“The Better Cowboy” – Fiction by Todd Pate

BetterCowboyThe first piece we snatched up for our Spring 2014 issue was a short story called “The Better Cowboy,” written by our good friend Todd Pate. We were quickly seduced by its mix of Western American mythology and cosmic psychological horror– we like to think of it as a bad-ass bastard spawn of Cormac McCarthy and HP Lovecraft.

{ X }

ELLIOT ROUNDED THE BEND in the dry Paria River bed and came face to face with his own shadow. He pulled the reins, stopped his horse. He’d seen his shadow all along, bouncing across the red wall of the dry riverbank as he followed the missing calf’s hoof-prints through the desert. But the bend in the river put the sun at his back. Now his shadow confronted him, stood still and clear in form but filled only with darkness. The tracks continued through his shadow and beyond but he went no further.

Instead he rode out of the river bed onto a slight hill. Standing in his stirrups, he gazed far out at the massive canyon into which the river flowed, when there was water. A shadow rose out of the giant, jagged canyon as the sun lowered and his own shadow stretched toward the abyss as if he and his horse were caught by a massive black hole. As his shadow grew longer and thinner, a heavy, dark feeling came over him. For a moment Elliot thought it could be loneliness. It was easy to be lonely out in the high desert on the Utah-Arizona border at the end of an incinerating day. Breathing, strictly voluntary. Sandblasted, sun-burnt face. Hands swollen, cracked open, stinging wherever they weren’t calloused. Nothing left to sweat out, shivering in the evening wind. Under those conditions, one could admit he’s lonely. That’d be acceptable, maybe even admirable for a cowboy.

But Elliot knew he couldn’t call it loneliness. He saw Hedges at the line shack that morning, and would see Hedges there in the evening, just like the day before, the day before that, just like all summer long. He searched for a name for the feeling until his shadow stretched to a form no longer human. He closed his eyes just before it touched the darkness of the canyon. Whatever the feeling was, he would never call it fear.

From the darkness of his mind came the high-pitched bays of a calf.

Never fear.

The calf.

When he finally opened his eyes, most of the land before him was in shadow.

No calf. Only the soft whistle of wind.

He rode away. The deep wound in the land, its bottomless darkness sucking in all earth, sound, and light to certain annihilation, would be there for Hedges tomorrow.

Maybe even the lost calf, too. Elliot didn’t care. He’d go back to the rest of the herd and do nothing until dusk. Then he’d take the twilight ride back to the line shack.

{ X }

Four or five bats accompanied Elliot on the last mile to the line shack. The fluttering little vampires comforted him, assured him it was the end of another day and he was alive. His shoulders dropped completely and his mind danced between dozing and wakefulness.

The bats danced in and out with him. The sun was well below the horizon, pulling the red sky with it, then the pink sky and finally the cold dark blue sky. Elliot shivered, put his hand to his horse’s neck, felt its warmth flow into his arm, then through his body as he loosely swayed with his horse’s gait. He always smelled dinner at this point. This evening was no different. A few moments later he saw the lamp on the porch.

“Anything new?” Hedges shouted from the porch, feet propped on the hand rail, slowly chewing a mouthful of beans.

“We’re missin 39,” said Elliot, riding up.

“39?”

“Little black and white bull calf.” Elliot felt Hedges’ uncomfortable stare from several yards out. “I looked for it— ”

“But it was gettin late?”

“Dammit, Hedge, yeah, it was!” Elliot had raised his voice too high. Hedges pretended not to notice. “They’re way out there today.” Now his voice was too deep. Hedges ignored that.

“I circled completely around ‘em,” Elliot continued. “Took forever to get to ‘em, then another forever just for the circlin. I counted every damn one of ‘em. No 39. I followed his tracks down the river a bit, but…”

Hedges waited patiently for more words, but Elliot steered his mount toward the cedar post corral twenty yards from the shack, took the tack off his horse, turned the horse loose in the corral with Hedges’ horse. He cradled his saddle on the way to the shack. Hedges never took his eyes off Elliot.

“Guess I’ll give a look tomorrow then,” Hedges said before his next spoonful of beans. He chewed slowly, swallowed as Elliot stepped onto the porch. “Maybe I’ll have some luck.”

Elliot watched Hedges eat. Every night, the same slow spoonfuls. Hedges never hurried, but Elliot never saw him too late, too far behind, too anything since they’d been working Delbert’s cattle. The slowness sunk into everything he did. Cooking beans. Eating beans. Dressing himself. Saddling his horse. He even rode his horse fast, slowly.

At only twenty years old, Hedges tacitly demanded and received the kind of respect usually reserved for the older cowboys. Elliot admired and resented Hedges’ inherent slowness. Elliot had to fight to stay still.

“That canyon,” Elliot spoke in a voice of quavering obedience, “opens up way down there past where the river makes that big horseshoe. River runs down into it, you know?”

Hedges scooped up the last bite of beans, ate, swallowed, leaned forward, set his spoon and bowl on the porch floor, then stared at Elliot with his whole body.

“Think he went down in that canyon?”

“Only place I could think.”

Hedges turned his glare to the infant night before him, breathed in the early darkness, vacuumed in whatever secrets the day tried to hide. Elliot tried but couldn’t see the stars the way Hedges saw them, despised him for it, loved him for it. Billions of nuclear fires burned in the sky but Hedges glowed brighter than all of them, just by sitting there, taking from Heaven, but never needing it.

“Prob’ly walked too far down that big hole to get back up,” said Hedges. “Cliffs are simple things. You just fall down and die. It’s them steep inclines you can walk down but can’t crawl up. The little thing. More’n likely I’ll find him down there tomorrow, cryin away.”

“Sorry, Hedge.”

“No need. S’the end of the day, right? Can’t take care of ‘em if you don’t take care of yourself.”

“Yeah, I didn’t wanna get caught in the–”

“No, you wouldn’t want to get caught out there in the dark.”

The silence between them formed a shape. Hedges saw Elliot struggle to define that shape.

“Beans don’t taste good cold. Go on in and get some.”

Elliot realized he was still holding the saddle. His arms ached. He set it down, then promptly picked up Hedges’ spoon and bowl before entering the shack.

“Thanks, El.”

Hedges listened to Elliot’s footsteps, the clanking of spoon and bowl. The footsteps were always the same, the clanking always the same. That continuity soothed the tender core of his being that he would show to no man. He almost smiled as Elliot’s boots scuffed back to the porch, same as they always did.

{ X }

“Was there somethin wrong with you?”

“Wasn’t anything wrong with me.”

“Why didn’t they call ya’ up?”

“Don’t know.”

“Why didn’t ya join?”

Elliot listened to the horses do nothing as he waited for Hedges to answer.

“There was work to do out here.”

The horses did nothing.

“Jim Eldridge went to Korea,” Elliot continued. “Got his arm blowed off. He’s a hero.”

“Jim Eldridge?”

“Saw him at the movie house last spring. Everybody shakes his hand, his left hand. He looks awkward when he shakes hands ‘cause he’s right-handed, I think. Was right-handed, I mean.”

Hedges listened to the horses. He couldn’t remember the last movie he saw.

He’d been working the cows in the summertime since he was fourteen, like Elliot, but started working year-round when he quit school at sixteen. He was well aware of a world passing by him: Technicolor, TV sets, Martians, Russians, vacuum cleaners, the Chinese, Korea. The Bomb. Even bigger bombs. He’d seen all of it on a newsreel that played before a movie he couldn’t remember in a little movie house in a little town. But it could all pass by, for all he cared.

“I don’t recall a Jim Eldridge.”

“You got to remember Jim Eldridge. He’s your age. Played football.”

“I didn’t.”

“He was a damn star!”

“A star?”

“Well, not when you say it that way. He’s a hero, Hedges. He got his arm blowed off.”

“Would he take it back?”

“He’s a true hero. That’s what he is. He answered our country’s call and paid the price for it.”

“Tilldale.”

The horses.

Elliot knew the name. Everybody knew the name. Tilldale the healer, the old warrior hunted by the law, one of the last un-cooperatives. A Crazy Horse for a boring small town. But there was also Tilldale the skin-walker, the beast-man who lusted for little boys, frightening enough to keep little boys out of the desert. But around the onset of puberty, when the little boys were allowed into the desert, Tilldale was only the boogie man. Then, after their first fumblings in backseats with girls eager enough to shun Christian guilt for relentless desire, Tilldale became just another drunk Indian. If he existed at all. But Elliot hadn’t made it to the backseat yet. Tilldale sought Eliot’s denied fear, found it. He kept his eyes open in front of Hedges, played his part.

“Shoot, you ain’t tellin me you seen that old Indian, are ya, Hedges?”

“Yep.”

“Out here? Come on!”

“Just a few steps off this porch.”

“Oh, come on–”

“Stares at you for a long time. Shakes his old coup stick. Gotta lotta feathers on it. You look into his eyes, see the things he’s seen. Everything he’s done. What’s been done to him. Everything that’s been done to everybody since…” He gazed at the stars with expectant wonder. “…since this all began. Like a book of us all. An arm ain’t no price at all, El. When he gets right there in front of you…” He turned to Elliot. “…you find there are things that not even the price of death can save you from. Things that go with you to whatever’s next.”

“I think that’s the most you ever said at one time, Hedges.”

“Not even death.”

“He ain’t real, Hedges.”

But Elliot still saw Tilldale. Saw him come up to him, seize him, hold him down, violate him, then leave him curled in the dust, afterwards, pants down, bleeding, whimpering. Saw Tilldale move toward Hedges, who stood his ground serenely even as the Indian slit his throat. Saw Hedges bleed white light that overtook existence. Elliot shook.

“I never knew Jim Eldridge, Elliot.”

“I’m scared that little bull calf’s got hurt.”

“39?”

“39. I didn’t go look ‘cause I was–”

“Scared?”

The unnamable feeling came upon Elliot. Before he could deny it, Hedges seized it, sculpted it into an image that he held in front of Elliot. The little bull calf will not be found alive. It was dead before it was alive. Now, Elliot called the feeling Fear.

“I’m scared.”

The horses…

Hedges’ dead stare. White light…

Hedges broke into laughter, pointed at Elliot, doubled over holding his stomach. His voice cracked.

“Hedges?”

“Shoot, I’s just tryin to scare ya’, El.” Hedges laughed so hard he could barely breathe. His gangly frame wiggled, noodle-like. “Looks like I did. There’s no Tilldale, daddy-o.”

“But–”

“Just a tall tale, El.”

“But I believed you!”

Hedges stopped laughing, regarded Elliot somberly. He laughed again, stopped again. Then he turned to the stars.

“Let’s get some sleep. I’ll get out there early. Find that little 39.”

Hedges regained his slowness, went inside the shack. Elliot listened to his footsteps. Then Elliot got up, listened to his own footsteps. Their footsteps were almost the same, but not quite. They felt everything together out in the desert, but they would never feel anything the same. They both knew that now. And neither had any real faith he’d find 39 alive. But Elliot believed Tilldale was really out there.

{ X }

Elliot heard Hedges set out just before first light, as the coyotes called. He pretended to be asleep as Hedges dressed, boiled water for coffee, packed a lunch. Then he listened to Hedges’ horse walk, trot, canter, then gallop into silence.

He tried to go back to sleep but saw Hedges every time he closed his eyes. So he got out of bed, dressed. As he fumbled around in the dark shack, he kept seeing Hedges. Hedges the silent, the still, forgetter of the names of heroes whose mere existence called for the obliteration of heroism and an end to the world Elliot needed: White hats and black hats, like on the glowing TV screen; war and peace; allies and enemies. Hedges was neither ally nor enemy. A perversion in the glow.

Elliot poured himself a cup of coffee. Hedges always made enough for both of them. He could do that, but he wouldn’t let Elliot know him. Elliot stepped out onto the porch, cradling his lukewarm cup in both hands. There, he wept like Jesus in Gethsemane.

 { X }

Hedges found 39’s trail exactly where Elliot said it’d be. He smiled and with his hips he pushed his horse in the direction of the little split hoof prints. The braying herd faded until he couldn’t hear them anymore.

He lost the tracks in a stony lay of the riverbed but found the tracks again a half-hour later in the mud down by the horseshoe bend. Hedges smiled again, the hoof prints were a language he understood. He followed them further down the river until the tracks disappeared in another outcrop of stones, before reappearing again at the next pocket of water.

At midday, he came up against a cliff wall at a curve in the riverbed which granted mercy from the sun. He leaned back to let the deep cool air touch his neck. He relaxed completely, head back, eyes closed. All he could hear were his horse’s hooves scraping, popping on the rocks and his shirt wrinkling as he swayed with his horse’s gait. Until the dull caw of ravens opened his eyes.

Just above him, two ravens mutually attacked a third. Blood dripped from the wounded raven and slowly fell to Earth as the creature flew away to heal or die. The other two swooped around the cliff. Hedges rode around the cold cliff wall and out of the riverbed, following the ravens.

He kicked his horse into a gallop, through a meadow of sage. His horse grunted. Long silence between hoofs hitting the ground. He rode harder and harder, pulling back only when he came upon the canyon. His horse reared on its hind legs, screamed, came down and bucked. Hedges pulled hard on the reins again and the horse stood still.

He caressed the horse’s sweaty neck as he peered into the canyon. A wound in the Earth and close to it, Hedges knew his smallness. The ravens were perched on something twisted in a rusted barbed wire fence running on a slope toward the edge of the canyon. Hedges let his horse catch its breath, then softly nudged in the direction of the ravens.

{ X }

Elliot gasped for air as he walked from the corral to the line shack. He’d been making repairs all morning. The corral was so old it was mainly repairs. Delbert told him the shack and corral were built by Mormons around the turn of the century. Until then only Indians had laid eyes on the land. When the winds came, fence planks would get pulled off the posts. In the summer, the winds came every afternoon. The summer of 1954 was no different.

He’d worked in the sun longer than he should have, past one o’clock. The wind burst through him as he walked. The sun pulled at what little moisture remained in his body. The shade of the porch and the first gulp of water offered temporary Heaven. Elliot drank the first cup without pause, dipped the cup into the jug again. He’d gulped down half the second cup when he saw the Indian. He froze, holding the cup to his mouth. The rest of the water spilled down his chin, down his chest, soaked into the rim of his dungarees.

The Indian stared at Elliot through red eyes buried deep in his wrinkled, brown-red face above his misshapen nose. His stained, tattered clothes fluttered in the wind. He held his feathery coup stick to his chest, clutched a liquor bottle with his other hand. He swayed with each gust of wind, his eyes never leaving Elliot.

The shaking started at Elliot’s right ankle but he didn’t know he was shaking until he felt the cup rattling against his teeth. Then he felt the urine, smelled the pungent odor as the warm fluid flowed to his shaking ankle. He silently damned Hedges as the Indian drank from his bottle, then held his coup stick high and stepped toward Elliot. His mouth started moving before he spoke.

“I saw the coyotes eat my mother,” he said, “after they came.” He pointed and moved his finger along the horizon as if following something. “They came on horses. There were no–” he mimicked the roaring of a speeding engine while waving a hand and almost falling, “–motors. They came for us many times but they got mother the last time. I sat there… just a baby cryin. Horses jumped over me. But I disappeared. Poof. They been comin for me sixty year now. But I always disappear. Poof. Not my mother…” He struck the ground with his coup stick, screamed in a high pitch that paralyzed Elliot. The cup fell from his hand, he knew that, but he no longer knew where his hand was. All he could feel was the desert breeze cooling his wet pants.

“The coyotes ate her in front of me but couldn’t see me. But you see me don’t you? Hey, boy…” He stepped onto the porch. “Pieces of her fell from their mouths. They ate her like they would a dead cow.” He mimicked the sound of an engine again. He struck the earth again, drank. The stench of urine burned Elliot’s nose. “The coyotes will see you, boy.” The Indian came face to face with Elliot. Whiskey breath. “You can’t disappear.”

“Please…”

“You ever seen Popeye?” asked the Indian. Then he puffed his cheeks around his toothless mouth and flexed his withered arm. “I’m Popeye the sailor man, toot, toot! I’m Popeye the sailor man, toot, toot!

The Indian burst into laughter.

Elliot wept silently. Through his wet eyes, the Indian was a melting sculpture. The Indian stopped laughing, pressed his nose to Elliot’s, his bony frame against the boy’s soft belly.

“Cryin don’t stop the coyotes.”

The Indian wiped the tears off Elliot’s face. The hand smelled of dirt and gasoline. Elliot closed his eyes tight, but the Indian was right. He couldn’t disappear.

{ X }

The ravens danced in and out of the mess of wire and wood. Hedges rode up to them and found what remained of 39. The calf’s left eye pointed lifelessly into the air. The other eye was gone to the coyotes, guessing by the tracks around the carcass. Hedges could tell it gave a good struggle, but struggling turned out to harm more than help. Its head was turned almost completely around. Dried saliva and brown blood covered its mouth. The best thing 39 could’ve done was lie there and breathe calmly until death came. Instead it fought the brainless barbed wire, breaking its own bones, braying and screaming as the scavengers waited to fulfill their obligation to Nature.

A shadow began overtaking the nameless canyon. Hedges dismounted and led his horse along its edge. Inches from the ledge stood a dead cedar tree, bleached by the sun, glowing pure white against the blackening abyss. Bent and knotted, it beckoned Hedges. He obeyed, moved close to the ancient tree, caressed the dead wood, laid his chin against a branch, peered deep into the canyon. He saw only shapes, then nothing, until only nothing existed in the darkness of the canyon.

The sun burned into him as he resumed walking west along the edge, feeling the cold rise from the abyss. He stopped, closed his eyes, felt the cold and hot forces collide somewhere inside of him, a perfect, empty glow. Then he opened his eyes, pulled his canteen from his saddle and drank until it was empty, tossed it into the canyon, watched it disappear. He never heard it land.

Invited by a voice, he stepped down into the gaping earthen womb. The darkness reached out, caressed him like a lover. Hedges once had a lover, a divorcee who only cooked for him, at first. She cooked for him enough times to take him into her bedroom. After she took him into her bedroom enough times, she stopped cooking for him. Then he was no longer welcome. That didn’t upset Hedges, though. Part of him was too confused to be. The other part knew better than to hold on. He’d seen his parents cling to each other, only to push each other away, cling more, push, scream, scratch, bruise each other and continuously degrade themselves as they brutally sought the reasons for their discontent. The black canyon told Hedges that only barbed wire waited for him, if he held on.

His short life passed before him as he let his horse go. He heard it scamper up the incline as he continued downward. At first he was cautious, but then he surrendered to the canyon totally, and after a few steps he descended as if the exact place to step was predetermined millions of years earlier. Step by step, he transformed into black infinity. When sunlight ceased to touch him, Hedges was no more.

{ X }

Elliot sat on the porch in Hedges’ chair for three days. A layer of earth caked over his face. Several times he’d pissed where he sat, shat twice. The water-jug lay sideways and empty at his feet.

Hedges’ horse meandered between the shack and corral, its reins jingling as they dragged across the ground. Every now and then it stuck its head through the corral to drink from the water tank. The horse was a perversion of nature, fully saddled with no Hedges mounted upon it. Elliot prayed the horse would die.

He’d crumbled into Hedges’ throne just after the Indian left. As the hours passed, he came to believe that if he sat there long enough, he could become Hedges.

In fact, he’d already begun.

That third evening, the sheriff’s car charged toward the shack in a line of dust, sirens blaring. The dust cloud blanketed Elliot as the car stopped near the porch. Delbert was the first to get out. He ran through the dust, up the steps, and shook Elliot by the shoulders.

“What happened?!” Delbert screamed, his rough voice cracking.

Elliot smiled, began to rise out of himself. The transformation was nearly complete.

“What the hell did that to Hedges, goddammit?!”

The sheriff wrestled Delbert away from Elliot as a younger officer went to hitch Hedges’ horse on a cedar post. Elliot watched it all happen from his high perch. He saw his body in the center of it all, a mutant transforming into the Son of Stars.

“They tore his goddamned body apart!” Delbert screamed as he spun away from the sheriff, down the steps. Then he fell to his knees, wept.

Elliot swam in the darkening Cosmos. His kingdom. Delbert’s wailing found him, and in hearing it, he knew someone had loved Hedges. But things like love no longer mattered to Elliot. He was beyond such frailties as love. He observed the mortal drama, laughed at it. But when he saw his own malnourished frame stand from the throne and step off the porch, hands out and eyes to the sky, he was suddenly thrust back into his body. He breathed dust, choked, panicked. He clawed at the darkening sky, begging it to receive him again. But the Cosmos shut itself off to him forever. Elliot cursed the Cosmos as he listened to his heart, felt it pound from within. Finally, when he knew he would die like all men, somewhere in the locked future, he calmly turned to the sheriff…

“Tilldale killed him.”

…then fell to the desert floor.

{ X }

Michael sped along Highway 44, Corpus Christi to Alice. It was November, still hot in South Texas. Sweat trickled down his forehead. Almost four o’clock, right on schedule. He arrived at the nursing home right on schedule every Saturday. That way he could leave right on schedule. For a moment he considered crashing into a ditch; a wreck would give him a good excuse not to visit his father. Too bad the guilt would hurt even worse.

It wasn’t that Michael hadn’t tried to be a good son. He spent his childhood trying. But by the time he was a teenager, Michael realized his father’s silence was a solid thing, impenetrable.

It was also contagious, and as Michael grew into manhood, he found it more and more difficult to talk with people. He spent his high school nights sitting in playgrounds or walking the streets of Alice, alone. After graduation he moved to Corpus Christi and stayed away, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and his cousins’ quinceañeras. His silence hardened as the years passed. Friends disappeared, indifferent. Women left, confused. Michael was always relieved after they slammed the door.

When he was 32, his mother died of cancer. He never saw his father shed a tear. “Your mother died,” was all he said, over the phone. “OK,” Michael said as he hung up the phone, and shed no tears either. His lack of tears triggered a crippling anger. Blaming his father for the cancer offered some relief.

His father’s mental and physical deterioration started not long afterward. Within months he was moved to a nursing home, hence these excruciating Saturday visits. Now nearly forty years old, Michael squirmed in the driver’s seat like a child in church, grinding his teeth while repeating the Serenity Prayer. He was doing The Right Thing by spending time with his father, so he wouldn’t regret it in the long run—or so he was told by the other AA drunks.

He used to drive his father out to the Naval Base in Corpus, even if they just drove through. Michael didn’t mind, it took up most of the visit. After 9/11, however, getting onto the base became too much of a hassle. Now Michael just drove them to Alice’s VFW, ordered a beer for his dad and a Coke for himself, and they’d play some dominos, watch a little TV. His dad only drank the one beer, but it took him two hours. Michael internally marveled and raged at his father – a lifelong Navy man, married into a Catholic-Mexican family in South Texas, and he couldn’t even be an alcoholic.

Michael pulled up to the nursing home, left the motor running, went inside. As always, the same black orderly, whose name Michael never remembered and who’d always repeat his name through a smile of thinly-disguised contempt, led him down the hall to his father’s room. The orderly swung the door open and there was Michael’s father, sitting at a little table and staring through the wall, as always.

The orderly clapped twice. “Hey Elliot! Time to go, my man. Your son’s here to bust you out. For a little while, anyway.”

Elliot slowly lifted his head toward Michael, then slowly looked away. He stood, patted his pockets one by one, and then went to the dresser where he kept his Purple Heart, awarded for injuries he suffered in an explosion on a supply vessel between San Diego and Viet Nam in 1967.

A hero too, just like Johnny Eldridge.

Elliot clutched his medal gently before securing it in his shirt pocket. Then he waited to be led out of the room like a broken animal.

{ X }

The Alice VFW smelled of old wood and stale beer. The younger men were shooting pool, throwing darts, playing indistinguishable modern country songs on the jukebox. Michael and Elliot sat at one of the little square folding tables where the old men played dominoes. Michael had brought a box of dominoes back with their drinks, but had yet to set up a game. Elliot was an hour into his beer. The sun shone through the red and white checkered curtains, blending into the neon glow of the beer signs.

George W. Bush walked across the TV, waving to an applauding crowd. The president spoke confidently about something, through his Texas drawl. Michael shook his head, sighed. “Massachusetts,” he grumbled. “Boarding schools. Not even a real Texan, but everybody down here’s gonna vote for the bastard.”

Elliot heard Michael but kept looking at his beer. Then he looked to the dominoes and tried to remember just exactly where he was from. Arizona? Northern Arizona. Border of Utah.

He shook off the urge to remember, turned to his son watching TV. Only then did he realize how much they looked alike. He saw himself, a younger man, young father, husband. He kept getting younger. Scared pimple-faced sailor. Then high school. No girlfriend. Scared. Younger. A desert, long ago. Scared. He closed his eyes, like he used to out in the desert. But that stopped working long ago. When? In the darkness, he saw the Paria River in one of those rare moments when it wasn’t dried up: a red, muddy blitzkrieg of stumps, rocks, unfortunate animals. The waters of memory rose before him. The beer shook in his hand.

“Why today?” he mumbled.

Michael turned to him. “What, you cold, or something?”

“Goddammit. I’d almost…”

“What, dad?”

Then Hedges appeared. The young cowboy slowly dragged his boots across the stars, moving closer to Elliot. Hedges who never showed Elliot anything, never let Elliot feel him. Hedges who never lost control. Hedges the better cowboy. Hedges, the unquestioning glance, closer, closer.

Elliot ran from Hedges. “Just this damn November weather’s all,” he said, opening his eyes. “Never much liked this month.”

Michael laughed. “Really? You know what else is in November, don’t you?”

Elliot pointed to the TV. “The election?”

“Yeah, and my birthday. ‘Never much liked this month.’ Jesus.”

Elliot kept running, not caring that Michael hated him. So what if he didn’t know the day of his only son’s birth? Wasn’t it enough that Elliot carried the burden of his own birth?

He heard Hedges laugh at him, the way he did that last evening together.

He ran in another direction, only to run into himself. A fake hero in a fake war.

He ran in another direction and found Tilldale, the feathers on his coup stick gently twitching from an unknown wind.

He turned and ran in the only other direction he could run, back to his son.

“How old you gonna be?”

“39.”

Michael entertained the thought of his father dying before next Saturday. Too bad the guilt…

“39?”

“39.”

Elliot saw a little spotted bull calf again, tagged 39 on its ear, lying dead before Michael. He knew he could run no longer. After a life of running and fear, it would be his only begotten son to hear his confession. He trembled now but knew the only thing that would stop the trembling would be the confession. Everyone in the VFW, in Alice, in Texas, in the entire world knew it. Of course it would be his son. Brutal nature.

“Tilldale couldn’ta done it. What happened to Hedges, I mean. He couldn’ta killed him. If it even was a human that did it.”

Michael sat up, drawn to the tone of his father’s vulnerable voice. It was unsettling, but he began to feel that unquenchable craving, just like in his drinking days. His mouth watered for more.

“What are you talking about, dad?”

“I said Tilldale couldn’t a done it!” Elliot slammed the table, licked the spittle from his lips. “He’s just a drunk Indian s’all. Nothin more. He’s at the shack the time Hedges would’a been done in. He’s drunk and stood there in front of me, mumblin stuff bout coyotes. Came closer. Right to me. Fondled me a little I guess. But not like what you hear about happenin to little kids on TV or nothin. Just reachin for somethin maybe. Probably didn’t even know what he’s doin.”

Elliot felt the sun lower behind the curtains of the window. Across the floor lay his shadow, stretching, ripping.

“There I go…”

“What?”

“Delbert cried for that boy so hard. Poor Delbert. Those police lights. I told ‘em Tilldale done it. Told ‘em he came up to the shack on Hedges’ horse. That he laughed about doin it and walked off. They took me home and two days later that old Indian’s hangin from a cottonwood out by the highway. Beaten, hands tied behind his back, tree branch up his ass, ravens goin at him. Everybody in town was happy and relieved but me cause I know it’s a lie. But that poor Indian’s dead by my word. Shit, there ain’t no way o’ ever knowing what happened! Who can tell what the hell happened once the scavengers get to you?” Elliot squeezed his beer. The condensation had evaporated, the glass was lukewarm. “Just another animal found dead, s’all. But, goddammit, I loved Hedges. Loved and hated him, son! Now what kind of world…” Elliot turned back to the window. The sun had set, Elliot’s shadow had disappeared into the black blue shadow over the floor. “Day and night… and everything else. It’s supposed to be simple! They tell us it’s supposed to be simple! But goddamn, I see that black canyon clearer now, and the darkness… Well, tell you what: It’s yours now. Go and take it, son!”

Elliot raised the glass to his mouth, drank fast. Beer ran down his chin.

“That’s the most you’ve ever spoken to me. All these years. You loved this Hedges? What about mom and me? Fuck you.”

Elliot stared into Michael’s eyes and heard Hedges calling to him. He closed his eyes and found Hedges looking up into the stars. But the stars shut themselves off to Hedges, and the resulting dark began to devour him. Frightened and confused, Hedges swiped furiously at the darkness, hoping to find the stars again. But the darkness was relentless, breaking his bones, tearing his flesh. Just an unfortunate animal fighting dumbly against death, screaming until his voice disappeared. Elliot laughed as Hedges’ movements slowed to a stop and he expelled his last breath. Hedges was a cowboy, better than most, but cowboys were still a part of this world, clutching with rough and desperate hands for its reality, just like everyone else. Just like Elliot as he clutched at the Purple Heart in his pocket. But Elliot survived, just like Johnny Eldridge, and Hedges died. Elliot smiled wide and laughed loud. He was alive. Only the living laugh.

“Well, I guess I’s the better cowboy after all!”

Elliot wheezed and hissed as he laughed. Mouth wide open, deep wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, ears turning red, shoulders rising and falling. A cackling wanderer in an old dark nightmare.

“Get me another beer, son.”

Michael saw his own reflection in the mirror behind his father, noticing how much they looked alike. Then he ran to the bar and ordered a beer. Two beers. The bartender slid the mugs to him. Michael grabbed them, the condensation bled over his fingers. The cold of the glass moved into his hand, up his forearm. He began to shake. He closed his eyes tight but that quit working for him long ago. His father’s laughter circled in his dark mind like scavengers.

{ X }

ToddPateLensHeadshotTODD PATE is a writer, actor, musician, carpenter, cowboy, and whatever else he has to do to pay the bills. He’s wandered across America several times. His non-fiction novel about a recent bus trip through the country – Here, In America – is due out this year. He writes a weekly blog called El Jamberoo: Adventures in Americaland — commenting about whoever he’s with and wherever he’s at at the time.

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