Steeds 24

4 05 2017

Ella Ladwig waited for a lull in the shooting before ringing the cow bell she held in her hand. She stood on the ground outside her barn. After clanging the bell a half dozen times, she paused while watching the open door of the haymow above her head.

Sheriff Leall appeared at the door wearing a belt holster and a shoulder holster and holding two handguns, both Smith & Wesson Schofield revolvers.

“There’s a man here to see you about a horse, Lee,” said Ella.

“Mr. Allison, I presume. I’ll be right down.”

After reloading, Lee holstered the pistols. He negotiated the interior stairway down from the haymow into the stable, and then exited one of the barn’s two doors. There, Ella met him and walked with him to Terrence Allison, who stood near his horse and surrey parked between the barn and the house.

“Good day, Mr. Allison,” Lee said. “You’ve met Ella Ladwig. She and her sister, Clara, own this farm. They are my landladies.”

“What?” Terrence asked without as much as a second glance at Ella. “You’re shootin’ pigeons or bats?”

“Neither. I have a target range in there. The building captures bullets in the event of accidental discharge.”

“Or missin’ your target.”

“I don’t miss. That’s why I practice.”

“How often?”

“At least once every three months. Of late, I’ve been practicing every few days.”

“Oh?”

“I fear horse thieves are operating in our county. How many, I don’t yet know. How dangerous, I don’t yet know. Stealing horses is high-risk work, though, so I suspect the criminals are less than gentle.”

“Yeah. Speakin’ of that, I’m here to collect the horse you stole from me.”

“Fiddlesticks!” said Ella. “I should charge you for boarding that horse. Four bits.”

“Four bits?”

“A day.”

“What?”

“Your horse is over there in the pasture,” said Lee. “Come with me.”

“Lee.”

“Yes, Ella.”

“Don’t invite that man to dinner. If he comes in, all he’ll get is the swill I haven’t yet thrown out.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Lee responded. And to Terrence, he said, “She didn’t like the way your horse looked when she showed up here.”

“ ‘A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast, but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel,’ ” Ella quoted.

“Step this way, Mr. Allison.” Lee led Terrence to a pasture of ten acres surrounded by an oval post-and-rail fence made of black locust. “There she is, healing nicely.” Lee referred to the sorrel mare grazing among three other horses, two donkeys, a Brown Swiss dairy cow and calf, and a flock of sheep. “Call her over.”

As a result of the last time Lee had ordered him to call his horse, Terrence had an answer ready. “A horse is not a dog.”

Lee pulled his boatswain’s pipe and blew. Over trotted Freyja and a companion, a chestnut mare with a flaxen mane and tail. “You’ve seen Freyja before,” said Lee. “Isolde is the horse I rode daily before Freyja. She’s retired now.”

“What about that light-colored horse out there. Why didn’t it come?”

“The cremello? That’s Irmagard. She belongs to Ella and Clara.”

“And the donkeys? They each have a donkey cart?”

“No. The donkeys guard the other animals against stray dogs … and stray people.”

“No.”

“Yes. Nobody is allowed on any of the pastures except the Ladwigs, one of my deputies, and me. Where’s your tack?”

“In the surrey.”

“Go for it. I’ll get your horse.”

Lee walked to the barn, where he selected a length of rope. He then walked to one of the gates to the pasture. Removing a small key from a pocket, he unlocked the padlock securing one of two chains. The chains secured both ends of the gate to its gateposts. Lee swung the gate inward just enough to admit himself to the pasture, and then he closed it.

Terrence watched Lee walk over to his horse and use the rope to tie a simple, temporary bridle. Lee led the horse back to the gate. “Is that a lunge rein I see in your hand?” he asked Terrence.

“Yeah.”

“You’re not leading your horse back to your place with that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too long. It’ll get tangled.”

Terrence started mumbling angrily.

“What’s that?” Lee asked. “Speak up, man.”

“No. I’ve heard what you do to people you catch cussin’.”

“That depends on whether it’s private or public. Careless is bad enough. Malicious is worse,” Lee said. “I’ll give you my rope to go with your bridle. Come on inside.”

Lee opened the gate a little. Terrence walked through. Lee closed it. He removed the rope from Terrence’s horse.

Terrence approached his horse, bridle in hand. Every step he took, however, was matched by one the horse took to back away from him.

“What’ve you done to my horse?” Terrence asked.

“We’ve provided clean pasture devoid of worms, courtesy of the sheep. We’ve made her a bed of clean wheat straw at night in a secure, well ventilated stable. We’ve given her both meadow and seed hay, supplemented four times a day with oats and a bit of calcium. She’s also received a little salt and a little molasses.”

Terrence tried again. The horse would not be approached.

“Stand still and hold your hand out,” Lee said. “Like this.” Lee held his left hand out to Freyja, who responded by walking over and nuzzling his palm. He walked away. He held his right hand out toward Isolde, and she responded in the same way. Lee moved his hand to Isolde’s chin and started walking slowly; she let him lead her forward, left, and right.

“Seems there was a time,” said Terrence, “when you’d have been burned at a stake for that.”

“Nonsense,” said Lee. “I’m no warlock, and there’s no wizardry at work here. You should see what Deputy Redman can do with a horse. He can ride his bareback without bridle or reins. He can put a blindfold on his horse, and he’ll carry Philip just about anywhere he wants to go, and that’s no joke; I’ve seen him do it. It’s a matter of trust. More than trust, actually. Respect. Affection. Both ways.”

Lee stepped away from his horses. He held a hand out to Terrence’s horse, and she walked over. He gave her a few pats, and then walked away. “You do it.”

Terrence held a hand out. The horse watched him.

“Be patient,” said Lee.

The horse did not move.

Terrence’s hand began to quiver. He brought it down with a slap to his thigh. He raised it just as quickly to point at Lee. “You’re makin’ a fool of me!”

Terrence’s horse bolted. She turned and ran off.

Terrence threw the bridle at Lee. “Get my horse!”

Lee said, “If you do something like that again, I won’t need to use either of these guns.” Freyja stood at Lee’s right, and Isolde stood at Lee’s left. Both looked at Terrence.

Lee watched Clara ring the brass bell located outside the back door of the house. She had walked from the newspaper office downtown a half mile away, as she always did during the noon hour. Dinner time.

Lee tossed the bridle back to Terrence. “Your horse stays here. As for you, you go back downtown and visit Deputy Redman in our office. He’s there eating dinner prepared by the Oakleys and the prisoners. You ask him, politely, about lessons in horsemanship, at his convenience. You take the money you owe Ella and Clara and pay Philip to learn how to treat your horse, and then maybe your horse will go back with you to your place.”

Lee added, “If not that, then sit down and figure out how to make a locomotive the size of the fire engine in Uttica into something than can go off the rails. There’s an awful number of people in this world who will treat an iron horse better than a real one.”

 

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