Photo © Gareth Wray

Photo © Gareth Wray

The Cowboy

by Jamie Guiney

          It was rumoured that the farmer who lived in the house with the twelve chimneys, had a set of medieval stocks in one of his rundown sheds, and that trespassers caught on his land doing anything at all, including just breathing, were bundled into his tractor and taken to be put in those stocks and dear knows what else.

          Boon often sat in the pub listening to such tales and watching them pass from one cigarette curl to another, as faces leaned in around tables then burst into glorious arrays of white teeth and laughter.  They were always about this fellow or that, who had been apprehended on the farmer’s lands and then imprisoned in the stocks and by the time they walked out, were never the same person again.  Some of the tales ended with these poor fellows drooling down themselves in mental asylums or moving to New Zealand to escape the bad memories.

          Boon had already been plundering the farmer’s crops for a couple of years when he first heard these stories, and as he sat down by his grandmother’s fire one evening to consider the medieval stocks and the ruined lives, he was already in too deep to simply give it up.  So he did what any reasonable person in his situation would do and brushed it away like a crumb from a trouser leg.

          It had all begun with the apple orchard.

          Boon would have kept an eye on the local paper for the farmer’s advertisement to appear calling for summer pickers.  That black rectangle filled with words said one thing to most people, but to Boon it whispered crooked code that the apples were ripe and ready to be stolen.  He usually had a few weeks before the pickers showed up and snipped through the orchard like an army of crabs.

          In those early years, Boon would have taken just enough apples for himself and his elderly grandmother – who appreciated the ingredients for making her tarts – but then after a while, he had begun to sell them to anyone who would buy a cheap bag of apples.

          As the air around him grew thick with momentum, Boon’s attention soon wandered to other parts of the farmer’s lands.  He came across a lake that was good for illegal fishing all year round and not long after that, discovered two small fields where the farmer grew neat rows of strawberries.  He knew about the farmer’s poultry pen and although not akin to plundering it, he kept it in his back pocket for financial or hunger-related emergencies.  Boon had even been so bold as to take a few milk churns from the big yard up by the house where the farmer parked his tractors.

          In his complex calendar – which only existed inside his head – Boon knew the ins and outs of the farmer’s crops, which fields would be in use at any given time, and which produce would prosper next.  He also had a list of clientele – inside his head – along with details of what they’d be interested in buying.  Most of the auld dolls in the village, for instance, would be keen on Boon’s apples – oblivious to where he was getting them from –  and most of the men were interested in the sacks of logs that he sold from a trailer around September time –  for it was their responsibility to heat their homes in the winter months for a cheap fuel bill and keep their wives cosy and happy.

          In order to fill up the trailer, Boon would usually spend a few hours angling in the farmer’s lake, then wrap whatever sad-mouthed fish he had caught in newspaper, to take home for his grandmother.  On his way back through the fields, he would take a detour through the forest to check for logs stacked on top of one another like giant cigars.  As soon as they appeared, Boon would rub his hands and start to calculate – in his head – the orders he would get, and then come back every day to see whether the farmer had chopped them into woody coins; because that saved him the hassle of doing it himself.  Boon would accumulate enough wood to fuel his grandmother’s fire right through the winter – and keep her cosy –  with plenty left over for bagging and selling to anyone who would buy a cheap sack of logs.

          There were unfortunate periods of the year however, when the farmer had nothing to be taken advantage of; so Boon turned his hand to something that resembled real work, by creeping lorry loads of illegal tobacco over the border for Johnny O'Lachlin.  Even though the money was good at a hundred quid per run, Boon didn't like the risk, didn't like working for someone else and certainly didn’t like to be micro-managed.  But, a man has to make a living, and he knew that the tobacco runs were just a stopgap until his own enterprising took off again.

          Even in his grandmother’s house, Boon was one for finding shortcuts around things.  He had discovered that if done discreetly enough – hiding it under the soil in the garden – he could run an electrical wire from the mains in his house and permanently connect it into the streetlight outside, rendering his electric bill a practical zero.  Sometimes he sat in front of the television, drinking his grandmother’s tea and just chuckling to himself about all of the free electricity he could waste at his leisure.

* *

          One evening in the pub, a heavily bearded gentleman was telling Boon about a fellow he knew, who cleared out the homes of old people after they died.  They were a goldmine these houses and the fellow in question was making a comfortable living just out of pilfering furniture, antiques, and then selling them on.  While Boon considered it, he pretended as usual that he had no cigarettes and fobbed some off the bearded gentleman; and then, by the time he had lit one up, realised that he disliked this idea of pillaging old people while their breath still hung in the air – their death mist, as he called it.  Every man should have at least some principles, Boon said, before swallowing the last of his pint.

          The conversation turned briefly to fake bank notes, then to grave-robbing.  Though violating cemeteries was something Boon had never tried, he considered the money that could be made from a bag of gold teeth and it was a thought he would hold onto for another day.  They discussed the farmer and joked about his medieval stocks for a while until Boon found out that the farmer had a field of rhubarb.

          He couldn’t believe it.  He thought he knew every inch of those lands, yet here was rhubarb he had never stolen.  And his grandmother loved rhubarb.

          The directions he got were hazy because the fellow was drunk and they almost didn’t make any sense at all, but if there was farmer’s produce to be had, Boon would soon find it.

          That following morning, Boon sat at the kitchen table he had inherited from someone he wasn’t related to, wearing two odd socks and drinking tea made by his grandmother that was brewed twice and strong as liquor.  He instructed her to throw on some toast and she rustled around the kitchen in her flower-print apron, before landing three slices of marmalade covered toast in front of him.  As she rubbed around the countertops with a cloth, stopping every so often to swipe crumbs into her hand, Boon asked if she had gotten the chance to clean his wellington boots and she said yes.  The grandmother dropped her crumbs into the swing bin and fumbled in a cupboard under the stairs, before setting the boots right at her grandson’s feet.

          “Thanks Granny.”

          “You’re welcome son.  Will you be back for dinner?”

          “Aye.  Hope you’re making me something nice?”

          She chuckled, a little embarrassed.  “I’ll put something together.”

          “I might be going out later on, Granny.  Can you find me some jeans and clean socks?”

          “Yes son.”

          “Thanks.  You know what, you’re going to get a great birthday present next month,” Boon pointed both fingers at her, “because you deserve it.”

          “If God spares me,” she replied, her yellow marigolds squeaking as she wiped the same countertops over again.

          “Oh he’ll spare you alright, no doubt about that.  You have to reach the big eight-O.”

          Boon pulled on his green wellington boots and the black cowboy hat someone had left behind in the pub one night.  As he set off, his grandmother followed him outside and began scratching the giant yard brush across the grey concrete.

          He followed a lane that was sometimes good for blackberries – if the children hadn’t got to them first – then after fifty yards or so, climbed over the fence at his favourite spot.  As always, he took a few moments to survey the horizon for any sign of the farmer, before adjusting the cowboy hat and setting off.  He had started wearing it on the farmer’s land as a decoy, knowing that if the farmer ever had reports of a trespasser, that the description of a man wearing a cowboy hat would not only sound ridiculous, but could also never be traced back to Boon because he never wore it anywhere else.  Hypothetically, they’d never catch him.

          This first field was good for potatoes two years out of every three and Boon made a small fortune selling them in sacks.  When the farmer let the field rest or grew corn instead, it put a dent in Boon’s income and he usually spent that time concentrating on other crops and waiting patiently for the spuds to be planted again.

          After crossing another couple of fields, Boon neared the forest and thought he heard the chug of a tractor.  He crouched down and waited and lifted a smooth stone out of the muck.  When all seemed quiet again, he dropped the stone and moved into the forest, heading for the lake – a ten minute walk.

          In among the trees it was dark and quiet, and as he climbed over a fallen tree, Boon recalled the time he had arrived at the lake with his fishing rod and there, tied to a newly spouted post, was a white-painted rowboat with a single flat seat across its middle.  He had considered stealing and selling it on back then, but it went against his business strategy –  taking needles from a haystack was not noticeable, but stealing the whole haystack was.  He had also thought briefly about using it for his fishing, but thought how difficult escape might be if the farmer ever showed up.  So he fished from the grass as normal and tried his best to ignore the boat and its potential sale price.

          Boon came out of the forest and into the light, to find that today the lake was calm enough with just the odd wind grating its surface.  He had been here three days ago and caught a pike the length of his arm.  He loved spoiling his grandmother with fresh pike, though most people regarded them not meant for eating.

          Passing the lake, he cut through the Orchard and his found his drunken directions fizzled out.  He stood still for a while, scanning hedges, looking for the mysterious lane that had been described to him, then took off the cowboy hat and scratched the top of his head, before putting it back on again.  It was only by walking right past it, that he found a badly overgrown lane he had never noticed before.  Moving carefully through brambles and nettles as high as his shoulders, Boon eventually found himself standing in a square field full of rhubarb, its sweetness filling the air and giant green leaves spreading out like lily pads on a lake.  Boon bent down to crack a stalk, then smelled and examined it, before producing a folded up sack from his pocket.  As he hunkered down and began to yank, then stuff the red stalks into his sack, he could hear the sound of his own breath and suddenly realised how quiet this particular field was.  He stood up and listened for a moment.

          Not a sound.  No wind, no birds, no nothing.

          He removed the cowboy hat and wiped his brow, then thought he heard something.  Carefully, he knelt down and a trickle of sweat found its way out from his hairline and down into his right eyebrow.  He wiped his face with the inside of an elbow, and dropped the hat in amongst the rhubarb.  His heart beat faster than normal and he waited there a full two minutes before realising it was nothing.

          Getting back to the picking, Boon soon had his sack full to the brim.  He heard a strange click and turned around.

          “Hold it right there,” said the farmer.  “This is a pepper gun.  It won’t kill you, but it’ll hurt like hell.”

          Boon took off, hopping quickly through the rhubarb to try and escape, then a splash of birds suddenly shot across the sky and he took a face full of giant leaves.  The pain gnarled his buttocks like sitting in a chair that was on fire, then he rolled a little, squashing and breaking stalks, until the clunk of a gun butt smashed into his shoulder.

* *

          A strong smell of fresh cow dung filled his nostrils.  As his eyes opened, it felt like a guillotine had dropped directly into his rear-end.

          He was looking down into a bucket of cow dung, brown and watery.

          All at once, Boon felt the clamp around his head and the locks around each wrist.  Panic set in as his whole body shook, but the medieval stocks stayed as still as iron.  He tried to stand up even, to lift the entire contraption off the ground, but it would not budge and his ass ached.

          Glancing up, as much as the stocks would allow his neck to strain, Boon saw that he was in a large shed.

          Just as he began to swear, the heavy sliding doors scraped open, then closed again, and Boon looked up to see the farmer’s wellington boots, black and scuffed with muck.

          “So … you think it’s alright to steal another man’s livelihood, do you?”

          “Aye, and you think it’s alright to shoot people!”

          “Oh you can shoot a thief no bother, law allows it.”

          “Well, you may add bloody kidnapping as well, cause that’s what this is!”

          The farmer pulled out a three-legged stool and sat facing Boon. “You know, the last fella I had in these, was in them for a week.  That’s how long it took him to say sorry.”

          “Sorry? Look I’m sorry, no bother.  Sure what’s a bit of rhubarb?” To fill the silence Boon continued to speak.  “I’ll pay you for it no problem, just tell me much it costs and I’ll square you up.”

          “Are you the one they call the cowboy?” asked the farmer, squinting.

          Boon thought quickly, the cowboy hat, where was the cowboy hat... “No way.  I’m just an honest man trying to gather a bit of rhubarb for my granny.  She loves baking the tarts.  I tell you what, I’ll get her to bake you one, how about that?”

          “Sounds nice.  Well I need to find this fella they call the cowboy because rumour has it he’s been plunderin’ my land for a long, long time and I’ve a bone to pick with him.  Thing is, I think you are the cowboy.”

          Boon remembered he took the hat off, it was still in the rhubarb field.  “I’m no cowboy! I’ve heard of the fella you’re talking about though.  He comes into the pub now and again, so I believe.  And he steals from your land, is that right now?”

          “Oh he does indeed.”  The farmer pulled out a brown, tatty notebook from his trouser pocket that had a black outline of a cow on its cover.  “See I’ve been making a list over the past year or so of the things I’m gonna do to this cowboy once I catch him and put him in the stocks. So if you’re him, I’d be just about to start into number two in the list.”

          "Number two?  Sure what's number one, shoot an innocent fella!"

          The farmer chuckled.  "Number one is the bucket of cow dung that you're lookin' into right now.  Number two, is…"  The farmer consulted his notebook.  "A piece of straw up each nostril."

          "Well you needn’t bother with your list, for I’m not him.  How many times have I gotta tell you? Maybe you know my granny?  That might vouch for something? Edna Rusket.”

          The farmer got up and paced about, tugging at his lower lip.  “Edna Rusket’s your granny?”

          “Aye, she is.  Great woman.  Look, my neck’s nearly broke here.  Get me out of this bloody thing!”

          “How’s she keeping?”

          “She’s doing the very best, turns eighty in a couple weeks’ time.  Honestly, I was just talking to some fella in the pub and asking where I could get some rhubarb for my granny and he gave me directions to your rhubarb field.”

          “So you were talkin' to the cowboy then? Come on, own up?”

          “No, he wasn’t a cowboy.  Look, if you want to catch the cowboy, you’d be better getting into the pub, that’s where he probably hangs out.  You know, suss him out.”

          “I’m a Christian man, I don’t go into pubs.”

          Boon dropped his head for a few seconds, then looked up again.  “You know what you need, a ranger.”

          “What sort of ranger?”

          “A ranger to walk your lands, keep an eye on things, look out for the cowboy.  I could do it, all I’d need was that pepper gun you like to shoot people with and a wage."

          "I'd love to catch that cowboy so I could get him into the stocks and start into my list. It’s three pages long so far…”  The farmer flipped pages back and forth briefly, smiling as though it was an old love letter.  "Look at this, number sixty-three, this is my favourite one.  Make him lick a pig's snout."  He closed the notebook and tapped it off his fingers, then walked over and lifted away the bucket of manure.

          “Now listen! Don’t you be starting into that list! I’m no cowboy, you hear!”  Boon heard the click of latches and his eyeballs became wide and bulging.

          “I'm letting you go because of your grandmother.  She worked at the house here when I was a boy and was like a big sister to me.  You tell her I was askin' about her."

          "Is that right?  No problem, I'll tell her."

          "Oh and one more thing," said the farmer.

          "What's that now?"

          "You’re hired.”

          Boon tried to stand and fell down.  He managed to get up and held out his hand.  The farmer shook it.  “I’ll keep your land clear of cowboys don’t you worry.  And what’s the pay, two hundred quid a week?”

          “Are you joking son?  I didn’t shoot you in the head did I?  You’ll get seventy five quid and that’ll be your lot.”

          “When do I start?”

          “You report at my house every morning at eight o’clock.”

          “Eight? That’s a bit early!”

          “Son, I start at five-thirty.”

          “Well I take it you’ll let me keep my bag of rhubarb for my granny?”

          The farmer hesitated, then waved a hand.  “Alright, take it and be on your way.”

          Boon hobbled his way back to the rhubarb field, feeling strange to be an authorised person who no longer had to worry about getting caught or seen or shot by the farmer.  After gathering his rhubarb and stuffing in a few more stalks, he lifted the cowboy hat, hid it under his jacket and headed on home.

* *

          The first week on the job was easy.

          He spent most of it roaming all of the farmer’s lands to acquaint himself with the parts he’d never seen before, trying to establish if there was something he hadn’t stolen, but could now make money from.

          To please the farmer, Boon said he had seen the cowboy from a distance, but when he shouted, the cowboy ran off.  The farmer seemed happy with progress.  Boon also made up a story about some kids trying to steal apples and that impressed the farmer too.

          As time went on though, the farmer started to get annoyed that there were no more sightings of the cowboy, and when Boon made some up, the farmer would get excited momentarily, then frustrated that the cowboy still hadn’t been apprehended.

          After a few weeks of rangering, the farmer stopped being nice altogether and Boon began to come under pressure for results.  The cowboy needed to be caught.

          On the way home after collecting his pay-packet one Friday evening, Boon stopped off at the pub for a pint.  As he debated going home to his dinner or ordering another pint, in walked the bearded fellow looking all gloomy.  Boon soon established that the poor man had just lost his job and after offering some reassurance, he suddenly surmised that because the bearded fellow was the one who had directed him to the rhubarb field in the first place, Boon would hold him indirectly responsible for being shot in the rear-end.

          “All you have to do, is wear a cowboy hat and let me pretend I’ve caught you on the farmer’s land.  Once he takes you back to the big shed, he’ll put you in the stocks and – ”

          “Hold on here, the stocks are real?”

          “Oh they’re real alright and I’ve been in them.  No big deal.  As soon as you say sorry, he lets you out, but you have to mean it.”

          “I’ll have to think about it, I could use the money…”

          “Look I’ll give you twenty quid and two sacks of spuds.  You’re out of work now, why turn down opportunities to earn?  It’ll take you an hour at most.  Who makes twenty quid an hour in any job, you tell me?”

          As the man looked at Boon, he realised that Boon was right and a man out of work couldn’t afford to be choosy.  They agreed and set the time for two o’clock on Monday afternoon.  Boon would meet him out by the farmer’s lake, give him the cowboy hat and then bring him to the farmer to say sorry.

* *

          Boon woke up on Saturday morning feeling like he had caught a cold, so lay around the house all weekend giving orders to his grandmother.  After a spell in bed, a stain on the ceiling irritated him so much, that his grandmother offered to paint over it.  So she got up on the stepladder and painted over it, but the new paint didn’t blend right with the old paint, so he had her redo the whole ceiling.  Afterwards, Boon’s irritation was gone and he felt so pleased, that he allowed her to run herself a bath and relax for the evening.

          On Monday, the sun came out and the sky was sea-blue in among the clouds.  Boon still felt poorly and ordinarily would have taken a sick day, but the cowboy had to be caught and there was probably a bonus to be had, so off he went across the fields towards the farmer’s lake.

          When he arrived, the bearded fellow was sat in the farmer’s boat, rowing himself around.

          “What the hell are you doing?” shouted Boon, in his loudest whisper.

          The bearded fellow just laughed, rowing then with one oar, like a bird with an injured wing and making chirping noises.  He clambered out of the boat, splashing Boon’s jeans.

          “Will you watch what you’re at!”  Boon handed him the cowboy hat. “Here put this on.”

         The bearded fellow put on the hat and began to sing, “Ya picked a fiyne tiyme to leeve me…Loo-seal…”

          Boon laughed.  “You’re about to be put in the famous stocks and you’re mucking about!  I wish I was as confident as you.”

          He stood behind the fake cowboy and pointed the pepper gun at his back.  “Right, just walk and it’ll look like I’ve caught you.  When we get to the yard, try to look a bit scared and remember the main thing is once you’re in the stocks, to say sorry and mean it.  Okay?”

          “Let’s go,” said the bearded fellow, “this is the easiest twenty quid I’ve ever earned.”

          Boon marched the fake cowboy through the trees for a while until they reached a lane with grass growing up the middle of it like a green Mohawk.  They walked that for a few minutes before turning left and entering the farmer’s yard.

          “Look at how many buildings this guy has, he must be loaded!”

          “Shush you! Keep walking.”

          Boon marched the cowboy past the big green tractor and right up to the back door of the farmer’s big house, where he tapped the gun tip against the wood three times, then waited for an answer.  Just as he considered going on in – even though he was forbidden to do so – Boon heard something and turned around to see the farmer emerge from a shed, carrying a bucket.

          When the farmer saw Boon and the cowboy, he stopped right on the spot and just stared, then set down his bucket and came over.

          “So you got ‘em?”

          “Aye, cheeky bollocks was in your rowboat, he couldn’t get away.”

          The two spoke about the cowboy as if he wasn’t there.

          “Right, take him into the big shed and put him in the stocks.  I’ll go get my notebook, it’s in the house, I thought of another few to add to the list last night.”

          The cowboy started to shout, “I’m not going in no stocks! Yis can piss off!”

          “You’ll do as you’re told or I’ll stick a few bullet holes into you!” said Boon in his best angry voice.  Boon marched him off down to the big shed and whispered, “Good acting big fella.”

          Checking the farmer was gone, Boon slid open the huge barn door and they went inside.  The bearded fellow began to laugh.  “I don’t believe it! Bloody stocks! Where the hell did he get these from?”

          “I don’t know, right let’s get you into them.”  Boon opened one end of the stocks and lifted it up like a drawbridge.  Still laughing, the fellow put his neck down into the half-moon cut and did the same with his hands.  Just as Boon closed down the lid and started to wrestle with the locking mechanism, in walked the farmer.  “I can’t seem to lock this, there must be a knack to it.”

          The farmer, without speaking, came over and locked the stocks, then gave them a shake to ensure they were secure.  He moved around to the front and eyed the cowboy.

          “So… the cowboy.”  As the farmer interlocked both hands behind his back, he stood up tall and stared down at his prisoner.  “I’ve been waitin' a long, long time for this moment… ”

          Boon tried not to laugh.

          “You’ve been robbin' my land for years!”

          The bearded fellow looked like he might laugh as well, then said in his best unenthused voice, “Look I’m sorry.  I won’t do it again.”  He looked up to catch Boon’s eyes wide and scolding.

          The farmer pulled out his notebook and turned to Boon.  “Boon, you did good son.  You head on home, take the rest of the day off.”

          “Thanks very much, but are you not finished with him, I could escort him off your land?”

          “Oh, I won’t be finished with him for a while yet… I’ve a long list to get through here, remember?”  The farmer wrapped his notebook off one hand.

          “What’s this list?” said the bearded fellow.

          “Sure he’s said sorry, I don’t think he’ll be back near your land again, what with me patrolling it and all… ”

          “I’m sorry Mr. Farmer, I promise I’ll never come on your land again.”

          Acting like he hadn’t heard anything that had just been said, the farmer stepped close to Boon and gave his arm a gentle, funeral squeeze.  “Head on home son, thanks for the hard work.  I’ll see you in the morning to give you your bonus.”

          Boon glanced at the cowboy, then turned and left, sliding the barn door closed behind him.

* *

          On his way back through the fields, the sky greyed to a corpse and Boon whistled a little before losing enthusiasm for a tune.  When he reached home, light rain had started to spit upon the windows and he knew his granny would be out afterwards, wiping them clean again – smeary windows were a sight not to be seen, she always said.

          Boon took off his wellingtons at the back door and went inside.  In the living room his grandmother sat knitting and smiled as he walked in.

          “There’s a few letters there son, came in the post.  Your dinner’s in the oven.”

          Boon nodded and started to open letters with a sliding thumb.  Most of them were trash.  The last one was an electric bill.  As he stared at the figures, a wry smile sneaked onto his face then disappeared again.  It warmed his heart to see a page almost empty and declaring his bill as zero.

 “Electric bill’s in Granny.”

          She looked up from her knitting. “How much do I owe you son? Reach me over my handbag.”

          As he handed the old lady her bag, Boon put on his best times-are-hard face.  “It’s gone up again Granny, you owe me forty-five quid this time.”

          The old woman rustled in her purse and eventually handed him over two twenty pound notes.  “I’ll have to owe you a fiver son when I get my pension, is that alright?”

          “Aye that’s no problem Granny, thanks.”  Boon stuffed the notes into his back pocket and the old lady went back to her knitting.

          He paused by the door.  “I’ve had a rough day Granny, can you run me a bath shortly?”

          She set aside the knitting and made to get up.  “Sure I’ll do it now son, it’ll be ready for you finishing your dinner.”

          “Alright, thanks.  Say, when is your birthday again, tomorrow is it?”

          She met him in the doorway, “It was yesterday, son.  When you get to my age birthdays don’t matter anymore.”

          He nodded.  “I suppose they don’t.”

          The old lady followed her grandson out into the hallway and began to pull all eighty of her years up the wooden hill.  Out in the kitchen, Boon opened the oven and transported a foil-covered plate onto the table where he sat down and unwrapped it.  He shook salt and glugged brown sauce over his spuds and as the first mouthful went in, he spotted a freshly baked rhubarb tart on the bench.  For a brief moment he thought about the farmer’s list.  As the second mouthful went in, he had already planned to eat a slice of tart in the bath and get granny to whip up some fresh cream to go with it.

Jamie Guiney is a literary fiction writer from County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His short stories have been published in literary journals, newspapers and online. His short story 'A Quarter Yellow Sun' was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Jamie is a graduate of the Faber & Faber Writing Academy, a member of the Seanchai Writers Group, and an interviewer for The View from Here literary journal. His work has been backed by the Northern Ireland Arts Council through several Individual Artist Awards. Learn more about his work at www.jamieguiney.com

Gareth Wray is a photographer from Strabane, Northern Ireland. View more of his work at hdfox.com .