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The brave cowboy, p.20
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       The Brave Cowboy, p.20

           Edward Abbey
 
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  “Sure, Morey.” The operator pulled his telephone close.

  Johnson stood up then and stretched his arms toward the ceiling. He lowered his arms and made an attempt to stuff his shirt back into his pants and then forgot about it, wandering instead toward the window.

  The wind had died, gone away, blown south to Mexico. The sky was clear now, vivid as wine and deep with a premonition of night. Far beyond the city, reaching for twenty miles north and south in an unbroken five-thousand foot wall of granite, the Sangre Mountains rose up amid their rubble of foothills and crags and canyons, the naked rock luminous and golden in the slanting light.

  Johnson stared at the mountains. That’s where he is, he thought; there he waits. Out there among the rocks and yellowpine, watching the city. Might just take a run out there after supper.

  He knew the time had come to call Barker. His mind was bent on decision, finality. He went slowly to his desk, put his hand on the private telephone: the benign serious wistful face of Harry Truman watched him from the wall. Johnson raised the telephone receiver to his ear and dialed a number—two one two one four… He waited…

  “Rio Bravo Development Company.”

  “I’d like to talk with Bob Barker.”

  “Just a moment, sir…” The feminine voice faded away, succeeded presently by the cordial, good-humored, sympathetic tones of Barker:

  “Howdy. This is Bob Barker. What can I do for you?”

  “This is Johnson, Bob. I just wanted to tell you that I’m backing out.” Johnson waited for an answer; there was none. He said: “I don’t want any part in it, Bob. You’ll have to find somebody else.”

  Still there was no answer; then from the other end of the line came the sound of a small epiglottal explosion: “—Christ, Morey! Jesus! You can’t! You can’t turn your back on half a million dollars! Have you gone crazy?”

  “I’ve made up my mind,” said Johnson. “Good—”

  “Hey, wait a minute!”

  “Goodby, Bob.” And Johnson hung up. He scratched his armpits, frowning soberly to conceal his intense inner satisfaction. He went to the hatrack and put on his Stetson. He said to the radio operator, who had completed his calls and was also getting ready to leave—“How about that airplane?”

  “Plane’s grounded this evening but they’ll work with us tomorrow,” the operator said, sticking an arm into his leather jacket.

  “Are you going home with Glynn?”

  “Yeah, I guess so, if he ever gets here.”

  “Tell him to be here at six tomorrow morning. That goes for you too. We might have a little manhunt tomorrow.”

  “Okay, Morey.”

  Before he left the office Johnson paused Again by the window for a final look at the mountains; he scanned the bartizans of rock glowing pink and gold under the evening sun, the frosted rim glittering like a coronet against the dark violet sky. Beyond the city, beyond the plain, miles away. He gazed at the mountains, thinking: So that’s where you are, Jack Burns? Out there. A shade of melancholy passed over his mind, a sweet and fragile sadness. Alone, you poor simple bastard—We’ll find you…

  He stepped toward the door, buttoning his coat. “So long,” he said to the radio operator.

  “So long, Morey.” The operator sat down on the edge of his table to wait for Deputy Glynn.

  14

  … THE GREAT CLIFFS LEANED UP AGAINST THE flowing sky, falling through space as the earth revolved, turning amber as whisky in the long-reaching lakes of light from the evening sun. But the light had no power to soften the jagged edges and rough-spalled planes of the granite; in that clear air each angle and crack cast a shadow as harsh, clean, sharp, real, as the rock itself—so that though they had endured as they were for ten million years, the cliffs held the illusion of a terrible violence suddenly arrested, paralyzed in time, latent with power.

  At the foot of the cliffs were the little stony hills, the incidental rubble that had fallen and merged as the earth split open and shoved one edge above the other. Around the hills were litters of boulders, the remains of the ancient pulverized landscape, and a complicated but systematic pattern of ditches, gullies, ravines and canyons that conducted whatever water might fall toward the valley and the river below.

  Near one of these hills, beside a sandy wash, in the shadow of the cliffs, a man had once built a house, using the materials that destruction and catastrophe had spawned—stone, mud, wood. The house remained, though the man was gone: now the windows were blank and empty like the cavities of a skull, long since stripped of glass, if they had ever held glass, and the doorway, leaning in a curious way to the east—for the house had shifted without moving from its foundation —was without a door; the rain had undercut the slanting walls, and the flat roof, sagging on rotten beams, half open to the sky, functioned now only as a home for finches and spiders and centipedes and for one stray buckhorn cactus that had somehow taken root in the sand and decayed pine above the front doorway.

  To the rear of this ruin was the arroyo, sandy and dust-dry except for a thread of water trickling from a tiny seep-like spring near the front of a rock ledge. Three cottonwoods, great towering plants in this arid zone of cactus and greasewood, were huddled together like gossiping old women around the miniature spring, their buried mouths sucking moisture up from the sand and the aquiferous limestone below. The modest overflow from the spring dripped over the lip of the rock and spread along the base of the ledge, soaking through rather than flowing over the sand; for a stretch of about ten yards there was enough water to support a little grass, some watercress and cattails, a few stunted willows. Beyond this patch of green was a delta of damp sand, thoroughly chopped up by the hooves of deer and cattle, where the last of the water disappeared, its long journey from near the mountain’s rim five thousand feet above, beginning under a pocket of snow in some pine grove, falling from there down through ravines and gorges to the canyon, from one climate and world to a greatly different one, ending here in silent evaporation and a vague dispersal underground.

  The leaves of the cottonwoods, dry and fragile and lemon-yellow, stirred briefly, rattled and rustled together, and several drifted to the ground. A tufted bluejay flew darkly from one tree to the next, lit on a slender branch and shook more of the dead leaves free.

  Below the trees, near the red-stemmed willows, a picketed horse grazed industriously on the strip of grass, switching its tail now and then at a few idle, indifferent flies.

  The cowboy was not far away. He lay in the sun near a boulder on the far side of the arroyo, away from the abandoned house; his head was propped against his saddle, and the floppy black hat covered most of his face, revealing only the bearded chin and the mouth, the latter relaxed, partly open, emitting at regular intervals the deep prolonged sighs of sleep. His property was close at hand—the saddlebags, the rifle in its scabbard, the bedroll, all still attached to the saddle itself; while the guitar and the bridle hung from handy stubs on a nearby juniper.

  A raven circled above the arroyo and the spring, descended and landed with a cumbersome flapping of wings in the top of the highest cottonwood, shattering a few leaves and sending a wave of tremors through all the others. It spread its black wings, wobbling somewhat on its perch, and bent its head to search for lice. The bluejay in the adjoining tree squawked, chattered, and then flew away. After that, except for the routine murmur of a few insects near the spring, the arroyo was allowed to resume its original and fundamental silence.

  Burns slept on, his hands across his belly, his legs apart and fully extended over the ground.

  Ten miles away and a thousand feet below, the gleaming river wound through the valley and through the dark ragged crawl of the city and beyond the city into the far haze of the south. The city steamed and glimmered faintly, smoky and alive and obscure, while a few airplanes droned in circles above it like flies over a poisonous dump. West of the river the volcanoes, black as obsidian against the light, cast long tapering shadows over the tawny skin of the p
lain, and to the southwest, more than sixty miles away, the jagged peaks of Thieves’ Mountain burned into the southern sky with a strange vaporish flaming purple, as if illuminated from within by furnaces of radiant energy.

  The raven launched itself awkwardly, like a vivified scarecrow, out of the cottonwood tree and flapped up into the static yawning vacancy of the canyon beyond the arroyo and the ruined house.

  The silence flowed back in the wake of whispering echoes.

  A lizard scurried down the face of the big rock near Burns, stopped for a moment to watch him, pushing itself up and down on its forelegs like an exercising athlete, and then hurried jerkily on and disappeared under the edge of the rock.

  The long evening shadows crept over the sleeping man, darkening his boots, his knees, his lean overalled thighs…

  Something woke him: partly the change in temperature, partly the sensation of time elapsed and lost, partly fear—he heard something which was not a normal element in the auditory character of the arroyo—the birdcries, the leaves, the insects, the movements and feeding of his horse, the sound of his own breathing. He opened his eyes and reached cautiously for his rifle at the same time; however, he did not immediately pull the rifle from its case—when his groping fingers contacted the cool metal and smooth walnut of butt and stock he was satisfied and let his hand rest there. Rolling aver on one side but not getting up, he concentrated his energies on an intensive inspection of the visible and audible world around him.

  Three Virginia deer stood at the head of the arroyo. At first he did not see them; uncertain as to where the sound had come from, he looked west, down the arroyo and toward the dirt road that ran north and south, paralleling the mountains; then swung his gaze around in a slow half-circle—southwest, across the arroyo and toward the city, south, past the old ruin and along the base of the foothills, southeast, where the great looming wall of the canyon blocked his vision at once, and at last up the slope, eastward, up into the arroyo past the cottonwoods and the spring and the tiers of eroded rock to the little saddle in the ridge that separated the arroyo from the main canyon. And there, among the junipers and cactus and boulders, he spotted the three motionless deer.

  Three does, less than fifty yards away, looking as insubstantial and ephemereal as shadows, suggesting even in their alert stillness the grace and silence of flight;—Burns stared at them and suddenly realized that they had not seen him—they were watching the horse below the spring. He tightened his grip on the butt of the rifle and slowly, with patience and extreme care, drew it from the scabbard and passed it under his chest and into the crook of his left arm. Now he had to lever a cartridge from the magazine into the firing chamber, an operation that could not be performed without a minimal clicking and mesh of metal parts. Of course the deer heard the noise: their ears stiffened and their heads swung slightly, in perfect unison, toward the man. But Burns was already in position, taking a bead on the foremost of the three, aiming at a certain Vital point on the withers, just under the skin, where the spinal column became part of the neck. A difficult target, even at that range: if he hit too low he would destroy good meat and perhaps only cripple the animal; if he fired an inch too high he would miss. Therefore he did not hurry but waited for a perfect alignment of notched read sight, beaded front sight, and the invisible nexus of nerves on the crest of the doe. When it came he settled into it, holding his breath easily, and began very slowly to squeeze the trigger.

  The crash never came; before he could fire he heard a shake and whinny from the mare, and the deer were gone, vanishing instantly, fading like ghosts into the golden jumble of boulders and the gold-tinged olivedrab of the chaparral.

  Burns let the hammer down with his thumb; he looked reproachfully down into the arroyo at the mare. “Whisky, old girl,” he murmured, “where’s your hoss sense? You sure let me down this time, you know that?” The mare stared at him, snorted, and shook her mane again. “Don’t try to bushwah me,” Burns said: “I heard you.” He looked sadly up the arroyo toward the saddle over which the deer had disappeared. He decided that he might as well go up there and have a look, however; the deer might not have been badly frightened—besides they were apparently in search of water, which meant that they would not run far. And he needed meat; if he did not get it now he would have to get it tomorrow.

  He got to his feet, brushed the sand and ants from his shirt, and looked around again. He saw nothing which should have frightened the deer, and concluded that they must have been startled by Whisky giving a sudden jerk on the picket rope. He pushed his saddle and the gear fastened to it hard up against the overhanging wall of the boulder, then went down into the arroyo to check the stake and rope. He drove the stake in a little farther with his bootheel, had himself a quick drink at the spring, and started up the arroyo with the carbine cradled in his left arm. Pulling himself up over the ledges and shelves of rock that made the arroyo something like a stairway for giants, he was annoyed by the scraping and clashing of his spurs and knelt down to take them off. He left them there on the bare rock, in a place which he felt sure he could find again, and went on up.

  After climbing over a stratum of compressed shale near the head and at one side of the arroyo, he found himself among the runty trees where he had seen the deer. Now he proceeded more slowly and carefully, and as he approached the crest of the saddle went down on his hands and knees and crawled the last few feet to the top. There he halted. Below him was the mouth of the canyon, to his right the canyon itself going steeply up, shelf after shelf, toward the main bulk of the mountain, and across from him on the opposite slope, moving slowly upward among the rock and brush, were the three deer. As he had expected, they had not gone far. But they were well out of range, and moving away. He decided to follow and stalk them.

  He tested the wind, such as it was, and found it favoring neither him nor his quarry but drifting up the canyon between them. He advanced over the saddle, crouching under the limbs of juniper and pin oak, and moved down onto the slope below, where the growth was denser, this being the northern snow-holding side of the ridge. He did not go very far down but stayed on the slope, moving quietly but swiftly among the small grubby trees in a direction paralleling the progress of the deer.

  A near-silent world: he heard nothing but his own breathing, the faint scrape of his boots on stone and gravel, the whispering boughs of the juniper, the rattle of the oak, the vague, distant and intermittent whistle, like a bad flute, of a mourning dove. Over everything, stone and plant and animal, over the canyon wall, over the face of the mountain far above, the sun radiated its patina of warm, rye-golden, evening light.

  Burns felt eager, hungry, intensely aware of every shade, sound, smell and movement in his environment; a keen convergence of his powers and intentions made each step seem vital, made the actions of his limbs consensual with the purpose in his mind. For the first time in nearly two days and nights he felt himself to be a whole and living creature, a man again and not a derelict stumbling through a mechanical world he could not understand.

  Something burst into action above him, on his right; he glanced up and saw the blurred gray rump of a jackrabbit bounding over a log to crash and disappear into the snapping brush beyond.

  He moved on, crouching a little as he advanced from tree to tree, circling around open areas where the cover was too meagre, making good time on occasional stretches of almost level ground where piñon trees had forced out the juniper and scrub oak. He had gained rapidly on the deer, though they were still out of range, perhaps three hundred yards away. So long as they continued to move he could not hope to get much closer without attracting their attention; only when they stopped would he have time for the slow, painstaking stealth of a stalking approach.

  The ground tilted more steeply under his feet as the slope began to merge with the nearly perpendicular wall of the canyon. He had to angle downwards now, toward the rock ledges and sand floor of the canyon. As he worked his way down, going slow and carefully, he watched the
deer: they had a similar choice to make—climbing back and up over the crest of the ridge or descending into the canyon. They chose to go down— and Burns smiled gratefully.

  But he had another worry: light and time: He knew by the amber richness of the light that the sun was low in its arc; he looked back once to the west and saw the sun was low in its arc; he looked back once to the west and saw the sun about to fall into the crater of a volcano, separated from the black horizon by only a sliver of yellow sky. The river and the city—what he could see of its northern extension—where already caught in a shadow that was now sweeping on a broad front across the mesa, toward him and the shining mountain. While he watched the sun dropped lower, suddenly, like the twitching of the hour hand on a big clock, and the silhouette of the volcano cut a chunk from its blinding gold disc.

  He turned and continued his diagonal descent, going forward across the face of the slope as much as the terrain permitted. He saw the deer still going down, headed apparently for a thicket of willows and bear grass that darkened a pocket in the floor of the canyon. Probably another spring or seep of water there, he noted, and good cover for the deer as well. But the place might also be a trap: the pocket of green ended at the base of a twenty foot water-slide of smooth bare polished stone.

  He went more slowly than ever now, though the light passed far above his head and the shadow of the horizon surrounded him. He saw the three deer spring onto the sand of the canyon floor and merge, not quite totally disappearing, with the thicket of willows and high grass. He advanced another hundred yards or so on his feet, taking advantage of every bit of cover, and then, being within three hundred yards of his prey, he went down on his hands and knees and crawled forward, taking the most extreme pains to avoid being seen or heard, stopping often to listen and to study the arrangement of the rocks and cactus and trees ahead. He was now well down on the slope of the canyon, not far from the floor, and as he was anxiously aware, upwind from the deer: at any moment they might catch his scent, leave off their grazing and drinking and go leaping upward across the far slope and over the ridge and not stop until the smell of man was left miles behind. But there was nothing Burns could do about it now; hours would be required in climbing up the slope, going around behind the canyon wall and coming down again from above and farther up the canyon. Already the twilight was spreading over the canyon; thousands of feet above, the rim reflected the final rays of the sun. He had to get closer to the deer as quickly as it was strategically possible and when he was close enough, shoot accurately—there would be little chance for a second shot.

 
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