This piece ran originally on Fictionique (fictionique.com) on Friday, January 20, 2012. The author gives special thanks to LC Neal for her excellent editing of this piece. This is a work of fiction based on some facts.
He was eight when his father died.
Cowboy was a picture perfect little boy; blond curls and happy blue eyes. Despite his mother’s protests, he wore his tan cowboy hat and black, hand-tooled boots in the house. She insisted he take off his holster and silver-toned Colt 45 cap gun when he came inside, which wasn’t very often; not if he could help it.
He preferred being outside with his pony, a chestnut brown with a mane so flowing it could have been from a horse in one of his storybooks. He loved riding, often miles out to the west, pretending he was The Lone Ranger. Hi yo, Silver–and the chestnut pony flew nearly as fast as Silver in Cowboy’s mind–but when he came to the river, he never crossed. His parents insisted insisted he wasn’t old enough, not until he had graduated from a pony to a horse of his own.
He dreamed of himself at twelve, riding a big gray mare. When he was grown, maybe he’d head way out west and beyond, to New Mexico. He’d heard stories on the radio and from the farm hands, of the big cattle drives back to Texas. Young, tough men, real cowboys, drove enormous herds to market, through eastern New Mexico and on to Abilene, along the old Goodnight-Loving trail.
Cowboy thought about those journeys at night in his upper bunk, with his little brother sleeping peacefully below him. He would dream his dreams at the river’s edge, and turn around to ride his little chestnut home through fields where giant sunflowers lined the fence rows. He imagined the vast cattle ranches, where cowboys rode tall horses with saddles higher than a man’s head, across endless miles of trail, through vast open grassland. In his dreams, he saw cattle grazing, unencumbered and free, with only a few fences and gates. He would bring his own mare; he knew she’d have a good spirit, with a gentle mouth and an easy gait.
On the day his father died, Cowboy sat on the floor of his parent’s room inside the drafty old farmhouse with his little brother, and cut paper cowboys and horses out of old copies of The Drover’s Journal. The morning was steamy hot, a day you don’t expect to be so warm, so soon after planting season. His mother and the priest stood next to the metal framed bed, his mother fingering her rosary; the room was still except for the buzzing of flies, and the occasional sound of a labored, final breath. Focused on their play, the boys wouldn’t remember much about that day except for the glossy paper horses that crumpled too soon in the heat. Their older sister hung to the back of the room near the open window and twisted her braids, much as her mother twisted her rosary beads.
Cowboy would remember small details of his father later, like going to Mass and listening to him breathe too hard as he knelt to pray. He would remember his father’s admonitions not to cross the river on the chestnut pony, to always come home by sunset. He would remember him shoeing horses, a wisp of a memory of bitter metal and smoky smells. Mostly he remembered scents—the leather of his father’s broad saddle, the sickly sweetness of his father’s sick room, the tobacco his mother hid after the lung problems came back.
When Cowboy was twelve, instead of getting a tall horse of his own, his mother lost the farm. She couldn’t make it without her husband, asleep in his grave for four years. She and her children moved to town, a village of 500 people with nothing more than the small wooden Catholic and Baptist churches and a brick school. Cowboy hated it—he missed his pony that had gone to a neighboring farm. Even though he was too old to ride her anymore, he missed caring for her. There was nothing for him to do outside of school; his friends all worked on their own or other farms. He spent hours in his room looking at old horse magazines, occasionally walking the two miles out to an old neighboring farm to see his pony or help put up hay.
On a day soon after Cowboy passed his sixteenth birthday, the noon school bell rang and he walked out the back door of the schoolhouse for the last time. His mother was still at work at the café where she made rhubarb and blueberry pies at dawn, and hustled plate lunches for traveling strangers and neighbors until her children came home from school. She saw him standing in the doorway of the kitchen, and knew he was done. She didn’t say a word, put her plaid apron in the back room and motioned to her oldest son to come with her.
They walked to their little house in silence, and she led him to the lean-to that sheltered the family’s pre-war truck; beat up from years of riding on rutted farm tracks. In the rusty truck bed sat his father’s saddle, polished meticulously in contrast to the pocked metal truck walls.
His mother wiped her eyes, and said, “Go into my room. Look under the mattress and you’ll find ten one-hundred dollar bills. I’ve been saving it.”
Then he got in the old truck, headed west and crossed the river; his father’s saddle behind him, shining in the western sun.