“The Fall of the Cowboy,” oil on canvas, by Frederic Remington, 1895.

by Daniel Uncapher
The Duelist

He arrived from the East with plenty to lose. Boomtown rascals took a shine to him real quick, coolly eyed.

Boomtown city, cowboy country, shod-free; just a corral, a dry store, a sad saloon, a blacksmith, a hotel, old Rath & Wright’s buffalo trading post. They call it Pocatello; doesn’t take an educated man to guess.

The duelist was an educated man who knew just what to do with it. Faro player, easy money, death-wish-spot of Chopin late at night. They said he ran with Kit Carson in the Plains Apache days, seen a Comanche sun dance, blessed by a Kiowa medicine man and now he’s immune to gunfire. Other tales of derring-do. No, that can’t be true, someone said. He’s a cider drinker. Say he has land in the Ohio River Valley, maybe that’s where his family is. Lacedemonians, they called them.

He showed up in Pocatello leading a Conestoga wagon stocked full of apple saplings and potted berry bushes, funny set of clothes, no holster, reading a book as he came. Named his one goat Domino and made a scene of it.

Handsome Kate knew just what to do with him and she got right to it. She sat down beside him at the card table. Where are you from? Pushpaw, he said, Virginia stock. A southern man? No, that’s my father. They played a game of Faro. Introduce yourself, was said. Someone in the background said, here she goes again, winked, and the player-piano broke it on down. Stephen Foster this time.

So you’re a sporting man, she said. I shall take no chances then. He allowed himself a steady gaze of her. She had those big eyes, cow-eyed they used to call them, and a long, narrow, over-exposed clavicle. He noticed it sorely. What was she doing with that clavicle there, he thought. There she goes again with it. Picture-pretty and weak as hell. All his cards on the table: I was born with brittle bones, he said. That’s why I sling guns.

But you aren’t slinging one, she said. Temper keeled; he pushed his chair back under a wall of mounted buffalo hides. Harder thinking got him this far, he thought; live and die by the distance between danger and weapon, action and thought. He hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep in months. He had to fence his wagon in from his own animals every night to protect the green, leafy trees. The Indians didn’t bother him because trees carry the sacred spirit in them and he had many trees, but he spooked at their silhouettes on the cool horizon just the same. When he finally did sleep he would wake up hours later with the devil crouching on his chest, totally paralyzed. Those were the nights that convinced him of evil and helped turn him to God. He drank early-morning applejack to clear his head, shake the spirits on down. Bought it straight from the laborers; simply people, different world.

I had to sell them a long time ago to make it this far, he said.

Handsome Kate laughed. Where do you come up with this stuff? You’re a madcap, she said. That’s just right, said the stranger. I love you, Kate, he said. He shouldn’t have said it. His face went red.

She laughed and laughed. What’re you doing with all those plants in your wagon?

That’s my fortune, he said. I’m getting out of this life altogether now. Going to make my fortune, you’ll see. That’s a million-dollar wagon. Worth more than money. I’ll make an economy. I’ll make a state of it.

He said too much and immediately regretted it. Rookie mistake, rightfully so. Handsome’s shadow crew of miscreants and cattle rustlers made their move on her signal, hitching up that hefty conestoga and rustling it clear out of town, a goat named Domino in tow. Broad daylight, right under his nose. By the time he stumbled outside and discovered the robbery he was whiskey drunk. Handsome Kate roped his own horse from under him and rode off with her gang. She had plans of her known.

Kate, too, was an Easterner. Panhandle people, first generation Polish. Her will to live was too great. She tried to option her story to the motion pictures but they had no interest in a woman gunfighter with the will to survive. A blaze of glory was all the style back then. Real name-for-yourself place, a time when railroads went to war with private armies and murder-for-hires made bunco games of the law. Yes, she had a plan of her own this time.

If you want your plants, Kate called over her shoulder as she vanished in a cloud of red dust, you’ll find them in the shade of the three oaks.

She doesn’t understand, he said. I have to stop her.

He staggered into Blind Red’s and traded his watch and bible for a six-shooter. Red told the boys at the Saloon that there was something wrong with his voice, like his hands weren’t shaking enough. Darwin the Duke said he could feel the disturbance in his arthritis and bought a round for everyone. It was the Faro game that did it, someone said. Bad blood, that game. No, he told her he loved her. Nothing doing with that Handsome Kate,  just talk, is all. God’s country, amen.

He walked alone to the oak grove and found Handsome Kate with her hands all over his plants. I’m here for my property, madam, he said. Her crew of no-good lousy sons-of-liars encircled him, but kept their weapons holstered. You’ll find we do things by the book out here, she said; you keep that metal tit cold birdie and no gets jumped. That’s a long way to levy a threat, he said.

It didn’t need to go like this. The oak trees towered overhead. Domino nowhere to be seen. You’re making a mistake, he said. It didn’t matter how he put it. He stepped forward. I’ll do whatever I have to do, he said. I’ll do whatever it takes; if a man don’t go his own way he’s got nothing.

Handsome Kate faced him down at ten paces. Witnesses present, she said; rules of the gun, by the book. I understand, he said. First one to draw couldn’t claim self-defense in the eyes of the law. The instant their palms slicked their guns they were brandishing, breaking the rules. He had to be careful. She had every advantage. He’d heard she was fast. She knew the law of the land. She expected him to draw first. Or maybe she was just pretending.

He stepped to the left to maintain a line of sight to her gun, forcing her to do the same. The circle slowly leftwards begun. Eyes on their fingers, the gun, the space between funger and gun, eye to eye, eye on the mongrels over his shoulder. He’s lost in thought. We’ll miss, she intends to miss, it’s a matter of honor amongst thieves, a test. If I killed her then her thieves would tear to me pieces anyway. No-win hand, he thought, can’t stop until it’s over. Come on, told timer. Don’t you know how to dance?

Easy does it, Easy Dan. Measured breathing. All those years of book-learning—gone to waste. All those vain pursuits. Like plinking apples back East. Precious few moments of splendor—brittle bones, way of the gun like his grandfather. Came up slow, took his time with it. Not her; hair-trigger Kate, they called her, she was born with it. Swamp mistress, pirate queen, no doubt hard-knock. He couldn’t bring himself to harm a fellow hard-knock.

Goad her out, he told himself. Shoot to disarm. Aim for the leg. That’s not how grandfather taught me, he thought, but that’ll have to do. So he goaded her on. Come on sweet sister, he said. Honk that goose with all the trimmings. I’m all hands today. Slick that grip and do me justice. Come on, have at it, you dirty crooked apple thief!

She baited him back. Cheap shots, called him skinny, made fun of his nose. He almost tripped on a root and she granted a smile. Imagine that, the old badger falling over. This fellow’s a mess, she thought; someone should put a stop to it. You’re a phony, she said to him, doubling down. You’re a chicken phony, hardly half a man. I know you never ran with Kit Carson. What’s that saying? A man don’t go his way he’s nothing?

It was too much for him. He palmed his piece and started to draw with key disbelief in his eyes. She was the love of his life, he decided, blinking one last time; she waited until his gun was practically pointing at her, the decision so fixed in motion that there could be no doubt before a reasonable jury of her peers who had been the agressor here, and then with no regret or sympathy she outdrew him, and she put him down.

Center gravity: six holes deep in the chest. He dropped like a bundle of sticks, and all of the plants died.

The Developer

They buried Easy Dan under the oak trees and transferred out of Pocatello as soon as the trial cleared. For a while no one took advantage of the shady grove except cattle, and the locals told ghost stories about the people Handsome Kate had killed out there. The railroad came to town and Pocatello grew, and the cattle had to range farther into the hills. A lucky rancher won the deed to a parcel of land stretching from Rath & Wright’s to the near shore of the Bark River over a game of Hold-Em, and he divided the land into smaller lots to sell to the railroad men and their families. A goat farmer moved in and build one moderately-sized home under the oak trees. He gave his daughter a goat named Hold-Em and his daughter doted on the goat every day until she overfed him, and his stomach turned over, and he died. Pocatello grew and neighbors appeared where before there were sandhills and dirt burrows. The mischief-making crow cawed from the safety of her igneous rock and the peaceful grove, now a homestead, turned slowly, and then all at once, into a neighborhood; by the time the daughter inherited the estate it had become a full-fledged township. They turned down an offer from Pocatello and decided to incorporate themselves as Three Oaks, billed as a traditional community with frontier values. She went to community school in Pocatello to better herself and earned a 2-year degree in real estate. First councilman of the board. There was a brief window when it seemed as if everything was going to work out—then the Depression came, and even Pocatello stopped growing. Dust clouds like no one had ever seen. Lightning struck an oak tree and they cut it down in the morning. The residents joined eachother in prayer and pushed for unity. Prosperity theology. Initially she prayed in the linear Protestant fashion: Lord, she said, I need help. Then she memorized a library of rote invocations in the meditative Catholic manner. Then, by way of a book from China, she adopted the Eastern approach, striking out at the intangibles that lay beyond her infinite needs and wants. She reasoned thus: if you take it for granted that you’re really talking to the Lord, then asking for things that benefit you directly are sinfully self-interested, so you must round-about the matter and ask only for that which might benefit others, the people you love and then, by logical extension, the people that you don’t love; then you’ve internalized the suffering the world and moved yourself closer to the Lord. She found the prospect of actually dialoguing directly with God to be a fearsome responsibility and became quite neurotic. You can’t leave anyone out, she realized, and the list of suffering and grievance she had to recall every night became interminably long and detailed like the British coast, as though thinking in fractals; so you must break it off and be done with it, or give your life up to God altogether. That was her final explanation. She broke the matter off at Three Oaks; it was her legacy, she owned it. In a moment of inspiration she parceled the estate into smaller residential units and sold them off to nice-meaning people with good money. She organized the community around a series of commercial lots she intended to sell first to a gas station, with attendant space for a restaurant and, at some point in the near future, Three Oaks’ very own department store. That was the hope at the time. Three Oaks sent seven of its own off to Europe to fight Nazis. After the war an arms industrialist took an interest in Pocatello and the city grew, and the Aldermen made a series of overtures to Three Oaks on the subject of incorporation. Expansion in every direction was the game at the time. All of the residents met at the school and voiced their opinions. They made fine arguments either way, the Baptists on one side of the gymnasium and the Methodists on the other. Ultimately they elected on holding out. It was a risky decision and it didn’t pay off. They became a suburb. The best they would get was a McDonald’s. Urban planners continued to divide and subdivide in regular grids. They found bones. The manufactory closed down and the temperature rose. Crime rates increased and people moved out, houses went to rot. The establishment blasted a route through the middle of town and put up a highway, which was moved several years later but retained its name, Three Oak Road, although the last two oaks had been long paved over for a parking lot, exit left at long last for a Subway. She died without much of a notice and the highway became a state road and was redesignated SR-25. The developers offered a cash deal for the remaining lots and no one put up much of a fight. Pocatello grew and finally incorporated what remained of the town. The Aldermen sold a plot to Wal-Mart and an enterpreneur bought a nearby field and built a 248-unit apartment complex with an outdoor pool (locked and fenced, shocked once a week), closed-circuit security and complimentary private carpet cleaning called Beanland Farms. A corporate investor bought it two years later and renamed it Three Oaks Apartment Suites and Condiminiums, although nobody knew where the name came from.

The Dog Thief

I moved into the corner unit at 1018 Three Oaks.

The institution had finally determined that I was ready for a so-called fresh start. Even after all that I’d been through I considered myself something of a country mouse. I was expected to fully adjust.

The only habit I carried over from my criminal past, my time in the underground, was my love of odd hours and interrupted sleeping patterns, so for the most part I kept to myself. I was new to that part of the country and the feeling of being jetlagged never wore off. I was struggling to understand the lay of the land, to so speak, and make a full reading of it.

There were simple and often unexpected pleasures. I felt in general that my luck had turned and the world was no longer against me. Every Sunday a copy of the Pocatello Times arrived outside my door. No address label. The first day I kicked it aside, but when it was still there the next morning I kicked it in, picked it up, put it on the table. Pulled off its blue sleeve to pick up after my dog with. Sat down with a glass of cold milk and opened the paper, read the headline news: herd culling, love shortage, patronization in government. Read the facts, Mark Trail, good comics, and then at the end of the week I recycled it.

I was placed for work in the education system. I taught night school. I was equipped with a state pedagogy so I didn’t have to think for myself, which was a tremendous relief.  The only thing I wanted to do at the time was do right by the world. I attended the meetings at their regular times no matter how disrupted my sleeping habits became, and as a rule I arrived exactly seventeen minutes early. I tried to be liked and to like others in return. It was a generous arrangement on both parties’ behalf. I brought books and candy as gifts for the people I considered to need them most. Afterwards I went back to Three Oaks and read the paper.

I assumed it was the previous tenant’s subscription running out. I didn’t think much about it. Work continued as usual. I got better at teaching. I took less of an interest in it as I got better. The pedagogical model of the state was obviously and deeply flawed, but I refused to be pulled into the mistake of forming my own pedagogy in response. I was not going to live up to those standards. I tried to find a date. No one wanted to go out with me. I didn’t understand how other people did it. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t believe it was possible. I would believe it was all a trick of the movies. But it’s true that other people fall in love with other people. I’ve seen it myself. Even the newspaper sometimes mentions the possibility.

The Canadian who lives down the hall came to check in on me. I offered her a tall glass of whole milk and the paper. It comes every week, I explained. I don’t know why. You should call them and cancel it, she said. I told her that I thought it must be the previous tenant’s service. She asked me how night classes were going. I told her we were reading Beckett. Light fare, she said. She told me to take care of myself. I couldn’t remember her name for the life of me. She left and I heard her talking to the woman upstairs. The woman upstairs is an enigma. She is not Canadian. She doesn’t seem to like me. I have lied to her before, about the smell. I patted my butt and told her it was intestinal problems. After that I closed the blinds and kept the door locked. I don’t think that I’m paranoid, it’s just a matter of fact that its safer that way. Takes a thief to know one. I pinned interesting images on my walls. A graffiti artist painted the words, “Image and text—some people like it.” I thought that was just delightful, and I took a picture on my phone. I could see the words “some people” from the narrow window in the bathroom. Some people like things, I often thought. Some people try to do right in the world. I spent a lot of time imagining who these people could be. It was a strain for me. I was never very creative. I’d always preferred consumption anyway. I made the night class watch The Outsiders again. I practiced Spanish with Esperanza, or should I say on, I was not scrupulous.

The newspapers piled up and I kicked them inside when I couldn’t stand it any longer. I didn’t even want the things. I had nothing to do with them anymore. But they were coming, and I couldn’t just throw them away without reading them, so I laid them out on my table and read. Mark Trail was the prize at the end of the puzzle. I was always ready for more Mark Trail, always hungry for more of it. But other than that I wanted nothing to do with the newspapers.

I fell unwell again. That is the word that I use when I’m mentally sick. Otherwise I just say I was sick. I was unwell. It had occurred to me that I could break my own dishes of my own volition and I broke one. It wasn’t appropriate behavior, I see that now. In my bedroom I noticed the fragile jar of frosted glass and it occurred to me I could smash it. One night in college my roommate destroyed every object in his narrow room with his bare hands. He had a drinking problem. I was amazed. The chairs were reduced to splinters and every piece of fabric torn to shreds. I’d forgotten about that entirely until the moment I remembered it, and that was when it occurred to me why he might have done such a thing. The walls are thick here but they’re not that thick. I assumed they were listening to my every move so I worked quietly. I must repeat that I was feeling unwell. This was not to say appropriate behavior. I was having recurring dreams when I slept, a small city with an Alpine mountain outside it. A solitary Alpine mountain, with a bus that went straight to the top on the starriest and most snowy of nights.

There was also a ghoul, or some sort of haunt, an evil presence, and it was always hot on my heels in all my dreams. Perhaps it was a guardian spirit, always trying to wake me up in time to feed my ulcer, or take a dose of pills, or eat an aspirin and make it to a meeting, or to night class. It was a dark and terrifying ghost and extremely persistent. I slept as little as possible, and the rest of my problems got worse.

The Canadian came and checked in on me. Fortunately for me I’d just showered and was a burning a lily-scented candle, there was no evidence of wrong-doing or filth. She asked me how I was. I’m well, I said. I took great care to say that I was well, and not good; Superman does good, they said, and I hadn’t earned that yet. You sure are a recluse aren’t you, she said. I smiled (the trick to smiling convincingly was in the expression of the eyes). You were talking in your sleep earlier, she said. I was surprised by the news. My old cell mate had made similar reports, but I’d thought that was behind me. These walls are thin, I said. I think you were really upset about something, she said. You were pretty loud, the walls are actually solid concrete. Is that why you came? I didn’t mean to get defensive. The truth is I’m sick, I said. Stomach virus. After that she left me alone.

Mine was a principle of non-action. The fewer words I spoke, the less likely the chance that I said the wrong thing. That was the trick that I stuck with. People expect least of you when you’re sick, it’s always a valid excuse. Those who employ sickness thus are said to be unwell in the head. That was the guiding principle in my life at the time. I kept to myself and, when the opportunity made itself irreversibly present, I sat down at my kitchen table and read the newspaper. I got drunk in my chair and fell asleep. I slept for an indefinite number of hours. It was not the day I expected it to be when I woke up. There were stars out, whenever it was, and the room smelled like electrical fire. I knocked over the bottles at my feet and felt my way for the kitchen, where I got another drink. Time was passing relatively quickly now. I could feel myself getting better by the moment. I counted my breaths and regained composure.

I heard the Canadian woman outside, but she didn’t come to my door. Instead she entered into dialogue with another voice, the woman who lives upstairs. I walked to the door and listened. The woman upstairs was furious. And apparently they’ve been delivering my newspapers downstairs this whole time, and he’s just been helping himself, she said, her words high and clear.

I backed away from the door in terror. It was impossible! He’s just been helping himself, she said. Not I! I didn’t even want the newspapers! I kicked them at my door for a bit. I claim no benefit—no motive!

Doesn’t matter—I’m a thief now, I thought. I was a thief, and a bad neighbor on top. Why didn’t I think to check them for an address label? No—I’d done just that, I must’ve. Well, what was I supposed to do? Doesn’t matter. I’m a thief. I’m outside of the law now, and I’ve been outside of the law this whole time. And anyway, I did get some pleasure out of the crime; I read that Mark Trail. Mark Trail is delightful.

I guess it’s nothing. In the end, as always, I got what I deserved.


Daniel Uncapher is a writer from Water Valley, Mississippi whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, Baltimore Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, HCE Review, and others. He holds an MFA from Notre Dame, where he won the 2018 Sparks Prize.