“Killin’ just don’t do it for me anymore, Tex.”
Joe leaned into the dusty oak bar. “I come home’n I take apart my gun, but oil’n it just don’t feel quite the same.” The keep put a cold draught on the table, and Joe took a long swallow and tossed him a few chits.
“How d’ya mean? Shootin’s shootin’. Ain’t nothing more to it’n that, ain’t never will be.” Tex said. He drawled how he looked, slow.
“Well sure, but dontcha remember yer first contract?”
“Not ‘ticularly. I’d fool’d ‘round with guns all m’life, back on the ranch fer the coyotes, then when I cut loose’n started runnin’ white down from TJ up to the settlers. Some time or’nother, some jefe musta came’n asked me to shoot fer him.”
Joe shook his head and took another draught. “I don’t know how you could forget somethin’ like that. Mine was messy. Took five shots to hit the bastard, n’then all I hit was his damn cheek. Couldn’t talk or nuthin’, but he was screamin’ his damn head off. Took damn near ten minutes to kill that sucker.
“Anyway, next run I went out with Hoss, ‘n he was n’old head even back then. Older’n you are now. Hoss goes out there, one shot and that sumbitch is out like a light. I swear that old boy didn’t leave a stain on his linens. Hoss had my jaw hangin’ open like the poor bastard from my first time.”
Tex’s face was blank. “What’s yer point, boy?”
“What I’m sayin’ is that Hoss shot real pretty. Back then, we was workin for Aguilar. He didn’t care nothin’ ‘bout how we got it done, long as it got done. I work’d’n work’d to get mine lookin’ like Hoss. Makin’ sure the shot goes through clean. Makin’ sure he don’t yell fer Jesus while he’s goin’ down. By the end I’d got it so that it looked like he’d just gone out for a pack’a cigarettes and got lost’n the desert along the way. But ever since we left Aguilar…ain’t been the same.”
Tex’s leathery face slowly contorted itself into a semblance of surprise. “Yer right, boy, ever since we came on with Ortega it ain’t been the same. Pay’s been better, three square means three square, ‘n he ain’t liable to dip ‘nto the dark liquor ‘n make hell fer us. Ol’ Aguilar was a hellhound.” For once, he almost appeared to be incensed. But it was true, Joe thought. Aguilar really had been a hellhound, and Joe’d lost track of how many times he’d been in hot water because of him. Even still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wished Aguilar was still around. He could tell that Tex wasn’t in a talking mood anymore, so he finished his beer, donned his hat, and walked out of the saloon.
Before sunset, he had to get down to the ad hoc ops base that Aguilar’d set up in this little settler town. The town wasn’t much more than a common place to grain and water your horses, maybe suck down a beer to clear the dust from your throat before heading on. But at halfway between TJ and the huge outpost at Agua Fria, it was a good place for guys like Aguilar to set up a HQ. Quiet, and as long as you didn’t make no fuss in town then what passed for la policia this side of the Mississippi was too busy breaking up drunken miner brawls in the bigger towns to worry about you.
The outpost was only a mile down the road from the town center. Joe decided to amble that way now, get his assignment over with and make any arrangements before nightfall. He felt the beers, pleasant, observant, and simple. The main road was hot and dusty, and he decided to slip down a side road that hadn’t been here when he was here last. He’d just pulled into town just last night from a long assignment – six weeks, maybe – and he hadn’t done much besides catch some grub and a bed since he’d come in.
As he turned the corner, he was startled to realize that he must’ve not been paying much attention to anything at all since he showed up. There was a whole ‘nother street here, big as the main road but twice as crowded. He counted off four different cantinas, a brothel, three inns, and two saloons. All of them were bustling. As men pushed through the swinging doors of one of the saloons, he could hear the muffled laughter of a minstrel show. This place was alive.
The men walking around looked unfamiliar. Not personally, of course, but a hired gun could tell one of his own kind when he saw him. Greasy men, faces baked and worn from the sun, dusty and tired looking – but still with plenty enough money to buy beer, women, and a high dollar bed to stay in. But the men around here were different. Their faces were fresh. Some were sunburned – a long cry from the leather-faced smugglers who were long past the ability to get one. They were young, too. There is a recklessness in a young man’s eyes that dims with age. He’d left a squat town of greybearded men, and he’d come back to a city of boys with wild oats.
The sun was getting low, and he didn’t have time to stop in. But peering through the window, the buildings were outfitted like cheap, corny native joints. Arrowheads, feathers. Two boys inside, barely twenty, were drunkenly putting a piece of head gear on each other. Joe’d run by plenty of natives out on contracts, and they never looked like that. The sign on the door said Redcorn’s Tavern.
He reached Ortega’s hut covered with dust and sweat, his buzz still intact. He didn’t bother waiting for one of Ortega’s men to come get him. Instead, he walked right to Ortega’s office, knocked curtly, and let himself in.
There were two men inside. One was Ortega. The other was a large man dressed in a well-fitted, clean white seersucker suit. He sat across from Ortega, deeply at ease, leaning back into the chair with his arm propped up on the rest. Next to him was a cane made of fine wood and veneer, though it was clear he didn’t need it. He flashed Joe a toothy smile of brilliant white teeth. He seemed untouched by the heat and dust.
“How do you do, son? Name’s Cochran. David Cochran.” When he talks, he has an air of easygoing authority, and his accent reminds Joe of the owner of the cattle ranch his family used to work for in the summers back home. Gentry.
“Ah – I reckon’m doin’ well. I just got into town’n came to talk t’the old jefe here.” Joe’s not sure why, but he feels at ease with Cochran. He’s like a fondly remembered uncle.
“Well, the jefe and I” – he cracks an almost imperceptible smile, like he’s told a joke Joe wouldn’t get – “have just about finished up here. I’ll leave you fellows to it.”
Before he can get up, Ortega puts his arm out. “Ah, but I should introduce you to Joe here.” His accent is thick, Hispanic, and Joe comes out sounding more like yo. “After all you just told me, I think you’d like to meet him. He’s excellent at what he does.”
Joe is a little surprised at this, but he has done good work for Ortega. He can’t help but wonder what a man in a white seersucker suit would want with him.
“And what exactly do you do, Joe?”
Joe steals a quick glance to Ortega. They both know what it means – is this guy cool? The first rule of smuggling and killing is that everyone is on a need-to-know basis. But Cochran, observant, catches this glance and interrupts it.
“No, no, it’s quite alright. I understand the, ahem, delicate nature of your work. You can speak easy with me, Joe. After all, if you’re in this town, ain’t but one thing you do for a living.”
“Reckon that’s true. Damn true. Ain’t seen one person w’roots farther’n inch deep since I got here. Since you know what I’m here fer, ain’t much more explainin’. I do it all. Smugglin’, killin’, whatever needs get’n done. Diff’rence with me’s I do it witha smile on my face. Can’t get ‘nough of it.”
“And what do you mean by that?”
“Some folks ‘round here do’t all fer the money. Some folks it’s the thrill, some folks it’s the status. Me, I reckon it’s just on account I love doin’ it.”
Cochran turns to face Ortega. “Sounds like one of the real ones.”
“Yeah,” says Ortega. “Joe knows how to do a clean job.”
Cochran smiles at Joe like a favorite son. Joe feels bold from the good will and fires from the hip: “So’re you the one b’hind all these transplants?”
Cochran leans back a bit further in his char, somehow even more at ease. “In a way, yes. But these aren’t transplants, my boy. The folks out there, all them bright eyed boys and desert-drunk yankees, them folks are the New West.” Joe could hear how New West was capitalized when Cochran said it. “Yes sir, each and every one of them folks has caught the itch. They want to go out there, rake in cash, set themselves down on a plot of land in San Francisco or like, and live out the rest of their days in luxury. And folks like me and you – we’re gonna give it to ‘em.”
His words roll off the tongue too easily. That’s it - it’s a pitch. Practiced and well oiled, and probably delivered to every millionaire this side of the Mississipi. Joe is not a fast man, and he doesn’t understand what Cochran is getting at, but he wants to know more.
“Take a look at this, for example.” Cochran stands and motions over to a framed scrap of newspaper on the wall. The headline reads
THE BEST GO WEST! in big,
“Now, what yankee clerk making a dollar a day would see that and not hop on a passenger train the next morning?”
“But sir, with all respect, that sure as shit ain’t my job. Ridin’ ‘round shootin’ injuns’n eatin’ tin beans over the fire, don’t nobody do that. N’if they do, sure as hell ain’t gonna get paid fer it. More like to get tak’n out on a bad hit’n y’are to get rich.”
“Joe, I think you misunderstand. It’s not about what we do out here. It’s about what they think we do.”
“Mister Cochran, you put any’em yankee boys doin’ what we do ever’day and won’t be more’n a couple days ‘fore they’re stuck out’n the desert.”
“But here’s the beauty of it all: It doesn’t matter!” Cochran is motioning grandly with his hands, voice rising. The sermon is reaching its climax. As quickly as he built it up, his voice quiets. “Joe, may I ask you a simple question?”
“Shoot.” Joe has never been good in let’s call them thinking situations. But his buzz has unloaded his head, and he feels like he’s in on something.
“Who’s richer: You, or old Ortega here?”
Ortega looks a little uncomfortable at this, but keeps it to a little shifting in his seat. “Why, I’d reckon that’s Ortega,” Joe says with a cocked smile.
“And who lives a life closer to that of the true delgado? Which of you could shoot the head off of a marble statue from an eighth mile?”
“Why, I’d reckon that’s me.”
Cochran brings his hands together in a mock-relieved clap. “Son, I think the business world might have a place for you yet.” Another one of his step-fatherly smiles as he puts his hand on Joe’s shoulder. He leans in real close, so close Joe can see the tobacco stains on his teeth, and he says in a low voice: “Let me tell you a secret. You want to get rich, best thing you can do is to never lift a finger.
“You can get paid for shootin’ and runnin’. You know that, Joe, becuase you do get paid for that. But what you didn’t know is that I did, too. I’m sure you stayed in one of them shacks down the road – I own those. Might’ve had a drink or two at a saloon. That’s me, too.
“It doesn’t matter if every red-necked yankee out there gets stuck out in the desert. We’re selling them on an idea. We’ll give ‘em a place to stay, a place to eat, shit, fuck, and then we’ll sell things to those people – land, railroad lines, cattle fences. And then we’ll sell to the people who give them that. All the way down, Joe. It’s us all the way down.”
Joe looks off to the side and tries to think, but he can’t. He feels like he should say something, or lose the faith Cochran seems to have in him. He pauses for a long time.
So he says: “Ain’t that a bit…artificial?”
Cochran lets out a huge belly laugh, a real one. The tension in the room vanishes. “It may be, son, it may well be. But there’s one thing that’s real as Sunday supper. You know what that is?”
He does the same trick again, leans in real close to Joe. Joe can feel his body’s slight trembling.
“What is it?” Joe says.
“Money…” Joe whispers thoughtfully to no one in particular.
“Joe, I’ll be honest. I’ve got near two dozen little towns set up like this. Only thing I need’s more people close enough to the real thing to show them around and make it convincing. A tour guide, if you will.”
“Sir, I ain’t sure what t’make’a all this. I ain’t much’a the tour guide type.”
“And that’s why I need you, Joe! This is the one job I can’t pull some fancy powdered-ass yankee to do. They need someone hard, someone real! Because as soon as they get outta school, they’ll be surrounded by sugar magnolias just like themselves and they’ll figure it out! I need a man like you to get ‘em tough enough to fool each other.”
For a long moment, Joe sits and thinks. The beer makes thinking easy, but focusing hard. He thinks about his favorite gigs. The meticulous planning, staking out for days and days. He wasn’t lying when he said the job was an end, not just means. But he could tell Cochran was rich. That meant he had Money, and if Joe worked with him then maybe he would give Joe some of the Money. He could save it, then retire down to the Ciudad with a Mexican girl with low, wide hips and a soft smile. And all he had to do was pretend to be a cowboy.
“How much?” he said.
“Ten dollars a day, plus ten cents for every green nosed yankee that walks into your classroom.”
Joe couldn’t help but cough. Ten dollars was more money than most people made in a week. He wouldn’t be as rich as a man like Cochran, but he’d have plenty of money. More money than he’d ever seen in his life. And shit, he thought, it’s not like I’ll stop running gigs. Hell, I’ll get a chance to tune up some ideas I’ve had while I’m teaching the yankees.
It was settled. Joe would be the frying pan and the fire. He would take them fresh off the trains with the ten-gallon hats they had bought on the way, teach them how to be surly, then funnel them off to one of the many jefes that Cochran dealt with.
And every day, he would put a crisp ten dollar bill in his pocket.
The first month was good. Very good. Joe decided to teach them as best as he could, and try to sharpen his skills along the way. All of his students were impressed by him. He had a shiny, rippling black stallion. When he held his gun, it felt like he meant to shoot you. He was a bad motherfucker. Students can tell these sorts of things.
His first purchase was a fine suit. He had no reason to buy a suit, but he had always wanted one. He spent as much as he could. He got fine ivory buttons, a crisp white undershirt, and a pair of gold cuff links. One day, he slapped down twenty dollars at the finest inn in town, and said “I’ll be stayin’ fer’a while”. He shoed his horse in thin silver shoes and paid a local boy to grain him and curry him. He didn’t ride hardly at all anymore.
Cochran was gone for long stretches. It was more accurate to say that he was there for short stretches. Joe was sure this town was pocket change for him. Ortega was gone, too. Instead, a white man named Lee ran the town. Lee had a red face and wore expensive pants over his bunched, fat ass. He was soft. Joe suspected Lee was somehow related to Cochran, but Lee didn’t drink, and Joe didn’t know how else to talk to him.
Lee was very concerned about efficiency. It was nearly the only thing he talked about. A good lovemaking session for Lee, Joe thought, must be like going to a well-run bank. A thirty second deposit. Lee designed a lot of systems to increase efficiency.
For example, Lee decided that it needed to be easier to bring on new instructors. The new ones were always morons. The worst one, Joe remembered, had been named Chet. Chet walked like how a cowboy was supposed to walk, and smiled like the men in the advertisements. He liked to go to the whorehouse and impress the girls with his new boots or his new gun. He’d go in there and come out hours later with that big, dumb smile on his face. Joe wasn’t sure why he didn’t pay the girls and be on his way. One day, Chet accidentally blew off his cock while he was showing off at the whorehouse. The new ones were always morons.
New instructors came to Joe’s town every so often, but Joe heard that there was a huge need for them in other parts of California. He guessed that’s why there were so many morons, because all the real old heads had been snatched up. And he guessed that was why men like Lee existed. To corral the morons into doing something. All that Cochran needed was something to turn exorbitant amounts of profit off of them.
Anyway, Lee designed a system for instructors. Everyone received the same gun, which was a piece of shit from one of the new factories in Colorado, where they had found metal. Everyone got the same boots, and everyone wore the same style hat. Worst of all, everyone got an instructor’s handbook. Lee would occasionally ask the students opaquely whether their instructor was saying the right catch phrases from the handbook, or taking the order of the handbook to heart.
At first, Joe rebelled against these things. He hated the handbook most of all. A few days after he got one, he talked to Lee.
“Lee, these books’re horseshit,” he said.
“How else he was supposed to maintain uniformity and consistency across seventeen education centers? Have you even visited another education center?” Lee asked.
Lee had nothing to say, and went to the saloon to drink beer.
Joe held out for a while, but it didn’t take that long before he gave up with rebellion. Before he gave up, he would still go talk to Lee. A crimson red would crawl over Lee’s face, and he’d start trembling. After about forty five seconds, he would cut Joe off.
“You don’t know anything about this business, Joe,” he would say. When he got angry, the fat on his stubby neck would jiggle. “This is my business, Joe. You don’t know the first thing about it,” he’d say. Then, he’d walk away stiff like an Indian doll with his pants bunched up around his big ass.
“Fuck it,” Joe said.
After those first months passed, every day was hell. The worst part was that it wasn’t even a particularly good hell. If there had been some physical discomfort or emotional turmoil, Joe would have accepted that more readily. “This is bad,” Joe would have thought. But Joe was comfortable. The days passed pleasantly. At sunup, he pulled himself out of bed. He played cowboy until his time was done, and then he went back to the inn. Nothing was uncomfortable. Some days he even felt at ease with Lee and his handbook. Other days he could barely pull himself out of bed to face another day of pretendership. He was guilty about feeling as he did when his friends who hadn’t lucked into such a position were still making barely three dollars per day out doing gigs.
But every night he drank as much beer as he wanted at the saloon. When a new woman came to the brothel, he was among the first to have her if he pleased. He never cooked a meal for himself. And the padding on his bed was stuffed with feathers. Comfortable.
But what of the old life? He wasn’t sharp. He was dull as an old discarded arrowhead, fat, slow. What did he even remember of smuggling or killing? But his new life was so pleasant. He hadn’t slept under a boulder in more than a year. His ribs were nowhere to be seen. He closed his eyes and counted his blessings. He exhaled, and opened them, renewed with acceptance. He looked at his suit – the first thing he had ever bought with Cochran’s money. The golden cuff links winked at him in the sun.