The sun slid down the massive mauve sky like an egg yolk in a heavily-larded cast-iron skillet, putting the
plateaus in the distance in stark silhouette as young Billy Ketchum looked up and then past the blackening
circle the campfire made around the chaparral. He looked out over the naked grasslands to the west, where he
watched the sun descend and then its subsequent majestic limning of the moon—everything beneath the
planets turning a dark navy color as the myriad spray of stars glossed the firmament in misty white light.
Billy's father was lying in the dirt just a few feet away, his black Stetson cocked over his eyes and his
legs crossed just at the knees, his slightly-dusted boots close to the clicking flamelight as he slept, or
at least seemed to. It had been a long day for the both of them.
Behind the boy and to his right two painted horses nickered. One was his and the other belonged to his father.
The horses' flared nostrils chuffed up little clouds of dust like smoke from one of the trains back at the
railhead, which you could see just across the flatland during the day but which was as invisible now as the
sun tucked behind the plateau. They would be there come morning—near the Aransas Pass Railway—and
then they would continue on, farther west into Presidio County where they would look for ranch work.
Billy listened as the horses nudged restlessly at the splayed clusters of switchgrass, which looked like the ends
of old paintbrushes jutting out from the ground. He could hear their ropes creak as the horses tugged against the
Joshua trees to which they were hitched, occasionally breathing out notes of warm air as a singular coyote moaned in the distant and newly-minted dark. The boy sat in the fire's warmth and watched his father sleep, snoring loudly. He had drunk a good bit of Old Crow that evening and was out cold.
Billy leaned over and laid a blanket over him. It was cooling off from what it had been earlier in the day. By midnight it would be fifty degrees. The boy then pulled his own dusty Navajo blanket across his shoulders and spit into the dying fire, whose sporadic light made his pale and dirtied face look like a carefully-sculpted saucer of dough with charcoal fingerprints run across it. He would have to wash at the next river or creekbed he came to. But for now he'd stay dirty. It made him look older anyway, and that might prove to his benefit if he went through with what he was thinking about doing.
Then the boy stood, kicking a tiny spray of dirt onto the fire to see if it would wake his father. He waited there for a moment to see if his old man would stir and when he didn't Billy crept over to one of the Joshua trees where his father's Colt Single Action Army revolver hung in its worn holster from one of the tree's warped branches. It was as though some curved arm were passing the holster to the boy. Billy lifted it, looked down at his father again, who was still asleep, and then he looked at the nickeled barrel of the gun: the worn wooden handle, the etchings made there by some careful hand, probably put there before he was even born.
Loosing the thong over the hammer, Billy took out the gun and turned the heavy weapon over in his palm, feeling its heft and the deadly weight of it. The gun seemed to almost flicker under the moonlight, its reflection coruscating over Billy's pale skin. It was as if it were alive. The boy thought about what this weapon had done earlier today. How it had taken another man's life. And how it seemed to quiver now in his seemingly small fingers.
Briefly the boy thought about shooting his father but he knew he could never do that. He still loved him. And he would miss him. He knew that too. And although he would pine for those long days on horseback, riding across the flatlands under the sun with his father, he knew he had to leave. But it would be hard. For every day in his collection of memories they had ridden like that. The two of them together. The boy and his father. And it was always the ride—endless-seeming and full of mystery even—which kept the boy next to his old man up until now, a man who himself was an enigma: quiet, a smoker of tobacco and a drinker of Old Crow whiskey. He kept a pewter shotglass tied to his saddle's worn pommel with a length of frayed rope and when they stopped somewhere to rest, his father would fill the squat cup with the warm, amber-and-dusty-looking liquid and drink it.
Once he had shared his whiskey with the boy and Billy can still remember the warmth of it going down his gullet all the way to his stomach and somehow he could feel it go down to the tips of his toes. It was a warmth he would not know again until he was much older: when he would lie down with a girl in a hayrick in the back of a weather-worn and slatted old barn somewhere out in the desert at a ranch he was working in Mexico—the sunlight and the tiny motes of dust coming in through the slats in sporadic straight lines like myriad ribs of light. It is the warmth that can be derived only from good whiskey or a woman, but the boy would not know this for several years to come. Until now he had been at the mercy of his father and the experiences the old man had created for them. Which up until earlier today had been mostly good ones. Working and riding the uncharted land. Seeing new things. Meeting new people.
But Billy's father was a stern man. Quiet. With a hint of anger about his countenance. The boy often studied him as they rode. Once he sketched him with a piece of charcoal on some crumpled yellowed paper he kept in his satchel. The old man always had a perpetual hint of beard, like sandpaper, sprouting across his weathered cheeks, only the handlebars of a thick black mustache fully grown in and graying more and more each day, it seemed. The charcoal sketching captured these things, somehow the worried look in his father's eyes making him look older in the portrait than his actual years bespoke.
Come to think of it, Billy didn't even know how old his father was, didn't even know the man's middle name, or if he had one at all. He knew his father's first name was Thomas, and Billy just called him "Paw." And at the end of the day that's all that really mattered to him anyway: having a father. Nothing else. Not a middle name. Certainly not his age—those were just numbers after all, weren't they? The man never mentioned those things to Billy and so to the boy they didn't matter either.
What mattered during those long days of riding was this: the shadows cast over the plains by the slowly-moving thunderheads, which loped across the sky like buffalo, their obese shadows moving over the endless grasslands to his left or to his right, and sailing slowly over the prairie as if on their own time, the chronos of a fogged memory, a tableau. A dream.
And this: the land spooling out flat before them like reams of paper coming out of a printing press. The drooping strands of rusted barbed wire, set like a plumb line, hung on weathered wooden posts, some decorated with the tails of rattlesnakes or the skulls of cattle, long dead, dangling like so many talisman and bleached by the unforgiving white disc of sun that seemed to always sit, looking down, baking everything beneath it into a dry, hard crust.
Occasionally Billy would also see the hulking shadows of wooden oil derricks in the distance—like so many Eiffel towers in miniature, their pumpjacks in perpetual movement as those mechanical arms pulled the oil up from beneath the earth. How rich the men who owned those must have been, Billy thought. How different their lives from his, which was always in motion: going from one place to the next in search of work with his father. Wrangling someone else's stock, working another man's land. But Billy loved his father and wouldn't have traded any of this for all the money that oil could bring. Money wasn't permanent. It was the land that would always be here. Waiting for him.
And it was because his father rarely said a word during these seemingly endless drives across the oft-vacant cattle country of West Texas that all there was for the boy to do was to look out at the only land he had known his whole life and think about all of these things. It still managed to mystify him, too, still put him in a state of awe and wonder. The oranges, browns, mauves, reds, all juxtaposed against a cobalt blue sky. Sometimes it felt like too much for him to bear, like if the old horse he rode on was carrying too much weight and suddenly its knobbed legs would just buckle, shooting plumes of dust up into the air as the horse collapsed in the middle of the desert somewhere. Where would he be then?
Billy looked ahead and he didn't speak as they rode, the horses' unshod hooves pounding against the hardpan like an Indian drum mallet, a taut leather hide pulled over its round head and counting out iambs like an endless heartbeat across the plains. The only other sound was the windrush through the boy's hair and across the brim of his hat as they rode, the occasional nicker from one of their horses. They had ridden for almost two hundred miles like this and it was the last leg of their journey before reaching the ranch in Presidio County where his father expected to have work for some time coming. Billy had once hoped they wouldn't ever have to move again. But now, after what had happened today, he knew he would be moving for the rest of his life, whether he decided to stay with his old man or not.
Billy sat in the dark while his father slept nearby—whiskey-deep and next to the fire—the boy's boots scraping at the caliche the whole while as he anticipated his next move. He thought again about riding through the plains with his father to find work. And what he'd seen earlier. What he'd learned about his father, Thomas Ketchum. The boy turned his old man's gun over and over in his hand as he thought about the recently-passed day. He listened to the horses stomp at the dusty ground and chuff out warm air from their nostrils as they pulled at the switchgrass and crunched it between their fat orange-and-yellow teeth. He simply didn't know what else to do but listen and think and watch.
Then the boy finally stood among the chaparral and looked into the dark, slowly placing the gun in its holster, then hanging it back onto the branch of the Joshua tree. The two horses stood like sentinels on the cracked ground—the myriad tiny fissures like so many veins carved into the hardpan: like an old map of various unexplored rivers or trails perhaps, their endless angles etched out in random patterns that couldn't be deciphered by any man, could certainly not be known by the likes of this boy and his father, who until earlier today had seemed hardworking and predictable. But that had all changed when his father held up a saloon and they had gone on the run. This is what had happened:
They had come to Langtry, Texas. The town was about what you'd expect. Wooden hitching rails lined the storefronts, some of which looked long abandoned, their soaped windows covered with yellowed newspapers, flapping downward where the tape had lost its grip, owing a brief view inside at the dusty, sun-deprived air, the empty wooden shelves which in better times had stocked dry goods and various tack for the animals people here had once depended on. Now it was all vacant. Dark and with lonely motes of dust floating in the air.
After riding down the muddy avenue that cut through the center of the town like a hatchet mark, and getting a fairly good look at the place, Billy and his father finally stopped in front of a small saloon. It was called The Jersey Lilly. The two dismounted, then hitched their horses to one of the wooden rails in front of the drooping building.
Billy's father unholstered his Colt .45, flipped open the loading gate, and spun the cylinder once for good measure before clicking it in place. Then he put the gun back. You could see the wooden grip protruding from the top of the holster now as the barrel rested against his thigh. He never went inside a place without doing this first. Checking his gun to be sure it was loaded. And for the boy, this was a ritual that he had come to depend on seeing every time they went somewhere. Something about watching his father do this comforted him, even though the old man never seemed to find cause to use the gun. But he soon would, Billy would learn.
The boy and his father stood before the sagging porch for a moment, simultaneously looking at the dilapidated stairwell leading up, and then looking at the sky and then across the muted flatlands. The old man stretched his arms behind his head and adjusted his Stetson to better shade his eyes as a slow train clattered past a few hundred yards beyond. You could see the cattles' horns—and the silhouette of the bovine shapes to which they belonged—protruding from the wooden-slatted cattlecars as the train loped through the mostly-deserted town, disappearing into the grasslands, the boy and his father watching, waiting for it to pass before they went inside the eating place.
If they had seen another man standing there, waiting on the other side of the train, watching them through the slats of the railcars, they hadn't made note of it to themselves. Billy's father kept his eyes squinted against the sunglare and Billy himself kept his eyes on his father, who was now bringing down his arms and taking off one of his black riding gloves. Then Thomas Ketchum reached into his shirtpocket and pulled out a twist of tobacco wrapped up in a yellowed handbill that announced a job at a silver mine in Presidio County, in a town called Shafter, Texas. They were planning to stop there first to see if one of the mines would pay out for them. If not, it would be on to the ranch to work as cattlehands. Thomas shook out a clump of the tobacco into his calloused palm, then rolled a tiny cigarette in just under thirty seconds. When he was finished, he put the cigarette in his lip and lit it with a bent match.
Billy watched this and he looked forward to the day when he could start smoking with impunity. He wondered when that day might come. His father said that he had started smoking while working on a cattle ranch in Laredo when he was fifteen. Billy was now thirteen, getting closer to fourteen. Maybe next year, he thought. He had already toyed with the idea of just swiping a smoke from his old man, just to try it, but was afraid of the consequences. His father could be harsh when it came to things like stealing or lying. He had a sense of Old Testament justice about him, and he wasn't above whipping his son with the belt he kept around his waist. The old man had done it before once, and not but two weeks ago when he had caught Billy looking in on a woman as she was dressing.
Thomas Ketchum's justice that day had been swift and the boy barely had time to register what he was seeing through that blurred window: the white of a woman's laced corset and the lines of her neck and spine—how they formed a nearly perfect arch leading up to the nape of her neck from which a waterfall of blonde hair cascaded down and over her shoulders, covering the creamy hills of her breasts, smooth and squeezed taut by the lace and wires of the corset and powdered with talcum as fine as untouched snow.
The belt met with Billy's leg just near his thigh and it left a pink welt on his skin that would stay there for days afterward, reminding the boy of his indiscretion while simultaneously bringing back that old thrill and despair of seeing a woman halfclad and beautiful and yet infinitely beyond his reach. He was still too young to understand any of this, but he did understand why his father had hit him. The old man never mentioned it again. And so neither did the boy.
For now Billy would have to settle on just watching his father smoke, smelling the tobacco and the sulfur from that little Diamond matchbook the old man kept in his shirtpocket. It was a process among many with which the boy was enamored, fascinated, especially when they related to his father in some way. The boy loved his father and he never once missed being around other boys, going to school. He loved the country out here too. Billy had already decided that he was going to grow up and be just like his old man, for better or for worse. It's all he really desired from this life up until now.
As the slightly-distant train vanished, Billy and his father walked around to check on their horses. They still didn't notice the other man walking across the tracks, toward them. Billy could smell the hay and the dust and the sweaty horseflesh as the horses nickered and stomped against the caliche. There was also the sweet smell of manure in the air. The horses looked back at them—their large black eyes like onyx carefully embedded into a tree trunk, whittled smooth by time and wind and water perhaps. They were beautiful, thought the boy. Yet one more thing to confound his senses. Women, whiskey, tobacco, horses. What else could this life possibly offer him that would prove better than this?