Wild Things

Wild Things

Things should stay wild. Ples believed this even while he made plans to run another band of wild horses. He couldn’t help himself, they were wild and so was he. Even when he knew they had a slim chance of surviving after they’d been captured, he couldn’t resist the call to chase them. He was a cowboy and they were what remained of the wild west.

Ples walked through the cold morning fog from his pickup truck toward the eerie light above the barn door. Once inside the barn, the familiar smell of horses and hay would clear his head. The other cowboys, in the cookhouse now, would be along shortly, so he embraced this moment of quiet solitude.

His heavy boot steps and ring of spurs across the worn planks broke the cathedral silence inside the barn. He stood at the heavy wooden doors that opened out onto the corral, gazing up into the wide sky. This was wild country, all of it, the stars, the sliver of moon, the scrambling creek, the vast meadows. And up there, hidden behind the heavy darkness of night, high up on the hard mesa, the wild horses run.

The only other light in the compound came from the cookhouse. Other lights would come on one by one, the bunkhouse, the commissary, and the manager’s house, his house, up there on the hill, where his wife and son slept. He’d been careful not to wake them when he bent over to kiss each of them goodbye, careful when he’d crept downstairs to make coffee, careful when he’d slipped out of the house. He couldn’t be so careful when his pickup truck rumbled to life breaking the silence of early morning. His wife would sit up in their bed, sigh, and roll over when she realized it was too early. His son wouldn’t stir.

Filled with nervous energy, Ples walked to the back of the barn. He watched Rowdy step from the glow of the cookhouse and walk slowly toward the barn.


Rowdy looked up. “Looks more like night.”

Ples followed him into the barn. Rowdy took a halter from the tack room, stepped through the heavy wooden doors into the large corral, crossed the corral to the pen where he caught up his saddle horse and led him back to the barn. Ples threw a can of oats into the bunk where Rowdy tied, brushed, and saddled his horse. In minutes, Rowdy was out the barn, high-trotting toward the horse pasture under the sliver of light from the moon.

Ples paced back and forth inside the barn, from time to time stepping to the back of the barn to check on the other cowboys. They weren’t stirring.  He knew he’d have to rouse them out. It was human nature to seek warmth and comfort. Once they were out, they’d be as anxious as he was to get started. Running wild horses was in their blood, none of them could help it. For now, they sipped hot coffee and told stories. Cowboys told stories as well as anyone. This too was in their blood. What was the point of suffering if one couldn’t tell a story afterward?

Rowdy would be in with the cavvy in no time, so Ples had no choice but to rouse the cowboys from their storytelling. He walked to the cookhouse, hesitated outside where he could hear the laughter coming from inside, and then stepped inside the well-lighted room. The cowboys, sitting at one of the long tables, didn’t look up as he walked to the coffee urn, poured a cup of coffee, and sat down at the cowboy’s table. Willy was telling a story, Ples listened. He knew the story, or one just like it. He’d been around a long time and most of these stories had been told before. Each telling brought a new twist and Ples waited with the other cowboys to hear how this story would end. Some stories ended with a bang, some didn’t end at all. Or so it seemed to Ples. Some stories never end.

Ples believed cowboys needed stories in order to go on. They embellished them like the artists who told their stories with brushes and dazzling color. Artists and cowboys lived anguished, solitary lives. They moved from one story to the next, afraid to slow down. From a life of solitude, they felt compelled to leave something behind. Mostly, they left behind worn-out saddles, twisted paintings, and stories.

“Them two mavericks were ornery,” Willy was saying. “Ornerier than any I’d ever seen. And they had horns, good roping horns. Mean horns. Me and Black knew we’d each have one shot before they’d brush up along the creek. In there they’d be lost to us. We cleared our ropes and spurred hard and reckless knowing we couldn’t let them get to the river. Ol’ Black was on a big red roan, a little edgy but stout. I gave him the first shot and he threw one of the longest loops I’d ever seen. And it settled over the brindle’s horns sweet as could be. He spurred hard to take up slack and then turned tight and that ornery sombitch came ‘round hard and damn near twisted Black’s horse into the ground. But he held. I was torn between stayin’ with Black or goin’ after that other sombitch. We’d tracked them two outlaws for hours and didn’t want to lose either one of them. You know how it is, you don’t think too straight when you’re in the thick of it, so I spurred  Blue hard knowin’ I had one shot before that sombitch hit the brush. Chargin’ hard as I could, I threw a wild loop and was shocked when I saw the rope twist over one horn and the muzzle. Fuck, I screamed, taking up slack as fast as I could and turned hard and braced for the jerk. Black was holding on for dear life, raisin’ a helluva storm. Everything was kind of comin’ unraveled. Dust and curses flying. We were in a helluva spot. I should have thought a little harder about the outcome. But hell, you know how it is. Don’t have time to think. Not much. Damnedest thing I ever saw, that maverick I’d roped swung way around and that sombitch Black was tied to coming around in the opposite direction, each of us having about fifty feet of rope out, and when those two outlaws crisscrossed, twisting against the ropes, headbuttin’ each other, we didn’t know if we were pulling against them damn critters or each other. Everything was all twisted up and dust everywhere. Fuck, what a mess.”

Young Fortunato sat with his mouth wide open and Ples was getting more enjoyment from watching Fortunato than from the story.

“What happened?” Fortunato asked.

“What the fuck you think happened?” Willy said.

“I dunno.”

“One day you will.”

And that was it. End of story. Ples felt kind of bad for Fortunato, but he’d either figure it out or forget about it. One day he’d have his own version to tell. These kinds of stories never turn out good.

“Guess we should shake it out,” Willy said. Ples nodded, stood up, dropped his cup into the dirty dishes bin, stepped out into the black morning, and walked toward the barn. Willy, Fortunato, Legs, and Bruze followed after him. Somewhere in the darkness, Rowdy was bringing in the cavvy. Things were still wild in the west.


Once Rowdy came in with the cavvy, things roared to life inside the barn. Each cowboy, already having thrown a can of oats into his feed bunk, stepped into the corral, dropped a long loop onto his saddle horse, led him back into the barn, and brushed and saddled him. Cowboys and their horses were efficient.

Once saddled, the cowboys led their horses out into the cold dark morning and loaded them one at a time into the stock trailer hooked behind Ples’s pickup truck. Ples climbed into the driver’s seat, Willy and Rowdy slid in next to him with Fortunato, Legs, and Bruze settling into the back seat. They had an hour’s drive to the mesa top. Ples hadn’t gotten around to talking to Ship or Joe before they left earlier to head up to set up the trap. He hoped they’d understood his instructions and the trap was going to be ready when the cowboys got there. It would be a waste of time to run a band of wild horses into a trap that wasn’t there. He remembered the time his crew failed to panel off a slight crevice at the back of a rock enclosure they were using as a trap. Everything had gone just as he’d planned it, the cowboys finding the band of wild horses out on the broad mesa, running them away from the trap, and then, when their tongues were damn near hanging on the ground, swinging them back toward the trap, a thing of beauty, the horses lined out, burning adrenaline, and at just the right time, turning the horses into the trap, their timing perfect, except the band of horses went in and, before anyone realized what was happening, out the tight crevice in the rock wall at the back of the trap. Someone yelled and the cowboys looked up. There was nothing for them to do but watch in disbelief, the band of horses never breaking stride, leaving a trail of dust as they raced back across the scrub away from the trap. He had to laugh at the memory. It was the narrowest crack, too, hard to believe they even managed to get through it. But they were wild and determined.

There were still hours before sunup. The cowboys rode in silence as the pickup truck bounced up the rough cutout up the steep side of the mesa. Ples wondered what everyone was thinking. Fortunato was chomping at the bit to ask Willy again what had happened with the mavericks he and Black had roped but didn’t want to be a pest. He realized that as the youngest he needed to show his respect for the older, more experienced cowboys. More than skill separated the cowboys. There were busted legs and blistered hands and broken noses and battle scars. All kinds of battle scars. Like notches on a gunfighter’s pistol grip, each scar told a story.

Growing weary of the silence, Ples asked Legs what he was thinking?


“Yeah, you know, what’s going on in that head of yours?”

Legs stammered, “Nothing, I guess. Can’t think of anything anyway.”

Willy laughed. “Well, that pretty much sums up your whole life, don’t it, Legs?”

“Whatcha mean?”

“Nothing, a whole lotta nothing,” Willy said. “I don’t mean nothing.”

Fortunato’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked Willy what happened when those two mavericks got all twisted up?

“You wanna know what happened? Well, I’ll tell ya. What happened is I went to Black’s funeral a couple days later. That’s what happened.”

A deep silence followed. Ples had known. He should have said something to Fortunato, but he wasn’t a goddamned priest. Life is hard. Things happen, bad things. And he hadn’t wanted to get Fortunato all shook up before they even started. Running wild horses, like wild cattle, can turn bad. Damn bad. When things break the wrong way. And all it takes is one badger hole, or wrong twist of a rope, or a sour horse, or a lightning storm. Ples had seen plenty. Plenty of wrecks. And not one of them could have been foreseen. Not one of them.

Bruze hadn’t said a word the whole time. He was naturally quiet, but he usually contributed something to the conversation. He’d always lived alone and relished the camaraderie of the cowboys. Now it was too late to chime in. The conversation had been killed. And there was no reviving it. No, it was best to stay quiet now. They would be out soon and quickly forget about Willy’s story. Stories don’t live long, not in cowboy country. They are soon replaced by new stories. One thing he learned about cowboys is they make stories easily. Each day creates a new story.

The cutout was steep and the pickup truck strained under the load of the trailer loaded with six horses. Ples was eager to get to the top of the mesa and begin the chase. A lot of their work was physically draining, but the cowboys always felt a heightened sense of excitement when they had a chance to run wild horses. The horses were territorial and wreaked havoc on the fragile grassland. It was unfortunate because the cowboys thrilled at the sight of the bands running wild across the open range.

Once on top, the road smoothed out and they made better time. The sun would be up in an hour or so and they needed to be horseback before then. Ples spotted the pickup truck and stock trailer Ship and Joe had used to haul up the heavy steel panels that were used to build the trap. They were sitting inside the pickup truck when the cowboys pulled up.

“About time,” Joe said.

“We got here as fast as we could,” Ples said. “Damn steep road. How’d it go with the trap?”

“It’s done. Hell of a steep trail down, but it looks good. Should be no trouble. If you get them here.”

“We’ll get them here.”

The trap had been set just off the steep trail at the bottom of the ravine next to a spring. Ples had scouted the band for a couple of weeks and knew its habits. Two cowboys located in the bottom of the ravine, behind two or three heavy steel panels placed across the escape route, could easily turn the band into the trap. Ples had drawn out the plans carefully. On paper, it was perfect.

The cowboys, having already unloaded their saddle horses, were slapping on their chaps, slipping headsets onto their horses, and tightening cinches. The horses snorted and stamped the ground, the cowboys blew warm air into their cupped hands. There was a lot of nervous energy. Before Ples climbed into his saddle, he gave Joe and Ship final instructions. “Back the pickups and trailers at a right angle to the ravine to make a wing to help turn the horses. A couple of us will try to be here, too. With luck, we’ll only be a couple of hours. You’ll know we’re getting close when you see the dust.”

Ples knew running the horses was the easy part, turning them into the trap was the hard part.

The cowboys lined out behind Ples, high-trotting toward the far edge of the broad mesa where Ples was sure they’d find the band. They shivered with cold and excitement, but they knew that once the sun came up and they spotted the horses, the cold would be forgotten. The horses moved easily, the silence broken by their breath bursting against the cold morning air. In the orange and purple glow just before sunrise, Ples pulled up. He knew each cowboy knew what needed to be done, and besides, plans were of no use once the chase was underway, but to settle his own mind, he wanted to offer a few words of encouragement. It was just the way his mind worked. No matter what might happen, he wanted each cowboy to know his role was important. Not much else matters when you are asked to put your life at risk. He needed to let them know he understood this.

The cowboys looked around and then down at the ground. There was nothing more to say and Ples turned his horse and headed toward the far end of the mesa, the rest of the cowboys lined out behind him.

As the sun broke over the east edge of the mesa, Willy spurred his horse to pull up along Ples.

“There,” he pointed to the herd. The band hadn’t spotted the cowboys yet. Their heads were down grazing. Ples nodded and looked over his shoulder. The other cowboys saw them. Willy and Fortunato would go out ahead and run the band to the west edge of the mesa, away from the ravine. Bruze and Legs would pick them up and turn them back toward the interior of the mesa where Ples and Rowdy would pick them up to take them the rest of the way. By then, the band should be running on instinct alone.

Willy and Fortunato, once they turned the band over to Bruze and Legs, would get back to the ravine as fast as they could and head down the steep trail from the opposite side to be in position to turn the band into the trap. After passing the band off to Ples and Rowdy, there wouldn’t be much Bruze and Legs could do since their horses would be spent.

As Ples watched the cowboys head out, Willy and Fortunato heading up the trail along the edge of the mesa, and Bruze and Legs cutting across the wide expanse to be in position to pick up the band once they turned, he was overcome by a deep sadness. Part of him, the bigger part of him, thought it was wrong. But the cowboy part of him wanted to get this done. He was torn. But it was set in motion and there was no going back. Their chance of capturing the band of wild horses wasn’t good, he knew. He’d take solace in this fact.

Facts. As he moved through life, he’d begun to realize there weren’t any facts. Nothing could be known for certain. Nothing could be predicted. Nothing could be proved. Nothing made sense. So what was he doing here? Where else would he be? He didn’t have a choice in any of this, so he might as well try to make the best of it. That was his philosophy. Make the best of it.

Rowdy sat his horse quietly. Ples wanted to say something to break the silence but couldn’t think of anything. What was there to say? Rowdy, content looking out across the wide canyon, admiring the simple beauty of things, knew Ples was twisted up inside and felt bad for Ples. But there’s no help for people like Ples. Rowdy understood this and didn’t push it.

The band of wild horses spotted Willy and Fortunato and Willy looked over at Fortunato, “Here goes, kid.”

Fortunato smiled and tightened the stampede string on his cowboy hat. Willy spurred his horse toward the band and Fortunato fell in behind. The band moved with grace and precision, the mares lining out behind the lead mare, the stallion falling in behind. Willy rode inside to keep the band pushed to the edge of the mesa top. Fortunato followed Willy’s lead staying just far enough behind the band to keep them lined out and moving west.

Legs and Bruze, watching the cloud of dust kicked up by the chase, quickened their pace to be in position to turn the band back toward the wide expanse of the interior once the band turned along the west rim of the mesa. Ples and Rowdy followed the cloud of dust along the far horizon. Even Legs and Bruze had disappeared from their view. Ples stepped down from his saddle and led his horse to the rim of the canyon. Rowdy watched him. Waiting tortured Ples. Until they took up the chase, Ples would be uneasy. Ples was the best cowboy Rowdy had ever ridden with but he lacked patience. He was addicted to the chase. It ran in his blood like freedom ran in the blood of the horses they chased.

“Smoke a cigarette,” Rowdy said.

“I don’t smoke,” Ples said.

“I know but smoke one anyway.”

Ples turned around to look up at Rowdy. There was probably some meaning there but what? It didn’t matter. Cowboys require action not words. Words spire up like columns of dust kicked up by stampeding horses and quickly disappear. The meaning is underneath, out of sight. He jumped back in his saddle.

The chase continued. The band of wild horses had been picked up by Legs and Bruze and moved across the expanse toward the north rim of the mesa where Rowdy and Ples waited. It was time to focus, Ples thought. He looked over at Rowdy who sat motionless staring out at the dust storm. Their blood was rising now, instinct starting to take over, just as with the band of wild horses. Each of them knew he would be a part of the band soon, running alongside them, their sweat and hot breath cutting a deep swath in his mind.

Coming hard now, Ples and Rowdy rode up the trail to intersect the band. They were close enough now that Ples imagined he could smell their hot breath.

Legs and Bruze, their horses played out, fell back. The band came on. Ples and Rowdy took up the chase, turning the band toward the ravine where the trap had been set. Ples moved to the flank to prevent the band from turning back to the interior of the mesa and Rowdy brought up the rear. The band had been moving at a hard pace for several miles now and were running on pure instinct. The lead mare, her wide nostrils flared, her eyes on fire, never broke stride. Ples was right on top of them, everything a whirl of hot froth and sweat.

Willy and Fortunato allowed their horses to catch their breath before they high-trotted toward the ravine. Everything was going as planned, but Willy knew things could change in a heartbeat. He’d been around long enough to learn that once you become satisfied, you set yourself up for disappointment. If Fortunato stayed with this life long enough, he’d learn it too.

Even in the thick of the chase, Ples was thinking things were going too smoothly, something was bound to break. He’d run wild horses enough to know that nothing ever goes according to plan. He guessed this is why he loved it so much, its unpredictability.

At the exact moment, he’d have to fall back and swing to the other side to turn the band down the steep trail down the ravine toward the trap. He glanced over his shoulder to locate Rowdy. Rowdy was thinking the same thing. He was a good hand and Ples was always able to rely on him to be where he needed to be at the right time.

Up ahead, Ship and Joe were ready. Willy and Fortunato hurried to get in position. Legs and Bruze, reluctant spectators, headed slowly back toward the ravine.

Everything was happening at lightning speed. Ples suddenly pulled up and fell behind Rowdy, who spurred his horse to get in position to turn the band as they approached the pickup trucks and trailers backed at a right angle to the ravine. Now. It had to happen now. And Rowdy charged ahead and Ples fell in behind at just the right distance to keep the band from turning back. The lead mare knew the trail provided an escape, so she flew headlong down the steep trail. The heavy steel panels set across the trail in the bottom of the ravine surprised her but she never broke stride. Willy and Fortunato were screaming and flapping their arms trying to get her to slow down but she came on hard and crashed into the panels. She went down but the force of the mares coming behind her sent the panels flying. Willy and Fortunato didn’t stand a chance. Their horses reared and Willy was thrown into the path of the stampeding band of wild horses. Fortunato was able to stay in the saddle as his horse was tossed aside. He looked on helplessly as the band charged up the other side of the ravine. The lead mare, momentarily stunned, regained her legs and followed the band up the steep trail, falling in behind the stallion. Fortunato saw the stallion hesitate at the top of the ridge and look down before he wheeled around and was gone.

Willy lay in a crumpled pile in the trail. Fortunato jumped off his horse to go to him. Ples and Rowdy were there, too. They rushed to Willy, but Ples knew before he cleared his saddle that Willy was dead. The toughest, orneriest sombitch he’d ever known. Things can go bad in a hurry. Real bad.

Things should stay wild. It kept running through his mind. He looked over at Fortunato, his face black with dust and tears. This isn’t the kind of story you should have to carry with you, especially as long as Fortunato would have to carry it with him. Ples felt bad for him. Rowdy, Legs, and Bruze, they wouldn’t have to carry it with them as long. Their hearts had already been hardened by this life. For Fortunato, it wasn’t a story at all, not yet. He’d have to think about it a long time before he could turn it into a story. Ples hoped he would have time for that. Stories require time. This story would require a lot of time. Time. Ples stood up and looked back up the trail. Ship and Joe were scrambling down. He pulled his slicker from the back of his saddle and draped it over Willy. They’d throw him up over his saddle and lead him out, and then tomorrow they’d come back for the steel panels. This trap wouldn’t be used again.

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