The Dry Spell
The Spectator
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 by Frank Shortt
       It hadn’t rained for nearly eight months and when one spilled a drop of the precious fluid a small crater appeared for just long enough to glimpse the futility of most humankind. All mouths, on the Circle V were so dry we could almost spit cotton balls. What talk was heard was done in low undertones emitted with barely enough effort to force the words past our dry, cracking lips.
       I had joined the Circle V outfit during roundup the past fall. Due to my name, Bob Shortt, I had gained the monicker of Short-T. I was the youngest of twenty-five cowhands, being barely twenty-two.
       Old man Vinner had taken a liking to me. Baldy Bill, the cook, had confided that Mr. Vinner had lost a son awhile back that would be close to my age and looked a lot like me having blond hair and blue-green eyes. According to Baldy, my small frame was a lot like the Vinner boy.
       Baldy came strutting out to announce,
       “Come and get it before I throw it to the pigs. It’s root hog or die.”
       This was his way of announcing the evening repast. We had ridden the range all day and were in no mood for his ‘bunkhouse humor’ but because we had no water in the wash basin to throw at him we each kicked a little cloud of dust at him as we strolled solemnly past.
Baldy had the reputation of being the best cook in that portion of Montana known as ‘Devil’s Dustbowl’. Otherwise, he would have gotten worse treatment from the surly, overworked crew that he was required to keep full of beef and bread.
       His biscuits were the kind that rose up perfectly in the pan, browned to a golden tan, and when bitten into, caused the tongue to do crazy things in a cowboys’ mouth. His gravies were somewhere between ambrosia and almandine wine. Most days the beef was so tender it required no cutting with a knife and very little chewing. Baldy was a rarity on this range.
       The crew had no more than sat down when a stranger came loping up to the cook shack.
       “Mind if I light a spell to cool my heels and water my wild cayuse?”
       Wild cayuse it was! The tip of one ear was missing, the sway in his back was from many hard days on the trail. The most distinguishing feature was that both eyes had rings around them. His owner called him ‘Ring Eye’.
       The stranger partook of our water sparingly, and used his battered Stetson to water his horse that savored every drop. Both horse and rider appeared to have seen some lean times.
       We invited him in, as was the custom in our locale, and began the good natured badgering afforded any newcomer to our camp. Every cowboy among us seemed to perk up at the prospect of having someone new to rag on, even Sad Sam Austin.
       “Where’d you get that old spavined fleabag?” Shorty Joe wanted to know.
       “How’d he even make it to camp?” Chortled Alabama Slim.
       “Is he a prize fighter?” Curly Bill asked with emphasis on the ‘fighter’ part.
       Sad Sam began a disparaging remark but relented as if he had forgotten what he was about to say.
        The stranger, who we learned later was called ‘Killer’ McGee, answered us not a word as he downed his biscuits and steak smothered in rich, brown gravy. He just let us brag about our own steeds and about how they could outrun and outwork any horse in the whole Bitterroot Range.
        After supper the stranger stood up.
       “Well boys, you’ve all said as how you’ve got the best horses in Montana. If I remember right, you all just drawed your wages. There must be a few dollars floating around camp that you’d like to wager on them great nags. Well, I’m willing to give you two to one that ole ‘Ring Eye’can outrun anything you’ve got. Do I hear any takers?”
       You could have heard a pin drop. One by one those assembled began to think real deep about what they had opened themselves up for. Being cowboys, for inside that is what they truly were, they began to think of ways to outsmart the wily stranger. Not one of the men could afford to spend an extra cent on frivolities.
       “How can you just ride in here and announce that you have the best horse in Montana? Everyone in the area knows that the piebald that Curly rides is the fastest, meanest horse around.” Baldy Bill chided. Anyhow, where’ll you get enough money to cover all the bets that are shorely gonna come yore way?”
       The stranger was not a large man. He had sandy hair, gray eyes, and was the slender and rawboned type of many campaigns. He seemed very sure of himself in spite of his appearance.
       He barely had the clothes on his back. His shirt hung in tatters. His pants looked like they’d been used at hog killing time and all the grease from the unfortunate porker had clung to his backside. The only redeeming article he possessed was his boots. Made by a Texas cobbler of some repute, they had sterling tips on the toes and heels. Each of the stovepipes had a smattering of silver stars on the outside. This gave emphasis to his riding ability. Most good riders have one trademark or another that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill.
       Ring Eye’s saddle was an ordinary range saddle. On second glace, I noticed that the stirrups were emblazoned with the same stars that were on the boots. I also noticed something strangely familiar about the newcomer.
“He must have spent his last dollar on them boots and stirrups,” dryly mused Baldy.
       Baldy was renowned for his betting habits.
       They say that if you would spit in the road, Baldy would bet on how long it would take for the sun to dissipate the moisture. In this present climate, it wouldn’t take long.
       I had been riding for the old man, John Venner, for about a year and most folks just called me ‘The Kid’ because I hadn’t told them much about myself. I didn’t figure that my drab life was worth the effort to harangue about. I had come here from Kansas and left there under stress from the local constabulary. There was a disagreement over some missing hams and sides of bacon. I have to admit that when one sees his mother and sister go hungry, providing for them in the only way possible isn’t really called stealing.
       John Venner had turned out to be the father I had never known. By working here for thirty a month and found, I was able to send maw and my sister some help. The letters I received after each check was the fuel that fed the fires of ambition to stay on here. I hoped soon to be able to afford a few head of cattle of my own and maybe, just maybe, a little homestead somewhere on the Bitterroot. It was very difficult to save any money after sending most of it to Kansas each month.
       John Venner’s wife, Kathleen, was another reason to go as straight as possible. She was the most motherly woman that ever lived and she babied all the cowboys as if they were her own sons. She had lost her only son in a stampede just as he had gotten tall enough to be a rider, so she was just naturally partial to boys. Besides, she was one of the most brilliant ladies I have ever met. Her five feet three inch slender frame belied a constitution of iron.
       Jake Varela, the foreman and normally a good judge of horseflesh and their riders, had been silent during the outburst from the stranger. He was, even now, not in a hurry to express his opinion one way or the other. Finally, he said, with just a glint of pride in his voice,
       “Well sir, we just might have a nag or two on the ranch that could keep up with that racehorse of yours, we’ll look around the pasture and see what we can come up with. Shall we, say, nine o’clock in the morning?”
       He winked at me knowingly.
        “That would suit me just dandy, the ragged stranger averred, providing you could put me up for the night.”
       “The bunkhouse is full, but there’s plenty of clean straw and a saddle blanket or two in the barn, jest make yourself to home,” Jake condescendingly replied.
       We all lolled around the yard until dark, some smoking, some bragging about what they were going to do to the stranger tomorrow.
        Somehow, I just couldn’t get into the spirit of the thing and deep inside I felt a gnawing concern for the stranger. I knew that there were deeper emotions happening with him than he was letting on. It is very hard to judge a man by his outfit and it is even harder to fathom what a man is really going through by what he says. So far, we really knew little about the man.
       I tried to sleep that night, but it never came until the wee hours of the morning. By the time I was asleep, the triangle rang for breakfast and I wasn’t in the mood to put up with too much palaver that early in the morning. I just sulked around and made myself scarce. I feared I would fly off and say something stupid to whoever might have said the wrong thing to me.
       Fortunately, breakfast was uneventful, except for one little outburst from Baldy.
       “Who does this nabob think he is comin’ in here and letting on like he is the best rider around. I‘ll bet he hightails it before breakfast. Why, he couldn’t afford a settin’ hen if she was done with the settin’.”
       Just then Killer McGhee appeared around the corner.
       “I’ll be ready to cover any bets, just as soon as I get some of this excellent grub down my gullet. I hope you can put your dough where your mouth is,” the stranger said between mouthfuls of ham and eggs.
       “You know, a sheep can only bear wool because he is a sheep, and a wolf can only kill sheep because he is a wolf, and a bettor should only bet on a sure thing. If you fellers have a sure thing, I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”
       We sat there agape, not one of us daring to say yea or nay. We let the stranger eat in peace, and just as his last forkful passed his palate, he said, “Well, boys, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
       He left the cook shack, not in a way of being sure of himself, but as it were, in a state of humbleness, not often seen in a son of the sage. He ambled to the barn, walked in, saddled old Ring Eye and led him out before our staring gazes. Ring Eye had been curried to perfection, his coat glistened as if he had been rubbed with oil. The saddle had been cleaned with saddle soap so that not one speck of dust clung to it. The saddle bags had been removed and we wondered if that was the stash for all the money this man was willing to bet on his ‘old cayuse’?
       He said, “Step right up gentlemen, how much are you willing to bet against this swaybacked nag that only last night was the ridicule of everyone here? Now’s your chance to make some real money for a change.”
       This was his way of gouging it into us about our ‘thirty a month and found’.
       We were all so taken aback that we were willing to bet the farm after he had touched our egos to such an extent.
“Put me down for sixty dollars,” Slim cried out.
       “I’ll go forty,” Baldy chimed in, coughing up his life savings.
        So on down the line they bet, each to his means, and soon there was not a cent left on the dry, dusty ranch to be had, except for my meager savings.
       John Venner even placed a bet against his better judgment. He didn’t like the idea that the stranger had slighted him by insinuating that he didn’t pay his help enough. When Mr. Venner became rankled, it took quite a spell to calm him down.
       I soon realized the trap that each one of the cowboys had been led into by his own ego. I had a different idea about the little man on the swaybacked nag. We were curious to see what would transpire as the bets had to be covered.
       Our curiosity wasn’t long in being satisfied. The man reentered the barn, staying what we considered a little too long, for a man who didn’t have enough money for a change of clothes.
       When he reappeared, you could easily imagine the amazement on our faces. He strolled out with a new outfit of black, studded with silver studs, and sporting a new black Stetson that made our outfits look fit for the rag heap.
        “Where’d you get them duds?” Baldy asked.
       He suddenly realized that he could have been a little prejudicial.
       “I saved a long time for them,” replied the stranger, with an air of superiority. You boys should have taken a look at Old Ring Eye’s fetlocks, felt the sinew underneath. You should have checked closely the rippling muscles underneath his unkempt hide. I will let you now be the judge as to his abilities as a racer.”
       Most of the cowboys still didn’t get the point. I knew, because the pinto I had ridden in on was of the same caliber. He too had been the point of derision for many months until I had outridden all the riders on the Venner spread. This too had helped to fill up the little can where I hid my savings for my future plans. I hadn’t done it all at once, but individually, as each cowboy regained confidence after witnessing the last defeat. Not only was my pinto a great runner, but also my smaller frame became an asset to my winnings.
        What I had to figure out now was how to make a bet on Ring Eye, which would give me the boost for which I had waited so patiently.
       This came in a surprising way.
       Somehow, when there is to be a major event on any of the ranches, word gets out to the neighbors, spreading like wildfire. We had been up since five a.m. getting ready for the race and by eight a.m. at least twenty-five men showed up who were not on the Venner payroll. As they too had just been paid, I began asking each of them if they would be willing to place a bet with me as I would be betting on Ring Eye and not against him.
       “Boy, you shore like throwing money away,” Luke Jenkins, from the Bar Z, cajoled.
       “This’ll be like takin’ candy from a baby,” another rejoined.
       “Why’re you goin’ against your own boys,“ another inquired.
       “Oh, I just have a feelin’ inside,” I replied, with all the confidence I could muster.
       By race time, I had taken bets from most of the visiting cowboys. Gambling makes a fool out of the best of men… sometimes.
       The race was to be down the half mile long lane leading from the front yard of the ranch house, and back to the starting point. This lane had a few chug holes. Some prairie dogs had decided that it was easier to dig in the turned up sods of the lane than to dig in the earth outside the fence.
        The only other hazard would be the infernal dust caused by the drought. I noticed that the stranger had included a black silk neckerchief in his outfit. Silk would allow the air to flow freer and, meanwhile, screen out most of the dust. The cotton neckerchiefs of the other contestants would be less effective when the dust started flying.
Curly was seated on his favorite piebald steed. Slim rode a little buckskin that he figured would be very effective against the swaybacked, ring eyed opponent. I didn’t enter because I had bet on Ring Eye.
       I was still getting razzed by everyone for being, Traitor! Turncoat! Daft!, And a lot of other epitaphs that are common jargon out on the range. The loyalty of the whole crew, excluding myself, was their undoing.
       The riders assembled themselves for the starting gun, which would be supplied by John Venner. With great anticipation, on the part of the horses, the chore began of holding them in line until the starting pistol was fired.
        Nine o’clock rolled around. John fired the starting shot, but Curly’s piebald jumped the starting line prior to the shot. All the horses had to be called back for another start.
       When all were in line again, John fired the second time.
       All the horses broke the line in unison. Curly’s piebald pulled a length ahead causing us to think that would be the case for the whole race. Slim’s buckskin had other ideas. He sensed that this was an important race and that he could make up for losing to the piebald so many times in the past. He exerted a burst of energy that took him in such an extended lead that even the piebald was surprised. Ring Eye ambled along, looking like the swaybacked nag that he was. He seemingly exerted no effort whatsoever. I began to foresee the loss of all my life’s savings.
       I called, “come on Ring Eye” as they passed me.
       I had seated myself on the fence along the route. I wanted a ringside seat for this major event in my life.
       The buckskin suddenly darted further ahead, with the piebald next in line. Ring Eye still acted as though he were at a Sunday picnic.
       Some of the neighboring cowboys called to me,
        “Hey kid, you want your money back? Wanta put your money on the buckskin?”
        I felt as though the weight of the world landed squarely on my shoulders but I wasn’t about to admit this to the line of laughing horsemen.
       Kathleen Venner eyed me with wonder and consternation. Or was that a look of pity she had? I’m sure she had bet some of her ‘pin’ money on either the buckskin or the piebald. I was in for a big surprise!
        The buckskin and the piebald reached the half mile mark around the same time. Ring Eye came up last. Slim and Curly let out a yell as they turned at the line and were assured that one of them would be the winner.
        Ring Eye took the turn without mishap and began the arduous journey back along the last half mile. If one could go by ‘looks’ the Venner cowboys had nothing to fear.
       Suddenly, an amazing thing happened! Ring Eye stood up straight, his tail blowing out behind like a flag in a gale. His ears pinned back and then his muscles started to perform like a fine tuned clock. Whereas Slim’s steed had taken the lead, now the piebald was a length ahead. The buckskin began to pull further behind and just to his croup came Ring Eye. Ring Eye overtook the buckskin, steadily approaching the piebald. Now Ring Eye’s nose was even with the piebald’s shoulder. Then they were neck and neck. Suddenly the piebald pulled a length ahead! A prairie dog who had come up to check out the excitement suddenly decided to dart in front of Curly. This caused consternation on the part of the piebald. As Curly commenced to straighten up that matter, he failed to see another hole just in his path. The piebald’s hoof was buried up to the knee. He stumbled and fell right in the path of Ring Eye.
       We thought, well this is the end of Ring Eye as well as the piebald.
       But not so!
       Ring Eye suddenly leaped over the body of the piebald, landing safely on the other side pulling a safe distance away from the buckskin. Curly somehow got his boots out of the stirrups and landed to one side preventing the breaking of any of his bones. The piebald was in agony and we all knew what would be the outcome of his fall.
Ring Eye easily ran the remainder of the distance to the yard. The buckskin, after having to skirt the piebald, came in several lengths behind.
        By this time, Curly had gone to his beloved piebald. Knowing the broken leg was beyond hope he pulled his sixgun out and put the piebald out of his misery. We all hung our heads in a silent tribute to the game little piebald and to his rider. They had shown much bravery in a trying situation.
        Killer McGhee, after acknowledging he had won the race, did a very unusual thing! He walked out to meet Curly, placed his hand on his shoulder and assured him that part of the winnings would go toward purchasing Curly a new horse. Curly was dumfounded.
       Then he turned to me.
       “Well, Kid, looks like you know how to bet on a sure thing, so I’m gonna tell you a story! My real name is William Shortt. Your father, who was also my father, was wounded at Vicksburg.”
       I could only gulp!
       “He had married my mother before the war and she died at my birth. He left me in the care of grandparents in Kentucky before going off to war. Not only did Grandpa raise thoroughbreds, but also furnished mounts for the Union Calvary. That’s where I learned to ride.”
       “As I grew older I found out that father had been sent to Kansas because of his injuries and had remarried. I used my riding abilities to work my way westward to try and find my father. Father had moved near Ft. Leavenworth for the hospital facilities there.”
       “After I reached Kansas I learned that my father had died from complications of his old war injuries. I also found out from my stepmother that I had a kid sister and a brother. She told me you were living on the Venner Ranch on the Bitterroot in Montana.
       So I headed west.
       “I knew that if I told you right away you wouldn’t believe me. I staged this race in order to build up your confidence in me so I could tell you the rest of the story. You do believe me don’t you, Kid?”
I was flabbergasted! So were the rest of the crew, including John and Kathleen. They thought they had found themselves a kid of their own and here was this nonchalant stranger coming in saying that I was his brother. Kathleen began to cry, and John was near tears himself.
       “I had a few acres set aside for you after you had become accustomed to the place. I intended to give it to you on your twenty-third birthday. But, looks like you’ll be leaving us soon.”
        “You can’t leave us, Kid, Kathleen opined, what’ll I do for a son now that I‘ve grown used to mothering you?”
It turned out that Kathleen had seen the qualities of the swaybacked nag and had bet her ‘pin money’ on it. She won quite a pile from the neighboring cowboys and also from her husband John.
       She turned to me and ‘Killer’ McGee, the only sobriquet he was known by.
       “Why don’t you take your earnings and bring your mother and sister to Montana. John is still willing to give you the acreage on the Bitterroot. That’ll make us all happy.”
       I never felt such happiness in my life.
       “Then I asked Killer, “What are your plans, brother?”
       “I’ve got a race soon in St. Louis, then back to Denver, and who knows where. You see, I have a whole passel of race horses inherited from my Grandfather. I’m just naturally bound to see that they win every race they run in. You go ahead and build your home, bring mom and sis to Montana. I’ll keep in touch until such time that we can all settle down and be a family.”
       He writes to me from such places as London, Paris, Munich, oh well, just about everywhere, but someday, somehow, I’ll be able to repay him for the greatest gift I ever received.
       Turns out Ring Eye’s ‘rings’ were stained on, growing out eventually. A few intricately placed spots had made him look like just another mangy mustang. In truth, he was a semi-retired Kentucky thoroughbred, winner of many races.
       As for the Venner cowboys, they took the loss in stride seeing how it all turned out.
       It was a long dry spell to the next payday. The drought lasted for another three months.
       Those cowboys ate plenty of dust, a lot of crow, and swallowed a lot of pride after being duped by a real Kentucky cowboy.
       Baldy summed it all up when he exclaimed, “You shore can’t judge a horse by its first showin’.”

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