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There is No California

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Oslo Jones felt the mule stumble beneath him. Its breath came in wheezing burbles. Another day’s ride and it would be completely lame. His teeth gritted against that future. They had been together since he left home. He thought of their nights under the stars. He thought of their days passed on empty stomach. He thought of their kinship, completely unfettered by questions. Oslo loosened his grip on the reins and sighed. There wasn’t far to go now. 

An intruding wind picked up and trail dust surrounded them in dancing plumes. Carried on a stiff breeze, those dust clouds could taunt a rider for miles. Oslo hunched his shoulders to make himself small against the gust. The mule could do nothing but limp and Oslo was sorry for it. Down the trail a bit, a carved wooden sign stood crooked: “Jubilee 5 miles.”

The sun had begun to dip in the sky. Beneath the dimming light, far-off mountains looked stolid and indifferent. Beyond the dust, the wind carried only the normal trail noises: hooves dragging over packed ground, tall grass rustling in the breeze, and at last the sound of trickling water. 

They reached the stream minutes later. By then Oslo was on foot, carrying the saddlebag over his shoulder. He led the mule slowly as its flanks heaved under each breath. Its lameness was more pronounced. By the time it reached the water, Oslo had pulled off the saddle and blankets and let them drop in the grass. The sun continued to sink, its rays flirting about the distant peaks. Gold light fell over the stream and the mule drank from it peacefully. Oslo watched from under a tree a dozen yards away. Time to rest, he thought. He let the mule drink for a good, long while.

His mind turned over his years on the trail. Life as a rancher put him astride hundreds of horses. Cattle outfits usually had a remuda of dozens of horses at their disposal. A rider could put 100 miles behind him in a day over three horses. In his early days, Oslo would ride into a ranch, wave to the foreman, change mounts, swallow some whiskey and take off on whatever the boss had him chase. 

When he joined his first cattle outfit, Oslo brushed his mule carefully. He always did when facing something new. A greybeard watched him for a while before approaching.

There’s companions and machines,” the old man said, “and they’s for different things. I don’t call my lasso Sally like I don’t keep my woman in a barn. I hear there’s a natural sentiment between you negroes and animals; but in this trade, if you ain’t killing your animals regular, you ain’t doing your job.” 

Since that encounter, Oslo made sure to end each day’s work the same way. He would return to whatever ranch, wash and then eat. And whenever the ranch went quiet and all the other hands to sleep, he would head to the stables to sit with his mule and talk about the day. 

The mule had finally satisfied itself at the stream. It turned back toward Oslo and lay in the grass under the waning sun. Its head was just a few paces from the end of Oslo’s boot. In the deep purple of dusk, its big honest eyes blinked, then fluttered, then closed. A slight smile played across Oslo’s face as he shifted his weight against the tree. 

“Thanks Ophelia.” 

The gunshot rang out and blackbirds scattered from the branches above him. They were a momentary jumble of wings but found their level and flew ahead to the sun easing behind the mountains. 

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