Wednesday
Dec152010

The Way of the Rider

Jarrett Haley




Long ago in the west, over low rolling hills of sand and sage, there rode a lone rider. He rode slowly, a bad habit for a rider. He took his sweet painstaking time, agonizing over every little detail of his riding. Whereas another, more prolific rider would trust his heart or his horse or the land to guide him, our man questioned himself at every turn, in any decision. At a new junction or trailhead, the rider would dismount and pace in nervous circles, smoking cigarette after cigarette, considering every option before choosing a path. On one such occasion he hedged well into the evening darkness and had to spend the night on the dirt near his horse. The rider lacked the foresight to place himself uphill of the animal, and at daybreak he swore a blue streak when he woke in a muddy puddle of horse urine.

The rider knew his anxiety was unwarranted. He was riding for himself, had no instructions to follow, no destination in mind, only figured he’d be able to tell when his riding had reached an end. But it was that freedom, that perfect uncertainty, that was the source of all his worry. The desert before him was a bleak white emptiness where all was unknown. He had no compass, no map. The rider had only an inkling, a slight intuition that he should ride in a certain way, and that way, he thought, was western. So he followed this way until he noticed a dark spot on the horizon, a black speck slowly growing in detail the more he rode. It started to look like a small prospecting town—he could see it clearly now—a few clapboard shanties, a bunkhouse, saloon, all of it nestled against the banks of a dried-up riverbed. Finally, he thought, there was something.

The saloon was empty when he entered and the rider was thankful for that; he wasn’t ready for any conversation just yet. He helped himself to a bottle of whiskey and took a seat at one of the tables. The seat was hard and his buttocks held the memory of a jostling saddle until the warm whiskey soothed him. The rider had a fondness for alcohol, as riders can be known for, but our man was hardly infamous and used alcohol with prudence and discipline, only to relieve the tough undulations of the riding life. The rider felt loose and relaxed in his seat; he took a pinch of tobacco, rolled it up and struck a match. He blew the smoke towards the doorway and watched it float in a thick cloud over the bright rectangle of sunlight. It was a good, strong image, he felt—all that smoke at the threshold—and he thought it quite appropriate when two figures appeared, a pair of black shadows slicing sharply to the floor. One of the figures stepped in—a spry and vibrant cowboy, waving his hat and dissolving the gray cloud about him.

"Now there’s a man who smokes like a rider!" the cowboy called. "I like your flourish, boy."

The rider was nobody’s boy. The whiskey had given him confidence, and these were bold words from an outright stranger, somewhat of a dandy at that. The cowboy’s shirt was crisp and the buckle polished on his new, well-heeled boots. The man was too pretty, close-shaven, his hair clean and shiny. The other man stepped in but went straight to the bar, keeping to the shadows so the rider couldn’t quite discern him. The cowboy pulled a chair at the rider’s table. "So," he asked, "which way do you ride?"

"Western," said the rider. "I ride western."

"No shit. What I mean is, how do you ride? I myself am a trick rider. A showman. You heard of Barnum?"

The rider nodded.

The showman leaned over the table in confidence. "Barnum ain’t nothing but a lowbrow son-of-a-bitch. I work freelance now, riding for the native tribes around here. I tell you what—it’s a pretty good living if you can give ‘em what they want."

The second stranger arrived at the table, holding a tall bottle of tequila in his fist. The man was Mexican, squat, thick in the chest and arms. His face was round and sweaty, his nose a collection of fractures. He sat down and stared at the rider from under his dull, dirty eyelids.

The rider was not at all familiar with Mexicans, but he knew enough to be careful with them, especially this one, mercenary as he looked. The rider’s confidence failed and he regressed into the worry that had plagued him along the trail. He was unsure how to address the Mexican, if he should address the Mexican at all.

Maybe it was inappropriate, in this day and age, to keep referring to him as "the Mexican."

Soon enough the strangers started talking between themselves in Spanish, and the rider had a chance to pull a little worn book from his bootleg, a ragged old copy of Webster’s Pocket Dictionary of the West. He thumbed its pages under the table and looked for something he could call this hombre. Vaquero had an exotic flair, though it implied an association with cattle that was probably inaccurate. The rider considered desperado, to capture the man’s grisly demeanor, but the word was derived from the Latin desperare, and this Mexican was not rooted in despair. If anything, he wore a silent confidence. Caballero was the last option, but it reminded the rider of tacky signs he had seen on outhouse doors near the border. He figured he might as well stick with "Mexican." It was a country, after all. They may have lost Texas, but they won their own war for a reason.

The rider took a brute swig of whiskey and wiped a sleeve over his mouth. He leaned into the showman and asked, "That Mexican got a name or what?"

The showman shrugged. "When I first met him folks called him Eddy, but—"

"Torres!" the Mexican shouted, slamming his fist to the table. His eyes widened into dark holes and his nostrils flared like a bull at the scratch.

"As you can see," said the showman, "he prefers Torres."

The rider eased against his chairback and passed his bottle to his left hand, keeping his right ready for the pistol at his side. He’d been around long enough to know if he ever saw a gun while riding, he could count on that gun going off before his riding ended. With this in mind, he tallied the numbers at the table: Torres, with two pistols on his hips. The trick rider wore a fine silver S&W in a shoulder holster, and the rider had his own Colt. A total of four shots at least, with Torres holding the advantage.

Shootouts were not the rider's strong suit. He knew gunplay was essential in western riding but he always had trouble with the action, never could handle himself smoothly. He wasn’t good with blood, and death, and the last words of men bloody and dying. But here he was, and the rider figured he had no choice but to see what happened. He whispered again to the showman. "He understand English?"

"Very little."

"He dangerous?"

"Extremely."

"So why keep him around?"

The showman took off his hat and passed a hand through his hair. "He may not look like much, but he’s got his perks, especially for a rider. He’s quiet, for one, so he don’t break your concentration. He knows how to work the market, too. He once shot three men outside Santa Fe just ‘cause they criticized the way I rode."

"You fear him?"

"I don’t," said the showman, "but I probably should." He took a swig from the Mexican’s tequila, then repositioned his hat carefully on his head. "How ‘bout you come see for yourself? We were just talking about taking you on with us. I got a riding engagement booked at a pueblo up there in the hills. Comes with all the amenities, room and board, food, women. And these Indians don’t skimp neither."

"Indians," said the rider. "Don’t you mean Native Americans?"

"I know what I mean," the showman snapped. "All that goo-goo talk is just posturing. How’s a rider supposed to get anywhere if he can’t be natural in the saddle? Shit, boy, if you think you’re riding western that way, you need my help more than I thought."

The rider considered the offer. If this showman was really all he claimed to be, the experience could certainly help his riding career. Then again, he might not fare so well with the likes of this so-called "Eddy" Torres. It was a risk, but as he looked out the doorway and into that bright white nothing, he couldn’t bear the thought of returning alone to that worrisome trail, the course of his own desolate riding.

 

The three of them left town in a loose, ragged line. The showman led the way with the rider close behind, and Torres picked up the rear on a pack mule. This arrangement worried the rider at first, and though he felt he couldn’t ride at his best with Torres over his shoulder, he felt a great deal of comfort in following the lead of a successful showman. The rider studied the showman's technique, how assured and cavalier he seemed, how he took his time and even indulged in the scenery, a gorge with a thin blue ribbon of stream at the bottom, the dense greenery of the aspen forest covering the mountains ahead. Just before they reached the tree line the showman dropped back to a trot beside the rider. "These Indians may want a sample of your riding," he said. "You got anything to show ‘em?"

The rider held his reins in upturned palms. "You’re looking at it."

The showman seemed at a loss for words. "I guess it’s natural," he said. "Your pace is all right, and you can get away with that if you stay western. But you may want to pick it up a little, give it more edge. Let me show you a trick or two."

With a crack of the reins and a firm, forceful bellow, the showman dug spurs into his horse’s ribs and bolted off the trail, kicking up a raging fountain of loose sand in his wake. The legs of his horse became only a blur, all four of them lost in the fury of the gallop. The showman rode, dodging through a thicket of chaparral, leaping and twisting through the brush, this way, that way, as if one with the smooth body of his horse, a centaur dressed in leather, yet with movements more serpentine than equine. The showman halted, grasped his hat and stood in his stirrups as his horse reared back on two legs, and together beast and man both let forth a strident cry of pride before dropping back to the sand, lost for a moment in a torrent of dust, but soon emerging in a graceful finale, a deliberate and distinguished canter that brought them gently back to the trail.

"It’s very moving," said the rider.

"All part of the show. What do you say, Torres?"

The Mexican grumbled a few phrases in Spanish before he paused and struggled for three slow English words, like bullets shot at so many riders—

"It. Won’t. Sell."

The showman only smiled, still catching his breath. "You just wait, hombre. Wait ‘til we get there and see if you don’t eat those words. Better yet, see if those words don’t eat you first."

 

The sky over the mountains grew dark as the group reached tribal land. They were met on the trail by a young brave who led them through the woods to an adobe hut, built expressly for visiting riders. "As white men we can’t yet approach the pueblo," the showman explained. "But tomorrow, they treat us like gods." From what the rider saw in the hut, he could hardly imagine any better treatment. The floor was covered wall-to-wall with buffalo rugs, already warm from the kiva fireplace roaring in the corner. Its dim light flickered on a spread of smoked fish and game, and mounds of wild berries piled in bowls for dessert. Torres sat by the fire with the rest of his tequila. The showman stretched out on a pallet on the floor, popping berries one by one into his mouth. "These Indians are part of the L’Oo Leeh Po tribe," he said. "Their name means ‘reeds of the blue lake’. Anglos just call ‘em ‘reeders’."

"What’s your business with them?"

"Every year they hold a riding festival, to celebrate the harvest." The showman gestured at the walls of the hut, all of them decorated with a continuous mural. On the wall above him was a large black spiral, which sat atop a stick-figured horse painted at a gallop. In front of the horse a row of vertical slashes ran to the adjacent wall, and behind the horse the slashes were scattered and broken. "They use the reeds that grow around the lakeside to make their adobe," the showman said. "Every year they need a rider to break it all down for them. And not just any rider either." With his finger, the showman traced the spiral in the air above him. "To them, the harvest is a divine procedure. Whoever breaks it down has to do so without using eyes, so as not to interfere with the way of the deity."

"You mean blindfolded?" the rider asked.

"I mean no eyes, none at all. It’s a little tricky but not impossible. And I’ll tell you something else," he said, propping himself up on his elbow. "These L’Oo Leeh Po people can’t get enough of it, and they pay handsomely. And here this hombre says my riding won’t sell." The showman dug out another handful of berries and tossed the empty bowl at Torres, but the Mexican barely stirred at the foot of the fireplace, chin against his chest, the first to retire in the warmth and flicker of the fire-lit room.

 

The rider woke at dawn, eager to start the day. He was sure something big would happen, he had come so far he knew it had to. The pound of drums in the distance sounded promising, and soon the brave returned and led all three men back through the forest. The brush opened onto a valley lake a hundred yards wide, and on a broad bank of earth beside the lake stood the pueblo. The scene was like nothing the rider had ever known, and never before had he faced anything so grand and sweeping. The pueblo was a massive patchwork of square brown chambers, rooms stacked threefold upon other rooms, with crumbling clay walls exposing the reeds beneath like the ribs of a fish. A throng of reeders waited at the shoreline, buzzing like an anxious hive until the showman first stepped into sight. The thrum of the crowd, the beat of the drum, all fell silent as the showman cleared his throat, put a boot in his stirrup, and swung himself atop his horse. He tied a strap of tanned buckskin around his eyes and the reeders erupted into wild shouts and applause. The drumming resumed at a quickened pace, and the rider and Torres were led through the frenzy to a low platform of bound logs, from which they could see the lakeside and its thick hedge of overgrown reeds. The crowd parted as the showman blazed past, charging headlong into the thicket and mowing down the reeds in a symphony of cracks and splashes.

Never before had the rider seen such flawless riding. The showman performed quick, impossible turns, he tore clean lines and precise passages through the dense material, and despite the lack of eyes he was remarkably thorough, leaving nothing untouched as he rode. The rider looked to Torres beside him, to make sure what he was seeing was real, but the Mexican seemed unimpressed, even disgusted. He huffed once through his nose and hopped off the platform, fought his way back through the crowd and onto the plaza, where he slouched down against a rock and pulled his hat low over his eyes.

 

The harvest was divided into two parts, and at midday the showman was encouraged to rest and share in a feast prepared for him and his party. Together with the rider and Torres, the showman sat at a long wooden table covered with platters of cornmeal cakes, smoked game and pemmican. The L’Oo Leeh Po chieftain presided, a wild-eyed shaman with thick, wiry hair exploding from his scalp and chin. He praised the showman in native tongue and paid him tribute with charms of silver and turquoise, and a worn leather pouch brimming with kernels of polished gold. The showman poured a few of the gold nuggets into his open palm, then aimed his words at Torres across the table. "It won’t sell, will it?" he said. "I’m starting to think you’re losing touch in this industry, hombre. The way I see it, you ain’t earned much of a cut out of this gig."

The Mexican slowly put down a fistful of meat and slipped his hand under the table. The rider was no fool; he could see a climax brewing and knew he was helpless to stop it. He only hoped to get through it calmly, and with some degree of skill, if guns should be drawn.

"I’m moving on," said the showman. "Got my protégé here to think of now. I’d say it’s best if we parted ways, amigo. So how about you just trot on down the trail—"

Two shots split the air and the showman took both. The reeders scattered and the Mexican rose to his feet, two guns smoking, one still on the showman and the other now trained on the rider’s ear. Torres backed off slowly, his dark eyes darting from side to side as he looked for a horse to steal.

The air split again, this time by the showman, struggling to aim from the ground. He clipped Torres twice in the shoulder and the Mexican lost a gun. The rider saw his chance, but nervous he pulled trigger still in the holster and shot himself in the leg. He stood up as best he could, and unloaded the rest of his cylinder with abandon. The rider couldn’t help but close his eyes, and though he sent each bullet through a coward’s darkness he could sense that all of them had struck, that he had executed exactly what he was always meant to. And when he opened them back up, and his eyes fell upon Torres now a foul, bloody pile upon the ground, the rider realized he had just performed in a way he never knew possible.

The showman was still bleeding on the ground, with a wound flowing wet and black over his fingers. The rider knelt down beside him. "It’s up to you to finish," the showman groaned. "It always has been. You’ve got to ride this out to the end, for them. Those reeders, they need you."

"But my leg," said the rider. "I just can’t ride like you do."

"The longer you wait," the showman croaked, "the worse this gets. Just finish it."

The showman took the strap of leather from his pocket, and pressed it firmly into the rider’s palm until his grip fell slack. The rider rose and walked lamely to his horse, put his good leg in the stirrup and brought himself up into the saddle. He bound the leather about his eyes, then put a boot to the horse and charged the water.

And so he rode—led only by heart, by horse, and by land. He followed the water’s edge solely by the sound of the reeds as they snapped and crashed onto the lake, the volume overpowered only by cheers of the L’Oo Leeh Po as they came forth and watched from the shore. Even under the leather strap, he could see every part of the scene, perhaps through the eyes of the showman, eyes that were absent but whose presence was felt, eyes that watched each breath drawn by the beast he rode, each hoof pressed onto the soft, wet earth, each drop of sweat that soaked the strap further. He knew then that he had become a showman. He could use no former name now, he could not be called any less. Only that new name would do, and a new way as well, a way that all but guaranteed the slow days of unknown passage were over, and far, far gone.