Western Short Story
The Pony Balladeer
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

As a mere boy on the way up out of his small boots, a copycat background a good part of his growing, like listening to his father sing around the ranch and on his way off on a long cattle drive, singing as he rode down the stretch of grass leading away from their ranch, the echoes hanging on for days and nights of memory, Lincoln Link Houston found his own voice, one evening in 1873, around a ranch campfire rigged by his mother Pearl supposedly just for him.

Her sense of timing was accurate but was not all motherhood, for she missed her husband from the minute he left her side, missed his voice about the house and the ranch, the robust and the softness she measured in his songs, in his own words, for he only sang his own songs. “No matter what I’m singing about, dear girl, they’re all written just for you.”

The campfire was another effort to keep her husband close to her side.

It worked, to perfection.

Two older hands who had worked for her parents and no longer rode on drives, liked to push young Link to sing every time they turned around. “C’mon, Pony Balladeer,” they’d chide, “let’s have that old favorite again. We ain’t heard it since last night.”

Their guffaws were loud, boisterous, and full of good intentions for they had admired the boy no end.

Pearl expected their push, and their sudden silence when young Link came back with their favorite song, and quickly followed up with their second favorite, his voice soft and sweet for his time, but sweet in a haunting way, as though he had been places where he sang of or had already done the deeds he sang about.:

If There Ever Was a Pair

If there ever was a pair,

"It's them thar two,

a horse called Jim, I dare,

and a gent called Chew.

Chew's been through the brim,

him and that horse called Jim,

been pulled past Devil's Screw,

Jim and the gent named Chew.

They been in the line of fire,

been where the boss went down,

caught by length of tangled wire,

wore it like a bloody crown.

They been where fire's bright

in the middle of the night,

raiders on the deadly prowl

before beeves begin to howl,

before there's lots of grim

for rider of a horse named Jim,

for the gent they called Chew,

so they're named, those two.

Even though the cowboy’s free,
his horse will chart his destiny,
for if there ever was a pair,
it’s the cowboy on his mare,

Or a stallion black as Hell
whose lineage he cannot tell,
but whose heart was dealt to him
when born at the darkened rim.

Man and horse, they say is true,
coupled in the prairie view,
born to be a one-way paddle
as they share a single saddle.

Mark the man who gives his horse
the greater share of water‘s course,
and mark a horse when man’s aground
and needs four legs to get around.

Know such pairing gave its best
when they opened all the West,
for their legends oft inspire
writer’s vision or camper’s fire.

When he died, that horse named Jim

he was taking slugs meant for him,

who when the firing was through

it was over for a gent named Chew.


Gettin' On Home

I got me a mirror and a comb,
Gettin’ on home, gettin’ on home.

It won’t be sad, Momma’s glad;
I used a mirror and a comb.
Gettin’ on home, gettin‘ on home.

She’ll be happy, so will Pappy,
Me slicker than soap and foam,
Gettin’ on home, gettin’ on home.

I’ve been roadin’ and devil codin’,
They’ll read scripture at my tomb,
Gettin’ on home, gettin’ on home.

She thought it weird I wore a beard,
‘cause she loved my childish looks,
buried in stories and her books.
Gettin’ on home, gettin’ on home.

By my design and less by wine
I chose the path of godly wrath,
But they’ll bury my good looks.
Gettin’ on home, gettin’ on home.

No matter lines, or said in rhymes,
These will be the best of times;
Six feet down in my own loam,
After leaving Texas just to roam.

Gettin’ on home, gettin’ on home

Somehow, some way, the words brought the worry with them.

And the latest drive was different, Pearl knowing some fates hung in the air, and when she heard Link yell out from the porch, “Mom, Dusty’s comin’ back and he’s flyin’ all the way.”

The bad news was home.

“There was a raid on the herd, Ma’am and the boss was the first to go down ‘cause he was front and center from the first shot, which took him down. We drove ‘em off but there was nothin’ we could do for the boss. They’re bringin’ him home, ‘bout a day behind me.” He hung his head on sorrow at the hard loss, knowing both sides of her loss.

“I’m powerful sorry, Ma’am. Powerful sorry. He’s been a good man to me anduthers.” He’d cut right through to all ranch hands.

Now, she knew, there was her and her son, and he’d have to fill the horrible void in her life. A big job for the little man of the house, for the Pony Balladeer.

“Don’t ever stop singing, Link. It keeps your father close to me.’ She’d pray it, say it, demand it, and Link never refused her until her own time had come.

A quarter century later, in a Wyoming saloon, now boss of the ranch, his mother gone with the spirits, Link Houston started humming at the bar, moved into the soft words of “Comin’ Home,” and a cowpoke nearby said, “Hey, I know that song. I heard it a long time ago. Yes, sir, a long time ago. My name’s Jersey Tomm. Pleased to meet you.”

“Where were you when you heard that song, Jersey?”

“Oh, that’s back a time or two, maybe 20-25 years, when I was a kid, if you can believe that, but I think it was between Hays and Travis on the old Chisolm Trail.”

“What the heck made you remember that song all that time, Jersey?” Link was pressing for information not said openly if he could help it.

“Oh. I guess it was on the other side of a hill one night and we heard a cowpoke singing it. Had a great voice, he did. Made me shiver, I’ll tell you.”

“You ever hear it again, Jersey?”

“Never once. Not one more time. Makes it strange, don’t it?”

“Sure does, Jersey, but I heard it a hundred times,” said Link, “maybe a couple of hundred times. It was my Pa’s song, one he wrote himself, and he died there between Hays and Travis the night his herd was trying to be rustled and he got killed by the first shot fired from the rustlers but his hands ran off them gutless cowards and thieves and I’ve waited 25 years to hear it all explained, and wishing my Mom was here to hear you explain it all.”

“I didn’t say I did it,” Jersey Tomm said. “I just heard it, the song, as it floated over the hill and the herd was still and sleeping in a valley before the ruckus started.”

“Well, Jersey, you sound like you’re a writer of songs and you remember the good ones, don’t you?”

Jersey Tomm came quickly out of a reverie and a conclusion. “Don’t try to lock me into saying something I might regret, what I wouldn’t say, not in a hundred years.”

Link, not for second about to let go, replied, “Well, Jersey Tomm, what do you think I ought to do about all this, if you’re sure it wasn’t you who fired the shot that killed my father. For your information, his name was Lincoln Houston, a good a man as ever lived on the grass and out on the grass.”

“I was a scared kid then. Didn’t even draw my gun. Left it flat on my hip and me waiting to get shot for doing practically nothing,”

Link could see he was terrified of getting shot on the spot as a rustler, and for a misdeed maybe 25 years in the past.

“Anyway,” continued Jersey Tomm, “I paid some dues, ‘cause I spent near a whole year in jail for something I didn’t do one another time, and some folks finally got me out and cleared my name off the books, as they say. Right off the books. I ain’t done nothing else ever since.”

“Want to do something for me, and for my Mom who’s been gone a long time, and for my dad and they’re buried side by side at the ranch down in Texas?”

“What can I do? Course I’d do anything to make up for what I didn’t do, and I can do that all over again for you, right from the first shot and my gun right in my holster, kind of frozen there, if you know what I mean.”

“Why, it’s easy, Jersey Tomm. Just come down to Texas with me and go to work on the ranch and we’ll talk about pay and such things later on. Me and my wife and Link III run the place now.

Of course, the pair of riders approaching the ranch on the wide stretch of grass, could not hear the youngster say to his mother, “Ma, Dad and some other dude are coming back right now, and I never saw the other guy before.”