Aug/Sep 1998  •   Fiction

The Ghosts of Laredo

by Stanley Jenkins

As I walked out on the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen
Wrapped in white linen as cold as the clay.

"I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy"
These words he did say as I boldly stepped by,
"Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story,
I was shot in the breast and I know I must die."
—"The Streets of Laredo (Cowboy's Lament)"

October 22, 1934. Ellen Conkle's farm outside of Clarkson, Ohio. A man is waiting to make his get-away. A man is sitting in a car waiting for it's owner to finish shucking corn on the farmhouse porch. The man has decided not to steal the car. He has decided not to steal the car because these are good people. When he's done. When the owner of the car is finished with the chores. He'll help the fugitive make his get-away—help him return to his running. He's been running for years now. This man waiting in the still car. Running his whole life. He's on the lam. He's a bandit. An outlaw. Up from the farm.

See, one day back in 1925 he'd left the King Cotton fields of the Cookson Hills out there in Oklahoma. Out there where Jesse and Frank. Where Cole and the others. Henry Starr. Out there where the desperate and the hungry lived and operated and hid out—Indian Territories—out there—where the desperate and hungry were seeking succor and refuge from the galloping and grabbing of the banks and the railroad men—and don't forget their lackeys, the laws and the Pinkertons, neither—out there seeking refuge from the ten thousand forces of carpetbagger-robber-baron capitol and greed—refuge from what would come to consciousness as Mr. Norris' Octopus—refuge from what would make the Wobblies rage and Big Bill Haywood bellow—refuge from that great fatcat beast sucking down every inch of land and every reason-to-live; sucking down all grand dreams of finally you, yourself, mattering under the sun which also rises over the common man and woman of this great Republic.

So one day back in 1925 the man had left the hills and the fields of cotton of Sallisaw, Oklahoma and lit out for St. Louis. Lit out, just like Jesse James or even Jimmie Rodgers the "Singing Brakeman", for something different than share-cropping like his Daddy did before him; for the promise of city lights and silk shirts and selling bootleg whiskey. Lit out for walking down the street with head held high and shoulders not slumped even when it's real cold—'cause it hasn't always been like that, has it Pretty Boy?—hasn't always been that a proud-but-poor boy, like yourself—a back-country bootlegging boy, like yourself—coming into town maybe once every two months—could hold his head up high on such small town streets like those of Sallisaw—(and now, you're going back in time, Pretty Boy, and now it's Christmastime, and you're just a kid again, and your name is Charles Arthur Floyd, but every buddy calls you Choc because you are fond of choc beer even now at this age—and you're out buying presents for the family and all the would-be city-slicker-swells of Sallisaw, these small-town sophisticates, have store-bought clothes and coats—and you don't—and so you're cold and humiliated and your older brother even fought over there in the War to End All Wars and saw Gay Paree—and still they laugh and sneer as you pass by). When you were a kid. Greenhorn. Farmboy. Lit out, brother. Just lit out, didn't you, Pretty Boy? You'll show them someday. Show yourself someday. Make a name for yourself in America, Pretty Boy. Someday.

And he's been running ever since. And now he's waiting in the car for it's owner to finish shucking corn and then to give him a ride 'cause he'd cracked up his wheels in an unmoored and crazy and bloody chase and his partner was already taken if not yet dead. A ride elsewhere. Not even St. Louis. Doesn't even have to be Shy-town. Just elsewhere. Get me the fuck outta here. One more ride, pretty as you please, out of the jaws of the inevitable—until some other day—just not today, please—until some other day, you meet your Maker and a bullet in the back and stop your running forever. Man, he's just waiting. He's just waiting.

If you'll gather 'round me, children,
A story I will tell,
About Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw,
Oklahoma knew him well.
—Woody Guthrie, "Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd"

But now its over sixty years later and I don't know why this is happening to me. To me in particular. Don't know why I see this man. Why over sixty years later I see this man waiting to make his one last great dash in time. I see him. Sitting there in that car just waiting until the chores get done before he can find some safety. Some cover. 'Cause chores always come first, don't you know. "Cause even the need to not be caught out in the open when the G-men have named you Public Enemy Number One; and Melvin Purvis himself, is on your trail; and Dillinger has already gone down in an alley next to the Biograph Theater in Chicago; and Bonnie and Clyde too, caught somewhere in an ambush down south—(and later—though you won't know it, Pretty Boy, because you're dead, the car Bonnie and Clyde were killed in would draw even more crowds then the car President Kennedy—that Catholic, that Irishman in the land of Know-Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan—even more than that car that President Kennedy was riding in when they got him too—(though I think that this latter gunning down might be a little different than the one, or ones, we are presently contemplating from our vantage point in a room in New York City many years and miles and cultures away from these hard-mouthed midwesterner killers of the Dust Bowl years))—but anyway to get back to what we were saying—chores always come first in God's green world even when the jig is up and the G-men are closing in and you are hot and got to move fast—and brother, that ain't no lie.

But like I say, I see this man in the car. And its over sixty years later. And I see him quite often—like a ghost that just don't know that it's not real anymore. And he's still waiting. Like a ghost that don't know that it can go home—and doesn't even know that it's not my ghost—not me that it must be haunting—because I am an educated man and do not even believe in ghosts—and besides don't have the words to explain just how it is that this man actually could finally quit waiting and go on to his rest. No sir. Don't have the words because America has already forgotten him and his kind and his people and without memory there is nothing left in America but running and waiting and haunting. In this land of Horatio Alger. In this America. And so we become them. Forever. Cops and Robbers alike. Ghosts.

So what I'm saying is I have no idea just what the deal is here. But I see this man a lot. And I think about the tyranny of rhythms. Corn gotta be shucked. Think about the tyranny of earth's deep cycles. You ain't never gonna beat the rhythm of the land. (So beat the drum slowly.) And even I know that out here in New York City. (And play the fife lowly.) And when crops gotta come in. And when the corn gotta be shucked. Well, it don't matter if you're Pretty Boy Floyd and trying to make one more spectacular escape. Don't matter nohow. Chores gotta get done.

And so the man is waiting. And the man has decided not to steal the car because these are good people. People like us. Just folks.

"Go gather around you a crowd of young cowboys,
And tell them the story of this, my sad fate;
Tell one and the other before they go further
To stop their wild roving before 'tis too late."

"Then beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Beat the Dead March as you carry me along,
We all love our cowboys so young and so handsome,
We all love our cowboys although they've done wrong."

'Cause we all want to ride, don't we? We all still, somehow, want to make a name for ourselves in America. And it is a truesure wonderment what we will do just to see ourselves on TV. And yeah. Me, myself—I, who should know better on account of my good education—I, too, still want to find that last great claim in the Klondike, that last Lost Mine in Colorado, that Great Rock Candy Mountain. I, too want to light out for to find what the whole shebang always seems to be promising. And never quite fulfilling.

And I, too, want to find someone to blame—and am not a violent man, but can quite easily imagine myself gunning down Leviathan in broad daylight and riding for the hills with great glee and gasps of gratitude.

And yeah. That too. Becoming one more ghost. Becoming one more outlaw. One more fugitive. One more Cain-kid on the outlaw trail—always waiting to make my get-away. Always trapped in history. In Gravity. Always being crushed under the heel of the tyranny of cycles. Of rhythms. Of laws I cannot change.

"Oh, beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Play the Dead March as you carry me along,
Take me to the green valley and lay the sod o'er me
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong."

And you, too, Dear Reader, maybe you, too, have longed for the purity of merely going from point A to point B; of actually getting to where you are going—or actually getting anywhere at all—'stead of always returning to where you have always been. Maybe you too have longed to shatter orbits and careen in straight lines. Pretty Boy. He wanted to be elsewhere. Wanted to rise up and over. Wanted to shake the cotton dust from his overhauls and maybe dance with a pretty lady without calluses on her pretty little pink hands. Kill the curse. Kill the curse. And return to some original St. Louis, if not Eden.

Yeah, well.....

The fatcats got their wants too. And they got guns. And the FBI.


October 22, 1934. Ellen Conkle's farm outside of Clarkson, Ohio. A man is waiting to make his get-away. And he is sitting in a car waiting to return to running. But now there are cars coming from all over the place and their ain't no time for waiting. Ain't no time for chores. And the man takes off running. And he is running across the field, 'cause they're sworn to take him dead or alive, but everybody knows they'd just as soon bring him in cold, bring him in stiff, bring him in dead. And so it's just one last sprint. One last straight line across the field. One last attempt to shatter orbits. One last attempt to reach the virgin timber on the other side of the fields, the other side of the curse, the other side of the Fall. But there is a sharp crack now and there is a falling and the man is falling—forever falling—shot in the back—trapped pointblank in the falling of history—the plowing under of history—the returning to the same old story of history—the cycle of forgetting and returning—forgetting and returning to the dust from which we came—returning and forgetting and always waiting to return to running.

They are standing over the man. The laws. The Law. They are standing over the man with Winchester rifles. "Are you "Pretty Boy?" the G-man asks.

"I'm Charles Arthur Floyd," he says.

"Yeah, but you're 'Pretty Boy' right?"

"I'm Charles Arthur....."

"That's what I'm saying, you're 'Pretty Boy'...."

And then he's dead. A man without his name. A man who never made it. A man condemned to become a ghost. A man who never made it to the virgin timber across the field—though he made it to Public Enemy Number One. A man who must haunt all us sad Americans who have no memory—who cannot give peace or rest—because we cannot remember—because we are stranded in the forever present and so seem to have become the pawn of the past—all us never-say-die Americans—who must forever refuse to bury the dead—because, in the end, it is we, the living, who haunt the dead, who rudely refuse them rest—in our repeating of their refusals of deeper inevitables—in our forgetting—in our refusal to hear the one true lesson of the dead—it is we who keep them from their last great escape—which afterall, just might be, to surrender to the inevitability of deeper cycles. The inevitability of deeper rhythms. Deeper even than the inevitability of chores—or the inevitability of injustice. And then to fall. And in falling in such inevitables, to rise again—like the seed buried in the earth and bursting forth into gracious skies. A candle extinguished—and so forever lit. At last.

And to finally and definitively not be there. But here.

Dear Reader.

"Then swing your rope slowly, and rattle your spurs lowly,
And give a wild whoop as you carry me along,
And in the grave throw me and roll the sod o'er me
For I'm a young cowboy and I know I've done wrong."

"Oh muffle your drums, then play your fifes merrily
Play the Dead March as you go along
And fire your guns right over my coffin,
There goes an unfortunate boy to his home."