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The brave cowboy, p.1
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       The Brave Cowboy, p.1

           Edward Abbey
 
The Brave Cowboy


  The Brave Cowboy

  An Old Tale in a New Time

  Edward Abbey

  Copyright

  The Brave Cowboy

  Copyright © 1956 by Edward Abbey, renewed 1984 by Edward Abbey

  Cover art to the electronic edition copyright © 2011 by RosettaBooks, LLC

  The characters, places, incidents and situations in this book are imaginary and have no relation to any person, place or actual happening.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

  Electronic edition published 2011 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.

  ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795317514

  To the outlaws—

  to all of them:

  the good and the bad, the ugly

  and the pretty, the dead and the live

  Contents

  BALLAD OF THE BRAVE COWBOY

  A PROLOGUE

  PART I. THE COWBOY

  1

  2

  3

  PART II. THE PRISONER

  4

  5

  6

  7

  8

  9

  10

  11

  12

  PART III. THE SHERIFF

  13

  14

  15

  16

  17

  18

  19

  PART IV. THE STRANGER

  20

  It’s only a story. None of it really happened. How could it? How could such people be? The prisoner is probably a professor. The sheriff loses the next election. The truckdriver died of emphysema. And as for the cowboy, that character, why nobody even knows where he is anymore. Or even, to be honest, if he ever really was.

  Ballad of the Brave Cowboy

  Come sit here beside me

  and I will relate

  the tale of a cowboy

  and his terrible fate.

  His name it was Burns

  and he came from the East;

  no more would he say

  to man nor beast.

  He worked for his wages

  on a Magdalene spread:

  a dollar a day,

  beef, beans and bread.

  A tough, dirty life

  and death in a ditch;

  hard on the kidneys,

  bad for the itch;

  a man might get suntanned,

  he wouldn’t get rich.

  Like all brave cowboys dead and alive

  on riding and wind and stars he could thrive

  with a home-made song to keep his heart alive.

  Burns was skinny and dark

  and he kept most alone;

  he had only one friend,

  a kid named Bone.

  Together they rode

  and together they fought

  when they got to town

  and drank a lot

  and bluffed each other

  shot after shot

  Like all good cowboys dead and alive

  on fighting and grit and blood they thrive

  with a little strong whisky to keep hope alive.

  One day in the fall

  came orders for battle:

  twenty-five men against

  five thousand cattle.

  The sky was yellow

  and the sun was red

  when the drive started south

  for the town of Mordred.

  We knew by the signs

  we were in for some fun:

  the wind screamed high

  the dust-devils spun

  and five thousand longhorns

  started to run.

  Like all dumb cowhands alive and dead

  on trouble and sand and cactus they fed

  and on payday a little brown girl in bed.

  It was thunder and hell

  when the herd broke loose;

  a man was safer

  with his head in a noose.

  We got them turned

  but too strung out,

  they kept on running

  and came right about.

  Young Bone rode the drag

  and got lost in the dust,

  rode his horse in a hole

  and a leg got bust.

  He scrambled around

  and looked for the fray;

  saw 10,000 red eyes

  coming his way,

  saw 20,000 hooves

  coming for pay.

  He tried to run

  he tried to crawl;

  nothing he did

  was no help at all.

  He liked to have prayed

  but could not recollect

  the words that his Mother

  had tried to inject

  and it looked for sure

  his career was wrecked.

  O all brave cowboys dead and revived

  God only knows how you ever survived

  or stayed out of Hell with souls unshrived.

  Now Burns rode the point

  and saw his friend’s danger,

  came galloping up

  like a Texas Ranger.

  He hauled the kid up

  while his horse danced around

  and the herd roared close

  on the rumbling ground.

  They tried to get clear

  but it was too late,

  they were surrounded

  by bellowing hate

  and the panicked horse

  completed their fate.

  The scream of that horse

  was an awful sound

  when the crazy herd

  rode them all down

  and kicked and rolled them

  over the ground.

  Like many poor cowhands alive and dead

  they never had a chance to die in bed

  or even get their prayers said.

  When the herd was stopped

  and the dust blew away

  we found their bodies

  mixed with the clay.

  The kid had a home

  in Texas named Blair

  where we shipped what was left

  of his hide and hair,

  but the cowboy Burns

  we buried right there.

  Like all brave cowboys dead and alive

  on riding and wind and stars he thrived

  with a home-made song to keep his heart alive

  with a song to keep alive.

  A Prologue

  THERE IS A VALLEY IN THE WEST WHERE PHANTOMS come to brood and mourn, pale phantoms dying of nostalgia and bitterness. You can hear them shivering, chattering, among the leaves of the old dry mortal cottonwoods down by the river—whispering and moaning and hissing with the wind over the black cones of the five volcanoes on the west—you can hear them under the red cliffs of the Sangre Mountains on the other side of the valley, whining their past away with the wild dove and the mockingbird—and you may see one, touch one, in the silences and space and mute terror of the desert, if you ride away from the river, which in this barren land is the river of life.

  The Rio Bravo comes down from the mountains of Colorado and the mountains of Santa Fe and flows into the valley, passing between the dead volcanoes on the west and the wall of mountains on the east. The river flows past the cornfields and mud villages of the Indians, past thickets of red willow and cane and scrub oak, through the fringe of the white man’s city and under the four-lane bridge of his national highway, beyond the city and the bridge and past more mud villages, more cornfields; the river flows beyond Thieves’ Mountain far to the south and vanishes at last into the dim violet haze of distance, of history and Mexico and the gulf
-sea.

  But the river is haunted, the city is haunted, the valley and the mountains and the silent desert are haunted—troubled, vexed, by ghosts, phantoms, and vagrant spirits.

  You can hear them—down along the river, shaking and whispering in the leaves of the old cottonwoods; if you go there you must hear them. Or out on the west mesa, around the black craters of the volcanoes—phantoms hissing and moaning with the wind. Or up there among the red cliffs and pinnacles, in those immense gulfs of space under the mountain’s rim, where the air is cool and sweet with the odor of juniper and lightning, where the mockingbird and the canyon wren and the mourning dove join with the phantoms in their useless keening. And out on the desert away from the river and the valley, far out beyond the volcanoes, you may see one whirling and whistling like a devil up some dry rocky wash, snapping the brittle lances of the yucca with the violence of its hate—

  It was into this valley of ghosts and smoke and unacknowledged sorrows that The Cowboy rode, one morning in October not so many years ago….

  PART ONE

  The Cowboy

  “…Riding in from the desert to the west

  coming from God knows where…”

  1

  HE WAS SITTING ON HIS HEELS IN THE COLD LIGHT of the dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass. Beside him was his source of fuel: a degenerate juniper tree, shriveled and twisted, cringing over its bed of lava rock and sand. An under-privileged juniper tree, living not on water and soil but on memory and hope. And almost alone. To the north across the rolling mesa of lava there was a broad scattering of junipers, perhaps two or three to an acre, but here where the man squatted before his fire there was only the one, and south and west of the five volcanoes there were none at all, nothing organic but a rudimentary form of bunch grass and the tough spiny yucca.

  The man coaxing his tinder into flame was not much interested in the burnt-out wasteland around him. Occasionally he would glance to the southeast and toward the city several miles away, stretched out like a long gray shadow on the other side of the river, or would take a look at the chestnut mare limping among the black rocks beyond the wash, its forelegs held stiffly together, its iron shoes scraping on the stone. But for the most part he concentrated his attention on his small sprightly fire and when he did look away from it his hands continued their work of breaking and adding sticks of wood.

  After a while, when the fire had been built up to about the size of a small fryingpan and a residue of glowing charcoal had accumulated, he lifted a canteen from a branch of the tree, filled a small smoke-blackened pan with water and pushed it lidless halfway into the bed of the fire. He watched it closely for several minutes, waiting for the first globule of superheated air to appear on the bottom of the pan. As he waited he broke a dead stick into short lengths and laid the pieces carefully on the embers.

  A cool morning, even in the sunlight. Surfaces exposed to the sun were becoming warm but the air remained chill and sharp, as though the sunlight passed from source to object without heating the intervening medium.

  The bubble appeared. The man reached out toward the juniper and pulled a wrinkled beaten old cavalry saddlebag close to his heel, unbuckled its one remaining strap and removed from the interior a black skillet, battered and ancient, then a cylindrical tin labeled Handyman Tube Patching Kit, a can of pork and beans, a punch-type canopener and a slab of salted mutton wrapped in a greasy back copy of the Duke City Journal.

  The mare on the other side of the wash was staring toward the river, flexing her soft rubbery nostrils, twitching her ears. There was a dim fragrance of tamarisk in the air, and a tension, an electricity, in the old aching silence.

  The man wiped his nose once on his sleeve, sniffing a little, then unwrapped the mutton, opened his jack-knife and sawed several strips of meat into the skillet, which he set directly on the fire. A dimple in the bottom of the skillet reversed its curvature with a sudden ping, like a plucked violin string, making one of the slices jump. He wiped the blade of the knife on his jeans, closed it and put in back in his pocket, while the meat sizzled and smoked in the skillet. He opened the can of beans and poured them over the meat; the gluey mess spread steaming around the mutton strips, spluttering against the hot metal.

  By now the water was simmering in the open pan, its surface beginning to vaporize. The man unscrewed the lid from the tube patching kit and emptied a certain amount of a brown granular material into the water, measuring by eye. Instantly the aroma of hot coffee graced the air and an involuntary smile appeared on his hungry, lean face.

  Within five minutes everything was ready, or ready enough, and ready almost simultaneously: the coffee cooked and diffused densely through the boiling water, the mutton fried, the beans hot and smoky. The man began to eat, using his fingers for the meat, scooping the beans from the skillet with a sawed-off tablespoon and gulping down the scalding coffee in quick short draughts direct from the pan.

  When he was finished he leaned back against the bole of the crouching juniper, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and sighed contentedly. After a moment he pulled at the yellow string dangling from his shirtpocket and drew out a small white cotton sack of tobacco. He reached in the pocket, groping with thumb and forefinger, and found a packet of wheat-straw cigarette papers. He took one of the papers—thin, brown, not gummed—and holding it delicately between his thumb and middle finger, half-rolled to form a trough, he opened the sack with his other hand and tapped out some of the cheap arid pulverized tobacco onto the paper. He tightened the drawstrings of the sack with a hand and his teeth and put it back in his shirtpocket Then with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands he rolled the paper around the evenly-distributed tobacco, moistened the edge of the paper with his tongue, sealed it and gave one end of the somewhat oblate cylinder a half twist. Without a further glance at his work he stuck the cigarette between his lips, scratched a match on his bootsole and lit it. Drawing, tasting, releasing the first mouthful of smoke, he stretched out his long, thin legs, relaxing, and stared at the city beyond the river.

  Stared at it from under the brim of his black slouch hat, his head tilted back against the tree, the hat pushed forward and almost down over his eyes. The attitude of his head and hat, the gaze from narrowed eyes down past the flanges of the nose, the cigarette jutting at an acute angle from his mouth, made his stare seem disdainful, unconsciously arrogant.

  He was a young man, not more than thirty. His neck was long, scrawny, with a sharp adamsapple and corded muscles; his nose, protruding from under the decayed brim of the hat, was thin, red, aquiline and asymmetrical, like the broken beak of a falcon. He had a small mouth with thin dry lips, and a chin pointed like a spade, and his skin, bristling with a week’s growth of black whiskers, had the texture of cholla and the hue of an old gunstock.

  The young man smoked on in contemplative silence, staring at the city. He seemed to be thinking as he sat there in the sun, the juniper growing out of his back and neck. Every line, fiber, bone and muscle of his body bespoke repose, the assured unselfconscious tranquillity of a sleeping hound. His hands, big and long-fingered like those of a flutist or a good plank-stacker, and hard, brown, leather-skinned, rested like a pair of lifeless tools on his lap, on his groin and genitals. Every now and then a puff of blue smoke drifted out from under the hatbrim, from an apparently immobile mouth and throat. But despite the appearance of a complete somnolence suggested by the relaxation of his body there were indications of an internal activity discernible at two points: the eyes. Deep in the grotto of darkness formed by the tilted hat and the high ridge of the nose the two eyes, like instrument dials of the mind and emotions, registered thought, perplexity, a faint hairline trace of anxiety.

  He spat out what was left of the cigarette.

  On the other side of the river, miles away, the city lay waiting, stirring faintly but in silence—vague wisps of smoke and dust, glints of reflected light from moving objects, a motion of shadows—not yet
fully awake and too far to be heard. In the early morning light, viewed from the west by the man sitting against the juniper, the city appeared as an undifferentiated patch of blue and gray shadow, edges ill-defined, southern and eastern extremities invisible, all blended with the vast wings of the shadow of the Sangre Mountains.

  The river, curling beyond and below the edge of the lava flow, was hard to make out from that distance and elevation; here and there he could see strips and sheets of opaque water but mostly nothing except the ragged fringe of vegetation crowding the banks and islands and old channels of the river.

  The silence was intense, burning, infinite. He could hear the silence, or what seemed like its music, the singing of the blood through his ears.

  Far to the southeast, from the direction of the giant military air base adjoining The Factory, came the shattering roar of a jet engine. The sound rose, drove like an iron wedge through the sky, scoring the air with its transparent vibration. Then retracted, faded, died, and the vast silence closed in again, and sealed its perfect dome over the desert and the river and the valley.

  The young man leaned away from the juniper, bending the hinges of his long legs, and stood up. He was over six feet tall, with about two-thirds of that altitude composed of attenuated fuse-like legs. He spread the ashes of the fire with his boot, kicked sand over them, buried the bean can under a rock and scattered the coffee grounds. The skillet and spoon he scoured with a handful of sand, and packed back into the saddlebag. He rolled his light mummy-type sleeping bag into a hard tight bundle, tied it and laid it across the saddle on the ground. Then he looked for the mare.

  The mare was watching him now; she stood about fifty yards away in the rocky draw, ears alerted, black tail swiping at a horsefly, shaking her black shaggy mane and watching him. A three-year-old, well-muscled and close-coupled, with slender hocks and a glossy chestnut coat. She had good wide-apart eyes and a stiffly-arched neck and her name was Whisky.

  “Whisky,” he called, “here girl.” The mare’s ears went back. “Here girl,” he called, and lifted the bridle and reins from a branch of the juniper. The mare eyed him suspiciously, not moving. He reached down into one of the saddlebags and found a small withered yellow apple and held it in the air, baiting the horse. “Come here, Whisky,” he called softly, “got something for you.” The mare shook her head, watching him, swept a fly from her haunch and stamped at the sand but did not step toward him.

 
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