Yes, I am writing a Western, in my own fashion. Here is a glimpse into some of the beginnings of our hero, Nate.
What kind of person would beat you with a bible? Nate never really understood, he just somehow lived through the wretched and frequent ordeal.
The bible was one with a red cover that had started out as the hide of a cow that lived the life a cow lives, born of a mother like all creatures, growing in the dark from the egg of a black Corriente of venerable stock and the seed of a skinny but tough bull who mounted her the morning a storm was coming. The storm would bring a tornado with it and the bull would die caught up in a twist of wind that did not yield to his horns and hooves and scrubrange attitude. But the sky was yet blue while he eyed the cow in a clearing that afforded him a bit of running room for his approach. She had been chewing her cud in the shade of a rock that was weathered into the shape of a giant tit. Both felt the shift in the weather as an unease in the tough muscles beneath their hides, but this only served to hasten the bull’s purpose, as if he knew he had only one last chance to set more of his progeny to roaming upon the desert hardpan. The pre-storm morning was unusually still and clear, the charged air acting like a glass of magnifying power so that the distant range loomed large and close, the striations of the rock heaved up in ancient frozen waves as he met the cow with the spurting force of creation an hour before his demise. Above the trysting site a cactus bulged with thorn. A small hummingbird sat distinct on its bent and thorny arm and sent a fussy high pitched tip-tip in the direction of the amorous pair.
The bull and the cow were wild, that is untouched by men, and living out a plain life in a dry stretch of country not unlike that of their forebears on another continent who were plenty used by men, long ago gone for Spanish dinners and leatherwork. This cow and bull had been part of old Spanish-Mex stock whose hardscrabble owner had fallen on bad times: a lack of heirs and a wife who had gone off with a passing stranger. The stranger arrived asking for a drink of water in a coat of fancy stitching with two shining conchos to clasp it shut. He had handsome legs, a large mustache, and a big red horse with room on its back for a second rider. Both he and the horse were flashy enough to promise a bit of excitement and both sturdy enough to bear away the plump and bored wife. She left her husband late that night. He felt her move in the bed and reached out to pat her rump which she deftly moved away from his hand. Her last words to him were that she had to use the privy, and farted on him as she slid from the covers as if to prove it. The next day he was alone in the house fingering the brim of the hat he had worn since they’d been married. The spell that had held him to that place was broken. He was gone by afternoon, riding away in a different direction from the tracks of his wife and her new lover, and his puny herd were left to a freedom which perhaps they didn’t perceive in their beeve-brains. They bred and ate and roamed wild along the years till the parents of the bible-destined cow met on the morning of the tornado. The two creatures had paired and parted, and the impregnated cow stood in the lee of the tit-rock and watched across the range as the bull spun into a gray funnel of wind and was gone.
The calf came in the spring, and when grown was rounded up with her mother by a man whose brand was a sideways S and a bar with a hatch. He favored a Mexican saddle with a high cantle because his lower back was apt to hurt—the cantle offered some ease to an injury he’d sustained in a bar brawl landing backwards hard against the knee of a whore who later that night gave him balm for his trouble in the form of cheap whiskey and a free screw.
The man felt fortunate to increase his herd with some wild stock. Later he seared his brand into the flesh of the young calf, who screamed her bovine misery, stood, and scrambled back to her mother. At the end of the season, along with the rest of the herd she had joined, she was shipped on a rattling train bound for Chicago. There she became dinner for a loud young newspaperman and his fiancée at a stylish restaurant. Her hide, which lasted much longer than her flesh, was sold to a bookbinder. He dyed the leather red and fashioned it into the cover of a bible which he placed temptingly in his shop window. There it caught the eye of one Adabelle Cornelia Pettypool.
Adabelle had read a bible her whole life, and the meanings she made out of it and out of life took the shine off her natural prettiness, and invested her with a flat low grade fury. What she never fully allowed herself to comprehend was that the fury she felt was towards her own father. Lonely for his wife who had died of a sudden heart complaint, he turned to his daughter to supply his need. There was a way her mind had split so that she could know that thing and not know it in the same moment, and it left her looking for evil in everyone but him, whom she idealized. To make matters more confusing for her, her father was a minister, mixed up thoroughly in a Methodist sect bound to rescue people out of a darkness that meanwhile he created at his whim in his own home.
Whatever illusions Adabelle may have had about comforting her father, as he put it, ended when she found herself pregnant. Desperate, she rid herself of the child with the help of a doctor she’d met accompanying her father on his ministrations to the local brothel. There were complications, and poor Ada nearly died. Her father gave out that she’d had a bad case of the grippe, but the working ladies at Alviva’s Parlor House dropped a few words to some patrons they had in common with the minister, though their ministrations were of a different order. Word spread and the parishioners soon knew the truth and stopped coming to Sunday service. Her father told Adabelle to pack their belongings.
On the day of their departure she rose early and opened her father’s collection box as it stood among suitcases and bundles on a table with the remains of their last Chicago breakfast. She looked him in the eye and said, “I am doing this one thing for myself.” He looked out the window and began to hum loudly Elvina Hall’s popular new hymn, Jesus Paid It All. Adabelle took only the money she needed and left briskly for the bookseller with the red bible in his window display. It was a thing she’d been yearning after for weeks, and which she had fixed upon during her terrible illness. Her reasons for buying it were not clear to her, except that it was something of her own, which she could hold in her hand and that was not tainted with her family. At the time that seemed enough. The red bible was one of Adabelle’s choice possessions, and she kept it close to her own person on the long journey south, until it landed with all the power her arm could give upon a small boy’s body.
Her father’s public excuse for their move, which he shared with any person who would listen to him on trains, stages, and in cheap hotel restaurants, was that he had been called in a vision to save Whites, Mexicans, Indians, cowboys, gunslingers, fallen women and other numerous recreants in the wild cattle town of Abilene, Kansas. With a knowing look he’d lean in towards his audience at this point, saying in a deep voice that the word “Abilene” had appeared to him in a dream upon a burning map. In his private moments he was relieved to have gotten out of Chicago before things turned ugly. He happened to see the name of the Kansas cowtown in a newspaper close on the heels of some threats from a burly former-parishioner who’d just come around the corner from Alviva’s Parlor House. He prayed that he might ride the current tide of do-gooding into heaven. Whether he arrived at that final destination or was held to account for what he’d done to his daughter and shown the door to the lower quarters, no one could say for sure. His preaching frenzy did not bring in many sheep. He was not a popular man in a town given to excess of every sort and soon took a perhaps-not-so-stray bullet from a bar fight that had spilled over onto the street. He lived long enough to look down with wonder as the stuff of his life leaked out of him, reddening his hands. He was dead before the doctor and his daughter arrived along with curious onlookers. Among the crowd was Nate’s father, in Abilene from his ranch in Texas on a cattle drive. He cast his eye upon Adabelle, perhaps in much the same way the bull had spotted the cow, wanting to set more of his progeny walking on the Texas range. Ada appeared likely. Nate’s father seemed to collect pretty women in need of help, scooping them up and depositing them in his big ranch home, then disappearing for months at a time on business. His first three wives had died and he missed them all in a distant and romantic sort of way. And so he met and rescued Adabelle from the debris of the minister’s life and made her his fourth wife with the blessing of a Baptist preacher in a church that stood handily on the way out of town.
Nate’s father was charming; an older man but fit and active and his ranch business provided a good income. Adabelle was hopeful for the first time in her life. His sons by his first and second wives were grown and gone, and Nate, the child of his third, and Indian wife, was young; in need, he said, of more brothers and sisters. Nate’s father, in his bull way, wanted a big family like the one he’d grown up in and Adabelle aimed to make a family different than her own. But it turned out that the sad fiasco with her father had injured her, and she could not bear a child. This sapped the juices from her prettiness and left her dry and brittle of temperament, turning to the red bible more than ever. Nate’s father was at home less and less, and Nate and the ranch hands came to know Adabelle as the dour and vindictive woman who had no Christian spirit—at least nothing in the last part of the red book she bought in Chicago had Christ laying into a small child for simply having the brown face of his mother and his tribe (Christ probably being pretty brown himself), although the first part of the story had the old desert god laying into plenty of people with apparent satisfaction. And so it was that Nate’s stepmother felt a deep release in beating the boy, leaving welts on his back and a scar on his cheek where the small diamond of the ring her faraway husband gave her cut the boy in the fury she unleashed because she could have no child of her own and must raise this one, product of her husband and his dead tribal woman. Where she might have found a larger life, she could not see it because no kind soul had ever shown her how to have a bigger perspective. She dried up in the smallest of possible worlds—inside a broken, shrunk, unloved and unloving heart. Being of an active nature, she was given to expressing the terrible electric current of her feelings, rather than wasting quietly away. The bible—the object itself, not the philosophy therein—was her weapon against more grief than she could inwardly bear: she took to beating Nate.
And so the cow, dead and taken into parts, had become the unwitting cover that bound together the words of a deity Nate never got to have a feeling for. Adabelle’s blows rained down hard upon his small boy’s body, unrelenting, and with a venom increasing as did her stepson’s unwillingness to bend to her or to her religion. Such was Nate’s life when his father was away from home, which was most of the time. Bruised and lonely, he thought longingly of his own brown-faced mother who had died while he was a babe. And his feelings towards the red bible were, “What a waste of a good cow.”
© Kathleen Dunbar
Here’s a poem set to music, another western-with-a-twist, on my new CD The Storm in Our Head. It’s called “Snake Charmer.” Find it on Bandcamp or on my website, www.kathleendunbarmusic.com
Photos by Kathleen Dunbar