They Don't Shoot Horses
Susie was jolted awake from a deep slumber. Confused, she sought the window and confirmed the dark of night. She lay still, searching the room with her eyes. All was normal, and yet a chill ran through her. Her son mentioned a big cat in the area, a danger to everything outside. Susie froze, held her breath and strained her ears listening for sounds - animal sounds – any sounds. Through the vented window the cool night air smelled of pine trees. No noise ventured forth. The bed was warm and comfortable, and sleep called to her, even as her conscience demanded she discover what woke her. She needed to see for herself that everything was safe and secure.
She pushed back the covers when she heard it: Boom . . . boom . . . boom.
Recognizing the shots from a rifle, terror grabbed her. She jumped out of bed, grabbed yesterday's jeans and bumped her hip into the dresser as she pulled them on.
Ten years ago that bump wouldn’t hurt as much. Ten years ago her slim, short stature would not bump the dresser. Her silk gown came off, and she struggled into her sweatshirt as she headed for the stairs. Not sure where she put her cell, she ran down to the kitchen phone. She pressed speed dial for her son’s ranch. As it dialed, Susie peeked out the window over the sink at the dark, silent shadows. The leaves on the apple tree obscured her view so she moved to the larger window. She saw nothing unusual; everything looked normal.
“What in the hell’s going on?” She could see the single pole light illuminating the barn doors. Listening intently she could hear the frantic dogs barking and bouncing against the doors.
Jerry picked up on the second ring. Susie heard the phone being dropped and retrieved, with cloth rustling on the other end. “I’m up. I heard it. Poachers?” he said, his urgent voice still groggy with sleep.
“I don’t know, but it was too damn close.” Susie's voice shook as she huddled in the kitchen shadows, straining to catch movement outside.
“I’m on my way. Call Sheriff Hobson. And Mom, don’t go outside!” Jerry called into the phone pressing the off key.
“Hurry!” she pleaded to the silence. Susie hung up, hands cold and shaking. Trying to calm herself, she took a deep breath and laid the phone on the counter. She went to the hall closet, pulled out the shotgun and reached for the shells on the top shelf. She loaded the gun by touch and a small bit of moonlight coming in through the window.
Grabbing the phone again she dialed 911. Then moved to the living room. The heavy drapes hid her as she peered through the crack in the sheer curtains. She watched the night shadows moving with the breeze as she listened for more gunshots.
On the second ring, the night dispatch answered, “Sheriff’s office, Dee speaking.”
“This is Susie Wheeler out on Lost Canyon Road. Shots were fired close to my house. Can Jim come out?” She tried to be calm and quiet but felt she was hollering into the phone, her breathing still irregular.
“Randy Clark’s on call, I’ll give him your message. He’s in your area and should be there shortly. Do you think it’s poachers?” Dee fingered the radio, preparing to alert Randy.
“I don’t know. Tell Randy my son is on his way here, too.” Susie moved to the side window and saw the headlights of her son’s truck coming over the hill and pulling through the pasture. She was so glad they had put in the back road between his house and hers. He stopped and opened the back gate. Without thinking, she pushed the off button on the phone and ran for the back door. Leaving the shotgun within arms reach, she stepped outside to a large black dinner bell. Susie rang it three times to call Babe from the front yard to the side pen. She noticed the dogs in the barn making a ruckus as she slipped back inside picking up the gun and closing the door.
“Mrs. Wheeler. Mrs. Wheeler? Susie!” Dee let out a loud huff at the dial tone, hit the off button, called Randy and gave him the message. She dialed Susie back.
“Hello,” Susie said, startled by the ringing phone in her hand.
“Mrs. Wheeler, this is Dee at the Sheriff’s office. Are you okay? You hung-up on me!” Dee tried to hide the anxiety in her voice, but in a rural area gunshots and older women roused her worst fears.
“I’m sorry, Dee. I’m a little shook up that’s all. But, I’m fine and Jerry’s coming in the door. We’ll wait for Randy,” she assured Dee, who sounded more frightened than Susie.
“Okay, he should be there any minute. Don’t go outside. Since Jerry is there with you, I'm going to hang up and call Sheriff Hobson, too. Don’t take any chances, wait for Randy. Understood?” Dee could tell Susie was shaken up and wanted to make sure Susie grasped what the Sheriff’s office expected of her until Randy arrived.
“Yes, I understand,” Susie said to placate Dee, so she could hang up.
Dee contacted Jim Hobson.
Jerry, plaid shirt unbuttoned, hair tousled with beltless worn jeans, was opening the back door as Susie laid her phone down. She saw the Smith and Wesson revolver Jerry was carrying as he saw his dad’s old Remington shotgun under her arm.
“You okay, Mom?” Laying his gun on the cabinet, Jerry took the shotgun from Susie and leaned it in the corner. Jerry stood taller than his mother by at least six inches and was thin like both his parents.
Susie got a hug from her son as he informed her: “I didn’t see anyone outside, no vehicle either. But Babe’s really upset. We need to take care of him before the Sheriff gets here. I heard you ring his bell. He’s not moving; we're going to have to go move him. Can I give him some grain?” With Babe guarding the gated house and driveway, no one could drive in from the main road until he was moved.
“No, I’m going to look after him,” she said, breaking away from her son. She hurried to the back door, and she pushed her feet into a pair of old shoes. Other than feeding him, Susie alone could take care of Babe. He was her pet, and if she was in the yard maintaining her small flowerbeds, he followed her around like one of her dogs.
“Mom, let’s turn on the outside lights. I’ll go with you.”
Susie flipped on the extra barn lights, and Jerry picked up the shotgun and started out the back door.
“I’ll need grain, there’s no other way of getting him in,” Susie said, the cool night air hitting her as she walked out the door. They headed across the yard at a half run. The barn was twenty yards away with a sizable corral attached to the side. As they approached the door, they could hear the barking dogs inside, but they quieted down and were no longer lunging at the door. The security light over the barn illuminated the door latch and the holes above it. Jerry reached for the handle. They both stopped abruptly and stared. At eye level, there was a line of three bullet holes across the barn door. Stunned and apprehensive, Susie let out a gasp and covered her mouth.
“Holy shit. This was no hunter. Mom, this is personal.” The realization hit Jerry, and he grabbed Susie’s hand and ran, half dragging her back to the house. With a heavy sigh, Jerry closed the back door behind them. They were catching their breath and contemplating their next move when the phone rang. Susie crossed the kitchen answering on the second ring.
“Mrs. Wheeler, this is Randy Clark. I’m out at your front gate. Babe is in the front yard pawing the ground. Can you put him into his pen? I need to get in.” He kept his eye on that huge black monster with its head lowered, frothing at the mouth.
“Yeah, I’ll try, Randy.” When Babe was upset, he was hard to calm down, and the way he pawed the ground meant he was definitely upset.
Jerry took the phone from his mother, “Randy, this is Jerry. Do you see anyone out there? Mom’s got three bullet holes in her barn door,” Jerry still held his Dad’s old shotgun in the crook of his arm.
“Shit!” Randy said under his breath. “Just a second. Let me back up and see.” He backed the squad car up, and, with his mobile spotlight, searched the trees and the side of the house. He rolled forward to check the other side of the house and along the tree lined fence. A few minutes later, “No, Jerry. I don’t see any movement at all on either side. No vehicles either.”
“Okay, keep an eye out. Mom and I are going to try to put a halter on Babe. Put him in his pen. We’ll be coming out the front door,” Jerry said as he ushered Susie to the front of the house.
“That bull makes one wrong move towards your mother. I’ll shoot him.” Randy had a healthy respect for bulls, and he was not willing to take this one on. He was afraid how the bull would behave while it was riled up and didn’t want it to hurt Susie.
“You won’t have to. I will,” Jerry said instantly.
Though all she could hear was Jerry’s remark, Susie sensed where the conversation was going. She yelled into the phone, “Randy Clark, I’m not setting foot out of this house until you promise you won’t hurt my bull.” She had steel in her eyes and her hands on her hips. She loved that stupid bull.
“Tell your mother I won’t hurt Babe,” Randy said with a sigh of resignation. He shook his head, his inner voice reminded him: Taking on Babe was one thing. Taking on Babe and Susie Wheeler? Nope, not with the entire county as backup.
“It’s okay, Mom,” Jerry assured her. “I’m going to the barn for grain. Let’s see what we can do with Babe.” He hung up the phone and ushered his mother out the front door. He left her on the porch while he went around back to the barn’s side door.
Susie stepped off the front porch, picked up the halter from the side gate and cautiously walked towards Babe. Jerry returned with a pan of grain and sorghum mix. Susie talked to Babe in a quiet singsong voice, she had his attention; he’d quit pawing the ground. She took the pan from Jerry and let Babe see and smell the treat. Jerry held up the halter, but Susie brushed it aside. There was no way to put a halter on Babe’s moving head without getting him more annoyed. The grain would have to work.
Pure black and two thousand pounds, Babe kept unsolicited visitors away from Susie’s front door better than any junkyard dog. His breed was always up for speculation: Brangus, Beefmaster, some kind of Mexican fighting bull cross, all and more were possibilities. He came to her as a rescue animal, an emaciated calf more dead than alive. She nursed him back to health and right into the beast she was now trying to cajole into his pen. He came when she rang his feed bell and would follow her car up and down the driveway whenever she went anywhere. Babe loved to be talked to and have his face scratched. He was her pet.
It took a full five minutes for Susie to calm and sweet talk Babe into forgetting the excitement in the front and following her to his pen. He had hay but went straight for his grain bucket, the bottom of a 55-gallon barrel soldered into the corner of the pen. It was empty, and he butted his head against it to tell her. She filled it with the grain. He was settling down, but before he started eating, he positioned himself to keep an eye on the front.
Randy’s tires crunched the gravel as he pulled down the drive and into the back yard. He parked between the barn and the ranch house and met Susie and Jerry at the back gate.
With flashlight in hand, Randy got out of his car. “That's some watch dog you’ve got.” He scanned the yard. “Dee said you called about gunshots. How many, do you remember? And I need to take a look at the barn door.”
Randy was in his mid-thirties and served as a military police officer in the marines before returning to Cold Springs. His five foot eight stature was filled with large bone and muscle that made him more powerful than his height implied. He was a man people thought first before confronting.
“I’m not sure how many shots there were before I woke up, but there was at least three afterward,” Susie replied.
As they approached the barn doors, the dogs started barking again. Randy asked, “Do you know exactly when you heard the shots?”
“About three minutes before I called the Sheriff's office,” Susie said in a matter-of-fact way. The question sounded silly to her, but she was not sure how other people reacted to such things. Maybe some people needed to mull over things in their minds before they took action. She was not one of them.
Randy examined the holes in the door. “High powered rifle.” He stuck his little finger in one of the bullet holes. “Have you seen any hunters around here?” The straight line of holes didn’t indicate an accidental shooting by a hunter, but the question had to be asked. Whoever made the holes was a marksman. The horizontal deviation of the holes was only four inches. Randy doubted if he could do that from the county road, where he assumed the shooter stood.
“Why would a hunter be shooting at my barn?” Susie's annoyance rang clear at the foolish questions.
“A better question, Mom who have you pissed off lately?” Jerry’s voice was ragged and harsh as he lost his composure. He hated to think that someone would want to hurt his 62-year-old mother, but those bullet holes in the door were a warning from someone. He couldn’t imagine anyone shooting at her, but when she lost her temper, someone had hell to pay. At her scowl, he murmured, “Sorry.”
“To my knowledge, Jerry, I haven’t 'pissed' anyone off in some time now.” She was still trying to live down the reputation her youthful temper had garnered.
When Jerry rolled open the barn doors, the odor of manure and hay spread through the night air. The barking dogs (two border collies, a husky, and a lab) ran first to Susie and made sure she was unharmed. They ran out the door to freedom, yapping, growling and barking as they headed to the front yard. Randy closed one door and shined his flashlight through the bullet holes; a pinprick of light hit the wooden center 4x4 where a bullet was lodged. He went to the stud, took out his pocketknife and dug it out while Susie checked the safety of the other barn animals. The two pot-bellied pigs and goat were fine, as were the two horses in the back stalls. Except for the shepherds and the two horses, all were refugees from animal rescues.
Susie had turned the family Hereford ranch over to her son and daughter-in-law, and these animals were her retirement job.
“Why are your dogs in the barn?” Most ranchers left their dogs outside to ward off or warn of any strangers.
Jerry gestured toward the hogback. “I saw signs of a big cat over the hill a couple days ago. Mom and I have both been keeping our dogs inside.”
They left the barn when a call buzzed his shoulder radio. “Randy here.”
Over the static, he recognized the voice of Sheriff Jim Hobson. “Randy, tell Susie there are two dead horses and a wounded colt across the road. I called Charlie Harris. He’s on his way.”
Jerry and Susie both listened. “Were they shot?” Susie demanded loud enough to be heard through his shoulder wireless mic, fear in her eyes.
“Tell Susie yes,” his answer broke over the static.
“Dammit! Son-of-a--! I’ll kill whoever did this!” Susie vowed. Tears welled in her eyes as she ran to her pickup parked in her turnaround driveway. The keys were in the ignition of her Dodge truck parked behind her house. With Babe and all of her dogs, she never worried about anything happening to it.
“Shit!” Jerry took off at a dead run for the passenger side of his mother’s pickup and jumped in before his mother took off down the road. Randy waited for the turn and vaulted into the moving pickup bed.
It took three minutes drive out of the yard and across the road to the pasture where Sheriff Hobson stood beside the dead horses. As Susie pulled her Ram in behind the Sheriff’s patrol car, she could see Charlie Harris’ “monster” mobile vet truck coming down the road.
Jim Hobson, the Cimarron County, Colorado Sheriff of twenty-three years had called his part-time deputy, Darrell Cavanaugh to meet him at Susie’s to back-up Randy. They were checking the road across from Susie’s house when they noticed the horses.
Susie was out of her truck, through the gate and running toward the downed horses.
“Oh my god! No! No! Not Ginger.” Susie fell to the ground beside the small bay mare and felt the lifeless neck vein. She knew Jim was right, but she didn't want it to be true. Because the animals in her care were there for a brief stay, she tried not to get attached to them. However, with certain ones like Ginger, she couldn’t help herself, they found a place in her heart. Ginger, eight-years-old, came to her malnourished, and would not respond to commands. Since Susie took her she gained three hundred pounds and could now be ridden with basic commands. If you tried to force her into any real training, she would balk and wouldn’t move. Ginger still needed training, but she was healthy now and ready for a permanent home.
“At least she didn’t start crying. I hate to take care of hysterical women,” Randy commented quietly to Jerry as they walked into the pasture.
“No. McDowell and Wheeler women cuss, kick furniture and throw things. Crying they save for funerals,” Jerry said as they joined Susie.
Kneeling down and putting his arm around his mother in a quick hug, Jerry said, “Mom, I'm going to take the truck. Check on the north pasture.”
Realization dawned on Susie; there were four more horses in the north pasture. She nodded to Jerry. “Okay.” She had to think. How many shots? I remembered three . . . probably the ones that hit my barn. What woke me up? The ones that hit the horses. Could there be more dead horses? Could I even hear shots from the north pasture?
Tears filled her eyes as she got up and stumbled to the other downed horse. She stood silently wondering what the world was coming to that a person would shoot beautiful, innocent horses.
The young vet had a halter on the colt when it let out a scream and reared up as Charlie tried to clean the wound. Rushing over to help, Susie patted the colt’s neck and talked soothingly to him. She held on to the lead rope and stared at the wound Charlie was illuminating with his flashlight. At six foot two and two hundred pounds, the vet could easily handle the colt, but Susie needed to help, these horses were her responsibility.
“It looks like a flesh wound, Susie. I'll take him to the clinic and stitch him up.” Charlie cleaned the wound then put a pressure bandage on while she held the colt, her head buried in his neck.
She lifted her head to ask, “How did you get here so fast?”
“I was up the road. Bob Howard’s mare was foaling. He now owns a healthy little colt. Do you want me to use your trailer?” Charlie saw her hide her face back against the colt’s neck.
The bandage would slow the bleeding, but it needed to be cleaned better and stitched. The sun peeking over the mountains was not enough light to finish by. When a full minute passed without an answer, Charlie leaned closer to her. “Susie, do you want me to use your trailer to haul the colt?”
Susie looked up, but before she could answer, Darrell suggested, “Charlie, why don't you let me hook Susie’s trailer to my truck and follow you to the clinic. Susie can ride with me since Jerry has her truck. If everything is okay in the other pasture, he can meet us there.” Darrell glanced from Charlie to a dazed Susie.
“Okay, that sounds fine,” Susie took a few minutes to answer, pulling her head away from the colt. She didn’t trust herself to drive right now. She was having a hard time realizing what had happened as her mind was muddled with grief and responsibility.
Static came over Randy's shoulder radio, “Randy this is Dee. Jerry Wheeler called. None of the horses in the north pasture are hurt, but he needs help taking them over to his place.”
“We'll take care of it. Thanks, Dee.” Randy glanced around to make sure everyone, especially Susie, caught the conversation.
“Susie, do you have a couple of horses we can use to go help Jerry?” Jim took charge of the scene. He was sure she didn’t own an ATV of any kind because the noise would scare her animals.
Susie nodded. “Yes, the two in the barn are both saddle horses.” She pushed back her emotions, and she was now back focusing on the surrounding situation.
“Okay, Randy, take the mounts and help Jerry. Make sure those horses are away from the road. Check to see if there was any sign of shooting around that pasture. Darrell, you hook up Susie's trailer, and we'll get this colt loaded. Susie, you go with Darrell to the clinic. It's almost light enough for me to take photos. I would like all of you out of here. I've got work to do.” Jim stepped fully into his role as Sheriff, and his friends moved quickly to do his bidding.
“Randy, tell Jerry when he gets the animals moved to meet me here. Susie, is your house unlocked, in case I need in?” the Sheriff asked.
Susie had her arms around the colt’s neck, stroking and soothing it. The wound on his shoulder still oozed blood. Charlie gave him a pain shot.
“Yes, both doors are unlocked. Make yourself at home,” she needed to concentrate and fight her mental fog; her mind was flooded with thoughts. She watched as Randy handed Jim the package with the bullet he had taken from the barn post and headed to Darrell’s white Ford to fetch the mounts.
I hope Jerry and Jim will take care of the dead horses. I can if I have to. My neighbor owns a backhoe I can borrow. First things first, we need to take care of the colt. How safe are the other horses going to be in the other pasture? Could someone actually want to kill me? Who have I hurt so badly they would want to hurt me? Maybe just scare me? But who? Why?