Mendoza first saw Amos Dalson about a mile away near the top of Stack Ridge. Dalson was looking for a stray calf, Mendoza tracking an antelope wounded by one of his iron tipped arrows. The wounding of this antelope was bad luck.
The fickle nature of luck was common belief among his people who held that bad luck was balanced by good luck. Luck was seen as a finite quantity and to maintain equilibrium good and bad luck were continually exchanged among things, animals, and people by spirits. Mendoza believed that his luck had been so bad for so long that some, yet unknown, great gift must lie ahead to balance all he’d endured: a lame foot, bad teeth, marksmanship so poor he was denied a rifle because he wasted ammunition. Called “Sapo” (the Toad) because of bumps on his face, he was a whipping boy among the Quebrada Band of Mescalero Apaches. Jokes were made about him. They said he was a poor hunter because animals smelled his stink breath, or that a toad had entered his mother as she peed and this had made her child bumpy.
The wind was picking up and dark clouds scudded in quickly from the west. The white flank of Dalson’s pinto flashed in an intermittent patch of late afternoon sun. Mendoza dismounted and led his mare slowly behind a boulder, hobbled her, then climbed to a low branch of a pine tree to watch the cowboy. The cowboy sat the pinto lazy, slouched to the right with his head down studying the ground for sign.
Mendoza’s position gave him a clear view of the entire long shelf on which Dalson ambled. The shelf curved to the south, rose, and led straight to his slope of the ridge. The shelf supported scattered copses of pines and a big thicket with cottonwoods which meant water. That’s where his antelope would be.
The cowboy’s pinto caught scent of Mendoza’s mare, tossed its head and neighed, but the cowboy ignored this uneasiness and reined her to his left, where the track he followed veered.
“My antelope,” Mendoza was sure.”Why doesn’t this stupid man look up or around or behind? He sees nothing but the ground even when his horse talks to him.”
Amos Dalson was busy bemoaning his own series of misfortunes. Just before the war ended he had been awaiting a discharge from the Union Army “by reason of loss of the left eye.” Conscripted in ’64, he was sticking his head out a window aboard a troop train carrying his company of recruits to join General Sherman when a burning cinder from the locomotive’s stack had flown into his eye at Atlanta. Back home in Illinois, before the war ended, he had been caught stealing mules from an army depot but escaped the night before his court-martial and had headed West. Figured he’d find work and put by enough to homestead his own place.
Now, 10 years later, he was just a one-eyed saddle tramp with a little bit less than nothing and a bad reputation. He’d hired on to a dozen spreads but had never lasted even a year at any. He’d tell you that ranchers don’t like cowboys with only one eye or that they hated Yankees. The fact that his vision was poor didn’t help, but the true reasons he was always let go were that he was a lazy whiner and a thief.
He currently rode for Mr. Tyler Kimbrell, an old man who was nice enough, but Amos had to work under a sonofabitch of a foreman named L. J. Lester. Lester never missed an opportunity to assign the worst jobs to Amos and rode him morning, noon and night callin’ him every bad word in the book and then some. One day he’d been tasked with mending a fence line. Lester rode up to inspect the work and jumped all over him.
“You even try to stretch that wire? My twelve year old daughter can stretch fence better ‘n you, you sorry shit. In fact, I might jist send her out here tomorrow to show you how, you sorry-assed slacker.”
That chewing out pissed him off to no end, and to get even he planned to hamstrung Lester’s daughter’s pony.
“She might can string wire tighter than me, but she’d have to walk out there to where the fence is,” he thought.
He’d gone to Mr. Kimbrell to complain about Lester’s mistreatment, but the old man was stone deaf and Dalson couldn’t make him understand.
One of the cowhands must have overheard him and told Lester. So now he had to go it alone up on Stack Ridge to look for strays. Lester always detailed two hands to round up strays, but not this time.
“If you can’t find no strays, then keep on ridin’, Cyclops. See, you was jist paid on Friday, so Mr. Kimbrell don’t owe you nothin’. Find them strays or don’t be seen around here no more, else you’ll be sorry. Got it?”
Dalson whined to himself, “If they was any strays on that ridge the thievin’ redskins’d have ’em pronto. And what if I was to come across Apaches? There’ll be snow in another month; where in God’s name am I gonna hire on now? I am stuck here for now, that’s for sure. Goddamn Lester, I hate that sonofabitch.”
He wondered when his bad luck would change. “But Ole Jumpin’ Jesus tan my hide if bad luck don’t foller me like a shadow. Then again luck she always changes, don’t she?” He whispered a little prayer, “Lord, if you kin hear me, I know I don’t deserve much, but please, this time change my luck, please. Help me find them strays and maybe send a heart attack down to L. J. Lester. Thank you, Jesus.”
He’d finally found a track and was pushing hard to find the critter before the weather moved in to wash out any spoor. He’d follow as long as he could then make camp beneath those cottonwoods.
His good eye caught a movement in the thicket to the right and Amos readied his rope and eased the pinto closer. There against a rotting pine log he saw the thrashing antelope. He looped his rope on the saddle horn and took the Winchester from its scabbard and finished off the suffering buck antelope.
“Hot damn,” he thought, “mebbe Old Jesus is heard my little prayer ’cause, by jingo, my luck is changed. Thank you, Jesus, thankee, Lord.” Dalson dragged the antelope to a pine tree, hefted it up, and with a piece of twine cinched the back legs together over a broken branch. Then he took the clasp knife he’d stolen from Lester’s saddle bag, and slit the throat to bleed the animal. “Won’t you make a few days of full belly.”
Hearing the rifle’s report, Mendoza slipped from his pine bough as the first drops of rain fell. “He’s grabbed my meat. I’ll kill this hombre.”
The thought energized Mendoza and conjured beautiful images. The anticipation of torturing this thief gladdened him and made his heart beat faster. He moved his mare to a stand of aspen, hobbled her in a patch of high grass, then began the trek to the cottonwoods with his knife, bow and the two remaining iron pointed arrows. The wind backed and he could smell the mesquite fire the cowboy had started. To his delight the rain quickened, becoming louder, masking his approach. “This rain is good luck,” he thought. Fifty yards from the tree where the cowboy was engrossed in dressing the antelope, Mendoza once again climbed to a low branch to study his target.
A small fire burned beneath an overhang. Nearby on the ground were the man’s saddle, rope, and the rifle. The entrails lay in a heap, some touching the boots of the man. Mendoza noticed he hadn’t even separated the sweet organs from the guts. Hacking and sawing the meat from the bones, this fool was so clumsy with the knife, the soft hide of the antelope was torn and ripped – ruined. The knife must be laughing. “Iron knife, when you are mine, it’ll be different,” Mendoza whispered.
The rain stopped and he noticed that one of the man’s eyes was gone. “He’s already been tortured then. Commanches,” he thought. Apaches would have taken both eyes and ears. Finished with the butchering, the cowboy knelt to wrap the meat with a piece of oil cloth.
Mendoza slipped from the limb, notched an arrow and slowly advanced to within 30 feet of the kneeling white. He let fly the arrow just as the man stood up. The arrow struck into the cowboy’s groin with the iron tip buried in the right hip. Dalson fell writhing and screaming into the bloody offal.
Mendoza notched and sent the second arrow through the screaming white man’s left hand then rushed the attack, picking up a rock and smashing it into Dalson’s face, breaking his nose and front teeth, knocking the cowboy senseless. Snatching the coil of rope next to the saddle he threw two quick loops over the cowboy’s head and shoulders and cinched him tightly then finished by trussing his arms and feet. Dalson lay groaning. Sneering, Mendoza stood and pissed on him.
Satisfied the cowboy wasn’t going anywhere, he walked to his bay mare, loosened the hobble then walked her to the little spring in the cottonwood thicket. After she’d drunk, he hobbled her in a grassy patch near the pinto. He left the horses, picked up and admired the Winchester, then sat by the fire to go through Dalson’s saddlebags.
From a cotton bag he took a handful of horse oats, tried chewing them, but spit grains and hulls onto the ground. He laid a tobacco pouch on the saddle blanket then sat, his back against a tree and rolled a smoke and stared at Dalson. “When the sun rose this day, I was Sapo the Toad. Now I am Mendoza the warrior, with two horses, a rifle, cartridges, a fine clasp knife, two shirts, a belt and soon two ears to put on a string around my horse’s neck.” He stared at his captive, believing that each wince, quiver, twitch, and groan signified the exchange of the cowboy’s good luck for Mendoza’s own bad luck. The more this fool would suffer, the more he, Mendoza the warrior, would enjoy his new situation.
When night fell, he speared the antelope’s liver on a green stick and set it to roast over the fire. He cut the gall bladder from the pile of offal, laughed, and shoved it into Dalson’s mouth. After he’d eaten he checked the bonds on the cowboy. With the clasp knife he hacked through both of Dalson’s Achilles’ tendons, then cutting a length of the lariat, he tied the cowboy’s feet together and threw the bitter end over the bough the antelope had hung from. Tomorrow the whimpering man would dangle there by his feet for skinning
© Gary Ives
First published in May 2011, “Frontier Tales”, Issue №20
Illustration by Henry F. Farny (1847-1916) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons