The old man rising slow in the desert morning, not a tiredness on him nor crippled up. Biding his time. Thinking one thing a man learns, getting old, is time moves with you. Don't want time rushing you, don't hurry it.
* * *
Make breakfast, tend the mules. Sit on the porch and watch the day from sun come up to sun gone down. The day between.
Carrying water to the mules he sees riders coming, five of them, riding out of the east, the sun behind them sending their shadows out long in front of them across the desert floor. They ride four together, in a line, the fifth a little back of them, keeping to one side.
"What's this place?" one of the four says when they've come to the old man's yard, just an open place with corral and barn and the house around. Talking to the old man.
"Just a place," the old man says.
"It got a name?" the rider says.
"Nah," the old man says. Puts the buckets he's been carrying down. Hands empty at his sides.
"You got a name?" the rider says.
"Yep," the old man says.
Fifth rider keeping back from the other four. Sun behind him, hat pulled low, the old man can't make out his face. But he'd know him anywhere.
"You trying to be funny?" the rider asking all the questions says.
"I guess not . . . no," the old man says.
"He trying to be funny?" the rider doing all the talking says. Asking those who ride with him.
"Old man like that ought to be more careful," a rider says. Another of the four.
"Hear that, old man?" the rider who's so talkative says. "Fella here says you ought to be more careful, the way you talk."
"No," the old man says.
"No?" the rider who's the talker says. "What kind of talk is that?"
The fifth rider knees his horse, nudges it ahead. "Let's go," he says.
The other riders look at him. "Say what?" the one with the questions says, but the fifth rider moves by, past him, past the old man, too, out of the yard, back into the desert.
"What the . . . " one of the four riders says.
"Aw, hell," the one who's been talking so much says. "Come on." Following the rider.
When the four catch up with the fifth, the old man sees, he lets them pass by, settles in behind them again, riding off a little to one side.
Why, he's all growed up, the old man thinks.
Picks up his buckets, goes on to the mules.
"Crazy old man," one rider says.
"What's wrong with him, you think?" another says.
"Out in this desert too long," says a third. "Heat must of fried his brain."
"Yeah? Well, what's wrong with this one, then?" someone says, jerking his head back at the fifth rider, riding back there alone.
"Oh, shut up," the rider who'd been so talkative before says.
"Ought to call him Moses," Grif Ritter saying. Meaning the boy they'd found that morning.
* * *
"Oh? Why's that?" Charlie Kincaid said, Grif's partner. The one who'd found the boy.
"Why, from the Bible," Grif said. "After that boy Moses Pharaoh's wife found in that basket there in the bulrushes by the river Nile."
"Probably has a name," Charlie said.
"Too young to know it, then."
"You don't know that."
"Why don't you ask him, then?" Grif said. "Hey, what's your name, boy," he said. Saying to the boy.
The boy they'd found hid under the burnt-out wagon. The boy just looked at him.
"See, I told you," Grif said.
"Yeah, you did," Charlie said. Thinking it queer how the boy wasn't crying when he'd found him, and not because he'd cried himself out, neither. No tear tracks on the boy's face, all grimed with soot and smoke. What boy wouldn't cry, seeing all he must of seen, his folks all killed there, their wagon burnt?
"Well, he's an orphan, sure enough," Grif said.
"Yeah," Charlie said.
"Got nobody in the whole wide world," Grif said.
"Except us," Charlie said.
They watched the boy across the campfire.
* * *
"He's sure a quiet one," Grif said. Not wanting to let on it made him nervous, the boy never making a sound, just looking at them. Pale eyes watching everything.
"Quiet's not so bad," Charlie said.
"You saying I talk too much?" Grif said. Maybe the boy smiled when he said it. He didn't know. Maybe just a look in the boy's pale eyes.
"Just saying quiet's good, is all," Charlie said. "Fella learns more listening than talking."
"That so?" Grif said.
"Sure," Charlie said. Maybe he'd seen the boy smile, too. Or thought he had.
"That how you got so all-fired smart?" Grif said.
"Sure," Charlie said. The boy's mouth hadn't moved, though, when he thought he'd seen him smile. Yeah . . . something in his eyes, maybe.
"We gonna keep him?" Grif said.
"Can't leave him out here," Charlie said.
"Kinda young to ride with us," Grif said.
"Time'll fix that," Charlie said.
"If you say so."
"Yeah," Charlie said. "I'd say."
"Hey, now, look at this," Grif said. Watching the gang of boys in the town where they'd stopped coming up to their boy, the one they'd found. Four or five of them, bigger and older than their boy.
* * *
The boy sat on the edge of the boardwalk in front of the saloon where they were fancying to have a drink. Not doing anything. Just sitting. Maybe watching the other boys, them making remarks and pressing up close to him.
"Hey, I'm talking to you," one of them said. "Can't you talk?"
The boy just looking at him.
"Ain't you got no manners?" the other boy said. "'Cause if you ain't, I can learn you some."
"Hey, now—" Grif started to say.
"Leave him be," Charlie said, shushing him.
"Yeah, learn you some manners," the other boy said. A bully. The boys with him giggled. He was mean. They were glad to have his meanness lighting on the boy and not on them.
"But Charlie—" Grif said.
"Hush," Charlie said.
The bully reached in at the boy. Not punching him, but digging a finger into his skinny chest. Hurt more than a punch, that could, Charlie thought.
The boy rocked back, the bully backing up to admire his handiwork.
"Now see—" the bully started to say to the other boys. The ones used to his bullying.
The boy stood up. He wasn't tall, Charlie thought. He made a fist, delivered a blow to the side of the bully's head, right by his ear. Bully sat right down in the dirt of the street. Just like he'd been shot dead. And he went and wet his pants, Charlie saw.
Boy who rode with them sat back on the boardwalk.
"He'p him up," Charlie told the other boys, who grabbed the bully up by his arms and dragged him away down the street. Lifeless as a sack of feed.
"Moses ain't no name for him," Grif said. Looking at the boy there, sitting. "No, sir. Proper name for him'd be Samson."
"That from the Bible, too?" Charlie said.
"Hell, yes, from the Bible," Grif said. "Why, in the Bible, Samson, he—"
"You and your Bible," Charlie said. Spitting on the ground.
When they rode, the boy rode in the saddle in front of Charlie, hands folded on the saddle horn. Not gripping it but resting easy.
* * *
Queer, Charlie thought, the boy not leaning back on him. Not leaning forward neither, the way you'd lean if you dozed off. But maybe he didn't doze, Charlie thought. The boy.
He slept under Charlie's blanket when they made camp at night, his sleep untroubled, as far as Charlie could tell, by any dreams of what had been. What happened back at the wagon.
They'd been drifting to the south and west, Grif and Charlie, when they found the boy, summer's pay in their pockets and plenty of time to spend it. Drifting, before it turned cold and they'd be obliged to fort up for the winter. Find jobs, maybe, to hold them over, keep them in eats until the weather warmed again for another herd to harry north.
* * *
With the boy, though, Charlie thought. With the boy with them, it might be a better thing to winter in a town somewhere. A town, maybe, with a school.
* * *
"A school?" Grif said.
* * *
"Why not?" Charlie said.
"I guess so. Sure . . . why not?"
The girl who kept the school inquired: "How old is the boy?" "What schooling has he had?" "Can he read?" "Know his numbers and his letters?" "What's his name?"
"What's your name?" she asked the boy, kneeling down in her long dress to look him in the eye.
"Clarence," said the boy. Saying it right out like talking away at folks was the commonest thing he ever did.
"Wha—?" Grif said, jaw dropping so hard you'd have thought you heard it strike his chest.
"Not Moses?" Charlie said. "Not Samson?" Laughing at Grif. His Bible names.
"Clarence," the boy said. As if they should have known.
"Well, I'll be damned," Grif said.
"Please . . . your language," the school teacher said. "This your son?" she said. Asking Charlie.
"Your poor thing," she said. Addressing the boy.
"Clarence," said the boy. "Clarence Stone."
"How is he?" Clarence said. Looking down at Grif on the bunkhouse bed, his face as pale as the pillow case his head was resting on.
* * *
"He's dying," Charlie said.
"Oh," Clarence said.
He sat on the bed beside the man, took up one of his hands. Held it in both of his.
"Damn fool to get himself shot like that," Charlie said.
"Yeah," Clarence said.
"A good man, though, Grif was."
"Yeah," Clarence said. "I know."
"Talked a fair amount, though."
"Yeah, he did."
"But he loved you like a son."
"Yeah," Clarence said. "I know."
"That your horse out there?" Clarence said. Talking to the man beside him at the bar.
* * *
"Yeah. So?" said the man.
"Just wondering. Knew a man had a horse like that."
"Yep. Right down to that scar on that horse's flank out there. I was with him when he rode into that bob wire, tore up that horse like that."
"You don't say?"
"Nursed that horse like a baby, he did. The way it was hurt like that."
"You mean something, or you just talking?" the man said.
"Just talking," Clarence said. "It's good to talk about a good man when he's gone."
"Gone, you say?"
"Tending another man's cows, he was. Got shot's what happened."
"Shot, you say?"
"In the back," Clarence said.
"Well now, that's a shame," the man said. The true shame, though, was how he felt when he turned. Saw the look on Clarence's face. "Now, just wait a minute," he said.
"I guess not," Clarence said. "There's some things won't wait worth a damn."
"You mean to tell me," the sheriff said, looking from the bartender to Clarence and then back again. "You mean to tell me that Pete Hopkins drew first, and then this kid, here, shot him?"
"Wouldn't of believed it myself," the bartender said. "If I hadn't seen it."
"Nah," the sheriff said. "That can't be right."
"I'm just saying what I saw," the bartender said. "Pete was drawing, see, and then this kid, here, pulled his own gun out of his belt and shot him dead. Why, Pete's gun was halfway drawed when the kid, here, started drawing, but he never cleared leather, Pete didn't, afore he was shot. And then this kid, here, he just laid his gun on the bar and just stood here, is all, waiting for you to come."
"Well, don't that beat all?" the sheriff said.
"Beat Pete, sure as hell," the bartender said.
Another saloon. Two women at the bar when Charlie and Clarence came in, dust of trails long-ridden on their clothes, their skin. The women henna-haired and rouged, one younger than the other, the younger not much more than a girl. Except around her eyes.
The women watched the two men drink, hats pushed back on their heads, white circles of dried sweat on their shirts spreading out from under their arms, the beers in their hands washing down the dust in their throats.
"Buy a girl a drink, handsome?" the younger woman said, who had come down the bar to stand by Clarence. Talking to him.
"I . . . " Clarence said.
"Go ahead," Charlie said.
"Well . . . " Clarence said. Nodding at the bartender to give the girl a beer.
"You lonely?" said the girl when she'd had some beer, foam from it on her upper lip.
Pretty enough, considering, Charlie thought. Letting his eyes drift down the bar to the older one. Not pretty at all anymore, that one. If she had ever been.
"Lonely?" Clarence said. "Well, I . . . "
"I've got a room upstairs," said the girl.
"I . . . " Clarence said. Who could of been blushing, Charlie thought. Hard to tell, though, the sunburn on his trail-tanned skin.
"We'd have us a time," the girl said.
"Well, I . . . " Clarence said.
"Go on," Charlie said. "She'll show you what to do."
"All right," Clarence said. Putting down his beer. Letting the girl take him by the arm, lead him away.
"Interesting," the bartender said, watching them go.
"Oh? How's that?" Charlie said.
"Well, that's Stone, ain't it? The gunman?"
"His name's Stone," Charlie said.
"It just sounds like he's never been with a woman before, is all."
"No . . . that's right," Charlie said.
"Well, it's just queer, is all," the bartender said. "Him killing all those men, and never been with a woman."
"Yeah, it's unusual, I guess," Charlie said. But what the hell? he thought. Looking down the bar at the older woman, who showed bad teeth when she smiled back at him.
"You gotta start somewhere, though," he said. Talking to the bartender.
"So, Stone . . . " the talkative rider says when they've ridden a way into the desert from the old man's place. The one the others call Bishop.
* * *
If Clarence hears him, he doesn't let on.
"Hey, Stone . . . I'm talking to you," Bishop says.
"Quiet, ain't he?" another rider says.
"Could be he's deaf," a third rider says.
"And dumb . . . deaf and dumb," says the fourth.
"That it, Stone?" the one they call Bishop says. "You plumb deaf and dumb?"
"Yeah," Clarence says. His voice in the still desert air startling the others.
"Hey, he can talk," the second rider says.
"Well, if'n you can talk," the third rider says, "how come you won't talk to us?"
"Yeah . . . ain't we good company?" Bishop says.
"No," Clarence says.
They ride along in silence, listening to the leather-creak of their saddles, the metal-clink of their spurs. Trying to think what to say.
"You know why you're here?" the man behind the desk says. Talking to Clarence. Looking past Clarence and out the window, he can see the other four, the riders who've brought Stone to him here, idling in the street outside the office. It's quiet in the man's office, the man wearing a suit like a banker's to sit behind his desk. Clarence standing, looking at him.
* * *
"I said, you know why you're here?" the man says.
Clarence still quiet, watching.
"Yeah," he says.
There's a sound in the room, like somebody sucking in air. It startles the man behind the desk. It was him who made the sound. He'd been holding his breath.
"Well, then . . . " the man says. "You know what to do."
Clarence nods and turns. Going to the door.
At the door he stops. Looks back at the man behind the desk.
"You keep them leashed," he says. Meaning the four of them outside. "Don't need them in my way."
Clarence sits his horse at the top of the hill, watching the place spread out down below beside the little stream. A house and a barn. Corral. Patch of corn. A garden planted to vegetables. Cows pastured, eating. The corn, Clarence thinks, will be for the cows, when their summer pasture's wintered out.
* * *
From where he sits, he can see the people down there, too. A woman . . . that would be the wife. Some men at work . . . the woman's husband, he suspects Some hands he's hired. Children, too. Three of them, playing some game with a stick and a hoop.
It's the man that Clarence takes to be the woman's husband who comes out to meet him as he rides down off the hill and into their little yard.
"How do," says the man.
"'Lo," Clarence says.
"Been riding far?"
"You'll water your horse?"
"Long way from town," the man says when Clarence swings down off his horse, walks it to the watering trough beside the man's well. "You passing through?"
"No," Clarence says.
"You looking for work?"
"Got a job," Clarence says.
"Well . . . " the man says. "Hey, I plumb forgot my manners." Putting out his hand. "I'm Gus . . . Gus Gunderson. This here's my place."
Clarence doesn't want to shake this Gus Gunderson's hand. Won't make it any easier, shaking his hand, to do what he's come to do. He has an earnest smile, though, Clarence thinks, this Gunderson.
"Clarence," he says. Shaking the man's hand.
"This work of yours," Gunderson says. "It around here?"
"Yeah," Clarence says.
"Well, welcome, then," says Gunderson. "Always good to have a new face around."
"Is it?" Clarence says.
When Gunderson asks if he'll stay to supper, Clarence does.
* * *
They all eat together in the house . . . Gunderson and his wife Sarah, the hired men, the children. The hired men's names don't matter. The children are Elizabeth and Annie and George.
"Where you from?" George, the boy, says. Asking Clarence.
"Hush, now," his mother tells him. The boy's younger than his sisters, Clarence sees. The favorite of the family, used to getting his way. "He's just curious, is all," the mother, Sarah, says. Explaining the boy to Clarence.
"You want to know something, you've got to ask, I always tell him," Gus Gunderson says. "It's why he's not shy around strangers."
"Oh," Clarence says.
The two girls whispering secrets to each other and giggling.
The hired men hurry their supper. Excuse themselves and go.
"I should be going, too," Clarence says.
"Want a look around the place?" says Gunderson. Clarence can see the pride of it . . . the man pleased with what he's got here, with what he's done with the place.
"No," Clarence says. He's seen all he needs to see.
Clarence rides back into town the same way he came, not looking back as he climbs the hill at the Gundersons or their place.
"Well?" the man in the banker's suit behind the desk in the office says when Clarence is back in town. There's a little nameplate on the man's desk that says "Roebling."
"In the morning," Clarence says.
"So soon?" the man whose name is Roebling says.
"Why wait?" Clarence says.
"Buy you a drink?" Roebling says. Taking a bottle out of a drawer in his desk.
"No," Clarence says.
"Not a drinking man?" Roebling says. "Well, I am," he says.
There's a sound like a gunshot from the street outside the office, and the man named Roebling jumps at the sound, spilling a little of the whiskey that he's pouring. If he's embarrassed by being startled, it doesn't show.
He doesn't see that Clarence hasn't moved.
"That there's what they call a backfire," Roebling says. Explaining the sound from outside. "It's a sound like that that's going to make men rich."
"That so?" Clarence says.
"Well, not the backfire," Roebling says. "But the automobiles that make that sound. They run on gasoline, and that gasoline comes from oil . . . oil like is out there on that Gunderson place."
"Oil," Clarence says.
"That's right . . . oil," Roebling says. "Why, someday, there'll be more automobiles than horses, and whoever's got the oil to make the gasoline for them'll be richer than you can imagine."
"But not Gunderson," Clarence says.
"Oh, hell no . . . not Gunderson," Roebling says.
Clarence lies on the hill above the Gundersons', the sun coming up, rifle laid on the ground in front of him across the blanket roll he's taken from behind his saddle. It's the new bolt-action Springfield, his rifle, the one they're just now issuing to the Army. Looking over its open sights, he can see the light from the Gundersons' windows, their candles and lanterns lit because you can't always wait for the sun to come up to tend your stock. A man who wants to farm needs to start his work in the dark.
* * *
They'll be outside soon, though, Clarence thinks. He'll wait.
He goes on watching.
When the sun does rise, Clarence watches over his rifle's sight as the place below him stirs, Gunderson and the hired men out and about, moving between house and barn, barn and corral. The work they're doing is work Clarence has done, too—some of it, anyway—and they do it well. Far away from them on his hilltop, Clarence can feel their effort, the pride that goes into their work.
* * *
Above Clarence, the sky is cloudless, blue, and the sun warms his back. Below, the woman comes out on the house porch. Clarence can't hear her calling the menfolk, but he knows that she does and, hearing her, the men slack off their work, go inside.
Going inside for their breakfast.
The sun rising higher, warmer on Clarence's back as he lies on the hilltop, watching.
When the men come back outside, the children come, too, skipping and running in the bright morning sun, not weighed down a bit by their breakfast.
Oh, hell, Clarence thinks, but he doesn't say. He hasn't yet chambered a round in his Springfield, nor does he now, but slowly rises from where he's been lying, walks back to where his tethered horse is waiting.
The four of them are waiting. Bishop below and the other three set up back in some trees, down by the river where a rider might pause his horse to drink.
* * *
"Think he's coming?" one says.
"Shut up," Bishop says.
Clarence comes, and Bishop rides down to meet him.
* * *
It's Bishop who moves first, like they've arranged it, giving a sign as he trots his horse away, not looking back at Clarence. That sign, though, is all that goes as they've planned.
* * *
Clarence sees the puff of smoke in the trees. He feels the bullet strike. Hears the rifle's report.
* * *
Before he hears the sound, trailing along after the bullet like a dog behind its master, he falls, rolling down off his saddle.
His gun already drawn.
Bullets kick up dust all around him. Some strike him, but the others whine away. Ricochets.
On the ground, waiting for whoever's been shooting to show themselves, he can take stock of his wounds. The only one that troubles him is the one in his belly. The others won't kill him, he knows, if he has the chance to get the bleeding stopped.
His right arm's not hurt.
The one with the pistol in its hand.
"We got him! We got him!" Clarence hears someone whoop, and when the three of them run out of the trees he knows them. The ones who rode with Bishop.
He lets them come. They're almost to him when he cuts them down, the three falling as fast, almost, as he can thumb back the hammer, pull the trigger of the pistol in his hand.
Bishop watches them fall. Somebody's got got, he thinks. The damn fools.
All right, he thinks. I can wait.
He can't wait, though. Roebling's paying him to kill a man, not watch him bleed to death. He can shoot him from up in the trees, too, but that's not the way. Killing a man is close up work. He'll have to go down to do it. Let him bleed some first, though.
It's queer, things you remember, Clarence thinks. The burning in his belly almost gone. All he feels there now is just a dull ache. Reminds him how hungry he was, hiding under that wagon, before Grif and Charlie came along. Queer, he thinks, what you remember.
* * *
How long's he going to wait? he wonders.
Do it right, Clarence thinks, have the patience, and you'll wait until the critters come. A man can lie a long time, not moving, hurt bad, even in the hottest sun, but when a bird comes pecking . . .
When Bishop comes down out of the trees, Clarence sees he's carrying a rifle. Holding it in both hands, down at his belt, the muzzle pointing at Clarence. He could shoot it from there, Clarence knows, but he won't. He'll want to put the stock on his shoulder. Aim. Be as sure as he can of his shot.
It's when Bishop starts to raise the rifle that Clarence fires. Two shots that strike Bishop right over the heart, and placed so close you could cover the holes with a single gold piece.
There, Clarence thinks.
Goes about the work of getting up. The work of getting back on his horse. The work of riding on.
The old man can see the rider sway in his saddle as he comes.
* * *
"Clarence," he says, when the rider's close enough to hear.
"'Lo, Charlie," Clarence says.
"Here, let me help you down," Charlie says.
"Don't bother, Charlie," Clarence says. "I—"
"So that's what happened?" the old man says to the rider who's stopped by his place to water his horse, to maybe have a bite to eat.
"Yep," says the rider. "It was that Stone fella sure. A whole posse they sent after him, and he kilt them all. Ambushed them is what they say. Now the oil company's got a reward for him. Got detectives, too, out looking for him."
"That so?" the old man says.
"Ain't nobody found him, though. Ain't nobody knows where he's gone."
"Maybe he just went home," the old man says.
"Home?" the rider says. "Men like that Stone fella ain't got no homes."
"Everybody's got a home," the old man says.
Smiling, maybe, as he looks around his place. His mules there in the corral nickering, already fed.