By Patty Wilber
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CALLIE’S STAR by Patty Wilber
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN–BASE CAMP
“It sure took you guys long enough to get here,” said Luis.
Jeff shrugged. “We had a little trouble,” he said, making his voice sound important.
“Oh” said Luis, not really listening because he was bursting to say, “We saw the Outlaw!”
“You did?” said Callie and Jeff with almost the same voice. “Where?”
Luis pointed toward a low hill west of camp. “Right over there,” he said. “There were about fifteen mares and ten colts with him.”
“I can’t wait to see them,” said Callie, picturing them in her mind as a copper, black and orangish blur of sleek coats shimmering in the sun.
“It’ll be a couple of days, probably,” said Jeff, “‘Cause we’ve got to repair the corrals and then you never know how long it’ll take to find the herd, again.”
“The corral is done,” said Luis. “We did it this afternoon when you all were on your way. It didn’t take more than an hour or two anyway.” He paused and took off his brown baseball cap, brushing away some of its caked-on dust. Then he put it back on and pulled it low over his eyes. “What took you so long anyway?” he asked, peering out from under the brim of his cap.
“You’ll have to sit down for this one,” said Jeff. Luis sat and Jeff stood in front of him, like an actor in a play. He began to describe the events of the morning.
Callie stood a little off to the side and slightly behind her cousin.
“You should’ve seen her go after ol’ Blue!” Jeff said. Callie felt a blush of pride rise inside her at his words, and a rush of relief, too, that made her feel weak-kneed, even now. The sun had just begun to sink out of sight behind the mountains, and Callie hoped the thickening darkness would hide that blush. When Jeff finished, Callie pulled her jacket closer around her. The air, without the summer sun to warm it, was like a cool breath on her skin. It was perfumed by pinon smoke and simmering beans.
“I’m starved,” she said. “Let’s go get some supper. It smells like green chile stew and corn bread!”
As the last bite of food was cleaned from the plates, everyone gathered around the campfire to roast marshmallows and tell tall tales of past round-ups. The first to begin was Paul Romero, an older, slightly graying, version of Luis. It seemed there had always be an Outlaw, a legend among horsemen, and he’d always been as black as coal and as elusive as lightning on a clear night.
“Many years ago, when fewer people lived on this land,” Paul began, spreading his arms wide, and taking them, with his voice and hands, back to those times, “and there were just our ranches,” he pointed with his chin at Uncle Bob, Jo McCabe and Roberto Sanchez. “The Outlaw would come in at night and steal mares. But unlike us, they needed every horse they had to work the cattle, hunt and so on. They couldn’t wait around to round up just once a year. So, they set out end their problem once and for all. They planned to capture and tame the big black. They agreed to stick with it until they had him. They knew it would be tough, because they had tried before, always getting their mares, but never The Outlaw.”
“They built a hidden corral in this very valley, and then, erasing all signs of their presence, they began to search, riding day and night. They rarely saw him, but they learned.”
“They rested for two days, keeping away from their former paths and campsites. Then, they mounted their tough caballos, many of which were related to The Outlaw, pulled down their hats and got to it. Tighter and tighter they wove the invisible web that would lead The Outlaw into their trap. They were always downwind, always out of sight.”
“Without him knowing, they were slowly moving The Outlaw toward this valley. In three days, the stallion and his band were here, grazing as if nothing under the blue sky of Nuevo Mexico could bother him.”
“The riders were hidden in the trees and rocks. Sarah Laughlin, Jo’s grandmother, gave the signal and they charged down, shouting and whirling their lariats. The only place the startled horses could go was into the corral. It was a big one. Eight feet tall with logs so thick, no equine could break through. When the horse knew he was caught, he let out a terrible sound, unlike anything any of them had ever heard, and he threw himself at the corral wall.”
“The Outlaw went on like that for an hour. The stout corral was beginning to shudder. The black’s hide was cut in a dozen spots, and his forelock was matted with blood seeping from an ear he had split. He was beginning to stagger, but he never hesitated in his terrible charges. They all knew that he would die before he stopped, and they cringed to hear his heavy breathing, and see the trembling of his legs.”
“Finally Old Mr. Sanchez could take no more, and he went to the gate of the corral. He looked at his friends. With solemn, silent expressions on their sun-lined faces, they all nodded. He opened the gate wide, and stood behind it, protected from any charge by the frightened horse. The stallion looked at the opening before him, motionless for a split second. Then he threw up his head, and bolted, as if he was as fresh as the minute he entered the corral. He raced into the trees and faded away, like a shadow in the dark. His mares followed.”
“Some of the group figured they’d never see hide nor hair of him again, but every year, some of their mares disappeared, and every so often, they had to round them up.”
“Today, we still have an Outlaw that has never been captured. It couldn’t be the same horse of our grandfathers.” Mr. Romero pushed a lock of hair off his forehead. “Or could it?”
Callie sat near her Uncle, anchored to her spot as if she had sprouted roots and grown into the log.
The next person to speak was Ms. McCabe. She had auburn hair that hung down her back in a thick braid that shimmied and reflected the firelight when she moved. She began to talk about Smoky, a barrel horse her dad had raised. He was a son of the Outlaw, out of a racing Quarter horse mare.
The fire felt warm on Callie’s face, and more than once, she burned the marshmallow at the end of her stick, as she stared into the flames. They seemed to leap into moving pictures, illustrating the stories she heard. Before she knew it, her head was nodding, and Uncle Bob was tapping her on the shoulder.
Her head jerked up and she realized she’d been half asleep, dreaming along with the stories.
“Better go hit the hay, Callie, because tomorrow is going to be a big day.” They stood, and Uncle Bob guided Callie toward their tent.
“MMMmmm,” mumbled Callie, only half awake.
“I want you to be up and have Flower ready with the rest of the horses, Callie.” “Flower?” asked Callie, a little more alert. “Are you going to ride her?”
“No. You are.”
Callie stopped, shocked into complete lucidity. “I am?” she said. “I thought…”
“I know what I said before we left, but you proved yourself to be a levelheaded horsewoman today, Callie, and I think you’ll do fine tomorrow.”
Callie stared at him. No words would form in her wooden mouth. Then she said, “Wait until I tell Jeff!” She bounded off toward the campfire, nearly tripping over a rock hidden in the darkness.
She found Luis and Jeff sitting near the back of the campfire circle, completely absorbed in a story Mr. Sanchez was telling. They jumped when Callie grabbed their shoulders. “I’m riding tomorrow!” she said, forgetting to whisper. Everyone turned to stare at her. She slapped her hand over her mouth. “Sorry!” she said.
Luis shook her free hand in congratulations. “Great!” he said.
“That IS great, Callie,” said Jeff, after he was sure she wasn’t going to shout it out again to the whole group. “Because of this morning, huh?”
“I wish I could have seen the action,” said Luis. “It must’ve been Annie Oakley to the rescue!”
Callie brushed at her bangs and looked at the ground. Her cheeks felt like they were on fire. “Well, anyway, I’m riding,.. she said. Then she yawned. “I’m going to bed.”
“Wait up,” said Jeff, as she turned away. “I’ll go with you.”
“Me three,” chimed in Luis. “I don’t want to walk all the way over to my campsite, alone. The Outlaw might come in and kidnap me! ‘Cause,” Luis lowered his voice and looked from Callie to Jeff and back again, “If he doesn’t get me, I’m going to get him!”
“Now I’ve heard everything,” said Callie, rolling her eyes. “Maybe you’d better start telling campfire tales!”
“Besides,” added Jeff, “The Outlaw won’t capture you unless you’re a mare!” Luis made a face at Jeff and said, “Good night, amigo!”