The following story is by Guest Contributor John McCloskey. John is a writer and digital artist living in Indiana. He can be found on Twitter by his pen name JS Green.
Now that I am dead I can tell you about the cowboy therapist. I would be the
victim of recrimination if I were still alive, detested as a squealer. Those who built and
prolonged and believed in the Old West would see fit to break me for giving away
secrets, as if their creation were still knowable through strong, simple belief. But I’m
a dead hero now, the only true kind. I became a hero by averting stampedes. In fact,
I was sort of an expert at turning the doggies and saved a trail boss’s life once.
But that’s another story.
The cowboy therapist was a lanky, gangling man who kept a trailer on the range,
in the mountains, near the towns—where ever there were troubled cowhands who
needed counseling. He was known to follow cattle drives from Mexico to Kansas City,
explaining the fears and sweetening the bitterness of the driven men who fought with
a continent. In his later years he stayed put in the high plains of eastern Wyoming
and found many troubled souls there. I talked with him regularly but never as a client.
His trailer was painted in carnival details—purple, yellow, spring green, sunny orange.
There was a plume of smoke rising from his trailer and a team of horses grazing
outside. The inside was full of Navajo blankets, self-help slogans and the ever warm
coffee pot. There was a bear pelt couch for his clients to recline on as they told him
their troubles. The cowboy therapist sat in a heavy oak throne lined with buckskin.
He wore boots and chaps and a Stetson but that was to reinforce the common bond
he claimed to feel for the anguished cowhands who came to him. He was never
really a cowboy.
I didn’t have many friends and neither did the cowboy therapist. But I think he
considered me his best friend. When I came to visit we would sit outside by the campfire
if it was summer and he would read to me transcripts from his case-file. He always
protected the anonymity of his clients and it didn’t matter to me what their names were.
Their problems sounded familiar to me. They were my problems too, although I never
said that so directly to the cowboy therapist.
One client asked: “We drive the cows to their death. It feels like I am driving
myself to my death. Should I get another job?”
The cowboy therapist told him that we all go forward and we all die. He should be
grateful to have a job that faces that truth.
Another client asked him: “Where does the range end? And why does every poker
game I join end in a gunfight?”
The cowboy therapist told him that History had put him on the range so the world
could grow, learn new things, make new people, become richer. This New World would
always need cowboys to create this better world and protect it. The creator is an outlaw.
He changes the world, makes new laws. And get a better hobby than poker, perhaps
Neither of them were much convinced by what he said and it wasn’t the first time
that the nostrums of the cowboy therapist rang hollow. He told them to believe in
their mission and not to ride off alone too far. Then he took their money (he charged
cowboys a reasonable fee) and sent them off. I pictured the cowboy riding out of
the valley feeling a little bit older, but still unsettled, still unsure. Well, if he had
been young and sure his questions would have been easy to answer. Or he wouldn’t
have had any questions.
Another one complained: “The herd feels like a machine. I keep having this dream
that the herd freezes in place. I crawl in below them with a screwdriver, then they
suddenly come back to life and trample me. While they do that they start chanting
at me the names we use in branding. Just when I’m about to be crushed I look up
and see they’ve all turned into monks, wearing robes. I crawl away and bleed alone
in a gulch. Then I meet a gang of rustlers and join up with them. I want to steal
every single steer. What does this mean?”
The cowboy therapist assured him that the doggies were secular and the cattle drive
mission was sacred. His problem was that he couldn’t see the steers for the herd.
He told him to get to know a few individuals: get off his horse and
stand near them, talk to them—he’ll find them pleasant company. He would be a good
cowboy if he followed his better instincts. And be on the look-out for rustlers who were
known for their persuasive recruiting techniques.
The client gave his money to the cowboy therapist. As he left he was reminded:
ignore wild dreams that go against the grain of a successful cattle drive.
Once again the cowboy therapist seemed unconvinced by his own words. As he closed the
case book he looked into the campfire and I watched him shake his head. “It’s all about
money, now,” he said. The howls of the coyotes seemed to agree with him. The fire in his
eyes was one of doubt, flickering hope. It was hardly even a fire; just an ember
that wouldn’t last the night. Into the campfire the cowboy therapist said quietly,
“It is impossible to explain, to learn, to understand.”
Finally he looked away from the fire and shrugged. He said he hoped
his advice had made them better cowboys.
“And happier men?” I asked.
We were both silent. We listened to the coyotes.
In his declining years the cowboy therapist became crotchety. He established
a psyche ward for cowboys, now that the West was closing. He kept several
of them there for long term treatment. He made deals with the trail bosses:
when a cowboy would go insane the boss would force him to go to the
cowboy therapist. Money changed hands.
His psyche ward was in an adobe building on the hillside overlooking his trailer.
He had ingratiated himself with a cattle baron who had funded the project.
There, one heard the tormented wails of abandoned cowboys, echoing in the clay.
The cowboy therapist left them tied in restraints for hours at a time. He withheld
food from them, trying to manipulate their behavior. He would not release them
from his psyche ward until they had signed a statement thanking him for curing them.
His notion of “cured” became more subjective.
A despairing dance evolved between the cowboy therapist and his patients.
They would confess to any lie, sign any statement, submit to any humiliation in order
to gain freedom. It saddened me to walk the hall and see listless cowboys hunched over
in the dust, their dark defeated faces buried in their Stetsons. The cowboy therapist
walked with me and I saw how they regarded him with with open terror and loathing.
I didn’t know what to think.
As trains and roads and more settlers arrived the cowboy therapist withdrew into
himself and I rarely saw him. He turned to doing sadistic experiments on his captives.
He had small cages dispersed over the high plain holding incorrigible cowhands whom
he fed once a day and badgered with reminders of their failure, his power, and the
futility of cowboy defiance. A chart was attached to each cage on which he noted the
cowboy’s physical decline and the cowboy’s answers to his brutal questions. He asked questions
that couldn’t be answered in any genuine way: “If you had another chance, would you
come West again?” and “Are you grateful for the treatment you are receiving?”
and “Do you now realize that the job of the cowboy is more important than the
individual concerns of a few misfits?”
The cowboys would give the answer they thought he wanted and beg to be released.
But they cowboy therapist assumed they were lying and only set them free in a
trickle, one by one. Sometimes I would stand on the hill and watch a broken, bent
cowboy ride fitfully away from the adobe psyche ward for the last time. He’d be holding
the chart in his hand to show to his trail boss.
But many of his former patients never made it back to the herd. They became drifters
and gunfighters, all over the West. In every killing they transmitted the shattering
truth that the cowboy therapist had reduced them to. They robbed and killed from
Topeka to Fort Bragg, running up the mountains to make their desperate last stands.
The cowboy therapist showed a perverse satisfaction when he read aloud newspaper
accounts of the gunfights.
The last time I saw him he was a very old man who puttered around his trailer looking
for his eyes and teeth. He was given to cranky self-congratulation; he pointed to the awards
he had framed on the wall. Most of them he had paid money for. He repeated his self-help
slogans and bobbed his head in a blind, self-righteous finality. He insisted that his
treatments had built the West. He proudly predicted that when his memoires were
published he would be assured of his place in history.
But his memoires were suppressed. They were spirited from a stage coach on its
way to the publisher and burned over one of the million campfires that light
the high plains. Even today, from the air or a high butte, you can see fires burning
in the night. They burn with a purpose and a persistence, you might call it a
sort of loyalty, which is comforting but doubt troubled. For the fires are always
flickering, then blazing, then hissing into damp dormancy, then roaring in a hot rage.
Tending these fires is a dangerous job in itself, requiring fast horses and courage.
They can surround a cowboy and reduce him to blackened bones, which is incidentally,
how I died.