William F. Stratton
The Man and the Horse
Updated: Jan 1, 2022
By Frank Neilson
The Argosy, August 1902
He sat under the largest tree in sight. He was hatless and dusty. A horse that had seen better days, and many of them, stood near him, panting painfully with drooping head. Southward the prairie rolled away to the horizon. Northward the mountains climbed to the clouds.
The cry of a distant coyote smote the silence. The shadow of a circling buzzard swept about the tree.
The man glanced upward at the substance of the shadow, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “You are early, my friends. The feast is not yet prepared.”
Then he fixed his gaze steadily upon the distant mountains.
Down the pass that cleft them asunder, six dark objects appeared in rapid, undulatory motion. The man under the tree dropped his head upon his breast and closed his eyes.
When he looked up again, six horsemen were approaching at a long gallop.
They were dusty and rough-looking. One carried a rope at his saddle-bow.
They slackened their pace and advanced cautiously. The man under the tree hailed them from where he sat.
“Looking for someone, gentlemen?”
“We was,” replied the man with the rope. “We ain't now.”
The man under the tree stood up. He was tall, straight, and handsome.
“Make it short,” he said. “With a good horse instead of that plug, I might have been over the line. But last night was a dark one, and I was in a hurry.”
“You surely was, stranger,” said the man with the rope as he dropped the noose over the head of the hatless one. “’Nother case of haste makes waste. Best hoss in th’ camp was in th’ next stall.”
The six drew a short distance away and consulted in low tones. Then the man who had carried the rope called out, “Stranger, you admit takin’ the hoss, don't you?”
The hatless one smiled and nodded.
“There ain't no use of a trial,” urged the man who had carried the rope to the other five. “I'm a law abidin’ citizen, but when a man pleads guilty, there ain't no use a wastin’ time a tryin' him.”
“Stranger, the jedgment of this court is that you air guilty of hoss stealin', the particular hoss bein' Dick Arp’s old black Bill there. The sentence of the court is that you be hung by the neck from this here tree until dead, an’ may God have mercy on your soul. Have you anything to say before we purceed?”
“I think not, gentlemen,” said the hatless one, “except to call your attention to my courtesy in halting under the only available tree in the neighborhood.”
“It was obligin' of you, Stranger, it was so. You’ve saved us considerable time, and we’re in right smart of a rush to git back to th’ diggin’s. He’s a game one all right, boys. Hitch on there now an’ let’s git th’ job over with.”
The five seized the loose end of the rope and awaited the signal.
“Sure you ain’t got no folks you'd like to send word to, Stranger? By the way, what is your name, anyhow? ”
“Fust er last name? ”
“Both. And — yes — there are those who are — waiting for me. Perhaps it would be better if they — knew.”
“Gimme th’ address, stranger, an’ they’ll git th’ word, ’n’ I’ll make it as easy for ’em as I kin. I like a game man, 'n' I’m sorry you’re at that end of th’ rope. Gimme th’ address.”
“It is in the letter in my coat pocket. Will you look at it now? The other pocket. Thanks. Sorry to trouble you, but you will observe that you have tied my hands. Just examine it, please.”
“Couldn't read it in a week of Sundays. Here, Bob, you’re a book sharp; come’n read out th’ address of the th’ gent’s folks so’s we kin all ketch it.”
The smallest man of the six advanced and glanced over the sheet hastily. Then he read it carefully. Next, he turned to the hatless one and exclaimed, “My God man, are you mad? Have you no plea to make?”
The hatless one smiled sadly. “What’s the use? You would not believe. You intend to murder me — and them. I will not beg, not even for — the children.”
But the man with the letter was reading it aloud to the five.
"Dear Papa: You must come home, quick. Mamma is much worse. The doctor says he might save her if you were here. And the little money you gave us is all gone, and baby and I are hungry. But I can’t tell the doctor that. So you must come. I know you will, so I told mamma you were coming and she is listening for you. Your loving little girl, Mary.”
The four men had dropped the rope. The man who had brought the rope had turned and was looking over the prairie.
Perhaps he was thinking of his brood, far away in the east waiting for his return when he should strike it rich.
Perhaps it was the dust that choked him when he spoke.
“Where air they, stranger?”
“Mexico. Jest over the line. Had to leave them there until I could send for them. That was months ago. I have had — hard luck.”
The man who had brought the rope looked inquiringly at the other five. Then there were seven free men under the tree, and the rope was coiled on the arm of the man who had brought it.
“Take the horse stranger. He’s yours. We made a mistake. He ain’t much good, but he’ll take you to the waiting’ children.”
But the hatless one shook his head.
“Gentlemen, I’ll be frank with you. God knows I am too near the grave to lie. I am not a criminal. Two years ago I had a good business, a happy family, and a comfortable home. My partner ruined me. In one awful day I lost everything. Then I was offered a good position as manager of a Mexican plantation. I accepted the offer thankfully, and with my little family had almost reached our destination, where I hoped to recoup my fortune when I learned that the company had failed and had made an assignment.”
“We were homeless, among strangers. My wife, who had never known an ungratified desire, was sinking under our adversities. I could find no employment. I gave them every dollar I had and left them in two little rooms, intending to work my way northward into God's country, where I might find steady employment.”
“I was a hundred miles north of here when that letter reached me. I was sick, had found no work, and had no money. In desperation, I took a horse and rode him until he dropped. You who have wives and children can understand.”
“I did not want to steal. But they are after me for taking that horse. I threw them off the trail last night, just before I took this horse from you. But they have struck it again by this time. They are well-mounted. I cannot escape unless I catch the midnight train south at the station.”
“And even then, I have no money. You may as well proceed. If they catch me, they will take me back. I prefer this tree. It is — nearer home.”
When six earnest men agree, a conclusion is soon reached. The man who had brought the rope announced the result of the hasty consultation,
“Stranger — I can't pronounce yer name nohow — you're agoin’ home. We ain’t no millionaires, but we've dug up enough coin here to see you through ’n a little to spare. Jump that roan, quick. Here's your hat. Bob's th‘ treasurer of this syndicate, ’n he’s goin’ with you to bring back the roan.”
“You kin make it if you hustle. That’s all right — we know what you want to say. We're rough, but we’re fair. So long. Get a move on you now er you’ll miss th’ train.”
Twenty-four hours later, Bob returned to the little mining town, from the south, leading the roan and bearing a sealed message to the man who had carried the rope.
“Most Generous but easy friends: It looked like a bold game, but there was everything to gain and nothing to lose. Hanging is hanging, whether for horse stealing or murder. I was sorry for the children when I found that letter in his pocket, but I needed his clothes and horse, and he was stubborn. It is very bad form to travel in convict's stripes. Kindly inform the sheriff when he reaches your town that, at present, my address is Central America. Most thankfully yours, R. E.”
At five-thirty that evening, the sheriff of Maricopa County and two deputies in search of Richard Earl, alias “Slick Dick,” confidence man, escaped convict and murderer, galloped into town from the north and had a fascinating interview with six wrathful and crestfallen citizens.
At six o’clock, they departed slowly over the same road they had come. None showed a disposition to talk.
At the summit of the pass, the sheriff halted his weary horse, turned in his saddle, and gazed down upon the town long and thoughtfully.
Then he said, earnestly, contemptuously, deliberately, “Well, I'll be durned! — Anianas!”