By Patty Wilber
CHAPTER THREE: THE OUTLAW
They rode by the front of the house. Aunt Martha was on the porch, typing on her laptop computer. She said, “Don’t forget to come back for lunch sometime before dinner!”
Jeff rolled his eyes. “Corny, Mom!” he said.
Callie forced a smile, but in her mind she heard her mother’s voice saying, “Be careful, dear. Please be careful.” Her legs gripped Cloud tightly, but she remembered not to do that from her five riding lessons. She felt a little awkward on Cloud, but also really excited!
They turned the horses and began down the graveled drive, followed by a lonesome howl. “Jake!” said Jeff. He turned Punkin on his haunches and trotted to the dog run. He shot a sideways glance over his shoulder at Callie as he leaned off the side of Punkin to fumbled with the latch. “C’mon boy. You’re going with us,” he said, more to Callie than to the dog.
Callie looked away and concentrated on the rocky hills in the distance as Jeff and Jake trotted past her. They went through an open wire gate onto a trail leading along an irrigated meadow toward the hills. Callie took a deep breath and followed, silently jouncing along behind Jeff, not yet finding the rhythm of the trot. She did remember to hold her elbows near her sides, to keep them from flapping like the wings of a bird. Jake ran back forth between them, smiling, but Callie, never having had a dog, did not recognize this expression, and thought he looked rather like a toothy wolf that hadn’t eaten in several days. His tongue was dripping.
All at once, Cloud stepped a little to the right just as Callie was jouncing left, and she had to grab the saddle horn to regain her balance. Jake was watching her carefully. Then Cloud took a funny step. And another.
He looked back and saw Cloud limping.
“It just started,” said Callie quickly.
“It might be a rock in his foot,” said Jeff. “You have to get off and check his feet. I have a hoof pick.”
Callie glanced at Jake, who seemed to be waiting for her, and started slide off. He wiggled his whole body in excitement and bumped her with his nose just as her feet were reaching the ground. She clutched the reins for balance, and Cloud let her.
Cloud picked up the foot with the rock in it without being asked, so Callie dropped the reins and looked. Cloud lowered his head happily and began to graze.
“Pick up your reins!” said Jeff sharply.
Callie bent quickly to snatch them up, embarrassed, and Jake saw his chance. He swooped in and gave her a great big lick. Callie tried to push him away, but ended up sitting on the ground with Jake in her lap, his tail wagging like a windup toy. Jeff burst out laughing.
“What a jerk,” thought Callie shooting a silent glance at Jeff.
Jeff stopped laughing. “Jake!” Jeff called. “Jake!” Get over here!” Jake looked up at him and trotted over, still wagging his tail. Callie stood up and wiped her face.
“Do you have the hoof pick?” she asked.
He brought Punkin over, handed it to her and motioned impatiently for the reins. Callie handed them up.
Cloud offered his hoof again and Callie pried out a big rock.
Callie led Cloud to a low spot, and climbed aboard the horse. She tried to settle herself deeply into the saddle as she followed Jeff up the trail. Her ears were suddenly full of her mother’s voice, and she flinched at even the slightest glitch in Cloud’s ambling stride, but she shook her head to clear the sound and refused to hold on to anything but the reins.
They rode in silent single file for 20 minutes until the trail began to widen a bit. Callie urged Cloud into a faster walk, and pulled abreast of Jeff. “Cloud’s a nice horse,” she said, trying to pretend nothing had happened. “But not as pretty as Beauty.”
“Beauty?” asked Jeff.
Callie felt her face grow hot. “The black horse in the corral.” She kept her eyes on Cloud’s salt and pepper mane. “I—I thought he looked like Black Beauty…and the Black Stallion.” She stole a glance at Jeff, and instead of the disgusted look she had expected, he looked surprised!
“That’s what Mom always says, but really his name is Pitch.”
Callie wrinkled her nose. “Who named him that?” she asked.
“He sort of earned it. He is black as pitch and he supposedly pitched the first few guys that tried to ride him. He’s Dad’s horse.”
“I’d love to ride him,” Callie blurted, picturing herself once again on his back.
“You can’t,” said Jeff, sharply. “Like I said, he’s Dad’s.”
“What’s the other one called,” asked Callie, ignoring Jeff’s tone.
“That’s Mom’s horse, Flower. Mom likes her, but she is kind of busy.” He tugged his buckskin’s black mane, and leaned forward in the saddle. “C’mon boy,” he said.
Punkin’s blank-tipped ears flicked back at the sound of the boy’s voice, and then swiveled forward as he jumped smoothly into a lope. Cloud picked up his head, and trotted purposefully after them. Callie was caught off guard and grabbed hold of the saddle horn with both hands and hung on. She could feel the stitching making red imprints under her white knuckles, and her seat collided with the saddle every time Cloud’s feet collided with the ground. Cloud maintained his steady pace, and she stood up in the stirrups to ride above the trotting and let go with her left hand.
“Lope!” she said and squeezed Cloud with her legs. “Lope!” Cloud bounced out two more fast trot strides and then broke into an easy lope. Callie almost felt as if she were sitting on a rocking horse, except the wind was blowing in her hair!
Jeff and Punkin had disappeared around a comer, and Cloud followed as they continued up a small rise, where they caught sight of Jeff. Suddenly, he stopped and held very still. Callie and Cloud hurried up beside him.
“Quiet!” he hissed without moving. His eyes were focused on the little valley that lay before them. “It’s The Outlaw, and his band of mares. Don’t move!” he whispered, “Or he’ll see us.”
Callie drew in a sharp breath and exhaled softly. Cloud raised his head and pricked his ears forward. The Outlaw stood away from the mares, head down, grazing. He was as black as Pitch. Callie sighed. Then The Outlaw swung his head up and toward the rise where Callie and Jeff stood, and made a loud whuffing sound. He shook his head up and down. His long black mane floated around his head. He snorted again, and then broke into a flowing trot as he gathered his mares. The little group knotted together and then galloped from the valley with a drumming of hooves that made Callie’s heart pound.
Callie and Jeff sat for a while, each running a private screening of the movie-like scene they had just witnessed. Then Callie said, “He looked just like Pitch.”
“Pitch looks like him,” Jeff corrected. “The Outlaw is his sire.” Callie stared at him. “How did you get him?” she asked.
The Outlaw snuck into our back pasture and tried to steal one of our mares. He didn’t get her out, but he got her.” He scratched Punkin’s neck.
Callie looked at him and said, “Huh?”
“She had a foal.”
Calle nodded and wound her fingers in and out of Clouds mane. “Go on,” she said.
“A couple of years ago, this rich guy named Williamsen came looking for mustangs, and he saw the black yearling. Even though Pitch is only half mustang, Williamsen offered a lot of money for the him. He was loud and red faced and he didn’t look like he could get on a horse, let alone ride, but Dad sold Pitch.
“About a year later, Williamsen called the ranch and said he the black colt he’d bought from us was an outlaw.”
“Just like his father,” said Callie, her eyes dreamy.
“He wanted his money back.” Jeff crossed one leg over his saddle horn and sat sideways. “Dad told him to bring the horse on out, and he’d see what he could do. So, a couple of days later, the guy drove up in a big pickup with a matching trailer. He was just the same: loud and even redder in the face. From the heat, I guess. Anyway, he went and on about what a devil the horse was, and how he’d wanted a black stallion because all his friends rode stallions, but this black was so rank that he’d had to geld him, and then he still was bad.”
Jeff took breath, and Callie said, “Then what happened?”
“Dad asked him inside for a glass of water or something, but the man said ‘No.’”
“Williamsen had a guy with to help and they let Pitch out of the trailer, and boy! He WAS wild. He reared and kicked at the trailer and wouldn’t stand still at all. Dad looked him over without saying anything, just rubbing his chin like he does sometimes when he’s thinking. Finally, he offered five hundred dollars. Williamsen didn’t look too happy, but he took the money, and we took Pitch.”
“Is he still so wild?”
”Naw. Dad let him relax, then worked with him slowly. Turns out he loves to work just like Dad!”
Jeff took off his helmet. “I hate this thing,” he said. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “It’s hot out here,” he said. “Let’s head over to the spring, and get a drink.”
Callie nodded, not really listening. Her mind was still on the story. Then she straightened up and said, “You mean drink water right from the ground?”
“Only from the springs, of course,” said Jeff. “What’d you think?”
“Well, you can’t at home, you know,” she replied, in the same, slightly annoyed tone Jeff had used.
“Oh,” he said, sounding almost apologetic. They rode to the spring, if not exactly best friends, at least not in hostile silence.
The spring was in a spot where big slabs of rock bordered what looked like a creek bed, except there was no real creek. Just this one wet area. There was a big cottonwood tree with a massive branch that shaded a small marshy area thick with grass and rushes. A little bit below that was a small pool of water that flowed into another small pool, and from there the water sank back into the ground. Some spiny gray-green Russian olive trees crowded in on one side and there were dark green junipers with shaggy bark on the higher ground, out of the arroyo.
They let their horses drink from the lower pool then tied them to the junipers. The horses both cocked a back leg and closed their eyes. Jeff hung his helmet on his saddle horn and Callie did the same. Then Jeff flopped down flat on a rock so he could stick his face into the clear water of the upper pool. He came up dripping, his hair forming a point above his forehead, and streaming water down his face.
Callie suppressed a laugh when she saw it.
“What?” demanded Jeff, his eyes narrowing.
“Nothing!” said Callie. She didn’t want to provoke him. “It’s just that your hair is sticking straight out like this,” she said, forming a triangle with her fingers. Jeff’s eyes relaxed a bit, and he pushed his hair back. “Get a drink, would you?”
Callie lay on the rock and looked at her shimmering reflection before immersing her face in the cool water. She opened her eyes underwater and drank two swallows. she withdrew her face, and shook, scattering drops on everything, including Jeff.
“Hey! Cut that out!”, he said, splashing at her in return, “Or I’ll sic my vicious dog on you.” He patted Jake, who wriggled in pleasure, waving his tail like a flag.
“Anything but that!” said Callie, and she gave the dog a tentative pat.