The Devil in Texas
After lunch, me and High Loper usually curl up on the floor of the ranch house and take a short nap. It kind of settles our grub and gives us a fresh attitude about the afternoon’s work.
The other day we ate several bowls of hot spiced chili, and while we were eating, one of my favorite songs came on the radio. It was Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
I don’t know whether it was the chili or the song that did it, but during naptime I had an outrageous dream.
Me and Loper were ahorseback, riding through one of the pastures north of headquarters. It was a cold winter day. The prairie country was brown and bare, and the old cottonwoods reached like skeleton hands toward a brooding gray sky.
As usual, we were playing with our ropes as we rode along. Loper was mounted on a big sorrel named Happy, and I came along behind on my little Calipso mare. Loper was pitching his rope on soapweeds, and I was right behind him heeling his horse.
Old Hap was the kind of horse that was always looking for boogers. He’d shy from a cow chip, walk around a little sand rat hole, or fly over a trickle of water. So we weren’t particularly surprised when all at once he dropped his head, stretched out his neck, perked his ears, snorted, and started running sideways. But when Calipso did the same thing, it made us a little curious.
We got our broncs under control and did some heavy spurring to get them back to the rock ledge where the runaway had started. We thought we might find a porcupine or maybe a dead calf.
What we saw was a little guy sitting on a donkey. He had his right leg thrown over the horn of his saddle, and he was rolling a Prince Albert cigarette. His face was skinny and sharp pointed, his skin as red as a hot branding iron.
He didn’t wear a hat, and it was easy to see why. He had two horns coming out the sides of his bald head. He was ugly—ugly as the very devil.
Me and Loper traded glances, as if to say, “What is this?” The man lapped his cigarette and lit up. When he snapped his fingers, a flame appeared out of his thumb.
“Afternoon, boys,” he said in a high, squeaky voice.
We nodded. Old Happy was pointing this guy like a bird dog. He’d spent his whole life looking for boogers, and by George he’d finally found one.
“My name’s John Devil,” said the man. “I come from Hell and I can out-ride, out-rope, out-cuss, and out-spit any cowboy I ever met.”
Loper kind of grinned. “Well, if that’s true, Mr. Devil, then you’ve spent too much time in Hell and Kansas. This here’s the Texas Panhandle, and me and my partner have never been out-rode or out-roped. Nobody ever tried us on the spittin’ and cussin’.”
Old Devil laughed to himself and looked at Loper’s horse. “Do you milk that thing or use him strictly for plow work?” Then he looked at my mare. “Kind of a cute little thing. If she ever grows into them long skinny legs, she’s liable to stand twenty-seven hands at the withers.”
Me and Loper don’t mind personal insults, but bad-mouthing the horseflesh is hard to forgive, especially when it comes from a man on a donkey.
“We manage to get the work done,” I said.
Loper shifted his quid to the other cheek. “You’re fixing to be more than that.”
“Tell you what let’s do, boys. Let’s have us a little roping contest, Hell against Texas.”
“Hell against Texas is a normal day around here,” I said. “What else you got in mind?”
“You see that steer?” Devil pointed his finger and a corriente steer suddenly appeared on the flat below. “One loop apiece, head, half-head, or horns.”
“What’s the stakes?”
Devil arched his brows. “Your souls, fellers, your souls. If you both miss and I catch, you got to work for me. We just can’t find good help in Hell anymore.”
“What if we win?”
He untied his catch rope and held it up. “You get this rope. It’s made of threads of pure gold, and it’s worth a fortune.”
It isn’t every day that a cowboy gets a chance to make a fortune. We told old Devil to kiss his rope good-bye, and we went charging down the hill toward the steer, just the way we do when we’re doctoring sick cattle. First man there gets first throw, and the second man stands by for a second throw or heels.
Calipso and I got there first. When the old steer saw us corning, he stuck out his tail and made a dash for the creek. He ran straight and fast, just the kind of shot I like. I knew I couldn’t miss. Calipso put me right on top of him. I swung my loop and floated out a nice flat, open noose.
But at the last second, as if by magic, a gust of wind came up. My loop hit the left horn and fell into the dirt. “Get him, Loper!” I yelled over my shoulder. Loper and Happy were hot on his tail. Loper swung and threw a pretty noose, but the same thing happened to him. A strong gust of wind came up and the loop died in the air.
We heard a squeal of laughter behind us, and here came John Devil and his donkey. “Out of the way, Texas! Here’s how we do it in Hell!”
That warn’t no ordinary donkey. He was as fast as a racehorse. He caught up with that Mexican steer in a hurry, and when he did, John Devil did a strange thing. He turned clear around in the saddle so that he was riding backward. When the donkey flew past the steer, Mr. Devil pitched the golden rope around his horns, put the end of the rope between his teeth, and jerked the steer plumb out of his tracks.
It wasn’t the sort of thing a normal man could get by with.
“You know,” I said to Loper, “there’s something funny going on around here.”
“Yalp. A guy might think that old Devil was cheatin’.”
“A guy sure might.”
“You want to work in Hell?”
“What do you think?”
“Let’s do it.”
John Devil came riding up to us, coiling up his golden rope and chuckling to himself. “Tough luck, boys. Pack your bags, we’re going to …”
“Hell if we are,” said Loper. We had our loops built. “We’re fixing to do a little pasture work.”
John Devil glanced at me and then at Loper.
He’d never seen such a wicked pair of faces, not in Hell or Kansas or anywhere else he’d been. “Now boys …” He stuck the spurs in that donkey and hauled for the caprock.
I was dallied when the slack went out of my rope. The donkey kept going, but John Devil came to a sudden stop, seeing as how I had a nice little loop fitted around his horns.
He squalled and bellered and kicked and pitched, but Loper scooted a big old circle of nylon around his middle and picked up both hocks. We stretched him out, throwed half-hitches over our dallies, and met in the middle, each of us packing a medicine bag.
“What do you reckon?” said Loper. “Pinkeye?” I said yep, so we squirted both eyes with blue drops and glued on a couple of eye patches.
“Loper, I think he’s bloated too.” We got the rubber hose and ran it down his guzzle.
“And he’s kinder droopy in his ears.” So we gave him fifteen cc’s of Combiotic and a couple of big sulfa pills for good measure.
Just then I felt somebody shaking my shoulder. I opened my eyes and saw High Loper and his mustache. “Wake up. What’s the matter with you? You’re over here gruntin’ like a bunch of hogs.”
I sat up and eased out a burp of garlic and chili powder. Or maybe it was gun powder. “Brother, I had a bad dream.”
“Well, we was out roping and …”
“Hold it right there. I know you’re lying.”
Loper smashed my cowboy hat down on my head. “Any dream with roping in it ain’t bad. Let’s go to work.”