Poet and painter Jodi Drinkwater has had her work published in various literary journals. “Jesus Sleeping” is her first published work of fiction. New to Santa Fe and a transplant from Kansas, Jodi owes thanks to the people who have taught her about horses and the northern New Mexico landscape. To see more of Jodi’s work please visit her website.
By Jodi Drinkwater
The Amtrak was forty-five minutes late pulling into Lamy station when Jimmy Glass finally awoke from his stupor. He had been riding since Newton, Kansas, a thirteen hour trip, and was still half-drunk. He was wasted when he got on the train and quickly passed out in his seat, and even now he reeked of alcohol and his head wouldn’t clear. Jimmy didn’t care that the train was late as he gathered up his duffle bag and climbed off the train in his worn-out cowboy boots and his crumpled hat.
Lamy was still dusty, and the spotted hills surrounding the old station were scattered with houses Jimmy had seen before. He crossed the dirt lot to the historic museum, but it was closed for the season. Ms. Lippencott, the kind proprietor, was gone, so Jimmy would have to hitch a ride into Santa Fe. He had little hope of catching a ride and he knew it, so he scanned the crowd for people who might not care he was penniless, homeless, and—as they’d called him once at a convenience store in the Oklahoma Panhandle when he was skimming for change—a “long-haired Indian.”
He walked back across the sandy parking lot to the inactive rail car, now a tourists’ diner, and peed under the window. Coming back around the corner of the dining car he nearly ran into four big men in dark suits.
“Hello, Jimmy,” the biggest man said.
“Hullo,” Jimmy sulked, and as the men grabbed him, he knew he wouldn’t need a ride into Santa Fe.
* * *
The cowboy was up and boiling water for his coffee in the deep of night. He was cold when he first woke up, so he stirred the coals in his wood-burning stove and put his last piece of piñon on the fire. His house filled with the incense of piñon, and his adobe gave off the only light along the river while he took his bath, chanted, then he poached one egg for his breakfast. He steeped his coffee on the stove and ate his egg with green chile and a warm tortilla to sop up the soft yolk. He skimmed the day’s paper and thought about the day, about what had been asked of him—He wouldn’t dwell on it. He poured his coffee.
He ate quickly—and very little—out of habit. He wanted to be on Noche Rojo Trail as the sun came up. He gathered his dishes in the sink, pulled on his work boots, and checked his knife on the inside lip of his right boot. He moved the rifle from beside his headboard to the gun rack in the cab of his truck and turned on the engine. His diesel was the only noise, outside the distant yipping of the coyotes, along the Agua Fria territory.
He drove over the winding chamisa and piñon speckled mountain roads to the barn. There were no cars, and he glanced at the meadows that lay out across the land toward the mountains. The moon was bright and illuminated the silver leaves of the Russian olives, the pale bark of the white aspens, and the deep green of the junipers. By sunup the meadows would be blanketed with wildflowers—sunflowers, purple aster, and Indian paintbrush.
He could see the shimmering reflection of the moon on the clouds draping the Sangre de Cristos and, gazing out over the landscape, for a moment he forgot himself—forgot his impending task—and he was happy.
When he got to the barn, he found Jesus sleeping. Today he would not bother to wake him. It wasn’t his job—not today. Today he had one job to do—one lone and solitary task—and he would do it.
He carried his rifle through the barn, hearing only the quiet whinnying of the horses, out past the corrals to the trail shack. He unlocked the door, laced on his chaps, changed to his cowboy boots and spurs, and, after moving his knife to his new boot, placed his black felt hat on his head. Then he chose a sturdy lead rope and halter and walked back to the corral where his fifteen saddle horses were kept. He stood outside the gate and watched the horses. His favorite, Brisk, a small bay, had just yesterday thrown a shoe. He would have to choose another horse. He watched them as they sleepily munched their hay.
At least Jesus had fed them this morning, and there was water. One morning not a month ago, he had come in to find Jesus sleeping, and none of the horses had been fed. Their troughs were dry. He had become angry and jostled Jesus from his sleep and cursed him.
* * *
From the first time he saw it, the cottonwood had meant something to him. His first ride on this land, and here was this vast tree so out of place on this high desert landscape. Somehow it had survived this unforgiving land, and it gave the cowboy hope. For him the tree was an enigma, one he drew strength from. That’s why he rode back past it today.
Before he was near the tree and able to admire its fortitude, the cowboy smelled the tell-tale smell of death. An animal, he decided. He rode closer and dismounted. He tied Shade to a juniper. The cowboy sensed a man sleeping beneath the cottonwood tree, and when he first saw the man’s boots he was relieved. He walked nearer, and the stench overwhelmed him. He covered his nose with his bandana. He called to the man. There was no answer. When he rounded the tree, the man was leaned against the trunk as if sleeping, but where his head should have been propped against the bark, there was nothing. Beside the man was a duffel bag. He almost looked in the bag but worried he might find the man’s head. The cowboy tallied up every detail. He scanned the body. Its legs were tied with a thick rope; his hands, once tied, had gotten free, and the rope was draped beneath his body. The cowboy did not look for it, but he didn’t see the head.
He untied Shade, mounted the horse, and headed back to the barn.
There was an investigation. The man was an Indian—a vagrant, they called him—no family, no home, nothing. In his despair, he had hung himself from the cottonwood, they said. The investigators had asked the cowboy many questions about why he was out by the cottonwood that morning, and why he was carrying the rifle. They had asked him—too many times he thought—if he had looked into the duffle bag. No, he’d insisted; he didn’t want to look in the duffle bag. But now he wondered.
They had asked if he’d seen the man’s head. He hadn’t. They explained that after hanging awhile, his neck broke off, and his head rolled into the grass where they found it.
Something was wrong. He took time off: chopped wood, chanted, went to the bar and had a beer. He didn’t like it. Something didn’t feel right. He wanted to find out about this Indian.
* * *
Before the sun had risen that day, of all the trail horses, the cowboy chose Shade, a sturdy black Missouri Fox Trotter with a wispy forelock. He placed the halter over his head and led him out of the corral. At the trail shack, he tacked up the horse, placed his rifle in the scabbard, tied on his folded shovel, then he stepped into the stirrup and swung into the saddle. While Jesus slept, the cowboy rode out away from the barn, the shack, and the corrals toward Noche Rojo Trail and saw light flung over the Jemez Mountains. He was right on time.
Shade was surefooted along the stony trail. A cold breeze was moving down from the northern range, so the cowboy led Shade into the arroyo where the wind would pass over them. The arroyo was wide and sandy and dotted with cane cholla, piñon, and wooden debris washed down by flash floods. Shade paced heavily through the sand.
Shade was not a skittish horse, which was good on the trails with the long shadows that can spook flighty horses. Snakes didn’t scare Shade. Even the cow which had once roamed free over this area had not frightened Shade, when other horses, never having seen a cow, had tried to toss their riders. But the cow was gone, and now, in September, snakes were scarcer.
The cowboy reached down and fingered the handle of his rifle. The last time he had used it he killed a buffalo on the ranch in Wyoming. They needed meat for the winter, so he shot the buffalo in the head. It fell to its knees, released a long bellow, and, after a second round through the heart, the buffalo died. He didn’t enjoy killing, and now the thought of the dying buffalo made him feel cold and hollow.—Just then, the cowboy saw a motion from the corner of his eye, but when he looked down the arroyo, there was nothing but shadows in the early half-light. It might have been a coyote—or the coyote, he decided.
Now he brooded sadly about the coyote. Coyotes were common and often broached the trail with riders in the distance, but they feared humans and retreated if they or their horses drew near. This coyote—they had named him Loco Grande—was more brazen than most. Two riders had returned to the barn with talk of the coyote that threatened them on the trail. Loco Grande was larger than other coyotes, still long and lean, but somehow bigger—and meaner—and the riders were shaken. It had faced down the women and their horses, growling fiercely, and slobbering. The riders had turned back leaving Loco to his trail.
The barn supervisor and the cowboy decided the coyote could be rabid and had to be exterminated. He said he would do it.
The Indians called coyote the trickster, the shape-shifter, who could turn into a man, deer, rattler, or hawk. He could outsmart the eye and defy all reason with magic and mischief. This coyote could be a trickster, the cowboy resolved.
He adjusted his reins, threw off his thoughts, and stopped his mind from drowning out the sounds of the desert. The insects were chirping, and the occasional raven flew past with a squawk. This desert was the cowboy’s home, and he would protect it, even from the rabid coyote that was born here.
He finally reached Cactus Pass and the sun was brightening the land. Shade began to get nervous and tried to turn back. The cowboy spurred Shade forward. Soon he saw the coyote. Standing along the upper ridge of the arroyo, Loco had not yet seen the man. When the coyote turned, the cowboy could see his size more fully. Loco was bigger than any coyote he had ever seen. The Indians’ stories of shape-shifters loomed up and gave him a shudder. He pulled the rifle out of the strap, raised it to his shoulder, aimed and shot.
Off the horse, the cowboy leaned over Loco. The coyote was dead with no sign of rabies.
“It had to be done.” He reassured himself.
He dug a shallow grave and covered Loco over with stones. He mounted Shade and, with the sun climbing, headed north along the High Arroyo Pass leading back to the barn. He wanted to see his cottonwood.
Along the way, he would pass his favorite cottonwood, one that had survived the harsh floods and drought and grew to be the biggest tree on the trails. It spread its branches mercifully over a patch of sky, and its leaves turned in the breeze. This, he told himself, would be his reward.