The Ballad of the Lonely Cowboy
All poems are like that, he decided. Anyway, all poems that women write were like that. He had never read a poem written by a man, because all of his poetry had come in the form of love letters from women, and all the poems resembled the one he was holding in his hand. It had been hastily scratched on precious stationary that had, most likely, been used before, and it talked about promises and walking in fields of flowers. A pointy heart was scribbled in the margin, which perhaps concealed some hidden prejudice on the writer—it looked like a heart that might impale you if you happened to fall upon it.
He put the poem away, as the light was fading. He folded the paper into quarters and replaced it in his breast pocket, because he had heard a rumor that a love letter will stop a bullet if the writer’s intentions are true.
He was aching and weary, and so were the cattle. From the camp drifted the murmur of conversation, wafting on the evening air in a soothing way, like the scent of lavender.
The cowboy lay his head down on his pack. For some reason he disliked sleeping with the rest. He had an idea it was a better way to survive an Indian attack. He put his hand over his pocket, so he could feel the outline of the paper. Then he sighed, and to anyone listening it would have been a mournful sigh, and perhaps somebody would have asked him what was the matter. But there was nobody to ask, so he tossed about in the long grass, and, finally forsaking sleep, rose to his feet and walked towards old Joyce’s wagon.
Joyce was awake as well, despite the fact that the moon was rising. The cowboy saw that much as he approached, noticing the glow of a lamp through the canvas wagon top. Joyce was sitting inside the wagon with a rifle over his arm. The old man’s belongings consisted of an ornate sideboard, two trunks, and a pallet with blankets so rank that even the bedbugs emigrated. Oh, yes, and the lamp, and some kerosene. He had owned some different things of value, having had some success in mining, but had been forced to leave them behind on the Utah salt flats, when he was traveling to California. He had assumed that he would be a rich man, and it wouldn't matter much. Never in the leaner years that followed had he found money to replace them.
“What’s the problem?” Joyce asked, with rare intuition. The cowboy was scrambling up, to have this discussion in quasi-privacy.
“A woman,” said the cowboy.
“What’s that?” asked Joyce, cupping his hand to his ear.
“A woman,” said the cowboy.
“I’m deaf,” said the old man. “Try again. Really let it out this time.”
The cowboy closed his eyes, drew in his breath. He shouted so loud that the billows of the tent bulged outward, then tore, then ripped away altogether.
The furniture, and then, the other covered wagons, and then, finally, the cattle, kicking helplessly, were all carried to the farthest corners of the night on his breath, and only the cowboy, the center of his own hurricane, was left untouched. As the very stars were trembling precariously, he fell silent. He saddled his horse and rode, hoping to catch up with the rest, and make explanations.
He ended up in a shanty on the edge of an old mining town, and he was laying his last card upon the table. His companions were sour, and nothing was good except the piano player, who rocked back and forth like a metronome as he played, reducing his personality to rhythms, which crowded one upon the other in a gaudy parade. The cowboy’s hand was bad. All he had were aces and eights.
“If I could just start again,” he said to himself.
“If that’s all, then,” said his companions at the table, and obediently they laid down their own cards, struggled into their jackets, and walked backwards out the door. Likewise obedient, the cards stacked themselves into a neat pile at the edge of the table. The cowboy had no choice but to mimic them, so he thought, bending his legs opposite their inclination at impossible angles as he made his way out the door and onto the parched hills. It was dangerous country, and as he walked he rolled his eyes all the way to the right, and then left, like a man divining for water, until he felt a pain in the back of his head.
“I kin take ya,” said the trader, some years later, when thoughts of fortune had invaded the cowboy’s head, and love letters more infrequent, “But it won’t be easy.”
“Easy seems far away now,” said the cowboy.
“What is it yer getting at, friend?”
“I said I have seen men in the forest move with axes, always chopping the way. Life is like that. We are all chopping with axes.” The trader shook his head in confusion.
“I can’t get the sense of it.”
“I said I kin skin a bear in three minutes, and I kin drive a head of cattle like Jesus before the swine, and kin drink more than any man, and still be at church on Sunday morning.” The trader stuck out his hand.
“I’m proud to know you,” he said.
The cowboy chewed on the end of his pencil, and it was only when he reached the nub, with a blank page still in front of him, that he realized he was in trouble, and began spouting words and phrases. It was to go to the young woman who said she had come to the end of his last letter and found herself looking down a blind alley. That was something figurative, but he understood well enough. His own letter contained explanations and promises.
He figured it was like tying up a parcel with used, wasted string, and somehow hoping it will hold well enough. An Indian friend of his was traveling that way, and he was entrusted with the letter. There was a small speech besides, about the lakes and forests, and, yes, the gold in Alaska.
In the speech there was a sentimental line about a small house with a picket fence, and the speaker was to smile through tears standing in the eyes. The Indian thought he could manage it, although he refused to rehearse.
This Indian liked straight lines, and he had made one on a map. It went from Fairbanks to Washington. But it was an old map, and he found railways in his path. These trains were molded in the shape of bullets, and could pierce a three inch steel wall, although that fact was discovered quite by accident. As he waited for the trains to pass, his model T chugging in impatience, and, once or twice seeming to attempt to buck him out the door, he noticed that all the passengers on the train had their faces pressed against the glass. It was as though the outside world, so lately populated by them, had, since their boarding, assumed the proportions of an alien universe, and all they could now do was to gaze openmouthed at it, the way the Indian gaped at the train. Panes of glass had divided the world. He wanted to tell the President about this, and about other injustices that worried him, such as the future of his tribesman, but, finally meeting the man, he had been overcome by a fit of confusion. Instead of delivering his own speech, he handed over the cowboy’s letter. Later, the President declared the Indian wanted only to show that he had acquired a sentimental education at painful cost to himself.
The West was won?
At length the cowboy settled down. Actually, with characteristic exuberance, he settled down so far he fell into a deep, deep hole, and it was with difficulty that he extricated himself. When he came to the top again he was a banker, but the job did not suit him and he boarded a ship bound for--well, he knew not where. He thought he might find something similar to the things he used to know, among people who were too poor to put up fences. During his time at the bank he had organized a system wherein money was carefully accounted for, and interest accrued on investments. This was in opposition to the old system, wherein the cash lay in piles in back rooms, only the manager knew whose was whose. When the cowboy left on an ancient junk, the old bookkeeping system was reverted to, but the customers complained. The argument that if some had less money, others had more, did not seem to suffice, and eventually the new bank manager made a declaration that the cowboy had robbed the institution. This was to restore consumer confidence. Everyone assumed that the cowboy had escaped justice, but the telegraph was a great help. If the Turkish knew anything, they refused to say. The English requested a legal arrest warrant. Unfortunately for him, the cowboy was apprehended in China, and his trial was held via proxy. Unfortunately, his sentence had to be translated several times before the cowboy could make even a small bit of sense from it, and what came down was that his fate was to be determined by a game of Hangman on the Oklahoma prairie. The cowboy sailed home in much confusion.
One man squirmed, and the other waited patiently. The cowboy was literally above either emotion, perched atop his favorite roan. At least for once in his life, he did not wish for any movement. He had an idea that he could live the rest of his life with the noose around his neck, and he would be satisfied. While he was in China he had experimented with Oriental religion, and he had an idea that if he reached down deep inside himself he could close the doors and draw the blinds, and find something entirely original. The phantoms of his imagination might, at times, jerk with the strain upon the machinery that animated them, but, aside from this, it would be fine. There was more than one way to close one’s eyes upon the world.
He would just prefer it not be through movement, now, because forward movement would only pull him back, and snap his precarious hold on life. “Did I say ‘e’?” wondered the first executioner.
“You did,” affirmed the second. “What about ‘h’?”
“No, but there is no ‘h’,” warned the cowboy. “Only two more chances, and you’ll be obliged to remove the noose from my neck.”
The first executioner guessed ‘p’.
“There is a ‘p’,” said the cowboy, “two, actually.” Apparently there was no way to choose how one might shut his eyes upon the world.
“What we got now? R-a-p-p-something-something-t.”
“That’s we got now,” said the second. “Convert? No, that ain’t it.”
“I’ll take that as a guess. One guess left” said the cowboy.
“Rapport,” came up with second. He slapped at the roan’s hindquarters, and the horse ran.
“That’s one of them French words,” said the first, admiringly.
The cowboy’s neck snapped like a dry twig.