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The Brave Cowboy
Jack Burnes is a loner at odds with modern civilization. A man out of time, he rides a feisty chestnut mare across the New West ? a once beautiful land smothered beneanth airstrips and superhighways. And he lives by a personal code of ethics that sets him on a collision course with the keepers of law and order. Now he has stepped over the line by breaking one too many of society's rulus. The hounds of justice are hot in his trail. But Burnes would rather die ...
The Brave Cowboy
Jack Burnes is a loner at odds with modern civilization. A man out of time, he rides a feisty chestnut mare across the New West — a once beautiful land smothered beneanth airstrips and superhighways. And he lives by a personal code of ethics that sets him on a collision course with the keepers of law and order. Now he has stepped over the line by breaking one too many of society's rulus. The hounds of justice are hot in his trail. But Burnes would rather die than spend even a single night behind bars. And they have to catch him first.
Burns lived by the values of the Old West -- which makes him a threat to the New West. He is an archetypal outlaw, foreign to the ways of modern civilization, of sprawling shopping malls, superhighways, and polluted skies.
He, was sitting on his heels in the cold light of the dawn, drawing pale flames through a handful of twigs and dry crushed grass. Beside him was his source of fuel: a degenerate juniper tree, shriveled and twisted, cringing over its bed of lava rock and sand. An underprevileged juniper tree, living not on water and soil but on memory and hope. And almost alone. To the north across the rolling mesa of lava there was a broad scattering of junipers, perhaps two or three to an acre, but here where the man squatted before his fire there was only the one, and south and west of the five volcanoes there were none at all, nothing organic but a rudimentary form of bunch grass and the tough spiny yucca.
The man coaxing his tinder into flame was not much interested in the burnt-out wasteland around him. Occasionally he would glance to the southeast and toward the city several miles away, stretched out like a long gray shadow on the other side of the river, or would take a look at the chestnut mare limping among the black rocks beyond the wash, its forelegs held stiffly together, its iron shoes scraping on the stone. But for the most part he concentrated his attention on his small sprightly fire and when he did look away from it his hands continued their work of breaking and adding sticks of wood.
After a while, when the fire bad been built up to about the size of a small fryingpan and a residue of glowing charcoal had accumulated, he lifted a canteen from a branch of the tree, filled a small smoke-blackened pan with water and pushed it lidless halfway into the bed of the fire. He watched it closely for several minutes, waiting for the first globule ofsuperheated air to appear on the bottom of the pan. As he waited be broke a dead stick into short lengths and laid the pieces carefully on the embers.
A cool morning, even in the sunlight. Surfaces exposed to the sun were becoming warm but the air remained chill and sharp, as though the sunlight passed from source to object without heating the intervening medium.
The bubble appeared. The man reached out toward the juniper and pulled a wrinkled beaten old cavalry saddlebag close to his heel, unbuckled its one remaining strap and removed from the interior a black skillet, battered and ancient, then a cylindrical tin labeled Handyman Tube Patching Kit, a can of pork and beans, a punch-type canopener and a slab of salted mutton wrapped in a greasy back copy of the Duke City Journal.
The mare on the other side of the wash was staring toward the river, flexing her soft rubbery nostrils, twitching her ears. There was a dim fragrance of tamarisk in the air, and a tension, an electricity, in the old aching silence.
The man wiped his nose once on his sleeve, sniffing a little, then unwrapped the mutton, opened his jackknife and sawed several strips of meat into the skillet, which he set directly on the fire. A dimple in the bottom of the skillet reversed its curvature with a sudden ping, like a plucked violin string, making one of the slices jump. He wiped the blade of the knife on his jeans, closed it and put in back in his pocket, while the meat sizzled and smoked in the skillet. He opened the can of beans and poured them over the meat; the gluey mess spread steaming around the mutton strips, spluttering against the hot metal.
By now the water was simmering in the open pan, its surface beginning to vaporize. The man unscrewed the lid from the tube patching kit and emptied a certain amount of a brown granular material into the water, measuring by eye. Instantly the aroma of hot coffee graced the air and an involuntary smile appeared on his hungry, lean face.
Within five minutes everything was ready, or ready enough, and ready almost simultaneously: the coffee cooked and diffused densely through the boiling water, the mutton fried, the beans hot and smoky. The man began to eat, using his fingers for the meat, scooping the beans from the skillet with a sawed-off tablespoon and gulping down the scalding coffee in quick short draughts direct from the pan.
When he was finished he leaned back against the bole of the crouching juniper, wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and sighed contentedly. After a moment he pulled at the yellow string dangling from his shirtpocket and drew out a small white cotton sack of tobacco. He reached in the pocket, groping with thumb and forefinger, and found a packet of wheat-straw cigarette papers. He took one of the papers-thin, brown, not gummed-and holding it delicately between his thumb and middle finger, half-rolled to form a trough, he opened the sack with his other hand and tapped out some of the cheap and pulverized tobacco onto the paper. He tightened the drawstrings of the sack with a hand and his teeth and put it back in his shirtpocket. Then with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands he rolled the paper around the evenly-distributed tobacco, moistened the edge of the paper with his tongue, sealed it and gave one end of the somewhat oblate cylinder a half twist. Without a further glance at his work he stuck the cigarette between his lips, scratched a match on his bootsole and lit it. Drawing, tasting, releasing the first mouthful of smoke, he stretched out his long, thin legs, relaxing, and stared at the city beyond the river.
Stared at it from under the brim of his black slouch hat, his head tilted back against the tree, the hat pushed...Brave Cowboy. Copyright © by Edward Abbey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted November 24, 2008
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