Set in 1871 in the unforgiving wasteland of the Arizona Territory, Shavetail is the story of Private Ned Thorne, a seventeen-year-old boy from Connecticut who has lied about his age to join the Army. On the run from a shameful past, Ned is desperate to prove his worth -- to his superiors, to his family, and most of all, to himself. Young and troubled, Ned is as green and stubborn as a "shavetail," the soldiers' term for a dangerous, untrained mule.
To endure in this world, Ned must not only follow the orders of the camp's captain, Robert Franklin,but also submit to the cruel manipulations of Obediah Brickner, the camp's mule driver. Both Franklin and Brickner have been damaged by their long military service, both consider themselves able to survive the dangers of the desert -- floods, scorpions, snakes, and Indians -- and both imperil Ned.
Yet there are other characters, all richly drawn, who also confront Ned: half-wit soldiers, embattled Indians hidden in cliffs, a devious and philosophical peddler, and the fleshy whores who materialize in the desert as soon as the paymaster has left camp and dance with drunken soldiers around a fire late into the night.
After a band of Apaches attack a nearby ranch, killing two men and kidnapping a young woman, Ned's lieutenant -- a man seeking atonement for his own mistakes -- leads Ned and the rest of his patrol on a near-suicidal mission through rugged mountains and into Mexico in hopes of saving the woman's life. It is unlikely any can survive this folly, and those who do will be changed forever.
Meticulously researched and vividly told, Shavetail renders a time when the United States was still an expanding empire, its western edge bloody with the deaths of soldiers, settlers, and Indians. In language both spare and brilliant, Cobb brings readers this lost American landscape, untouched by highways or electricity and without the comforts of civilization.
Shavetail also marks the return of a great American literary voice. Cobb's first and only other novel, Crazy Heart, was published in 1987 to great acclaim and was edited by the legendary editor Ted Solotaroff. Cobb is also a former student of Donald Barthelme, who described Crazy Heart as "a bitter, witty psychological profile of genius."
Brutal and deft, laced with both violence and desire, Shavetail plunges into the deepest human urges even as it marks the ground where men either survive or perish.
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Private Ned Thorne
Under the feathery branches of a mesquite tree twenty feet in diameter, among the litter of the tree -- small oval leaves, rotting beans, bits of cholla dragged by pack rats trying to build refuge -- lay a diamondback rattlesnake, thick as a grown man's forearm, coiled in folds, suspended in a state neither asleep nor awake.
Some thirty yards away, the boy, having conceded the only shelter for hundreds of yards to the snake, tried to cram his body into the makeshift shade of a crate stenciled with "Property of the United States Army. Fragile." The crate was delicately balanced on a trunk, similarly stenciled. The first had been placed so that half its length extended into the air, creating a scant few feet of shade on the ground underneath.
The boy got up and shifted the crate. The day was moving into afternoon, and the angle of the sun was giving him the chance of wider patches of shade. It was not yet fully hot, perhaps ninety degrees, not much more, but the sun was unrelenting, and he felt his skin burn. He had spent the last four hours alone here, with no water and only the boxes for shade. He was considering going back to drive the snake from under the tree, but he was afraid.
Around him he saw nothing but brush, grass, and tall stalks of yucca. In any direction he looked, there were distant peaks of mountains, but for miles around him, there was nothing more than the repetition of what was right here.
He was seventeen, had been seventeen for two months. Handsome and thin, though not frail, he looked older, in part due to a full but sparse beard that he had grown for the express purpose of looking so. Without it his delicate features and perpetual scowl gave him away for the boy he really was. He was lately of Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, where he had done his training, learning the craft of weather observation, becoming proficient in horsemanship, and, much to his own surprise, proving himself a superior marksman. Before that he had been in Baltimore, where he'd enlisted after fleeing his home in Hartford, Connecticut, in the dark of night.
Just two days earlier he had arrived in Tucson, the Arizona Territory, by stage from San Francisco. Tucson was the ugliest town he had ever seen in his life. It looked as if it had been constructed by an enormous, addled child who'd simply thrown mud on the ground. He had nearly missed boarding the stage and had to ride the entire trip backward, coming into his future just as his father had always told him he would, backside first.
The stage had dropped him here, which, he now understood, was nowhere. A set of wagon ruts moved roughly south by southwest. On these, the driver had promised, an escort from Camp Bowie would be by to pick him up. That had been long ago. Hours. He was vaguely curious about the hour, though knowing the time would have made the wait and boredom intolerable. He curled up into a tighter ball under the shade of the trunk and slept.
He was awakened by the snort and stamp of mules. Later, he realized he had been dreaming the sound of tack and the creaking of a wagon for some time.
"You Thorne? New meat for D Company?"
He scrambled out of his barely constructed shelter. "Water. I'm dying."
A canteen came flying over the heads of the mules. Ned misjudged it, let it fall, and had to scramble on hands and knees in the burning dirt.
"No. Probably you ain't. When you still know how awful you feel, you ain't even close to dead yet. You go slow on that water. I don't need to be driving you back and you got the squirts all the time. My life ain't that much joy as it is."
Ned forced himself to pull the canteen from his lips. He hoisted it and poured some of the rest over the top of his head. "Private Ned Thorne," he said, saluting in a perfunctory manner. "D Company, Camp Bowie."
"Brickner. D Company, all right. But not Bowie. We're at Ramsey now. And don't salute. I ain't no officer. I'm a corporal and a human being same as you." Brickner was a big man, round in the face. His hat was a battered straw that seemed to come nearly to his eyes, which were only slits against the sun. His mouth was set in an ironic half-smile in the middle of a black beard going heavily to gray.
"What? Where? Where's Ramsey?"
"Nowhere. Or next door to it. Where's the nails?"
"They supposed to be sending nails with you. You were going to pick them up in Camp Lowell. Didn't you do that?"
"I didn't go to Camp Lowell."
"You come through Tucson, didn't you?"
"I did. But I didn't go to Camp Lowell. I stayed in a hotel."
"Hotel? You stayed in a damned hotel? Hotels is for rich bastards, fine ladies, whores, and thieves. Which of those is you?"
"I wanted a bed."
"And we're wanting nails, which you didn't get. What the hell good are you? And what's all that over there?" He nodded toward the crates.
"Weather. Rain. Snow. Wind. Weather."
Brickner looked around at the depth of blue in the sky. "Weather. Goddamn. Ain't none here."
Ned stood in the middle of the desert, his head and shoulders wet, his belly already starting to bloat from the near canteen full he had drunk. He had no idea what use he might be. "I haven't slept in a real bed in almost two months."
"I ain't slept in a bed in years. What other complaints you got about your miserable life?"
Stung, the boy stood and glared, saying nothing.
"That's what I thought. Get in the wagon here, Marybelle. And don't talk to me. It makes me sick to look at you."
They rode in silence. The small breeze stirred by their motion carried the dust and the smell of the mules back to them. Ned held another canteen in his lap, taking small swallows from time to time. His thirst was mostly memory by now, but a memory of which he could not completely rid himself. He kept his eyes straight ahead, looking only occasionally over to Brickner. The heavyset man's face was shining in the afternoon light from the sweat that came down in enough quantity to combine with the dust to form a light sheen of mud, which streaked into his beard. The rest of his skin was dotted with rough patches, burned and peeling.
"You know what time it is?" Brickner asked.
"I don't have a watch."
"I won't take it from you."
"Can't. Someone else did."
"Damn." Brickner looked off toward the horizon where the Dragoon Mountains gave way to the Little Dragoons farther to the west. "Three, maybe four, o'clock," he said. "Who got your watch, then?"
"A sergeant. Back at Jefferson."
"How'd he get it? He just take it off you?"
"Him, three jacks, and a pair of fours."
"And what was you holding?"
"I reckoned that. What, exactly?"
"Three sevens, if it makes any difference to you."
Brickner snorted and snapped the traces against the haunch of the nearest mule. The team picked up and then settled back to their same pace, man and mule seeming in agreement that this was all to alleviate the boredom of the road. "Take these. Go on, take them. I ain't going to hurt you." Brickner handed Ned the reins while he loaded and fired a long-stemmed clay pipe.
"It does make a difference. A man could go ahead and lose his watch on three sevens. That's bad luck. Bad luck is better than stupid."
"It seems to all come out about the same."
Brickner drew on his pipe as if thinking this over. "Not so. Luck changes. As I see it, stupid is as constant as sunshine."
"Sunshine isn't all that constant."
"It is out here. Sun and stupid don't give up out here. Both of them will kill you as soon as you forget to worry about them. That kepi you got there for instance." He nodded at the short-billed blue cap Ned wore. "Sun going to bake your brains into a johnnycake you wear that Army issue out here. When we get to Bowie, you buy yourself a broad-brimmed hat and save your head."
"I don't have any money left."
"Well, you're dead, then. Hope you liked them whores."
They made their way up a gradual but noticeable ascent, the mules digging them through the path -- hardly a path but a pair of wheel ruts -- past mesquite, yucca, and creosote. Black-banded grama grass grew knee high over everything Ned could see.
They rode mostly in silence. Ned held the canteen between his knees, keeping it capped against the violent lurching of the wagon as it passed over rock and rut, counterpointed by the obscenities of Brickner, who held a bottle of whisky between his knees. He did not offer to share it.
It is stranger country than any you could make up or even hope to hear of. There are no real trees, though there are plants that might stand for them. Mostly it is grass and large bushes, perhaps the size of a grand pussy willow, though they lack any of that charm.
Yesterday, I saw plants as tall as any oak or pine at home, but bearing no leaves at all. They were large bare trunks rising straight up with just the occasional branch almost as thick as the trunk about halfway up. Their skin is a thick green hide, near to leather, with ridges of thorn long enough to pierce a finger or hand.
They would seem the very sentries of hell, for it is hot enough here to qualify. From a distance, you would think that the sun had scorched the earth until there was nothing of the surface left. Up close, though, I am surprised to see that everything is full of life, though a hard and scraggly one.
I have seen a rattlesnake, though I was not bitten by it.
I trust you will keep a watchful eye on our mother, whose great sorrow is a burden for her small shoulders. Take care, too, of our father, whose sorrow and anger continues to grow, in great part the result of mine own actions...
The letter broke off in his head, as it always did when he got to the part where he had to ask for the forgiveness he needed. He felt as though his shame were too great a burden to be carried by words. The weight bore on him tremendously.
"This is a bad place," Brickner said. He indicated the road before them, rising between two ridges, all scrub brush and rock. For the last several minutes they had been traveling along what appeared to be part of an actual road, one, Brickner explained, that had been the old Butterfield stage route. "If you could pick the best place in the world to stage an ambush and kill someone, it would be here or somewhere just like it. You ever hear of Cochise?"
"Cochise is an Apache Indian. Chief of the Chiricahua tribe. Smart old rascal. Lives right over yonder." He waved off to the west, where yet another range of mountains formed the horizon. "Those is the Chiricahua mountains, meaning they belong to Cochise, not us. And he's heard of you. He knew you was here before you knew you was here. You ain't real sure where you are right now, but, by Jeesums, he knows right where you are.
"And twice he's done ambushes right here at this spot. Killed him a lot of people. This is called Apache Pass, and it's a lot of bad history. Last time he tried something it was against the Army, only we had us a couple of howitzers. You try to imagine what it's like when you are a ignorant old Indian and the Army starts shooting howitzers at you. It must feel like the world is breaking apart. Here, you take this."
Brickner handed Ned the trapdoor Springfield he had taken from under the seat. "We're coming right up into the pass. You keep that at the ready, now. You can shoot, can't you?"
"I can shoot."
Brickner looked at him, a long sideways glance. "And I can dance the cancan so's it would break your heart. At least make noise."
Ned held the carbine across his chest, his thumb next to the hammer, his finger lightly against the trigger. He turned his head from side to side, keeping his arms loose, ready to swing the rifle to either side.
"You can't see it," Brickner said, "but Cochise laid a lot of that rock across the top of the ridge. He and his Apaches made a real breastwork of stone and made it so good that when the patrol came through here, they never even knew it was there. All the sudden, there was the Devil's own abundance of Apaches shooting rifles and arrows at them."
Ned looked up. To either side, ridges sloped up twenty or thirty feet above their heads. There were big rocks and bushes everywhere. He strained, looking for signs of Indians. He brought the Springfield to the ready, levering back the hammer with his thumb. He wanted an Indian to show himself so that he might shoot it and finally silence the fat man.
Mostly, it's about this," Brickner said, halting the mules on the trail. He nodded to a small green spot next to the trail. From eight feet away, Ned could hear the small trickle of water, and even before he heard it, he smelled it.
Grotto, he thought. Not more than three yards off the trail, four or five feet lower than the trail itself, a small area opened about eight feet across. A mesquite formed a canopy above it, and the ground was thick with mud. Even from outside, he could tell the temperature was a good twenty degrees cooler than the temperature on the trail.
"Hold on there, Marybelle." Brickner dug a shovel from the bed of the wagon. "If it's cool, it's got snakes. Remember that. And the best snake killer ever made is a long-handled shovel."
He followed Brickner. Over the years, the trickle of water had cleared out a hollow as big around as a small stock tank. There was enough room for the two of them to stand side by side. A series of barrels, linked by pipe, caught the thin twist of water that slid down the mossy surface of rock and onto a metal trough that emptied into the first barrel. As the water reached the top of the first barrel, it leaked into the pipe inserted through the staves and fed the second barrel, which eventually filled the third, and so on. They had, momentarily, stepped out of hell and back into the world.
They drank, then filled the canteens and the canvas bags for the mules. Ned sat in cool, wet shade while Brickner watered the mules. He felt his body gather strength in the moist air. Over his head, he heard the buzz of dragonflies that moved up and down around the water in short, nervous bursts. Lizards moved through the branches of the mesquite trees and, above them, birds in the topmost branches, as if all the life of the desert had concentrated itself in this one small spot.
"Let's go," Brickner said.
"What's the hurry? Let's stay here for a while."
"The hurry is that I say 'hurry.' We got business yonder. Get to moving."
Out of the spring, he was momentarily blinded by the sun and staggered by the heat. He was conscious of the effort he put into pulling the hot air into his lungs and pushing it back out again.
They had gone less than half a mile when the trail opened up into a valley, stretched out in front of them. "Bowie," Brickner said.
Camp Bowie was a collection of mud and stone buildings, squat and low, grouped casually around a wide flat area, all dirt and sand, save a flagpole in the middle. Ned guessed that was the parade ground, though he could not imagine troops drilling in such an area without raising clouds of dust that would obscure everything.
"This is an Army camp?" The question was clearly rhetorical. Everywhere they looked, soldiers were moving on horseback or foot, singly or in formation. "There isn't much to it."
"Enjoy it. This is the best you're going to see for a long time. You can get a real meal in a real mess here. You can sleep on a real cot tonight, you being so particular and all. You can go to the sutler's store if you've got money, which it seems you ain't. Or you can go to Sudsville for laundry and whores. If it ain't what you're used to, you're going to be wishing you was used to it soon."
"Marybelle, there's always whores if you know where to look."
"Where do you look?"
"Damn near everywhere I go."
Brickner left him at the barracks, one of the low, long mud buildings with a roof of sticks laid across thick round beams and a floor of dirt. Inside, it was dark and cool against the late afternoon heat. A corporal led him down the row of cots without a word. Soldiers coming back from duty wandered in and out of the barracks, regarding Ned with little curiosity. The corporal pointed to a cot that held only a ticked straw mattress, no blanket or pillow.
"Mine?" he asked.
"Boyer's. He's dead."
The corporal turned and left, and Ned stripped off his fatigue coat. He looked for a pillow, found none, and rolled his coat into a tight ball and put it at the head of the bed. He sat down and pulled off his boots and swung his legs onto the mattress.
"I wouldn't do that."
Ned looked up. A tall, thin soldier, going bald, shook his head. "Get up."
The soldier walked toward him, and Ned swung his legs down and stood, getting ready for the fight. "I was just going to lay down. The corporal told me I could use this bunk. I've had a hard coming of it."
"Don't ever just lay down out here," the soldier said. He stopped, grabbed the mattress by the corner, and wrenched it from the cot, flipping it over. As he did, a scorpion nearly the size of his hand spun in the air, landed on its back, righted itself, and scurried toward Ned's stocking feet at surprising speed.
Ned jumped, flat-footed, over the scorpion toward the aisle, catching one foot on the bottom of the bunk and falling heavily to the floor. The tall soldier stepped over him and ran after the scorpion, stamping his foot as he went.
"Got away," the soldier said. "Damn. Those things sting like the Devil hisself." He stepped back over Ned. "You hurt yourself?"
"No. I'm all right." He got up and brushed himself off. He reached down for the mattress and touched the corner of it gingerly.
"That'll be all right, then," the tall soldier said. "It's gone into the wall somewheres. Have a good sleep."
Ned gingerly touched his arm, which tingled with small sharp pains where he had landed. He raised his arm a little and shook it gently, then turned it in slow circles.
"You're going to always want to shake your bedding, your uniform, your boots. Always look before you put anything on or set yourself down. There's a million creatures that is meaner than dirt out here. You best be on your guard. I can't say, though, that most of them are worth busting an arm for. You sure you're all right, then?"
He nodded, picked up the mattress, and slid it onto the cot, forcing himself to use the injured arm. "I almost stumbled onto a rattlesnake today."
"Well, that ain't hard to do. You'll learn to see them pretty soon. Remember that most every cow patty you see is just that, but every once in a while, it's a snake. And they love shade more than we do. Usually, they'll give you a warning, but not always. Just don't go putting yourself where something else already is, and you'll be fine."
Ned lay flat, using the coat for a pillow. The rough fabric chafed his red, burned skin. His body tensed against the thought of snakes, scorpions, and spiders. He would nearly drift to sleep but then wake with a start, sure that a scorpion was making its way across him. In the empty barracks, unable to sleep, he thought about the two days he had spent in the Territory.
On the street in Tucson where he was nearly positive he had found a pleasant-enough cantina the night before, three men were arguing in the middle of the street.
Two of them were white men, involved in a heated exchange. The older white man wore a full, uneven beard, stained yellow with tobacco at the edges of his mouth. He was dressed in a patched wool suit, stained at the lapels and shoulders. His shirt, yellow or ecru, perhaps once white, was buttoned at the collar, which he wore without a cravat.
A younger man, dressed in a faded calico shirt and voluminous canvas pants, leaned into the older man, waving his arms like a man trying to keep balance on a log. On one foot he wore a black boot that Ned recognized as infantry issue; on the other, a busted brown brogan. Slightly apart from the two, but held at the elbow by the older man, was a man yet older, with long gray hair held off his face by a red rag that circled his head just above his dark, darting eyes.
This was an Indian, but different from the half-naked, mud-caked Indians that had served him at the stage stop only a day before. Ned looked at him closely, thinking that this might be, finally, an Apache. A battered pair of yellow moccasins reached just above his ankles. His shirt was a pink gingham print with a frilled round collar and a flare at the waist. As Ned got closer, he saw that it was a woman's dress, cut down.
"I'm telling you," the younger man said. "It's my watch, and he done stole it."
"He says he found it," the older man said.
"Found it in my pocket. That's where he damned found it."
The old Indian looked straight ahead, saying nothing.
"Well then, here it is back. You got your watch. What more do you need?" He held up a cheap, plated watch showing a lot of brass at the back and edges. It dangled and spun on a thin lanyard of braided horsehair.
In exasperation, the younger man yanked off his wide sombrero, whose brim had come detached from the crown on one side. It made a flapping sound as he waved it up and down. "Justice is what I want. That was my daddy's watch. He done give it to me. Why the hell would I go and lose something like that? He damned stole it off me."
"You say stole, he says found. Just take the damned watch and go about your business and save us all a lot of trouble."
The younger man reached out for the watch, then drew back his hand as if the watch were something he would not even touch, much less possess. "It's the word of a damned thieving Indian against the word of a white man. That's what it is. Why is that giving you bother? Why is it you can't get this straight?"
The older man reached up and ran his hand through his thick, graying hair, pulling at a handful that stood straight up from the rest, which was oiled down. "Take the damned watch."
The old Indian did not move or look at either of the men. He looked straight ahead toward Ned, though Ned doubted that he even saw him. The only sound was that of a passing wagon, pulled heavily by black mules.
"The hell of it," the older man said. He reached into the pocket of his coat, dropped the watch, and extracted a small, plated pistol. He put the pistol to the Indian's head and pulled the trigger.
The Indian's knees collapsed and he went down, held for a second at the elbow by the older man's hand before slipping on through, landing on his backside, then falling flat onto his back in the dirt, his blood making a dark thick puddle of mud under his head.
"There," said the older man. "Does that satisfy you now?" He replaced the pistol in his pocket and pulled out the watch.
The young man grabbed at the watch and stuffed it into the pocket of his shirt, turned on his heel, and stomped off. He stopped and turned back. "Well, I guess it does."
And then Ned's body released, and he slept.
Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Cobb
Reading Group Guide
Set in 1871, Shavetail is the story of Private Ned Thorne, a seventeen year old boy from Connecticut who has lied about his age to join the U.S. Army. On the run from a shameful past, he enlists in the army with dreams of adventure and honor and heroism, but he soon finds himself stationed at the farthest edge of the country, the stark desert of the Arizona territories, home to a variety of unpleasant creatures: rattlesnakes and scorpions and a company of disgraced soldiers.
Before Ned arrives at the outpost, two men are found murdered by Apaches at a nearby ranch, and a woman is missing, her diary the only evidence she ever existed. The captain in command, a man deeply haunted by his own past mistakes, determines that the small and ragged troop must pursue the Indians and rescue the woman.
Captivated by the woman's meticulous diary entries, Ned soon finds he may have a chance at heroism after all.
Not only a riveting adventure tale, Shavetail is a story of regret and redemption, of desperation and hope and second chances.
Questions for Discussion:
1. In the beginning of the novel, Brickner explains to Ned, "That's a shavetail, a young, green mule that hasn't learned his tasks yet. He can't go by himself. He's always got to be paired with an older, smarter mule. He's you, and I'm the older, smarter one" (page 31). Do you think that this is an accurate portrayal of Ned? Is it an accurate portrayal of Brickner? In many ways, Shavetail is a coming of age story. What evidence speaks to Ned's maturation by the end of the book?
2. Many characters meet their death in Shavetail. Discuss how each of the following characters confronted the fatalities of their loved ones, companions, siblings and fellow soldiers: Mary, Lieutenant Austin, and Ned.
3. Why is the diary so compelling to Ned? For what reasons do you think he's drawn so strongly to Mary? In relation to the novel's themes of redemption and hope, what do both the diary and Mary symbolize?
4. Brickner's circuitous and deceiving behavior is evident upon his first appearance in Shavetail. How, if at all, did your opinion of him evolve throughout the course of the novel? Consider the circumstances and his actions in the end of the story. Is he truly evil?
5. Given the fact one chapter so closely follows the other, do you believe that there is any significance in the juxtaposition of the chapter that features the antelope herd slaughter (beginning on page 114) with the chapter that features the bakery scene (starting on page 121)? How does each scene illustrate the differences between Captain Franklin and Lieutenant Austin? What does each scene say about the condition of army life in the novel's setting?
6. Consider Lieutenant Austin and Captain Franklin's relationship. Their differences are immediately apparent, but in what ways are they similar? What about each of them makes their friendship so strong?
7. Discuss Lieutenant Austin's obsession with the discovery and identification of new species. Why is this significant? What does it imply about his character?
8. While reading, did you think that the circumstances of Captain Franklin's death mirrored Thad's death? If so, do you believe that the author was trying to make a connection between Lieutenant Austin and Ned?
9. The true identity of the woman discovered dead on the trail is ambiguous. Do you believe that she was Mary? Does Ned think that the woman was Mary?
10. Throughout Shavetail, the author works with the idea of redemption. Many characters are engaged in the search for it, most notably Ned and to a lesser extent, Franklin and Austin. Which of them is, in the end, successful, and why?
Enhancing Your Book Club:
The Apaches are featured in Shavetail. Conduct research online, including sites like this accessgenealogy.com/native/tribes/apache/apachehist.htm, or at your local library, and share you findings with the group.
Pick another novel that is set in America's old west and read it as a companion text. Good authors to choose from include Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.
Have a member bring in a journal and have a grab bag at the meeting or keep a journal of your bookclub meetings.