The Cowboy

Here came a cowboy with sun-saddled skin. He had killed but once, but had killed simply, in Santa Fe where the turquoise tells. The cowboy was young with a jackrabbit’s poise, a buck-toothed boy, spring-heeled and dun. It was spring when we met in the rain, in Buffalo Gap, where the shaggy herds churned like plowed soil, and trampled and tore through the tented town. The rain came down, storming in pitchers from his hat, and lightning sewed the stars. He rode in, said he was searching for work. His horse was starved as a luggage rack. The question mark of its jaw mouthed mud at the bar. The old man sold grain under canvas, and I was his prodigal son. The cowboy said, “Pour me a thumb.” I tilted it up. So, the buck-toothed boy drank. “You make this, old man? I’m obliged to your skill…and your still.” And in his grin, death came from his coat, the smell of naphtha and nerves, fly-blown meat and misery. No one else seemed to know it. I knew he was a runner, yet I didn’t know then, it was but the one ghost behind him.

Daisy Meisler The Cowboy James Reich
drawing by Daisy Meisler

Soon, the sun roared, and the days dried out, the black clouds retreating priests. The cowboy was hired by a bison man out of Abilene. His horse increased some. The cowboy loved his horse. The solemn-hooved. The steadfast. The witness. In those days, I was searching for my way out of innocence. The cowboy fluttered like a map in the bright street and the earth firmed beneath our feet. As the cowboy readied to leave, I followed him around, keeping a shadow’s length. Sometimes, he’d spin on me with his jackrabbit joints, his fingers twitching over the ivory and iron at his side, a pianist with no piano. It reminded me of the time I tested the spines on a cactus, tip by tine, ’til my fingers toughened up. And he’d grin like the moon, ravishing. He wanted to know what I found so goddamn fascinating about him. The bullets in his belt rang noon. He wore a cream cotton shirt and adobe-colored pants, his hat tipped back on his ears. My old man spoke out of the side of his chapped mouth one night, called the cowboy ironic. I said, “No, he’s sincere.” The old man wanted me to explain, so I just shrugged.

Still, I followed the cowboy around. “You ain’t my disciple,” he said, and the smell of death on him was something from the last book, as though he conjured it with his mood. No one else seemed to know it. It was the evening before he would leave. The buffalo slept in their knot. The cowboy was soaping his horse. I caught him with, “Who did you kill?” And his past gathered on him like ash. “Hand me that whisky.” He spat on the ground, wiped the shimmering flanks of his horse with his hand.

There had been, he said, a beautiful day on the skirt of the Sangre de Cristos, in New Mexico. The pines breathed over the red town below, green shoulders shrugging at the sky. The aspens wriggled with birds. He came to a commotion there, in the high hills, in the crystalline air over Santa Fe. Around a great pine tree, a coyote and a large hare churned. Coyote loped and hare hopped. The cowboy studied them with his gloved hand on his gun. Hare pelted and coyote darted. And the pine tree was the pole to which they were tethered by invisible ribbons that twisted in ritual, like the long thongs of the sun dance that hook the skin to Heaven and Hell. Roots reached and boughs beckoned, and the circles narrowed to none. The cowboy could almost hear the coyote’s canines snapping the hare in half, the shake that would snap the spine, the velvet skull revolving, the soft eyes bulging, the paws limping from that long-tongued mouth. “C’mon hare!” he said. “Run!” But Coyote was relentless as a new pocket watch, its springs turning it around the tree, time and time again. And Hare was winding down. A cloud of needles and red dirt. The cowboy drew his gun and fired. “I meant to hit the dog,” he wept. “I was careless.” The cowboy folded into himself as he spoke. Coyote took up the hare and vanished into the trees. “I’ve been tracking him,” he said. Out here? That’s impossible, I told him. The cowboy wiped his eyes with his knuckles, rubbing and cuffing his ears. His buck-toothed grin glimmered in the moonlight. “One day I’ll find a man familiar. And I’ll kill him.” He rode away at dawn, following the roiling buffalo trail over bare and haunted plains. Sometimes, I wake to the sound of shots and coyotes. The old man gives me a drink. Sometimes, I think of the cowboy, his broken heart and his smile. I am in my dreams his disciple, the cowboy of sun-saddled skin. I see spring-heeled stirrups and soft brown hair, his ragged horse of revenge.

–James Reich