Summary: My version of “The Gift”
Word Count: 4800
He was more than a beautiful horse; he was a proud horse, a courageous horse. I can still feel his strength under me, his powerful muscles churning, carrying me to safety. Then a gunshot.
My journey with the big white started a year ago. We had almost lost our father when he was shot by rustlers. Instead of celebrating his birthday that year, he was fighting for his life. We were all fighting for his life. I don’t remember ever being so scared. I think what shook me up the most during those two weeks was that my older brothers were as afraid as I was. They’re never afraid of anything. But when I caught my oldest brother, Adam, standing on the porch, staring off into the distance with tears in his eyes, well, that made my blood chill. The last time I’ve seen him cry was when my mother died thirteen years ago. I hustled back into the house and I don’t think he knew I saw him.
Our father made it through. He’s a strong man for his age. He was laid up for quite a while, but now he is his old self again.
It took my brothers and me a while to become our old selves. Our father has always meant a lot to us, but we aren’t always good at letting him know that. Pa’s horse, Buck, is getting on in years, so we decided we would get him a new horse for his next birthday. We wanted to get Pa a great one, a special one, to say what we couldn’t say in words.
We heard about a big white horse in Arizona, owned by a Colonel Green, that sounded perfect for Pa. Colonel Green’s ranch was close to Tyson’s Wells, Arizona, where we were going to buy some horses. While we were in Arizona, Pa wanted to look at a bull at a ranch closer to Yuma. He knows that all three of us are good judges of horseflesh, so we were to select the horses and wait for him in Tyson’s Wells. One of us could go for the horse and be in Tyson’s Wells before Pa got there.
We wrote Colonel Green and made the arrangements. Adam had to take care of business, so I thought he would send Hoss to fetch the horse from the Green ranch. To my surprise, they sent me. This was the first time they trusted me to do something so important on my own. I hid my glee and acted like errands like this were old hat, until I was out of my brothers’ sight and hearing.
That horse was everything Colonel Green had claimed. Snow white, his coat gleamed in the sun. He tossed his mane as he pranced around the corral like he knew he was a king. I couldn’t wait to get him to Tyson’s Wells and see the look on Pa’s face.
Along with the horse, I acquired a companion for my journey. A Mexican fellow by the name of Emiliano, who worked for Colonel Green. The Colonel told me Emiliano had helped raise the white horse from a colt and was an excellent wrangler. I was sure that my father would understand and give him a job, and anyway, we could use another man to help drive the new stock home.
Our troubles started about halfway to Tyson’s Wells. Our canteens were almost empty and Emiliano said we could fill them at a small ranch about a mile on. I’ll never forget what we saw after we rode that mile. What had been the ranch house and barn was now a pile of smoldering timbers and smashed adobe bricks. What was left of the contents of the house was strewn around the yard. The corral fence was splintered, and there was no livestock in sight.
“Apache”, Emiliano said kicking at a charred timber. “These were good people, a young man and woman.” He picked up a singed rag doll. “And a little girl.”
While Emiliano searched the rubble, I went to the well. I almost lost my breakfast at the smell. Even so, I was drawn to look. I saw curly blonde hair swirling in the bloody water. I must have said something, but I don’t remember what, because Emiliano came over and put a hand on my shoulder.
“I should have known that is where the bodies were”, he said. “The Apache do that to poison the water of the ranches they raid.” He tenderly sat the rag doll on the edge of the well.
We looked at the cloudless sky and the arid expanse ahead of us. We came to the same conclusion, and gave the horses the little bit of water that was left in our canteens.
“Can we ride around the Apaches?” I asked Emiliano, even though I knew the answer. Heck, we had no idea which direction they had went.
Emiliano stared at the mountains in the distance. “I know where we can get water”, he said. “It will be dangerous and you must do exactly as I tell you.”
At that point, I’d have done anything he wanted if it meant getting water and avoiding that war party. Even after he told me where we were going.
Emiliano had at one time ridden with a band of Comancheros led by a vicious man named Sam Wolf. Emiliano had been captured by vigilantes and almost hung. Colonel Green had seen something in him and cut him down and taken him in. Emiliano still had the scar around his neck from rope burn.
I wasn’t too happy about riding into a Comanchero camp, but the only other option was to find the Apaches and ask them for water.
Emiliano led me higher into the foothills. Because his horse was coming up lame, we walked leading our mounts. He didn’t move his head, but I knew my companion’s eyes and ears were taking in every sight and sound around us. My scalp prickled and I imagined dozens of eyes watching our every move. My imaginings became real when all of a sudden we were surrounded by three men, rifles pointed at us. Emiliano signaled me with his hand to stay quiet.
“Jose, Miguel, Quentin.” Emiliano half-smiled and greeted the men as cordially as friends meeting on a street corner. “As alert as always, uh, muchachos?”
“Colonel Green come to his senses and throw you out?” One of the men sneered at Emiliano. “Who is this one?” He poked me in the side with his rifle barrel.
Emiliano pushed the barrel aside. “I will not be happy if you harm my young friend. You know from the past that you do not want to anger me. I also know that you do not want to anger Sam Wolf by shooting me. Now, take us to him.”
Despite Emilianos bravado, the three Comancheros covered us with their rifles as they led us into the mountain-ringed compound. A fellow about my age swaggered out of the small adobe house. Seeing us, he turned and hollered through the open door, “Hey, Sam! Look what crawled out from under a rock!” A powerful looking man that I judged to be about my oldest brother, Adam’s, age came out. The younger man, who I found out later was Sam Wolf’s brother, couldn’t take his eyes of the white stallion.
“Emiliano”. Wolf greeted my companion, seeming not surprised to see him. He was surprised to see the horse. “That’s Colonel Green’s horse.” He looked the animal over and patted his withers. “I always fancied that stallion. What are you doing with him?” Wolf smiled kind of sinister like. “You steal him?”
I tightened my grip on the white horse’s lead rope. Emiliano again motioned me to keep quiet. “My friend here bought him from Colonel Green. I’m riding with him to his family’s ranch in Nevada. I did not come to make trouble, amigo. We are dodging an Apache war party and ran out of water. All I ask is water for my young friend and myself and our horses. Then, we will go on our way.”
Wolf seemed to consider this. “Well, amigo, we rode together once. I can’t turn you and your horse away when you need water, but, I don’t know the kid. It’s a lot of work hauling barrels of water up here. I’ll be willing to sell him water.”
Emiliano looked uneasy, but before he could say anything, I thrust my wallet at Sam Wolf. I was so hot and thirsty and tired that I was past having any kind of judgment. Wolf took the money that was there and laughed that sinister laugh, again. “This isn’t enough, kid.”
I was desperate for water. “That’s all I have!”
“That’s not all you have.” Wolf yanked the stallion’s lead rope out of my hand. “I’ll take the white horse and you can have all the water you want. Then be on your way before I change my mind.”
I yelled and lunged at Wolf, then my head seemed to explode and everything went black.
The next think I knew, I was squinting into bright sunshine. I was lying on a small cot in a dirt-floored shed of some kind. The sun was coming in through a barred window in the door. Emiliano was sitting in the corner of the room on a rickety stool. He smiled when I pulled myself up into a sitting position and handed me a canteen of water. Just as I took a swallow, the sunlight was cut off by a shadow and Sam Wolf strode into the shed.
Wolf put his foot on the cot and looked at me like a rattler ready to strike at a rabbit. Then he nodded at Emiliano. “Emiliano, you’re a good man. I’ve always liked you. I’m willing to let you ride with us again.” He had a strange kind of voice, deep and gravelly, but softened by a Texas drawl.
“We’re going to have us a turkey shoot tomorrow. Since the kid here is your friend, I’ll let you have the first shot so it can be over with quick. You think about it.”
Wolf left the shed without saying anything else. Emiliano hadn’t said a word the whole time, but I got a pretty good idea that I was the turkey.
I took a deep breath and asked Emiliano, “Does the turkey ever get away?” My voice sounded strange to me and it was hard to get any words out.
He looked me right in my eyes when he answered, “It’s never been known to happen”.
“I’ll give you a run for your money”. I sounded braver than I felt.
Emiliano jumped to his feet. He was only a little taller than me, but was so angry that he seemed as big as my brother Hoss, standing there looming over me. “You think I would accept Sam Wolf’s offer? That I would betray you, betray the chance in life that Colonel Green has given me?” He spit his words out. “The Colonel saved me from the lynch mob that Wolf and the others abandoned me to!” He yanked off his bandana and showed me the rope burns on his neck.
His voice got calmer as he continued. “Or betray the white one? Leave him to such a man as Sam Wolf? I am too ugly to have a wife, but if I had one, I would wish for sons such as you and the brothers you have told me about. I would wish to be the kind of father that yours is. A father whose sons would want to give such a grand gift as the white stallion. I have a plan, amigo. Be ready.”
Emiliano called to the guard and gestured for him to come to the door. Well, he came and exchanged a few words. When the guard turned to leave, Emiliano reached through the bars and grabbed him. So quick that I couldn’t see where it came from, Emiliano had a knife in his hand. Before I could blink, it was in the guard’s back. The Comancheros must have been awfully sure of themselves because the shed door wasn’t even locked, just had a bar across it. All Emiliano had to do was reach out and open it. He pulled the guard inside and we took the dead man’s rifle and pistol.
I told Emiliano to take Cochise since his mount was lame, and I would ride the white horse. In any case, Cooch had a better chance of keeping up with the stallion than the nag Colonel Green had given him.
No one was around the corrals except Sam Wolf’s brother. He had the white in a separate corral than the other horses, tethered to a pole. When I saw that he was using a whip on the terrified animal, I furious. I lost all sense of caution and charged into him. I don’t remember the fight except that it ended when Wolf’s brother rolled under the hoofs of the rearing horse.
Emiliano had Cooch saddled and was urgently beckoning to me. I didn’t take time to saddle my mount, just jumped on his back and got out of there.
We rode hard for what seemed miles until we stopped in the shelter of a pile of boulders. I had never ridden a horse with the strength of that white stallion. As fast as Cooch is, he was struggling to keep up.
Emiliano and I each drank a little water from the canteen Sam Wolf had given him in the shed. Then we gave the horses a share. I could tell how devoted Emiliano was to that big horse. I made a decision. “Emiliano, you are going to get the first foal this horse fathers”
He waved his hands in objection. “Oh, no, Joe! That is too much! Besides, he is your father’s horse.”
I assured him that my father would agree with me, would want Emiliano to have the first foal. Neither the horse nor I would make it home without him.
Emiliano looked back the way we came and reminded me of our predicament. “Wolf will have all his men riding after us. He will not rest until his brother’s death is avenged.”
The next thing I know, Emiliano has his rifle pointed at me and is gesturing at me to stand up.
“You are the one responsible for that death. You are the one Sam is hunting. He would reward me for giving you to him.”
I couldn’t believe what was happening, the change in Emiliano from one moment to the next. Of course, you can’t blame a man for wanting to save his own hide.
What he said next caught me even more off guard than the rifle pointed point blank at my gut.
“Your pinto is fast, but he does not have the stamina of the big white one. Go. I will rest your horse as long as I can. Then we will make our way to Tyson’s Wells.”
I started to object that I couldn’t leave him there, but it made him angry.
“Go! Before I change my mind and turn you over to Sam Wolf!”
I knew he meant it.
The Comancheros must have been closer than we thought. Over the pounding of my mount’s hooves, I could faintly hear rifle shots. I could feel his strength under me, his powerful muscles churning, carrying me to safety. Then a gunshot and the horse crumpled out from under me.
I managed to roll clear of the fallen stallion. I scrambled to my feet and ran, bent over, to a small rise. I laid on my stomach and aimed my pistol. I had Sam Wolf right where I wanted him, in my gun sight. I started to pull the trigger, but a pitiful groan behind me made me turn. The horse was still alive. I checked my ammunition; only one bullet left. I knew what that last bullet had to be used for. I couldn’t let that brave animal lay in the desert and suffer.
I stumbled over to the white horse and stroked his neck. His powerful muscles were stretched tight with pain. With my right hand still stroking him, I put the pistol right up against his head and closed my eyes. I pulled the trigger.
I stood up, kind of shaky. In the distance, I could see Wolf riding slowly towards me. Now that I was on foot, he could afford to take it easy on his mount. I took a last look at Pa’s gift, wiped the tears off my face, and took off as fast as I could into the desert.
I don’t know how far I got. I just know that I ran until I couldn’t run anymore. Then I walked, or to be more accurate, staggered, a little farther. I tumbled down a small embankment and landed face down in some long grass. I was so dazed that it took me a minute or two to realize that grass meant water. I grabbed a handful and chewed on it. Sure enough, the grass had moisture in it. There, ahead of me, almost an arm’s reach, was a stream. A poor excuse for a stream, but to me it looked like a river.
I crawled toward it on my hands and knees. I put a hand into the water and it felt so good. Then the rope came out of nowhere and I was trussed up like a calf for branding. I looked up into Sam Wolf’s grinning face. He didn’t say a word, just chuckled and kicked me onto my side. Then he emptied his canteen right in front of my face. I was so desperate for a drop of that water soaking into the sand that I would have eaten the mud if I could have gotten to it.
Wolf walked away, and out of the corner of my eye I saw him bend over the stream and fill his canteen. I closed my eyes. I don’t know if it was because of the brightness of the sun, the sand in my eyes, or not wanting to see Wolf drink the water I needed. I forced them open when I heard him talking.
“Howdy, friend. I just got me a horse thief.”
“He’s no horse thief.”
Was I delirious from thirst and the heat and imagining things? Imagining that voice?
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“He’s my son!”
Then a pistol shot close by.
Oh, God! I wasn’t imagining things! It was Pa!
He untied me and took me in his arms. I grabbed at the canteen he held to my lips.
“Easy, son, not too much water at once.” The voice that was so harsh and cold a minute ago soothed me to my soul.
I wanted to tell Pa about the white stallion that was to be his birthday present from us. How I tried to get through with him. How he ran his heart out for me. How I had failed in the important task my brothers entrusted me with.
I got a few words of what I wanted to say out of my dry mouth, but Pa stopped me. He stroked my head and told me he knew.
Emiliano must have made it! Pa must have talked to him! I clutched Pa’s vest and asked him about the man who had become my friend.
Pa slowly shook his head. “He’s dead, son. He was only able to tell us which way you were riding before he died.”
They were both dead — Emiliano and the beautiful white horse. Together, they had saved my life. That news is what did me in. I buried my face in Pa’s chest and cried like a little kid while he stroked my hair. Then Pa did something he hadn’t done in years — he kissed me. On top of the head, like he used to when he tucked me in at night. He held my head against him for a few seconds while we both got ahold of ourselves, then sat me up and finished removing the rope that was still tangled around me.
Pa was holding the canteen for me to drink a little more water when Hoss and Adam rode up. They had Cochise and Buck in tow. They told me later that Cochise was waiting patiently beside Emiliano.
Boy, was I happy to see those brothers of mine! They were off their horses and to Pa and me in a flash, looking me over and asking if I was all right. Pa gave me the canteen for a couple more swallows and then Adam and Hoss pulled me to my feet. My knees kind of buckled under me, so they held me up and walked me over to Cooch. My brothers’ faces were all concern as they hoisted me up into my saddle and I sat there with my hand on Adam’s shoulder to steady myself. Adam had plopped his hat onto my head. I tried to give it back, but he insisted that I needed it more than he did. I felt kind of giddy, probably from the heat and my empty stomach. Relief was probably part of the cause, too. Anyway, I wanted to wipe the concern off their faces. I could feel a smile on my face as I mashed Hoss’ hat down on his head. It worked. We grinned at each other like lunatics while Pa filled his canteen. While he knelt at the stream, Pa looked up at the sky and I saw his lips move. I haven’t asked him what he said; a prayer is a private matter, and somehow I knew that he was praying.
I don’t remember much of the ride back to Tyson’s Wells. I literally fell asleep in the saddle. Every once-in-a-while someone would nudge me awake to hand me a canteen or because I almost tumbled off my horse.
I dimly remember finally stopping and Pa and Adam hauling me off Cooch and helping me up the hotel stairs. I must have conked out as soon as I felt that mattress and pillow.
Next thing I knew, Pa was telling me to wake up and was holding a mug of broth under my nose. He had to stop me from gulping down that whole mug full at one time. Pa wouldn’t let me have more until we saw if I could hold it down. I did, and after taking a bath, and having some kind of salve slathered on my sunburned face and hands, my brothers appeared with a plate of eggs and biscuits, and a mug of coffee.
That evening, Pa had supper in our room with me while Adam and Hoss went to the cantina. When we first got back to Tyson’s Wells, I was famished, but after the broth and that first meal of eggs and biscuits, I didn’t seem to have any appetite. At supper, I just kind of stirred my spoon around in my soup and nibbled on a biscuit. Of course, Pa noticed. He left his own supper set and took a seat on the edge of my bed.
“I know you’re grieving not only for Emiliano, but for that horse. It helps to grieve. But, don’t blame yourself. “
I started to deny that I was, but Pa interrupted me.
“I can read you like a book.” He gently poked me in the leg. “I know when you’re brooding about something.”
“Emiliano was a good man, Pa, and that stallion, he was really a special horse. No, I realize that their deaths weren’t my fault. Sam Wolf killed that horse. I did what I had to do; I couldn’t leave him there to die slowly and alone.”
I looked away from Pa’s eyes. “It’s Adam and Hoss that I let down. They trusted me fetch that horse. You know how at times they treat me like a kid. You don’t know how proud and happy that made me, that my older brothers trusted me to do something that important to us.”
“I can guarantee that your brothers don’t think that you let anyone down.”
Pa rubbed my arm as I talked, kind of unconsciously like he does. Usually, it makes me feel better, calms me when I’m upset. Right then it didn’t help. “After we almost lost you last year, we didn’t know how to tell you how much we love you. That stallion was more than a birthday gift; he was a symbol for something we couldn’t say in words.”
“I don’t need a symbol or words to tell me how my sons feel about me.” Pa lifted my chin ‘til I looked him in the eye. “I saw the horse. I thank your brothers and you for wanting such a magnificent animal for me. But, I did get a gift, son, a wonderful gift. I got my youngest son back, alive.
Pa squeezed my shoulder. “Now eat your soup, young man.”
I ate enough to satisfy Pa, then he went to my brothers’ room. Probably to discuss me. I fell asleep thinking about what Pa had said and with scenes from the last few days whirling around in my brain.
I was right about Pa discussing me with my brothers. The next day after breakfast, Pa went to check on the horses we bought while Hoss and Adam settled themselves in the room Pa and I were sharing.
They started out by asking how I was feeling. I said I was fine and ready to go home. When they started talking about the new horses, I knew what was coming. “All right. Stop the chit-chat and let’s get to what you two came in to talk about.”
Adam cleared his throat but didn’t say anything. He looked pointedly at Hoss who leaned forward on the wooden chair with his hands on his knees. “Dadburnit, little brother! You didn’t let us down!”
I swung around to get out of bed. I was angry because Pa had told them what I had said. Before I could get to my feet, Hoss was standing in front of me.
“You just lay yourself back down there and listen! If it had been me or Adam, would you feel that him or me had let you down?”
I had to admit that I wouldn’t. I shook my head.
Adam spoke from where he was standing, leaning against the wall by the window, arms crossed. “You could have killed Wolf and gotten away safely to where we caught up with you at the stream. There aren’t many men who would have passed up that chance and used his last bullet to put a horse out of its misery.”
Hoss sat down beside me on the edge of the bed and squeezed the back of my neck. “We’re proud of you, Joe.”
We left for home the next day. I thought a lot about what Hoss had asked me about how I’d feel if it had happened to one of them. I’ve never felt let down by either of my brothers, and I didn’t think I ever would. Maybe it is just myself I let down. I don’t know. Adam called me a man, so maybe him and Hoss see me as one. I just know that I couldn’t leave that brave horse to suffer after he ran his heart out for me.
Well, I’m a year older since all that happened and I still haven’t resolved it to my satisfaction. I hope I eventually will. But I’ve come to realize over this past year that you can’t always do that.
Anyway, Pa’s birthday has rolled around again. He told us he just wanted a quiet birthday at home, just the four of us.
Adam, Hoss, and I decided that we would hold off a few years before we looked for another horse for Pa. It wouldn’t be easy to find another horse like that white stallion, and we don’t feel right trying.
I can still imagine I can feel his proud heart beating and his muscles churning as he raced across that desert. I’ll never forget him. I don’t think any of us will.