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Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

Old Shorty’s Execution

By Caprice, Montpelier , ID

 

June 2009 Issue

 

     Bright December sun glistened on frost-diamonds in the snow. A lone magpie, undulating on lazy wings cruised above in the cloudless blue sky, watching the procession, apparently quite confident that he was safe from harm. Mar prodded the little bay mare in the ribs with the butt of his high-powered Winchester while its muzzle followed the wavering flight-path of the curious magpie.

     “I could blast the tail feathers right off’n him if I had a mind to,” Mar chuckled roguishly.

     Riding silently behind his older brother on the bare-backed bay mare, Cal was somewhat relieved to hear those cocky words. He didn’t share his brother’s apparent light-heartedness. Cal would rather be up Dry Creek baiting the mink traps or fishing through the ice on Thomas’ Fork, or even sitting in the old ranch house kitchen in his favorite spot on the wood-box, carving his little animals out of soft dry aspen. Mar continued his banter with the attentive magpie. They seemed to have some mutual interest.

     Now and again Old Shorty tugged on his lead rope in Cal ’s hand, as though reminding the two boys he was still there, trudging along behind them. The whole purpose of this sortee surrounded the skinny, awkward frame of the half-blind, toothless, dull brown horse stumbling along behind them. The boys were going to do him in. Old Shorty was going to his execution.

     After all, a horse can’t live forever. And, neither can a man for that matter. Old Shorty and Grandpa Price had been together for a good many years. They had grown old together, roaming the hills of western Wyoming for what seemed like the last hundred years, moving range cows from one canyon to another, placing lick-blocks of salt, riding and mending drift fences, clearing trash from trails, cleaning trash from cold mountain springs, driving noisy ewes with their young spring lambs to the summer range with the receding snow, then following them down the dusty dry arroyos to the home ranch and to the lamb markets in the early fall.

     Countless times they had made these journeys. Grandpa was a fat little man, pleasant and bald except for cotton puffs above his ears, with a curved pipe in his mouth and piercing blue eyes. Even after a hard day at work, his bleached bib overalls gleamed as though fresh from the laundry.

     Cal reminisced the many times he had visited Grandpa’s summer camps silhouetted high on a sagebrush ridge or nestled in a rich green aspen grove near a fresh cool spring for camp water. He though of the rich hot chocolate made with boiling water and canned milk, and of the countless interesting stories Grandpa told.

     Even though they were isolated ten hours and fifty miles from the nearest civilization, Grandpa’s eyes, his blue eyes, twinkled and danced while he verbally speculated upon the success of the League of Nations , or while he explained the life cycle of the seven year cicada to his attentive grandson. His pipe, bobbing between naked upper gum and his slant worn lower teeth, was clutched in a gnarled fist.

     After breakfast, when dishes were cleared away and the current story finished, Grandpa hauled out a rough wooden box from under the camp bed, removed a soiled flour sack containing his precious field glasses and examined them carefully. Then, while a young mind contemplated the lesson he had just learned, Grandpa whipped out his shirt tail to polish lenses. With the precious glasses in hand he walked out into the sagebrush flat to survey the mountainside and the valley below in slow sweeping circles. Occasional puffs of blue-white smoke jumped skyward from his pipe.

     Grandpa was mindful of his animals. When the herd “shaded-up” during the hot mid-day sun, he’d slip the worn old saddle and the wet, salty carpet pad from his pony’s back, then rub hot sweat from Old Shorty’s saddle scarred withers. His ever-faithful sheepdog, Bob, an intelligent helpful Border Collie, sat there on his haunches, head cocked, tongue lolling, listening to Grandpa’s monologue.

     But, Bob and those good old days were gone forever. Now, Grandpa limped about the small ranch kitchen in his tattered woolen robe and sheepskin slippers, content to view the snowbound landscape from the kitchen window as he refilled his leather tobacco pouch from the red one pound tin of Prince Albert on the window sill.

     His mind seemed ever busy, his hands never still. Never ever did he complain of aches and pains in his tired old body. He would sit for a time astride his wooden stitching-tree, tugging “wax-ends,” needles and threads to mend a bridle or a piece of harness. He moved quietly from the oily leather repair to his bookshelves and his ever-open encyclopedias spread out on the big round dining table.

     The third point of his triangular movement was to Grandma’s freshly baked, steaming hot bread in the kitchen. Grandpa loved to cover a generous slab of freshly baked bread with big lumps of homemade butter; then top this with thick honey.

     Cal had shared many of these feasts. At this very moment, that kind old man would be circling about in his little orbit unaware that “the boys” (his sons), had recruited Mar and Cal (the grandsons) to “put Old Shorty out of his misery, preventing his cruel, suffering death by starvation.”

     As Mar and Cal neared a willow thicket at the south end of the wide meadow, the magpie, folding wings close in, plummeted down in a skillful maneuver to come to rest on a low twig where he could watch, not missing anything.

     Mar continued his talking, more exhilarated now, as though he could thoroughly enjoy sinking a bullet between the blinded eyes of the tired old pony. Cal hoped this was true. That the end would come quickly, that nothing would intervene to bring suffering to Grandpa’s old friend, and no further torment to his own mind.

     “I’ll just turn my back and walk away while he gets this ugly job done. It will happen very quickly, then I’ll try to forget.”

     They followed a narrow cow trail in the snow, winding through a thick neck of willows, crossed a small open glade and some smaller bushes just beyond. Too soon, they came to that dreadful designated spot.

     Both boys slipped silently from the warm back of the little mare. Cal , leading old Shorty, trudged through the naked aspens to a tiny clearing, then he turned the exhausted pony to face the trail they had just made. With fingers numb and tear-filled eyes, he tied the lead rope to a small aspen tree while he allowed the pony’s green, hay-stained muzzle to explore his arm.

     In a sudden burst of emotion he grasped Old Shorty’s snarled mane, burying his sobbing face in the pony’s rough brown neck, whispering, “Goodbye! Goodbye old friend!” He turned away.

     Suddenly Cal was aware of a strange quietness except for an occasional tinkle of curb chains on the bridle of the little bay mare as she nuzzled frost tinsel from tree branches. He glanced about the naked aspens for his older brother.

     “I can’t go looking for him,” he thought. “If he sees me all broken up like this, no telling what he will say or do. He’ll laugh at me for being so sentimental. He’ll call me a sissy like he did this morning. After all, it’s just an old useless horse.”

     Cal looked back at the old pony. Once more his mind raced over things in the past. Grandpa loved to tell the story of how he came to own Old Shorty. It was an accepted fact that anyone who wanted desert horses could put a camp together and travel to the Little Red Desert in Wyoming during winter. There, if his luck was good, if he had some strong fast horses, he might capture a string of those scrawny desert ponies. That’s how Grandpa came to own Old Shorty, except he didn’t do the running.

     One spring day an Indian boy from Blackfoot passed by the ranch on his way back to the Reservation after chasing horses in Wyoming . Old Shorty, a half-starved yearling was among those roped together in tow.

     After considerable sign-language and grunting deliberation, Grandpa agreed to trade two thick slabs of home cured bacon and a cherry red pork shoulder for the little bug-eyed, bay colt.

     Grandpa told the story often, always chuckling when saying, “That colt was so scrawny, the cured pork out-weighed him.” Grandpa also said he was tempted that day, to trade Cal’s then seventeen-year-old, red-headed Aunt Jane, to that young Indian. “He couldn’t keep his eyes off her. He offered me five damn good horses.”

     “Hey, Mar! Where are you? What happened?”

     His answer was a loud chattering excitement from the flock of magpies that had now advanced to ringside. Pressing the search for his brother, Cal came upon the Winchester rifle resting muzzle up, against an aspen trunk. Nearby, Mar crouched in the snow with his head buried between his knees, his shoulders convulsed in sobbing.

     “I can’t do it! I just can’t do it! My God! Cal , it’s just like shooting Grandpa!” For a moment he looked up at his younger brother through tear-filled eyes.

     Cal , you gotta. I know you can do it, Cal . There’s no turning back now. You gotta! You gotta do it.”

 

     Once more he buried his head, covering his ears with his mittens.

     Cal was devastated! He had held no favor for this terrible task from the beginning. He had depended upon the callousness of his older brother, reluctantly going along to keep him company. Perhaps their uncles knew what they were doing, recruiting the two young boys to do this unsavory job. Maybe it was to be a lesson in compassion. It was certainly that.

     Cal had thought until this last moment that his older brother would swing the Winchester to his shoulder and squeeze the trigger without hesitation. A cold, ugly shiver coursed down his spine and through his body.

     There was no turning back. Cal knew it had to be done. He picked up the rifle, brushing a fluff of snow from its cold blue barrel before moving the bolt to thrust a round into the chamber.

     Once more he glanced toward his brother. Mar had turned away. Now, with his back against a tree trunk, he clutched his ears with his mittened hands, his face buried between his knees. There would be no support, no help from him.

     Whispering a prayer for courage, and with a blessing on his old starving friend, tears stinging his eyes, Cal raised the rifle, aligning the open sights with the upper tip of the white blaze in the old pony’s face. It seemed an eternity before the Winchester roared and the jar of recoil slammed into his shoulder.

     The magpies took wing to herald the ascent of Old Shorty’s soul. Beneath the rough brown coat, earth-bound flesh quivered, then lay still.

 

`The author, born in 1926 and raised during the Depression in southeastern Idaho , has written a book of memoirs and poetry entitled “Reflections.” He has been married for more than 60 years to his wife, Zella.

 

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Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

 

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