Upon a Crazy Horse
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by Frank Allan Rogers
Description: When Jack Brannigan signed on to chase the ghost of Billy the Kid, he expected challenges. But no man could have expected what he encountered. The brochure had offered a mild caution about "elements." For Jack, those elements tested the limits of human endurance. But the brochure had said nothing about kidnapping- nothing about murder.
eBook Publisher: Solstice Publishing,
eBookwise Release Date: July 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [279 KB]
Reading time: 184-258 min.
"Listen up," the trail boss shouted. "I want all the riders here in front of me." The riders worked their horses into a semicircle facing the trail boss. A huge chestnut mustache dominated the man's face, hung down around the corners of his mouth, and it was the first thing you saw when you looked at him.
"Alright, now count off." He pointed to the first rider on his right. The riders counted around, and when the last one said, "Twenty-two," the trail boss pointed to himself and yelled, "Twenty-three." Then he studied each horse and rider to make sure they were all 'trail ready.'
Sometimes the trail boss nodded. Sometimes he just grinned, and sometimes he rolled his eyes and shook his head. Whatever it meant, Jack Brannigan was a headshake.
When he finished his inspection, the trail boss took off his hat, held it over his heart and stared at the riders until they followed suit. Jack guessed the man's age at middle fifties, but he looked younger with his hat on. Mother Nature, or perhaps Father Time, had robbed him of his hair. Jack figured they had something in common. They'd both been victims of the same crime.
The trail boss bowed his head and said a short prayer for the safety of the riders. Then he replaced his hat and held up two fingers.
"Ladies and gentlemen. Before we ride, you need to remember these two things. Number one. My name's Roy, but they call me the trail boss because I'm the boss. So do as I say and follow me. You can't follow anybody if you're in front of them." He scanned the group and waited. He dropped one finger and raised the other one higher.
"Number two. Stay on the top side of your horse." He lowered his hand, leaned forward and added, "Although not necessarily in that order." He showed a half grin before his face turned serious.
"Any questions?" He waited and stared. There were no questions. He sat up and nudged his horse.
"Let's ride," he ordered. They were off.
From the time he was a kid, Jack Brannigan had romantic notions about cowboy life, and a lifelong dream of riding in the wide-open spaces, swapping lies around a campfire, sleeping under the stars and getting up at the crack of dawn to drink strong coffee made over a wood fire near the chuck wagon.
Now, here he was--in his jeans, boots, and cowboy hat, and even a silk bandana--a wild rag, as they call it around places like Lincoln. What more could a real man ask for?
Lincoln, New Mexico sleeps at the base of the Capitan Mountains a few miles northwest of where the Rio Bonito tangles with the Hondo River. The locals say that in a contest for the title of one-horse town, Lincoln would gallop away with the trophy. Except in the month of April.
Billy the Kid, one of the most famous outlaws in U.S. history, escaped from a jail cell at the Lincoln County courthouse in April 1881, shot a lawman, stole a horse and rode the treacherous mountain trails from Lincoln to Fort Sumner. With his after-death conversion from bad man to folk legend, Billy became the main tourist attraction for both towns, and riding Billy's last trail became a part of Lincoln's annual event. Jack Brannigan had no special interest in Billy the Kid. He just came to ride a horse.
"There are 'elements of endurance' on this ride," the brochure had said. But Jack signed up without thinking twice, maybe not even once. After all, he'd survived the two-day Grand Canyon mule trip a few years before. And even though it took him three days to learn to walk again, Jack figured going up and down the canyon walls on a mule would qualify him for this week-long, 135-mile horseback ride over the mountains and through the desert. He had booked his flight from Atlanta months in advance, and arrived a day early to check out the town.
Steel shoes made loud clops as the horses crossed a paved road, the only road in Lincoln, into a grassy field. Tourists had come to see the start of the annual event, and Jack wanted to stay behind for a minute or so to show off for the cameras. But his horse decided otherwise and took off in a fast trot to catch the others while Jack's butt hammered a heavy tune on the saddle.
Cars, roads, buildings and power lines disappeared. The open field turned into sagebrush, junipers, cacti, and clumps of tall weeds as the horses picked their footing over a landscape scattered with fist-size rocks. Riders laughed and joked about horses, saddles and tough trails. A few were local residents. Others came from California, Arizona, or Texas, and most had brought their own horses. Jack had rented a big red gelding named LB from the trail boss who owned a nearby ranch.
LB maneuvered past the others and trotted to get ahead. Jack jerked the reins to keep him from passing the trail boss, but that only made LB lag behind. Then he would trot again to catch up. Jack wanted him to walk faster and just keep pace with the other horses. But when Jack told him that, it didn't seem to matter.
A few yards ahead, horses whinnied and danced back and forth on a solid rock ledge, and the loud pops of their steps echoed in the distance. Jack tried to focus on the scene in front of him, not believing what he saw, horses and riders disappearing over a cliff. No, it couldn't be. His heart pounded in his throat. His horse kept moving. This is insane, an awful mistake. We missed the trail. His horse kept moving. We can't do this--plunge headlong down the side of a mountain. But the horse kept moving. Jack held his breath, prayed, and clenched his jaw as he grabbed the saddle horn. He stared down. LB stepped over the edge. Jack pulled his feet back, leaving only his toes in the stirrups. He would have to get off this animal in a hurry when LB started to fall.
The horses swayed from side to side like slalom skiers as they slid down the mountain, their rear feet scooting and slipping on the loose rocks. Jack's stomach became a ball of knots. He squeezed the saddle horn tighter, leaned back and pushed hard on the stirrups. LB shifted his weight to his rear feet to stop the slide. Then he straightened up and pushed forward again, pitching Jack back and forth.
"Easy boy. Slow and easy." It wasn't an order. It was a prayer.
Jack was grateful the horse had four feet until all four feet slid at once. The horse shifted his weight from right to left and back again, slinging his rider from side to side. Again LB recovered his footing. But a few steps farther down, he swerved to avoid a boulder and his rear feet slid until his rump hit the side of the mountain, pitching Jack forward.
The coarse hair of the mane scraped Jack's face, and a sharp pain shot through his head as his nose struck the back of the horse's neck. Jack's left foot slipped out of the stirrup. This is it, he thought. We're going down. Blinded by a cloud of dust, he repeatedly kicked LB in the ribs trying to find the stirrup again.