Fiction · 11/20/2013

Fourteen Cowboys by the Fire

Fourteen cowboys by the fire, laying out and crouching, stinking. The herd behind them settling down. The fire eating what brush and wood they’d gathered.

When they’d gathered, their dogs had found a dead man in a parched ravine. All could see he’d lately been alive, yet to be stripped of boots and belt. He’d had his head broke in. The stained rock sat homey in a nearby bush, a speckled egg in a nest.

And now no moon, no wind, no words. Faint starlight on the sleeping herd, on the many headless mountains.

Adamson thought, Why not use a knife?

Martinez thought of the white man who’d come at him with a saucepan.

Hunson, Jones, and Cloud Horse, older than the others, thought of the wars.

Miller thought of the red men he’d shot one by one from his high perch on a hot rock.

McWhorter of the red man he’d shot six times when the man had turned to wash his face in the hotel basin.

Gomez of the black man he’d beaten with a chair.

Bauer and Metzer of the black man they’d thrown into the poisoned well.

Bohland of the brown man he’d hog-tied, roped to his saddlehorn, and dragged at a gallop over cacti and ocotillo and ashes.

Gaines of the brown man he’d bound to a tree and mutilated and abandoned, the red man he’d bound to a chair in a cave and burned alive, and the white man he’d bound and raped and strangled in a whorehouse.

Whistling Pete of the yellow man he’d smothered on a cot in a cell.

Redondo of the dozens of white, brown, and black men that he and others had driven a stampede into, scrambling and screaming men who could not then or now be counted. He tried again to count them. Then the women, then the children.

Redondo nudged a hissing log.

Whistling Pete pinched one nostril and noodled snot through the other.

Gaines belched in the middle of a belch.

Bohland stood to stretch his back.

Bauer passed Metzer a pouch of tobacco.

Gomez cleaned his teeth with grass.

McWhorter spat into his hand and worked it under his pants.

Miller combed his hair, his moustache, and his sideburns, and then his sideburns, his moustache, and his hair.

Cloud Horse, Jones, and Hunson, side by side and on their backs, faked hard sleep.

Martinez laughed a little.

And Adamson drew his knife, just to see the fire jump onto the blade.


Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. His work appears in Kenyon Review Online, Post Road, Unsaid, and other places.