05 August 2005

A Vaquero's History

A birth myth of the New York Minute

It was roundabout the 4th of July down in Pueblo – that’s Oklahoma territory – when the man they called the New York Minute came through. Pueblo being a chalky little shit-heap of a town where the cattle die in dust storms, their bellies full of mud. The railroads had passed it by, prospectors too. Even the Indians hadn’t done well, and that was before the plague took them. By the time the first settlers came and put down stakes – and who knows why – they were mud-covered and wandering. You’d stumble over two or three of them sitting in the center of an empty village, just staring. I heard more than one say it was God clearing the land, though as far as that particular stretch is concerned God and the dumb sonnofabitches both are welcome to it.

So. Independence celebrations tend to be muted in Pueblo. The War wasn’t that long over, and a lot of the bone-tired men rocking soused in front of the general store down the street through town were Southern veterans anyway, moved up there out of disappointment or on the run – from skip tracers, freed slaves, and the like. Nothing helps forgetfulness like a good move. There was one boy from Atlanta who’d gone home come peacetime to find his street dead ashes in the wet Georgia sun, and his ma and sisters ashes too. Being that Sherman’d razed the place down and good.

And so the bunting and the flags set a lot of people’s teeth on edge, and tended to be kept to a minimum. It didn’t help that most of the vaqueros were black or Mexican, either, and what with five or seven of them in from the range, buying up the general store and smiling white-toothed and celebratory in the saloons that day, the Southern boys ducked even further into the wide-mouthed glass jam jars they imbibed most days, rocked splintery little grey chairs and wore patched grey jackets and drawled too loud about how they’d stuck Yankees with the bay-o-nets, once upon a time, like squealing azure pigs.

It was still light at around eight o’clock – the time of day when the lightweight Southern boys had already passed out on account of nostalgia and the strong raw stuff was being slid down the bar counter in thick glass shots and the local working girls were figuring out between each other which of the vaqueros they were going to take – when the man folks called the New York Minute showed up in the center of town.

Some folk. Any that knew him at all knew him as Donovan. He was an Irishman from out East, and so ranked about on level with the blacks and the Mexicans. Coal-black hair he kept covered up with a battered widebrimmed leather hat set the way the vaqueros wear it, rubbed down and cracked from the sun. Shortish. Dirty as an old saint. Two shirts for the season, pants he’d wear until they were stiff. Packed muscle tucked up around his shoulders. Thick rider’s legs.

A lot of stories get told about Donovan. True or not, is a matter of opinion. Some of the things you hear in the papers, he and his buddies must have cornered a newspaperman, got him drunk, bought him off, had him write some true accounts. The writers are lightweights, usually, and they wear frock coats. Take the train in from the East, and the coach in from the station towns, and come back breathless with the frontier, shit leaking from their ears.

Reason they call him the New York Minute, anyways, is he was quick. Quicker than anybody. Road between the boxcars of a moving train. Ran on foot alongside a horse and broke it as it galloped. After a few drinks, he’d start yelling that give him one minute, he could do anything. He’d rob a bank in a minute and make it to the next state by nightfall. Bury some dynamite under a farmhouse and ride the flames to the moon. He’d call heads on a silver dollar and shoot the eagle while it flipped – this was a popular trick with the Southern boys, when they were awake. They said he’d run British guns for the Confederates during the War, pocketed the money upfront, seized his own cargo and turned it in to the Union for the reward. He’d set clockworks bombs on riverboats he owned to collect the insurance. He’d shot five cops during the Irish draft riots. He was a ganglord in the Five Points. He medicated opium to Beacon Hill ladies for their fainting spells. He stole cattle and rode them to Chicago ahead of the trains.

The stories mostly ended before they explained what he was doing in a shit-pile like Pueblo. But there were whispers about that, too. He was on the run, of course- he’d killed a man with powerful friends, or been a British spy, or been found out. The Southern boys liked to say he shot Lincoln. One of them got cut up pretty good in a barfight about it.

That night in the saloon, he had the barkeep toss him a full bottle of the local stuff. It’s homebrewed. It’s made with dust and Southern hate. It takes the varnish off the furniture next door. Spooks horses at twenty paces. He started in on it and yelled about downing it in a minute flat. Threw the empty bottle against the wall and said he was leaving for San Francisco. Last was heard of him, a trader gave out he’d been shot by that cold-blooded blue-eyed sonofabitch Billy the Kid.

There’s those that demur, though. He faked it – this is the other story – he faked the killing, and he’s in the Orient, right now, in the far East, in clean linens, surrounded in an opium cloud, lying in a steam bath, dictating his story to a credulous Englishman and having it sent to New York for publishing. That’s the other story. That’s what they believe in Pueblo – in Pueblo, where the day after he left the dust storm hit and afterwards, rattled by the ashes, that Georgia boy went and shot a pair of Mexicans standing with their horses outside the bar. Shot the backs of their heads right off. Story didn’t say whether or not they hung him.

Other Birth Myths

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