The Cowboy Thinks He’s Better Than God – John McCaine

The mayor saw how infertile we were. He organized a chain of wagons. We were to kidnap many, many children.

The rival town was known for smithing, so everywhere it smelled like metal. Our spurs sounded like rain in their concrete streets.

He built the wagons by hand. He slammed them together and ordered many cowboys inside them. He laid their insides with lambs wool closed the wheels smooth with sap. We moved in silence. If anyone talked, the mayor took his thick fingers and shushed them.

We took the children while they were sleeping, and slid them out like dolls. How did we keep them sleepy? With peaches the mayor had grown himself.

The mayor was famous for his sleeping peaches.

His hands were legendarily big. He built the buildings by lifting up their walls and holding them there while we nailed them. He dragged the tallest tree we’d ever heard of across the desert and tipped it up to be our flag pole. He killed people, if he hit them. He carried new-married men on his shoulders and pulled a baby from the burning barn. There was nothing our mayor hadn’t held up.

When the children woke up, we gave them new mommies and daddies. This was a great effect to the peaches: parents had to keep feeding their children peaches to keep them always forgetting. Children grew fatter and over the years they forgot their other families completely.

Our mayor cultivated the orchard by night. He watered the trees (even in the middle of the desert, he was capable of this) and trimmed the trees. He tasted the peaches, in case of their sweetness. Nothing put him to sleep.

We told the mayor we were worried that our girls and boys would one day, no matter what, come to finally remember their parents. The peaches ensured these children would dream of their parents every night. These dreams ended in their parents devouring them.

If the parents finally found our town and made claim to their children, we’d hide their children under our houses. (The mayor had already dug the holes.)

But what if they heard their parents’ voices? Then we’d stuff their ears with cotton.

One night in summer, the mayor chopped down all the peach trees. He’d seen the end of childhood coming.

He planed the tallest trees and made a prison. He put a boy who hated to sleep and was notoriously sleep-deprived in prison. He made the prison special just for the boy and opened the only window for him facing what used to be the peach grove.

The mayor took another boy from his family, who was notoriously good, and made him be guard and stand outside the prisoner’s door.

The mayor taught the guard to chop wood and the two of them chopped the rest of the peach grove into firewood. He showed the guard how to tend to the furnace and keep the prisoner warm.

They seldom talked. The prisoner kept his mind on the mayor while the guard idly watched the town grow.

The mayor carved out highways and fountains. He dragged in granite from the mountains in the north and timber from the mountains in the west. There was no stopping the mayor.

On his sixteenth birthday, the boy was released from prison.

The boy got drunk and tried to light the casino on fire. They threw the boy into the street. He returned to the guard. The guard lit the furnace. They sat in the front where the guard always sat and watched an enormous statue of a god come up from the ground.

‘Don’t need the door anymore, do we,’ joked the guard.

‘I guess not,’ joked the boy.

‘So, what’s life like on the other side?’

‘No different.’

‘OK,’ said the guard.

The guard sat outside of the prison. He was relaxed where he sat.

‘Say, what do I call you?’

The prisoner frowned at a bird.

‘You don’t wanna name?’

‘No I do not.’

‘I can give you one.’

‘No, I do not want one.’

‘OK,’ said the guard. The guard had baked the boy a cobbler, but didn’t see it fit now to give it to him.

A horse appeared in the morning. This was the last horse alive of the horses who had stolen the children. The last of the thieving horses.

The mayor was there. He was there to give a warning to the boy. His hands were worn and heavy. His hands had strangled a bear. The boy had never seen them in person before. He had seen them close when he was another person. He had seen them before he’d had any memory.

‘I have broken this desert. I have broken these sands. I have constructed the impossible. And you will ruin everything.’

The boy climbed onto the horse, which the mare had reared. The mayor touched the horse and the horse seemed to tremble. He smoothed its mane.

‘They will welcome you like no one ever before. You are the only son who ever returned.’

The mayor whispered something to the horse.

‘You were our only criminal. The only criminal we ever had.’

The boy whipped the reins gently. The horse began their way toward the town.

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