An ethical dilemma on the wild frontier.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“Hunting a Horse-thief”
from The Wilderness Hunter
Early one spring, now nearly ten years ago, I was out hunting some lost horses. They had strayed from the range three months before, and we had in a roundabout way heard that they were ranging near some broken country, where a man named Brophy had a ranch, nearly fifty miles from my own. When I started thither the weather was warm, but the second day out it grew colder and a heavy snowstorm came on. Fortunately I was able to reach the ranch all right, finding there one of the sons of a Little Beaver ranchman, and a young cowpuncher belonging to a Texas outfit, whom I knew very well. After putting my horse into the corral and throwing him down some hay I strode into the low hut, made partly of turf and partly of cottonwood logs, and speedily warmed myself before the fire. We had a good warm supper, of bread, potatoes, fried venison, and tea. My two companions grew very sociable and began to talk freely over their pipes. There were two bunks one above the other. I climbed into the upper, leaving my friends, who occupied the lower, sitting together on a bench recounting different incidents in the careers of themselves and their cronies during the winter that had just passed. Soon one of them asked the other what had become of a certain horse, a noted cutting pony, which I had myself noticed the preceding fall. The question aroused the other to the memory of a wrong which still rankled, and he began (I alter one or two of the proper names):
“Why, that was the pony that got stole. I had been workin’ him on rough
ground when I was out with the Three Bar outfit and he went tender
forward, so I turned him loose by the Lazy B ranch, and when I came back
to git him there wasn’t anybody at the ranch and I couldn’t find him.
The sheep-man who lives about two miles west, under Red Clay butte,
told me he seen a fellow in a wolfskin coat, ridin’ a pinto bronco, with
white eyes, leadin’ that pony of mine just two days before; and I hunted
round till I hit his trail and then I followed to where I’d reckoned he
was headin’ for–the Short Pine Hills. When I got there a rancher told
me he had seen the man pass on towards Cedartown, and sure enough when
I struck Cedartown I found he lived there in a ‘dobe house, just outside
the town. There was a boom on the town and it looked pretty slick.
There was two hotels and I went into the first, and I says, ‘Where’s the
justice of the peace?’ says I to the bartender.
“‘There ain’t no justice of the peace,’ says he, ‘the justice of the
peace got shot.’
“‘Well, where’s the constable?’ says I.
“‘Why, it was him that shot the justice of the peace!’ says he; ‘he’s
skipped the country with a bunch of horses.’
“‘Well, ain’t there no officer of the law left in this town?’ says I.
“‘Why, of course,’ says he, ‘there’s a probate judge; he is over
tendin’ bar at the Last Chance Hotel.’
“So I went over to the Last Chance Hotel and I walked in there.
‘Mornin’,’ says I.
“‘Morning’,’ says he.
“‘You be the probate judge?’ says I.
“‘That’s what I am,’ says he. ‘What do you want?’ says he.
“‘I want justice,’ says I.
“‘What kind of justice do you want?’ says he. ‘What’s it for?’
“‘It’s for stealin’ a horse,’ says I.
“‘Then by God you’ll git it,’ says he. ‘Who stole the horse?’ says he.
“‘It is a man that lives in a ‘dobe house, just outside the town
there,’ says I.
“‘Well, where do you come from yourself?’ said he.
“‘From Medory,’ said I.
“With that he lost interest and settled kind o’ back, and says he,
‘There won’t no Cedartown jury hang a Cedartown man for stealin’ a
Medory man’s horse,’ said he.
“‘Well, what am I to do about my horse?’ says I.
“‘Do?’ says he; ‘well, you know where the man lives, don’t you?’ says
he; ‘then sit up outside his house, to-night and shoot him when he comes
in,’ says he, ‘and skip out with the horse.’
“‘All right,’ says I, ‘that is what I’ll do,’ and I walked off.
“So I went off to his house and I laid down behind some sage-brushes to
wait for him. He was not at home, but I could see his wife movin’ about
inside now and then, and I waited and waited, and it growed darker, and
I begun to say to myself, ‘Now here you are lyin’ out to shoot this man
when he comes home; and it’s getting’ dark, and you don’t know him, and
if you do shoot the next man that comes into that house, like as not it
won’t be the fellow you’re after at all, but some perfectly innocent man
a-comin’ there after the other man’s wife!’
“So I up and saddled the bronc’ and lit out for home,” concluded the
narrator with the air of one justly proud of his own self-abnegating