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The brave cowboy, p.12
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       The Brave Cowboy, p.12

           Edward Abbey
 
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  “Jesus wept!” the cowboy growled; he rubbed the back of his neck, then grinned at Bondi with a glint of sarcasm in his dark eyes. “What a bullshitter you are! I’ll bet you almost believe your own talk, the way you carry on. Jesus!” Scornfully he said: “You gonna run for the school board while you’re still in jail or wait till you get out?”

  Bondi tried not to smile. “I was serious,” he said; I’m always serious. Why the devil didn’t you bring your guitar?”

  The bullpen came to life; a stir of general excitement: Chow! someone yelled.

  Chow down!

  Chow! someone called. And the men fumbled their way out of sleep, staggered up, swaying and lurching, shambled into a long ragged line forming behind the Laguna crouched fiercely by the food slot in the gray steel wall. An old man coughed, hawking and spitting on the floor, coughed again and swallowed his torment. The cellblock door clanked and groaned, rolling slowly, heavily open, and The Bear shuffled in, Gutierrez, and stood in the corridor between bullpen and cells, glaring at the prisoners.

  “You pigs!” he bellowed. “Cabrones! You swipes, you crumbs, you Moody jag-offs—stay in line there, you dumb pig of an Indian. Stand up straight, god-damnit, or I’ll give you the hose.”

  The men were silent, stiff with anxiety. The food slot opened and Joe Riddle, eyes red and running, shoved in the first tray. The Indian from Laguna took it with trembling hands, crept quietly and quickly to his corner far from The Bear; he studied the flow as he scurried over it. In a dead shuffling scraping silence the others followed, accepting their slop without protest, and went cringing past the red glare of Gutierrez toward a seat at the tables.

  With rapid mouths and scraping spoons the men ate—a steady rhythmic sound, a chumping and thudding and snorting, the prolonged concussion of worn teeth and hard pinto beans, fried chips, gristle—accompanied by the muted rattle and clink of tin cups on metal, the slosh of liquids, and a basic passacaglia of grunts, sighs, farts and belches.

  “Eat, you pigs!” Gutierrez shouted; “push it down, you lousy bums, you scummy sonsabitches, you twatlappers!”

  Last in line were Bondi and Burns. Bondi picked up his tray of beans, his cup of coffee, his slice of bread; The Bear addressed him: “Hello, college boy, how do you like it here, huh? Nice, huh? Like home, huh?”

  A wry but apprehensive smile was Bondi’s reply. Not looking at Gutierrez, he started toward a table. “Hey!” the guard roared; “you too good to talk to me? You think you’re too smart, maybe? Talk to me, college boy.”

  Bondi stopped, hesitating, looking at his beans. His face was pale, his eyes impatient “What do you want?” he said.

  “What do I want?” Gutierrez screamed; “what do I want! Santa Maria, Mother of God! College boy asks me what do I want!” He faced the men sitting nearest him, on the other side of the bars. “You hear that?” he said. The men sniggered obediently. “College boy asks me what do I want!”

  Bondi started to move and Gutierrez roared at him again: “Come here, college boy! Come here, you little pink bastard!”

  “Take it easy,” someone said—the cowboy, Burns.

  “Come here!” Gutierrez bellowed. Bondi stared intensely into his tray of beans but found neither solace nor counsel there. He could feel a fiery irritation spreading under his eyelids and the clammy weight of doom in his stomach.

  “Come here!” roared The Bear, reaching in through the bars. “You hear me, you dirty little red-nosed shit-eater?”

  “Take it easy, fella,” Burns said quietly, addressing the guard. He stood in a corner of the bullpen, halfway between the food slot and Bondi, holding his tray in one hand and his coffee in the other, and facing Gutierrez through the bars. “What’s the matter with you, anyway? You mad at the world? Take it easy and you’ll grow fatter.” Gutierrez gaped at him with startled eyes and clutched at the bars, looking more jailed and dangerous than any prisoner there. “Honest,” Burn said, talking quietly and with apparent sincerity, “any doctor’ll tell you the same thing. Every time you get mad you take a year off the end of your life. That’s for a fact, fella. It raises your blood pressure and that weakens your heart. Or maybe it’ll give you an ulcer in the stomach, somethin like that. You gotta be careful.” Burns turned away, carrying his tray and cup of coffee, “Where we gonna sit, Paul?”

  Bondi was afraid he: was going to giggle; he was unable to answer.

  “Ain’t no seats left,” Burns said; “let’s sit on the floor, over by the window.”

  They went toward the corner indicated, while Gutierrez stared at the cowboy’s back with red and narrowed eyes, hands clutching the bars above his head. He called after them in a voice more or less normal but taut with a compressed, internal violence: “Hey, you! Cowboy! What’s your name?”

  “John W. Burns.” Burns kicked aside a tattered comic book. “Okay here?” he said to Bondi.

  “What?” Gutierrez shouted, his face close to the bars.

  “Burns. John W. Burns.”

  “Okay,” said Gutierrez, speaking now in a lower tone; “okay, John W. Burns.” He turned, or half-revolved, and lumbered through the cellblock doorway, muttering to himself. Then he crashed the door shut, the latch clashed and coupled, the heavy bolt was slammed home and locked, and nothing more could be heard of Deputy Gutierrez.

  They sat down. Bondi ate slowly and carefully, he felt his nerves still tingling, his muscles taut, the roof of his mouth dry and cold. It cost him an effort not to shudder, not to let out the sick laugh caught and half-strangled in his throat Very slowly and carefully he ate, though he had no appetite now.

  The cowboy, chewing systematically on his beans, sopping up the liquid residue with his slice of bread, did not allow the silence to grow too heavy. “These beans shoulda been cooked longer,” he said—“hard as bedbugs.” Bondi said nothing. After a moment Burns said: “No rocks or burrs in em, though.” He gulped down some of the coffee. “Coffee’s pretty bad; but you gotta expect that—coffee’s always bad in jail.” He looked at Bondi’s face, still strained and unhappy. “I was hopin it was hot,” he said; “I was all set to throw it in that big gorilla’s eyes a minute ago.”

  Bondi crunched on his beans. “I’m glad you didn’t,” he said. He was brooding again over what he felt to be his incurable cowardice. He wondered if there was any point in speaking of it to Burns.

  “I’m glad too,” Burns said; “mighty glad.” He finished up his beans with the pad of bread. “That fella scares me. Can’t figure him out,” He drank more coffee. “I thought he was just the regular bully type. Kind you always find workin in a place like this. Stupid as a hog, and afraid inside. But I ain’t sure about this here one. He might be different. If I was gonna be here long I’d be scared. I’d feel kinda mournful about my future.”

  Bondi munched his tasteless mouthful of bread and beans. “I should have stood up to him,” he said. Not necessary, he told himself; Jack knows. Why fuss over it?

  “Don’t talk like a highschool kid,” Burns said. “Who’s gonna stand up to a man in the fix you’re in? You couldn’t; nobody could. Not when the other fella’s got everything on his side and you ain’t got the chance of a crippled prairie dog. That’s no way to talk. The thing to do, if you have to take his crap, is to be quiet and wait and when you get outside, lay for him. And not with your fists neither, not if he’s big and you’re not. And not with a knife—Gutierrez is the kind of ape that’s carried a knife all his life; you wouldn’t have a chance that way. You can’t let the other fella pick the weapons if it gives him all the edge and you ain’t got none. The thing to do is use somethin you’re handy with. Maybe a piece of lead pipe or a tire tool. Or a gun, if you’re mad enough.”

  “How about a slide rule?” Bondi said. “I could rap his knuckles smartly and then run like hell.”

  “This is serious business,” Burns said. “You know it.” He finished his coffee. “You said you played baseball for a while. Well, hell, use a ball bat. And strike first, from behind. Do
n’t give him a chance to take it away from you. You don’t want a fight, you want revenge.” He grinned a little. “When you just want a fight you can always go home to your wife.”

  “That’s right,” Bondi said; “punishment, not a duel, is my aim.” He found himself taking refuge in nonsense. “I haven’t won a fight in my life,” he said, “not since I beat up my best Mend back in Montclair, New Jersey. I wasn’t mad at him but he was the only kid in the whole school I was sure I could lick. I had to do it.”

  Both lapsed into silence for a few minutes, straying into retrospection, exhuming old faces and events from some vault in the brain.

  “I remember when I was a kid,” Burns said, “—I wish I had a smoke, this would come easier.” He looked around for Reverend Hoskins, saw him telling a story at the other end of the room. “Well, I’ll get one in the mornin. Well, anyway—” He looked at Bondi. “Did I ever tell you about Steve Brock and Charlie Snye?”

  “I don’t know,” Bondi said; “I can’t remember.”

  “Well, when my old man died my mother sent me out here to New Mexico, to my Grandfather’s ranch. Sent me Collect, you might say: my Grandfather paid for the shipping. I was only twelve years old at the time, but mean as a bobcat.

  “I hated it at first. My Grandfather just had a little place, and everybody had to work hard, includin me. First time in my life I ever did an honest day’s work.”

  “Why didn’t your mother come too?” Bondi asked.

  “She had another man, back in Joplin.”

  “Why didn’t she keep you then?”

  “She had to get rid of me to keep the man.”

  “Oh…” Bondi tried to imagine that distant situation, the horny dilemma. He saw the boy, Utter and unforgiving, and a strange man with certain inflexible opinions, and the mother, undoubtedly bewildered, probably a little desperate: other brats to feed. And young Hamlet scrounging around, sulking and hatching trouble. Dispatch him to England!

  “I landed in Socorro one day in September. My Grandfather picked me up in his old Model A at the bus depot. I’ll never forget that drive out to the ranch—-forty miles over some of the toughest, roughest, rockiest roads you ever saw in your life. You know what Oscura range is like; nothin but lava beds and dry arroyos and mesquite and cholla and yucca. In that country a cow would walk a mile for a mouthful of grass, and ten miles for a drink of muddy water. I thought it was just about the awfulest country I ever seen. And the ranchhouse was even worse—flat top, mud walls, a few dusty cottonwoods standin around. And some fat old Mexican woman in the kitchen—what a mess! Nothin like good old Joplin—no streetcars, no movie houses, no railroads, no drugstores, no factories, no garbage dumps—nothin but those rocky hills and all that cactus and those buildings made outa mud: I thought the place was awful. I thought it was worthless. I thought my Grandfather was crazy to live in a place like that.

  “Well, I thought anyway I’d get a horse and saddle right away. But nope, the first thing we did was put a tin roof on the hay tern. And after that we went to a place down by the Rio where my Grandfather had a few acres and we put in about a week makin hay! I like to broke my back, pitchin on to the wagon and trampin down when we got back to the barn. Weren’t no hay balers around then—them was Depression days.

  “After we got the hay in and done some other foolin round, it was time for the fall roundup. That was a complicated business I got to tell you all about some time. There was me and my Grandfather and Charlie Snye—a real sour old bastard my Grandfather hired for range cook—and there was two other drifters and then there was this young Steve Brock, who worked for my Grandfather all year round. He was kinda wild and rough, and built like a middleweight prizefighter, and he was as tough as he looked. Only my Grandfather was tougher, though I didn’t know it then. Anyway, I was crazy about this Steve Brock; I was just a kid and I thought he was everything a cowboy should be. Then we started out; we had about ten sections of open range to cover.

  “But I still didn’t get to be a cowboy. My Grand-father made me wrangler and cook’s helper, I had to take care of about fifteen cow ponies, carry wood and water for the cook, help him wash dishes, help him pack up the chuckwagon—it wasn’t a wagon at all, though, just an old Dodge truck with oversize tires to get through the sand. I didn’t like my job; I hated it The only thing I ever roped on that roundup was dead brush, when the cook wanted more wood—and it took me a long time to learn to do that.

  “And I didn’t get along with the cook, either. He was old and skinny and nasty and hated himself cause his name was Charlie Snye; I thought that was a pretty good reason, too. And Steve Brock didn’t like him either; them two was always at each other’s throats, arguin about one thing or another. I think Brock woulda killed old Snye if my Grandfather hadn’t been around.

  “About ten days after we started out we got back to the ranch headquarters with around a hundred fifty head of cattle. I mean beef, market stuff; the calves, bulls and cows was culled as we went along. Most of the hard work was done now; all my Grandfather had to do was wait for the trucker he contracted with to come and pick up the cattle. Well, the day after we got back my Grandfather paid off the hands and invited them all to stick around for a big dinner that evenin. He said there was gonna be a celebration of some kind, only he wouldn’t say what. So the boys hung around.

  “That evenin we all sat down at the big table in the ranchhouse. Seems to me now that there was the best dinner I ever settled down to: there was a whole side of beef from some slick yearlin that wandered into camp lookin for trouble; and there was a brace of wild ducks from down by the river; and there was gravy, turnips, fried beans, tortillas, guacamole, sopapillas—nearly ever damned thing to eat a body could think of. And there was home-brew, too, and a couple gallons of Dago red. I tried everything in sight, and tried my best to keep awake.

  “I was just beginnin to wonder where the dessert was when in came old Charlie Snye holdin a great big cake in his hands, one of the fanciest cakes I ever seen— three layers, with white icing and chocolate trimmin and on top of all that a bunch of little candles all lit up and burnin away as pretty as ever could be. I wondered whose birthday it was, and then old Charlie he started to sing Happy Birthday to me, just grinnin like a nigger with a watermelon. Was I surprised! You coulda knocked me over with a feather. I’d plumb forgot all about my birthday—but my Grandfather didn’t; him and Charlie musta got together and planned the whole thing in advance. I never felt so good in my life.

  “And then an awful thing happened. While Charlie was standin at the head of the table with the big cake in his hands and a big grin on his face, this here young Steve Brock fella picked up about a pound of soft country butter that was settin on the table and reared back and heaved the whole mess at Charlie. And hit him, too, right on the side of his head—covered half his face and spread all over his neck. Made the most godawful splatter you ever saw.

  “Well, I was just young enough and dumb enough to laugh. But just once—only once. Cause nobody else let out a sound. Not a tick. Old Charlie set the cake down on the table and started to try to get some of the butter off his face. Didn’t say a word; just kinda whimpered a little, like a sick hound. And then my Grandfather stood up—God, I’ll never forget that look on his face; there was somethin in his eyes that woulda froze the gizzard of a black panther. And did he look big: I thought he never would stop risin up outa that chair. The only sound you could hear was the rattle of his spurs. And then when he stood up the chair fell back with a crash that like to made me jump right outa my skin.

  “There was a rifle hung on the wall and a pair of chaps and a coiled rope. I thought my Grandfather would reach for the rifle; but he took the rope instead and didn’t unwind it. Young Brock sat there with a kind of silly grin on his face. He was drunk when he threw the butter but he began to look pretty sober now. My Grandfather walked toward him—great big steps—and Brock started to get up. “What the hell you think you’re gonna do?” he says. Still think
s he’s pretty tough. My Grandfather don’t say a word; he just reaches down, grabs Brock’s shirt and yanks him up outa the chair. Brock starts to say somethin but don’t get it out cause my Grandfather spins him round and kicks him in the tail so hard he hits the wall six feet away. Kicks him like you’d kick a mean dog, with the toe of his boot. So it really hurts. Then he opens the door to the front verandah and tells Brock to get out pronto. But Brock still has some notions about his dignity; he rolls away from the wall and comes at my Grandfather with both fists flyin. So then my Grandfather slugs him with the coil of rope. Brock stayed on the floor for a long time then, thinkin things over; then he crawled out the door and out to the barn and got into his old Chevvie and left for good. Never came back.”

  Burns was silent for a few minutes. Bondi waited for him to speak. “That was a rough evenin,” the cowboy said; “made a big impression on me. Taught me some-thin, I think. Sorta reversed all my standards. There was old Snye—bald as a buzzard, potbellied, cranky and ugly and generally miserable; and there was Steve Brock—young, strong, smart, good-lookin. I despised old Charlie and powerfully admired Brock. Then all of a sudden, in five minutes or less, my Grandfather changed the whole picture somehow. Not that he made me like old Snye or hate Brock; it’s just that then and ever since whenever it’s a case of a Snye agin a Brock I feel I gotta help out the Snye. Not for his sake, but for my own, I think. Or for the sake of somethin more important than any Snye or Brock or me. What would you call it?”

 
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