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The brave cowboy, p.11
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       The Brave Cowboy, p.11

           Edward Abbey
 
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  “It’s the cement floor,” Bondi said. “Let’s walk around for a while; if you sit still for too long in this dungeon you’re sure to get neuralgia or rheumatism or mildew.”

  They stood up and began pacing the floor along the inner corridor—thirty feet north, thirty feet south, back and forth in the manner customary to all caged animals. “In fact,” Bondi was saying, “I’ve been falling to pieces; my dandruff, always bad, has recently got worse; I’ve picked up athlete’s foot somehow; my hay fever is still critical; and I’ve got a dull gnawing ache in one of my wisdom teeth. I hope I get sent to a quiet, clean, well-lighted prison.”

  “You’re gonna light for the hills with me,” Burns insisted. “This land of life is no good. Not even for philosophers.”

  They neared the steel bulkhead of the cellblock, turned and started back. The bullpen was quiet now, inactive, with most of the prisoners spread out on the tables and benches—the afternoon siesta. The cockroach races were over, the stories all told; only the boys at the window, watching the girls pass by, enlivened the air with their comment and disputation.

  “Don’t step on this gentleman’s feet,” Bondi warned. The Wetback from Laguna lay in their way, hat over his eyes. “I’m not sure but I think he carries a knife. He’s rather truculent for a Pueblo man; bitter about something.” Bondi stepped over the Indian. “By the way, Jack, if you’re serious about breaking out of here—how can you trust thirty-eight other men? I’m thinking of the noise; everyone in the cellblock will be able to hear you if you try to file one of these bars. What’s to stop one of them from calling a guard?”

  “That’s a chance I’ll just have to take,” Burns said. “As long as the noise don’t go through that steel wall I’ll be happy. I won’t make much noise, anyway.”

  “Another thing: how long will it take you to file through one of these bars?” Bondi reached out and put his hand around a bar, pushed and tugged at it for a moment; the bar remained as firm, rigid, immutable as a mathematic abstraction. “You might not be able to get through one in one night; and in that case you’d have to make sure to get back in the same cell the next night, which isn’t easy.”

  “Damned if I’ll spend another day in this place,” the cowboy muttered. He too wrapped his fingers around one of the bars of the gridded wall. “Are these bars solid?” “I’m sure I don’t know.”

  “If they ain’t we could file through a couple of them in a few hours—three or four hours, maybe. You on one, me on the other.”

  “Me? Good heavens, I’m no jailbreaker.”

  Burns studied the pattern of the grid for a few moments: the vertical bars six inches apart, braced by and interlocked with a series of horizontal bars—flat not cylindrical—about eighteen inches apart. “You know,” he said, “a man just might be able to crawl through by only cuttin out one bar. That’d give him a hole a foot wide, a foot and a half high. I might be able to do it—go through on my side. One shoulder at a time, maybe; slow and easy-like.”

  “You’d have to cut out two,” Bondi said; “you couldn’t squeeze through any other way.”

  “We’ll see,” said Burns.

  They resumed walking up and down the length of the bullpen. Nobody paid them any attention; in a county jail the privacy of conversation is highly respected. And the guards, the jailer, were elsewhere: upstairs, downstairs, outside—hiding from the smell, the dampness, the tedium, the general dreariness of incarceration.

  “Then,” Bondi said, “if you do get through the bars you still have the problem of getting through a window and down to the ground.”

  “The window’s nothin,” Burns said; “just lift off that screen. Tie two or three blankets together for a rope; climb out, hit the ground, and start walkin. Nothin to it.”

  “Which window would you prefer?”

  “Well… what’s on the other side? the west side?”

  “An alley and the back of a department store. The police cars go through that alley on their way to the parking lot behind City Hall. It’s not very dark at night.”

  “That’s the way we’ll have to go. We can’t go out on the north right by the street. Same for the east—we might land right in the Sheriff’s arms.”

  “I suppose you know there’s a penalty for attempted jailbreak,” Bondi said. “It’s not a game; the fact that you’re locked up does not give you the legal right to try to break out.”

  “We’ll go out on the alley side, walk up the street away from the courthouse, get to your place, saddle up and head for the hills. We can steal a few horses from that ridin stable place that used to be along North Fourth. Is it still there?”

  “I don’t know,” Bondi said wearily; “I haven’t seen a horse prowling around Duke City since the great train robbery.”

  “Well, if it isn’t we can get horses and saddles from that dude ranch out in Scissors Canyon. I know two of the boys that work there. They’ll help me out.”

  Bondi put his hand on the cowboy’s shoulder. “Jack, old friend, let’s not go on kidding each other all afternoon. We have too many important things to talk about. And I want to hear you sing a few songs—your new ones, the old ones, some of the originals. So please understand me: I’m not leaving with you. I’m staying in jail, this one and the next one, until the authorities are sick of the very sight of me, which I trust may be in less than two years—I might get a parole. Then, when I’m free again, we’ll get together, you and I and Jerry and Seth—and your wife: you’ll undoubtedly have one by then: and we’ll take a little hunting and fishing trip together. Anywhere you like—Canada, the Rockies, Sonora, Baja California. We’ll spend a month or more out in the wilds and we’ll laugh and sing and forget that this ridiculous nightmare ever happened.” Bondi stopped then, and the other stopped with him; Bondi stared at the murky window on the other side of the bars. “Of course this is a nightmare; I loathe every minute of it. I’m sick to the heart of it—but I can’t run away. I’ve got too many commitments to keep, too many weaknesses, too many hopeful ideas.” He paused; Burns was silent. “Hopeful?” Bondi continued; “well, not really. I don’t see the world getting any better; like you I see it getting worse. I see liberty being strangled like a dog everywhere I look, I see my own country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding, the land smothered under airstrips and superhighways, the natural wealth of a million years squandered on atomic bombs and tin automobiles and television sets and ball-point fountain pens. It’s a sorry sight indeed; I can’t blame you for wanting no part of it. But I’m not yet ready to withdraw, despite the horror of it. Even if withdrawal is possible, which I doubt.”

  “But it is possible,” Burns said. “It is; I know of places right here in the American West where white men have never been.”

  Bondi smiled. “You mean Ladies’ Rest Rooms?”

  “No,” Burns said; “I’ve been in all of them. I’m thinkin of a few canyons in Utah, a few mountain lakes in Idaho and Wyoming.”

  “Maybe so,” Bondi said; “maybe so. But I’m not ready for that. It’s more convenient for me to stick it out for a while, to try to make an honest living introducing a little philosophy into the heads of engineers, druggists, future politicians. Don’t think for a moment that I imagine myself as some sort of anarchist hero. I don’t intend to fight against Authority, at least not in the open. (I may do a little underground pioneering.) When they tell us to say ‘I recant everything’ I’ll just mumble something out of the corner of my mouth. When they tell us to stand at attention and salute I’ll cross the fingers of my left hand. When they install the dictaphones—by the way, is it true that G-Man Hoover’s slogan is ‘Two Dictaphones in Every Home?’—and the wire-tapping apparatus and the two-way television I’ll install defective fuses in the switchbox. When they ask me if I am now or ever have been an Untouchable I’ll tell them that I’m just a plain old easygoing no-account Jeffersonian anarchist. That way I should be able to muddle along for a decade or so, maybe long enough to retire on half pay,
dig out the old irrigation ditch and raise cucumbers and sweetcorn. Does that sound reasonable to you?”

  “Sounds fairly easy,” Burns said, smiling; “only I don’t think you believe a word of it.”

  Bondi sighed, picked at his nose and sighed again. “Well, never mind. Call it a working hypothesis.”

  “If that’s really the way you feel why’d the hell you muddle your way into jail?”

  Bondi smiled sadly. “Quite right. I was afraid you’d ask me that. It sure was a piece of muddling. I never intended for it to work out this way at all. Here I had thought that since I was a veteran and a sort of scholar and even a gentleman by birth, my old draft board would let me get away with breaking the written law. And as a matter of fact they tried to help me; did all they possibly could for me. Damned nice people—they didn’t want any unseemly dealings with the Government anymore than I did. The difficulty was they wanted me to register as a conscientious objector. Conscientious objector to what? I asked them. To war, they said. But I love war, I said; my father got rich off the last one canning dogfood for the infantry; all Bondi’s love war. Then what do you object to? they said. I object to slavery, I said; compulsory military service is a form of slavery. But there is no provision in the law for such an objection, they said. But it’s the law itself that I object to, I said. That is illegal, they informed me. The law is unconstitutional, I replied. Then you had better take up the matter with the courts, they said. I’m a busy man, I said. What are you doing? they asked. I’m constructing a metaphysic based on the theory of unipolar planes of reality, I said. Would you mind repeating that? they said. That would be tautologous, I replied.”

  “Then they put you in jail,” Burns said; “can’t say I blame them.”

  “No, not exactly. They couldn’t understand what was wrong with me or what I was complaining about: obedience is such a fundamental habit of the contemporary American mind that any kind of disobedience is regarded as a form of insanity. So they decided I was mentally incompetent and notified my parents; and my father, bless his poor old troubled soul, notified the FBI.”

  “Your father!”

  “Yes, my old man—nobody else. He thought a little shock would do me good—purge me of what he considers immature and pernicious fancies.” Bondi rubbed at his eyes. “Don’t step on the Indian, Jack. My father, as you know, has a powerful sense of duty—except when reporting his income. But he is patriotic; excessively so, in my opinion. In all things, our country comes first—that’s his thesis. As for me…”

  “Somethin else comes first?”

  “Yes,” Bondi said. “If I had to choose between my country and my friend I’d choose my friend.” He grinned shyly. “You know, my sense of loyalty is getting all twisted around. For example, I find that I feel more loyalty toward immediate concrete things, like my wife and my son and you and myself, than toward the giant abstractions like Democracy and God and The United States of America. I know it’s queer—an unhealthy inversion of values. But I can’t seem to help it; that’s the way I’ve come to feel. You know what I mean?” Burns nodded. “Well, of course you do; I guess you’ve felt that way all your life. With me it’s come late,” Bondi continued. “When it first struck me— must have been about two years ago—I composed a little pledge or prayer to?… well, sort of formalize it; make it stick in my soul. Would you like to hear it?”

  “Yes,” Burns said.”

  “It went like this: ‘I shall never sacrifice a friend to an Ideal. I shall never desert a friend to save an institution. I shall never betray a friend for the sake of law. Great nations may fall in ruin before I shall sell a friend to preserve them. I pray to the God within me to give me the power to live by this design.”

  They came to the gray wall and stopped. Bondi put his finger on a bolt head fastening one plate of iron to the next. “Pardon my rhetoric,” he said, as the cowboy said nothing. “I hope it didn’t sound too sententious because in so far as that statement has meaning I intend to abide by it. Perish the contradictions: it’s not an ethical system, it’s an ethical intuition. A mere emotion, if you wish.”

  “I’ll not argue it,” Burns said; “I like it; I think I thought of it before you.”

  They were silent, gazing at the opaque wall of metal a few inches before them. Then they turned around, and did another turn up the length of the bullpen. “Want to sit down?” Bondi asked.

  “Nope, not yet. I still ain’t got my legs limbered up. They had me in a little box last night not much bigger’n a telephone booth.”

  “How’d you like the new judge, A. Cheroot?”

  “He’s a smart little punk,” Burns said; “reminds me of a weasel. I’d sure like to lay a loop over his ears, dally to the horn and take him for a ride down some old rocky wash.”

  “He’s a slick one, all right. But wait till you meet Van Heest. There’s an aristocratic old fox; a fine proud old fox.”

  “I’ll never see him,” Burns said; “I ain’t stayin.”

  “Of course. I’d almost forgotten.” Bondi sneezed into the palm of his hand. “Excuse me. I wish to hell you’d brought your guitar.”

  “When do we eat?”

  “Come here to the window. I’ll show you.” They went to the corner of the pen nearest the open window and looked out. They could not see much; the window was low on the wall, two feet beyond the grill of bars, opening out from the bottom like a factory window: impossible to see the sky. “See the shadow of that mailbox?” Bondi said. “When it reaches the curb on the other side of Second Street we eat.”

  “That’s a pretty good clock; but I’m hungry now. What can I do about it?”

  “You can wait.”

  Burns clutched at the bars with both hands and stared down into the street. “I couldn’t take this,” he said; “not again. I’d go crazy in about a week.” Cars, trucks, buses clanged through the intersection; arm in arm two highschool girls stepped by, giggling; after them slouched a pair of pachucos, round-shouldered, greasy-haired, hands buried deep in the pockets of baggy pants. They heard a long scream of laughter. “This is cruel,” Burns said; “it ain’t human, keepin a man penned up like a dumb animal. I wouldn’t do it to a dumb animal.”

  “This isn’t the first time you’ve been in a place like this,” Bondi said.

  “I know it.” Burns pulled at the bars; he braced both feet against one of the horizontal members and tugged and strained mightily: a very slight tremor passed through the grid. Burns set his feet back down on the floor and relaxed. “Pretty solid,” he said; “a good job.” He smiled at Bondi. “Yes sir,” he said, “I know what this is like. That’s what makes me feel kinda sick and mournful: I can’t help thinkin of you in here, or a place like it. It’ll make me uncomfortable, itchy, restless, for as long as you’re in. I got too good an imagination.”

  “Thanks for the sympathy, Jack; that’ll be something of a comfort to me. But I think I’ll make out.” Bondi turned his back to the window and contemplated the bullpen, its walls and bare furniture and its thirty-eight other inmates—more now—sprawled like sick or dying men on the floor, on tabletops, on each other. This enormous room has a peculiar and essential horror all its own, he thought, something I shall never forget, shall never forgive—never understand. And it has that old familiar horror common to public institutions everywhere, like that in dim yellow photographs ‘exposing conditions’ in the county poorhouse or the state mental hospital; the same atmosphere of inertia and hopelessness, the same postures and gestures of utter sickness. “It won’t be like this in a Federal pen,” he said aloud. I hope not. I hope not.

  “What’s that?” Burns said, staring out the window.

  “I said it can’t be like this in a Federal prison. They’ll let us outdoors for exercise, there’ll be more room and air and light, maybe we’ll play baseball now and then.” Bondi remembered his days of Spring. “I used to be a passable infielder,” he said; “played second base for the Montclair Bandits back in New Jersey.”

&n
bsp; “New Jersey? What’s that?”

  “Maybe they’ll teach me a trade,” Bondi went on. “Carpentry, shoemaking, welding, tree surgery, something like that. I’ve always wanted to learn to do something really well with my hands. I mean, besides the usual thing. Everyone should be able to do some kind of skilled and useful work with his hands. Even philosophers. Especially philosophers.”

  “That’s just talk,” said Burns; “all you really want to do is sit around on your ass and read fat books wrote by cock-eyed old Krauts and lousy Russians.”

  “I’ll not be a slave to my own ideology,” Bondi replied. “Why didn’t you bring your guitar?”

  “Sure—let’s go somewhere and have a beer.”

  “There’s better alcohol in a good song.”

  “Why the hell should I make this easier for you?” Burns scowled as he stared outside, his hands clutching the bars. “I’m too mad to sing. Anyway I don’t like to sing when I’m in a cage;—who wants to be a goddamned canary?”

  “Well… I don’t know,” Bondi said.

  Burns turned away from the window. “Paul,” he said, “look—” For a moment he could find no words; in exasperation he lifted one hand and rubbed the back of his neck. “Look,” he said, “goddamnit anyhow, I just don’t understand you. What’s the matter with you? You give me these lectures on how the country’s goin to the dogs—you got plenty to bitch about, seems like. You’re always bellyachin. And now they got you in jail—two years, like a rat in a cage. And here I am—” He lowered his voice. “Here I am, with files in my boots all ready to get you outa here. And you don’t want to go—you say. But still you keep on a-bitchin. I can’t figure you out—I think you must be a little loose in the head. If you don’t like the way the country’s goin why don’t you come with me?”

  Bondi sighed wearily, leaning against the bars. “So you’re back on that,” he said. Outside, in the street the shadows were turning from black to purple. He looked up at the cowboy. “I’ve already explained,” he said. “In the first place, I don’t believe in your form of escape. It’s no good for me, it’s no good for my wife and kid, and maybe it won’t be any good for you much longer. In the second place, as I said before, I still like the poor ugly world I’m living in even though I don’t approve of the long-term trend of things. Did I call myself an anarchist? a Jeffersonian anarchist? Well, that’s a metaphor, not a description of my politics. Because if I’m an anarchist I’m not only a Jeffersonian anarchist; I’m an ironical anarchist as well. Why? Because I see clearly enough the utter hopelessness of the anarchist ideal: everything is against it—the massive pressure of overpopulation, industrialization, militarization, the weight of sentiment, the momentum of history. A lost cause—one never found, I should say. Extinguished in America almost as soon as it began: Thoreau, the frontier, the I.W.W.… Anyway, Jack, the point is that my anarchism is just a sentimentality; in practical matters I’m a good sound citizen: I serve on committees, vote in elections, will some day run for the local school board.”

 
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