As Stan approached the gravel drive to his Grandpa’s ranch, he noticed an unfamiliar man dressed almost entirely in black standing near the mailbox. Stan stopped, opened his window and asked, “Can I help you?”
The man touched his left hand to the brim of his Stetson hat, saluted, then turned and walked down the road toward town. His knee-length leather coat seemed overdressed for spring, but especially so for a person traveling on foot.
As soon as the man rounded the turn, Stan got out and retrieved the mail. Back in his cab he sorted through the pile, noted nothing amiss, then put the truck in gear and drove home.
As he passed the first paddock, a trio of chestnut colored horses followed him, heads up and tails streaming behind. Stan chuckled. These were rescues, the newest horses on the ranch. Grandpa had bought them at an auction, seeing in them potential to train into trail horses that could be resold to a friend of his.
Initially they were skittish, skinny things. Both Stan and his grandpa spent hours with them every day, approaching with treats, brushing out the mats in their manes, digging clumps of dirt from their hooves. No names yet. Those would come as personalities were revealed.
Stan placed the mail on the table just inside the door, then poured himself a glass of milk. He ate two chocolate chip cookies and then dug three cubes of sugar from a bowl sitting on the counter.
Back outside Stan whistled for the horses, then smiled as almost in unison they nickered. They knew what was coming. But before Stan could offer the first treat, the horses ran to the opposite corner of the paddock, standing with heads held high and backs to the fence.
Looking for what panicked them, Stan saw the man dressed in black on their property, leaning against a fence post. His presence made Stan uncomfortable. Nervous. So nervous that Stan backed toward the house, thinking about unlocking a gun from the cabinet in case it was needed. He hoped that the man didn’t know that Stan an expert marksman.
When Stan stepped out on the porch, the gun held against his chest, the man touched his hat, like before, then disappeared down the drive.
Stan would have liked to lock himself inside, but because this was a working ranch, there were chores to be done. He lead the new horses into the barn, put them in the largest stall, fed them and gave them clean water. After patting each one on the rump, Stan headed out to call in the rest of the herd.
Within seconds of his whistle, there was a thundering of hooves and then amid a cloud of dust the other horses arrived. His grandpa’s favorite stallion, Joe, lead the way with flaring nostrils. Betty, his mare came next, followed by three more mares and a two-year-old colt. They were a handsome mix of horseflesh, each unique in terms of breed, markings and personality.
After stabling and taking care of them, Stan drug four bales of hay down from the loft and oiled the harnesses his grandpa had left out for him.
After all that it was time to concentrate on his schoolwork. This being his senior year, Stan wanted to get perfect grades in order to up his chances for a scholarship. Grandpa Ellis had said not to worry about money, but Stan knew enough about their finances that he felt a need to do all he could to pay his way.
In between assignments he worked on dinner. Tonight would be pulled pork sandwiches. Before going to school Stan had put the meat in a crock pot. It was now so tender that it shredded with the slightest touch.
Expecting Grandpa soon, Stan got a soda and went out to sit on the porch. The man was back, this time much closer to the house. “What do you want?” Stan shouted.
The man pushed back the brim of his hat, revealing a huge scar that ran from ear to chin. It was an ugly red worm, a straight line most likely made by a knife.
“This is private property,” Stan said as he stood. Stan was almost six feet tall, his height often intimidating to those bullies who were smaller. From his best estimate, Stan saw that this man was taller and buffer. Stan’s height would not be a factor in scaring the guy away. Hoping words would work, Stan said, “Leave now or I’ll call the sheriff.”
The man smirked and then silently left. Seconds later Grandpa arrived in a swirl of dust.
“Did you see a strange man?” Stan asked as Grandpa climbed the three steps to the deck.
“Yeah. He seemed a bit familiar, but right now I can’t place him. What’s for dinner? I’m starved.”
As they ate they talked about the training of the new horses. Stan mentioned how easy it was to get them in the stall, especially compared to how it was when they first arrived. And how peculiarly they acted when the man was on the property.
Grandpa said he’d met with Richard, the owner of the nearby dude ranch, and that he was looking for good horses. And if they were trained by Stan, he’d buy them without checking them out personally.
After dinner both men sat out on the deck. It was now dusk. The sounds of crickets filled the air, until there was a hiss, which silenced even the leaves of the surrounding tress.
Grandpa Ellis stood, his hands planted firmly on his hips. “Is that you, Musial? What do you want?”
The man stepped into the glow of the lights emanating from inside the house. “Yeah, it’s me. Why don’t you invite me in for a cup of joe?” He blew out a cloud of smoke, filling the air with the stench of a strong-tarred cigarette.
“Naw, not goin’to happen,” Grandpa said as he nodded Stan toward the door. “We got no business Musial.”
Musial took three quick steps, placing him at the base of the stairs. “Yeah, we do. Them three horses are mine. They was stolen from me, right off my land. I want ‘em back.”
“They was abused. Ribs stickin’ out. Hooves a mile long. Filthy. Standin’ almost knee deep in mud. Plus they was scared.” Grandpa sat back in his rocking chair, crossed his right leg over his left and leaned back, looking as casual as if he was at a Sunday picnic.
Stan watched from the safety of the house, but only after calling 911 and reporting the confrontation to the sheriff.
Musial leaned against the porch railing, staring intently at Grandpa. “I just rescued them myself. Hadn’t had time to fatten ‘em up. Paid good money for ‘em. Want ‘em back.”
Grandpa pulled his pipe out of the pouch he kept on a shelf to the right of his chair, filled it with tobacco and lit it. He blew out a cloud of aromatic smoke. He said nothing. Didn’t look at Musial. Just drew in another lungful of smoke, this time exhaling a perfect ring.
“Are you goin’ to give ‘em to me or not?”
In the distance a siren could be heard, coming closer by the second. Musial cocked his head to one side, then as he turned around, said, “This isn’t over, Ellis. I’ll be back.”
He disappeared into the darkness as silently as he had come, gone well before the sheriff’s car screeched to a halt next to Stan’s truck.
Stan went inside to read while the men talked. A few minutes later, Grandpa came in and fixed himself a cup of coffee. “I ain’t goin’ to tell you what that’s about,” he said. “Just that Musial is not a nice man. He’s a known thief and liar. As far as we know, he’s not dangerous, so you’ve got nothin’ to worry about.”
When Stan left for school the next morning, the man, still dressed in black, waved to him as he pulled out onto the road. As soon as Stan could pull over safely, he called his grandpa and warned him that Musial was back. Stan told his grandfather that he worried that Musial might steal the horses, but Granpa said not to worry, that he’d already moved them into the back pasture where he’d be working all day and that he had his shotgun with him.
During lunch Stan ate out on the front lawn with his friends. Just as he started telling them about the man, he was there, across the street. Standing with arms crossed on his chest. He nodded at Stan, then touched his brim, and walked away. Goosebumps broke out on Stan’s arms and he shivered.
Stan was so uncomfortable the rest of the day that he had a hard time concentrating on his classes. When the final bell rang, Stan hurried to his truck. The man was leaning against the door.
“Hey, Big Man,” he said. “Tell your Grandpa I won’t give up ‘til I get those horses back,” and then he walked away.
Stan got in his truck, locked the door and sat for a bit, trying to calm his nerves. Once he felt settled, he drove home. He found his grandfather in the kitchen working on dinner.
“This has to stop,” Stan said. “That man freaks me out. Can’t the sheriff make him stay away?”
“I spoke to the sheriff a little bit ago,” he said after swallowing a bite of spaghetti. “So far Musial hasn’t broken any laws. He can warn him, but he can’t threaten him. Sheriff Jim promised, however, that he’d look into Musial’s claim that he had just rescued the horses.”
After dinner Stan did his chores, working with the new horses individually, keeping watch in case Musial showed up. His nervousness affected the horses who were a bit jittery. Even so, all behaved on the long rope, doing whatever Stan asked of them. It helped that he rewarded them with sugar cubes.
After putting all the horses away for the night and closing the barn door, Stan saw the man again. This time he was sitting on the porch in Grandpa’s chair, smoking his grandpa’s pipe. Stan called Grandpa first, then the sheriff and finally locked himself in the barn.
Evening fell while he was there. He sat with Betty, repeatedly stroking her muzzle, more to keep himself calm than to comfort her, but she leaned into his hand, begging for more as if she hadn’t been stroked for years.
His phone rang. Grandpa said all was safe and to come inside. Stan patted Betty one last time, then joined his grandpa in the front room. “What happened?”
“Sheriff Jim arrested Musial for trespassing,” he said as he blew out a stream of smoke.
“Had the sheriff researched Musial’s claims?”
“Yeah. A bit. He verified that Musial was not the original owner, but he couldn’t find evidence of when the transfer took place. The issue of condition, however, has not changed. The horses were knee-deep in mud, there was no clean water and no food at the time they were rescued. So, even if Musial got them half-starved, he wasn’t providing proper care for them.”
The men sat in the dark for a bit, digesting the words. Grandpa rocked as he smoked while Stan stared into the darkness as if looking for boogeymen.
“Do you think he’ll come back?” Stan asked.
“Probably not. The sheriff took him in. It turns out there was an outstanding arrest warrant for him. Domestic abuse. And another for a DUI. Could be why he was always on foot. Lost his license.”
Stan sighed. “Sounds good. It freaked me out. I’ve never liked stories where someone gets stalked. They make me as nervous as the person being stalked feels. Now I know what it’s like and I never want to go through that again.”
Grandpa Ellis patted his grandson’s arm. “It’s finished. Musial will never come back. Now, it’s time for bed.”
The men stood in unision, looked out into the darkness, sighed, then went inside, Grandpa locking the door behind them, something which he’d never done before.