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The brave cowboy, p.9
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       The Brave Cowboy, p.9

           Edward Abbey

  The men filed silently out of their cells one at a time and in order, those in the cell nearest the door leaving first, then those in the second cell, and so on. The guard watched and counted heads as the men went through the bullpen gate. When all forty had left their cells and entered the bullpen he reversed the crank and closed and locked the gate, leaving the cells open. Then the massive cellblock door was opened again, the trusties came in carrying their buckets and mops and brooms and went to work cleaning the cells, the corridor and the catwalk around the cellblock. The guard left the door open, watching for a while, then turned and disappeared. Immediately the trusties and the prisoners clustered together along the bullpen bars, and there was a lively commerce in tobacco, cigarettes, comic books, dope, money and messages:

  Timothy Green to Fred Blackburn, trusty: Fred, where the hell is my wife? Hain’t she showed up yet? I dunno, Greene, I ain’t seen her. But goddamn her, she promised she’d talk to the Judge, try to get me off with ten days. I ain’t seen her, Greene. Well God damn her to the blackest hole in Hell. I hear she’s been hangin round with some cat from Dallas, Greene. What? What’s that again, man?

  Paul Bondi to Mike Sanchez, trusty with mop: Mike, do you know what they’ve done with a man named Burns? He’s downstairs somewhere. Who’s that? He’s a good friend of mine, his name is Jack Burns. I don’t know, boy, I didn’t hear nothin about no Burns guy—what’s he look like? He’s tall, very tall, and skinny as that mop handle; he has black hair and a long crooked nose and is probably wearing an old black Stetson and boots. I didn’t see nobody like that, boy; you sure he’s here? You bet I’m sure; I heard him singing last night. Was that a man?—I thought it was some crazy Navajo.

  The Wetback to Pete Herrera, trusty from Laguna: I gotta get outa here, Pete. Me too. It’s drivin me crazy, Pete, I can’t take it no more. I know how you feel. I got sixteen acres corn to cut, Pete. Sure, it’s bad all right. I wanta go home. They’ll let you outa here pretty soon, cuate. That’s too long, Pete. You shoulda stayed off First Street, Wetback—me too!

  The guard appeared in the doorway. “Break it up!” he shouted. “Keep those mops going! You men stand back from the bars or I’ll turn the hose on you!”

  The men slunk away, settled quietly on the steel tables bolted to the floor of the bullpen or sat on the floor or went to the far corner of the pen and hung on the bars and gazed sadly out the window at the outside world; the intersection of Fourth Street and Fruit Avenue with its milktrucks, police cars, early morning wanderers, newsboys and hotel porters. The window was much too filthy to be transparent, but it was open far enough to permit this fragmentary view of the city, two stories down.

  Bondi sat on a tabletop and cleaned his fingernails with a folded piece of cardboard torn from a paper cup. He had to reconsider the possibility that he had been dreaming awake last night, that the sound of Jack Burns singing one of Burns’ own songs had been a form of illusion, the actualization of memory and possibly desire rather than a direct perception. He had to prepare himself for the discovery that he had been wringing hope from a rag of a dream. And hope of what? He remembered the invisible inscription above the arch of the Court House entrance: Lasciate ogni speranza vol ch’entrate. The last notion made him smile, ruefully.

  Chow down!

  Chow down! The good word passed along; the men formed a line, a column of ducks, along one side of the cage. At the head of the line, waiting by the slot in the steel wall where the food came in, was the old Indian from Sandia who had been in the County Jail longer than anyone could remember—he claimed to have been born there. While the men waited the last of the trusties marched out of the corridor with their mops and buckets, leaving behind the glistening cement and the sour-sweet reek of the disinfectant. The guard came into the cellblock then, standing between the bullpen and the cells, and watched the feeding of the beasts.

  The panel that covered the slot was opened from the other side and Joe Riddle, another trusty, his face like a map of the Bad Lands, eyes sore and running, peered in. The old Indian spat at him and the face was withdrawn; a moment later a cracked enamel trap appeared containing oatmeal, a slice of bread and a tin cup of coffee. The Indian seized it and hurried to a corner of the bullpen and began scooping up his slop with the greed of a starving hyena. Another tray was shoved into the slot and the man second in line grabbed it and sat down at the nearest table. The ragged column of prisoners shuffled forward, staring at those who were already seated and eating, and mumbling complaints:

  What the bell?

  No wiener today!

  What’s comin off around here, anyhow?

  They’ll be feedin us toasted cow pies next.

  Bastards, they don’t give a damn whether we live or starve.

  I wanta see the manager.


  The guard smiled indulgently and said nothing. Within five minutes the last man in line, Paul Bondi, had accepted his breakfast and was looking for a place to sit. The guard yelled at the trusties and the slot was closed; the guard left the cellblock and a moment later the big steel door clanked into place, sealing off the outside world for a few more hours.

  Bondi sat down on the floor at the corner window; the tables and benches were already full, jammed with hungry men jostling each other with their elbows, dribbling oatmeal on their shirtfronts, gulping coffee down ragged throats. Bondi held his tray up to the light and examined the offering: much the same as he had received each morning now for almost two weeks—lukewarm watery coffee, a puddle of cold gray mucous oatmeal, a slice of flabby bread, a spoon. Only the customary wiener was absent this morning. He drank the coffee before it became any colder, then forced himself to eat the oatmeal. This required a sustained effort: the stuff had the flavor and consistency of the primeval slime and when swallowed settled heavily to the pit of his belly like a trowel-load of cold putty. But he ate it every bit of it, down to the last viscous gob; then he ate the useless slice of bread and his breaking of the night’s fast was complete. He took his tray to the slot in the wall and stacked it with the rest, and then went back to the window and gazed out at the street below and the light of the morning sun glimmering on the leaves of the hedge by the courthouse wall.

  The eschatology of the jailed, he remarked to himself—so pure, so deliriously pure: liberation, liberation. The fulfillment of all desires—in liberation. He reached up and clenched his hands around the rigid bars, pulled at them and attempted to stretch the kinks and knots of confinement out of his muscles. Liberation…

  He watched two armed deputies, broad-shouldered and wide-assed, hustle across the sidewalk and into a Sheriff’s-Department car; in ten seconds they were gone, leaving behind only a blue cloud of gases and the smell of combustion. They’re after somebody, he thought; someone has been discovered living with a woman he’s not married to—in sinlock; someone is in a fight, some poor drunk has assaulted another drunk, somewhere another fire is breaking out. He heard the wail of a siren in the distance. Sirens are always howling, men are constantly running, in this poor sad forsaken city of ours—a dim prelude to the disaster buried in vaults in that hill by the canyon. When the final chain reaction of terror begins…

  Enough of that, he thought, and withdrew from the window—three men took his place, Indians with hungry eyes gazing down at the little picture of free movement in the air and light outside—-backed away, and began walking up and down the length of the bullpen, stepping over prostrate winos and forgers and shoplifters. He paced back and forth, hands in his pockets, shoulders rounded, head slumped forward: a young man, twenty-five years old, with a stocky body, fair skin, bloodshot blue eyes, and close-cut brown hair bleached a little by the sun. Enough, enough, he was thinking.


  Cigarettes were crushed, comic books hidden, conversations turned off like tap water—

  Agua, boys, agua!

  With an iron grumble the cellblock door began to open, slowly, heavily, like the portal of a cave. Most of the men st
ood up to see who or what was coming in. But no one came in. The crank was turned and the bullpen gate slid open. The guard stood in the doorway with a sheet of paper in his hand.

  “Court call!” he shouted. The men listened attentively. The guard started to read a list of names. “Abeyta,” he said, “Joseph Abeyta.” A small dark fellow wriggled through the crowd, through the bullpen gate and out into the corridor. The guard signaled him to stop and wait. “Arnold,” the guard said, “Henry Arnold.” There was no response to that name. The guard went on. “Burns,” he said, “John W. Burns.” Again there was no response, except Bondi’s smile. “Davila,” said the guard, “Jake Davila.” A solid, grim-looking man went through the gate. “Good luck, Blackie,” someone shouted after him. The guard went on, reading in alphabetical order a list of some thirty names. About a third of those called were present; the others were in different cellblocks. The guard closed the bullpen gate, then motioned to the men waiting in the corridor to follow him. All disappeared, and the big cellblock door rumbled shut.

  Bondi went to the window and gazed out at the world, smiling helplessly again, rubbing his itchy eyes. He blew his nose heartily on a sheet of toilet paper and then sat down to wait.

  About an hour later the agua signal was again flashing through the bullpen. Men stopped to watch the door open, looking for something new or the return of old friends; Bondi was among them.

  The door opened and the guard appeared. “Head count!” he shouted like trained animals the men in the bullpen lined up against the bars of the opposite wall. The guard stood outside in the corridor and did his counting, pointing a finger at each head and mumbling to himself. After a second count he went out, looking a trifle glum.

  Bondi sat down again, picking at his nose. His disappointment was sharp and not merely temporary. He was aware of the fact that there were three other cell-blocks in the jail—the odds were three to one against Burns appearing in this one, even if the Hole and the Tank were not considered. He picked disconsolately at his sore, damp nose.

  Two hours passed; the men began thinking about beans: dinner. Bondi sat on the bench of the table near the window, looking out at the street life, thinking about Jack Burns facing Judge Alexander Cheroot across the varnished bar of justice. He remembered his own trial weeks before, in a different, greater court, before the District Judge, a long gaunt man with a gray mustache and the gentle unhappy eyes of an ulcerous aristocrat. The prisoner was unhappy too—two unhappy men facing each other across a slough of law and necessity, convention and courtesy and the complex weeds of politics. A brief, formal arraignment and hearing had taken place later, but the issue of the trial was decided in the Judge’s office one afternoon in September. They sat in comfortable old chairs upholstered in mohair and Mack leather in a cool dark room lined with books—ponderous unreadable volumes of legal history, statute and precedent, bound in olive drab linen and lettered in gilt. The Judge—his name was George Willem van Heest—smoked a black briar with drooping stem: Bondi would never forget the fragrance of Old English Shag, nor the creaking sound the chairs made each time they crossed their legs or the Judge leaned forward to tap the ashes out of his pipe, nor the sound of the Judge’s voice—pleasant, mellow, and melancholy, like his eyes and face, like his old-fashioned 1895 office.

  They had talked quietly and respectfully and for a long time—nearly three hours—and had grown to like each other almost as much as two men can in such a situation, and of such different ages, backgrounds, income, status, metabolisms. The Judge had been exceedingly sympathetic, and persuasive, and wise; so much so that Bondi had felt a little ashamed of himself for putting such a gracious and kindly gentleman in such a difficult position. But there had seemed to be no compromise possible, and neither would or could yield on the fundamental question: respect for and obedience to the written law of the land. The old man, bound by a thousand hoops of habit and tradition and profession, held that the law must be obeyed whatever its social or political or moral significance; the young man, sustained by the vague but apparently limitless strength of conviction, could not agree. Therefore, after those nearly three hours of comfortable and mutually-enriching conversation, together with the rich dark atmosphere of age and smoke that had brought them together in the gloom, like father and son, leaving impressions on the mind and emotions of each that no span of time would ever completely efface, United States District Court Judge George Willem van Heest had found it necessary, in conclusion, to inform the prospective defendant Paul Maynard Bondi that he would certainly be sentenced, under the provisions of the Selective Service Act of 1948, to at least two and possibly five years of imprisonment, to be served in whatever Federal Penitentiary the appropriate officials found most convenient. Bondi shook hands with the Judge and left. Formal proceedings took place one week later; Bondi, pleading nolo contendere, was given two years; that is, was deprived of two years.

  At this point an awkward if trifling misfire developed in the massive machinery of the law: the United States Marshal was unable to find immediate accommodations for the prisoner in any of the Federal prisons situated in adjoining states. Until the necessary arrangements were completed, then, Bondi was turned over to the Sheriff’s Department for temporary incarceration in the Bernal County Jail. The prisoner had shaken hands with three friends down from the University, kissed his wife farewell, and in the custody of a Sheriff’s officer disappeared into a brass-doored elevator on the main floor of the County Courthouse.

  Never to return, he muttered to himself. He remembered that elevator: the ugliest, most stifling, most slow-moving elevator he had ever known—like a freight elevator in a meatpacking plant. There had been other formalities and courtesies: he was searched, questioned, registered, fingerprinted, numbered and photographed. And finally he had been led down a long yellow corridor, up a flight of stairs, through an iron gate, through a steel door, down another corridor and into the steel cage where he rested now, brooding on his memories.

  He stood up and stretched his legs. Miserable dreams, he thought, these wretched… Through the open window beyond the bars and below he saw an automobile glide under a yellow traffic light. Police on aluminum-painted motorcycles followed. These wretched dreams, he thought. Stale and unprofitable, barren as a spayed spinster. What I need to fill these gray hours is a plan, a project, a metaphysic of damnation. He noticed that the shadow of the mailbox on the corner had contracted eastward over the sidewalk, uncovering one concrete slab, half covering a second. Time for lunch, he observed. Damnation, beans, coffee…

  He let his thoughts lapse and mused over nothing, staring vacantly down at the fragments of free life in the air and sun outside.

  Chow! someone shouted. Chow down! Within seconds the line had formed along the grid of bars. The men waited.

  A guard entered and stood in the corridor. On his signal the food slot was opened from the outside and the first tray shoved in. The old man from Laguna grabbed it and sat down in his dark corner. The others filed by rapidly, silently, while the guard counted heads.

  Bondi, last in line, picked up his rations and found a seat at the end of a table. Beside him, absorbed in mastication, sat the Reverend Hoskins. Bondi fished a spoon out of the beans and slowly, without enthusiasm, began to eat. Pinto beans without sauce or chili or even much salt; a slice of bread; a tincup of coffee. Out of loyalty to life and the immortal spirit of man, he ate.

  When he had chewed and swallowed the final mouthful of beans, he got up and returned his tray to the stack by the slot. He took his private paper cup out of his shirt pocket and filled it with water from the tap, and had himself a slow thoughtful drink. He thought about Burns, about Jerry, about the last decent meal he had eaten: a steak fry out in the hills—steak, beer, fresh sweet corn baked on the cob. In the evening, with an amber moon edging up over the shoulder of the mountain, another world gigantic and close, with mountains and craters and a strange inner radiance, translucent and cool, like the heart of a ghost. Against the red f
lare of the west the nighthawks were circling, crying, killing—they plunged toward the earth through invisible swarms of insects, leveled and rose again, wings flitting like those of bats; each dive was accompanied by the soft muted startling roar of air rushing through feathers. Somewhere in the canyon behind them a mockingbird sang: a derisive song beginning on a high clear note and sliding down through a microtonal scale to an awkward, quavering stop. And the odor of burning juniper: three of them around the fire, Jerry, himself and a friend with harmonica. The steaks were crisp and carbonized on the surface, pink and hot toward the interior, the beer cool, the sweetcorn smoky and fresh. Red meat and fire, moon, mountain, the music of birds and cicada and man, the great city glittering in the valley, his woman beside him—the compound image was distinctly painful; Bondi tried to think of something else. Of something practical, like war.

  He sat down on a bench and buried his face in his hands, closing his eyes. A darkening emotion flooded his heart, drowned his nostalgia in loneliness and helplessness and doubt. So that he scarcely heard and did not care about the opening of the cellblock door, the tramp and shuffle of prisoners, the clang of the bullpen gate, the sudden flurry of talk and laughter among the men. Bondi was conscious of nothing but his own darkness, until he became aware of the light steady pressure of a hand on his shoulder. He did not look up immediately; he uncovered his face, looked at the gray windows beyond the bars and then turned his head, slowly, and saw the cowboy standing beside him, and looking up saw the smile and the lean nose and the eyes of Jack Burns.

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