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The Last Cowboy in the East

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The Last Cowboy in the East
The Last Cowboy in the East


  Kate Dempsey

  Copyright Kate Dempsey 2011

  Read more news, views and stories on her wildly popular blog emergingwriter.blogspot.com

  This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each reader. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  It’s about three in the morning, mid February, that time of the year when it’s been raining for so long, you can’t remember what a warm afternoon ever felt like. I’m wearing my charcoal grey work suit with a skirt that skims the knee, a plain white blouse and a hand-painted scarf Shane gave me the year he left. The skin-colour tights and flat, police-issue pumps are as clammy as a guilty handshake. I'm on my fifth cup of espresso, the patch is stuck securely to my arm and the Nicorette gum snuggles in my pocket.

  The claustrophobic viewing room smells of moist clothing and stale Nescafé. There are marks on the linoleum that even extra-strength bleach can't shift. Garda Officer Tommy O’Keefe looks worse as the night draws on; his eye is blackening to a nice shade of liquorice and his lip is so swollen, he looks like an ‘after’ photo on the dangers of collagen implants. He doesn’t like me. The feeling’s mutual.

  I stare through the one-way glass. The cowboy in the interview room stares right back at me.

  He wears a battered, cowboy hat and a long, waxed coat that has seen some serious riding. Pale leather gloves hang out of his pocket, so thick, they retain the shape of his clutching hands. His boots are worthy of attention, tooled out of ostrich skin or crocodile, some kind of endangered species for sure. I tear my eyes away and back to his face. It must have been twenty hours since he shaved and the stubble is rough enough to grate Parmesan. He scratches his chin as if he can sense me watching.

  “Drunk?” I ask.

  Tommy shakes his head.

  When the cowboy has been left sitting long enough, I go inside.

  The constable at the door stands belatedly to attention. I don’t know what this uniform thinks of me and I don’t care. The cowboy rises and tips his hat, letting me see how the weather has beaten his face. His swollen eye is blackening to mirror Tommy’s and there are flecks of dried blood on his cheek.

  “Ma’am,” he says and holds out his hand.

  His knuckles too are grazed, his fingernails grimy. I shake his hand. My nails are carefully painted a glossy rose colour to match my scarf. He stands still as if he could wait that way all night, as if he often waits that way.

  I go through the preliminaries, explain the procedure, start the tape.

  “This is Detective Sergeant Harriet O’Shea,” I say slowly. The cowboy confirms his details; per the paper in front of me he was born Harold Green.

  “Folks call me ‘Hank,’” he says. He talks in a drawl as slow as treacle, straight out of a western where good cowboys wear white, bad cowboys wear black and all the Indian are savages.

  I’ve read the handbook. Psychological pressure must be brought to bear, so I keep calling him Harold. I ask him to state his address and occupation for the record.

  “Cowboy,” he says.

  “How long have you been a cowboy, Harold?”

  “All my life but the way I guess y’all mean, on the outside, it’s been two, mebbe three year.” He keeps cattle and seven horses stabled at a farm he calls “Circle T Ranch.”

  “West along,” says the uniform, before I can ask. “Beyond Lidl.”

  I'm still getting to know the Laois hinterland.

  “Where do you come from, Harold?”

  “Back east.”

  “Where east? Wexford? Dublin?” I ask, but he won’t be more specific.

  I make notes. Three minutes pass. Usually they get the urge to fill the silence but this one is comfortable saying nothing, doing nothing. I let more minutes pass. They don’t call me Hardboiled Harriet for nothing. And that’s not all they call me, so I understand. When the hairs on the back of my neck start to prickle, I ask about the previous night.

  The cowboy tells me he went into town for a drink, being “partial to a drop of whiskey.” He rode in on a horse, a black stallion called Thunder and left it parked outside Brady’s, tied to a ‘Slow’ sign. This is the first I’ve heard of a horse. When he realises this, he leaps up and is at the door in two strides. The uniform holds him back. I send Tommy to check we don’t have the nag cuffed in the car park. The cowboy is champing at the bit to go and see for himself.

  “That’s one valuable horse. Thunder’s mighty perticler who takes a hold a him. Damn near busted the horse shoe-ers leg last year.”

  I rein him in and we continue. He straddles his chair as if it were some cheap plastic saddle.

  “It was three hours past sundown,” he says. He describes, “some no good wastrel whooping it up with a lady.” Then he clams up like a clenched fist. He will say no more in front of “a lady.” I almost look around for one but he means me. He says it wouldn’t be “decent,” in case he shocks my delicate, feminine sensibilities, I suppose. Very little shocks me since my six-month stint in vice.

  I stare at him. He stares right back, not blinking. I’m getting a liking for his face and stare some more. There isn’t an ounce of fat on him. We do the staring match like kids in a playground. He’s very good. Then Tommy puts his ugly mug around the door and I can turn away and blink so the cowboy won’t see my eyes are dry.

  “The horse, it’s not in the town, ma’am,” says Tommy. “We’re sending someone out for to check the farm.”

  “How about some coffee?” I say. “Black. And make a fresh pot, lad.” Tommy hates being called ‘lad.’ I can’t help it if he still looks as fresh-faced as the day he started at Templemore police academy. He grunts and leaves.

  The cowboy pats his pockets in a familiar gesture. I nod at the “No Smoking” sign hanging at an angle from the wall and offer him a piece of smokers’ gum. When the nicotine kicks in, I try again.

  “Quit stalling and tell me about this woman, Harold,” I say. So he does.

  The cowboy was sipping a quiet Bourbon when she came in. She gave him the good eye but, although he noticed, he did nothing. Then a man staggered in, full of lager and frustration, an old flame of the woman. The wastrel “stared at her most unseemly.” She was less enthusiastic, told him to go home to his wife but he started pawing her and it wound up all physical and emotional.

  This was when the cowboy stepped in. The wastrel got all riled up and they took the fight outside to the horse and the waiting arms of Garda Officer Tommy. Poor Tommy caught a stray fist on the nose and was spitting blood for a while, doing nothing useful. The wastrel tried to bust on out, but the cowboy got a rope down off his horse and lassoed him, “roped him ‘bout halfway down Main Street,” he tells me with no hint of bragging. He bound the wastrel and gave himself up to Tommy.

  Tommy interrupts again. The horse has been found wandering by the post office. The cowboy is “mighty grateful.” We sip hot coffee and let the caffeine join the nicotine.

  “Why did you step in?” I ask.

  He clenches and unclenches his fists. I allow myself a moment to admire his muscles.

  “Weren’t nobody else there about to protect the lady’s honour. These days there’s precious few around know their duty.”

  I slam my fist on the table, part show, part genuine, and launch into a rant about vigilantism and the police being the only law in my town.

  “I don’t hold with people jumping on anyone
who breaks his own, personal value set. ‘A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.’” I sneer. I’m quite an accomplished sneerer. I practise every morning in the bathroom mirror. It doesn’t impress the cowboy. I try a different angle. “What would you do if I put you in jail? Have you got kids, a wife?” I ask, more curious than the job warrants but the cowboy’s a loner, just him, his seven horses and a dog.

  “He ain’t got a name, ma’am. I just call him ‘Dog.’”

  But even a no-name dog needs a master so I lay it on thick about his responsibilities and finally get some kind of a reaction. The muscles in his face jerk.

  I keep needling. “It’s been a long night. I’ve got better things to be doing on a Saturday morning than sitting here discussing your animals,” I say and I’m a liar. I have nowhere else to be. “I may be forced to call in animal welfare.”

  That clinches it. He sighs and takes off his hat. When he opens his mouth, I am completely thrown. The prairie drawl has vanished and he’s talking in a plummy, English accent.

  “Surely that won’t be necessary? I have co-operated with you to the best of my abilities. I really am most awfully sorry about hitting your officer. I realise I may have overstepped the mark somewhat but I must say, he did retaliate in kind.” He touches his swollen mouth. “I propose that we call it even…”

  I start to say something. I don’t know what exactly but he interrupts. “…I only want to get back to my ranch. Back to my dog, my horses, my life. I need the quiet, you see, the space. This won’t happen again, ma’am, I can assure you.” He says he will pay for the damage to the bar.

  I take a long slug of coffee and study him from a new angle.

  “Well, Hank. Tell me. What are you doing in Ireland? Why don’t you move to America? To cowboy country?”

  He tells me he went through a bad patch in England. His wife ran off, got in with the wrong crowd and ended up in the morgue. He left, intending to head to the States but something stopped him in Ireland. He’s been here years, settled, not exactly accepted but tolerated. He could sell his horses and head west still, he says, but he couldn’t leave his dog. But I think the real reason is, if he were to head to Montana, he would be one among many, but here he’s the only one. In Laois, he’s the last cowboy in the east.

  For a long time, the only sound in the room is the tape going round and round. I chew the last flavour out of my gum and hit the stop button.

  “I’m going to make your day, Hank,” I say and release him without charge. I blame Humphrey Bogart. I didn’t want to be a detective when I was growing up, I wanted to be a private dick, Philip Marlowe not Dirty Harry. Hardboiled Harriet, I suppose, is a near thing.

  I decide there and then to stop denying my influences. I will wear my trench coat and fedora with pride. I will give my charcoal skirt suits to Vincent De Paul and buy a pair of powder blue, wide legged pants with turn-ups you could cut your finger on. And unlike Philip Marlowe, I can wear the matching eye shadow.

  I give him the mean look I’ve been practising. “If you try wrecking the joint again, don’t come griping to me when you end up behind bars.”

  He puts his hat back on and is back talking with that sticky drawl.

  “Thank you kindly, ma’am. You won’t see my hide for dust. I’ll git my horse and head on home.”

  And that’s exactly what he does. He gets on his black horse, rides off past Londis and into the sunrise.


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