‘Do you know Jack Prince is dead?’ Mike said while placing the saddle on his horse’s back.
‘Prince is dead! When did it happen?’ stunned Wyatt asked. ‘He was healthy and strong like a stallion.’
‘Apparently, a lightning bolt struck the bastard while riding on the prairie. The force of the lightning disintegrated him and his horse into unrecognizable pieces.’ Mike stated happily. ‘The bastard finally met his justice.’
‘It’s a bad way to die, even for Prince! So when did it happen?’
‘The night before the last.’
‘Two nights ago! But the sky was clear that night, and I didn’t see a flash of lightning or hear a clap of thunder.’
‘Apparently, it was a single lightning bolt that hit him.’ Mike described.
‘Strange! I’ve never heard of such a thing. A bolt of lightning out of nowhere!’ Wyatt said. He adjusted his stetson and then added, ‘how is it possible?’
‘A divine retribution. He got what he deserved. No one likes the son of the bitch.’ Mike detested. ‘The bastard was a bully. How much salary does he owe you?’
‘Hum…, I guess about three months.’
‘The bastard owes me over six months.’ Mike said, then spat on the ground, showing his hatred.
After a minute or two of silence, Wyatt asked, ‘how exactly did it happen?’
‘How do I know? I wasn’t there. I heard it from Dylan.’
‘Was Dylan there when Prince got killed?’
‘I didn’t ask.’
‘What if this is just a rumor?’
‘Prince is nowhere to be seen, and everyone talks about his death. So it should be true, shouldn’t it?’ Mike reasoned.
‘No one likes the man. He is a bully. But it can be just a rumor circulating among workers who hate him for his unfair treatments.’ Wyatt argued.
‘Do you afraid of his ghost? Man.’
‘No. I am just saying we should wait until we know for sure Prince is dead.’ Wyatt suggested. ‘My late father used to say that never celebrate too early.’
‘I like to see the bastard dead than alive.’ Mike said with anger, and spat again.
Jack Prince’s death rumor circulated among people on the ranch. Everyone was talking about his death. However, no one had seen him dead. Instead, everyone heard the news from someone else, and the source of the news was unknown. And also, there was no sign of Jack Prince alive or dead as he vanished into thin air. His disappearance and the rumor of his death caused chaos among the workers. They didn’t know how to react. Should they return on their duties or not?
‘Animals depend on us. As cowboys, we are responsible for cattle’s wellbeing. So let continue our job for a while until we know what has happened to the boss.’ Tom, the oldest cowboy on the ranch, said.
Cowboys began whispering with their close peers. Finally, as their spokesperson, Mike stood up and said, ‘we will continue our work for another week.’
‘A week should be fine. Until then, we will find what has happened to the boss.’ Tom stated.
Jack Prince owned the biggest ranch and the largest cattle in the state. Though he had enough money to bail out a third-world country, he was still greedy and stingy. He was famous for being harsh with his workers and never paid them the agreed salary under their contract. But, one might ask, so why still cowboys applied for the jobs on Prince’s ranch. The reason was apparent; there were few jobs available within a few hundred miles for the local young men.
Jack Prince believed paying good money can spoil the workers. So he was in the habit of making his workers sweat for the little money he paid them. There was no easy money on Prince’s ranch.
While Prince and his men were herding the cattle that spring afternoon, he noticed a few of his heifers stayed behind. ‘I am going after heifers, Jim.’ Prince told his man and trotted away. The cows were about a mile away, carelessly busy grazing on freshly grown grasses. Jack wasn’t far from the cows when he felt a movement in his peripheral vision. A shapeless entity, a well-disguised animal, blended with the features of the pasture, using the setting sun as its cover, was quietly approaching the heifers from the west. He stood up in stirrups to see better. Though the setting sun’s light impaired his sight, by its movement, Jack immediately knew it was a cougar in hunting mode, silently getting closer toward its prey, his cows. ‘Stupid cat. Do you want to hunt my cows? You must not know Jack Prince.’ Jack told himself and spurred his horse to full gallop, covering the distance between him and the big cat fast. Then he swiftly drew his Winchester model 94 rifle from its scabbard that hung on the saddle’s right side, stood in stirrups, pointed his gun at the big cat. Jack grew up on a ranch with guns more abundant than trees. So he knew how to handle his rifle like a pro.
As his vision was limited by the warm sunset’s light shown directly on his face, his first shot missed its target by a few inches. Big cats usually avoid humans, but this one had a different mind. It changed its course and began running at Jack and his horse. Jack fired the second shot, but it again missed its fast-moving target. The cat was getting closer fast. Cougar’s formidable physique and fast approaching frightened Jack’s horse, Storm.
As a skillful rider, Jack immediately picked up the signs of fear on his horse. Storm was shaking his head frantically and wasn’t obeying Jack’s orders. His horse wanted to flee from the fast running cat to avoid certain death. Jack tried to control his ride. ‘Storm, calm down,’ he said a few times. But the panicked horse decided otherwise, and with a sudden movement, changed his course, fast galloped away from the danger. Standing in stirrups and holding his rifle in one hand, Jack wasn’t ready for Storm’s sudden change of course. So he lost his balance and fell from the horse’s back, crashing his left shoulder on the rocky surface. Jack couldn’t remember when was the last time he fell from horseback, possibly when he was just ten years old. He fell at the worst possible time while his horse was fast galloping and a hungry cougar sprinted at them.
Everything happened in a flash. The speed of the events took Jack by surprise. A trickle of blood was running down from somewhere on his head and covered his left eyebrow and eye. He didn’t have time to inspect his wound as a wild cat was on him. Jack quickly stood on his feet. As his body was still warm and blood saturated with adrenaline, he didn’t feel any pain. But his legs were wobbly. When Jack tried to wipe the blood off his eye, he noticed his left arm wasn’t in his control. It hung on his side like a jacket’s empty sleeve. ‘Damn! I broke my arm.’ he said. He had shattered his upper arms bone. Jack’s brain was in survival mode, didn’t have time to think more about his broken arm. He was going to face the big, hungry cat. Jack soon noticed he didn’t have his Winchester. He must drop it during his fall. Instinctively, without giving much thought, his right hand went down to his belt and drew his big hunting knife just a fraction of a second before the cat leaped for his neck. Jack held the knife firm and straight at the large figure falling on him, hoping it would penetrate the animal’s heart.
By mere chance, the sharp tip of his knife ripped into the cat’s neck and tore its carotid artery, or whatever called in a cougar, followed by massive bleeding. But the animal’s sharp claw slashed through the right side of his face, narrowly missed his eye, opened a wide gash gushed with a stream of blood.
Jack didn’t feel confident to drop his knife as the wounded animal could still pose a danger. But a quick inspection told him otherwise. Though the wounded cat was laid on his side and still panting, the pool of blood on the ground told Jack another story. The blow to the cougar’s neck was fatal. It was dying.
Now was the time to look after himself. His face was throbbing, and a massive among of blood was gushing out from its wound. Jack quickly removed his neckerchief and pressed it on his facial wound. ‘God,’ he screamed in pain.
It was a dark, moonless night. The moon wouldn’t rise until a few hours after midnight. Jack was exhausted and didn’t feel well. The adrenaline in his blood subsided, and the pain replaced his fight-or-flight response. The excruciating pain in his arm and face clouded his mind, and he couldn’t think straight.
The truth was that he might die there. ‘I have to find Storm,’ he told himself. But there was no trace of his horse. Therefore, he tried to whistle the way he used to call Storm. But as he tried to pucker his lips, the pain in his face increased tenfold, which momentarily stopped him from breathing, deterred him from whistling.
Jack looked around, hoping to see Storm. But in that pitch black, seeing a black horse was challenging. ‘Storm, Storm,’ he began calling his horse with a voice barely audible. Jack knew if he didn’t find his horse, likely he would die in that place. So he struggled to walk toward home, but it was tens of miles away, and in that condition of his, what was his chance walking home?
‘My men have already started looking for me.’ Jack thought, but deep inside, he doubted anyone would come after him on that cold night. He knew well none of his workers were a fan of him. ‘I’ve mistreated them.’ Jack told himself regretfully. ‘I’ve exploited them. I’ve squeezed every penny out of their salaries, and now I expect them to come looking for me.’ Jack argued with himself, remorseful about the way he had been treating his men. ‘Lord, If I survive this, I will treat my men fairly.’ He pledged with his god. Funny enough, he knew no god in his entire life, and now he was dealing with the lord out of despair.
After his absence for two full days, Tom worried about his boss’s wellbeing. Still, it was a chance that Jack Prince left his ranch for the city, telling no one, as he did before. But later that day, when Storm returned without his rider, Tom knew something terrible had happened to his boss, so he organized search and rescue groups. Groups of men on horseback and rigs began searching the pastures they had visited in the last few days. But Prince was nowhere to be seen.
‘There is nothing to be found. The lightning strike disintegrated his body.’ Mike annoyingly said to his search team members. ‘We are wasting our time.’
‘How do you know Prince died in a lightning strike? No one has ever seen it happen. It is a bad rumor. He might need our help.’ Wyatt argued.
‘From when you are taking his side, Wyatt.’ Mike protested.
‘I am not taking anyone’s side. I am just saying Prince may need our help. As human beings, we have to help anyone who is in trouble.’
‘Even a tight ass like Jack Prince who steals from our salaries.’ Mike asked.
‘Even a tight ass like Jack Prince or a person worse than him.’ Wyatt responded.
‘You are insane, Wyatt.’
‘I am just a person who doesn’t want to see anyone in pain and misery.’
It was on the afternoon of the third day when a search group found Prince. They found him unconscious under a shrub on a rocky hill. He was in horrible shape, with broken bones, severely dehydrated, and feverish as his facial wound was infected. If it wasn’t spring, and the weather was a few degrees colder or hotter, and if he didn’t find that shrub to protect him from the direct sun, he couldn’t survive that long in the wilderness.
After staying in the hospital for over a month, Prince returned to his ranch. Though his doctors urged him to rest, he insisted on seeing his men on the first day of his return, thanking them for their effort to save him. So men gathered in front of his residence. Leaning on a walking frame, with his left arm immobilized in a sling, Jack walked out of his residence and struggled toward the group. He looked skinny and at least ten years older. Jack stood in front of the crowd, and after a long moment of silence, he began his speech. ‘Good morning. I am happy to be back and standing here in front of you, the brave men who saved me from certain death. I owe my life to your effort to search a vast area. I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t find me. Thank you all.’ He paused for a moment to organize his tired mind. ‘During the period that I was wandering in the wilderness, injured, bleeding, and dehydrated until I lost my consciousness, I had time to review my empty materialistic life. During this review, I noticed how selfish I was and how badly I had treated others, especially you, my workers.’ After a long pause, watching his men with their puzzled looks, he continued, ‘This incident was a revelation for me, and it changed me. Yes, I am a changed man. I am not the same person you knew up to a few days ago. I am sorry for mistreating you. Here in front of you and the lord as my witness, I promise to treat you fairly from now on.’ He stopped and let his speech sit in his workers’ ears. Gradually, cowboys began whispering with each other, still unsure how to interpret their boss’s confession and promise. Finally, Prince added, ‘I will soon work with my accountant and pay all your unpaid salaries by the end of this month.’
In response to his comment, loud cheers and applause filled the air.
‘And also,…, please listen.’ Jack had to wait until the cowboys’ excitement subsided. ‘And I will give you all ten percent pay rise, effective from now.’
This time the sound of applause and clapping of his men was louder than before.
‘I am again thank you all. Unfortunately, I should make my speech short. I still need to be in bed resting. So again, thank you all. I have already asked Tom to slaughter two fat cows for tonight’s barbeque party. I’ve also ordered plenty of drinks. I hope you enjoy the party.’ Jack said and slowly retired to his residence.
While celebrating, eating barbecued steaks and beers, and listing to live country music, Mike told his friend Wyatt, ‘Prince is a great man. We are lucky to work for him.’
‘Yes, I know.’ Wyatt responded while silently called his friend a hypocrite.