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The brave cowboy, p.8
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       The Brave Cowboy, p.8

           Edward Abbey
 

  “Missouri.”

  “Is that the truth?”

  “Yes, goddamnit.”

  “Let go of his neck.” The booking officer recorded the information on the formsheet in his typewriter, while Burns, slowly raising his head, stared at him with malignant intensity. “What’s your occupation?” asked the booking officer.

  Burns looked at him. “Cowhand,” he said; “sheep-herder; game poacher.”

  “Which is it?”

  “All of them. What difference does it make?”

  The booking officer typed for a minute. “Where’s your papers?” he said.

  “My what?”

  “Your I.D.—draft card, social security, driver’s license.”

  “Don’t have none. Don’t need none. I already know who I am.”

  The booking officer frowned heavily. “You’re not supposed to run around without any identification,” he said. “People like you ought to have to wear dog collars.” He stared seriously at Burns. “Now where’s your draft card?”

  “Don’t have none.”

  “You got to have a draft card.”

  “Never heard of it.”

  The booking officer sighed gently, half closing his eyes. “You got to have a draft card,” he repeated; “you have to carry it with you at all times. It’s a Federal offense not to. You understand that?”

  Burns smiled. “That’s news to me.”

  “Didn’t you ever hear of the Selective Service Act?”

  “Yes, I heard of it.”

  “All right.” The booking officer rubbed his nose. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” He peered sternly at the cowboy. “Now what did you do with your draft card?”

  “Never had one.”

  The booking officer scowled. “Never had one? Didn’t you register for the draft in 1948?”

  “I’m a veteran.”

  “All right, you’re a veteran. We all are. But you still had to register. Did you?”

  “Never heard of it. I was out of town.”

  The booking officer stared at Burns for a moment, then turned to the clerk sitting at the radio and telephone switchboard behind the desk. “Bill,” he said, “you’d better contact the FBI. Tell them it looks like we’ve picked up another draft dodger.” He faced Burns again. “Fella, you seem to be in all kinds of trouble.” He added more data to the booking sheet, then ripped it out of the typewriter and filed it in the cabinet. He said to Burns: “You know anybody that’ll put up bond for you?”

  “No,” said Burns.

  “Okay. You want to make a phone call before we lock you up?”

  “No.”

  “Okay.” The booking officer handed a sheet of paper toward Burns. “There’s your receipt. Look it over.”

  Burns took the paper with his manacled hands and studied it. “What’s this?”

  “That’s a receipt for what we found in your pockets. You’ll get your property back when we let you out of here.” The booking officer looked at the clock on the wall, then at Burns and Gutierrez and the three deputies. “Well, get him the hell out of here, I want to go home.”

  Burns looked up from the piece of paper. “I want my tobacco and matches back,” he said; “you can keep the rest.”

  “Lock him up,” the booking officer said. Gutierrez released Burns and gave him a shove toward the deputies.

  “You take him,” he said, and walked out.

  “I want my tobacco,” Burns said. “Ain’t you fellas human?”

  “Get him out of here,” the booking officer said.

  “Where’ll we put him?”

  “I don’t care. Anywhere, for chrissake. The cells are all full?”

  “I told you that,” the deputy named Joe said, “There’s men sleepin on the bullpen floors tonight.”

  “Throw him in the tank,” one of the other deputies said.

  “Gimme my tobacco.”

  “Not this one,” the booking officer said; “he’s wound up a little too tight: he’ll just make trouble all night long if he gets in with those other drunks.”

  “Well, what’ll we do with him?”

  The booking officer sighed wearily, glancing at the wall clock again and then at his wristwatch. “All right: put him in the Hole for the time being; we’ll find a place for him tomorrow.”

  “That new judge ain’t givin no breaks,” one of the deputies said; “I wish we could dump a few of these birds in his kitchen.”

  “Don’t you worry about that,” the booking officer said. “Now get this guy out of here, please.”

  “How about my tobacco?” Burns said. One of the deputies put a hand on his shoulder. “Goddamnit, I want my tobacco and matches.”

  “Come on, cowboy,” the first deputy said, “you’ve had enough fun for one day.” He took Burns by the arm and gently turned him around; the second deputy took the other arm and together they marched him out of the office and into the hallway.

  Going through the door Burns twisted his head and looked back at the booking officer. “I’ll remember this,” he said. “You and that big gorilla both—I don’t aim to forget.” The booking officer, putting on his hat and jacket, ignored him.

  In the hallway one of the deputies spoke to Burns: “You better be careful, man. You’ll get in lotsa trouble talkin like that.”

  “That’s right,” the second deputy said. “Specially the Bear. You don’t want him to hear you talkin like that; he’ll hold it agin you.”

  “Sure will,” the first deputy said. “The Lieutenant is all right, he’s a good joe, but that Gutierrez—he’s mean.”

  “He’s bad,” said the second deputy.

  “No joke,” the other said; “don’t fool with him.”

  Burns limped along between them, staring straight ahead. “I know you’re right, boys,” he said. “By the way, which one of you crocked me on the back of the head?”

  “That was me,” the first deputy said; he grinned sheepishly at Burns through his brown Indian face. “I had to, cowboy; you was swingin and kickin like a scared wildcat. I had to quiet you down so we could bring you in.”

  “Thanks,” said Burns.

  They turned down a second corridor and stopped before a celldoor in the gray steel wall—a wall like the bulkhead of a warship, studded with rows of rivet heads. One of the deputies unlocked the door and opened it. “Okay,” he said to Burns.

  Burns hesitated. Beyond the door was the steel cubicle: bare gray walls, no window, no light, no furnishings but a bare steel bunk and a washbasin and a toilet bowl without a seat. “What’s this?” he said in a dull voice.

  The first deputy said: “It’s not bad. You won’t be in here long anyway, prob’ly.”

  “Well, how about some supper?”

  The deputy grinned. “You’re about three hours too late for that, cowboy.”

  Burns shrugged his shoulders. “Okay.” He held out his shackled hands. “You can take these damned things off now.”

  The deputies looked at each other. One of them said: “You better get inside first.”

  “Inside? How’re you gonna take these things off if I’m inside and you’re outside?”

  The first deputy pointed to a sliding panel in the door, big enough to put a hand through. Burns stared at it for a moment, then stepped inside the cell. At once the heavy door crashed shut behind him: he heard the latch clash and grip, then the intermeshing of tumbler and bolt as the big key was turned in the lock. He stood quite still in the sudden darkness and waited.

  There was a grating of steel and the panel in the door slid open. “Stick your hands through,” one of the deputies called. Burns put his hands through the narrow opening, the steel chain clanking and rattling on the flange. “Hold on a minute,” one of the men outside said. He heard the first deputy say: “You got the key, Sam?” The other mumbled a reply which he could not hear; he waited stolidly in the semi-darkness, trying to breathe as little as possible of the dead musty air in the cell. He felt the suffocating oppression of confineme
nt closing in on him: with great effort he suppressed his desire to cry out, to scream, to throw himself against the door. Then he felt a hand on his hand, the conflict of metal, the release of one cuff and then the other. “There you are, cowboy,” one of the deputies said. He started to withdraw his freed hands but one was caught and held from outside; something slick and light touched it. “Take these, cowboy,” he heard the first deputy say. He pulled the crumpled package inside; he knew by the feel and weight of it that it contained about five or six cigarettes.

  “Much obliged, cuate,” he said, facing the door. “How about some matches too?”

  A brown hand appeared in the opening holding a matchbook. “I thank you,” Burns said, taking the matches.

  “So long, cowboy,” one of the men called from outside. He heard them walking away, their footsteps and voices sounding loud and hollow in the long empty corridor, clashing like echoes in a cavern.

  Burns stood motionless for several minutes in the stale gloom of the cell, staring at the rectangle of light in the door. Again he felt the full weight of his steel coffin, and the powerful impulse to rage and bellow and hammer with both fists on the door. He resisted, and the spasm of panic and hatred passed, and he was left feeling dull, desolate, emptied of purpose and meaning. He groped his way to the steel shelf and squatted on it, and lit one of the cigarettes.

  The first deep drag made him sick, made him suddenly aware of his throbbing head and the sharp ache in his belly and ribs. Afraid that he was going to vomit, he put the cigarette out and back in the pack. He waited, while his stomach seemed to sink, dank and heavy as a bag of sewage, down into his guts. Gradually a profound depression crept up through his limbs, through his heart, into his mind. He shut his eyes and let his head drop down, lower and lower, between his knees, and let his hands hang like dead things over the edge of the bunk. In this position he sat for a long time, perhaps an hour, in the darknes and silence of his steel cell.

  But when this hour had passed he lifted his head and opened his eyes, remembering something; he touched his boots. And it was then that he began to sing.

  6

  THE MEN AWOKE SOON AFTER DAWN, LONG BEFORE the guard came. The cold air streamed through the half open windows beyond the cellblock and through each grill of iron to the men huddled like fetuses under their single blankets. A man would shiver, groan, and open red swollen eyes to view his world, the cage of bars and the steel walls and the dreary light filtering through the dust and cobwebs and dried spit encrusted on each window. The old vagrant in the next cell then began to cough, hack, choke, sneeze and blubber—dying by inches in a deadfall, dying of cold, heat, loneliness, the world’s resignation, a piece of bad luck in 1932—and with a shattering nasal blast voided upon the tail of his shirt the night’s accumulation of disgust. In the cell at the end of the block some half-heathen Indian kicked a lever in the wall and the waters roared, the iron conduits of sewage shook and rattled and shuddered like a premonition of war. The men growled in helpless and futile rage, scratched at their itching scalps and necks, examined new bites, sat up one by one and dressed: they put on their shoes.

  Paul Bondi awoke slowly, with extreme reluctance and ineffectual resistance; he tried to retain his dream, to wrap it like a blanket around his gray and uncomfortable mind—there in that helmet of ideas and disillusions he had known the silence of sleep, and the surrealistic adventures of a god freed upon a green hill of ferns in Arcadia—but his efforts failed, the idyll in his purling brain became ragged and obscure, faded away in a yellow vapor: he opened his eyes.

  He closed them at once. Dear God, he thought, God of our hopes and agonies—not another day of this, hard, bleak, ugly as sin and gray as virtue. The prospect of boredom, of a dead man’s routine—it turns my stomach, Lord, it scratches on every nerve in my body. Something must happen today, an adventure, an explosion of fire, the arrival of our savior…

  And then he remembered. What he had thought was lost forever in some occasional dream, he now remembered had preceded the dreams, though later mixed with them. That wild and solemn music, that wild singing as familiar to his thoughts and feelings as the image of his own face, had not been a dream at all, or not merely a dream: it was part of the gray world on which his eyes were opened now. That mad man—he had come, he was somewhere down below.

  Bondi sat up on his steel bunk, smiling; he smiled at Timothy Greene rolled against the opposite wall, he smiled at his own romantic and improbable conjectures. He put on his shoes, lacing them up with stiff cold fingers, indifferent, almost unconscious of the act. He continued to smile—involuntarily, foolishly, happily— and rubbed the sleep from his irritated eyes; the allergy that had attacked him a month before was waning now but there was still the sensation, under each eyelid, of something like finely ground emery: a delight to rub and inflame, except for the liquid misery that followed. And his nose had been for several weeks not a screen and passage for breathing but rather a solid object, a wedge of moist putty, a damp dripping seep of tender flesh, a heavy and incarnadine weight suspended from his suffering eyes.

  But he smiled, grinned happily, buckled his belt and scratched at the corners of his eyes, and thought: What can this mean, if anything? This apparition in the night? this wolf prowling through the streets of the city, howling from a cage? To judge from the sound of him, he must have been drunk as an Indian; Jack, Jack, you crazy fool… And why are you so gay, tovarish? You think he bears a pardon from the governor, news of a revolution, an amnesty for all political prisoners? Or does it please you to have a friend sharing in this little gray Hell!

  But he smiled anyway as he slid to the floor from his upper bunk; he went to the toilet bowl in the corner of the cell, urinated, blew his nose on County paper and then flushed his offering into the river and on to Texas. He bent over the washbasin and splashed cold water on his face and hair, dried himself with more toilet paper, and combed his hair. There was no mirror; he felt his chin and wondered when he would get a chance to shave. The week’s growth of beard on his chin and jaw annoyed him considerably, but there was nothing that he could do about it here. He found himself looking forward with some pleasure to the day of his transferral to a Federal prison: it would be a small adventure, a Change, perhaps an improvement. He looked for the soap; it was gone.

  “Good mornin, gentlemen,” said Timothy Greene, smiling down from his enthronement on the upper shelf. His smile twisted sourly, became an exaggerated grimace. “Oatmeal and a wiener,” he said. “One slice of bread and a tin cup of rusty Java: Oh, I got them early-in-the-mornin, knocked-down-and-drug-out, absolutely lowdown blues… Who’s got the makins of a cigarette?”

  He was not answered. The other men in the cell, six of them besides Bondi, sat wearily and miserably on their steel bunks gaping out the window at nothing, pulling on shoes, scratching their armpits, spitting and coughing like sick dogs. Men crawling like unhealthy, stunned dogs from an evil night into a hostile day. Displaced: refugees from foggy dreams.

  Bondi’s elation began to fade with the sound of the coughing. He went to the bars of the cell, put his hands on the cold steel, and stared at the window on the other side of the catwalk. This is no place for a living man, he said to himself. There was nothing to see through the window. He walked restlessly to the gate of the cell and looked out and down the long gray empty corridor to the gray barren door at its end: the tunnel to daylight. Beyond that door and beyond a second door like it and beyond a barred gate and down stairs and through hallways and beyond the ceremonial doorway of the courthouse—was freedom. A qualified freedom, he reminded himself. But air and light and movement and purpose, the possibility of choice: the essential elements of a man’s liberty. Beyond the steel and brick, on the other side of the wall of eyes.

  He thought, at this moment, of his home: past the end of the pavement, at the city’s edge, on the boundary of the desert and a sea of palpable space, the small adobe house with the blue door and projecting vigas and battered walls set fir
mly in the earth; the silvery greasewood in the backyard, the old rails of the goat corral, the pump and the well, the apricot trees along the lane, and the garden: a patch of lettuce, radishes, beans and sweetcorn. A clear and almost agonizing remembrance: Bondi, like any caged animal, felt the impulse to rage and strike, the desire to wrench the rigid bars from their bed of concrete.

  I’ve been here too long, he thought, far far too long. Oh, the days are too long.

  To avert any momentary, childish fit of despair he kicked gently at the bars, laughed aloud and thought of Jack Burns. Jack Burns in the county jailhouse: he imagined a wolf pacing round and round a straw-littered cell of the municipal zoo.

  A clang and groan of metal: the big door at the end of the corridor ground slowly open and six men came trudging in carrying brooms, mops, mop buckets—the trusties. Beyond the doorway someone turned a key in a locked panel on the wall, opened it and turned the crank that pulled aside the bullpen gate. The six trusties entered the bullpen and at once, in silence, set to sweeping and mopping; in the doorway at the end of the corridor a uniformed guard stood and watched. Paper and dirt were swept in a pile, shoveled into a box and carried out; the men with the mops followed the sweepers, smearing the cement floor with water and disinfectant. The air in the cellblock became dank and depressing with the smell of sodium hypochlorite—the atmosphere of latrines, slaughter houses, county homes, mortuaries, county jails, orphan asylums, insane asylums, reformatories, public schools—a smell calculated to dishearten the free spirit and smother hope: the revenge that old men take upon children.

  The trusties came out of the bullpen in single file, carrying their equipment with the air of harried slaves. The guard watched them and when they were all out and out of the corridor and in the room beyond the doorway he turned a second crank in the control box outside of the cellblock: the five grids of steel that served as gates to the cells slid sideways on ungreased runners, screeching and rattling like miniature trolleys. At the same time he slammed shut the heavy door and watched the prisoners through the spyhole; they could see his fat lips, the bulge of his nose as they waited by the open gates. The guard shouted at them through a screen below the glass: “Okay,” he said; “good morning, men. It’s a beautiful day in Duke City.” Nobody laughed. Then he said: “Now I want you all to march into that bullpen like gentlemen. If I catch anybody pushing or running I’m coming in there and knock his block off.” The men waited. “All right,” the guard said—“March!”

 
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