By Armand Hale
Arnold shivered as he woke up to the sound of crunching frozen grass from his horse, who rolled awake several feet away. His bedroll was the only place in the valley that had any warmth, and he was dreading the cold that would grip his bones the moment he sat up.
“What are we doing here, Plunket?”
His friend rolled upright and looked at him expectantly.
“Yeah, I know,” he said.
He knew why he was here. But that didn’t change how dismal the morning was. He gathered his wits and bolted upright to throw on his overcoat. The previous night’s fire had long since died, so Arnold threw the small remainder of his firewood into the pit to start his morning fire.
“There you go, Plunket. Now we can warm up,” he said as the fire slowly came to life. He didn’t usually talk to his horse, but Plunket had been his only company for the past month while he ran this fool’s errand, and he was getting lonely.
“This will be worth it, Plunket! Trust me!” His horse finally stood up and looked at him with seeming disbelief.
The sun hadn’t broken the horizon, and the sky was a cloudless, dull blue. He threw the last of his coffee grounds into his cup of water and sat it by the fire. A percolator would have been nice, but it was far too expensive—at least for him.
He looked in his ration pack and pulled out his last piece of jerky and chewed it slowly. If his luck didn’t change soon, he would have to go back.
“We’re not going back, Plunket! And that’s that!” If he had more food he might be able to stick it out a few more days, but surviving was only half the battle. He still had to find what he was looking for.
After he warmed up and had a few sips of coffee, he got dressed, put on his gun belt, and packed up camp. Once he was done, he gave his friend a green apple, the last of their provisions. Plunket ate happily before letting out an irritated snort.
“You’ll be fine, you ol’ grump.” Arnold mounted Plunket and headed deeper into the valley to search for his prize. A half day’s travel saw him stopping at a small stream in the valley.
“HELP!” someone called out from the wooded area just behind the stream.
Arnold dismounted Plunket and headed towards the voice.
“HELP ME, PLEASE!”
After a hundred paces through the woods, he came to a clearing. He looked around for whomever needed help but saw nothing except a gray rabbit with its hind feet caught in an old stump.
“Will you help me?” the rabbit asked.
Arnold recoiled in surprise. On closer inspection, he saw that the rabbit had a gorgeous six-point rack of antlers.
A Jackalope! He’d found it! He couldn’t believe his luck! Arnold drew his pistol and aimed.
“P-Please don’t shoot!” the Jackalope said.
“You can talk?” he said, lowering his pistol.
“Of course I can talk. I asked for help, didn’t I?”
“Well, I heard tales that Jackalopes could talk, but I didn’t know they could understand.”
“Well, I can. So, are you going to help me?”
Arnold raised his pistol and pulled the hammer back.
“It’s nothing personal, Mister Jackalope. But I’ve been searching for one of yer kind for a long time, and now that I found you, I gotta bring you back.”
“Because I’m in love.”
“You have to kill me because you’re in love?”
“There’s a woman named Nellie Lowry. She’s the prettiest girl in the county and for some reason she loves me back. But her old man, Cecil, is a right piece of work. He says I’m too stupid to take care of her, and that I’d have a better chance of finding a Jackalope than marrying his daughter. I told him to shake on it and he did. Ever since, I’ve been looking in this valley for a Jackalope so’s I can bring it back and marry Nellie.”
“If you let me go, I will help you,” the Jackalope said.
“Help me, and you’ll be married to Nellie before the end of the year.”
Arnold scrutinized the Jackalope hard. He might never find one again, but, to be honest, he didn’t want to hurt him, so he walked over and helped him out of the stump. Once he was free, the Jackalope disappeared without a word.
“YOU NO GOOD—!” Arnold shook his fist at the air and slumped his shoulders before walking back to Plunket.
“I’m sorry, old friend. I think I messed up.” His stomach growled, and the cold wind bit at his cheeks. The sun would go down soon, and he didn’t have any more provisions. He mounted Plunket and rode out of the valley in defeat.
Once he was back in town, he went to visit Nellie one last time. He knocked on her door and Cecil answered.
“Arnold. Just the man I wanted to see.”
“I’m a big enough man to admit when I’m wrong. The word around town is you just inherited a sizable ranch down in the valley. A few people were even asking if you could give ‘em work.”
“I didn’t know nothin’ about that. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. A man from the county has all of the paperwork down at the saloon. He says once you sign, it’s a done deal. You’ll be able to take care of my daughter now, so if you’re still interested in marrying her, you have my blessing.”
“Yes sir! I’m still interested!”
“Well, then go sign those papers and come back to have supper with us.”
“I’ll do that presently. Did the county man tell you anything about the ranch?”
“Just the name. The Jackalope Ranch.”