Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Horse Thief -- by Ben Hernandez

The moon was out and it’s light spread across the branches of the scrub oak casting a phantom hand on the small house. He slept in a room at the back on a rope bed near the pot-bellied stove. Winter was early and the night was cold.

Out across the hard-packed yard, beyond the barn the sound of the horses in the corral pulled him from his sleep. He lay still, listening. There it was again, the horses whining, hooves stomping. There had been news of Indians, off the reservation, stealing horses through the territory, reports he had passed off as gossip. But now he could hear the agitated animals clearly.

He swung his legs off the bed and caught his toe on the cast iron foot of the stove as he moved to the doorway. Cursing and shuffling through the front room he sat again on a rough-hewn walnut bench to pull his boots on. Hurry, before they’re gone with the whole damn string. He stood and paused to force the fog of sleep out of his eyes and then reached for his rifle fixed above the door.

The barrel was cold and the gun heavy as he leveled the weight in his hand. He left the house, stepped off the porch and was now in the yard dressed only in his boots and long underwear. A long shadow stretched behind him leading back to the front door.

The air made his knees and knuckles ache as he approached the barn and his nervous breath burst into the night like smoke. The man edged close to the barn wall now, hunched out of instinct with the rifle held low and thrust out in front to probe the darkness. He turned at the corner of the structure, seeing the ponies and the figure of a man among them.

From the cover of the barn he moved to the first corral post. The thief had not noticed, still trying to manage the horses. The man crouched, passed between the rails and finally stood not more than ten feet away when the thief turned his face. The moonlight was enough for the man to recognize an old neighbor, one who had fallen on hard times, losing property, a wife and had turned to drink for comfort.

“Duncan Barnett?” The sound of the man’s voice startled the thief so that his legs nearly buckled and he dropped the leather cord he had tied to one of the horses. The man said again, “Barnett.” But even in the dark he could see the deadened and weary eyes of a drunkard. The prodigal son not yet returned to his home.

“Stay back, damn you!” said the thief. He reached into his threadbare coat and pulled a pistol from his belt. “I mean to take these ponies mister and I’ll shoot you down if you try and stop me, by God.”

“Barnett,” said the man, “It’s Roy Martin. Don’t you know me? Roy Martin?” Martin lowered his rifle, “C’mon over to the house and get you something to eat.”

Barnett’s pistol dipped and rose, a drunk maestro conducting an orchestra. “You all can go to hell,” said Barnett. “Every last one of you.”

The gun fired, splintering a fence post behind Martin and the explosion echoed hard against the buildings. Martin stepped back and held his hand up.

“Duncan, please,” he said. “Put that pistol down. You want a little money? Come with me.” Barnett’s gun fired again this time striking the dirt at Roy Martin’s feet.

“C’mon up to house and get warm. I’ll fix you a pallet to sleep on,” said Martin. Barnett steadied his revolver, but the rifle came up and fired first. The bullet sent up tufts of fabric as it hammered Barnett to the ground.

Roy Martin breathed deep to calm the nausea as he stared down the barrel of the Remington to the fallen man. The horses had yet to calm down and their eyes were still wide and round and white.