The fearless stallion's challenge rang off of the walls of the canyon, as Obsidian surveyed his vast domain. Standing atop a mesa in the middle of his canyon, the powerful animal reared proudly. The noonday sun shone on his sleek black coat.
Far below, a mare neighed as she stood over her new foal. Two yearling colts chased each other over the lush green grass, coming within yards of the pair. Obsidian charged into the valley, chasing the rowdy youngsters away from the new mother. Once things were quiet, she drank from the nearby stream.
In the distance, a puff of dust was steadily moving away. That puff of dust represented a newly vanquished foe. The bay stallion had miraculously discovered the only entrance to Pandora's Box. He had regretted it as soon as he met the huge stallion who called it home.
Pandora's Box was a massive, seldom visited canyon. It had no known entrance or exit, unless one was willing to rappel down at least five hundred feet. Very few people returned from their adventure, and those who did never went back.
Fortunately for Obsidian, a small and very steep trail existed, leading to the base of Sun Peak. Almost invisible, even cougars rarely found it. From that remote gateway, he was free to roam the entire territory. It was a tough downhill climb for the mares he often stole from the nearby ranches, but most of them made it. He only chose the best, after all.
At Tumbling Cactus Ranch:
"We lost another mare out of the North Pasture last night, Boss. The Appaloosa." Mel said sadly, with his mustache seeming to match his mood. Chewing on a piece of straw, he settled his lanky frame into a straight backed chair, then ran his hands through his dark brown hair.
"We have to find that stallion, and the mares - before he leaves the country with them. Our first concern is to round up those mares, but capture him if you can." said Mr. McCallahan, owner of Tumbling Cactus Ranch.
"I tracked him and the mare into the high country just like last time, but then I lost them on the rocks again. I checked all of the likely places, no luck. It's like they just disappeared..." said Mel, becoming agitated. His mustache seemed to jump with every word as he became upset, then he rose and began to pace.
"You did your best, Mel. You let your pride in your tracking skills keep you out long enough to miss supper! Tomorrow morning, we'll all go out and search the whole area. Except Pandora's Box. They'll not be in there unless they grew wings." Said Mr. McCallahan, as he got up from his seat, and went out on the porch. As he sat, the small porch swing groaned under the large, muscular man's weight.
"Boss... That horse, he's smart. If any one of us ever catches sight of him, we should stick to him like a bur. No matter how long it takes." Mel said thoughtfully, still chewing on the now mangled piece of straw.
"Agreed, Mel. And if he has the mares with him, do whatever it takes to get them back." the big man said grimly.
Two days later:
"We'll find them, Boss." said Mel.
"I know we will. But it sure feels like we're hunting a ghost! Keep three men on each group of horses. If the stallion shows up, two follow him, and one stays." said Mr. McCallahan.
"Yes, Boss. I'm going for a ride in the high country again, over where I lost them. Maybe I missed something." said Mel.
"Good idea. Maybe you'll get lucky." agreed Mr. McCallahan.
Three hours later:
"There's Sun Peak, Cutter. What do you say we go for a little climb?" said the lanky ranch hand, as he rode towards the base of the mountain.
When it began to get steep, he dismounted. The man and horse carefully climbed the mountain, and at the top were greeted by a spectacular view.
A bald eagle soared in the cloudless blue sky. Mountain sheep dotted the higher mountains in the distance, and the mighty Chuff River cut through the landscape, with its rapids roaring past ancient pines. Mel could see everything - except for the stallion and the missing mares.
"We didn't find them, but that view sure was worth the climb. Don't you agree, Cutter?" he asked, patting the horse's neck as they made their way down.
At the base of Sun Peak, Cutter reared and tried to bolt. "Shhhh. Easy, easy." soothed Mel, until the terrified horse was calm.
He'd heard a faint rattle several feet away, and cut a small sapling. He carefully poked around. Soon Mel found the deadly snake, which could have easily caused a tragedy. He allowed it to calm down, then pinned its head with the pole.
"What do we have here?" whispered Mel excitedly. As he had pinned the snake, he'd seen a hoofprint, very faint but definitely headed down. At that moment, he knew that he would be out there for a while. Seconds later, the experienced cow pony was carrying the limp snake in a saddle bag - it would serve as Mel's supper.
Having found the hidden trail, Mel was soon deep within Pandora's Box. "What's wrong?" he asked, as the gelding hesitated. A moment later, a battle cry echoed through the canyon. Cutter tried to wheel and bolt, but Mel held him firmly.
Hooves thundered on rock as Obsidian charged towards the man and horse. Thinking fast, Mel lassoed a large Aspen, and coiled the other end. Forcing his trembling horse to stand its ground, he waited.
Obsidian was only five feet away when Mel threw the loop over the enraged horse's head. Instantly he maneuvered Cutter out of reach.
Obsidian tried to resist for several minutes. Then the intelligent animal stood and waited for his chance.
"Easy, fella. I'm not going to hurt you. But some of those mares you've got hidden somewhere around here don't belong to you. I'm going to have to take them back home, or eventually someone is going to do worse than that." he told the magnificent black horse.
Obsidian pinned back his ears, and reared. Then he stood quietly, staring at his captor with hate.
"I know you don't like it. Just be glad I was the one who found you. Anyone else would either bring you in or put a bullet in you. We both know that you'd never stay at the ranch. So what I'm going to do is take those mares back where they belong, then I'll be back to get you off this here tree." Mel told the horse sadly.
The herd was easy to find. The wild horses were skittish, but the trust the stolen mares exhibited reassured them. Soon Mel was walking among the herd, patting noses. He carefully checked each mare for a brand. He also examined the foals and older colts.
"Those colts are finer than any I've ever seen..." he marveled, eyeing a two year old who looked remarkably like his father.
Mel approached the young horse. As he patted him, the horse nibbled on his hair. "Hey fella, you're coming home with me. We're gonna be very good friends." he said, not daring to believe that he now had one of the best colts in the country.
"I wish I could just stay here... What an amazing place! But I have to get these ladies home, and escort the young gents out." he thought sadly.
Soon all of the mares with a brand, as well as the colts a year or older, were cut from the herd. Then Mel and his agile cow pony began the long trip home.
"Sorry, friend. But these mares aren't yours. And you won't be able to stand your sons being around when they get a little older. I promise they'll all have good lives. And Junior there will stay with me." he said, nodding towards the jet black colt.
The tied horse stared at him with pure hatred. Mel shivered, despite the warm weather. "I'll be back as soon as I can." he promised.
Two days later:
Mel marveled at how well hidden the entrance to Pandora's Box was, as he rode towards the spot where he had left the stallion. Before he got halfway there, he heard Obsidian's challenge.
"I'm glad he's still there." thought the man, relieved. He'd been worried that the horse may have either escaped or injured himself.
As soon as the two locked eyes, Obsidian pinned back his ears, and bared his teeth. Mel shivered again, not used to such a reaction from a horse.
"I just came back to let you off that tree, then I'll be on my way." he said quietly. He'd left Cutter at the base of Sun Peak, because the stallion would never tolerate an intruder.
He approached just outside of striking range, and lured the furious stallion into following him around the tree. Soon Obsidian only had two feet of rope, and was trapped right next to the tree. Mel quickly stepped next to him, and cut the rope. Before the horse fully realized what was going on, Mel was halfway up the tree. Obsidian narrowly missed grabbing his boot.
A mare neighed in the distance. Concerned, the huge horse galloped away. Mel climbed down, and drew his pistol just in case. "I'd hate to do it, but if it's him or me..." he thought grimly.
He heaved a sigh of relief when he finally reached a steep spot on the way back to the main trail. Taking a stick of dynamite out of a pack he had cached there, he climbed above the trail, and placed it among the huge boulders.
Mel smiled as he watched the only way in or out become blocked. There would be no more stolen mares, and the stallion and his fine herd would be safe.
Cover image made in Canva using their gallery