The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat sleeps late in Boise City

The town was Boise City, Oklahoma; the place on the panhandle where a hole might be to hang up the frying pan, should Oklahoma prove really to be a frying pan, and should you ever want to hang it. From what the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat had seen of Oklahoma, hanging it up might be best you could do with it. From what he had seen of Boise City, a hole might be the best way to describe it. Since few people lived there and few would ever want to live there, he reasoned, few would have died there. It would be delightfully ghost free.

He could not have been more wrong.

The hole that was Boise City had an optimistically grand courthouse, a busy truck stop, a tired motel surrounded by eighteen-wheelers, and every store but a liquor store boarded up. There were a few neglected houses, and dust; lots of dust, as if God’s vacuum cleaner bag had busted and He said to hell with it. There was so much dust that Boise City was rich in dust, holding on to its wealth till the market turned. So much dust that three allergists, a Kleenex franchise, and a Visine outlet could move into the boarded up stores and make a go of it. The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat looked at all the dust and thought only one thing. It would be a good place to get a cold beer.

The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat couldn’t find a bar in Boise City, but following every third pickup truck would take him to the liquor store. He bought the cheapest beer they had, favoring quantity over quality, and rented a room at the motel. In addition to the trucks, in front of every second door was a pair of cowboy boots, sent out to air and collect the Boise City dust.

Our hero’s night at Boise City was unremarkable, but he spent the morning in a fitful, headachy sleep as the big rigs began to roll. It was early afternoon when he found that something about Boise City had changed. Something uncanny. Something creepy, surreal, and unsettling. He stepped out of the room hatless, and looked around before he could identify it. The view had been swept of trucks, the cowboy boots gone, and the sky was as bright and as beautiful as you’re apt to get in the panhandle. But that wasn’t it. There was something else powerful and haunting.

Then he figured it out. The wind wasn’t blowing. He was in the Great Plains and the wind had stopped.

The wind in that part of the world is usually a constant soundtrack, a talkative companion with something to say about everything. So much so, that you stop listening; but then, when the companion is gone, you feel utterly alone, disoriented, and forsaken.

You see, without the wind to comfort you, the land in those parts is too big, too flat, too empty, positively claustrophobic in its immensity. You’re lost without the wind.

He turned to flee back to his room to turn the air conditioner on, although it was not hot, just so he could feel and hear some kind of wind.

A man in overalls was sitting in a plastic chair outside his door.

“You ain’t one of them suitcase farmers? Are ya?” said the man, who could talk without ever moving his lips.

“I don’t own a suitcase,” said Weather Beaten Man without his Cowboy Hat. It was true. He kept his clothes in a duffle.

“Y’a nester?”

“I guess so,” he answered, not understanding what the man said, but knowing how to win his approval.

“Then ya wanted at the rabbit drive.”

And that was that. He was going to the rabbit drive. Whatever that was.

The Weather Beaten Man went back into his room and no sooner had he emerged with his Cowboy Hat than the scene was filled with laconic populace, all walking with sticks or metal pots in their hands, towards a distant spot on the horizon. Men, women, and children, none had much to say, but he could see restrained joy in their eyes. They were the type to never utter two syllables when one would do. Save your breath, you might need it later, they might’ve said, had they ever spoken. Nonetheless, there was something sparkling and optimistic about their appearance, as if they thought today would be a good day. They evidently hadn’t had many good days, so they couldn’t commit themselves fully to it. It must’ve been dangerous to hope too much, but they couldn’t help hoping.

He soon learned that there was a lot to like about the day Boise City was having. There was the weather, for one thing, and the rich hue of blue that was the sky, for another. They’d been up early, throwing open the doors and windows, hauling out their furniture, and hanging up their sheets to air them out. Many had their church clothes on, because it was Sunday, and came direct from praying for and receiving assurance of their deliverance. Then, there was the rabbit drive. More like a party than anything else. The perfect way to spend a perfect Sunday afternoon.

“We do this ever’ Sunday,” said one rabbit driver. “‘Prized I ain’t seen ya.”

The crowd was well drilling in rabbit driving. When they’d walked clear out of town, they spread to spitting distance from one another, without so much as a word or a shouted direction from anyone. Far off, cars and pickup trucks were parked and country people were climbing out of them. The whole county seemed to have turned out, forming an immense circle, which, fully assembled, might have enclosed a thousand acres.

The people all began to walk to the center, banging pots and pans together and beating the ground with the sticks. The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat still had not gotten the hang of rabbit driving when a jack rabbit darted right by him, escaping the circle. His companions looked annoyed. Someone may have said, we got a city boy here. Some boys broke ranks and tracked down the rabbit, clubbing it to death when they found it. That’s when the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat understood the purpose and felt the horror of rabbit driving.

As they walked on and the circle contracted, the field ahead seemed to be in motion. A field of rabbits, like a herd of sheep, began to stir. The Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat looked to the crowd for any with mercy, pity, or compassion; but they were of one mind, of murder and extermination of rabbits.

“They eat what’s left of the crops,” said a rabbit driver, but the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat couldn’t find any crops but dust anywhere to save.

At last the circle compressed the herd into a tight mass. Three or four deep, by this time, the people yelled, swung their sticks, and banged pots to keep the rabbits enclosed. Teenage boys stepped into the circle and began to beat rabbits with their clubs. The animals screamed, screamed like babies screaming for their mommas, screamed like babies getting beaten by sticks.

It was not hard to imagine what might have gone through the mind of the rabbits, faced with this implacable front of humanity advancing towards them. Had there been survivors of previous rabbit drives who lived to tell the tale of annihilation and woe? Or was there something about a man with a stick, or a woman banging a boiling pot that communicated instinctively to their long ears a terror from which to run? Imagine the horror with which they saw their companions clubbed to death and the dread with which they regarded the closing circle.

“T’ain’t right doin’ this’en a Sunday,” said someone with the closet thing to sympathy. “T’ain’t right on the Lord’s Day. T’ain’t right at all.”

No one had looked up for a long time. They were all intent upon rabbits. Then one man straightened his back and saw the Lord’s judgement. A black cloud of dust had assembled to the north and was preparing a drive of its own.

The first to see it shouted, “Look at that! It’s gunna be a booger!” One by one, everyone stopped to study the cloud. It was as big as a mountain range, as ominous as Armageddon, as dark as three midnights cooped in a barrel. It hung low, for a cloud, hugging the earth, rolling on itself from the top, down.

They only looked for a moment before the crowd dropped their sticks and even their pots and pans. They grabbed their children and ran. The rabbits, released from the circle, ran with them, stride for stride, right at their feet. Before the storm caught up with them, the sky darkened with flocks of fleeing birds. The people were screaming, just as the rabbits had been screaming a moment before. One family reached their truck. They sped away, but the driver couldn’t see where he was going and overturned in a ditch.

It was not hard to imagine what might have gone through the minds of the the people of Boise City, faced with this implacable front of dust advancing towards them. Had there been survivors of previous dust storms who lived to tell the tale of annihilation and woe? Or was there something about a black cloud as big as a mountain that communicated instinctively a terror from which to run? Imagine the horror with which they saw their companions overcome by suffocation and the dread with which they regarded the advancing storm.

One woman, running ahead of the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat, carrying her child, stumbled and fell. Our hero reached down to help them up. When they touched, a static shock, caused by the storm, knocked him down, as well.

In the time it took for the Weather Beaten Man with a Cowboy Hat to recover, the storm was upon him. Our hero rose to his feet against a sixty-mile-an-hour gale. The dust, as fine as powder, as strong as a firehose, pushed him onward and scoured his skin. The harder he ran, the harder he breathed and the harder it was to breath till he weakened, stumbled, and fell again.

The dust quickly collected in the lee of the Weather Beaten Man. His cowboy hat blew on ahead without him. As dust began to fill his ears, the sound of the wind disappeared again. He would die there and be buried under a mountain of dust, utterly alone, disoriented, and forsaken.

Or so it seemed until the maid attempted to enter his motel room to clean it and woke him up. It took him a long time to get his bearings and to determine which of the two worlds he inhabited was real and which was imagined.

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S. Harry Zade

Writing a blog keeps me alive.