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Pluto and Carlos

Note: This being Rodeo Week, here is an excerpt from a cowboy mystery novel I have been working on for years. It is what might be called a work-in-progress, progress being very hard to come by. This is the introductory chapter, but is missing the prolog, which introduces what Hitchcock used to call the McGuffin, the premise.  The setting is the San Rafael Valley and the time is January 1973.

Team roping is a rodeo event that goes back to the time when cowboys had to lasso mavericks to brand, doctor or castrate them. A maverick weighs upward of half a ton or more and it took two cowboys to handle a maverick, one to rope the head and the other to snag the heels and are known as the header and the heeler. The cowboys ride on either side of the maverick, the header usually to the left and the heeler on the right. Once the header catches the maverick, he pulls the animal to the left and his partner ropes the heels, which ain’t easy. In rodeo competition, the team with the best times for catching a series of steers wins.

From Cowboy 101: A Guide to Rodeo

By Ferlin Slym and Waylon Markowitz

 The maverick looked peculiar. It had the black and grey coat of a Brahma, and it spilled over his face as well. The body was shaped like a Corriente with the pronounced back leg muscles. He had a Brahma neck and big muscled shoulders with even larger muscles in the hindquarters. His face was speckled with orange splotches on a gray face crowed by short curved horns. He had an abnormally long body with back legs nearly a half-foot taller than the fronts and a black tipped bottle brush tail that stretched to but a few inches above the ground.

The maverick bull stared at the two riders and the dog across the stock pond.

Blinking his bulging yellow-brown eyes, the Brahma away from the trio, swished his tail. He did not run. He began a slow trot, a bouncy strut emitting a series of loud farts, suitably contemptuous. The dog took offense. He shook his shaggy blue merle coat and darted around the pond, barking, followed by the first rider, Pluto, a dark-skinned cowboy of about 20 with a gray Western Stetson hat, boots with spurs, a blue work shirt and Levis.

The other rider —  Carlos — sat his red and white paint mare named Janis Joplin and smoked a joint. He crossed his lanky right leg over the saddle horn, watching the chase. Carlos wore a broad, floppy canvas hat with cloth strap around his chin, corduroy pants and high-top Converse sneakers topped with heavy cheap canvas chaps. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses that corrected a moderate myopia and severe astigmatism.

The maverick favored the Power line trail, a main cow-country thoroughfare in this semi-arid high plain of the San Rafael Valley. It was straight, flat and wide lined with junipers, cottonwoods and high grass. Pluto spurred his sorrel, half Arab, half quarterhorse. It horse started quickly, throwing clumps of earth, giving chase. Pluto looped his rope by his side. In a matter of seconds he would throw the loop over the maverick’s head. He expected Carlos to bring up the rear and rope the maverick’s rear hooves.

But Carlos was busy. Besides holding his breath as long as he could to maintain the THC pouring through his veins, he had to finish this song.  He was wearing headphones under the floppy hat, listening to “Back in the USSR.” The tune and the beat were perfect for the chase he was watching, “You don’t know how lucky you are boys….”

The dog did not bark so much as curse. He quickly caught up to the maverick’s rear end and alternately snipped at the hooves and barked. It was his high-pitched banshee bark, an annoying screech to any ear within range. The maverick was not fazed. It kicked, and just missed the dog. The dog kept nipping at the back legs of the maverick, which continued a slow loping gait. Carlos considered, as he finally exhaled, whether this was the first blasé maverick he had ever seen.

Pluto approached, his loop ready about ten feet behind. At the moment he threw the rope, the maverick made a 90-degree left turn. The timing was such that it seemed maverick had eyes in the back of head and knew precisely when to turn. The maverick maintained a regular gait. The loop landed on a bush and horse and rider stopped to gather the rope. The dog, panting, also stopped.

They were surprised. The maverick stood and watched, eyes blinking with long, bovine lashes.

Carlos, having finished his smoke, followed and then pulled up, joining dog and rider.

“That was odd,” he said straightening his glasses and folding his earphones. “He isn’t normal.”

Pluto spat. “Thanks for the help.”

“Seems clear I would have made no difference.”

“A slippery chingadero,” said Pluto, eyes narrowed. “Little shit maverick.”

“Looks big to me,” said Carlos.

Pluto looped the gathered rope over his saddle horn and spurred his horse to the chase. The blue dog sputtered and barked. Dog and rider ran at the maverick while Carlos watched, drinking guava juice from a canteen to slake his marijuana thirst.

Instead of turning tail, the critter held his ground. Pluto could not believe he had a stationary target. He threw the loop, which was in the air as the maverick bolted again to Pluto’s left. The rope landed on the ground again. Stunned, Pluto watched in disbelief as the maverick charged him. He passed within six inches of his left stirrup, and as he ran, bobbed his horns at Pluto’s leg, but the aim was too low.

“Ole! Ole! Bravo. Viva el chingadero,” shouted Carlos.

They stood, just looking, the maverick at the rider and dog. Pluto gathered his rope.

The dog sat. His coat was mottled blue and black, a blue merle. His face was splashed white from the jaw to his constantly swiveling radar ears. The left eye was cornflower blue and the other an emerald green. Both were rimmed with gray cornices.

It was impossible to peer into these canine eyes and not feel strange as if transported to a cloud that floated from one blissful place to another. Even if the dog uttered a low menacing growl, it did not threaten so much as coax. It was a soothing comfort, childhood blanket.

Pluto, whose name was Plutarco — after a Mexican president who some think went wrong and others consider a hero — once had a dream that the dog was the reincarnation of Rasputin. The dream took place in the court of Czar Nicholas as Alexandra and the dog used mystic powers to control Alexandra who commanded her wimp husband as the  Bolsheviks stormed the palace and killed Rasputin. The ghost dog vowed he would return as a wolf to free the family and vanquish the revolt. Carlos did not comment on the dream, deciding it best not to judge. He was, after all, Pluto’s half brother older by three years, born of a Chinese father. If he thought this was horseshit, better to allow it to turn slowly to manure. Pluto was convinced the dog had certain gifts.

Carlos rode next to his brother at a brisk walk. The paint horse mare, Janis, and the sorrel gelding — Grumps — got along well enough, being companionable stable mates. But when there was a bite to be taken, Grumps was the bitee, Janis the biter. Carlos reached beneath his gray sweatshirt, which had “Stanford Rodeo Team” written in red block letters on it, and produced a joint. He lit it with a Zippo took a drag and passed it to Pluto.

“This is not normal,” said Pluto, inhaling.

“I think we have established that much,” said Carlos, reaching back to his saddlebag to find his oversized, ultra-cool Manfred Friedelbone mirrored wrap around shades, which were enormous and fit over his prescription glasses. He looked as though he was wearing a funhouse mirror. His half-brother and took a long tug at the joint and held it in his lungs. He released the smoke slowly and as he did said, “I don’t feel good about this dogie. We don’t know if he belongs to us. Got no brand.”

“That is not the issue,” said Pluto. “This chingadero, this clown cow has made the mistake of making my dog mad.”

The dog, whose name was Wuph — so named by Pluto on the theory that a dog should be able to tell you his name — panted and leered at Pluto. He yupped in agreement, not realizing that he had been thinking clearly. Pluto dismounted and so did his brother. They found a log and let the horses nibble the ground for feed.

Carlos stretched his legs. “I think el chingadero thinks this is a bullfight. But I am confused about who’s the bull. I think that move was a paso de pecho. Or a veronica”

“Yeah?” said Pluto, looping the rope. “You’re stoned.

“Yes, but I’ve read Hemingway.”

# # #

Two hours later, Pluto and Carlos were in the Chuparosa line camp near Canelo. It was next to a stock pond fed by a spring. The pond looked like a bog at the edge, but the spring ran clear and cold this time of year. The horses grazed beyond the pond where the grass was winter brown. The camp had a small shed for storage, a rock fire pit with log seating around it. There was crude table, four stumps and an old solid pine door, now warped by time and weather. Carlos sat at the table, a bottle of Southern Comfort at his elbow along with a tin cup. He typed rapidly on a light Olympia portable. It weighed a little more than four pounds. Pluto carried wood, which was piled next to the shed, to the fire pit. It was starting to chill.

Wuph then suddenly appeared, striding slowly into camp. The elusive maverick followed behind, like a calf after its mother. Pluto grabbed the rope from his saddle. Carlos retrieved his. Pluto threw a loop over the young bull’s head and quickly wrapped it around a tree. Carlos caught the critter by his back feet and did the same.

The Brahma was stretched out. He bellered. Wuph barked. Pluto pulled a pocket knife from his jeans. He retrieved a blue bottle from his saddle bag. This was a disinfectant to be used after the castration.

Wuph barked and jumped in circles. First to the right, barking his banshee bark. Then to the left. Carlos leaned over the young bull’s chest to hold him for the cut. Wuph barked yet louder. Pluto opened the knife. The bull bellowed. Wuph then circled behind Pluto, hooking the cuff of his blue work shirt. He held the cuff in his teeth. He did not grab any part of the wrist.

Wuph held the sleeve. He did not growl, held the sleeve firm. Pluto turned. He patted the dog with his left hand. “All right, OK, OK.” The dog let the sleeve go. Pluto folded the pocket knife.

“What” said Carlos, “do you think this is about?” The young bull was breathing hard.

“I can’t tell right now, but I’m sure the answer will come to us.” He pulled the knot from the tree after Carlos removed the loop from the Brahma’s back legs. The young bull rose and then, unfazed by the near loss of his parts and only slightly indignant, sashayed to the pond where he took a long drink and farted.