Tag Archives: Better Cowboy

“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.

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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.

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