Best Cow Horse in the County

Frank stretched and lugged himself from his tangled bedroll. The embers in the fire pit still glowed when he blew on them; so he threw a handful of pine needles on top and blew until they ignited the kindling he added. In no time, the aroma of coffee filled the crisp desert air.

Tonopah snorted from a nearby patch of grass where he had been hobbled. Frank gulped the last of his coffee. Bundling his possibles in his bedroll, he saddled Tonopah and tied his jacket and the bedroll to the saddle.

Even from this ridge, he could still see Robertson’s ranch house. Frank would be riding across Robertson’s land for most of the day. Darned if Frank wasn’t itching bad to get off that man’s spread. After the way Robertson had fired him, refusing to pay him his wages, it rankled just to know Tonopah’s hoofs stood on earth owned by that mongrel dog.

Frank had heard from other buckaroos that Robertson was no good to work for, no matter how much money he rolled around the county. Heard he’d trick people, cheat buckaroos out of their wages on some trumped up charge. Frank was getting old and desperate for work, though. He took Robertson’s bait and got hooked bad. Now he just wanted to untangle himself from that lying son-of-a-gun.

He hoisted himself into the saddle and tapped his spurs against Tonopah’s flanks. “Git up, boy. We got beer and oats waitin’ for us in Winnemucca, even if I have to sell what’s left of my soul to get it.”

The old horse picked his way through the sagebrush with hardly a stumble. Frank could fall asleep on Tonopah’s back and that horse would carry him true. He’d always end up at the bunkhouse or the Basque boarding house in town. Only places Frank would need to go, but Tonopah would always get him there.

Best roping horse in the county, Frank always told the other buckaroos. And they knew he was right. Tonopah would weave his way through the burliest herd of steers, not seeming to care about the horns and the possibilities those horns had for goring him. He’d hold steady as Frank tossed his riata, then slowly pull that steer or calf to be doctored or branded.

Yeah, Frank puffed up with pride whenever he thought about his good mount, Tonopah. Could do anything Frank asked of him. Cross swollen streams. Jump ditches. Pick his way across the shiftiest skree and slickrock. Burrow through thickets of brush and thorns. Come out all scratched and torn up, but never buck or stall.

Yeah, Frank was proud of old Tonopah. Only thing of value Frank owned besides his tack, but Tonopah was the best derned horse around. It made Frank a wealthy man as far as he reckoned. Didn’t want for much of anything more.

Coming down off the ridge, Frank reined Tonopah onto the road that led toward the ranch gate. Just one stinking mile to ride and they would be free of Robertson. Then they would have only about forty more miles to go until they reached the outskirts of Winnemucca, where a cold beer waited in the boarding house bar.

Nothing was going to come between him and that cold beer.

Suddenly, Tonopah stiffened. His ears pricked up and pivoted backward, hearing a strange noise of something coming up behind him. “What in hell and damnation is that,” Frank yelled out to no one in particular as he twisted in the saddle.

A cloud of dust swirled into the sky like a wayward dustdevil. But this was no regular dustdevil. Some strange beast rumbled at the foot of it, snorting and clanking and roaring louder as it drew closer.

Tonopah twirled around to face the beast, stomping and pawing the ground, tossing his head and snorting long and ferocious. Frank squinted his eyes, trying to see what it was that ran along the dirt track with such speed and fury.

Finally, one of them blasted motorcars appeared at the foot of the dustdevil and roared past them, honking its horn. Tonopah crowhopped and leaped like a bronc, throwing Frank high into the air. When he came down, Frank landed hard on the ground.

His backside ached and throbbed, but what really rankled was the maniacal laughter and jeers that flew at him from inside the motorcar.

Robertson!

Frank had heard he bought one of them machines but he had never seen Robertson drive it around. In fact, none of the buckaroos could remember seeing it. The contraption had become like some wild yarn told in hushed tones around the campfire. By all accounts, it breathed fire and blew smoke and ate children for breakfast. After finally seeing the thing in action, Frank reckoned most of those stories had a firm foundation in the truth.

Matter of fact, the thing frightened him as much as it did Tonopah, who still fretted and stomped in the surrounding brush. It spoke of the end of things and the coming of things that bode evil for men like Frank. His gut burned with the irritation of it upon his composure. It was like he could see the world as he knew it go up in flames and never be renewed by the rains of spring.

Frank grabbed Tonopah’s reins and remounted, wrapping his face in his bandana to keep anymore dust out of his nose. Robertson had laid yet another humiliation upon him and Frank wished he and Tonopah could just have one chance to set things right.

Keeping Tonopah to a moderate lope, Frank watched the dustdevil fade in the heat of the afternoon. By almost sunset, he could see the first lights of Winnemucca twinkling along the foot of the Sonoma mountains. Not too far to go now. They would be settled by time the evening star rose in the eastern sky.

He stopped Tonopah for a minute while he pulled his jacket from where he’d tied it with his bedroll and buttoned it around him. The evening breeze seemed to be pulling winter along with it. It was only the end of September and already he could see aspens in the high mountains ahead glowing golden in the setting sun.

Then Tonopah jerked to a stop, his ears straight up. Frank peered between them and saw a dark shape hunkered in the road ahead. He and the horse waited, watching the shape for movement. Much too big for a bear and antelope. When it didn’t move, he tapped his spur on Tonopah’s flank and the horse stepped forward slowly.

As they approached the mysterious shape, a man jumped from somewhere inside it. Tonopah pulled back and nearly reared at this surprise. Frank always trusted Tonopah on the trail because he was usually so steady, but this critter had Tonopah spooked bad.

The man waved his arms and shouted, “Help me. I can’t get my car running.”

Derned if it wasn’t Robertson. Didn’t he know who was riding up on him? Or didn’t he care? The man seemed to have a strange attitude about how his treatment of people effected them. Did the mongrel dog really expect help from somebody he had just cheated out of a month’s pay?

Robertson stopped waving as Frank and Tonopah came within a few feet of him. “What’s wrong with your mount, Robertson. Run outta oats for the derned critter?”

Robertson sneered and cursed at Frank as soon as he recognized him. “Get away from me. I sure don’t need help from you. You’ve made enough trouble for me.”

“What’re you talkin’ about? What’d I ever do to you anyhow? Just did my work and kept myself outta trouble all the time I been workin’ for you. Then you get all crazy on me.”

“You think messing with my wife is part of your job?”

“Your wife? Hell, is that what you think I done to you? You think your woman’d have anything to do with a rank old man like me? There’s a bunch more buckaroos on your ranch who’re a whole lot prettier’n me, Robertson. And a whole lot less particular.”

Robertson stared at him for a long time, his expression changing between bewildered and infuriated. At one point, he seemed to be running down a list of figures, doing the math. Frank could almost see steam coming out of the man’s ears.

“Don’t think too hard on it, Robertson. Might hurt yourself.” Frank nudged Tonopah again and the horse brushed past Robertson, knocking him off balance. “What makes you think I’d waste my time with a woman who forgets her marriage vows?” Frank snorted as they passed.

They’d only gone a few yards when Robertson yelled after them. “I don’t know who she’s catting around with, but it’s one of you buckaroos. Just thought I’d pick one.”

“Well, you picked the wrong one.” Frank turned Tonopah around and glared at the man. “You owe me big time for wages.” He rode up to Robertson until Tonopah’s nose hung above Robertson’s head. Robertson backed into the side of his motorcar; his eyes widening with fear.

Frank bent forward from the saddle and looked squarely into Robertson’s eyes. “Since you been so unneighborly with me, I should just leave you out here with your dead motorcar and the coyotes. But I’m a better man than that. Get me a rope and Tonopah and me’ll tow you into town.”

“I don’t have a rope.” Robertson puffed up his chest to hide his embarrassment. “I don’t need such things with a motorcar.”

“Well, I beg to differ. Seems you need one now.” Frank looked at the motorcar from its dusty front bumper to the folded canvas top on the rearend. “Why in hell’d you waste your money on this thing, anyway. Your wife not like ridin’ to town in a buckboard?”

Robertson just stood there, clenching his fists.

Frank took his riata and tied a loop in it.. “Make yourself useful for a change and put this loop somewhere that won’t break off. And if my riata snaps hauling this hulk into town, you can add the cost of a cowhide to the wages you owe me so’s I can make a new riata.”

Dallying the braided cowhide riata around his pommel, Frank urged Tonopah to pull gently until the motorcar moved. Robertson pushed from the back to get the car over a bump in the road. Soon, horse and motorcar moved at a slow but steady pace.

It took most of the night before they reached the edge of town. When Frank and Tonopah pulled the motorcar next to the livery stable, Frank reined to a stop and told Robertson to untie the riata.

“Good work, cowpoke,” he sneered at his former employer. “My riata didn’t break. ‘Course that’s more’n likely because I got a good cowpony here. Best in the county. He knows by feel just how hard to pull at something without breaking it. More’n I can say for a sorry turn of events like you.”

Frank took the riata from Robertson’s hand, wound it into a neat coil, and fastened it back on his saddle. Then he yanked on the brim of his hat and rode toward the Basque boarding house. Without looking back, he yelled, “I’ll see you later in the bar to settle up.”