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The brave cowboy, p.3
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       The Brave Cowboy, p.3

           Edward Abbey
 

  The little dark children of the farmers trotted along beside him in the dust, staring, grinning, making remarks:

  “Eh charro, dónde va? Dónde va, meestair cow-boy?”

  Women came to the doorways in the adobe walls, leaned there casually and scratched at their armpits, watching him ride by with their soft brown animal eyes, curious, appraising, not unfriendly. The rider smiled at them, tipped his hat courteously to each one—dust sliding down from the brim onto his wrist—and some quality or question in his grave smile made the women smile back, uneasily, shyly. There was a silent and tentative exchange of recognition, as though the man on horseback were not a stranger, or something more than a stranger, a figure out of a grandfather’s tale heard in childhood, a man thought to be utterly forgotten now returning and riding visibly and audibly down the soft brown dust of the street.

  The women touched the medallions lying between their breasts and watched him go.

  The children followed him beyond the village, staring at him, trotting beside the horse, asking questions:

  “Dónde va, don charro? Eh? Dónde va?”

  “Quien sabe?” he answered; “who knows? Who cares?”

  The biggest boy, bold and dirty, with a dead cigarette stuck on his lower lip and two gray ropes of snot discharging from his nostrils, was not so deferential: “Eh huesudo, where you come from, huh? What’s your name? Barbudo?” Some of the little boys sniggered as they trotted along. “What’s your name, huesudo?” the biggest boy said again, grinning at the others. “Barbudo? Viego jodido y reculón? Eh?”

  The rider looked down at him. “Watch your manners, mocoso. Quitense.”

  “Malas cachas!”

  The rider stopped his horse. “Come here,” he said quietly, detaching his rope from the saddle swell and shaking out the loop. The boy hung back, alarmed. “Venga!” the rider said; “pronto!” He gave the loop an experimental twirl above his head. To the other boys he said: “We’ll use that tree there,” and pointed to the nearest cottonwood.

  The boy with the cigarette turned and ran back down the road toward the village, squealing for his father; after a moment of hesitation all the others turned and ran with him. The rider grinned after them, then pulled the mare about and jogged on toward the city.

  He passed between rows of tall golden poplars standing like flaming torches beside the road, past more fields of corn and alfalfa and dead sunflowers, over another irrigation ditch and into the suburban outskirts of the city. The road became a street, with a gravel surface and neat drainage ditches on each side, and the houses were neat and clean and made of cement or brick or cinder blocks with a stucco finish; each house was neatly fenced off from its neighbors. There seemed to be no children in this area, very few dogs, no chickens or geese or crows. The women remained indoors and stared out with pale bleak faces at the strange creature going by on horseback—the rider had occasional glimpses of these isolate housewives, disembodied faces transpiring in the casement windows like potted plants, forlorn, unwatered and unfertilized.

  He came at last to the world of gas stations, supermarkets, drugstores, parking meters, and to the first paved street. Whisky stepped onto the hard asphalt, tossed her head and stepped back, fighting the reins.

  Automobiles rolled by, the drivers gaping blankly at the horse and man.

  The rider watched for an opening in the traffic, while the shopkeepers and motorists stared at him, then spurred the mare sharply forward. She snorted and shook her head, then lunged onto the pavement, her iron-shod hooves slipping and clattering on the hard surface. In the middle of the road she tried to turn and go back. Fat automobiles gleaming like toys came hissing up, horns blaring challenges, white faces staring from behind their glass. The mare spun completely around, a full circle, while the man prodded her with the spurs, flicked her with the loose slack of the reins, talked to her quietly and urgently. She tried to turn again, eyes wild and rolling, nostrils flared, slipped and almost fell, finally leaped forward again and off the road to safety.

  While the cars roared past behind them the rider removed his hat, brushed back his black hair, wiped his brow with the back of his hand. He patted the mare’s sweating neck, talking quietly into her straining ears. When she had regained a good measure of confidence from his reassurances and the feel of the rough tractional soil of the earth beneath her hooves, he let her go on, following the continuation of the dirt road that led east between hayfields and orchards.

  A quarter mile further and they came to a highway, the important north-south highway linking Duke City to Santa Fe and the north—four broad lanes of smooth asphalt quivering under the continual battery of cars, trucks and tractor-trailers. The rider “stopped to survey this obstacle, the slippery pavement and the dense moving wall of steel and hard rubber. There was no possibility of outflanking this barricade; though he rode for years he would find no end to it; the track of asphalt and concrete was as continuous and endless as a circle or the walls of a cell. Therefore he sat and waited, hoping for a break in the flow of traffic big enough to sneak a four-legged animal through.

  As he was waiting he noticed something strange spread out flat on the surface and near the center of the road: a piece of animal hide, the hairy yellow coat of a dog or coyote. Smeared out and around the hide was the dried blood and glandular juices of this creature which had attempted to jaywalk on Route 85. The big wheels and rubber tires rolled over the corpse with regular and barely perceptible thumps, the faint mechanical recognition of an existence that had not been meant for amalgamation with tar and gravel.

  He rested in the saddle and waited and presently an opportunity came, a hundred yards of open space between mutually approaching trucks. He urged the mare forward and again the same thing happened. Whisky recoiled at the touch of pavement, resisted his commands and raking spurs and turned around in circles fighting the bit, sliding and clattering on the unfamiliar and unyielding face of the highway. Yet once more he managed to get her across—spurring, lashing, coaxing the mare until she lunged forward in the right direction, fighting down her attempt to stop and rear, driving her by the violence of his language and the force of his will across the path of the oncoming trucks and past the asphalt onto the good earth beyond. The frightened men in the cabs of the trucks stared at him as they went by, while the squeal and snort of airbrakes vibrated through the air.

  They rested again, the man and his horse, savoring and treasuring the sweet sensation of life. After a while they went on, still eastward, following the unpaved street past a big new graveyard laid out like a model housing project, past a big new housing project laid out like a model graveyard, across the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, through a grove of cottonwoods and over more irrigation ditches, between more fields of alfalfa and corn and potatoes, past more of the soft melting adobe homes of the Mexican farmers and beyond to the fragmentary, disintegrating edges of the city. Between the man on horseback and the great jagged wall of the mountains there now remained only a handful of scattered mud houses and the ten miles of open desert. Toward the last, outermost house, a small adobe with jutting vigas, unplastered walls and a blue wooden door he now guided the mare. Smelling green hay and grain she stepped forward eagerly, tugging at the reins. The rider brushed some of the dust from his shirt, brushed his hat, wiped his face with the damp red bandana, checked the buttons on the fly of his jeans, and then let the mare go, loping down the last half-mile of the road and trailing a cloud of sun-dazzled dust.

  2

  JERRY BONDI WAS KNEADING BREAD DOUGH WHEN she heard the horse coming, the sound of the loping hooves muffled at first by the dust, the distance, then sounding close, coming up the lane by the apricot trees toward the house. For a moment she was startled, unable to think, and then the name and the image of the familiar face flashed through her brain and she gave a little half-giggled cry of pleasure. She rushed to the mirror above the kitchen sink, saw a patch of flour on her nose, white flour in her hair. She was abou
t to rub it off when she realized that her hands were plastered and sticky with wet dough. She moaned in a mild panic, hearing the horse trot by the house and into the backyard, the sudden scraping stop and the light thud and jingle of spurred feet hitting the ground. She started to wash her hands, pouring water from the kettle into a basin. She could hear the man outside talking in low tones to the horse, then his steps approaching and the musical rattle of spurs on the back porch.

  A knock on the door. “Jerry,” the man said.

  “Come on in,” she called, wiping her hands hurriedly cm a dishtowel; her fingers and palms remained caked with dough.

  The door opened and the tall rider stood there, his hands dangling uselessly and a shy white grin on his dark face. “Hi,” he said.

  Jerry went toward him smiling, her arms open. “Welcome, Jack; it’s good to see you.” And she reached up and embraced his lean neck and left little smudges of wet dough on the back of his shirt. ‘I was expecting you,” she said; “I had an intuition.” She pulled his head down a little, stood up on her toes and kissed him square on the mouth. Then she drew back to look at him. He grinned at her, saying nothing. She said: “You look the same, about. You look pretty good. Maybe a little skinnier but tough as a wild billygoat.”

  “You got flour on your nose,” he said.

  “Thank you,” she said. “You need a shave. Last time we saw you—was that a year ago?—you needed a shave then too. Why do you always look like you need a shave?”

  “I shave pretty seldom.” He touched his chin, grinning at her. “Never really learned how to shave right.”

  She continued to smile helplessly at him, entranced by the thawing and illumination of his leathery face, the little creases of pleasure around his mouth and eyes. “Well I’m sure glad you came,” she said, after a short pause; “God only knows I’m glad to see you.” She remembered Paul, her husband, and her smile began to fade with the thought. “Well—sit down. I’ll fix you something to eat. You look like you haven’t eaten for a few weeks. How about some ham and eggs?”

  “That sounds mighty good, Jerry.”

  “Okay. Now you sit down.” She indicated a spindle-legged chair in a corner of the kitchen. “Just let me put up this bread and then I’ll fix you something.” She turned back to the bread dough rolled in a field of white flour on the tabletop.

  He stepped beside her, towering above her head, and placed his hands on hers and held them still. “Let me finish it,” he said, smiling down at her.

  “It’s almost finished. My hands are already messed up.”

  “Let me do it,” he said again. “Tin expert at this.”

  “Well, all right,” she said, and went to the sink and washed her hands clean of the dough. He stood beside her, waiting to wash his own hands. “I gotta new horse,” he said. “A little mare, part Appaloosa and part plain old range stock. She’s a real pretty little critter—you oughta go out and take a look at her.”

  “Wonderful,” she said. “I’ll do that.” She started to dry her hands while he refilled the basin with cold water from the bucket and rolled up his sleeves. “Jack…” she said.

  “Yeah?” He wet his hands and began soaping them.

  “Why are you here?”

  Very slowly he rubbed the cake of soap over his palms and the back of his hands. He stared out the window above the sink. Finally he said: “I read about Paul in the papers. I saw his picture and I read under it and it said he was gettin two years in prison for refusin to register for the draft. Is that right?”

  “Yes, that’s right.” She stood beside him at the sink and stared at her hands. “Two years,” she said.

  “Well, that’s too long.” He rinsed the soapsuds from his hands and looked around for a towel. “Too damn long,” he said; gently he removed the damp towel from Jerry’s unperceptive fingers. “I came to town to see if I could do anything.”

  She raised her head and looked at him, her eyes widening. “He’s already in jail,” she said; “there’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do.” She stared at him with a dim and irrational hope in her mind, her eyes. “What could you do?” she said.

  “I don’t know. I ain’t thought of anything yet.” He finished drying his hands and went to the roll of dough and put his clean fingers on it. “I’ll think of something,” he said. “Step outside and take a look at Whisky. The prettiest and toughest and orneriest little filly you ever did see.” He began to roll and fold the moist dough with expert familiarity; he glanced at Jerry. “Go on,” he said; “you want to hurt her feelings?”

  Jerry had been staring at the floor and rubbing dried dough from her fingertips. “Of course,” she said. “I mean no.” She raised her head and smiled at him with a perhaps unconscious wistfulness. “Where is this—animal…?” She stepped to the kitchen door and opened it and looked out at the mare tethered to a pillar of the porch. The mare stepped back a pace, her ears stiffening. “Well, Jack, I declare—she is a beauty. Now what do you call her?”

  “I told you: Whisky.”

  “Whisky?” Disapproving, Jerry said: “A fine name for a horse.”

  “Well damnit, she drinks.” Burns sprinkled more dry flour over the dough. “She was drunk when I bought her—that’s how she fooled me. She acts pretty decent when she’s all likkered up.”

  “I’ll unsaddle her.”

  “Better not; she’s still kind of spooky. Doesn’t like women, anyway.” He patted and shaped the dough into a compact mass. “I’ll take care of her in a minute.” He look about for lard or butter. “Hey, gimme somethin to grease this dough with.”

  Jerry shut the door and went to the cupboard and took down a can of lard. “Here,” she said, pulling off the lid; “help yourself.” Burns stuck his fingers in and then smeared the ball of dough. “Now put it in that basin.” He did; she covered it with a clean dish towel and then set the basin on a shelf above the cookstove, feeling his dark gaze on her as she moved through the warmth of the kitchen.

  “I’ve been missin somethin,” he said.

  “What’s that?”

  He smiled again. “Home life, I guess.” He raised a hand to his hat. “Doggone, it’s so long since I been in a house I even forget to take my hat off.”

  “You’ve got dough all over your hands.”

  He removed his hat and hung it on a nail by the door; he looked at his hands. “Yeah, you’re right.”

  She went to the sink and poured a little water into the basin. “Here, wash your hands; then you’d better go out and take care of that mare of yours.”

  “You think she’s gettin jealous?”

  “You wash your hands.” Jerry felt herself blushing.

  Unable to look at him, she said: “What would you like to eat?”

  “You said you were gonna rassle up some ham and eggs,” Burns said softly, rubbing his hands with soap “I could sure go for some ham and eggs; to tell the truth I’m hungry as an old grizzly in April. My belly’s gettin all frayed from rubbin against my backbone.”

  “We’ll have to do something about that,” she said—a little formally. She opened the firebox of the stove and stuffed in some paper and kindling. “What have you been doing for the last year or so, anyway?”

  “I was afraid you’d ask me that.” He dried his hands on a towel hanging over the sink. “I can’t lie to you, neither; sure wish I could, it’s so downright shameful.”

  She looked at the sly smile on his lips and guessed. “Don’t tell me you’ve been herding sheep again!” She struck a match on the stove and lit the paper.

  “Jerry, you’re absolutely right. Yessir, I’ve been playing nursemaid to God’s lowliest critters. So help me…”

  She slammed shut the door of the firebox and opened the damper. “At this rate you’ll end up on a dude ranch, Jack.”

  “You’re right; when a man’s fallen to herdin sheep he might as well go all the way down.” He walked toward the door and as he opened it Jerry Bondi reached out and put her han
d on his forearm. He looked down at her.

  “Jack…” She tried to smile at him; she could find nothing to say. He waited. “You’d better take care of your horse,” she said finally. They could hear the mare outside, stamping, shaking her gear.

  “That’s what I aim to do.” He gave her wrist a squeeze. “Don’t you worry none about Paul; I’ll think of somethin. I sure didn’t ride fifty miles just to take the air.”

  “I’m sure of that,” she said. “Now I’ll have to worry about you too.”

  “No need for that.” He grinned at her. “Nothin can hurt me; I’m like water: boil me away and I come back in the next thunderhead.” He stepped outside. “I’ll have about six eggs.”

  “You’ll have to put your horse in the corral with the goats.”

  “I know,” he said, untying the reins from around the post. “That’s all right; me and Whisky ain’t proud.”

  “There’s a bale of alfalfa in the shed. Help yourself.”

  “Thank you, Jerry.” Burns rubbed the mare’s neck. “Say thank you to the lady, Whisky.” The mare tossed her head and backed away, snorting; “Easy, girl, easy. Goddamnit,” Burns apologized, “she’s still a trifle skittish,” He cradled the mare’s head in his arms and stroked her nose. “Now you take it easy, little girl; nothin to get all excited about. She’s gonna break my heart,” he said to Jerry; “she’s so all-fired pig-headed. Gotta crazy streak in her.”

  “She takes after her master, then,” Jerry said.

  Burns grinned. “That might be.” He gave the reins a tug. “Come on, you vinegaroon.” The mare followed him toward the corral, where two goats waited with their white muzzles thrust out between the poles. The sunlight was dazzling, a white glare on the sand and wood; Jerry squinted, watching the man and horse and their black stark shadows. A pair of finches swooped over the yard, shrilling.

  She heard an explosion, dim, muffled, like a shot of dynamite going off underground.

 
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