The Chadron to Chicago Cowboy race, a sidelight of Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition, was won by one James Riley. Riley, a mixed race native of Newton, Kansas was a known gunslinger (and, intriguingly, a nephew by marriage of editor and author L. Frank Baum). What became of him is unknown, but his moniker was later used as an alias by one Doc Middleton, a notorious horse thief of the era. On Middleton’s Death Certificate, the Riley name is just legible, but overwritten in a longhand scrawl. The correction has been initialed “J.J.” (likely by “Jersey Jeff” Walsh, a U.S. Marshal who knew Middleton well).
The following is the considerably condensed, free translation of an anonymous tale found in the November 1910 edition of Western Aegis, a short lived, multi-lingual literary magazine. Published in Oakland, California and dedicated to aggrandizing the pioneers, poets, hucksters and gunfighters of the rapidly vanishing frontier, “The Aegis” seems rather to have been intended for distribution on the Indian Reservations of the Great Plains. This story, “James Riley: Son of Kansas”, was written mostly in a free verse version of the Cegiha Siouan language, with rhyming couplets at the end of each stanza; I’ve done my best to preserve the story elements while enhancing the “readability.” i.e. I’ve removed the rather forced rhyming scheme and somewhat modernized the language. Portions written in Ogallala and Lakota dialects were also rendered into English.
along a weedy railroad spur, on the outskirts of a small town, kicking up dust: zephyrs at play. They’re part of an airhead crew who doze and nod in abandoned factories, or up among the rafters of formerly fine homes. Left to themselves, these breezes poke about quietly, investigating nooks and crannies and corridors. They’re putterers by inclination.
But imagine: not far away: rising voices, a cough of bitter laughter; and then, BANG! a noise like a twig breaking, only powers of ten louder. Some of the lonelier winds drift over to check it out.
Out back of the livery stable, a zephyr brushes over a twisting coil, a pulsating knot of something that feels elemental, like a sister wind bound-up in the dust of the world.
The Gordian knot at her feet, fallen in a pile of straw and horseshit, that’s me. Leaking tears and blood, piss and vomit; crying for the first time since Kansas. I’m trying to stuff my innards back into the hole in my midsection. It hurts, a lot.
The horses rear and kick in their stalls; they’d bolt if they weren’t locked in. Stamping and snorting, they provide the rhythm track to my swan song, my aeolian mode requiem in the key of gee-whiz-where’d-I-go-wrong. I can’t catch my breath. I’m wheezing like a broken kazoo.
A wild-eyed dandy, all babyfat and bad breath, a cowardly twerp brave-brave-brave with a shotgun in his hand, a hater wanting the world to understand the extent of his commitment to love, surprised me whilst takin’ a leak. He musta interperted my bemused smirk as a dis. His finger twitched. A statement was made: kinda an edgy, out-of-control statement.
There’s this girl, y’see. Working the afternoon shift at the shithole saloon that’s the crown jewel of social establishments in this sorry ass ghost town. A girl capable of some brand of liquory love, I suppose, of taunting bullies, of dragging empty brags out of empty drunks, egging them on into folly. All for a giggle. Did she unfurl her petticoats amid the leaky kegs and lost and found items in the storeroom behind the bar? I don’t know, maybe she’s changed.
The lady was a familiar spirit of our household coming up, my sister’s best friend, don’t you know. I grew up smelling their sweat and sex and soapy smells. They were babes-in-arms, ever curious about life: girls without borders.
When I was throwing my letters and laundry into my saddlebags, Sis ran up. She managed to evade bidding me farewell; asked politely if I’d look up Jenny- should I pass this way. Gee whiz, why not? Time and distance are of no constraints to a man who’s being hunted like a dog. And it’s big news, I’m to convey: nuptials upcoming! Sis is marrying a man who can afford the luxury of having no curiosity whatsoever.
In Chadron, Jenny’s tears ran mascara black. She tried to rope me in for a dose of consolation. Hey, look who’s a growed up handsome man, she whispered. It was sad: didja ever see a drover crack the whip over a tired mare?
Well, maybe I was wrong not to look deeper into her scarred heart. But since we happened, darling, there’s certain riddles I don’t attempt to untangle. That’s what’s so fucking hilarious about lying here, twisted up like a snake in heat; I’m as innocent as powder burns on a suicide’s hands.
The zephyr sees me as a faintly sputtering ember or a mildly luminous bubble breaking from wet clay. I cast some glow on a dimension she’s only vaguely noticed before. The place where people are. An emptier quadrant of the grid of life.
She tries to tickle me, tries to get under my shirt. This little gust is curious. And y’know what? I am too. I seem to be seeing life everywhere, now that my own is seeping from me.
Both of us titillated by the confusion along our personal boundaries, we connect. Anyway, we’re no more than transparent overlays in the magic lantern show- she’s flotsam, I’m jetsam: two drifters hoping better prospects’ll materialize. Doesn’t take me much to get her promise: she swears she’ll carry my message home.
But having touched the fluttery heart of her, faint is my hope. Zephyrs live brief lives; if they don’t pick up the habit of surrendering their independence- if they don’t merge and divide constantly- they just fade; vanish into thin air; lose inertia; die unmourned.
She hurries off, all fond adieus and false sympathy, excited by the impending adventure. How far is Kansas?
It’s that flat place just this side of the Red River, I call after her. They call it that because it’s actually red. You can’t miss it.
Sometime later, a little offtrack, speeding through a flock of bighorn grazing the Sandhills, she meets a flurry of breezes, a whole posse of ‘em. She doesn’t forget the promise she made me, exactly; but now she has a greater purpose. The brute force of a hundred simultaneous directives are whispering to her.
Fortunately, they’re headed the right direction. She’s still got some control of the situation.
When the blow up comes you are thinking of me. Dark smoky thoughts. A wind enters the courtyard where you’re helping set up tables and chairs. A battalion of breezes, my zephyr among ‘em, sidles up and whisks around you, mussing your careful coiffure. The wind gathers force; you hear a soft buzzing like a hungry bee rattling a foxglove flower- that would be a proximate translation of my message-
The wind won’t let you be. You have to hold down your skirts [Nee-tay'-oh-pee] with one hand, and then both. And now your uncle- who’s been schmoozing with the guests, chatting with the preacher, smoking a cheroot, oiling his joints- comes over, pretending to want to help. But he snatches you up instead, and dances you round and around, laughing crazily. Uncle! Calm down! you cry.
and that rake of a wind, just as sudden as spring on the mountain top, leaves off. Speeding away, to dance a cakewalk with others of its ilk, it ruffles through the linden grove, then shoots off towards the wetlands, whirling and tumbling, tickling up ripples in the water, making nifty, changing patterns on the oily surface of the lake.
Your uncle sets you down carefully, looks at you like you’re made of glass. Calls you his blue-eyed boy.
Someone shouts: Storms abrewin’!
But you know that what happens next depends on you and you alone. If you let your joy come squeaking out, if you betray your inner panic, even with a blush or a ruffled brow, some farty old aunt daubed in cheap perfume will drift over and try to pull you into her confidence. She’ll suck the wind from your sails, knock the soul out of you with a salacious smile and lavender scented breath.
You might as well stand up at the wedding and confess everything. What does it matter now, anyhow? Sure, a summer storm could rear up, out of the stable of darkness, a nightmare storm with clattering hoofs sparking thunder and lightning, sending the bride and groom and guests scurrying to safety; even tornadoes are possible.