‘The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles’ Is Not Your Everyday Western

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Photo: Gregory Hill, Johnny Riles Book Cover

This interview was originally broadcast Nov. 10, 2015.

"A man's horse is murdered, his younger brother's famous, and the whiskey's too good. Things are about to get strange." That's the premise of Colorado author Gregory Hill's second book "The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles," which is available now. His first book, "East of Denver," won the 2013 Colorado Book Award for literary fiction and was the winner of the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for general fiction. He spoke with Nathan Heffel.

Read An Excerpt:


Chapter 1

One day, the wind blew. It lifted the dust and took it away. The next day was Thursday, the day my little brother played his very first professional basketball game, so I climbed on my horse and rode north toward the riverbed in search of arrowheads. It was October twenty-third, nineteen seventy-five. There’s nothing to worry about in October.

Trotting across the grasslands, my grey mare took me up a hill and down the other side, right to where the river used to run. There’s no flow in Old Stinkum anymore. Hasn’t been since the flood of ’35, when the water ran so deep and fast that it drowned five hundred head of cattle and left their carcasses rotting in the mud. The flood took away the river’s will. Now Old Stinkum is just a stripe of moist sand with half-dead cottonwood trees lingering on either side. I sometimes hear stories of a mountain lion that lurks amongst those trees. I find those claims to be dubious.

I don’t look for arrowheads in the riverbed itself. That’d be foolish. But just on the other bank, on the north side, there’s a flat, dead prairie that gets swept clean every time the wind blows. Nobody else knows about that place.

After the horse and I crossed the river, I hooked my elbow over the horn of the saddle, leaned sideways, and started scanning the landscape. The ground was bare and packed hard. I let the mare choose her way. We wound about, moving generally away from the river. I saw a couple of flint chips, nothing worth climbing down for.

I find it relaxing to ride in this manner, leaning and bobbing off the saddle. Staring at the ground as it passes underneath, I often consider various aspects of life. Whether it’s worth living, mainly. Previous contemplations of this sort had always ended inconclusively and, on this particular occasion, I was having even less success than was customary. I was stuck, in particular, on the manner in which a slam-dunk could be deemed a greater achievement than that of raising a healthy calf, and how a man can be paid good money for playing a game, but not for holding down a ranch in a half-desert that hardly exists.

The horse lurched backward. I hung onto the saddle horn with both hands, one foot kicking for a stirrup. I spoke some cuss words. The horse eased up enough to put four feet on the ground.

I looked this way and that. No mountain lions. No rattlesnakes. The horse pranced in a nervous circle. I walked her back a few steps. Her breaths pushed her ribs against my knees.

I said, “You’re okay.”

I climbed off and told her to stay put. I peered about, looking for anything that’d frighten a half-ton mammal of reasonable intelligence. I found it, directly ahead and half buried in the hard-packed sand. A skull of some sort. Not a human skull, not anything I’d ever seen before. It was black, and roughly the size of a football. Bigger, even. The size of a pillow. Monstrous, if you get right down to it.

The mare stood watching me out of one dopey eye. I told her she didn’t have anything to worry about. Then I squatted and began digging the skull out of the ground. I have a good knife. I found it under a rock when I was fifteen years old. You don’t come across many rocks in this country and there’s damned few knives hidden under the ones that you do. The handle had rotted off. The blade was as long as my right hand, rusty but not altogether pitted up. It had once been a good knife. I brought it home and showed my brother, Kitch. He’s eight years younger than me but ever since he could talk he’s had an opinion on everything. He took a look at the knife and said, “That deal’s older than you or me put together. It’s probably fifty years old.”

I ground the rust off, polished the blade, and made a new handle out of a block of cherry wood. I honed that knife until it could cut a fly’s wing. Then I found some old leather hanging in the barn and made a holster, which I tried to emboss with the name Excalibur but there wasn’t enough room. So it’s just Excal.

The skull was stuck. Sand had settled into it hard, almost like stone. One side was exposed and I could clearly see an eye socket and some chewing teeth, pure black, just like the skull. The skull had a curve to it that reminded me of a cat. But it was way too big for a cat. I supposed it was a mountain lion.

I began to scrape away the dirt. The process required patience.
First, I squatted, and then I sat on my haunch. Eventually, I was lying on my belly, soaking up the sun-heat of the earth. My breath came quick when I got to the front tooth on the right side. The tooth was thick and round and black like obsidian. As I chipped away, it just kept on going. It ended up being longer
than my knife blade. This was not a mountain lion.

For an hour, I scraped dirt. Every so often, the mare would snort just to remind me that she was still alive.

When I had pretty much loosed the skull from the ground, except for one stubborn knob of bone next to the spinal hole, I stood up and walked to the mare and untied my canteen from where it hung on her saddle.

I wiped my forehead with my forearm and sipped some water. Then I removed my flask of whiskey from my front shirt pocket and sipped some of that. I returned the flask to my pocket and brought the canteen back to my excavation. I poured water over the skull, hoping to loosen the bone from the earth. As I waited
for the water to soak in, a cloud slid in front of the sun. It was a little cloud, trailed by big clouds. The wind picked up. It was October. Nothing to worry about.

I gave the skull a gentle tug. Working it easy, I loosed the bone knob and pulled it out of the ground. The thing weighed fifteen pounds, easy. Who needs arrowheads when you’ve got a saber-tooth tiger skull? This was better than a wheelbarrow full of arrowheads.

Talking nice and carrying the skull behind my back, I eased my way up to the horse. She didn’t appear worried exactly, but she did keep looking at me. I patted her ham until she turned her attention to a clump of grama grass. The skull was too big to fit in the saddlebags. I took ahold of one of the leathers that was dangling
off the saddle and began tying it in place for the ride home. The horse started walking sideways, away from me.

I said, “Be a good girl.” Her tail switched back and forth. Quick, I ran the leather around the skull and tied a good knot so it could hang off the saddle without bouncing too much. I let the skull rest gently against the mare’s flank. I was wearing a flannel over my shirt. I considered taking it off and covering the skull with it, except the temperature had begun to drop and I didn’t want to get shivery. The clouds had covered half the sky.
I patted the horse on her neck. “We’ll go home now.”

I took another sip from my whiskey flask. As I braced to climb into the saddle, the horse’s eye skipped off me and went to the skull. The eye waited a minute, then looked at me and then back
at the skull.

She made up her mind that she didn’t want that skull tied to her. She reared up, balanced on her back legs like something from the cinema, and then took off. I watched as she bounded away north, in the opposite direction of home, with the skull bouncing up and down against her flank.

I jogged after her. The ground in that country is mostly flat. I was able to keep a watch on her for the first mile or so. But then she galloped down a slope and out of sight. I slowed to a walk and followed her tracks. I walked an hour, and then another. North of the river, that’s empty country.

The sky was completely grey now with the sun a pale disc hovering behind the clouds. A steady wind pressed my clothes against my skin. I was tempted to walk home and wait for the mare to show up on her own. A smart person would have done just that. But it was late afternoon and I was in the wasteland. It’d be dark before I could walk halfway home and by then it’d be cold and my flannel shirt would be worthless. I had a pair of gloves, a canteen, and various other items stowed in the saddlebags. I needed my horse, so I followed her.

I counted fifty steps and then whistled. Every fifty steps, stop and whistle. My lips started to hurt. I sipped from my flask. I wanted my canteen.

The wind stepped up. I pushed my hat tight on my head. The sun peeked beneath the cloud line and shone for a few moments before dropping into the horizon. My shadow grew long and then got eaten up by twilight. I stuck my hands in my armpits. I had to squint to see the horse tracks. Her steps were close
together. She was walking now, no longer scared. I’d find her.

A flake floated at my face. Then another. Then it was snowing. I wasn’t worried. It did that in October sometimes. I’d find my horse. God damn. I could have wrapped the skull in my flannel. She wouldn’t have seen it and I’d be home getting drunk right now.

The flakes grew fat and wet. The hoof prints would soon be covered with snow. Not that it mattered. With the clouds there was no moon, no stars, no light to see by.

I began to think that I might have to spend the night outside. That wasn’t an option. I began to run, chasing a horse that I couldn’t see.

There was no direction. Just darkness and a pounding of snow. The flakes fell on my shoulders and face and hair. Running kept me warm.  

The ground began to slope down so I followed that slope. The wind was at my back. If I was a horse, I’d go downhill with the wind at my back. If I was a horse, I wouldn’t be scared of the skull of some animal that died a million years ago.

At least the wind wasn’t blowing awful bad. A strong wind will numb your fingers in the time it takes to take off your glove and light a cigarette. I had neither gloves nor cigarettes. I had it rough. Running blind in the snow in the night. There were no ranches for miles. Not even any fences. Give me a tree. Just one cottonwood tree.

I hollered for the horse. “Here you! Here you!” Except my throat hurt so it sounded like “Airooo! Airooo!”

I stopped a moment to breathe. It was so dark I couldn’t see myself blink. I listened for the horse. The sound of the night was pretty. The soft thump of all those millions of flakes settling to
the ground.

I could curl up. Curl up on the ground and die. An Indian once told me he came across a frozen body in the mountains. The fellow, the dead man, was naked, hugging a tree with his arms and legs. They had to chop down the tree so they could bring him home.

The only thing to hug out here would be a prickly pear cactus. If I could find my horse, I’d have gloves and a canteen full of water. God damn that selfish beast.

The wind kept calm. The snow kept falling. I kept walking.

I heard a snort, to my left. I yelled, “Airoo!” The snort happened again. It sounded like my horse. She snorted again. I tried to follow the sound. The snow and the dark played with my directions.

She kept snorting and I kept walking towards the sound. I said, “It’s okay, girl.” The snow was up to my ankles. I’d make it. When I found her, I’d rip that skull off the saddle. Smash it. Save a tooth, maybe. And then she’d bring me home. A horse knows where home is. When I got home, I wouldn’t tell anyone about this, not even my brother.

Then a yelp. A horse yelp. I heard hooves thud. Another thud. A loud thump, like something collapsing into snow. My horse screamed. I’d never heard a horse make a noise like this before.

There’s pain and then there’s fright. My grey mare was frightened as bad as anything ever had been. She screamed and screamed.

I ran toward the sound. But it was further away than I thought. And it shifted to my left. The snow was tricking my ears. I spun circles. The scream turned into hiiii hiiii sounds, then a gurgle, and then it was done. I stopped and listened. But there was no other sound. A tugging noise, maybe.

I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel scared. I felt abandoned. Everywhere I walked was the wrong direction. I decided that if everything was backwards, I’d go backwards. I’d walk backwards until I bounced into something warm or until I died. I counted my steps, figuring these would be the last ones I ever took.

With my thirty-seventh step, my right foot landed in something wet. It made a little squish. I took another step. My left foot landed on something slick, like a water balloon coated with grease. The balloon squirted out from under. My ankle twisted in my boot and I fell to my hands and knees.

A blessed warmth soaked into my jeans and covered my hands. I twitched my fingers in the puddle. They were pressed into something soft. I took a breath and the smell was sweet and rank and fresh. And then rotten. A puke and shit smell. I reached very carefully and groped the empty air. A few inches to the left, a few to the right. It was so dark, it felt like my eyes had been plucked out.

I reached as far as my arm could stretch. My fingers touched hide. I brought them back quick. I reached again and my fingers touched the hide again. There wasn’t any movement. I patted it. Short hair. I crawled forward, my knees and boots sucking in the puddle below. I patted, ran my hand along until I felt the mane, until I came to her ear, her eyelashes, her face, her nose, her lips, her teeth. I held my hand in front of her nostrils, feeling
for breath. My horse’s guts were soaking into my jeans and I was checking to see if she was still alive.

-- Reprinted from The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles by Gregory Hill with permission from Leapfrog Press LLC. Copyright (c) Gregory Hill, 2015.