Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Themroc van Harryhausen, Gnu Buster

The kid looked down at the dirt and spat his tobacco out, killing a passing centipede instantly.
'We movin' out?' the kid asked, trying not to show his impatience.
Themroc van Harryhausen, the greatest gnu-buster the West had ever known, looked up from the fire where he was raking over the embers of the morning, swallowing the last of the toasted marzipan.
'You're too eager, kid. I know, I was once like you.' Themroc looked at the sky, almost blinding in its mixture of bright blue and damnation orange, and felt tears prick the edge of his eyes. He refused to cry. He hadn't cried in nigh-on thirty years, and he wasn't about to start now. Standing up and hitching up his belt, he applied his medicated eyedrops and blinked for an hour or so. Finally, he nodded to his protege, and they made their way slowly to the horses.
They were called horses, but Themroc knew, in that deep, elemental, dry-boned way, that they were horses only in name. In fact, the kid's was actually a dachsund. For himself, Themroc had secured himself a thoroughbred ibex, but as had always been the way amongst gnu-busters, the apprentice rode a dog. Some traditions were worth holding onto.
The weary-faced 'buster allowed a smile to insinuate itself across his face with the memory of his own apprenticeship, when he himself had ridden tall in the saddle on a fiery shih tzu. That had been under the tutelage of the famous Portobello Siffredi, and in some ways they had been the happiest days of his life. In other ways they hadn't, for instance, the intermittent hand-holding and French kisses, but he was willing to forget that for the sake of the gnu-busting secrets Siffredi had vouchsafed him. Those days were long gone now, and Siffredi's mantle had been quietly devoured by Themroc himself. Some days, though...he wondered...
The kid was looking at him strangely. It took a few minutes for Themroc to realise that this was because he had been captured by a lynch mob and hung from a tree during his previous musings. Shaking his head at the kid's bulging eyes and throaty gurgles, Themroc cut him down with his shiny gnu-machete, laid him gently on the savannah and kissed his eyelids tenderly.
'Gotta watch for the mobs in these parts, kid,' he said after the young fellow had recovered and they were mounting up. 'Some people don't take too kindly to gnu-busting. Post-modernists and such. City folk. Russians. Franciscan monks.'
'But gnu-busters built this land,' protested the kid, outraged at such goings on and suspecting, as always, that it was all Jack Kerouac's fault.
Themroc sighed and stabbed his ibex in the neck to get it moving. 'Times are changing, kid,' he said wistfully and with a touch of lavender. 'The ranges ain't so open no more, the grass don't grow quite so tall, folks ain't free and easy with their vittles, the towns have swallowed up the prairie, the hippo's gone a-lookin' for greener pastures, and the nabob, we he just up and scuttled, y'all.'
The kid was silent. He looked down at the neck of his dachsund, and stroked it thoughtfully. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering in his heart of hearts what Themroc was talking about. Sometimes it seemed they spoke a different language. Sometimes they did speak a different language, and it was Urdu. Some days all that was ahead of them was grass, heat, a herd of giraffes and an overdraft, and if it wasn't for his faith in gnu-busting as a man's pursuit, he would crawl into the bottom of a whisky bottle and make a model ship.
Themroc noticed his partner's taciturnity. he reached over with the gnu-prod and shocked him with concern.
'K, kid?' he asked, with the lazy southern drawl that he had picked up last week in a saloon. 'The gnus'll be comin' up by an' by.'
'I'm fine, sir,' said the kid loyally as his arm slowly slipped from its socket due to a congenital disorder. 'Just doin' a mite thinkin''
'Better wrap it up, son,' said Themroc, smiling evilly for the hell of it. 'Them gnus be comin' over the horizon, and there's bustin' to be done.'
He spoke the truth. In two minutes time, they were the centre of a heaving, sweaty tornado of hoofs, horns, wild, unbridled grunting and whispered murmurings of romance and indiscretion. At the end of it, seventy fine gnus had been busted, and many hundreds more were dead. The kid, screaming wildly, was feasting on the remains, face covered with blood and pale as a midnight hamster. Themroc laid a weatherbeaten glove on his shoulder.
'None o' that, son,' he said. 'We came to bust these gnus for Mister Gramboko, and we done busted 'em. Now we bring 'em in, but let the rest bury their loved ones. Never step on a gnu' religious traditions, it shows disrespect. And out here, sometimes, respect's all a body's got to stop him becoming sexually confused.'
'They're just gnus,' the kid protested, mouth full of the peculiarly sticky mass you get in gnu bladders. 'And ain't we gnu-busters?'
'A gnu-buster don't despise the gnus he busts, kid. That's a lesson you gotta learn if'n ever you wanna get offa yer dachsund. We fight 'em, we bust 'em, we even kill 'em, but we respects 'em. We're like brothers. Who kill each other. Man and gnu gotta be able to look each other in the face, or else, there's no point to this crazy ol' world, and we may as well just go pick up whores in Nairobi. Treat 'em with honour, kid, it's the only way. It's the gnu-buster's code.'
'What's the gnu-buster's code?'
'And what does that mean, huh?'
'You'll find out, son, you'll find out.'
'And Themroc, with a dig of his heels and a vibration of his thighs, wheeled his ibex around and headed for home. but in his heart he remembered the day he found out what the code meant, and the way his life was never the same afterwards, as family, friends, and motor function left him and he found himself out on that lonesome savannah, busting gnus, bedding women, eating spinifex and playing practical jokes on slow-witted zebras. Life could never stay in one place for a gnu-buster, not even the greatest the world had ever known. because that world was changing, and no matter how many times he busted a gnu, trained an apprentice, married a Filipino or rode that long, lonesome trail from Cairo to Cape Town, the aching would remain. The aching that said...Themroc, your time has passed...
He felt the pricking again. He wiped his eyes, dug his heels in, and rode...away. 

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