mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 34: Winter 2006

The Cowboy Dog — from a novel in progress

The Cowboy Dog
from a novel in progress

When I was eighteen I came into my anger. It had been buried deep, along with my gunbelt, my spurs and my coiled whip. Now, equipped with a long-handled shovel I climbed the mountainside, dug, and there it was, as red-eyed as a Gila Monster. It got its teeth into me. I was shaken as the anger flooded through me; I knew that there was no turning back. I buckled the guns onto my hips and stood with my face to the gritty wind.

In truth it's wrong to say that they were my guns. These things matter and legally it was so, but legal is just another word for nothin' left to lose. They were my Daddy's guns and had come into my hands when he died. When he was cut down. When my Daddy was torn from this world by a coward's bullet which entered him between the shoulderblades and carried him away to the other side. He fell into my arms, and the weight of him was more than I could bear. I was only a boy then. I went to my knees and still he slipped from me, down into the red dirt and that is where he stayed. I wept over him and begged him not to leave me out here. I was twelve years old and believed that he was the one who had talked the world into existence.

I buried him there, high against the shadow of the mountain. No marker, though there was a symmetrical cactus. I didn't want him to be in any one place. He is in the whole of this place; everywhere I walk here is his body, now. This stinking mountain, this spreading, red, burned piece of dirt that goes out to where the searchin' eye cain't see no more; this land the love of which is all I have. I took not a thing from him, nothing that might have him in it. In this way I hoped I might still have him, somehow—it was a sorrowing boy's notion and went where all such notions go. His voice is gone from me and I can never remember, except suddenly, without warning, what he sounded page 46like when he spoke. I have no creased photograph of his face. For several years afterwards I would see the backs of men's heads in the Auckland street and wait, breathing hard, for them to turn around. Sometimes I ran after such men. They all spit on me, and in time I cured myself of this habit.

I saved his guns.

I knew I could not wear them, then, so they were buried too, in another place. I grew up scrambling this mountainside and was never afraid I would forget. I took off my boots and my chaps, my bandana and my sharp spurs and buried them too, wrapped in an old coat. My hat blew away and I let it. The paint horse stood by and watched all this without expression, reins hanging. Barefoot, bareheaded, I went down the mountain and waited by the highway, so lonesome and windswept, and hung out my thumb.

And now I am back here and standing over all I survey. The anger is gone from me and as I watch the tumbleweeds roll across the floor of the valley below, I could settle; I could say to the past, I will let you be, and turn and lead the horse up to the house and tie him there.

But anger never dies. It shifts, it changes shape like a restless shadow that is searching for an earthly form. You look again and it has moved. But not gone. Never gone.

And so as I go to the house I am vigilant. Tying the horse, my eye goes to the red rim of these lands and I scan the horizon. On the highway, trucks roll like barrels. The wires of the pylons sway in the restless wind. But that is how it has always been; how it should be. No riders.

I kick off my dusty boots and turn inside.

A highway vehicle collected me from the white stripe of the roadside and carried me away.

I was twelve years old, barefoot and out there alone and had to do a bit of fancy talking, which in my heartsick state was a struggle. But the driver was kindly and anyway he had his great vehicle to ride and so I was carried away from those lands where my Daddy lay cold beneath the dirt. I felt the turning of the giant wheels on the blacktop and the roaring of the engine underneath me and I lay back in the warmth of the cab and, pretending I was tired, closed my eyes.

page 47

Through the hot afternoon we travelled north with the sun in our faces, and I squinted to make out those things which my Daddy had told me of, that lay beyond the rim of our lands. Little hamlets, each one more straggled out than the last, and hamlet people standing open-mouthed beside the roadstead, as though seeing a chariot of fire, instead of the long truck which, on that highway, are as common as jackrabbits. Mean acres of land, all fenced about and fussed over, and shanties which sold comestibles. The driver saw me eyeing these and said, 'Hongry? There's bread in there,' and passed a brown paper sack which contained sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. The drivers of the great highway are of the most human kind, full of understanding and sadness. If ever I was to leave these lands it would be to the great highway that I would go, to ride the mighty vehicles and chase the bunny rabbit's tail of the broken white line.

We came to a place where tracks of iron crossed the black of the highway and, knowing these for what they were, I asked to be set down. 'In Huntly?' said the driver. 'No one ever stops in Huntly unless they threw a rod.' But he pulled to the side.

I came around to his door to thank him. Looking down from his high window, he raised his shades. His eyes were the blue of a summit lake, nestled among broken rock. He passed down the paper sack with the rest of the sandwiches. After a moment he said, "Get some shoes, kid. They like you to have shoes." Then his great engine roared and he pulled away, leaving me there by the side of the road with my hair all tugged this way and that by the afterdraft.

He was the last good man I saw for many a day.

My Daddy had talked of the strangeness of the lands where I now found myself and I was filled by a desire to wander and gaze. But I was not born a fool and so I moved off, slowly, like a cow that is heading peaceably to pasture, so that nobody would mind me. Not that anybody was minding me except that if I loitered there I knew that somebody would.

The tracks of iron were bedded deep in the black sticky of the great highway and I followed them, away from the trucks and the shanties and into a little place that I knew to be a siding: my Daddy told me about that. Here, wagons of iron were standing, cold, and I walked page 48close beside them, smelling them, which was a rich smell of rust and grease, and placed my hands on their flanks, so pitted and scratched. Weeds grew beneath their iron wheels, they stood as still as rocks and I knew these wagons had been abandoned here and would never move short of a dynamite blast, and so I walked on. But they had filled me with wonder.

Now I saw that, ahead, there were men and I became cautious. Three of them, standing in a triangle near the open door of a great shed, and from the irritation in their voices I knew they were dissatisfied with their lives in the town named Huntly and would welcome the diversion of a shoeless boy to chase. So I hid, and waited, and when their backs were turned, slipped across lines of iron track, behind wagons, behind a broken building, and thus to the boundary fence, which swiftly I climbed. Beyond were fields and I soon had my feet in soft grass, which cheered me. There were bushes, and in the bushes I hid, until darkness began to fall.

I had seen how there were rails of iron lying close within the fence and once the darkness was complete I moved along the fencewires. The town fell behind me and soon I was alone in the night. Above, the stars were the same stars I had seen on the mountain. Daddy and I had lain on our backs while he named them for me. He knew everything, my Daddy.

I climbed the fence and began to walk between the rails of iron. The sleepers were far apart, I had to stretch to reach each one. But the gravel between them was hard on my feet. Ahead, the rails shone faintly in the starlight and, walking between them, I felt guided, as though, ahead, there was a place where the splintered parts of me would come to a point. I strode on, powered by the sandwiches in my stomach, and, working harder, began to make my way around a long, slow curve that carried the tracks up a slope. Then I heard a sound.

From the mountainside it had been possible to see trains passing in the distance and it was this that had led my Daddy to spend so much time explaining the railroad to me. But now the earth began to shake and I discovered that to have seen a locomotive from a mountainside was different from being in the living presence of one. Swiftly, I leapt from the tracks. Around the curve the great engine came. Its searchlight swung before it and found me, standing open-page 49mouthed —immediately an airhorn spoke from within the engine, an immense spear of sound which shafted through my head, making it ring. Then the machine was passing close before my eyes, a rushing wall of metal, and I was afraid. The mountain had always been the biggest thing. The fire inside it had always been the greatest power. Now I understood how the world might have dire forces which would bear down on a boy and shake his bones. That things comfortable and fascinating to be told of on a starlit night might prove overwhelming when they were rushing at your face.

At my ankles, sparks flew. I sensed down there the crushing fall of the iron wheels on the rails. A smell of burning oil and singed air engulfed me like a foul breath. But it was the passing of the wall of the train which was most impressive. My eyes flickered. Slowly, I put out a hand. I knew that it would not be wise to touch this thing but I could not help myself. The rushing wall of metal smacked my knuckles aside. I staggered and nearly fell.

In a kind of swoon, I swayed beside the track, overwhelmed, and thus was delayed in grasping that, labouring up the incline, the train was slowing. The engine had given way to wagons. Now I stepped back and saw that behind the wagons there were flatcars. And behind the flatcars: boxcars.

How like little houses those boxcars were, oblong in the night.

I remembered what my Daddy had told me, that you studied the first car to see what part of its flank might be gripped. Then you looked to see how you might progress from there along the side of the car to somewhere you could comfortably stand. A boxcar with an opening in the side was what you looked for. And now I saw one. I began to run alongside the train. The trackside gravel was cruelly pointed and cut my feet. But in truth I flew. The idea of being able to become one with this rushing monster was so exciting that all pain, all reason were suspended. I saw that preceding the opening in the side of each boxcar was a ladder and that if I once grasped the ladder I would be able to hold to it while I established my position. I fixed my eye on the ladder of the second-to-last car and increased my speed. At the last moment I was suddenly assailed by a knowledge of the slicing power of the iron wheels which fell like hammers on the long anvil below. If I went down I would be cut in half. This knowledge was a weight I had page 50to carry as I jumped. But I was raised in the physical world and from an early age could leap onto a running horse. My fingers seized the ladder. And while it was true that the knuckles of my left hand were bleeding and weakened, still I had strength enough to hold on. My feet swung in a circle in the air but my arms pulled me and soon I was standing upright, pressed against the wall of the train and plunging through the night. How it vibrated! From the engine, far ahead, a second bellow came from the airhorn, as though the beast resented the burden. But now it was a sound in the distance, a lonesome wail which did no more than remind you that one day you would die.

How proud I was, hanging there on the shuddering side of the boxcar, and how full of optimism. The night rushed into my face and I glanced down and was thrilled by the sight of the miles that were passing swiftly, effortlessly, beneath my shoeless feet. Low along to my right there was a projecting flange and I thought it would bear my weight. I stretched a toe towards it. I saw how, if I had a purchase there, I could swing out and along on one arm and thus gain the entrance to the interior of the boxcar. There, I would be able to sit in comfort and gaze out at the splendour of the passing night. This plan meant trusting myself to the strength of my bleeding left hand, but the night air was becoming cold and I felt that if I stayed where I was I would eventually lose all feeling and fall. I had to do it. But I am confident of my physical abilities and so again I launched myself. My toe found the flange, cold metal, and my good hand swung round and grasped the side of the opening. For a moment I was stretched there on the side of the train. Then, holding firmly with my right hand, I bought my trailing leg from the ladder and onto the flange. This was a precarious situation and I did not linger in it, but pressed on to the doorway.

Below the wheels clattered and, as I teetered in the opening, my thoughts were full of triumph at avoiding them. Thus I did not see the booted foot which came out of the interior darkness to hit me square in the chest and send me sprawling on the sharp gravel below.

to be continued