Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Cowboy

The Cowboy
By Michael Cannata  

Once, he had been a cowboy.

He was old enough to remember the defeat and shame in the eyes of the boys as they returned from "The War." The Civil War started the year after he was born. It was also the year his world died. He watched his entire town leveled to the ground from the flames of Sherman's slaughter. He remembered the fly covered bodies of his friends and family lying in the streets, waiting their turn to be buried. Leaving his boyhood behind far too early, he headed west.

He'd became a cowboy, something he would be his entire life. He could still taste the dust from the hundreds of trails he’d ridden after a long day behind a herd. His horse, his gear and guns were the only possessions he ever owned. He always did his best to stay one territory away from the encroaching settlers and statehood.

He grew up riding from one cattle drive to another, following the only work he loved. Men of legend, men like Jesse James and Wyatt Earp, weren’t just legends. They were very real people that crossed his path more than once. "Law and Order" was still more a concept than a reality. He never looked for trouble and was fortunate enough that trouble rarely found him.

Never a gunslinger, he still carried his Colt low on his hip like so many men. He’d even killed a man once. Not because he was fast, but because he was a lot more sober than the man that had drawn on him at a card game.

He recalled the ground shaking from the thundering hoofs of the buffalo herds that stretched for miles. He would lie awake for hours watching them pass during their migrations across the vast plain. The Indians that followed them never looked like the fierce savages in the dime novels. They looked tired and hungry; like a people at the end of their era. He never feared any Indian he ever met. They were always eager for peace. The white men that followed were more savage than any Indian.

He rode trails that were cut by hand, opened for horses and wagons and eventually lined with iron rails. The tracks built by Chinese workers, slaves actually, started bringing the trains deeper into the west. He watched as small towns spring up anywhere there was a river or enough flat land to support the settlers that migrated from the east. Quickly, the small towns became small cities. Boundaries and barbed wire began to close off the open range.

He tried homesteading, even got a job once. He never had a woman for much more than a weekend. He wanted a home, but no matter how hard he tried, people in the towns and cities lived a life he couldn't adapt to. He never had a family growing up; he never saw any sense in starting one as he got older. Eventually, he always found his way back to the plains and mountains he called home.

The country - civilization - eventually surrounded him. Gradually, he was imprisoned by it. There was no more freedom in the land of the free. He became a public annoyance riding his horse along trails that were now the realm of something called an "automobile."

He gazed wistfully at the distant mountains. The longing they evoked brought tears to his eyes. The city between them, teeming with cars and people, was strange to him. He had spent his life avoiding places like this. Now he sat and looked with both wonder and fear at all the technology he had missed. Planes in the air still spooked him almost as much as they'd frightened his horse the first time they saw one.

He took a long pull on his hand-rolled cigarette, staring at the smoke hanging in the air. His memories played like a silent film against the smoky screen. No one in the home knew anything much about him. Any man he ever called a friend was long dead. He considered his age a subject of debate. He knew one thing about living; a long life wasn't always a blessing.

His horse had been replaced by a rickety wheelchair.  He could still ride and he'd give his life for the chance to do it. If he had the chance to climb on a horse he would ride as hard as he could until the angels, or the devil himself caught up to him.

In his heart he knew, like the far away mountains that called to him from the window, it was something out of reach; a dream. The simple act of standing and walking was enough to challenge him now.

The aides would be coming to bring him to supper soon. He never ate much anymore. Food was like a cruel necessity, prolonging his stay in a world he had no use for.

Tonight he would lie awake, trying his best to fall asleep, hoping tomorrow would be the day where he finally didn't wake up. He reached the end of his long meandering trail. One with no destination nor destiny. The old west was gone, all he had were his lonely memories and an ache in his heart. Only the old man in the elderly home was left.

But once, he had been a cowboy.

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