the bed. Sarah had screamed before, though not because of the Lobo. Her bed, by choice, was flush against the one window in the cabin and he had wondered how Sarah would take being moved away from the window if it became necessary. She was, he’d often said, a girl fond of extra scenes. With the sudden silence back in place, Sarah gone quiet, Gregson started to think about the timing of “the lobo visits.” They seemed too regular to him, an every other night occurrence, when full darkness had set in, the sun a few hours past horizon’s splitting the red-orange ball dropping from sight on the far range.
Once, coming on a young steer partially mutilated at the throat, but with no further damage, he had found boot tracks, but did not know how old the tracks were. He hadn’t told anybody, not even Millie, about his discovery (or his thoughts). He felt strange about not telling Millie, but did say he thought something funny was going on. On another morning, there was not a single track, or lobo paw print, anywhere near another dead steer. For a hundred yards out from the dead animal, he had walked in circles, never finding a trail or track of any sort, nor any evidence that a track had been branch-brushed or distorted or covered up. It made him suspicious, but each of the slain steers was gouged and torn at the throat in the same weird manner, like a mad creature had gone wild for a short time. He argued with himself: an animal that kills is generally hungry, and his animals had not become food to any creature. Norv Gregson knew he was going to hang his hat on that point. He was sure all the mad but minor carnage would reveal a hidden cause; no animal, hungry or not, is as maliciously deceptive as a bad man at a dirty task. In time he’d treat the culprit as he would a horse thief or a rustler, up quick and dirty and swinging in the wind for at least a day. The law of the land, the way things went, was his law on his land.
Millie came back to bed and thrust her warm back up against him. When she spoke her voice was soft, with yield riding in it. “She’s asleep again. I think she thought she saw the critter out the window, atop the hill. It’s bright enough out there.” Her hand touched him.
“You sleep, hon. Get some rest. I’m going out to take a look about the place. Another two months and we’ll be out of cattle if things don’t get changed.” He rubbed her shoulder. “I’ll be back. Count on it.”
Dressed, rifle in hand, a chaw of tobacco in his cheek pouch and an apple in his pocket, Gregson stepped away from the small cabin with two thoughts on his mind: I’ll have to start building a bigger ranch house damned soon. Millie and the kids deserve that much. Have it coming to them. And whatever’s getting to my small holdings is sure aiming for something bigger. He did not know what that could be. With those thoughts in mind, he set off with his roan stallion, leading him slowly away from the small barn by the halter and heading in the direction opposite from the hill where Sarah said she had seen the lobo. “Madness may take some madness coming at it, like going at it in a crazy other way.” He whispered to his horse. “Go softly, Clyde. We got things to do and varmints to corral, if they be about this time of night.” Six-year old Clyde moved in answer to the tone of Gregson’s voice, the grass muffling his hoof steps, his breath easy, the moon retired behind a layer of clouds.
In the silence and solitude of the dark night, his mind apparently fully alert, he thought back at what had brought him here, to this open land, this harsh existence where labor had to be the high point of each day. A sense of adventure had been a piece of it, his mind beset with stories some old travelers had talked about back in Pennsylvania, at his father’s hardware store. He remembered one old salesman, a hustler who was part entertainer, sitting on his unopened case because his father had thrown a bottle up on the counter to thwart the promised and endless sales pitch. “Listen,” he had said when his throat was first whet, “the land is so big it catches up your heart. You can’t imagine getting anywhere in any kind of a hurry, because the horizon’s like in the next world. It’s bigger than big and before it’s done will feed on a lot of little men who can’t handle it properly. But,” adding a dare, a challenge to the wide-eyed young son of the hardware man, “the tough ones will make do and make it do.” At that minute, Norv Gregson knew the old door knocker had hooked him. The dream never died, and, when the time came, his father chasing his mother into the next world, he set out on his own.
And here he was, in darkness, with a family depending on him, chasing down some unknown force or thing or being, not even knowing the first damned mark of identification of whatever he was looking for. That could gripe him no end, working in the dark. He snickered at his own unintentional humor and patted Clyde again as in sharing. He trusted his horse as he trusted his wife.
Buried in these thoughts, splitting his attention span, cocking an ear, watching for a shadow moving against darkness itself the way black might wear gray or gray might wear black, he suddenly put his hand on Clyde’s mouth. “Easy, boy. Something’s out there. We’ll keep walking this way, soft and then some.” His hand stroked the roan, allowed tenderness to flow from his hand, and they moved as one being toward what had caught his attention. He did not know if it was a sound or a sight, but it was leading toward town.
An hour later, the clouds still shielding the moon’s light, he watched as a horseman dropped off the saddle, and marked which small building of Howza City the man entered. Gregson wasn’t sure who the rider was, but knew he’d get to know him. Possibly a bit later than right now. He could not charge a man who had gone for a night ride on his horse. He’d known enough solitary men who did that very thing, seeking what abounded for them in loneliness and solitude; the range could do that, the western sky, the long reach of things, the utter silence broken only by the noises and cries that were always expected… a wolf cry, a coyote yap, a near-silent rustle in the night grass.
Back he went to the hill where his daughter Sarah had seen the lobo, the giant lobo. She had alerted him. It did not take him long to find the bundle of sticks and soft hides in a small recess in the outcropping, behind a large rock.
When he laid it out on the ground it was easily the silhouette of a huge wolf, The Killer Lobo, the gray wolf of the deep southwest.
Norv Gregson thought of his plight; what to do with what he had. It only took him a few minutes. The bundle, rewrapped, was tied to the rear of Clyde’s saddle and Gregson quickly headed back toward Howza City.
When the city woke up in the morning, the frightening silhouette was erected directly in front of the land agent’s office, in the middle of the road. One woman screamed from her window in the hotel, seeing the silhouette for what it seemed to be. A youngster, riding his broomstick pony, galloped up and down the dusty main street yelling, “The Lobo Killer’s here! The Lobo Killer’s here!” The buzz quickly went around town and the barber, noisier than ever, had a clear idea of what had happened and hustled around telling everyone he bumped into about his belief. All the noise brought the land agent to his front door. When he tried to leave Howza City on horseback a short time later, the sheriff and Norv Gregson corralled him easily. All kinds of revelations came of that arrest, but the railroad plans, even without a proposed route map, were sure to cut through the heart of The G Bar Ranch where the rancher’s daughter had first seen the mysterious critter of the hour.