Now Jack sat in the open doorway of the boxcar, with the familiar click-clack, as he soaked up the vastness of Texas. Never before had he experienced such an open and rugged landscape. Where buffalo once roamed. He thought about becoming a cowpuncher. A prospector. A man can’t pull a donkey if the donkey objects. Imagine Jack lost in all that vastness and hungry for a hamburger. There he would be he and God. The thought frightened him. The feelings got to him. Something about Jesus going into the desert. Maybe he’d become a preacher after all. A Satan slayer.
Perhaps you may be among those who have been lured into a wilderness and understand Jack’s feelings. Perhaps you’ve pondered the vicissitudes of your fate and ended up with stomach cramps.
“I’m mind of when I wuz young an’ roamed whar mountains riz on high,
An’ grassy prairies spread fur-wide a-neath a clean sky….
I’d nary care, nor tho’ it o’ fear, when youth wuz in my eye….”
How Tex sung, and Jack saw mist in his eyes. Fancy a life of roamin’ whar mountains riz on high. Dreams of grassy prairies spread fur-wide a-neath a clean sky. But how big a lie was I’d nary care? Nor tho’ it o’ fear? Was youth ever in his eye? So much for raising hell.
Tex caught rodeo fever, which carried off many a good cowhand. He only had to win enough for entry fees, travel, and grub. But consequently he lost his wife. Thought he’d never give up bulldogging. “Yep,” he said, “for ten years I lived a life with most of my bones cracked or broken. Naturally Maggie didn’t like it. Should she have understood?” Here his voice trailed off. Why hadn’t the pain vanished? He missed his kid. Why did he still care? The same as a thief, he’d sneak up in front of the old ranch house at night, as close as he dared git, hopin’ a horse’s whinny wouldn’t give him away. “From another time until it was too late.”
During uncertain times, he relived his errors. And was haunted by delirium. Paid a heavy price. Shared the only picture he had left, remembering the day it was taken. A look at a three quarter moon through a cracked window, when it was impossible to make love: that craziness, still not deciphered, came from a ranch in south Texas, where civilization only existed at the end of long rides. It had its roots in the endless isolation of the ranch. O, bitter is the sorrow. One discovers it too late. Not until a love has been crushed.
On the rodeo circuit, Tex chased every cowgirl he could afford. He left at home the one woman who loved him best. He said that when he grew restless in the springtime and the rodeo caused him to roam, he left to steal a little happiness. Yet by the time he got back home, he always felt less happy than when he set out. Through big, salty tears, he would apologize. Then, from those he wronged so often, he sought benefits.
“Y’u know,” he sung. “Tex I don’t git you. The sanctity of marriage is so strong; and your wife is an angel. But ‘pears they helt a quarlin’ spree, which haulted their romance; and jealous Maggie figgered she’d humble Tex, first chance! He it was that followed every rodeo skirt that he could corral. He’d hug ’em an’ kiss ’em. Yep! They’d kiss him right back. So, wa-a-l, y’u know the rest.”
A jealous Maggie it was that brought a cold chill into the ranch house proper. Visions of broken chairs and a table without legs still filled Tex with confusion. Until he died, he couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation.
Such was the reason Tex gave for drinking so much Black Velvet. Divorce. Jack, just like Tex, betrayed the people who loved him most. He, just like Tex, was bothered by it for the rest of his life. But very soon, both of them got arrested and detained for something else. That experience gave Jack an excuse to run even farther. Of all of his excuses, jail time stood at the top of the list, as he remembered the great injustice. Knowing that they weren’t guilty and charged but never tried, he’d look back on it with all the anger of a raging bull.
In a county jail, they found no mercy. Held for a gloomy night behind bars. By now, obviously vagrants, and arrested for trespassing, they appeared before a humorless judge. Jack always remembered the words of the arresting bull. “You son-of-a-bitch, you get the hell out of there,” and then he beat the hell out of Tex. He picked on a weak, shaky, old man, a Texan whom Jack had grown to like. The bull got madder and meaner with each blow. The son-of-a-bitch tried to kill the old man, as the train pulled away, making it impossible to escape. As the bull’s face turned red, color left Tex. While Jack stood nearby and did nothing, savage fury kindled laughter. He would take “no shit from a goddamn bum!” People get crazy, often get fucking crazy when they carry a bat. The bull hit Tex over and over again. Fuck it! That’s how you get killed and earn the town’s hospitality. The bull threw them into the back of his car when Tex instead needed an ambulance.
And yet Tex initially seemed as if he’d survive. Even though he bled, the old man sat up. Jack saw the swelling that quickly spread to the left eye. Silent they were then, even as others in the jail banged and yelled. Friends were often silent when strangers have to talk. Dreadful pain was what it cost him. It was the nearest thing to Nazis that Jack ever saw.
Fucked up by a bull, Tex was sure as hell sick. That Jack could see. The old cowboy spat up blood. Jack was no doctor but he could see that his friend was hurt bad, and it was just bad when early the next morning they were shoved back onto a train. Only yesterday Jack had been in his prime, while now he’d aged a hundred years. He wondered what he’d done. Nothing seemed to justify it.
Now dying… in pain… Tex now had a friend he trusted. It made him feel better. For the first time in his life, Jack watched someone die. He trembled. Never before had he held a man in his arms. Jack held him and prayed, prayed his first honest prayer. He prayed and prayed and felt as if no one else gave a damn.
Then Jack made Tex mad by saying, “You can keep your fucking Texas!” When he said, “You can keep your fucking Texas,” Jack said it with conviction. Tex got real mad. That was the worse part for Jack. I don’t think Jack was talking about Tex’s Texas, or even the worst part of Texas. He was just talking about some people in Texas. And Jack would have to admit that you could find a bad ass anywhere.
“You bum, don’t die!” oow could wanting to live be held against Tex? You couldn’t quarrel with his wantin’ booze. The rot gut probably killed him as much as anything. When you speak of bums, don’t place Tex in that category. Of course, he drank, but he wasn’t a drunk with an unhinged brain or wild habits. It went deeper than that.
A monster lived while a gentle soul died. Nobody knew who he wuz anymore. Nobody ‘cept Jack. A monster lived on in west Texas. No doubt he died of old age. He played cop, ruled the world, and made up the laws. The rest of us were obliged to stay in line. There is no justice. Mere necessity obliges a man to follow the rules. All Tex ever carried was his social security card. Realize the way he lived was his business; and that was how it was, from one end of the country to the other.
A beating, jail, hard labor? Well, hell no! It took tough men, hard working and hard drinking men in coveralls to run the trains; and contrary to what you might think there was little sympathy for bums. There was no changing that. They were obliged to show no sympathy for men who repeatedly got their ass kicked, or needed to dry out.
Hence, Jack asked himself in horror if he could’ve done more or should he have stayed with Tex’s body. Did he have a choice? He would feel he did. Hadn’t Tex himself urged him to jump off the train before it reached a town, or else face more questions? Screw ethics. The thought of jail sealed Jack’s fate.
Tex’s worse errors never amounted to a serious crime. He was generous, noble and brave and bore little malice. An old timer, not exactly a tramp, he was too old to do hard work. As most Texans are, he was full of bullshit. God loved him. God surely did. Jack wished he could’ve kept Tex alive so that they could’ve remained on the train together. And learn from him about eating rabbit and rattlesnake. Which tasted better, rabbit or rattlesnake? Jack never knew whether Tex really knew his stuff when it came to horses and women. Could he have taught our tenderfoot the diamond hitch? Or how to aim straight? Or hunt mountain lion? The scarred riding saddle that Tex once used now gathered dust. The cowboy often yearned for his old spread, which was sold after the divorce. The corrals, the big house, and the old barn were his most vivid memories.
Now before pouring water on Tex’s coals, kicking dirt on his ashes, and picking up the tin cans he left behind, as Jack faced mixed emotions about jumping off the train, consider the direction the young man’s life could’ve taken. He could’ve ridden the rails for the rest of his life. It was more likely though the booze-sick dreams or the hidden features of such a landscape wouldn’t have appealed to Jack for very long. The long, cold nights, and surviving by canning, scavenging aluminum, copper, and brass, and, for a house some times a cardboard box, would’ve soon grown old.
Tex learned the lessons of the rope and how to avoid a burn. Loosening his saddle girth gave him a chance to take one last breath. All of his life he enjoyed roping, because it felt good, and because he was good at it. Not into praying, Tex chose epithets instead. He had taken what life had given him. He was never good enough to make the Hall of Fame. Instead of fame and money, he ended up anonymous and broke. This hour was his last. He didn’t have much left except memories.
Give the steer a head start, maintain it with a rope; reach down and grab the steer’s horns and slide off the horse and plant your feet. It’s magical. Give an old hand a rope and let him do his thing until his body no longer functions: that’s what he deserves. And once the cowboy is finished, let that be it. While some die curzin’ and many die prayin’.