Code of the West: A Novelby Aaron Latham
In this magical and epic novel, the celebrated author of Urban Cowboy delivers a Texas-size love story that transplants the legend of Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Merlin alive and well to the Old West -- to stunning effect. Code of the West begins when Jimmy Goodnight, a young, earnest cowhand, recovering from having been brutally abducted by Comanches who slaughtered his family, sets his life on a new and surprising course by visiting a county fair. There he agrees to try to pull out an ax that has been deeply imbedded in an anvil and that has defied the efforts of the strongest men in Texas.
Jimmy's astonishing and triumphant achievement at the fair changes his life. With the prize money he follows his dream, recruits cowboys, puts together a herd of cattle, and drives them across the plains to a deep canyon, where he intends to make his own private kingdom. Goodnight's luck and courage bring him an early and gratifying success. Above all, they bring him the comradeship of his men, and the friendship of a lifetime, when he meets Jack Loving, who is everything Jimmy Goodnight isn't -- handsome, graceful, a naturally gifted horseman, and a great dancer. Together, Goodnight and Loving make a formidable team, and their relationship is one of complete trust, the bedrock on which Goodnight's growing empire rests, on a seemingly solid foundation -- until a woman appears with whom both men fall in love.
All goes well until Goodnight makes a fearful, vengeful, and unforgiving enemy, takes on an Eastern big businessman as a partner -- and falls in love with his beautiful daughter Revelie, and fails to notice the growing mutual attraction bet-ween Revelie and Loving...
Compulsively readable, cleverly interweaving Western history (Loving and Goodnight are both based on real people in the historical West) and Arthurian legend, Code of the West is a powerful love story, a sweeping adventure, a great "Western" -- and just the kind of unexpected, unusual, and hugely successful work of fiction that has sealed Aaron Latham's reputation.
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Read an Excerpt
Jimmy was seventeen years old and nervous before the dance. He was tall, skinny, and awkward. Looking out at the world through a single knothole, he saw an ugly sight in the mirror: his eye patch. He asked himself: If I was some girl, would I wanna dance with a patch like that there? His scowling reflection shook its head. But then he saw himself smile as he remembered how hard his cousin Rhoda had worked giving him dancing lessons. She had only come up to his waist. He had felt like a big old clumsy buffalo dancing with a graceful deer. After all that effort trying to learn to polka, he wondered if he would actually work up the nerve to ask a girl to polka with him. Maybe he should just ask Rhoda. But it might embarrass her, and who wants to be embarrassed? Besides, she might turn him down. He told his mind: Just shut up!
When everybody was ready, all dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes even though it wasn't Sunday, the whole family climbed aboard a wagon dragged along by two plodding plow horses. Aunt Orlena was dressed in a long grey dress and grey bonnet. Uncle Isaac wore his baggy black suit, which was beginning to turn brown, and a black string tie. Cousin Jeff had on a black suit, too, newer than his father's, but even baggier, bought with the expectation that he would grow into it someday. Little Rhoda and littler Naomi looked pretty in blue flour-sack dresses and pigtails. Jimmy, who didn't have a suit, was ashamed of his butternut homespun pants and shirt, but he was proud of his new bandanna, which was fire red.
Jimmy wished the team would pull faster and stir up a little breeze. It was hot on this July night in the middle of Texas. Everybody said this summer was shaping up to be the hottest and driest in memory. Even at this slow pace, the horses were lathered. They had worked hard all day in the field and must be tired. Now that he thought about it, Jimmy figured they had earned the right to plod slowly.
The wagon followed the road that led to the dreaded Weatherford schoolhouse, but Jimmy didn't mind because school was out for the summer. The closer they got, the more crowded the road grew, the more the little girls giggled, and the more nervous Jimmy became. When the wagon reached the school, the playground, which tonight would double as the dance floor, was already busy and noisy. Children were shouting and laughing, and the fiddles were tuning up. The sun was just setting, making even butternut look almost golden.
When Jimmy was getting out of the wagon, he tripped on something and almost fell on his face. He hated his own clumsiness. He hated the heavy clodhopper farmer's boots that weighed him down and made his feet feel like heavy hooves. How was he going to be able to dance? He longed for the lightness of his moccasins with the long fringe trailing out behind like a kite's tail. He could dance in those. But they were long --
No, Jimmy told himself, don't think about the past. It was too painful. Recalling his lost moccasins would just lead to remembering other losses, unbearable losses. Just think about here and now. But here and now was troubling, too. He couldn't dance. Not really. Not these dances.
Rhoda and Naomi ran off to be with other little girls. Cousin Jeff slouched off to look for his friends. Aunt Orlena and Uncle Isaac moved off to join the other adults who were busy talking about rainfall and crops. Jimmy kept the plow horses company. He didn't really fit with any group. He wasn't quite a member of the family, wasn't quite white in the eyes of many, wasn't quite right either, was too big for grade school and too dumb for high school. So he talked to the plow horses.
"O Great Goddogs, thank you for pulling the wagon," Jimmy said softly in the Comanche tongue. "I'm sorry you have to stand here. I know it must be boring, but at least there are two of you. You can keep each other company. There's just one of me."
Then Jimmy realized that several of the kids had noticed him talking to the horses. They were looking at him funny. Now they really thought he was crazy. He nervously started to put his hands in his pockets, but discovered that they were already there.
As the air darkened and cooled, Jimmy noticed individuals melting together into dark clumps. He saw girl clumps and boy clumps, big-kid clumps and little-kid clumps, farmer clumps and farmers' wives clumps. Then a clump of musicians started playing a tune, and the other clumps started breaking apart and reforming.
Drawn by the music, Jimmy moved closer to the musicians: two fiddlers were seated in leaned-back wooden chairs with cowboy hats perched on the backs of their heads. They looked to be in their twenties. A young woman about the same age played an upright piano. Jimmy wondered how she had gotten it from her living room to the playground. An old man probably in his seventies was playing a harmonica.
Jimmy rocked back and forth to the music, trying to work up the courage to ask somebody to dance. By the light of a full moon -- assisted by several lanterns hung from trees -- he studied the couples on the dirt dance floor. There were teenage couples and middle-age couples and old-age couples. And there were some mixed-age couples -- fathers dancing with daughters, grandmas dancing with grandsons. He tried to comprehend the dance steps, but he just got more and more confused. The swaying couples weren't dancing a polka -- he could tell that much -- but he didn't know what they were dancing. They seemed to move their feet very fast, the same way they had seemed to talk back before he learned to understand them. The dancers were beginning to kick up a good bit of dust, which the orange moon turned into gold dust. It gilded the swaying bodies and made them look like dancing statues. Jimmy thought the dancers looked so pretty that he longed to join them, but longing was as far as he got. Frightened by the strange dance steps, he soon returned to the horses.
Still, Jimmy's gaze kept reverting again and again to a brown-haired girl in a yellow calico dress which had some sort of design on it. He couldn't quite make out the pattern in the darkness. He had seen her at school, had seen her at services at the Hard-Shell Baptist Church, had nodded to her and even said hello to her a couple of times. Like most of the girls, she was a farmer's daughter, but he thought she was prettier than the others. He remembered that her name was Rachel.
"Should I ask her to dance?" he asked the horses in the "Human" tongue. "I mean if they ever play a polka." There wasn't a word for "polka" in the Human tongue so he said it in English. "What do you think?"
One of the horses flicked its tail and shifted its weight from one hind leg to the other.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.
Jimmy told himself that he was not a "running-heart." He reminded himself that he had been on the warpath and so should not be afraid of something as harmless as a young girl at a dance.
The band moved from one tune to another. Listening closely, Jimmy thought he heard a polka. Watching closely, he thought he recognized polka steps being performed on the packed earth. He saw his cousin Jeff dancing what appeared to be a polka with a horse-faced girl. He hated the idea of Jeff being braver than he was, so he started walking.
As he made his way across the playground, Jimmy tripped again. He blamed his big boots. He blamed his unhappiness. Whatever was to blame, he was not graceful on his feet. He would have to be crazy to ask a pretty girl to dance. But then everybody already thought he was crazy, so what did he have to lose? He just hoped he wouldn't trip on the dance floor and fall on top of her. He reminded himself that he wasn't just awkward but also ugly. His hand went up and touched the patch over his ruined eye.
And then there was that damn birthmark that made him look even uglier. He touched it, too. The mark was just a series of small purple dots arranged much like the stars in the Big Dipper, only it had a couple of extra stars in its handle. The pointer stars of the Dipper's cup lined up not with the North Star but with his missing left eye, with his patch. The birthmark seemed to be pointing at the patch, making sure nobody missed it, not that many ever did. With his patch, with his birthmark, he would have to be crazy to think that any girl would --
"Scuse me," Jimmy mumbled. "Wanna dance?"
Rachel, the pretty girl in the yellow dress, didn't say anything. He couldn't tell whether she was shy or just hadn't heard.
"Wanna dance?" he asked louder.
She looked uncomfortable.
"No," she said at last. "I'm sorry."
Jimmy raced his running-heart back across the playground. He felt clumsier than ever and uglier than ever. And he even felt less white. He didn't belong here with these people.
Standing with the horses once again, Jimmy couldn't help thinking about Lifts Something. She hadn't refused to dance with him. She had been willing to love him. But she was --
No, stoppit, Jimmy scolded himself. Don't think her name. Don't think about the past at all. How many times did he have to remind himself? Wouldn't he ever learn?
Although he was discouraged, Jimmy felt he owed it to himself to pick out another girl, work up his courage, and ask her to dance. He wished he could see the girls better, not just whether they were pretty or not, but whether they looked sympathetic. He found his curiosity -- or whatever it was -- focusing more and more on a redhead with freckles. He really couldn't see her spots or even the color of her hair in the dim light, but he had seen her at school and church and knew what she looked like. He told himself that she was much prettier than the first girl he had asked. He should have started with her. What had he been thinking of? He didn't really know her, but everybody said she was nice. She wouldn't hurt his feelings. This girl's name was Sarah.
When the band played another polka, Jimmy gathered his courage and made another clumsy charge across the dusty dance floor. He didn't trip this time, which he took to be a good omen.
"Scuse me," he repeated the formula. "Wanna dance?"
Sarah looked embarrassed. Jimmy couldn't think of anything else to say and didn't know what to do. He just stood there.
"I'm sorry," Sarah said at last.
Jimmy shook his head. He couldn't believe it. What had happened to all her niceness? His expression asked: Why not?
"I cain't," she said.
"You cain't?" he asked. His face said: Why would you hurt me?
"My daddy told me not to," she whispered.
Jimmy turned and fled once again. So that was it. The girls' parents had told them not to dance with the savage. They believed he was unclean. They thought he was half-heathen. They knew he was crazy because he was always talking about the biggest canyon in the world, the prettiest place in the world, the best ranching country in the world -- which they figured was about as real as the Seven Cities of Gold. They didn't want him touching their daughters. He would show them. Maybe.
Jimmy said goodbye to the horses and started walking home.
Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Latham
Fall was beautiful but hard. The leaves changed colors overhead, but on the ground the crops needed harvesting. The hay had to be mowed with hand scythes. Corn ears had to be gathered in. Worst of all, cotton, the cash crop, had to be picked, which was backbreaking work. And of course school started again. But at least the weather turned cooler in the fall and the fair came to town.
Jimmy, who had never been to a fair, wondered what it would be like. In his early years growing up in the family fort at the edge of the frontier, no fair dared to come around. Sideshow strongmen and two-headed ladies were as scared of Indians as anybody else. Of course, there hadn't been any country fairs in the big red canyon where the Humans lived. At fair time last year, the family hadn't taken him because they could see that he was still more Crying Coyote than Jimmy Goodnight. They hadn't known how he would respond to the crowds, or how the crowds would react to him. Maybe they had been a little ashamed of him. Anyway, everybody had gone to the fair but him. Back then, his aunt had stayed with him one day while his uncle took the rest of the family to the fair. The next day, his uncle guarded him while his aunt and the others went out for a good time. Crying Coyote hadn't really understood what he was missing, but he knew he was missing something. This year, Jimmy would be going to the fair.
After church, the family changed out of their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and then piled into the grey wagon. Even the old plow horses seemed to be excited about going to the fair. They tossed their heads and pulled with a sense of purpose. The road got rougher and more crowded as it neared the fairground.
When Jimmy finally saw the fair from afar, he was amazed; it looked like a Human village. As he drew closer, he could see the differences: these tents were made of canvas rather than buffalo hides. Also, these canvas shelters were larger than Human tepees. But in spite of all the differences, Jimmy still felt more and more at home as he rolled nearer and nearer the tent village.
The spirit of this village on the outskirts of Weatherford didn't seem so different from the spirit of the village in the deep canyon. This one, like that other one, was crowded with children and dogs, and rang with noisy good humor. This one, like that other one, churned up its own dust storm. Jimmy smelled the dust and the bodies of animals, the bodies of children, the bodies of adult men and women, and he smiled. Then he sneezed.
Jimmy's Uncle Isaac passed out nickels to the children, including his adopted nephew. Each one got one. Then the kids were on their own. Rhoda and Naomi ran off hand in hand. Jeff had too much teenage dignity to run, but he shuffled away rapidly. Jimmy just stood for a while staring down at his nickel, turning it over and over, studying the shield on one side, then the big number 5 on the other. He felt rich.
Looking around for someplace to spend his new wealth, Jimmy saw that the canvas tents were arranged in a large, imperfect circle. At the center of the circle, the hub of the wheel, a crowd had gathered. From time to time, a cheer would go up from this mob.
"What's that?" Jimmy asked, pointing.
"Come see," said Uncle Isaac.
Jimmy followed his uncle and aunt to the edge of the crowd at the center of the circle. Standing on tiptoe, he could see a blacksmith's anvil in the middle of the mob. He recognized a big farmer. Well, he had seen him before, but he couldn't remember his name. He recognized him by his size. He was a real giant. His back was bent. The muscles of his arms bulged out. His face turned red and then purple.
Jimmy heard what sounded like a gunshot, and he saw the giant stumble backward, lose his balance, and sit down hard on the ground, raising a great cloud of dust. He swore loudly, causing Aunt Orlena to put her fingers in her ears. Then Goliath started picking himself up off the ground. When he was upright, he swayed a little unsteadily on his feet and then hurled himself at the anvil again. He seemed to want to strangle the dead chunk of iron. But a skinny man wearing some sort of apron managed to get between the giant and the anvil.
"Hold your hosses," Jimmy heard the skinny man yell. "You'll git another turn. But first you gotta gimme another nickel. And then I gotta put in a new handle."
"I don't understand," Jimmy said.
"What?" asked Aunt Orlena, who still had her fingers in her ears.
"I don't understand," Jimmy said a little louder. "What's goin' on?"
"He's trying to pull the ax outa that there anvil," Uncle Isaac said.
"What?" asked Aunt Orlena.
"There's an ax stuck in that there anvil," his uncle explained.
"Really? I wanna see."
Jimmy worked his way through the crowd to get closer. Soon he saw the blade of an ax plunged into an anvil as if the chunk of iron were a wood stump. The ax's handle was splintered. Jimmy scratched his head and wondered. He looked around and found his aunt and uncle standing right behind him. Aunt Orlena had taken her fingers out of her ears, but she still appeared uneasy.
"How'd that happen?" Jimmy asked. "How'd that ax git in there? Is it some kinda trick?"
His uncle scratched his head. He was trying to figure out how to explain something complicated to somebody with limited English.
"A cyclone done that," Aunt Orlena said. "A twister. You know what I mean?" She spun her finger in a circle.
"Uh-huh," Jimmy said.
"Well, that old twister just picked up that there ax," she said, "and stuck it in that there anvil clean as a whistle. It was some kinda miracle. The kind of miracles that often turns up in cyclones. I heard tell of a hoe handle got stuck plum through a tree trunk. And another time a piece a straw -- "
"Mama," Uncle Isaac said, "you're wanderin' off the subject."
"I just thought he'd be interested in all them there miracles," Aunt Orlena said. "Gawd works in mysterious ways."
"Anyhow," interrupted Uncle Isaac, "that there ax got stuck in the anvil durin' a twister way back. I don't recall just when. Anyhow nowadays it travels 'round the countryside, and bigguns try an' pull it out. But the most they ever do is bust the handle."
"Oh," said Jimmy.
He could see the skinny man with the apron replacing the splintered handle with a new one, pushing and hammering.
"How come they wanta pull it out?" Jimmy asked. "Won't that kinda ruin the whole thing. I mean there's lots a axes. And there's lots a anvils. But there's only about mebbe one anvil with an ax stuck in it. Only about one in the whole world. So why bust 'em up? I don't git it."
Uncle Isaac scratched his head and took a deep breath. Answering all these questions was turning into work.
"It's vainglory," said Aunt Orlena. "All vainglory. They just wanna show how big and strong they think they are. They don't care about miracles."
"That and the thousand dollars," said Uncle Isaac.
"What thousand dollars?" asked Jimmy.
"The thousand you git if'n you pull the ax out," said his uncle.
Jimmy took a moment to do some figuring. He hadn't learned much math yet in the one-room schoolhouse, but he was pretty sure this proposition was mathematically unsound.
"I still don't git it," he said. "That guy ain't never gonna take in enough nickels to make a thousand dollars. Where's he gonna git the prize money at?"
"He don't need no prize money," Uncle Isaac explained, "because nobody ain't never gonna pull that damn ax outa that goddamn anvil."
"Don't blaspheme," said Aunt Orlena. "Besides, them nickels add up."
When a new handle was firmly in place, Goliath paid another nickel and stepped up to the anvil again. He spit on his huge hands and rubbed them together. Then he grasped the handle and pulled up with all his might. His back bowed as if he had hooked a whale and was having trouble landing it. His eyes bugged out. His veins were thick vines climbing up his bare arms and across his face. This time the wooden handle remained whole, but something broke inside Goliath. He let go the single-bladed ax and grabbed his stomach. He was in so much pain he couldn't even stand up straight. Jimmy turned away from the suffering. He had seen enough hurting in his life, too much, and was anxious to move on.
"Let's -- " he began.
But then he realized Aunt Orlena and Uncle Isaac were no longer behind him. He had been so engrossed in the giant's struggle to rob the anvil of its ax that he hadn't noticed them go. The boy was on his own at the fair.
Not knowing which way to turn, Jimmy sniffed the air searching for an aroma worth pursuing. He smelled cow manure to the west, pig shit to the south, horse droppings to the east, and sugar to the north. Following the sweet scent, Jimmy approached a tent that looked like all the others but smelled like a house in a fairy tale.
Peeking into the gingerbread tent, Jimmy saw not only fragrant ginger loaves but also pies and cakes and cookies on parade. Walking down a procession of pies, Jimmy noticed a blue ribbon beside one of them (apple) and a red ribbon brightening another (lemon meringue) and a white ribbon decorating a third (mince). Moving on, he reviewed whole brigades of cookies, some wearing more red, white, and blue bunting. Unable to resist, Jimmy bent down so his nose almost touched a plate of brownies and sniffed loudly. When he saw people scowling at him, he turned away self-consciously and hurried out of the fairy-tale tent.
Hearing shouts and laughter, Jimmy glanced back in the direction of the miraculous anvil. Another giant was attempting to separate what had been joined together by the cyclone, or the god of cyclones, or the Great Mystery, or maybe even Aunt Orlena's grumpy Jehovah. Who could say? The ax and the anvil were obviously great crowd-pleasers. Jimmy considered paying his nickel and taking a turn, but five cents was a lot of money. Besides, if fully grown giants couldn't budge the ax, what chance had a tall but skinny boy who had just turned eighteen? He decided to be smart and save his one and only nickel and spare his back.
Continuing to explore, Jimmy entered a large tent on the west side of the circle and saw a herd of cattle. He was surprised because the Human Beings never allowed animals inside their tepees. This race of "Writers" continued to puzzle him.
Jimmy admired the biggest, fattest, handsomest bulls he had ever seen in his life. They were wonderful to look at but horrible to smell. The tent locked in and intensified the odor of dung. He could hardly bear to breathe, but nobody else seemed to notice anything unusual or unpleasant. Making a hurried tour of the cattle tent, he saw more blue, red, and white ribbons. Curiously examining a blue one, he discovered that it had writing on it: first place. A red ribbon proclaimed: second place. And a white one said: third place. So Jimmy finally worked out that he was observing some sort of contest. Writers were so competitive. Unable to stand the stink any longer -- cattle dung smelled much worse than buffalo chips -- Jimmy made his way back out into the open air.
When he heard yells and laughter, Jimmy knew where to look for the source. He soon found himself heading back in the direction of the anvil and the ax. He hated the thought of parting with his newly acquired nickel fortune, but he was nonetheless drawn to the blade in the block of iron. He realized he wasn't as strong as the big farmers who had failed one after the other, but he had begun to wonder if maybe the giants weren't relying too much on brute force. He had begun to hope there might be another way to coax the ax from the anvil.
When he reached the center of the circle, Jimmy found a crowd of big old farm boys daring each other to try their luck. He walked up to the skinny man in the apron and took out his nickel, but the seller of chances didn't notice him. He wasn't being rude. He just had no idea that such a beanstalk would attempt to outpull giants.
"Excuse me, mister," Jimmy said, "I'd like to give it a try."
The seller of chances was caught off guard and laughed before he could stop himself. His laughter proved contagious. Soon all the big men and strapping boys were laughing, too. The merriment grew and grew as the news spread outward from the center of the crowd. Jimmy overheard them telling each other that the half-wit didn't know any better...that he had a weak mind and weaker back...that he had gone savage and thought he was better than white folks...that the white savage was gonna fall on his damn ass and they were all gonna enjoy it. He saw them pointing as if he were some animal on display. Now he wished he had never seen that anvil, that he had never coveted that ax, that he had never come to the fair. He wanted to run, but he didn't want to give them the satisfaction.
"Here's my nickel," said Jimmy, handing over his riches with a wince. "Git outa the way."
"Okay, Chief," the apron man said. "Go to it."
Hearing the laughter and the jeers, Jimmy stepped up to the anvil, dropped to his knees out of respect, and then addressed the mass of iron in the Human tongue.
"Excuse me, O Great Anvil," he began, speaking the way the Sun Chief had taught him to speak. "I've got something to say to you. Uh. Something important. Uh. I have great respect for your strength. Uh. I hope you also have respect for my weakness. I couldn't possibly take your ax away from you, so I won't try, but I hope you will give it to me willingly. You see, I need it a lot worse than you do. I need your ax so people will stop laughing at me..."
Meanwhile, the crowd continued to laugh and mock. "Look, he's prayin' to it!" "He looks like he wants to hump it!" "He's makin' love to it!" On and on...
"I need your ax so they will respect me," Jimmy droned on. "I could also use the thousand dollars. Let's be honest. O Anvil, Great Anvil, Mighty Brother, please release your grip of steel. I will take good care of your ax. I will oil it and sharpen it. I will keep it with me always. So what do you say?"
Jimmy got up off his knees, rose to his feet, placed his hands on the wooden handle, and pulled gently as if helping up a girl who had fallen down. Realizing full well that he couldn't overpower the ax or the anvil, he didn't try. He didn't strain. He was tender to the ax, kind to the anvil. He thought he felt a slight relaxing of the metal grip, but he wasn't sure.
"You will never leave my side," Jimmy said in the Human tongue. "You will be my constant companion. If you help me, I will help you. You will no longer be a spectacle. You will no longer be pawed by strangers. My home will be your home. What do you say?"
He pulled a little harder, but it didn't feel right, so he tugged even more gently. He imagined that he had asked a young girl to dance, and she said yes for a change, and so he took her by the hand and was leading her to the dance floor.
"Come with me," he said softly to the iron. "Come dance with me."
Jimmy felt the anvil loosening its iron grip, felt the ax surrendering itself to him. He wanted to hurry, but he told himself to be patient. Slowly, easy now, gently. He gave the slightest tug and drew the ax from the anvil.
The crowd swallowed its mean laughter and seemed to choke on it. It couldn't get its breath. It gasped. Jimmy smiled and raised the ax high over his head. The crowd fell utterly quiet and everybody started backing up to give him room. Somebody at the back of the crowd cheered. Then other voices took up the hurrah. The cheering was as contagious as the laughter had been. The cheers became a mighty yell.
Horses whinnied. Roosters crowed. Bulls snorted and kicked up red dirt. A donkey brayed. A red-tailed hawk screamed high overhead. Mice squeaked, grasshoppers leapt high in the air, spiders stopped their weaving and looked around. Prairie dogs came up out of their burrows to see what had disturbed the universe. A turtle hurried. A baby cried in its mother's arms. An old diamondback rattled its tail. A single drop of rain fell out of the pale blue sky and hit Jimmy right between his good eye and his bad one.
Blinking, Jimmy stared up at the ax in his hand, at the sky, at the sun. He let out a scream that began as a war cry but ended in laughter. He shook his new weapon at the heavens, and bees buzzed loud about his head.
They started coming early the next morning. The first one, the town blacksmith, was waiting in the yard when Jimmy emerged from the house to do the milking. The smith approached the boy -- who carried a pail in one hand, his new ax in the other -- and said: "Mawnin', Jimmy. If'n you're willin', I'd sure be proud to go see that there red canyon."
By the time Jimmy had finished his milking, two others, big farm brothers, had joined the blacksmith. They too wanted to see the biggest canyon in the world. He hurried inside, a timid leader of men.
While he was eating breakfast in the kitchen, Jimmy watched the yard fill up with men of all sizes and ages. They talked among themselves and waited patiently. They were in a good humor, smiling and laughing. Jimmy was already beginning to think of them as his men.
Still shy, still hesitant, Jimmy finally worked up the courage to venture outside. His new volunteers crowded around him. He was puzzled, intimidated, even frightened by what he saw written on their faces. They saw him as a leader while he saw himself as a follower. But that would have to change because he couldn't disappoint these faces. He had to pretend that he was the man -- the leader -- he saw reflected in their believing eyes. He desperately wanted to be the man they saw, but how did you become a leader?
He thought about the shaman. Should he take off all his clothes and paint himself yellow? That would certainly get their attention, but it might just compromise his dignity. Did you need dignity to lead? Maybe he should ask the tallest tree he could find. Or the fastest horse. Or the meanest bull. Or try to talk an eagle out of the sky. Hey, come on down here and give me some good advice. Or maybe, like Moses, he should just strike up a conversation with a lowly bush.
Should he change his walk? Could he deepen his voice? What about his posture? Certainly that could be improved. Head up, shoulders back, gaze on the horizon? He tried it but soon slumped again. Should he speak faster or slower? Louder or softer? Should he say more or say less?
How had Sam Houston done it? How had Lincoln? Or Robert E. Lee? Or Jesse James? What was their secret? And was it always the same secret? Were there as many secrets as there were leaders?
What was he going to do? Or not do? How was he going to make sure he didn't disappoint people? Didn't let anybody down?
At long last, he more or less persuaded himself -- although he still harbored doubts -- that he did have one advantage: He knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do when he got there. He was fortunate to have a dream.
Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Latham
On a fine April morning, Jimmy Goodnight and his outfit perched on the rim of the canyon that stretched beneath them as deep and measureless as time. He felt his good eye trying to stretch itself to take in such a vast and gorgeous panorama. He had begun to worry that he had lost his ability to see beauty, but now he was blind to it no more. He had gotten his eye back.
Turning his attention from the canyon to his men -- Coffee, Too Short, Simon, Black Dub, Tin Soldier, and Suckerod -- the boss watched their faces as they stared down into the abyss. He hoped he had chosen his cowboys wisely. Three times as many had wanted to come, but he had limited the size of his crew to the bare minimum he felt he couldn't do without. On the brink of the abyss, the boys' wisecracking and ribbing had suddenly stopped. The outbursts of laughter had died away. Jimmy Goodnight thought his bunch looked almost reverent. They were behaving as if they had ridden into the biggest church in the world rather than to the edge of the biggest canyon on earth. Well, anyway the biggest one Jimmy had ever seen or heard tell of in Texas. The sight of the canyon confirmed his prophecy and him as the prophet. He had not parted the Red Sea but rather the red earth itself. Now his men were once again looking at him with that look: the look that said they trusted him. The look that made him all the more determined not to let them down. He had to live up to their look, and he had to live up to the canyon. He couldn't disappoint any of them.
"Take a good look," Jimmy Goodnight shouted. "Ain't this the purdiest sight" -- he reveled in the superlative -- "you ever seen in your life?"
But his boys had been struck dumb by the void before them and didn't answer. They looked so solemn, they were funny. He wondered if they were more reverent or more afraid? They stood perched on the rim of the known world. They had come to the boundary that separated the everyday from the extraordinary. They were acting as if they had reached the edge of the earth and were worried they were going to fall off.
Then the cook did go over the edge: the four mules that pulled his chuck wagon spooked, stampeded, and charged right out into the void. Poor Bob Wanger, better known as Coffee, started screaming, which didn't help to calm down the mules any. The pots and pans in the chuck wagon were banging and clanging away, sounding like a blacksmith gone insane, which didn't help the mules' nerves any either. Jimmy Goodnight started laughing so hard he couldn't breathe. Poor Coffee was speaking some primeval language that didn't have any words in it but expressed fear eloquently.
"Let 'em run!" Jimmy Goodnight yelled when he got his breath. "You never seen a purdier place for a drive!"
Coffee tried to curse, but he was too scared for the words to come out right. Jimmy thought: He's screaming so loud he's liable to hurt hisself, and I'm laughing so hard I'm gonna hurt myself. He wondered who would get hurt first. It seemed like some kind of race.
Jimmy Goodnight laughed even harder when the bedrolls started bouncing out. This chuck wagon was just a regular wagon with a kitchen cabinet built on the back of it. Pots and pans and coffee and beans and flour rode in the cabinet. And all the cowboys' bedrolls traveled in the bed of the wagon. But now the wagon was bouncing so high and so hard that everything that could get out did get out. The cowboys were so pleased to be revenged on Coffee -- who somehow made red beans taste like coffee and coffee taste like red beans -- that they didn't even mind seeing their bedding scattered all over the side of the canyon. The freed bedrolls were racing each other down the steep inclines, hopping, jumping, having a good old time.
Then the chuck wagon door, the cabinet door, banged open, spilling out the coffee pot and the bean pot and pans and metal plates and tin cups. The plates raced the bedrolls to see who could get to the bottom of the canyon first.
Jimmy Goodnight didn't think he could howl any harder, but then he did. All the cowboys were laughing except Coffee -- until they saw a big bag of coffee bounce out of the back of the chuck wagon. The cloth bag burst open and scattered coffee across the canyon cliffs. Then a bag of flour followed, exploded on impact, and left a white scar on the red face of the canyon wall. Now that was carrying the joke too far.
The mules seemed to agree, for they tried to call a halt to their reckless race down the cliff. They put on the brakes so fast that the chuck wagon almost ran over them. Their hooves skidded on the loose canyon scree. But eventually the wagon did start slowing down.
Jimmy Goodnight kicked his horse -- Mister Goddog by name -- and hurried forward to see if his cook was alive and his wagon still in one piece. They both appeared to be in better shape than they had any right to be.
"Nice drivin'," drawled Jimmy Goodnight.
"It ain't funny," Coffee said, his chest still heaving.
"I bith my tongue."
"Sorry. We better take the wagon apart and pack it down in pieces. It's almost apart already, huh?"
The cowboys got busy rounding up the bedrolls that hadn't rolled too far. They would pick up the others as they made their way on down into the canyon. The cowboy named Too Short Johnson roped a maverick coffee pot so he didn't even have to get off his horse to pick it up. Too Short was small and wiry, with black hair and a drooping black mustache. It was too long just as he was too short. But on a horse he was tall enough and could outrope most men. He tossed the coffeepot to the cook, who accidentally dropped it and watched it roll on down the canyon. Too Short started the laughter and the other cowboys joined in.
"I'm gonna poison all you sons-a-bitches," Coffee threatened. "I'm warnin' you sons-a-bitches."
"We ain't the ones that run away," Too Short pointed out. "Poison them damn mules."
"Naw, but you laughed."
"You wouldn't kill a man just for laughin' when somethin's funny."
"Naw? Well, I'd sure watch what chew eat if'n I was you."
Jimmy Goodnight decided it was time to make peace. If he was going to live up to that look in their eyes, maybe he should try starting now. He decided to give an order and see what happened.
"Okay, boys," said the boy boss, "git busy and pick up that spilled coffee 'n' flour." He straightened up taller in his saddle. He spoke slower. He was trying to copy how the shaman would have done it -- short of taking off all his clothes and painting himself yellow.
"Pick it up?" protested Coffee. "It'll be full a dirt!"
"Prob'ly taste better," said Too Short.
"Don't worry," said Jimmy Goodnight. "We'll strain out the biggest rocks. Now git to it. You, too, Coffee."
Strangely enough, the cowboys -- Coffee too -- obeyed his order. They climbed down off their horses, balancing on the steep canyon side, and started picking up coffee and flour. Since the sacks had exploded, they collected these staples in pots and pans. Seeing his men respond to his order, Jimmy Goodnight felt he had passed another test. He didn't bother to tell them that he was who he was, the boss he was, because of what he saw in their eyes. It was as if the mirror made the man, rather than the man making the reflection.
"Pick it up a grain at a time if'n you have to," chimed in Simon Shapiro, who had the biggest hat. "They ain't another store like my daddy's for a month a Saturdays, so we gotta make this here grub last."
"You mean a month a Sundays," said Coffee.
"No, I don't neither. I'm Jewish and mighty damn proud of it. Month a Saturdays. Trouble with you, Coffee, is you don't take no pride in nothin'. You drive too fast and cook too slow. Course your cookin' slow's a mercy, come to think on it."
Coffee picked up a rock and cocked his arm.
"Take it easy," said Jimmy Goodnight. "You know Simon don't insult you less'n he likes you. It's kinda a compliment."
"Hate to have the son-of-a-bitch in love with me," Coffee said.
"Don't worry," said Simon. "Chances are real slim you're gonna cook your way into my heart. You dunno matzo balls from calf balls."
"That's enough fun," Jimmy Goodnight said. "Git back to work, both a ya."
Then once again he waited to see if "his" men would obey him. He was pretty sure he could handle Coffee, but he wasn't too sure about Simon. For Simon came from a different class. He was richer and better educated than the rest of the boys, but he didn't talk like it because he wanted to fit in. Perhaps for the same reason, he got right down to work picking food up off the ground.
Simon's father, a successful merchant in Weatherford, had substantially outfitted this expedition. Of course, some money had changed hands, but not much. The flour and coffee and other staples scattered all to creation had been more or less his gift. It had been the father's way of supporting his son's participation in a venture that he didn't entirely approve of. The merchant had said he hoped his boy would get cowboying out of his system and come back to the store one day. But if he didn't return -- if this wild red-canyon scheme worked out -- then his son would probably have a more interesting life than he himself had had. Jimmy Goodnight hoped that if he ever had a son, he would be as understanding. But, well, he wouldn't count on it.
Simon's participation had meant that Goodnight could save most of the $900 he had won at the county fair for future expenses. Of course, he had supposedly "won" $1,000, but he had been forced to take $100 on account, which probably meant he would never get it. The fair had claimed the $900 was all the ready money it had on hand. Jimmy's uncle told him he was lucky to get that much.
When they finished picking up all the coffee and flour they could find, the cowboys attacked the chuck wagon with hammer and crow bar. Black Dub Martin, who had been a slave as a boy, did most of the heavy lifting because he was the biggest and the strongest. He had been one of the strongmen who broke an ax handle trying to pull the blade from the anvil that memorable day at the fair. Black Dub single-handedly lifted the cabinet off the back of the wagon and tied it to the back of a mule. They didn't have to jack the wagon up to take its wheels off. Black Dub just picked it up, one end at a time.
"Hey, we don't need no mules," said Tin Soldier Jones. "We got Black Dub. He could pack this sucker down all by hisself. And he'd think it was fun."
Tin Soldier, the very first volunteer, who had been a blacksmith back home in Weatherford, owed his name to the steel helmet he had made for himself at his anvil. It looked sort of like an upside-down pot, but it had a spearhead on top. If worse came to worse, he could butt his enemies to death.
They pulled apart the wagon and attached the pieces to the mules as best they could. So, instead of pulling the chuck wagon, the poor mules had to carry it down on their backs. It was going to take several trips. Served them right for running away.
"We better start workin' the cattle down," Jimmy Goodnight said. "Don't rush 'em. Take it nice 'n' easy."
Soon his cowboys began feeding the 1,600 longhorns down single file. This herd had cost nothing except the effort it had taken to round it up. Which was considerable. During the Civil War, when the men in Texas marched off to fight the Yankees, their cattle ran off. Now the state was full of wild longhorns -- owned by nobody -- hiding out in the brush-and-breaks country. So Jimmy Goodnight and his bunch had just helped themselves to a herd.
The longhorns followed a narrow, four-mile Comanche trail that Jimmy Crying Coyote remembered from his life among the Human Beings. Jimmy Goodnight wondered where the Humans were now. He had expected a few curious braves to make an appearance by now. He was looking forward to a reunion with old friends and relatives. He hoped he might even see the Sun Chief again. He felt sure that the vast red canyon was big enough for both Writers and Humans, for both his cattle and their shaggy, heavy-headed, hump-backed "Human-cattle." He planned to suggest that the boundary line be the blood-red river that ran down the middle of the canyon. He would ranch the land south of the river and leave the territory north of the river for the Humans. Or the other way around. It didn't make any difference to him. He looked forward to proving to the world -- or at least to Texas -- that red men and white men could live in peace and friendship together. And who was better prepared to lead such an experiment than he was?
Goodnight supposed that his cattle represented the first domesticated cloven hooves ever to leave their tracks on this wild path, this trace. They seemed nervous but not badly frightened as they wound their way down toward the center of the earth. It was slow work. The cattle trickled down into the canyon all morning, then all afternoon and on into the evening. As the light began to fail, Jimmy Goodnight knew that he would soon have to call a halt to this single-file cattle drive. The Comanche trail was dangerous enough in broad daylight but would be impossible in the dark.
"Hold 'em up!" Jimmy Goodnight yelled. "Bring them that's started down on down, but don't start no more. Pass the word up." He felt he was beginning to get the hang of this leadership thing. He sure hoped so.
So that night the herd was divided, half on the rim above, half on the canyon floor below. Jimmy Goodnight assigned Tin Soldier and Black Dub to stay on top and look after the cattle up there. The rest of the cowboys would spend their first night in their new home, the red canyon.
Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Latham
Meet the Author
Aaron Latham is best known for his novels and screenplays, including Urban Cowboy, Perfect, Code of the West, and The Cowboy with the Tiffany Gun. He has been a regular contributor to such publications as Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times. He lives in New York with his wife, Lesley Stahl.
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Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. This book was my dream come true; why? Here's my background... I have been a King Arthur fanatic since I was in High School (late 70's). I've jousted on horseback as an armored knight for the last 10 years. I've lived the 'knight's life' I grew up on. I also grew up with cowboys on a small horse ranch in Arizona and have read lots of western novels, especially Larry McMurtry's westerns. I'm also a big fan of Terry C. Johnston's 'Plainsmen Novels'. I never would have thought someone could combine my two literary passions in one book but Aaron Latham did it. Code of the West was perfectly written, combining a very authentic western sensibility with the endearing nobility of Camelot. Compulsively readable and heartbreaking. Just like a good Arthurian story should be. Looking forward to reading '...Tiffany Gun.
Recognized for his novels and screenplays, Aaron Latham created an iconic Western tale with 'Urban Cowboy.' He's done it again with 'Code Of The West,' a pleasurable blend of the Arthurian legend and cowboy lore. This epic tale, which spans three generations, introduces Jimmy Goodnight, a former Comanche captive, who runs a cattle empire, the Home Ranch. One-eyed Jimmy visits a county fair where he accomplishes a feat that has defeated the strongest Texans - he smoothly pulls an ax from an anvil. After Jimmy and his crew rescue a beautiful young woman, Revelie Sanborn, from an evil outlaw, Jimmy falls hopelessly in love. Reverting to the Comanche tongue, he tells Revelie, 'My mind cries for you.' They marry. But living happily ever after isn't in the cards with the appearance of Jimmy's best friend, Jack Loving (remember Lancelot?) Desperados, feuds, jealousy, rebellion, chivalry, love, and sacrifice are all part and parcel of this adventuresome, highly enjoyable tale. Kudos to Aaron Latham.