The Horse Whistle
by Martin Hill Ortiz
Pepper Mack sat on the root end of a toppled alamo near the brink of a ridge overlooking the town of San Rafael. The terrain below was painted with the blush of sunset. Pepper always enjoyed the sweet melancholy of the end of the day. Now was as fine a time as any to say goodbye to his old life.
Up until an hour ago, he sat alone. Then he was joined by the sheriff who straddled the trunk sitting an arm's length away. Together, they waited for Old Henry. If Old Henry appeared, Pepper would dance the noose jig.
"What kind of name is Pepper Mack?" the sheriff asked.
"Pepe McDonald, after my daddy."
"A confused parentage."
"Now, don't go attacking my folks. That's plain childish."
"Yeah, it is," the sheriff said. "Take this as my contrition." With a phfft, he launched a gob of chaw at Pepper's boots. "When did you start thieving horses?"
"I don't steal no horses." Pepper said, offended by the plural. He stole one only horse, over and over again.
Pepper and Old Henry had been zig-zagging west, hopscotching from town to town, aiming for Yuma in the Arizona territory. Pepper's daughter lived there along with his grandkids, three of them. Set up beside the mighty Colorado, Yuma had lots of rich mud for planting, a virtual paradise on earth. So he'd been told.
Old Henry was too old and bent to carry a load of cargo for much time - even one as scrawny as Pepper - so they walked side by side. Whenever their pilgrimage needed some funding - and that was often - Pepper sold Old Henry.
The night after the sale, Pepper would take to the road west of town. Upon finding a good lookout, he blew his horse whistle and waited. The whistle seemed silent but right off dogs took to howling. And, somewhere in the distance, Old Henry took note. The horse was clever, more clever than humans by half. Late at night, while his new owners slept, Old Henry would chew through his hemp or leather tie, then search out the weak spot on the fence or on the side of the barn.
Pepper would sometimes wait all night, in worst circumstances, two days. Eventually, Old Henry would chomp, squirm and bash his way to freedom, then plod off down the road to the sunset where the friends would reunite.
Together, they'd head off to the next town to pick up a few more dollars - a scheme that worked just fine until San Rafael.
In the morning, when he and Old Henry ambled into town, they went straight to the master of the livery stables to announce a horse for sale. "He ain't got no gallop," Pepper said. "But he can still tow a plow."
With the mention of "plow," Old Henry nickered and snarled.
Word went round about a cheap, shaky-kneed dray horse for sale. Several interested came by to look. Only two made offers, and those two fought.
"Thirty bucks," Dan Fowlkes said. "And he's not worth it." Old and mean, his face twisted so that his wrinkles criss-crossed. The crevices were filled with the grout of trail dust.
"Thirty-five, Mister," Nuff said. "I got it in Morgan silver." She jangled a purse. She was an ancient eighteen years of age, her clothes ragged and baggy.
"Don't go cross-bidding me," Dan said.
"I needs him more."
"Unless your brothers each plan on chomping on a shank of horsemeat I suggest you need save your silver for food. I'll up you by five." Nuff pleaded to Pepper saying how she was caring for her four brothers, three to ten years of age. Since their parents died, she'd been selling off their ranch bit by bit to stay alive. They kept the valuable part, a productive well, but hauling water to their field took hours out of her day. She was sure Old Henry could change that and she didn't have the money for a more vital horse or mule.
Now, seeing that Pepper was choosing a victim, he much preferred the offer from Dan Fowlkes. It wasn't to be. Dan stamped his feet, cursed from high to low heaven but, after a lot of fist-waving, he withdrew his bids, all of his bids.
Pepper tried to tell Nuff that he wasn't ready to sell, but she wouldn't hear of it. For Pepper, he faced the inevitable arrival of the day when stealing might actually be wrong. Old Henry gave him an unforgiving stare.
That evening as Pepper squatted on the alamo trunk, he was joined by Dan Fowlkes, the sheriff.
"I got sent a bulletin describing you and your game," he said. "I was waiting for you. Horse thieving is a capital offense hereabouts."
"Hereabouts and everywhere-abouts," Pepper said.
"I tried buying the horse myself but then I figured, what matter does it make? You try to chisel me or Nuff, I'll get back the dollars you stole and seize your nag, so nobody's the poorer. Except for you - but you'll be dead." He shot some brown spit into the earth.
"It ain't horse-thieving if I don't got no horse."
"It will be as soon as that old bag of bones arrives."
Pepper had not blown the whistle but Old Henry was a creature of habit and might just come anyway. The horse knew where to go - take the road out of town, into the sunset.
Out of obedience to that routine, Old Henry came strolling their direction. Pepper thought it would be a shame to die branded a thief. Even more of a pity to die innocent.
When Nuff was ready to lead Old Henry away, Pepper looked his longtime friend in the eye and said, "Sorry, mi amigo. You's getting too old for the trail. Besides, them rich muds of Yuma they's my dream, not yours." He offered Nuff his whistle to be used in case Old Henry should stray.
"Lordy, lordy, look who's coming for a visit," the sheriff said. Although still a good fifty yards off, the silhouette and the slow lonesome shuffling of Old Henry were unmistakable.
Pepper thought about dying. At least Old Henry would live on with a nice family who needed him.
A long stone's throw away, Old Henry stopped and cocked his head. Dogs began barking. The horse turned and began loping home.