A story of Rawhide, the origin of a man with a name, and especially of Gil Favor, and the pain of losing him—an attempt to assuage some very personal sadness—dedicated in loving memory to Eric Fleming, a hero of mine then and of now.
Crego was a man of shadows in this shabby town in the middle of stark white dunes of sand. He wore a poncho and smoked a foul smelling black small cigar. His face was creased with lines of a thousand showdowns and bounty hunting and the art of living sporadically in-between when there was a woman to be had.
He wore tight black clothes. His eyes perpetually squinted. He was brocade of night in a land of seemingly eternal summer heat blasted days. He was tall and angular. When he spoke, his voice was deceptively soft and whispery. He stood by his dark horse that seemed to shadow with him, as they had ridden together, as they had seen Cheyenne and Mexico and Kansas and New Mexico.
Crego was a man out of time. A wrath with shaggy heavy blonde dirty hair, and by the way, he was a legend. He still looked young, this peppery bearded one and his pistol sat holstered in just the second perfect way he could pull it out and end lives. Lives counted for little here. Money counted for more. Money for so little to be sold. But it still came in handy.
He stood by his horse at the near-end of Saddlburo. He was looking at the parched sand all round. At the scrubby people of poor clothing and hopeless, gaunt even, eyes, and he looked at the cheap wood buildings, the plank sidewalk, with pieces missing, at the millinery shop, with a fine model dummy in the sand blasted windows, dressed in a saloon dress, fine and long and with colors faded from long years of sun blanched stands in that window, that said no sale. No sale. The falling down hotel. The general store selling its own piles of dust and cobwebs.
He took out his cigarillo. He spat. He petted his horse, Romero, which made the gelding nicker. Crego had just had her brushed and curried and oat-fed at the stables here. Jesus would not have been born, if this had been the stable at hand. Mary and Joseph would have kept walking into infinity, baby caught dead and diseased inside her ever pregnant stomach, before they would let such a thing happen in this dreary smelly dirty place of painful darkness.
Crego pulled off his brown stained cowboy hat. He brushed his hand calloused, especially his thumb and trigger finger, through his thick mop of hair. He wanted someone to talk to. He wanted to not have to scan his eyes for the next hombre with the next bullet to head in Crego's direction, before Crego's bullet headed in said hombre's direction first. He wanted not to go out in that desert, where man and horse would fry.
The screams of death. The hellish howls of the dying. The blood spilled out like a majestic carpet on the sands or on the wood flooring, on mountains, in valleys, always the blood spilling as if quietly and with stateliness running away from the dying in such pain, that it had had the goodness once to empower broken body, forgotten already, with life such as it was.
Where gunmen sing sonnets and women wear gingham and learn to get used to most of their children dying at birth or before or before the age of five, making need of numbers of children to make up for the deaths, numbers of lives, out here, making up for quality of life, out here.
Crego had had a stack of flapjacks and chicory coffee at Tilson's and then had brought his horse, leading him to the stable. He would give anything to be in a fancy place like well like anywhere but here. A man gets to thinking when he's riding horseback endless days and nights, camping where he just about falls off, hoping the snows don't freeze him, the heat doesn't bake him dry to bone. He hurts riding Romero. All the time. Riding horseback for such long times hurts the joints, the groin, tilts the body one way then another, far too much. Jars head and skeleton. The horse knows its own pain.
He was muscular but thin. He had killed maybe hundreds of men in his time. Some women too. But he had no pride in any of it. They had been killed blood gutted intestines groping out inside the body before leaking out into the Western air of unforgiveness because of money on their heads or bravura on their part or some by accident. Only one woman was killed because it had to do with Crego's emotions. He had none after he killed her. He learned how deeply not to care.
I wish for trees, he thought. I wish for one crummy rotten juniper or sagebrush—even sagebrush, or tumbleweed passing by would be good, because then there would be a breeze, or, God forbid, a wind, to knock the sand and dirt and blood and blood money out of my clothes and out of my hand and my soul. Goddammit! He kicked his left pale gray once dark brown cowboy boot. The dust and the sand puffed a little circle. He drew his foot back and leaned on the fencing post. He put on his hat.
Made sure his poncho did not deter his firing hand. Old habit. Of course it never did. And he knew before this day was out, he would kill again. How or why or who didn't matter. It was his life, his job, it was him. Since he killed her, it was him. That kick at the dirt was as emotional as he had gotten since. He momentarily feared cracking. He brushed the thought away as the dry still day let him stand there sweaty and still in a place of shadows, his and Romero's own, belonging to no one else. It all made for lonely. And sometimes he longed for the day he was a second off in drawing that lethal firearm of his.
He won't tell you. He can't. It's buried deeper in him than any bullet he ever propelled into any human scum before. Their screams are laughs to him. Laughter from hell, my amigo, laughter from the darkest bromide of the darkest drink of the most insane bleeding from all gouts saloon ever in nightmares of the most terrified drunk who slept in alleys and dreamed his alcohol dreams.
Men go mad in lots of ways. Sometimes the madness makes them stronger. Make them a killing machine. Make them move and fire and walk and ride and eat and sleep and occasionally make love with the fine precision of the most elegant time piece ever assembled. Not when he was 17 though.
Crego was new and unseasoned as the youngest colt ever born. He was on his first cattle drive. The Civil War had just ended. Men had nowhere to go. No homes left. The horror of war sick still in their hearts and their eyes. They had wanderlust. They could not settle down. And if punching cows for virtually no money, which they blew in saloons and whorehouses in rail towns, was what they did with their time, it was all right with them. They punched cattle. And the new jaspers fell off their horses often as not. Many killed by cattle stampedes. Many others killed in even more terrible ways, in the raging rivers of life as it was then.
The boss of the drive was Gil Favor. The ramrod was Rowdy Yates. The scout was Pete Nolan. The cook was Wishbone. The cook's louse was Mushy. Crego was to ride at the tail end of the herd, eating dust and dirt all day. He had come to admire the men round him. He admired especially Mr. Favor. A tall dark haired man with a taciturn face, finely crafted, that seldom smiled, but when he did smile, it made the men, it made Crego feel good. He was tough as rawhide, Mr. Favor. Strong and lean. A broken nose. A scar above it. But it was said when he was gentle, the world melted. His wife had known. His daughters knew.
Crego liked to be around him. Crego wore chaps like all the drovers did. They rolled their own cigarettes. They were leathery. Crego—Crego was just a kid. And like a lot of kids he never knew his father. So he adopted in a way Mr. Favor of the kind deep voice that could chew a stupid drover out because so many dangers waited in every parcel of land and air and ground. Crego would watch Mr. Favor sometimes early in the morning when the drovers were still asleep, save the cook and Mushy and the night drovers.
Mr. Favor would saddle up silently, would ride to the top of a hill or a bit from the herd, where he would write in his trail boss's journal. To see him alone under that endless sky made Crego want to be Rowdy Yates, ramrod. Green as they came at first, it was said, but a hard worker, a quick thinker and good with his gun. As were all the men. Crego learned how to get brush cattle for the herd, learned how to map a trail and deal with Indians, from Pete's stories and seeing him in action. Mr. Favor and Rowdy were a team. They could handle anything. But one.
It was close to rail's head, Sedalia, where Crego had lived as a child. He had been in love with a girl who did not love him and made it plain to see. That that happened to be where she found Rowdy chasing after stray beeves near her and her husband's ranch. Rowdy had picked Crego to help him round up the strays. She had seen the drovers, invited them to supper, and had fallen in love with Rowdy and his busy hair and boyish grin. Her foolish husband, a proud, vain man, thought being wealthy meant she loved him and could not see or if seen register Rowdy's eyes and hers.
She didn't remember Crego. Not even his name. They had already found the strays. Her husband had let the cows stay on their land till the men drove them back to the herd. She kissed Rowdy after her husband had gone to his study, after dinner. On the front porch. Saying good-bye. And Crego died inside. Crego had no way of knowing he was going to kill her.
He came back at first light and did just that. He never wept again. Mr. Favor had seen him sneaking out of camp, had followed him and almost prevented Crego from gunning her down in cold blood. The last word she heard was Crego's name, called by Mr. Favor as he pulled his gun, jumped from his horse, and ran to the ranch house, mere feet away. Crego caught her bleeding body in his arms. Her eyes looked at Crego. And saw nothing. She was busy dying and bleeding all over him, to notice him, to remember the name. He knew immediately though, she would have not remembered regardless. She hadn't last night. His name at least hadn't been said then. Some face was saved.
Mr. Favor took the man's gun away and hit him hard enough in the face to knock him out cold. And when he woke in prison, Mr. Favor and the sheriff were looking down on him, coldly, as if he were a rabid dog. And it happened. The girl would not have been enough to do it. But losing stature in a hero's eyes had. That's Crego, machine, was born.
He saw the two men walk away. They didn't say a word to him or to each other. The cell door closed like the beginning of doomsday. And prison waited ahead. And word soon that a cattle boss had drowned while herding the doggies cross a raging river. Was it him? Many drovers and bosses drowned in rivers. But something said it was him. Did that cattle boss have doubts in his mind then? Did he have doubts about his job and being able to do it? He had liked Crego enough it seemed. If Mr. Favor was wrong about him? But he must have been wrong many times before. This, though, was it the latest time? The fatal one?
Did Crego kill two people with one bullet? A man dies a lot in prison. Some men go mad in their own way. Those years prison taught him brutality. And he vowed to teach whoever he met brutality. It took the length of a moth's wingspan to happen to him; that final bit of it.
Crego, now in Saddleburo, tensed, though no one would know it, let go his hand from stroking his horse's mane, and animal-like, felt the man behind him more than saw him. Crego put his hand to his holster. He could turn and fire point blank. He had killed so many so often it meant nothing to him. But, what if?--and this was the first time he had actively engaged the thought before firing-he knew the man was to kill him—why—how-no matter. He made his mistakes early, did Crego, and never again. The man stepped on a loose sidewalk board. The man was heavy and would not have a chance. Sloppy man. One of endless droves. It was up to Crego to turn and fire and kill with ease.
Sometimes though a man carries a stillborn raging river inside himself. Sometimes that river overflows its banks and bursts forth. Would this be that time? Crego turned quickly. He couldn't have cared less what was to happen next.