Cowboys and Indians

by Donald Dewey

Playing with his plastic cowboys and Indians had relaxed Pfeiffer for more than 50 years. Off its horse, each figure was about two inches high, some with production spots suggesting facial scars, beards, or mustaches, all with eyes that looked squeezed closed. His mother and father had given him a first set of 18 on his eighth birthday, and from there he had used every spare dime for years to buy more. After periodic prunings of those that had lost an arm or a leg, he still had about 200 pieces left in the old cookie tin on the shelf in his closet.

The survivors had stayed with Pfeiffer through a half-dozen apartments, marriage, two sons, and the death of his wife. Neither of his sons had enjoyed playing with them as much as he had. The older, Jason, had been daunted by the ceremoniousness around the gift being handed down, ultimately sticking a couple of them on a bedroom bookshelf for show and burying the rest in a closet footlocker until he had needed the space and had asked Pfeiffer to take them back “for now.” Younger son Robby had shown none of that discomfit or reverence; he had simply not tolerated indoor games that didn’t include a joystick. So at the age of 58, Pfeiffer still had his cowboys and Indians all for himself.

He wasn’t sure how he should feel about it. On the one hand, the cowboys and Indians represented a reassuring continuity. Through all the rival distractions in growing up and starting his law career, through family joys and crises, in spite of one mover who had dropped them and another who had lost them for a couple of months, they hadn’t abandoned him, as he hadn’t abandoned them. They tickled his memory with the hours he had spent on the floor of his childhood bedroom, making shooting sounds as posses had charged after bad guys, bad guys had ambushed the heroes, or the Indians had wiped out the cavalry. Even as a child he had displayed no law-and-order prejudices: Sometimes the good guys had won, other times they had lost, and still other times there had been a heap of plastic tragedy because absolutely everybody had been shot to death.

Not that the years hadn’t exacted their tribute when it came to playing. With his arthritic hip, Pfeiffer was no longer comfortable sprawling out on a floor; no matter how many exotic wrinkles to the terrain the lamp stands, table legs, and lowest bookcase shelves might have provided, he had to stick to the dining room table. To add topographical character, he recruited items from the kitchen, strewing around the bread box, the microwave, and the small wooden house that held the herbs and spices. This still left two vast table expanses for chases.

Matching riders to horses had always been the most arduous chore. The legs of some figures were so splayed the rider could have straddled two mounts, others were so tight they trembled on the verge of breaking when they were wrapped around a saddle. The horses had their problems, too. A handful had manufacturing flaws—extra pieces of plastic hanging from a hoof that made it impossible to stand the animal. This called for careful filing, and Pfeiffer hadn’t always been the most careful of filers: Of the dozen or so horses he had been forced to throw away, half had met their fate because he had rasped the defective leg too much.

Once he had saddled up 20 riders on the table, Pfeiffer sat back in the chair where Robby had always sat for dinner to consider his scenarios. It was not his favorite moment. He felt grotesquely oversized, like some Monty Python foot that came down to crush miniature cartoon creatures. Once he had arrayed his horsemen, he didn’t like being reminded of his own dimension. He would have liked to blend into the action on the table: mount one of the horses himself and go charging off toward the spice tray house. He even knew the horse he would have chosen—the roan that had never lost its glaze. It was the same size as all the other roans, blacks, whites, and palominos, but it had always stood out. Aside from its look, it sat just about any rider he put on it. What production fluke had made that possible? Surely, the roan had come down a conveyor belt from its mold like millions of other horses. No foreman had ordered the lever man to climb to a special level for a single piece. And yet there it was, glistening more regally on the table than all the riders and other horses combined.

Because of where he was sitting, Pfeiffer wondered what plot Robby would have concocted for the figures. Unlike Jason, Robby had never been torn about their function—they were toys; boring toys, but toys. Pfeiffer thought it was that same unadorned outlook that had nudged Robby toward law school. He could picture Robby strolling the Yale campus that very night with a girl friend and saying: “The more you learn, the fewer colors you see. It’s all pretty humdrum, totally dependent on you for supplying the energy. But I seem to be pretty good at it.” Pfeiffer didn’t blame himself for so much grayness in his younger son. He had never pushed either of the boys toward a law career, and Robby in particular had spent most of his teens trying to prove Father Knows Worst. But then, little by little, his rebellions had brought him around to the path three generations of Pfeiffers had taken—the law, the Yankees, baked ham, and bourbon. For all he knew, Robby was also a leg man who didn’t like big breasts. How to explain it? Pfeiffer couldn’t. It was a production process as mysterious as the one that had turned out the roan.

He decided on Sundance as his hero. Pfeiffer had never warmed up to Sundance. His colors—dark blue hat, brown shirt, yellow chaps—were slapdash to the point of a Walt Disney toon, and, the roan aside, he wasn’t all that easy to saddle up. But what Pfeiffer particularly disliked about Sundance was a conspicuous hump, making him look like the Quasimodo of the Range. If there had been the least bit of quality control at the factory, Sundance wouldn’t have even made it to a retail box. Lucky for him, quality control in toy factories was as reliable as a hung jury, so Sundance had survived to fight another day.
And the setting for Sundance’s adventures? Pfeiffer chose the bread box as the main prop. It could serve as a mine, where the Indians were worked as slaves to dig out gold for the bad guys. He put a couple of dozen Indians inside the thing, imagining the rye and cinnamon aromas as sweat and pulverized rock. He stationed a half-dozen rifles atop the lid of the box and a few more mounted guards outside. By moving the spice house closer to Jason’s dinner seat at the table, he had an adjoining headquarters for the chief baddies. For these roles, he picked Link and Lassiter with their broken lassos. They seemed especially appropriate because those were the two Jason had kept on his shelf—evidence to his father that he appreciated his legacy, but also announcing they could not engage his fantasy.

Pfeiffer rode Sundance up to the spice tray. Link and Lassiter were waiting for him distrustfully. Sundance glanced over at the bread box and asked what was going on inside. Link said it was none of his business, to keep traveling. Lassiter wasn’t so benevolent; he pulled Sundance off his horse and began punching him. Link then jumped in, and the three of them went at it. Pfeiffer could still make good movie punching sounds. He had tried teaching them to Jason, but Jason had never gotten the knack, getting little beyond teeth clicking. He had given up the day his wife Catherine had suggested he organize a class for punching sounds at the Learning Annex.

Pfeiffer was sorry he had instituted his rule against drinking liquor while playing; he wouldn’t have minded a Jack Daniels. But drinking would have made it impossible to forget how he towered over his drama, looked down upon it from a human dimension. He concentrated instead on moving some of the mine guards toward the spice house as help for Link and Lassiter against Sundance. Sundance saw them coming, gave a final crack in the mouth to Link, and jumped up on his faithful roan. The arriving guards pegged shots after him as he fled to the other end of the table, and one of the bullets got him in the leg. It was time for an intimate interlude.

By the time Sundance reached the microwave, he was so weak from the loss of blood that he fell off his horse. Annie, the only cowgirl, and her handyman Red Elk rushed out to him and carried him into the oven. It was a wonderful place for Sundance to get his wound treated. Not only did his injury heal, but he had sex with Annie and learned from Red Elk how the Indians had been captured and led off to the mine as slaves by Link and Lassiter. How could he have found a better retreat for his wound?

Catherine had hated it when Pfeiffer had been so glib, had resolved a forest of thorny problems with one sweeping judgment. Her usual retort had been to deny him her eyes. At times she had averted her gaze for so long that when she had finally looked at him again, he had been dismayed she hadn’t given a great start and cried out: “Who the hell are you!” Possibly because she had never done that, he had usually promised not to be glib again—about them, the boys, world affairs, or the latest events on Mars. Whoops! There he went again! But she could take a joke, couldn’t she?

Pfeiffer needed action. Red Elk rounded up the Indians who hadn’t been enslaved and brought them to the microwave, prepared for battle. Some had tomahawks, some lances, some knives. Their bonnets and washboard chests said Sioux or Cheyenne. Sundance kissed Annie, sidestepping her demands to come along for the shooting by telling her to whip up a vat of beans for the famished slaves who would soon be invading the oven. Then he saddled up and led Red Elk and his warriors back across the dining table. There was thunderous music in the air as a lookout from the top of the bread box saw the heroes coming and shouted a warning down to Link and Lassiter. Pfeiffer tingled as he once had on his bedroom floor. Death galore was coming!
Pfeiffer increased the odds against the heroes. First he shut the bread box, so the Indians inside the mine couldn’t break free to make up a second front. Then he mounted Shorty and another dozen baddies as reinforcements for Link and Lassiter. The Indians inside the bread box began screaming because they had no air. He assumed they would have had the same reaction if the rye and cinnamon odors were still the strongest.

With Shorty in the picture, there were too many prominent villains so he took out Link with the first shot from the oncharging good guys. Catherine had never understood why he hadn’t thrown Link into the casket with Jason, anyway. She had given Jason the Yankees windbreaker he had worn down to a frazzle, and, according to her, it had been Pfeiffer’s duty to give him Link and Lassiter. But how could he have done that to the boy? Jason had never really liked Link and Lassiter, had accepted them only because he had felt duty-bound. To impose Link and Lassiter on the boy for eternity would have been cruel. Catherine had kept her eyes away from Pfeiffer for a very long time after that. As far as she had been concerned, he had been interested only in reclaiming the figures for himself. Hearing that accusation from her had been almost as bad as hearing that Jason was dead.

Killing Link cost the good guys dearly. Three Indians went down, and the rest had to scramble for the shelter of the spice house. Sundance got a couple of guards atop the bread box, but they were merely wounded, not dead, and so capable of further mischief. What Sundance had actually done was to lead Red Elk and the others into a trap. Already, some of Shorty’s reinforcements were making their way around the rear of the thyme and rosemary rooms for a sneak attack.

Sundance didn’t panic, but Pfeiffer needed a deus ex machina. He wasn’t ashamed of grasping after one. He had never wanted anything in his life so much as a deus ex machina the night the state trooper named Michael Flagg had knocked on the door to say that Jason and his two of his friends had been in a smashup on their way home from a party. It went against the grain, as he had reminded Officer Michael Flagg that night, that only old Greeks were entitled to a deus ex machina. Hadn’t he fought his entire life on behalf of equal rights for everyone—for young Pfeiffers as much as old Greeks? He hadn’t meant to sound fatuous about it, and he hadn’t held it against Catherine for rising up from some screeching hell to smash him in the face, but fair was fair, wasn’t it? Officer Michael Flagg, though, had been useless. Not only hadn’t he provided a deus ex machine—something as simple as saying he had misidentified the bodies in the car—he hadn’t uttered a single, intelligible reply, had just stood there in his dumb boots playing with the Mountie hat in his hand.
But now was the real deus ex machina test. He needed a dozen Officer Michael Flaggs—or at least his troopers with Mountie hats—to rescue Sundance and the Indians. He saddled them up quickly. They looked impressive streaking across the table toward the battle. The mere sight of them galvanized Sundance, who climbed to the roof of the spice house to trade shots with the outlaws still atop the bread box. For at least the duration of a few volleys, he stopped thinking about running back to Annie for more sex. She had her job whipping up the beans anyway. After eating only gruel for so long, the liberated slaves were sure to fall on her chow like wolves. None of them would have said to Annie what Cindy Robinson had said to Catherine when she had come back to the house for the funeral lunch after burying Jason and had seen the cold cuts on the kitchen table: “Salami! But, Catherine, he was your son!”

Lassiter saw how things were going. He ran back into the spice house and packed as much gold as he could into a couple of saddlebags. He didn’t bother watching the troops charge the mine and clear the roof. He didn’t care that a revived Red Elk and his two remaining braves were waiting for Shorty and his henchmen to stick their heads around from the oregano to get them chopped off. Thwack!

Pfeiffer felt sorry for Shorty. The gunman hadn’t had time to learn that life had a way of turning every loss into a lesson. When Catherine had died, Pfeiffer had learned enough from Cindy Robinson’s oafish outburst to take the mourners to a restaurant rather than back to the house for a homemade spread. By the time the menus had been devoured, nobody had jeered “Salmon steak! But, Pfeiffer, she was your wife!” By any measure at all, the lunch had been a success. He had gone home feeling proud that no thread had been left dangling. Even Robby had turned on the TV in his room as soon as he had returned to watch an ancient Perry Mason.

Lassiter was halfway out of the spice house with his gold when Sundance jumped him. The music swelled as they began bashing one another. No quarter was to be given, not after all the slaughter around them. Lassiter kicked Sundance in the face, Sundance retaliated with a kick in the balls. Red Elk came out from behind the spice house to see if he could lend a hand, but he knew better. Some scores had to be settled personally. Instead, Red Elk ran over to the bread box to help the troops open up the mine entrance. The misery of it! Not only had all the Indian slaves suffocated to death, but Slim, one of Shorty’s henchmen who had avoided Red Elk’s tomahawk, sneaked into the back of the spice house and found the dynamite plunger Lassiter and Link had prepared in case it was necessary to hide evidence of their crimes in the mine. For a moment, Slim didn’t know what to do: There seemed little point in blowing up those already dead.

Pfeiffer went for irony. Outside the door, Lassiter pulled a hidden derringer on Sundance. Sundance grabbed his hand before he could aim it, but Lassiter got off the shot anyway. The bullet went through the door of the spice house into Slim’s brain. Slim, who had been thinking only of his own escape, fell back down on the plunger, setting off the explosives in the mine. Red Elk and all the troopers nearby were blown to pieces.

Sundance beat Lassiter to death, and that took time. Finally, with Lassiter taken care of, Sundance backed off. He looked around him. There were dozens of bodies of all kinds, but none of them moved. Justice had once again commanded an exorbitant price.

Sundance pulled himself up on his faithful roan and, bruised and battered as he was, started the long ride back toward the microwave to tell Annie she could stop stirring her vat of beans, that they would be the only two left to eat them. He didn’t expect her to like that news, not after all the work she had put in.
Pfeiffer felt heavy with the burden Sundance was carrying back to Annie. He was glad he wasn’t in the hunchback’s boots. He wondered if he shouldn’t avoid such an unpleasant confrontation altogether. Maybe he could just send Sundance into the oven with Annie, then get an extension cord from the kitchen drawer and plug in the microwave. Tethered outside, the roan would have still been safe and ready for play another day.