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Matthew Senn

Head North, & Follow the River

The Horse Rustler by William Herbert Dunton


Details left as scarce as the tracks followed. ‘Head North, & follow the river’, twenty-five thousand, four men to pay it. Stony says time is not on our side, look to the mountains, the clouds like a rolling boil, falling down their face. Stony says the snows come soon. No one questions Stony. Man named Snaky atop a horse named Sergeant scoffs, all the while tightening a scarf around his neck.


A small fire burns like the pinpoint stars in an overcast sky. The camp is silent. I chew on a piece of hardtack, hand some off to Snaky & Stony. The winds cry with warning and the snows begin to fall. Knuckles stands in the silent pines, shadowed as their nightly trunks, his own mind a million miles away with a bottle right in his hands.

“They’ll be headin’ this way soon,” He says. “We should leave just before dawn.”

“You sure?”, Snaky coughs, choking on the hardtack.

“Yes”, says Stony, “They started a fire about an hour before us, half a days ride southeast.”

A muffled cry comes from behind Knuckles, and he pulls a gunny sack off the Lumber baron’s boy. Cheeks beat red, a cut on his lower lip. Twenty-five thousand fer a twelve-year-old boy. Snaky tried to do the math for how much a year that works out to, but he forgot he ain’t smart enough to answer.

I pick up the boy and drop him down near the fire in almost a foot of snow. Point his hands atop the fire. He ain’t much good to us dead. It don’t work though, the boys’ tears start to freeze on his rose cheeks. Stony lights a pipe and Snaky tries to sleep, his head on a saddle. Knuckles won’t sleep, not until the bottle’s empty.

I tend to the fire and keep my head down, better to avoid lockin’ eyes, with a drunk like Knuckles. But the Boy don’t know that. Can’t see the world thru a gunny sack.


His breath froze midair, he’s caught starin’ while Knuckles pours down into the backa his throat. Knuckles hits the boy with his foot and practically knocks him into the flame. Snaky still sleeps and the Stony just keeps smokin’. Knuckles pulls a knife and holds out the boys’ hand. Tells ‘em he’s gonna take his thumbs. Show the ransom payers we’re serious.

He’s too drunk to tell how stupid an idea that is. I pull my pistol and tell him to jerk his. He almost trips in the champing white, but doesn’t. His smile glares in the flame. A branch a fir nearby weighs down under the fresh white and snaps. The drunkard panics and fires off his pistol.

The Barons’ boy drops dead, hole in his heart. Knuckles don’t even gage what’s happenin’ & I drop him too.


The snow stops by five thirty or so, we saddle up and try to leave in silence. The bodies stay right where they are. Sounds cruel, but if we bury the boy they’ll keep comin’ lookin’ for us. Atop our horses, we trot away from the river. Snaky looks around as the pink sky starts to make the land glow.

“I guess you knew what you were talkin’ ‘bout, Stony. It did snow.”


About the writer:
Matthew Senn is a 31-year-old poet from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is pursuing a degree in Writing at Grand Valley State University.

Image: The Horse Rustler by William Herbert Dunton (1878-1936). Oil on canvas. No size specified. By 1936. Public domain.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

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