Friday, November 26, 2010

Fiction: Volume 24 by Adam Hofbauer

I first encountered Cody Colt one night in Hawkins County, Indiana. I was lurking beneath my bed sheets with a flashlight propped against my shoulder and my open window letting in the smell of storm. I found Cody Colt and the Bullets in the Dust in the back corner of the new Ben Franklin store, at the bottom of an apple barrel filled with used Bibles and arithmetic primers, all covered in saw dust and water stains, missing the front cover and costing fifteen cents.

In those days, The Ben Franklin was the last building for miles in two directions, and if you stood in one corner and looked out the window in the middle of summertime it looked like you were standing in a glass booth at the centre of a limitless cloud of dust and grass. Sometimes I’d be so excited about Cody’s next adventure that I would plant myself on the curb right outside the store and read until it got too dark to see.

The Ben Franklin got new books on the second Wednesday of every month, and every month there I was, as the new stores grew up like teeth out of the gums of dust, through the days when they put down the first paved streets in Hawkins County, right there through the centre of town.

Cody was born on the back of a moving stagecoach as it was being attacked by Apache warriors. He was broken in fighting for the confederacy during the war, and when the war was lost he stole a horse and made his way west, until the land flattened out and the jaws of the sky opened wide.

Through those early books, everything was simple for Cody, and he met it all with a smile and tip of his hat, a stark “evening“ as he threw down silver and ordered his whiskey. The villains all wore black hats and had names like Mad Cat Jack and Black Heart Boone. The cattle all had a market to get to and every town had a few rough characters with hearts of gold. And somewhere out there, waiting by a window in the quiet frontier, was Cody’s girl, his true love, holding on to his promise to return.

I’m not sure when it was that things took a turn. If I had to pick a moment, it would come at the end of Volume seven, Cody Colt and the Blood on the Buzz saw, when Cody squares off against Six-gun Walt in the belly of the Montgomery Company Saw Mill. He ends up pushing Walt into an enormous oven, and you’d think that would be the end of it. Only Walt doesn’t go down. He dances through the fire, his guns melting in his hands and his body turning to bones, all the while laughing and screaming, taunting Cody to join him in the fire, until he finally turns to ash and sinks into the coal.

The books start to get names like Cody Colt and the Train of the Burning Circus and Cody Colt and the Cannibal Apache, until by volume eleven the hero’s name isn’t even in the titles anymore, just typed out real small on the bottom of the front cover, the title written out in black across the top. The villains go from being run of the mill outlaws to psychotic carnival freaks and the denizens of ghost trains borne steaming out of Mexico. Cody goes from rescuing school marms to trying to uncover the identity of a man called the Ancient Rider and seeking vengeance for the killing of his true love.

I was terrified that my parents were going to find volume twelve, Old Man Joe’s Ironclad Murdercade. That was the first mention of the Fiery Trainman, a demonic train conductor dressed all in red leather, who always seems to be one step ahead of Cody until they finally meet in volume fourteen, The Red Hot Guns of the Fiery Driver. By the end of volume fifteen, The Twelve from Hell, Cody has watched an entire Indian tribe slaughtered by the Trainman, followed the swathe of destruction of a dozen murderous bastards who are burning towns across the west, and ended up gut shot at the bottom of a ravine.

I’d realized by the second or third book that no one else in town had any idea who Cody Colt was, and to me that made him even more real, like the books about him were really secret biographies culled from some hidden stretch of western history. I felt l could have been Cody in a past life, and now he was sharing his camp fire with me, stopping on his ride through time. The books felt dangerous in my hands on my way home from the five and dime, like the kind of things my father told me not to go near, the kind of things I was warned about in church.

By volume sixteen, The Tree of Revenge, the German family who ran the Ben Franklin all knew to keep my book behind the counter until I came along with my fifteen cents first thing Wednesday afternoon. The downtown had sprung up by then, all noisy and clanking and choked with cars, and it wasn’t really possible to read on the curb anymore. I missed the dirt roads and the quiet that was so quickly being driven out by big cars and new houses.

By time of volume twenty three, The Dusty Guns of the Ancient Rider, I was fifteen and more concerned with tits than cattle runs, but Cody had grown with me, from an honour bound steer wrangler fresh out of the civil war into a bullet ridden bastard trying to save the west from the claws of a dark hearted Trainman.

The book opened with the Trainman making off with Cody’s soul, and most of it is a long chase up into the Colorado Rockies, up into the snow and the sheer cliffs. Cody chases the train higher and higher, until he gets ahead of it and camps out in a deserted mining town at the top of Colorado. There, he finally takes on the Ancient Rider, and the book ends with Cody out of bullets, freezing to death with the enormous engine of the Trainman getting closer and closer, carrying with it an army of demons and the fateful words “to be continued.”

That was the last I saw of Cody Colt. I was in the five and dime every week for the next six months, asking the clerks for my copy of volume 24, asking if he had sold it to anyone, asking if there was any word from the publisher. But it never came.

Eventually I stopped asking about the book, but I never stopped looking, dropping in every once in a while to poke through the back of the store, hoping to find volume 24 wedged under a shelf or hidden somewhere at the bottom of a dirty apple barrel. But eventually, I even stopped doing that. I moved away, and when I came back for the holiday, driving in through the centre of town, I saw a brand new red metal gas station sitting where the Ben Franklin should have been. My father told me that one day a bulldozer came, and just like that no more five and dime.

Even after I stopped re-reading the other twenty three books, I never forgot about Cody Colt. When I moved out to the city, I would look in every store I could find, until I started looking at Garage sales and used book stores, then finally Antique stores. Sometimes when I was feeling lucky I would hit a random library, until one day I walked in and asked for the card catalogue, and the librarian smiled and pointed towards the computer.

In the centre of a labyrinthine Flea Market somewhere in Ohio, surrounded by an organism of cigarette butts and all the forgotten something’s of the world, I once saw a near perfect copy of volume three, Cody Colt and the Banditios, sitting beneath glass and selling for seventy dollars. I asked the dealer if he knew anything about volume 24, but he just told me he’d never heard of Cody Colt. To him, it was just another book, just another sale. But to me, Cody was still out there, clinging to life while the snow piled up around him and the train closed in.

My children never played at being cowboys. They wanted to see space, to dance across the surface of the moon. While I had wandered the endless fields around my father’s farm, my children ran back and forth across the tiny yard behind our house, zapping each other with imaginary ray guns, gazing upwards instead of out.

My wife and I didn’t talk about the book much. There was a lot more to life than some old cowboy dying in the mountains. But every year, she would look for the book for me, and every year on my birthday she would say “Sorry honey.” I told her once about my idea for the ending. She listened, half asleep but still smiling, and when I was done told me she couldn’t think of a better way for Cody Colt to see me off.

And decades of birthdays went by until the day she said, “I just couldn’t give it to you.”

Gazing into my own image reflected back at me in my new silver watch, I said “Couldn’t give what to me.”

“I read it,” she said. “I know I hadn’t read the other 23, but I think I understand.”

It struck me. The book had been in this house. I had probably slept within a few feet of it. My wife had held it in her hands. “Where is it?” I asked, expecting her to reveal it to me and say “Happy birthday sweet-heart,” and then leave me alone with my cowboy hero.

“When I finished it, I knew what you would think of it. Your ending was so much better. So I lit a fire in our stove, you know the old wood burning one we got before we bought the electric one. I fed the pages into the fire, one by one, until only the cover was left. And then I burned that too”

I thought about all the days when I had come home to warm myself by the fire of our stove, and that I had probably rubbed my hands together in the heat straight off the ashes of volume 24. “What was it called,” I asked.

“I don’t remember,” she said.

I left my silver watch on the counter and left the house without a word. I walked four hours, down out of our little house and into town, where I stood and watched a gang of men in city works orange tilting a phone booth onto its side and lifting it into a truck. I was still angry a week later when my wife gave me the address of an enormous book warehouse up in North Dakota. She’d found it on the computer somehow, two copies of volume 24. She said “I know I can’t stop you. I just want you to remember, when you finally find that book, that I warned you.”

We could have ordered it through the mail. But I was feeling ready for a long drive to North Dakota.

The highway goes on, towards the place where my hometown once stood, then past it, out into massive skies and roads lined with barns half eaten away by the rust and termites of too many growing seasons. The farms have gotten smaller since last I drove the long highway between the towns.

The storm hits just outside of North Dakota, and I drive until the road disappears beneath the snow and my speed gauge creeps below thirty, as the lights of the car ahead of me get sucked into the white and its stupid to go any further.

I end up a in a rest area somewhere just shy of the state line. I’m half tempted to leave my car behind and walk the rest of the way. But Cody Colt would never leave his horse, so I walk hunch backed from the heat of my car to a glass shielded building with solar panels on its roof and snack machines along the walls.

The snow is so thick around the glass canopy that I can’t even see the sister rest stop across the high way. As I stand making ugly patterns against the glass with my breath, I can feel volume 24 waiting for me beyond the storm, beyond the flat slab of endless land.

My ending is so clear that it just plays out in my head without me having to think about it. I see Cody Colt dying in the mountains, the train of the dead getting closer and closer. I see the west going on forever below him. And then he sees a skull buried in the snow, bones reaching up out of the ground, and he realizes where he is. The Ancient Bastard was helping him all along, leading him here, to the bone-yard of the entire world’s dead cowboys.

I see the Fiery Trainman getting nearer, shovelling coal into the furnace of his iron horse. Cody finally finds the will to stand, and he calls upon the spirits of the west. The bones all around him grow to life, rallying behind him. There, in the frozen wastes upon the spine of America, Cody leads his army against the fading of the frontier.

I can almost see it play out right in front of the rest stop, right across the icy highway, the final flash of revolvers, the final war to save the west. I see Cody lift the fiery rider out of his flaming engine and cast him down from the highest icy peak, as the ghosts of the cowboys rage across Colorado and Nevada, ripping up cattle fences and railway track. They grab the edges of the west and stretch it out until the world is nothing but desert and prairie all governed by the unwritten code, until finally they lie down among the soil, seedlings of a new and endless frontier.

And Cody, finally, snatches his soul from the gates of hell and rides up towards heaven, where his true love waits. And he puts down his guns and his bullets turn to sand, and he finally sits down on his porch to watch the endless sunrise of the immortal new world.

If that’s the ending I can think up, I can’t imagine how amazing the real thing is going to be.

I can’t see my car anymore, but it feels like I can see the warehouse, waiting just over the horizon, past just a few more crumbling barns, just another mile or two until my journey ends. I step away from the windows and sit down on a bench beside the vending machines, and I watch as the white closes in, and everything disappears.

A pair of tiny yellow headlamps appear nearby, it seems. But then they grow bigger, closing in from down the highway, not small and nearby but distant, huge and nearing. They are, for an instant, the lights of the Fiery Rider’s train, and I feel his armies cackling as, Cody’s soul reclaimed, they finally come for me. Even knowing I don’t have one, I reach for my revolver.

The whiteout hides the shape of the train, but I can see it leaving its rails and coming down the asphalt, throwing up chunks of ice, melting the snow with the fire of the engines in its metal cavities.

I back up against the vending machines as the lights flare in the storm. The wind is blowing the snow across the parking lot faster than it can fall, driving it in gusts which make it look like the train is moving at top speed even as it slows to a stop outside my glass enclosure.

I hear the screech of brakes as the lights cut off and the train skids across the ice. A muffled sound comes through the storm and my car’s alarm blares, the tiny lights flashing on and off.

My wife. I have to get back to my wife.

I see a man climbing down from the invading vehicle, his hidden form stopping at my car before turning towards me and coming for the door. The alarm blaring, the lights flashing.

He emerges from the white blindness with a sincere “Buddy, I’m sorry.” He wears flannel and snow, and trails cold in from the storm. “The ice,” he says. “It was the ice.”

The man’s diesel engine lumber truck smashed in the back corner of my trunk, shattering the rear head light and popping the tire. I called my wife on the truck drivers’ portable phone as the storm cleared and he me out insurance information. The world emerged out of the snow, the sun having set behind the storm; moonlight as bright as day reflecting off the inches of new snow.

“It's going to be tough,” I said. “The truck driver’s only going as far as the packing plant in Denton. But I’ll make it home to you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I got my ending.”


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