The Red Stallion




Jenny Guttridge




Squatting on his haunches in the exact centre of the trail, Adam Cartwright studied the marks in the dust. They were faint and confused but quite unmistakable. To the experienced eye of a veteran horse hunter they were as easy to read as the pages of an open book. Straightening slowly, Adam followed the signs with his eyes until they disappeared into the middle distance. Unless he missed his guess – and he was rarely wrong – as many as two dozen wild mustangs had passed this way, keeping a slow and steady pace, not very long ago.


A well-built and powerful man in dusty black clothes, Adam took off his hat and wiped his sleeve over his face. His sweat made a dark damp patch on the cloth. Squinting against the dazzling sunlight, he turned to look up at his younger brother where he sat high on the back of his favourite pinto pony. “They’re still about three hours ahead of us and travelling at about the same speed.”


Joseph Cartwright shifted himself in the saddle, easing the weight on the bones of his butt, and allowed his eyes to follow the same line as Adam’s. “We’ve been right on their tails for four days now, Adam, and pushin’ ‘em hard. They gotta be just up in front of us, an’ they’ve gotta slow down soon.”


“I’m not so sure, Joe.” Adam replaced his hat and walked back to his waiting horse. His stride was long, slow and easy with just the hint of a hitch that showed that his once-injured hip was starting to stiffen. “There’s a wily old mare out in front of this bunch, and she’s leading us straight out into the badlands.” Lifting the canteen down from his saddle, he took a small mouthful of the warm, stale-tasting water, swilled it around in his mouth a time or two and spat out the resulting mixture of mud and saliva onto the ground. Then he took a proper drink, sufficient of the life-giving fluid to do his lean-hipped, broad-shouldered body some good but not quite enough to make his belly rebel. He poured a little more water into the palm of his hand and used it to cool his face and his neck.


Joe was his usual anxious and impatient self. “We’ve got to catch up with them. This is the biggest bunch of bang-tails we’ve found this year. We need those horses if we’re goin’ to make that quota of army remounts.”


“I know it.” Adam swallowed one more mouthful of water and pushed the stopper firmly back into place. He shook the canteen, estimating the amount of water remaining inside, and pulled a sour face. He had barely enough to last him the day and none at all for the horse. “But we have to find water.”


He turned and studied the way ahead. The prospect wasn’t inviting. The path they were on twisted down into a canyon a mile wide and just under half that deep. The abode of lizards, scorpions and snakes, it was a deep, jagged slash in the earth. It was carved by the wind from the pale coloured rock, filled with heat and sunlight and dust and brown coloured-earth. Its distance was lost in the haze. Dry, yellow grasses grew here and there. Small, sparse patches of thorny, grey green scrub clung to the hillside in the spots where the roots could find shade. There was no indication at all of where they might find water.


It was not quite midday. The sun, a blinding, bright golden orb, had climbed right to the top of the sky. The temperature had soared since the early hours of the morning and the heat was boiling back off the ground. Heat-devils shimmered and danced on patches of crystalline sand. They distorted perspective and made it hard to discern the details of a savage and unforgiving, if starkly beautiful, landscape. The air itself was dry, almost painful to breathe. The harsh, dry heat pulled the sweat right out of man’s skin, split swollen lips and made the sinuses bleed. Altogether, it wasn’t a pleasant or a comfortable place to be.


Joe’s face, still not fully matured into the hard, flat planes that would define the handsome young man he was about to become, creased into an unbecoming scowl of concern. “We can’t give up now. Another day an’ we’ll have chased them down!”


Adam laughed grimly. “Another day on this trail and that ol’ mare ‘ll have us right where she wants us – stuck out in the dry country with no water and our horses dying under us.”


“But we can’t let them get away from us now!” Joe was insistent, his voice a tiny bit shrill.


Adam knew how he felt, but someone had to keep their feet firmly down on the ground and their heads out of the clouds; as the eldest, he naturally got elected. “We can’t and we won’t. What we’ll do is go back and get supplies and fresh horses, and then come after them again.”


“By then that horse herd will be fifty miles away and in someone else’s territory!”


Both sceptical and amused, Adam gave a slow shake of the head. As he had observed often before, Joe had grown up as bull-headed and stubborn as the rest of the Cartwright clan. He wasn’t about to give in easily. Adam thought about it, running times and distances through his head and setting them against the scant amount of provisions remaining in their saddlebags. The sums didn’t come out very well. From the corner of his eye, he saw Joe trying to look both eager and crestfallen at the same time. He suppressed a slow smile. “All right, we’ll give it one more day, but if we do catch up with them, it’s goin’ to be a case of ride an’ rope ‘em. That ol’ mare isn’t about to let us run her into a blind canyon someplace. I’ll lay odds she knows every waterhole for a hundred miles or more.”


A grin spread over Joe’s face; green-flecked hazel eyes sparkled with a youthful devilment as he followed his big brother’s line of thought to its logical conclusion. “You reckon, if we stay glued to her heels, she’s gonna lead us to all the water we need.”


“It seems a reasonable assumption.” Adam stepped into his stirrup and lifted himself back into the saddle. The effort cost him some pain. “But if we have to make another dry camp tonight, we’ll have to turn back first thing in the morning.”


“Brother Adam, you got yourself a deal!” Joe’s grin was still in place as he kicked his horse into motion and started off down the trail.


The smile pulled against the corners of Adam’s mouth. For Joe, hunting wild horses was still a favourite occupation as well as an economic necessity. Adam remembered well how it felt to be all fired up with the thrill of the chase. For him, the maturity of years and the aches and the stiffness of old injuries reawakened by long days in the saddle and nights on hard ground had provided a more circumspect outlook. Nevertheless, Joe’s enthusiasm was infectious. Lifting his reins, Adam nudged his horse in the ribs and set out in his brother’s hoof prints.


The wide, fertile strip of country that ran the length of western Utah and nudged up against the Californian border encompassed the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the high, dry pastures that lay on the eastern slopes. These parched, dusty badlands away to the south were an extensive sun baked wilderness of rock and tumbled stone. Little more than an adjunct to the vast tract of desert that lay in the heart of the territory, they were a convoluted nightmare of twisting canyons and dry arroyos, steep-sided ravines and stony trails that often led nowhere. The two men were small and insignificant motes in a formidable and uncaring landscape. Sweat darkened the hides of their horses and frothed into foam against the rub of the harness.


It was well past noon, with the sun sitting directly above his head and the heat pouring down on his shoulders that Adam began to think he had made a mistake. Perhaps he had given way to Joe too easily? Beneath his shirt, the perspiration was crawling over his skin. He sat beside Joe at the head of the trail and looked down into a dry riverbed that meandered fifty feet below.


Joe leaned over the pinto’s shoulder “Hey, Adam! Lookee there!” Joe pointed with an out-flung arm.


Adam sat up straighter in the saddle and creased his eyes against the afternoon glare. Below them, and a mile away across the flat flood plain of the long vanished river, the little horse herd was still on the move. In almost a week of relentless pursuit it was the closest that the brothers had got to them. Both men leaned forward in their saddles as if that few inches of distance would give them a better view.


The mustangs walked slowly, nose to tail and strung out across the landscape in a broad, disjointed line. There were at least as many as Adam had estimated: twenty-two or perhaps twenty-five animals of assorted shapes and sizes. They were all the colours of the barren, dry earth, bay and brown and dun and sorrel. Blurred by the distance and disguised by the thick layer of dust on their sweaty hides, they merged into the background of rock and dust and sky.


Joe and Adam Cartwright exchanged triumphant grins. The trials and the discomforts of the long chase were forgotten. Both young men were as certain as they could be that they had this particular herd of wild horses exactly where they wanted it to be. With Joe still leading the way, they began to negotiate the steep and stony path that led down to the riverbed.


Neither man realised that sharp eyes were watching them, or that a keen and agile mind had already traced the route ahead of them and seen where they were headed. Neither man saw the shadow that moved stealthily from the shelter of the rocks above the trail and drifted after them, as insubstantial and wraith-like as the heat devils that danced on the desert floor.


It took a whole afternoon of relentless riding to close that mile wide gap. As Adam had rightly predicted, the elderly mare – the leader of the herd by reason of her wisdom and experience – led the horses to water. Hidden in among the rocks and quite invisible from the trail above, the pool filled a rocky basin where a small, but perpetual underground spring broke through to the surface. The water was cool, sweet and pure.


The old mare stood watching and waiting while the younger animals drank. As the men rode closer, walking their horses, she raised her grizzled head and looked them over with a knowing and intelligent eye. A black-backed bay with long grey whiskers and the trace of a tasselled beard, this was not the first time that she had crossed wits with mustang hunters – and not only the human kind. Her rump, side and shoulder were disfigured by long, raking scars: the legacy of an encounter with a cougar that had jumped on her back a good many years before. She had survived the big cat’s attack, bucked it off and kicked in its head, but her hide still wore the vicious marks of its claws.


She had met with humans as well: hard and determined men. What her plans were for dealing with this particular pair, she wasn’t saying. She shook her head and her stringy black mane and nipped at a young filly’s heels – to move her along a little more quickly and to prove that she was the boss.


The rest of the herd was a mixed bunch of ponies, much as the Cartwright boys had expected. There were six or eight mares with long-legged fillies or colts still close to their sides, two younger mares, and the remainder were young male horses not yet driven off by the resident stallion to join the bachelor herds and fend for themselves. Altogether, they were a good-looking bunch of broom-tail horses – better than the average wild-running stock. Once the men had turned away the mares and their young and weeded out the infirm, they might have five or six animals suitable to be saddle broken: just enough to complete the army quota. The Cartwrights were satisfied with a job well done – in their minds it was already completed.


Joe sat up straight in his saddle. He reached across to nudge his brother and pointed. “Hey, Adam, will you look at that!”


Adam followed his brother’s line and gave a low, soundless whistle. He pushed his hat back from his eyes and rested both hands on the horn of his saddle. He didn’t quite believe what he was seeing, but his tawny eyes were suddenly bright with interest and speculation.


If the old bay mare was the leader of the herd, then this fine, tall stallion must be its master. He was a magnificent beast with lots of rich, Spanish blood flowing through his wily mustang veins. He had long, strong legs and powerful quarters and a thick-set but elegant neck. His head was large but finely boned, his eyes dark and intelligent. Glowing warmly in the light of the westering sun, his coat was a deep, vibrant red. His mane and tail were glossy black, and his forelegs were black right up to his shoulders. There wasn’t a single white hair to be seen.


Adam touched his lips with the tip of his tongue. It was a long time since he’d seen such a horse, and he was filled with admiration. It was rare indeed to find such an animal running wild on the range. He knew at that moment, deep down inside, that he wanted that horse for himself. Even as he thought it, one long, lean hand was already moving towards his coiled rope.


Joe saw the movement. “No, you don’t, brother. This one is mine. I saw him first.”


Adam eyed him narrowly. In Joe’s young face he saw a longing that bordered on hunger, a desire that was almost sexual in its intensity. They were emotions that he felt himself. For once in his life, Adam was disinclined to give way to his younger brother. Right from the outset Joe had always had things easy; had his own way. He had come to expect it. Well, this time it was going to be different. Adam shifted himself in the saddle, his hand still resting lightly in the rope. “I don’t your see your brand on him anyplace.”


Joe returned his hard look with an air of scornful amusement. “Say, Adam, what in hell would you do with a horse like that? Take a gelding knife to him and use him to chase steers out of the brush?”


Adam bristled at the tone in his little brother’s voice. “And what would you do with him, Joe? Harness him up to the buggy and trot him out for every girl that flutters her eyelids at you?” His response was deliberately barbed and aggressive, designed to provoke a response.


Predictably, Joe didn’t disappoint. “I might just do that! It’d be better than turning him into some sway backed, lame footed cow-pony.”


Both men looked at the dark sorrel horse. He had caught the scent of their sweat on the evening air, and he was pawing the ground nervously. But the stallion was thirsty; he wasn’t going to leave the vicinity of the water hole until he’d had his turn to drink.


The mares and the young stock had filled their bellies and had started to move away towards the more open ground where scant desert grazing grew. Still with her wise old eye on the men, the old mare harried them along. She wasn’t concerned with the fate of the stallion. Stallions came and they went. Her job was to keep the harem together. The men were content to let the herd go. Right at that moment, there was only that one horse that mattered.


“Well,” said Adam, “I guess it’s down to which one of us gets a rope on him first.”


“I’ll settle for that!” Joe was still angry. He unhitched his rope.


Adam held out a hand to stop him. “Not yet, Joe! The light’s fading fast. It’s too late in the day to be fighting a stallion on the end of a rope. Better leave it ‘til morning.”


“By mornin’ he’ll be a long way from here.”


“Not if we keep him thirsty. We’ll camp by the water hole and stop him getting a drink.”


Joe glanced up at the heavens. The sky was still bright, ‘though the badlands were filling with shadows; soon it would be night. Joe wasn’t discouraged. “I reckon I can get a loop on him tonight.”


“Don’t be a fool!” Adam snatched at his brother’s rein and missed. By the time he’d recovered his balance and gotten his horse straightened out, Joe was already well past him and riding hard down the slope. Adam had no choice at all but to set out after him.


The trail that led down to the water hole was steep and stony, but Joe had thrown caution to all four winds and was riding hard, spurring the pinto for all he was worth. At the same time he shook the noose of his rope into a sizeable loop.


Adam felt a sharp spasm of fear; Joe’s riding was reckless! If the pinto should stumble, Joe could be thrown from the saddle and seriously hurt – even killed! There was nothing to do except be there to pick up the pieces. Adam’s horse, at his urging, squatted down on his quarters and slid most of the way in a shower of stones and dry earth. By the time man and beast arrived at the bottom, and Adam got the horse up and running, Joe was riding hell for leather across the uneven ground.


Alarmed by the approach of the galloping horse and its rider, the mustangs scattered. The red stallion was caught in two minds. After a long trek through the badlands, he was a thirsty animal. He had already approached the pool with his neck outstretched to drink. Now he pulled back, snorting with indignation. Joe threw his rope in a well practised, underhand sweep. The rope snaked out and settled neatly around the red stallion’s neck. With a squeal of outrage the horse lunged away, tightening the rope and jerking the pinto off balance.


Joe clung to the saddle as his horse staggered, then righted itself and leaned hard against the rope. Stiff legged, the red stallion bucked and plunged on the end of the rope. He was a heavier and stronger horse than the pinto gelding; he swung the lighter animal ‘round like a bob on the end of a string. Joe took another hitch in the line around the horn of his saddle; he was determined not to let the stallion go. The red horse had other ideas.


Adam rode up, hauling hard on his big chestnut’s reins. “Set him loose, Joe! Set him loose!” He could see that the pinto was about to be dragged off his feet.


“Not on your life!” Joe’s response was instant and angry. “He’s my horse an’ I’m gonna keep him!”


Adam hesitated – should he help Joe catch the horse that he wanted so badly for himself? The rivalry stayed his hand – but only a moment. He couldn’t risk Joe being hurt. But when Adam tried to get an angle so that he could get a rope on the red stallion too, the lunging animals got in his way


The red horse was enraged; more than that, he was frightened. He didn’t like the rope round his neck. All he wanted was to get away from the alien thing that clung to him and cut off his wind. He gave up all thoughts of getting a drink of water, and he started to run, dragging Joe and the pinto pony behind him.


As Adam had predicted, the light was fading fast. The shadows had spread and merged one with another: they formed dense pools of darkness that flowed together and formed an ocean of gloom. The horses’ footing on the rugged ground became increasingly uncertain. The red horse was as wild as wild could be, and he wanted to stay free. He was running in a white-eyed panic, and the pinto had no choice but to try and keep up. Adam reined his own gelding around and galloped after them, kicking for all he was worth.


Instinctively, the stallion headed for higher ground, and the going became increasingly rougher. The landscape was littered with shattered shale and broken rocks. Boulders loomed out of the gathering darkness, barring the way until the red horse dodged and dived around them; stones skidded out from under the pinto’s shod feet. Adam yelled out to his brother; “Cut him loose, Joe! Cut the rope!” He didn’t know if Joe heard him or not.


The red stallion swerved away, he turned hard to the left. The rope cut across Joe’s horse’s shoulder. The pinto spun ‘round, yanked sideways, off balance. Joe felt the horse falling. At the very last moment he had the presence of mind to jerk the rope free. Then he was out of the saddle, tumbling and rolling. He hit the ground hard. Something sharp dug into his arm, and his hip took one bang and then another. Adam rode up, jumped off his horse and ran to his brother. “Joe, are you all right?”


Joe struggled into a sitting position. He was shaken and angry as much as he was hurt. There was a graze on his cheekbone, and he rubbed a sore shoulder. “I let the danged horse get away!”


When he saw that his brother was undamaged in all but, essentially, his pride, Adam’s concern turned to rage. “That was a damned fool trick to try! You could have been killed! Your horse could have broken a leg and then where would we be?”


Joe swallowed his indignation and cast a guilty look towards his horse. The pinto had rolled right over and got back onto his feet. He’d wandered just a few steps away and stood waiting, his braided reins trailing at his feet. “I guess I’d better check him over.” With Adam’s helping hand, Joe got to his feet and limped over. Adam stood back and noted, with some small satisfaction, that his brother discovered some new bump or bruise with every step that he took. He wondered, passingly, if Joe might have learned some lesson from his painful experience and in future, pay more attention to the advice of his elders. Somehow he doubted it – Joe was just at that age when he thought that he knew it all.


The sturdy black and white pony was a little winded but, otherwise, had suffered no ill effects from the fall. His sweat-soaked hide was dusty, and Joe’s saddle leather was scuffed, but when Joe led him in a wide circle, watching his legs as he walked, he wasn’t lame. Joe considered himself lucky. He looked after the long vanished stallion with wistful eyes. “There’s no chance of catching up with him now.”


Adam smiled at the look on his brother’s young face. He choked back the ‘I told you so’ and said, “Don’t worry, Joe. Well get another chance at him tomorrow.”


“Tomorrow!” Joe spat out the word. “Tomorrow he’ll be twenty miles from here and still running.”


Adam could see that Joe wasn’t prepared to give up his claim to the horse, and neither was he. “I told you before, he won’t go that far. He’s still thirsty, and he won’t like being apart from his mares. He’ll double back to the water hole and try to steal a drink, then he’ll link up with the herd in the morning.” Adam looked at the sky. The last trace of the sun had vanished and left behind it a deep, rich blue fading slowly towards black. The stars were emerging above the eastern horizon, and soon, it would start to grow colder.  He followed his chain of thought through; “Let’s go back to the water hole and get ourselves something to eat. In the morning, we’ll go after him again.”


Teeth gritted edge against edge Joe didn’t object, but he barely suppressed the sigh that he knew would annoy Adam beyond endurance. “I guess we’ll do it your way.”


The two men picked up their reins and walked back to the water hole, leading their horses through the deepening, black velvet night.





Adam awoke from a deep, dreamless sleep and found himself flat on his back staring up into a star-spangled sky that seemed to go on forever. Joe was leaning over him, clinging on to his arm and shaking him violently. “Adam, wake up, will you!”


Adam said, “Ungh!” and, “Erng?” and several other intelligent things while he tried to gather his wits about him. He struggled into a half-sitting position supported on one elbow and blinked at his brother. He wasn’t too happy at being woken up. “Joe? What is it?”


“Shush!” Joe hissed at him. “Be quiet and listen!”


Now Adam was even less happy. Being shaken awake was one thing. Being hushed into silence immediately afterwards was entirely another. The look on Joe’s face forestalled his angry retort. He closed his mouth, shook the cotton wool out of his head, and listened. The silence of the desert was intense.


The brothers had set up their small encampment right at the water’s edge. Joe had fed the horses a meagre allowance of grain and spent a long time grooming the dirt and the sweat out of their hides in an attempt to compensate for the meanness of their rations. He’d paid particular attention to the pinto to make amends for his thoughtless treatment of him earlier; the horse seemed to understand. Both animals were picketed nearby, currently dozing on their feet. Adam had lit a small fire using the dried sticks and debris he found round the pool. The two men drank the last of their coffee in disgruntled silence and ate stale bread and tough, lean-beef jerky. It hadn’t been much of a meal but it had eased the hunger pangs in their bellies and made it possible to sleep. Now, the fire was out, and they were both awake. They sat quite still in the dark and listened to the absolute quiet.


Adam heard the sigh of his blood and the slow, steady beat of his heart; beyond that and the soft sigh of his breathing there was nothing at all to break the unearthly stillness. Still groggy with sleep, he looked at his brother; “What am I listening for?”


“Hush up, will ya!” Joe shook him again, even harder, and retained the punishing grip on his arm. The look on his face was one of intense concentration mixed with a trace of fright.


Adam stared into the surrounding darkness. The moon had set and the valley was dark. The reflected stars danced on the face of the water. He held his breath and strained his hearing, but whatever the noise that had awakened his brother, it didn’t come again. Adam looked at Joe and raised an expressively quizzical eyebrow.


Joe shook his head, still scowling. “There’s somethin’ out there, movin’ about in the rocks about fifty feet away. I heard it!”


Turning his head again, Adam looked in the indicated direction. There was nothing there to be seen except an extensive formation of large, leaning rocks, vaguely grey-and-black shapes in the surrounding and all encompassing night. He could see nothing moving any more than he could hear the illusive sound. He rubbed his sleep-slackened face. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”


“I’m wide awake, Adam. I know what I heard!” Joe was emphatic.


Adam sat up straighter, taking his weight off his elbow and bringing himself more fully awake. “It’s probably a fox or something, hunting for gophers.”


Joe shook his head furiously. “It wasn’t a fox. It was something a whole lot bigger.”


“All right, Joe. Don’t get so excited. It’s probably just that red horse trying to sneak in for a drink of water.”


“It sure didn’t sound like a horse.” Joe was insistent. “I think we should take a look.”


Adam sighed and tossed back his blanket; Joe had a great imagination and at times was easily spooked. He resigned himself to the sad fact that he wouldn’t get any more sleep for a while and pulled his gun from his holster. “If it’ll make you any happier, we’ll go take a look.”


Joe certainly didn’t look any happier, but his face became more relaxed as they searched through the boulders and the tangled scrub. They found nothing but a large sized diamond-backed rattler that only wanted to slither away. Half an hour of fruitless investigation – stumbling around in the dark – left both men edgy and irritated and not one bit the wiser. “I know I heard somethin’,” Joe grumbled as they made their way back to their camp. “Somethin’ sort of big an’ sneaky tryin’ ta be real quiet.”


“Well, there’s nothing there now,” Adam said shortly. He sat down heavily on his bedroll.


“I didn’t dream it, an’ I didn’t make it up!”


After a hard day in the saddle and an uncomfortable night, Adam was thoroughly disgruntled, not to say angry at being woken up for no good reason. Cold after his walk in the dark, he pulled his blanket up over him. “Just forget it, Joe, will you? I want to get some sleep.”


But now that he was fully awake, sleep proved elusive. He lay on his back for more than an hour with his head cradled in the bow of his saddle and watched the slow wheel of the stars. Joe tossed and turned alongside him. Whatever intruder, imaginary or otherwise, had disturbed him didn’t return.




“Adam, have you seem my canteen?” Joe’s voice was plaintive. Adam, concentrating hard on affairs of his own, took a while to respond.

While Joe saddled the horses, Adam had taken advantage of the quieter moment to set up a fragment of mirror and take the finely honed blade of his razor to the stubble that darkened his face. He pulled the skin taut with his fingers and slid the blade carefully over his throat. Sometimes he wondered if it might not be a good idea to let the beard grow long and bushy like those of the old mountain men and save himself the chore of shaving. “Nope. Where did you leave it?”


“It was right here on my saddle last night.”


Adam inspected the curve of his jaw in the glass. “You sure about that?”


“Sure I’m sure!” Exasperated, Joe spread his hands. “Where in hell else would it be?”


Adam started on the other side of his face. “Perhaps you lost it when your horse took that tumble last night.” It seemed a logical explanation.


Muttering, Joe made another search of the campsite. Adam finished his shave and started to pay more attention. He knew as well as his brother that the canteen was a vital piece of equipment, especially in this barren and hostile country. Its loss could mean life or death to a man. It soon became clear that Joe wasn’t going to find it.


Adam planted his hands on his hips “We’d better go back and take a look at the place where you had that fall.”


“I know I had it after that. It was right there on my saddle.” Joe’s voice was rising.


Adam remained calm, the soul of good reason. “If it had been there then, it would be there now.”


“Someone must have sneaked in last night and stolen it.”


Adam smiled at the very idea. “And who do you think did the sneaking? I’ll wager that there’s no one else beside you and me within a hundred miles of here.”


Joe looked around at the dry and desolate landscape. There was no way he could argue with Adam’s reasoning, but still the canteen was missing. It was sometime later, when packing their gear, that Adam discovered that their bag of dried meat had vanished as well with the same inexplicable thoroughness. Adam straightened up slowly, a puzzled look on his face. The pocket of the saddlebag where he’d placed the waxed canvas bag was empty. He looked at Joe. “I know I put it in there.” He was confused and just a little bit mad. “Where in hell has it gone?”


It was a question to which there was no immediate answer. The loss of the meat left them short of food. They still had some cheese and some hard-tack biscuit, some dried, salted fish and a bagful of grains, fruits and nuts. Soon, they would be hungry and hunting the rocks for rattlers – this time not letting them get away. And Joe’s missing canteen meant that they couldn’t carry all the water that they needed with them. Even so, neither man was prepared to give up the hunt for the red stallion. Both of them wanted that horse. For Joe, it was a case of love at first sight, a need that burned inside him so intensely that it glowed right out of his face; for Adam, it was more a slow ache of desire that was almost sexual. It gnawed away at his insides.


There was little talk as they packed up their gear. Neither one of them felt much like banter, and the camaraderie that had characterised their horse-hunting trip this far was now strangely missing. An air of tension had grown between them. It was something more than sibling rivalry: one brother wanting to prove himself over the other; something less than personal dislike. Each man already felt the pride of possession, as if the mustang were already his. Each thought that he would let nothing, not even his brother, stand in his way.


Joe, without his rope, was now at a disadvantage, but he wasn’t about to let that interfere with his plans. He had caught the horse once, and he could do it again. Adam was quietly confident. He had more experience and no less zeal than his brother. He could ride harder and longer than Joe on the pinto; he knew he could pull this thing off.


They let the horses graze on the last of the grasses that grew by the pool and allowed them to drink a judicious amount of the water – not enough to swell out their bellies – before they tightened their cinches and mounted up.  They rode back to the spot where Joe had been thrown and searched among the boulders and bushes, but they didn’t find the canteen.


The tracks left by the stallion were plain enough to see. He had galloped on for a while, then slowed to a canter before he turned off into wilder, stonier country where the signs were harder to see. Adam pulled up his horse and wiped his sweating face with his sleeve.  Although it was still early in the morning, the chill of the night had faded away, and the temperature was starting to rise. He took a small mouthful of water and passed his canteen to Joe. Both of them sat in their saddles and surveyed the stark and harshly beautiful landscape.


The ground sloped sharply upwards towards the distant, dry hills. The earth was hard packed and that pale, crystalline colour that dazzles the eyes in the sun. It was dotted with uniform regularity with thorny, grey green vegetation and sharp up thrusts of rock. A few stunted trees grew nearer the hills, and there were vast swathes of yellowing grasses growing riper in the sun. It was typical wild horse country, the sort that mustangs love. Adam gestured towards the hills. “He knows we’re after him. That’s where he’ll be hiding out. He’ll figure to lose us in amongst the rocks and the gullies. We’ll have to haze him out into this open country before we can chase him down.”


Joe looked up at the sky, judging the time of day. The bright blue colour of the heavens was already changing to gold. It was going to be another hot day in the badlands. “Then I guess we’d better get started.”


Adam heard the snarl in his brother’s voice. It rekindled his own resentment. He kicked his horse hard, driving him after the pinto. The two men rode for the hills.


The red mustang was a young horse. He had been born in the wilds and had spent the whole of his life in the wild and desolate places. He had no experience of man or with the ways of man, but he didn’t much care for the sour smell of man-sweat  - it reeked of cruelty and pain. He used all his natural, inbred wiles to hide himself in the landscape. For all their skills and experience, the men searched most of the morning. It became a test of endurance. The glare of the sun burned into their eyes, and the hot air scorched their throats. 


Around about noon, the two men stepped down from their saddles to rest the horses and to take the weight off their butts. Now both men were suffering, and Adam’s sore hip made him limp. He perched himself on a high rock, washed out his mouth and drank, then passed the canteen on to Joe. From the top of the hill, that valley was spread out like a map at their feet: twenty miles of desert, dry grassland and thorny, grey brush. They could smell the heat rising up from the sun-baked earth. Joe mopped his neck with a big bandanna. He looked right and left.


“Adam,” he began uneasily, “I think we’re being watched.”


Adam’s eyes slid around to look at him. “Joe, there’s nothing in these hills to watch you except the odd lizard or two and that red-backed scorpion at your feet.”


“Hey! Why didn’t you tell me!” Joe jumped up and did some dancing around. While he was getting all hot and bothered, Adam used the time to study the local terrain. He wasn’t about to say anything to Joe, but that inexplicably sensitive spot between his shoulder blades had been itching for more than an hour. He couldn’t put his finger on the cause of it; there wasn’t so much as a jackrabbit hiding out in these rocks. He reclaimed his canteen and took another swallow before capping it firmly. He slid off the rock, stretched the kink out of the small of his back and rubbed the ache in his backside. “Come on, Joe. Let’s get moving. We’ve still got a lot of ground to cover.”


It was the flash of red hide in sunlight down in a brush-choked draw that eventually gave the stallion away. The two brothers began the long and arduous business of hazing him out of the hills and down to the lower, flatter country that made up the valley floor. It was hard, tiring work in the heat of the day, and, despite their rivalry, they had to work together to get the job done.


The red horse was clever in his wild, mustang way. He knew instinctively that he couldn’t outrun his pursuers.  He kept trying to cut back, to double over his tracks and dart in between the two riders and make good his escape. The men had their work cut out to keep him moving in front of them. Somewhere along the way he had shaken himself free of Joe’s trailing rope, and he had nothing to hinder him. Every time the brothers began to catch up, he kicked up his heels and galloped away.


At last, with much shouting and whooping and pushing him hard, they got him moving in the direction that they wanted him to go: downwards and across a steep hillside. By now, all the horses were running and sweating hard. Adam’s horse was bigger and stronger than Joe’s.  The pinto was left behind. Galloping steadily, Adam made up ground on the stallion; he shook out the loop of his rope.


The horse saw him coming and swerved abruptly away. He ducked to the right and took a steep, downward path that led, eventually, back to the dry riverbed. Adam kicked harder, and his gelding lengthened his stride. Now, the red horse’s black flying mane and his broad, sweat stained quarters were only a few feet away. Adam leaned a long way out of the saddle to slip the noose over his head.


From the corner of his eye, he saw the pinto stumble and almost go down. Joe was thrown from the saddle, went over the horse’s shoulder and skidded along the ground. The trail was narrow and the hillside was steep. Unable to stop his forward momentum, Joe slid over the edge and fell down the slope. Adam hauled back on the reins, turned the chestnut around and went back to help.


There was no sign of Joe in the rocks that bordered the trail. Adam rode closer to the crumbling fringes than good sense might allow. His little brother had tumbled onto a precipitous slope of loose, sharp shale and was sliding. Adam yelled out to him, “Hey, Joe, hang on down there!”


Joe’s voice came back; “Hang on to what?” There was nothing there to hold on to. His hands and face had been cut in the fall, and the rock dust had blinded him.


Adam tossed him the rope. “There, Joe; to your right!” Joe crabbed sideways across the slope and grabbed it. He wrapped it around his arms and his shoulders. Adam backed up his horse and anchored the rope firmly while Joe used it to climb back up to the trail. Adam dismounted and made his way over. The pain in his hip made him tired. Joe had cut hands and a graze on his cheek and dirt in his curly brown hair. While Joe scraped the dirt from his eyes and inspected his bloody palms, Adam coiled up his rope.


Adam gazed after the stallion. He was long out of sight and even his dust had settled. Adam was more than annoyed; he’d nearly had his rope on that horse! “What in hell happened?” he demanded crossly.


Joe glared up at him, equally angry. “That damn fool boy startled my horse!”


“Boy?” Adam blinked at him. “What boy?”


“The goddamned Indian boy!” Joe yelled. “He jumped out at me from behind those rocks just as I was passing. Didn’t you see him?”


Adam studied the rocks and the trail and the hillside; his eyes traced the line of the sky. “I don’t see any Indian boy.”


“Well, he was right there!” Joe waved a furious gesture at an outcrop of rocks that crowded close to the trail.  “Looked like one of those Bannocks that come by the ranch now and then.”


Adam made another scan of the landscape. “You sure you didn’t imagine it? All this heat and sunshine can do funny things to a man’s mind.”


“I didn’t imagine it!” Joe growled. “An’ I’m not off my head!”


Adam saw Joe’s fists clenching. To avoid a confrontation, he turned his back and limped to his horse. “Whoever or whatever you saw, there’s nothing there now. C’mon, let’s go catch up your pony and see if we can find that horse before dark.”


Riding double on Adam’s horse, they chased down Joe’s pinto and then, at a more sedate pace, returned to the water hole. By then, their mutual irritation had turned into anger, and frustration had boiled over into a full-blown argument.


“I am not calling you a liar!” Adam declared “I’m saying you must be mistaken! There can’t be a boy around here!”


“I wasn’t mistaken!” Joe shouted back. “I know what I saw!”


Adam’s breath hissed in exasperation. “You know what you think you saw. Why would a Bannock be all the way out here in the wilds? And why would he try to scare your horse off the trail?”


“How in heck should I know? But that’s what he did!”


Adam snorted derision. “You have an over active imagination.”


Joe was enraged. He could hardly sit still in the saddle.  “I didn’t imagine it!” If Adam had been within range, Joe would have been throwing punches.


They came round the corner to come within range of the spring and pulled up short. The red stallion was drinking, his front legs splayed wide apart so that he could reach the surface of the water, some way below his feet. Adam’s face was intent. He walked his horse forward, reaching again for his rope.


But the red horse was wary. His big head came up, and his ears swivelled around. He regarded the men with his dark, intelligent eye. His muzzle glistened with moisture, and silvery droplets fell from his whiskers. Moving slowly and steadily towards him, Adam shook out a loop. Joe shouted, “Hey, Adam, look there!”


With a leap and a bound, the horse was away, disappearing into the rocks. Adam Cartwright let rip with an oath. “Joe, why in hell did you do that!”


Wordless, Joe pointed. Adam turned and followed the line of Joe’s out-flung arm with his eye. A human form had emerged from the jumbled of rocks close down by the edge of the waterhole. He straightened, it seemed, right out of the ground.


It was a very young man, as Joe had said - really no more than a boy. He was bronzed, tall, lean to the point of thinness but with a bulk to his shoulders that spoke of the strong man to come. He had long black hair that fell loosely about his shoulders and a face that was all sharp angles and shadows in the afternoon light. He gave the two mounted men a look of ill-concealed fury before he turned away. Almost naked, his golden-brown skin was a perfect match to the colours of soil and rocks and dried-out grasses. Moving away from them, he disappeared into the background at once


Joe was triumphant. “See! What did I tell you? Now do you think I’m imagining things?”


Adam closed his mouth carefully. He couldn’t deny what his own eyes had seen, but he still wasn’t sure he believed it. The boy certainly had the appearance of a Bannock: the hair and the style of his scanty clothing gave him away. What any man, young or old, red, black or white was doing out here in the badlands, apparently afoot and alone, he didn’t know.


Their argument resolved, the Cartwright brothers rode down to the pool to water their horses. Both men drank, and Adam filled his canteen. Joe sat on a rock and cooled his face with a bandanna dipped in the water. “Adam, what do you know about the Bannock?”


Adam took off his hat and poured a palmful of water over his head. It trickled down past his ears and cooled his neck while he considered his answer. “The Bannocks are an offshoot of the Shoshone people. There were a lot more of them about when Pa and I first arrived in the territory. Family groups and hunting parties used to stop by the house ‘most every week. Pa used to give them a steer or an old cow as eating beef. Then they stopped coming. I guess they sort of died out. Now you rarely see them – just an odd brave passing through the property, coming from somewhere and going someplace else.”


“Then what’s a Bannock boy doing way out here in the badlands?” asked Joe, echoing Adam’s previous thought.


Adam studied the rocks. The afternoon sunlight, slanting steeply now, danced in the amber depths of his eyes. “Some of the tribes make their men undergo some sort of right of passage: send them out into the wilderness with little more than the skins they were born in. They have to survive and accomplish something to prove themselves worthy of being called a man.”


“That accounts for the canteen,” Joe said gloomily. “And for the meat. He distracted us plenty long enough to sneak into our camp and steal them while we were searching through the rocks last night. We’re lucky he didn’t steal our horses out from under us and leave us afoot.”


Adam smiled grimly. “Unless I miss my guess, that boy wants that stallion just as badly as we do.”


“My horse?” Joe yelped.


Adam’s lips tightened with renewed irritation. The ownership of the horse had not been resolved, and it burned like a brand between them. He jammed his hat back onto his head. “Well, we’re not going to catch him sitting here,” he declared.


The brother’s got back in the saddle and picked up the red horse’s trail. They followed it until it petered out on the rock hard earth; it was apparent that the horse was heading back to the high ground. By then, the light was fading, and it was pointless going on. They went back to the waterhole to camp for the night, but neither man slept well. Meagre rations meant empty bellies and comfortless beds. The darkness was filled with watching eyes and unquiet shadows; those that were not real lived vividly in the imagination.


Adam was worried. Whatever happened, this had to be their last night in the valley, although it would be hard to persuade Joe to leave without the red horse. It would be just like his volatile younger brother to kick up a fuss. They had water in abundance as long as they stayed near the pool, but their food supplies had run perilously low, and it was a long, hard ride back to civilisation.


They had just one more chance to catch the red horse in the morning, and then they would have to set out for home. Neither of them wanted to leave empty handed. And then there was the Bannock boy; he was a new factor in the equation. Adam had no doubt at all that he was stalking the stallion as well, probably as some sort of manhood ritual to prove himself to his tribe. They were all things a man had to consider. Thinking about them, Adam finally went to sleep.


The morning dawned sparkling bright. The first bands of orange and apricot lit up a silver-grey sky. Then the sun arose in a blaze of golden glory too brilliant to look upon. Adam, gazing towards the near horizon, felt he could see forever. Every tree, bush and stone was crystal clear, as if fresh painted by the hand of God on a brand new canvas.


He ate a handful of dried fruits and nuts and washed it down with cold water. It wasn’t much to fill a man’s belly at the start of the day, but it was all they could afford. He turned to his horse and tightened the gelding’s cinches. The horse had lost weight, and the strap around his ribs went up another hole. Leading his pinto on a short rein, Joe came and joined him. Joe looked thinner as well; his face was gaunt and haunted. He joined his brother in contemplation of the starkly beautiful landscape. It’s doubtful that they both saw it the same. “So, which way are we going to play it, Adam? How are we going to track that horse down?”


Adam half closed his eyes and squinted at the distant, upthrusting rocks. ”I reckon he will have headed back for the hills. He’ll be hiding out in those rocks someplace, just waiting for us to come and get him.”


Eternally cheerful despite his lack of a proper breakfast, Joe slapped him hard on the back. “Let’s not disappoint him then, big brother.” Without bothering to make use of the stirrup, he sprang onto the pinto’s back. Adam mounted in a more sedate and traditional manner and reined the chestnut around. Stirrup to stirrup, they set out for the hills.


By the time they reached the high ground, the day was already hot. The sky had changed from the deep, cornflower-blue of the morning to burning bronze. Both men were sweating freely; they were hungry, and their tempers were running short.


It was impossible to search every ravine and brush filled gully, every arroyo, crag, scar and bluff, but they criss-crossed the hills with a frantic intensity, neither man willing to be the first to call off the hunt. It was Adam’s horse, in the end, that gave the stallion away. He lifted his head and snorted, scenting the hot, dry wind. Adam drew rein and looked to his left. They were riding alongside a solid barrier of boulders and brush, backed by tall, jagged rocks. Heat devils danced in the dust. Through the haze he could see a gap between two standing stones. He lifted a hand to point out the place in the same moment that the red horse broke from cover.


Joe yelled with surprise. Both men pulled their horses around and set off after him at the gallop. By now the stallion had a good head’s start. Black mane flying, he headed uphill.


The trail divided; split into two. One path angled away to the left, diving downwards between huge rocks before climbing again; that was the way the red horse had gone. His dust hadn’t settled. Adam hauled his sweating gelding to a dancing, prancing stop. He pointed the way to his brother. “You keep after him. Stay right on his tail. I’ll go straight on and get ahead of him.”


Joe wanted to argue, but there wasn’t time. Adam was already spurring away from him, taking the shorter, steeper route to the top of the hill. Clamping his teeth down hard on his anger, Joe pulled his horse around and headed him into the gully.


Adam’s horse was strong and fast, and Adam gave him his head. If he could get to the head of the trail before the stallion, he could cut off his escape and simply drop the loop of his rope over his head. Adam leaned as low as he could over the gelding’s neck and concentrated on riding as hard as he could.


In his enthusiasm, he took the bend in the trail a little faster than he ought. The chestnut gelding leaned hard into the curve, and Adam leaned with him, helping him keep his footing. From the corner of his eye he saw something move, high up in the rocks on his right. It was the Bannock boy, naked except for his thin throng of leather, and he was poised, preparing to jump.


It was too late for Adam to do anything about it: too late to react, too late to change course or to shout a protest, too late even to think. In an instant of time he was past the place, and the Indian launched himself into the air. For a moment, he hung, suspended, then his full weight landed on Adam’s back. The chestnut horse staggered and fell, and the man and the boy went down with him. The gelding rolled to his feet and cantered away, but Adam didn’t get up.


Joe tracked the red stallion over the crest of the hill. Just below the summit was a rough circle of rocks which formed a crude, but effective, corral. The stallion had trapped himself there. With Joe and the pinto blocking the only way out, he had no escape. There was no sign of Adam. Joe smiled to himself. Now he had a chance to capture the stallion all by himself and stake an indisputable claim to the red horse’s hide. He stepped down from the saddle.


In the absence of a rope to lasso the horse, he took the bridle from the pinto’s head and made a loop from the reins. The stallion watched him with a red-rimmed eye. The horse pawed at the ground with his forefoot and tossed his big head. Joe walked up to him slowly, his weight on the balls of his feet, and his arms spread wide. The stallion snorted, undecided whether to stand his ground or dodge away and run. By the time he had made up his mind, Joe had walked right up to him and slipped the improvised lariat around his thick neck. Joe’s heart lifted. The horse was his. He had him!


The red horse backed up, and Joe went with him, holding on tightly. “Steady, boy! Steady!” Joe couldn’t help smiling. Where in hell was Adam with that damned rope? This was a huge and dangerous animal; Joe needed help. The stallion lifted his head and laid back his ears. “Easy, now! Easy!”


There was a sound and a movement behind him. Adam, at last! Joe turned his head. In the centre of the circle the young, Bannock man had Adam down on his knees. Joe’s eyes widened with horror. Adam’s arms were bound tightly behind his back with Joe’s own rope. There was blood on his face. It ran from a cut on his forehead and flowed down into his eyes. One hand still holding on to the horse, Joe reached for his pistol. Then he froze. The Indian had one strong-fingered hand twisted cruelly in Adam’s hair, forcing his head up and exposing his throat. He held a knife at Adam’s gizzard. It was Joe’s saddle knife, a serviceable, business-like blade. Joe hadn’t even noticed that it was missing. Joe let his hand fall away from the gun.


The naked boy said something in Bannock, shouting the words at Joe. The sharp edge of the knife pushed hard into flesh and drew a fresh, red trickle of blood. Adam winced. He spoke Shoshone and understood a few of the words. “He says to let the horse go or he’ll kill me. I think he means it, Joe.”


Joe studied the tableau: his brother beaten and bloodied, the naked Indian standing over him with the knife in his hand and a snarl on his angular face. The Indian’s grip tightened; Adam’s eyes closed in pain. Joe hesitated, but only for a small part of a moment. He wanted the horse, but he loved his brother. He let out a long breath, then unknotted the braided reins from around the red horse’s neck. The stallion bounded away. The Bannock boy straightened. He was as tall as Joe, but very much thinner, not yet quite full grown. His anthracite eyes fixed on Joe’s face; he untangled his fingers from Adam’s hair. Calmly tucking Joe’s saddle knife under the single scrap of leather that wrapped his waist, he walked towards the red stallion.


Adam slumped to the ground. One eye on the Bannock, Joe moved quickly to help him. “Adam! Adam, are you all right?” He pulled at the stiff rope that bound Adam’s wrists.


Adam shook his head slowly to clear it. The blow to his forehead had taken its toll. “I think so, Joe. I think so.”


The Bannock boy walked slowly towards the red horse. Scooping up handfuls of dust as he went, he rubbed it over his body to kill the man-smell. As he walked, he started to sing: a soft, slow, haunting melody; an old Bannock song, and it seemed that the animal listened. He tipped forward his black-pointed ears and lowered his head. Still singing, the Bannock boy reached out to stroke his long nose.


Adam climbed painfully onto his feet. Joe stood beside him, and they both looked at the young man and his horse. Joe sighed; “I guess the stallion has decided who he wants to belong to.”


Adam put a hand to a hip that was hurting. “I suppose it’s fair. We both had a chance at him. I gave him up to rescue you; you gave him up for me.”


The Bannock boy stroked the horse’s nose and his shoulder. The stallion nuzzled his chest in return. Joe smiled. “I guess that beats the spade bit and the spur.”


Adam could only nod in agreement. “Come on, Joe. Let’s go get my horse. We’d better go home and explain to Pa why we didn’t catch up with those horses.” It wasn’t a pleasant prospect, but it was something that had to be done. Adam and Joe traded long, weary looks, then grinned at each other. After all, they were brothers, and facing up to their father was something they’d do together.



Potter’s Bar 2002.