Challenge: Golden by Wichita Red
“Hey!” Curry shouted, his saddle hanging from one hand as he pointed with his chin to the south. “Here, he comes.”
Wheat let go of the cinch strap he had been tightening, bellowing, “where you been?” His face so flushed it hid his worry from everything but his voice. “We were just saddling up to go search for you.”
His and Curry’s hollering had everyone looking toward Kyle and his pony, Strawberry, riding in, looking worn down to the bone.
Tossing his saddle up on the fence rail, Curry undid the rope halter, releasing his horse, even as the rest of the gang watched Kyle ride up.
Dropping an arm across the corral gate, Heyes shook his head at the pathetic sight Kyle and Strawberry presented, “had everyone worried.”
The loose, sloppy grin Kyle was known for made its appearance, “didn’t mean to.”
“Well, you did.” Heyes replied low, his black eyes glittering on the edge of anger, “what have I said about anyone just wandering off.”
“I didn’t wander, I had purpose.”
“And, that was?” Heyes asked, swinging the gate open, so the little flea-bitten roan could enter.
“Let me take care of my gal, and I will tell y’all.”
Heyes eyes slid to Curry who was folding his arms across his chest and settling back into his heels. “Way you look, has me thinking you got yourself chased by the law...” he glanced to the south, “you did not bring any of them dogs with you?”
“Oh, no...it weren’t the law at all.” Kyle chirped, more falling from his saddle than climbing down.
With a snort, Wheat grabbed Strawberry’s headstall, “I will take care of your horse.”
“Gee, Wheat that is real kind of you.” Kyle heaved out a long sigh, “I am awfully tired.”
By this time, every member of the Devil’s Hole had gathered near, and Lobo asked, “so where you been?”
Kyle peered up at the group of men, all taller than him, and sheepishly smiled. “I caught a buffalo.”
Haig wobbled his cigar up and down while shaking his head even as Hank snorted out a laugh.
“I did catch a buffalo!”
“So, where is it?” Monahan asked, bumping into Olly who only shrugged.
“See, I was out lookin’ for some blackberry bushes, and this big ol’ herd of buffalo went stormin’ by me and Strawberry.” Kyle looked over at his mare, “She didn’t care none for ‘em and set to buckin’.” He shook his head, “she usually treats me better than that.”
Wheat had thrown the mare’s saddle on the fence and was rubbing her down, even as she sucked water from the trough.
“But I got her spun out of it, and we took off after them buffalo. They was just a runnin’ and we kept after ‘em.”
Haig pulled his cigar, releasing a stream of blue smoke, “so you working up to tellin’ us, you got lost chasin’ the herd.”
Kyle straightened, throwing his shoulders back, “I don’t never get lost, I was taught to track when I was just a boy.”
Coming out of the corral, Wheat took an appraisal of Kyle, “when did you eat last?”
“Been a mite.”
“I want to hear the rest of this,” Heyes said, pushing off the gate, and motioning to the bunkhouse. “Hardcase fetch him a bowl off the stove and a cup of coffee.”
“Why Heyes that is right kind of you.”
“We will see how kind you think, I am once I have heard all your tale.”
Kyle slumped a bit, following his fellow gang members to the chairs scattered along the bunkhouse’s porch, and took a seat in one. “I overtook them buffalo ‘bout sundown, I did.”
Curry nodded, leaning against one of the porch poles, behind Kyle, his motion inciting all the others to nod along.
Kyle grinned at his pals’ genuine interest. “When me and Strawberry overtook ‘em, those big cows had their tongues stickin’ out…” He held his arms wide, “…. why they was stickin’ out a dirt track mile.”
“If’n they were that tired, why did you not just shoot one and come on home?” Wheat asked, leaning forward and dropping his elbows on his knees, while eyeing Kyle, in an almost big brother fashion.
Kyle frowned, and looked down, “well, it were then I realized that when Strawberry did all that buckin’, she had shaken the tarnation out of me. I mean really did, cause...” He shrugged, sliding guilty eyes to the leader of the gang. “…I was a missin’ my shootin’ iron.”
Wheat shot to his feet and Kyle spun his way, having figured it would be Heyes who would rare up all angry, not his closest pal.
“You were out there without nothing?!?”
Mournfully, Kyle exhaled out, “I was.”
Throwing his hands up, Wheat plopped back on the chair so hard, it creaked under him, “Sometimes. . . sometimes you ain’t—”
“Now, don’t need to be goin’ on so, Wheat, I made it back all righty.”
Hardcase handed Kyle a bowl of stew, and the little man began shoveling it in his mouth, mumbling about how good it tasted.
Clearing his throat, Curry prompted, “Uh, Kyle?”
“Well, like I done had to admit, I up and lost my weapon. But, them buffalo they was just a standin’ there, so I took down my rope, and threw it on a lil’ heifer.”
At this, Heyes took off his hat, running a hand back through his hair before setting it back on.
“Boy, howdy, that heifer wasn’t as tired as I thought, cause she took off like a hornet had stung her. And, she was a-squallin’ and this big one it charged, all gruntin’ and snortin’ my way. So, I thought, it’d be best if I let the heifer go, but that rope was drawn so tight ‘bout my saddle horn.” Kyle shoved another mouthful of stew in, followed by a swig of coffee.
Rocking forward in his chair, Monahan cried, “well, what happened?”
“Oh! Well, I don’t rightly know why, but that big one just took on out after rest of that herd. See, when that lil’ heifer started bawlin’ the others just skedaddled. Bout that time, it came to me, ‘Kyle, how you gonna kill this varmint with your pistol missin’?’ Then I just knew there weren’t no way, so I got out my pocket knife.”
Wheat groaned, “The one I been telling you to replace.”
“My grand-pappy gave me that knife.”
“It has had its day.”
“I might concede you to be right there, Wheat.” Kyle took another drink, “cause I went to tryin’ to open the lil’ blade, cause it be the sharp one. But I couldn’t get it free. So, I gave up, Strawberry dancin’, the heifer jerkin’ us both ‘bout and all.”
Curry covered his mouth, smothering a brilliant smile but still seeing it in his eyes, Heyes sucked in his lower lip and looked to the floor.
“I opened the big blade.” Kyle grinned, “Difficulty was I could have made just as much headway, cuttin’ that rope with my finger, suppose yuse right Wheat, my grand-pappy’s knife just ain’t no good.”
At this, a snorted cough escaped Curry, and Kyle looked sharp up at him.
Swallowing and coughing, Curry motioned to his throat, “got a tickle.”
Kyle’s eyes narrowed skeptically, and he took another bite of the stew, continuing on through the mouthful, “Not knowin’ what else to do, I climbed down, preparin’ myself to take on that buffalo with no more than my muscles for weapons.”
A snorted choking cough escaped from several of the gang members this time, and Kyle shook his head around at them. “I ain’t gotta tell y’all this.”
Looking up, Heyes rolled out a slick, dimpled grin, “Oh, but, Kyle, we all want to hear it.”
Dragging the last of his roll around the inside of his empty bowl, Kyle purposely ignored the men surrounding him.
“Come on, Kyle, you know you want to spill it.” Kyle’s blue eyes rose to meet Hannibal Heyes’ most sincere smile, just as he cajoled, “You know you do.”
Popping the roll in his mouth, Kyle grinned around it. “See it took me a bit, but I managed to get ‘er down, had to get one hand under her jaw and the other on a horn, and...” He slapped his hands together, “...I threw ‘er, and I tied her up with that fancy sash Mizz Jenny done gave me to hold my britches up with. Tied ‘er just like I learned, back when, I worked on the four-y ranch. Then I needed that lil’ blade, and I still couldn’t get a hold of it.” He snorted through his nose sounding oddly mournful, “so I broke the big blade off my grand-pappy’s knife, yup broke it off, and used it to pry the lil’ blade out.” He looked big-eyed over at Wheat, “that be why I gotta concede you might be right.”
Wheat was pinching at the bridge of his nose, his face reddening as he struggled to conceal his laughter.
“I know it ain’t every day you hear you are right. But, do not be takin’ it so hard there, Wheat.”
“I am trying not to, Kyle, trying not to.”
“What happened then?” Hank asked, leaning eagerly forward.
“After I done slit ‘er throat, it came to me it would be a good idee to take ‘er hide. Show y’all.” Kyle nodded, “and a buffalo hide makes a right fine blanket.”
As a group, the Devil’s Hole glanced toward the corral, and Hardcase voiced what they were all thinking, “So where is it?”
“Your jumpin’ ahead on my story.” Kyle scolded, “I did skin ‘er, and let me say it were a terrible tedious task with that lil’ blade.” Kyle nodded like an old sage soothsayer, “it were pitch black by the time, I had that hide and two-good sized chunks of meat hooked to my saddle.”
At this, he looked over to Heyes, giving him a squeamish grin, “we done gone a good distance, and me and Strawberry was nearly dead for a drink. So, instead of comin’ back, we went searchin’ for a stream and that cool water, it never tasted so good. I reckon by then it were past midnight, so I pulled Stawberry’s bridle, so she could graze.” Kyle set to digging in his vest, and all watching knew his grubby hand would appear with a plug of tobacco. “Then I spread that hide down, hair up and wrapped the end of my rope about me a couple times, so Strawberry couldn’t wander off. And, I laid down on that hide and fell right to sleep.”
Having unwrapped his tobacco, they all watched as he ground a bite off, and waited as he worked the chunk down into something useable.
“Dangdest thing, I woke up covered head to toe in ants.”
Laughter burst from each man present, not one trying to hold it back.
Kyle spat into his empty coffee cup, “it were terrible, that fresh meat attracted them and they was eating it and me too.”
The laughter rose in volumes, and Kyle leaned back, his brows drawing low, “y’all is pitiful pals, just pitiful.”
Curry dropped a hand on his shoulder, “sorry, Kyle, but if it were one of us, you would be hacking just as loud.”
“Suppose you’re right.” Kyle spat again and then grinned broadly. “I freed myself of them pests and decided to move me and Strawberry downstream a ways, and this time, I left the hide on the saddle. Laid down in some tall grass and went right back to sleep. Now, I weren’t asleep more than an hour....” He shook his head with a frown. “.... when Strawberry lets go with a tremendous snort, and she struck out, at full speed, draggin’ me with ‘er. ‘Cause, I had wrapped the rope ‘bout myself again, like I always do.”
Low enough, that not everyone heard him, Heyes stoically said, “Seems I’ve informed you, plenty of times, that might not be the best way to field stake your horse.”
“Well, Strawberry ain’t never treated me that way before. And, luckily, I came loose after just a bit of draggin’.”
From above and behind Kyle, Curry set to snickering, so hard, he was shaking the porch pole he was leaning against.
“Now, Kid, that just ain’t funny, I could have been powerfully hurt.”
The laughter became harder and louder.
“Sorry, Kyle, just can’t get the image out of my mind of you being jerked awake and drug.” Curry wiped at his eyes, not noticing the look settling into Kyle’s features.
“Kyle!” Heyes barked, distracting the small man, whose anger had him puffing up worse than a banty rooster. “What happened next?”
“Well, Heyes, when I got to my feet, can you imagine how lonesome I felt out there all alone and afoot. I felt just like a little boy who had lost his way. Then there was this noise in my ear, and I turned, and it’s my Strawberry. See, she does care ‘bout me, she came right on back.” With a nod, he spat in his coffee cup. “She is one good mare, and I climbed back up on ‘er, and decided to not get off, till I got here.”
“So, where are the hide and meat?”
Kyle looked to Merkle who had until now not made a sound, and a goofy, lopsided grin filled Kyle’s face. “I done lost it. The ants got the meat, they all liked it so much, I didn’t want to take ‘em with me. And, when Strawberry ran off, she must of done some buckin’, again, ‘cause she didn’t bring the hide back with ‘er.”
While listening to this, Heyes had taken off his hat and was walking the crown in a circle through his long fingers, and when Kyle ceased speaking, he slanted an eye over to the outlaw. “So, you lost an eighteen-dollar Colt chasing buffalo and have nothing to show for it.”
Kyle’s eyes widened noticeably, and he nodded back to his leader. “I did.”
Shields jumped up, blurting, “Hellfire, that is the biggest load of bull I ever heard. I bet you was off playin’ poker in town, like you weren’t supposed to be, and lost your pistol in the pot!”
Kyle’s shoulders drooped, and his pale blue eyes shifted to the tear in his pants, and the scrapped skin he could see along his leg.
Wheat leapt up, turning on Shields, but before another word could be said, Curry pushed off the pole, his hard-blue eyes locked on Shields.
At his move, Kyle looked up, “Ya believe me, don’t ya, Kid?”
Curry remained focused on Shields until the man looked away, and then he smiled cheerfully down on the more disheveled, than usual, outlaw. “I do, and that is a tale, I shall recall for some time. Glad you made it back, Kyle.”
The others nodded and standing Heyes put his hat back on as a breeze whirled across the porch, spinning several stray aspen leaves.
Kyle looked to the Leader of the Devil’s Hole Gang, his expression that of a boy wanting approval. “You believe me, Heyes.”
“Course I do, Kyle, can’t think of anyone who could weave such a golden tale of woe, except maybe Shakespeare…” Releasing a smiling laugh, Heyes patted Kyle on the shoulder, “…and you ain’t him. Glad you made it back.”