The cowboy throws down his rucksack and winces as he pulls off his boots. It’s been a long time since he’s needed to do either one of those things when arriving in a strange place. If only time could destroy modern civilization, instead of just his health.
“So everything worked out with the fake papers at the airport?” a voice asks from the cabin hall. “It’s been a long time since you tried using ‘em.”
The cowboy rises and stands in the doorframe and contemplates the clandestine lodging of his old friend, his partner in canyon anarchy so many years past, Doctor Jacques Fargus.
“You look like my horse just before she died. Not bad for a dead man.”
“Shut up, Doc,” the cowboy says and sits at the table to pack and light his pipe. His name is Abbey, Ed. Or that’s what he used to be called, of course. According to the government, he’s been dead since ‘89. Now, whoever gets a glimpse of him just calls him the cowboy. That’s the way he likes it. Off the grid, off the tax roll, off the system. The only way to live is to die, legally speaking, anyway.
“How the hell’d you ever wind up in a place like this, Doc? You being a nicely educated terrorist and all, I figure you’d find a more hospitable climate than some Alaskan Eskimo piss hole.”
Doc Fargus turns and places two glasses on the table and looks down at the old cowboy. Fargus is fat, always has been, but he’s even fatter now. His brain is still sharp, maniacal, plotting, still with that calm, seething anger, still the wild arsonist of academia.
“Don’t go on telling me that this is any worse than that poison southwest desert you still haunt,” Doc says, pulling the cork out of a whisky bottle and pouring into the two glasses. “At least in Alaska there’s still some corners wild that haven’t been eaten by the metastasis of votre cancer du capitalisme américain.”
“Aw hell, fat man, you know how I been gettin’ along.” The cowboy puffs on his pipe, ignoring his glass. “Still some vermin worth saving down in my canyon country.”
“Ah, yes,” the Doc smiles. “The Christian cowboy saving those poor brown souls crossing the Río Grande with nothing but a prayer in one boot and the sueño americano in the other.”
“Quit the proselytizing, Doc.” The cowboy puts down his pipe and gulps back his drink in one shot. “We both know I only came out to this tundra a yours for one last blast, so let’s just get this thing done.”
“And cheers to you too, old friend. The mythical cowboy who makes his peace with God by destroying one last piece of the government war machine that’s hidden deep in the womb of the wild earth.” Doc raises his glass, drinks, exhales. “You know you might be a cowboy, but your life is qu’est-ce que c’est?… a heroic tragedy.”
Fargus clears a space on the table and lays out maps and photos and blueprints. He describes the government compound that holds missiles, bombs, drones and countless apparatus of war and injustice and neo-colonialism. Doc is punctilious in his planning, a methodical conductor of an incendiary orchestra, a radio-detonated symphony of insurrection.
Before long the two are outside the cabin surveying the moist Alaskan wilderness. The cowboy packs his lip with tobacco and Doc wears binoculars around his neck. They plod over the squishy carpet of moss, volcanic rocks and glacial rivulets.
“Thought there’s supposed to be snow up here.”
“Oh there’s snow, don’t you worry,” Doc says. “And just wait and see the Bull Moose. Now there’s something with antlers that wouldn’t take kindly to a cowboy’s lasso.”
“The damn thing’s underbelly starts at eyelevel. Only thing bigger that walks on all fours is an elephant. Don’t get any of your ideas about trying to ride one of ‘em,” Doc says. “Besides, my dogs know how to stay clear.”
“Dogs, Doc? We’re bringing your dogs?”
“Snow dogs. How else do you think we’ll cross the two hundred miles between us and that base? It’s way out past Fairbanks.”
“That’s easy. Ella.”
Doc stops. “Aw, no. No way.”
“Course. I ain’t going charging up to no United States military base with a rucksack full a bombs riding on one a your damn dogs, Doc. Ella’s saved me more times I can count. She’s coming with me. She’ll be getting’ out here soon.”
“A horse, Ed? How are you going to even get her here? Do you have any idea how infernally stupid that is?”
“Stupid but alive, Doc.” The cowboy spits.
“Dead. That’s what you’ll be. You and your damn horse.”
“Then so be it, Doc.” The cowboy plods on.
“Quel idiot! You cowboys are all the same. Your woman leaves you and first thing you do is buy a horse, a female horse, a bestial love affair. And you name it after a singer to allude to some kind of beatnik alter ego. And whenever it’s time to risk your life, you insist on doing it while riding on the back of some poor animal so you can both die together in some Spaghetti Western blaze of–”
The roar of a single-prop airplane interrupts Doc. It passes low overhead, tilting and bobbing and going down.
“Save me the speech Doc and get a move on.”
The cowboy takes off running after the plane, all legs and arms over the mossy tundra. They arrive at a ridge overlooking a five-mile valley of stones and boulders six hundred feet below.
“Damn hire was suppose to land way the hell far from here. What the hell’s he doin’?”
“That’s the Thorofare Bar,” Doc says, panting. “It’s the rock valley that the Muldrow Glacier cut out of the Eielson Bluffs a thousand years ago.”
“Enough geologics, Doc. Give me them binoculars.”
“Must be having trouble. Lost maybe. Pilots don’t have radar out here. It’s all line-of-sight.”
“What do you mean Ella?” Doc pauses. “…On the plane, Ed? You had them fly the damn horse in on a plane?”
The plane bobs and teeters and manages a wide turn around the far side of the valley.
“He can’t land here,” Doc says. “Only one plane’s ever landed on Thorofare and that was in 1919. It was a damn miracle.”
They watch the plane sputter and dive and lift and descend for its landing. The rocks are a jagged moonscape, but the plane’s tires are big fat rings of rubber. She just might make it, the cowboy thinks to himself. He watches through the binoculars as the plane bounces, tilts, bounces again, and then tilts once more, this time the left wing catches the rocks.
The fire that erupts from the engine isn’t quite enough to engulf all the wreckage. The pilot is gone in an instant, but the cowboy watches as Ella sings her last song, the poor beautiful beast trapped and burning in the hull of the cowboy’s bad idea, his one last blast.
The two watch and wait for Ella’s agonized singing to end, for the engine’s last pop, and the silent billowing of smoke into the Alaskan wild.
In the back of his mind, Doc is thinking about how the mission’s been compromised. “Ed,” he manages to whisper, “I’m sorry.”
The cowboy wipes his eyes with the back of his hand, rises to his feet, turns his back to the burning wreckage in the distance and faces Doc.
“Tell me more about that Bull Moose, will you Doc?”
*“One Last Blast” written by Mike McLean, story by Mike McLean and Tate Bushell