By Jodi Drinkwater
In the late afternoon desert sunlight, Abel stumbled between the high sandstone arroyo walls. He looked back over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of something—he wasn’t sure what—a light.
A firefly, thought Abel as he turned and blinked, a firefly in a Mason jar—like the one from his childhood. No, too bright to be a firefly. He shook his head. Ain’t no fireflies in New Mexico, anyhow. He laughed at himself then looked again—an angel? He stopped, mouth open, staring into the broad, bright face of the angel who had come to save him. He waited. The angel blazed like a great orb but was motionless. Abel blinked and waited. When the angel did not move to save Abel, he licked his parched lips and crumpled to the ground, his battered face in the sand, his cowboy hat toppled, his horse long gone.
* * *
In his adobe along the river, the cowboy was chanting his sonorous, rhythmic song when his telephone rang. He instantly recognized the voice on the line, he sighed, and then he frowned.
“Hey, Sid, we lost another one,” said the familiar voice.
“What’d you lose this time, Sonny?”
“It’s not what; it’s who.”
The cowboy frowned.
* * *
When the cowboy knocked on the grand door of the ranch house, he was neither impressed nor happy. The housekeeper answered and, with a condescending air, showed him into the great room. Faces of mounted animals stared down at him from the high, stone walls. The fireplace was massive but not burning. There was a large table with chairs made of leather and other detritus of animals. The cowboy fidgeted with a deer antler turned chair-back while footsteps sounded through the hall.
“Sid, you made it,” a very large man dressed in designer cowboy gear dwarfed the tall, skinny cowboy who stood in his old work clothes—his only clothes. The rancher shook the cowboy’s hand.
“Yup,” the cowboy frowned.
“You want something to eat?”
“Nope. Just need a horse.”
“You gotta gun?”
“Yup. Headin’ out tonight.”
“You got it, Sid,” the big man turned to leave.
The cowboy stopped him, “Good to see the downturn aint touched you.”
“Nope. No deficit ’round here,” the big man shuffled away like a grizzly.
The cowboy sighed.
The sun was setting when the cowboy went out to the horse. He was relieved finally to be alone except for the Mexican groom who was brushing the last of the horse’s tail. The horse was a Percheron, Quarter Horse cross and stood at least seventeen hands tall. He was a grey with feathered fetlocks—a horse big enough to carry Sonny.
“Gracias, amigo,” the cowboy thanked the Mexican.
The groom nodded.
“Como se llama este caballo?”
The Mexican stared indignantly at the cowboy.
“Como se llama el caballo? What’s his name? The horse?”
“The horse’s name is Gabriel, and he is ridden by the master of the house,” the Mexican replied in perfect English.
The cowboy whimpered, “gracias.”
“Sir, you are welcome,” the Mexican turned with disdain and disappeared into the shadows.
The cowboy judged the horse’s tack. The saddle was large enough to fit two cowboys and was made of the finest leather. It was hand-tooled by a top saddle maker in the Southwest. “Shit,” the cowboy spat tobacco. He unhooked the breast collar and gingerly removed the bridle. He unhitched the latigo and dropped the cinch. He carried the saddle and other gear to the tack room—stopped midway through the door and looked around: Damn. Look at all this stuff. He gazed down at fine leather and glittering silver gear. Like a damn museum…shit. He spat on the polished wood floor then remembered himself. He rubbed it in with his boot.
He walked to his truck, picked up his own worn saddle, re-tacked the horse, and replaced Sonny’s full saddle bags that looked peculiar with his gear. He walked back to his truck and picked up his rifle. He placed the rifle in the scabbard and mounted the large horse. A Cadillac, he thought, no, more like a Lexus, I bet. He suddenly and profoundly missed Brisk his little, bay trail horse, confined now, back at the barn without him.
They strode out of the ranch headquarters and ventured into the desert of the Galisteo Basin. Stupid, he thought, to start out cross country at sunset. But he just couldn’t stand the thought of staying one night—one more night of his life—in that place. He looked up at the stars.
The cowboy looked up at the stars, the full moon, then down at the tracks left by the old man’s horse. He followed them slowly knowing the night would be long ahead of him. The wind picked up, and the cowboy pulled his hat down tight. Behind him, clouds were blowing in, and the Rancho Sol y Sombre was swallowed by the impending storm. The cowboy rode through the night, occasionally dismounting his horse, checking tracks, then moving on.
He rode until the storm loomed over him. He found a low piñon and stopped. He pulled his bedroll from the rear of the saddle, along with his yellow slicker. Standing beside the horse, he drank some water and ate half a piece of beef jerky and thought of the porterhouse T-bone he could have had at Sonny’s place. He unbridled Gabriel, and buckled the hobbles on the horse.
With his front legs hobbled, Gabriel wouldn’t go far. And the bell around his neck would help the cowboy find him in the morning. Gabriel munched the wild blue grama. The man took the saddle from Gabriel’s back and laid it on the bedroll for his head. The cowboy stretched out on the blanket and covered himself with the slicker. He wore his boots and pulled the slicker tight over him as the rain pelted down.
Now the tracks will be washed away, he thought. The cowboy’s face was covered with what could be mistaken for tears—tears of the wild blue, he thought. And this was so perfectly sentimental and sad to the tired cowboy that he fell asleep as the storm closed in around him.
* * *
At the exact moment the cowboy fell asleep beneath his slicker, Abel was awakened by the pattering of rain on his back. The old man turned over in the sand, opened his mouth, and drank in the rain. He was relieved at last to have water and started to come to his senses. He didn’t know how long he had been there and looked around for his horse, a paint named Michelangelo. Michelangelo was gone. Abel held his tongue to the rain. As he drank, the old man heard a low rumble, something I should recognize, he thought. The water teemed over Abel just as he remembered: flash flood.
Abel scrambled to the side of the arroyo and clung to the roots of a juniper. The water heaved down over him, and his legs were pulled into the flood.
“Hold on,” he instinctively told himself, then the old man couldn’t remember quite why.
* * *
Before dawn, the cowboy was up and wet. He shook out his hair and replaced his hat. He ate a handful of coffee followed by a shot of water.
“Cowboy can’t even have his coffee nowadays,” but he was in a hurry and settled for the grounds the Mexican had packed for him. He chewed the second half of the beef jerky and listened for Gabriel’s bell. The horse was behind a cluster of piñon trees, and the cowboy easily gathered, un-hobbled, and tacked the horse.
The cowboy chanted as he rode and scanned the horizon. The sun was rising, and since now the tracks were obscured, he watched for horse dung, scuffed rocks, and trampled grass. He looked over the landscape for signs of man or horse. Besides what little the trail might offer, he only had his gut to follow. But his gut he trusted most of all of these. In this, the cowboy was confident: He would find Abel, then he shuddered at the thought—better or worse.
The cowboy roused when he saw the oil derrick in the distance. Abel had been sent to check the derrick for an oil spill or leak. When the cowboy arrived at the derrick there was no sign of malfunction—and no sign of Abel.
* * *
The orphaned calf had been separated from the herd for some time now. The herd of Angus cattle had moved over the ridge, and the calf bellowed for his mother who had died a day earlier. Now the calf wandered into Abel’s arroyo several miles up from where Abel had clung to the juniper. The mountain lion, which crouched on the arroyo bank in the brush, watched the sad calf as he bellowed. The calf stirred a deep longing in the mountain lion, one as old as time, and the lion would play his part. The lion rose from the brush and crept along the edge of the arroyo bank. The calf found a depression in the sand filled with water and began to drink. He missed his mother. The lion crouched nearby, suddenly thinking the calf a marvelous plaything. At once, the lion leapt and slashed through the arroyo toward the lonely calf.
* * *
At midday the cowboy stopped the horse at a cattle trough and let him drink. He dug through the saddle-bags until he found a stack of handmade tortillas wrapped in newspaper. He sat on a rock and un-wrapped the tortillas. They had been grilled in butter, and though they were cold now, they were exactly what the cowboy wanted as he looked out at the sky filled with swollen clouds: better than any T-bone, he thought as he took a bite.
He looked down at the newspaper’s headline: Paving Gate: New Mexico’s Asphalt Conspiracy. The cowboy chuckled to himself and wished Abel were here to read this: only place in New Mexico’s got good blacktop, and it’s a scam. Again, the cowboy looked around at the basin, relieved to be in a place far away from cars and roads and conspiracies.
“You’re anachronistic,” Abel had once told him.
“What are you talking about old man?” the cowboy had laughed. “Anachronistic,” he repeated. “That’s what my daughter calls me. It means you’re in the wrong time—you’re obsolete.”
The cowboy had sneered at Abel but knew it was the truth. For a moment, now, the cowboy imagined that this basin was the whole, entire world: No cars. Only horses—and land—endless expanses of land.
“Come to your senses, you fool cowboy. This is the world now, and anachronistic or not, you are part of it,” he reprimanded himself.
The cowboy finished his tortillas and water, and climbed back onto Gabriel. Now he must search this vast country for Abel, the old man who had once pegged him and was right now proving it to the both of them.
* * *
The cowboy found the calf near the mouth of the arroyo. The lion had eaten most of the calf’s hind-quarters and left the rest, half-buried, for later. The cowboy cut a large chunk of flesh from the calf’s shoulder and wrapped it in the newspaper he had wanted to show Abel—if he were alive to read it—when he found him. The cowboy stuffed the beef deep into the saddlebags below the canteen to keep it cool.
Back on the horse, for a moment the cowboy thought it might be nice not to find Abel, to instead climb Piedra Tortuga and survey the immense Galisteo, to forget the world where he never belonged.
“Fool,” he scolded himself, just before he glanced down the arroyo to see a heap in the sand that looked suspiciously like Abel.
Jodi Drinkwater is very grateful for winning the Santa Fe Reporter writing contest for the second time. (She won in 2008). Writing about the cowboy for a second time was a great experience, and Jodi plans to continue to explore the cowboy’s adventures. Jodi is a writer and painter in Santa Fe. To see more of her work, visit jodidrinkwater.com.