I got off the plane at Atlanta and caught the shuttle to what I thought was my hotel. But there was some kind of mix-up, and it wasn't my hotel at all. They told me I could go out to the curb and catch this other shuttle and it would take me over to another hotel in their chain, and that it was a short walk from there to where I wanted to go. I thought that was okay, considering I had gotten on the wrong shuttle in the first place.
I sat outside the hotel on a bench and waited for the shuttle. It was October and kind of cool, but not really uncomfortable. The air felt damp.
I had a Western paperback and I got it out of my coat pocket and read a few pages. From time to time I looked up for the shuttle, then at my watch, then back at the paperback. It wasn't a very good Western.
While I was sitting there a little black boy on skates with an empty toy pistol scabbard strapped around his waist went by. He looked at me. His head was practically shaved and his snap-button cowboy shirt was ripped in front. I guess he was about eleven.
I looked back at my book and started reading, then I heard him skate over in front of me. I looked up and saw that he was looking at the picture on the front of the paperback.
"That a cowboy book?" he said.
I told him it was.
"It any good?"
"I don't care much for it. It's a little too much like the last three or four I read."
"I like cowboy books and movies but they don't get some things right."
"I like them too."
"I'm a cowboy," he said, and his tone was a trifle defiant.
"You was thinking niggers can't be cowboys."
"I wasn't thinking that. Don't call yourself that."
"Nigger? It's okay if I'm doing it. I wouldn't want you to say that."
"Anyone says that they got me to fight."
"I don't want to fight. Where's your pistol?"
He didn't answer that. "A black boy can be a cowboy, you know."
"I'm sure of it."
"They weren't all cooks."
"That's way the movies and books got it. There any black cowboys in that book?"
"Not so far."
"There gonna be?"
"I don't know," I said. But I did know. I'd read a lot of cowboy books.
"White boys at school said there weren't any black cowboys. They said no nigger cowboys. They said we couldn't fight Indians and stuff."
"Don't listen to them."
"I'm not going to. I went over to the playground at the school and they took my pistol. There was three of them."
It came clear to me then. His shirt being ripped and the gun missing.
"I'm sorry. That wasn't nice."
"They said a nigger didn't need no cowboy gun. Said I needed me a frying pan or a broom. I used to ride the range and rope steers and stuff. They don't know nothing."
"Is that all you did on the range, rope steers?"
"I did all kinds of things. I did everything cowboys do."
"Was it hard work?"
"It was so hard you wouldn't believe it. I did all kinds of things. Cowboys don't call one another nigger."
"Do your mom and dad work on the range with you?"
"No, my mama has a job. She does clean-up work. My daddy he got killed in Vietnam. He got some medals and stuff. He wasn't a cowboy like me."
I looked up and saw the shuttle. I picked up my suitcase and stood.
"I got to go now," I said. "I hope you get your gun back. Lot of good cowboys lose fights from time to time."
"There was three of them."
"There you are. Adios." As an afterthought I gave him the Western book.
"It hasn't got any black cowboys in it I bet," he said, and gave it back to me. "I want one with black cowboys in it. I'm not reading any more of 'em unless they got black cowboys in them."
"I'm sure there are some," I said.
"There ought to be."
I got on the shuttle and it carried me to the other hotel. I got off and walked to where I was supposed to be, and on the way over there I put the book in one of those wire trash baskets that line the streets.
"Cowboy" was originally published in 1997 in The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published in a limited-edition hardcover by Subterranean Press. It was later included in Bumper Crop, a collection published by Golden Gryphon Press. "Cowboy" © 1997 Joe R. Lansdale.
Drive on back this way Thursday, May 23, for another totally free short story by Champion Joe R. Lansdale.