Contemporary Western Short Story
Sharon Frame Gay
I'm gazing at the stars sprinkled through the darkness, and wonder if anyone's staring back at me. Scientists claim there's no life up there. The stars burn out long before we ever see them. They tell us we're looking at the past when peering at heaven, and I guess I'm living in the past too, instead of the future.
A long day on the trail, eating dust and smelling cow shit has loosened my bones until they slip into the bedroll like water, my head nestled in the well-worn saddle on the ground. I hear the stomping and blowing of the horses, the low moans from the cattle, other men shifting around in their sleep, a lullaby here in Wyoming. From far off, there's the howl of a coyote, wishin' he was fierce enough to penetrate the herd, gnaw off a good piece of Hereford for dinner. Maybe he'll try, if enough of them answer his call. I find the pistol, run my fingers over the steel, spin the revolver.
I'm a real Cowboy, though truth be told, I drifted here over forty years ago from the city of St. Louis. I was no good at school, but couldn't keep my nose out of those books about the Wild West, the Indians and the law of the land. There wouldn't be many more chances to see the great West the way it was in the books, so at sixteen I left home and found my way here to the Sweet Water Ranch.
I'm a seasoned cattleman now, a range boss. Paid my share like everyone else, getting thrown off horses, kicked by bulls, and hustled by the others in the bunk house. I lost my dignity, a tooth or two, and wages in their poker games for quite a while until one day they all ignored me and picked on somebody else. That's when I knew I'd made it. I was one of them.
Times are changing. People are heading west in droves, the cowboy ways shrinking like a watering hole in August. There once were covered wagons, then trains, and now cars on the newly chiseled roads, crisscrossing the country like the lines on my face. The trains haul the cattle back east to market. We don't cover much land on our drives these days, bringing cattle down to holding pens, or keeping them safe and fed on the ranch until we herd them out of the hills and close to the railroad.
Cars make their way across country on dirt roads, children peering out the dusty windows with wide eyes, boys in their Coonskin caps, little girls with braids flying, as the car hits first one rut, then another.
One of those cars stopped me a year or so back, and folks asked if they could take my picture. They brought out a boxy camera on a big tripod and set it up right there in the middle of the cattle herd. I obliged them, sat my gelding and even swung a lasso for the kids. The mother brought her little boy over, asked if he could pet my horse.
"What's your name, Mister?" the boy asked.
The young mother peered up at me. "Luke Frasier" she said. "That's a fitting name."
I leaned down and whispered, "My real name's Malcolm," and winked.
She winked back, looked up with a sweet smile. "Thank you so much, Mr. Frasier," she said, and lightly patted my knee with her hand.
I felt a jolt of loneliness run right up my thigh into my heart. For just a moment, I pictured a family, supper on the stove, kids around the fire at the end of the evening. I nodded, swung my horse back towards the cattle.
After they drove away in a cloud of Wyoming dust, it punched me square in the jaw that my way of life was fading as fast as they were, cranking over the horizon.
I have to tell you it hit me so hard I got off my horse and stood there, staring at them until there was nothing to see, nothing to hear, but the lowing of the cattle and the soft breeze rustling the grass.
We're in the middle of the 1920's now. People moving West. Going to Hollywood and making moving pictures of all things. Trains are chugging across the plains loaded to the gills with new pioneers. Some of the roads are paved over as far as my eye can see. It fills me with fear and a great sadness.
I'm afraid, because I don't want this life to end. A life so close to the earth, every day I hear her breathing. I fear that the sky might close up around itself and not let those stars poke through at night. And I'm scared that I might be put out to pasture like an aging bull, with no book learning or temperament for any other job but this one.
What if this land gets chopped into pieces, thrown into the skillet of progress and served up in a way so different that my cows can no longer graze off the rolling hills, and the cowboy way of life fades away forever?
A shiver crosses my spine, like somebody walked over my grave. I shut one eye, then the other, checking if the stars are still there, wheeling through the sky on their way to yesterday. Far off, that coyote sings out again. I want to raise my own sorry head and howl into the darkness, hoping to find other souls who are mourning the end of something that was once such a part of this great country, now fading just like the stars.
I pray for this land, for the cattle, for the soft sloughing of the wind and look up at the sky one more time, hoping there might be room for me somewhere when my soul sets out across the Universe, looking for another cattle drive. Then I settle my hat over my face, breathe in the sweat, the dust, the familiar scents of a lonesome Wyoming night, and try to sleep a bit until daybreak.