I don't even know how to begin. What can I tell you that you would believe, anyway? Folks seem to think they already know my life inside out, so what's the point? Tall tales and gossip, mostly. A load of cow shit, if you ask me.
But this here's my chance to set the record straight. So here goes.
First of all, you need to know one thing above all else. I'm a lover, not a fighter. Yes, I killed a few men, eight or nine, I guess. But there ain't one of them sons of bitches that didn't deserve it. You don't turn your back on a fella' out to get ya' and you don't get mixed up with the killing of a sheriff, not if you want to go on living. So friend, you ain't lying when you say I had it coming.
Yessir, I could've high-tailed it to Mexico, settled down some place. Coulda' lived to be an old man. I know I was crazy to go back to Fort Sumner. Crazy in love, that is. And I didn't stick around for just one woman, neither. They was two.
Do you know the strangest thing about this whole Billy the Kid story? It's the notion that my husband was some kind of hero. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was just a matter of two men living their lives, doin' what they had to do. They weren't friends or nuthin', but they respected each other. And when their paths crossed, they followed their instincts. It's just as simple as that.
Some people talk about "mixed emotions" when they talk about Billy. I guess there's some truth to that. Most men were afraid of him. Sam Granger was one. Billy stole his horse on a Thursday and Sam ended up giving him supper and a bed Friday night.
My sister was another. She couldn't wait for her old man to leave on business. Celsa would light a lamp and put it on the ledge in her bedroom window, and he'd be visiting directly. She was like an older sister to Billy, hearing his side of everything and offering up advice. I suspect there was more to it to than that. We all have our moments of weakness, and I know what my sister was capable of. But it was friendship, mainly.
They say blood is thicker than mud and there's some truth to that, too. I didn't want my sister mixed up with Billy any more than Pete Maxwell did. You can't keep no secrets in a small town like this one. I can tell you this: Nobody cried harder for Billy that night than my sister. And nobody understands why my husband killed him more than me.
"Don't go to her tonight," I told him.
But Billy didn't listen. He never listened to nobody, especially me. When you're 18 years old and in love, you think you're bulletproof.
Sometimes I think he enjoyed pushin' his luck. Even when he was sentenced to hang for the killing of Sheriff Brady, Billy had a twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face. He wasn't the only one smiling. You never seen such a choir of smug, satisfied folks in your life. The landowners and the cattle barons run this territory and they don't care a whit about the truth. They could convict him, but they couldn't hold him. I knew he would return to me. But I couldn't hold him neither.
I know one thing for Gospel: never underestimate the wrath of a jealous man. They were all jealous of Billy. Specially my man, Saval.
I knew my husband would be fit to be tied if he found out that me and Billy were friends. So, I waited until he was gone on business for a day a more. Come nightfall I would put a candle in the kitchen window and hope Billy would see it from the rise outside the Maxwell compound. I put him up here three, no, four times.
He even told me he loved me, but he watered it down. Said he was hoping marryin' Paulita might bring him a bit of respectability and—how did he put it—favor with the law. Paulita was crazy about him, but she knew her big brother would kill her if she got involved with a wanted man, so she kept it a secret. When it comes to matters of the heart, a girl needs someone to tell is all. Paulita didn't know there was anything between Billy and me, so she spilled the beans. My heart felt like a piece of meat a tangle of coyotes were fighting over, pulled every which way. Billy could do no wrong in her eyes, and that's the way she was supposed to feel. You remember what if was like bein' a teenager in love?
I admit it—I was jealous of those two. Saval's daddy and mine just set our lives together for practical reasons, with no regard to the kind of people we were. I guess a lot of marriages were set up like that back then, men looking to replace a wife and mother taken by a sudden wave of smallpox; Women from back East answering newspaper ads, willing to risk everything to escape a dead-end life. The only thing that matters to my man is getting' more horses and cattle, then finding a way to feed 'em. I need the kind of man that can give himself to a woman, body and soul. Billy was that kind of person. 'Cept he wasn't cut out for giving it to just one girl.
I remember that barn dance just outside of town, right before the winter. I think Billy danced with every unescorted girl there, and maybe even a few of the ones with escorts. If you want to know the truth, I think he put his outlaw reputation to good use—even if was overblown.
My man Saval was a good example of how Billy could intimidate a man. He wouldn't even come with me that night, knowin' Billy might be there, so I came along with Pat and Apolonaria. It was Billy who helped me down from the wagon when we arrived and Billy who took me home when the evening was over. Nobody needs to know how we stopped by the riverbank. How Billy was more than polite and friendly. I guess I lost my head a bit just being with him. Guess you could say I dodged a bullet. We all know he didn't.
I saw a lot of myself in Billy. Neither of us had nothin' and nobody would ever let us be nothin'. I was taken from my momma when I was six; His momma died when he was 13. By that time, I was a housemaid in Fort Sumner. I got kidnapped by a band of Utes when I was a little girl. You know what it feels like to be sold? Like you was a piece of meat?
Most of my tribe was rounded up and marched to Sumner when I was 16. Maybe that's why I don't give a spit about American authority, why I see Billy's side of things, why I tried to be the momma he lost at 13. Long time ago my momma told me, "You can't defeat money," and if you ask me, that's Billy's life in a nutshell.
I guess Billy had plenty of women around here wanting to protect him. Something in his manner, something in that smile. Billy could be a gentleman when he wanted to. But if you crossed him, he could be plenty ornery, too.
One time I went to a barn dance with Paulita—just to chaperone—nobody wants to see this on the dance floor—and when it came time for everyone to go home, Billy wanted to keep having fun. Rigoberto Chavez, a short burly fella' who owned a ranch on the east side of the Pecos, had his three teen-aged daughters there, representin' about a third of the ladies on hand to dance. When he told his daughters it was time to get their shawls on and get in the buggy, Billy was fit to be tied.
"This here party just got started," Billy told the daddy, with the father holding his middle daughter by the wrist.
"You set down and play that fiddle," Billy told one of the men in the band, and you better believe he sat right back down.
Mister Chavez got right up in Billy's face and they started jawing pretty good. Some of the other men were afraid what might happen, so they had both Billy and Rigo take off their gun belts and settle it outside. Mano y mano. Billy might have been younger and lighter on his feet, but that old rancher had wrestled quite a few animals in his time, and Billy was no match for his strength. Billy got pinned pretty quick and said uncle. Then they got up and dusted themselves off and shook hands and laughed about it as they went their separate ways.
My little boy could be downright honorable.
Folks is always sayin' how Billy'd give ya' the shirt of his back. Or put himself out for a friend. Like the time Pete's cousin got a little mouthy at a catina up north. Almost got hisself killed. Woulda' if Billy hadn't just stepped in and had the house buy everybody a round. Like the good book says, "blessed be the peacemakers."
There's so many lies flying around, so much hogwash people say and repeat without any regard for the truth, just makes it impossible to even have a sober conversation about Billy. One thing people usually get right is that he was a charmer. He was. Probably had a girlfriend in every little town he'd hide out in. I know for a fact he had two or three right here in Sumner. I guess that's what held me back; Billy could never love one woman any more than he could settle down in one place.
Yes, he could dance, and he'd bring you gifts, and be polite as all get out—when he wanted something. I guess I had a big advantage there. Deluvina used to store up food for weeks just to give him a saddlebag full of provisions for himself and the guys he was riding with.
Sometimes she used to let him use the little storeroom as a place to sleep. One time she let Billy and I use her bedroom so we could have a little privacy. Another time she told my big brother Pete that I was having a lady's time so he wouldn't bother us in my bedroom.
Right to the end, Deluvina did whatever she could for Billy. He knew he could trust her to pass on a message, and that's what she did on the last afternoon of his life. I'll never forget how she whispered in my ear while settin' down the plate of tortillas at lunch.
"He says he'll meet you in the peach orchard at sunset," she said.
I guess she read the fear on my face. "Go to him," she urged.
When we met at dusk, I could hardly believe it was Billy I was with. He never opened up like that before. There were so many things he said about his life and me and our future together. Like me and him riding off to Mexico and changing our names and getting our own little place and starting over fresh and new.
Then he kissed me long and slow and worked open the buttons of my blouse. Hands that spread four aces on a table in a saloon. Hands that could draw a revolver so fast and sure. How could those same hands be so gentle?
Hands and lips and tongue that could give a girl so much pleasure. We were under a tree and he rolled me on top and slid my skirt up and for an instant I imagined him facing off against Pat Garret. He made to enter me, smooth as butter, and I knew it wasn't his first time.
"Stop," I said. He stopped. I didn't want him to. Sometimes I think he'd still be alive if I just let him. That's what haunts me. I think about that every day of my life.
We saw a group of men coming and he thought it could be Garret, so both of us hurried home.
Fray Benito Chavez, OFM
Ours is a simple parish, with a modest place of worship. Two dozen rows of wooden benches for the congregation, a stone table for an altar, and a stained-glass window for every station of the cross. The good farmers and ranchers don't mind kneeling on the cold dirt floor, and I suffer Sister Juana's poor playing on an out-of-tune piano hauled up from Mexico by mules in the back of a weather-beaten cart. Even when the cold winds of winter pierce the cracks in our humble wooden building, we find a way to celebrate mass. There is comfort in the presence of the Lord.
There are men who work the land, men who trade horses and raise cattle. Most are honest and diligent, but a few who fall prey to the evil landowners and sly politicians. There are women who generally stand by these men, stirring dirty clothes in great steaming pots, baking a simple kind of bread out of almost nothing, keeping the brave homesteads going. They give comfort in the darkness out of duty; Sullen, they wake up to face another dreary day.
There is no way out. Waves of hardship wash over the people like an ocean, drought in the intense summer and unexplained fever and chills in the long winter, yet they find refuge here in this place with their God. With only Juanita, my mayor domo, helping when she can, I keep the church going like an innkeeper in Bethlehem, only here there is always room.
All of the candles were burned down to stubs, and I was replacing them one afternoon when I saw him standing outside next to his horse, tentatively peering in like a young boy courting his first sweetheart. The two men with him were dissatisfied and impatient and didn't bother to dismount, but the third had come to see me, and he was the leader and would not be denied.
The big front door groaned and some sand blew inside as he stepped in. He was no more than a boy, but the look in his eye spoke of loss and tragedy and he carried something with him that almost gave me goose flesh.
"Padre," he began respectfully.
"Si, mi ejo," I answered, softly as I could.
"Can you hear my confession?"
He spoke in both English and Spanish like myself, I thought.
"Confessions are Saturday and today is only Friday, my brother."
The look he gave me engendered a depth of compassion I had never experienced before or felt since. It was if I had the crucified Christ in my presence, bearing his wounds.
"Follow me," I said, and led him down the aisle to the front railing and then off to the left where a little room was waiting. At that moment I knew why we built that confessional and why good Father Esteban had this church erected in the most lonesome arm pit of this God-forsaken desert. And it was with a calm sense of duty that I went back to the sacristy, removed my vestments from the closet, and solemnly dressed the part of Franciscan priest.
Someone must have told him something of the sacrament, for he was already kneeling on the other side of the partition. Remarkably, his turned-up cowboy hat rested outside the door.
"Repeat after me, son," I whispered through the daylight in the caned screen between us. And then it seemed our low voices were booming together, echoing through the entire church.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."
Then there was silence, plain and empty and dark as the vast night sky.
"Tell the Lord what you have done, my son."
There was a long pause, and I could hear him licking his lips, feel the agony in his wincing face.
"I killed a man," he said. "They was two of them . . . "
And I stifled a laugh when he added, "but the sons of bitches deserved it."
And he told me the whole story and how they arrested him for something he hadn't done and put him in irons and held him in a jail cell and were fixing to put him on trial. That he had broken out and killed two men and would be halfway to Mexico if not for someone he had to see one more time. As his narrative continued, a strong wind came up and we could feel the sand and tumbleweeds hitting the other side of the wall. I reached up to the screen and made a cross over his sobbing profile. The Holy Dove was present, and I knew he wasn't going to get of this alive. I gave him absolution and last rites together and when it was over, he hugged me and pressed three gold pieces in my hand and turned and walked out the door.
I watched through the window as three men on horseback rode through a dust storm toward the horizon. I felt my pocket watch chime inside my vest pocket. It was three o'clock in the afternoon.
Two nights before Billy died, Saval was on top of me and he was doing it—I won't call it making love—he was doing it and he was plenty angry and taunting, me too.
"What's the matter?" he said. "Ain't this how Billy does it? How come you like when it's him?"
And then he slapped me 'cross the face. Hard. And then he gets off and goes off to the back porch and spends the better part of the night takin' swigs from that bottle he hides in the shed. Sometime later on he mounts up and rides off somewheres. I could hear the horses' hooves galloping so clear, loud as a hailstorm on tin roof, then softer and softer until he was gone.
I got up and went the window, the same window where I put the candle those times for Billy to see. And I spend the rest of the night hoping he would come, but he didn't, so I went back to bed. I was half awake with my cheek throbbin' and I started seein' this light in the darkness and I was drawn to and he was drawn to it and in that moment, he was with me again.
"Thanks for all those meals," his voice said, "nobody makes cornbread like you do." I took his hand and put his palm to my face. Soft like a boy's, fragile as a baby chick; Soothing, healing. I kissed him and put his other hand on my breast and he did what came natural. I knew I was robbing the cradle and I didn't care. You can do whatever you like when you're in love. Besides, you only get so many chances in a place like this—and I wasn't gonna' miss it.
I knew it was the last time and he knew it was the last time and I just held on as long as I could with my head on his chest, listenin' to his beating heart while he ran his fingers through my hair, gentle as can be. He was staying with Martinez at the far end of the compound and when he put on his boots and belt, I saw the ivory grip of his pistol and I knew he was goin' to the light again. I decided that's how I'd remember him, a young boy goin' toward the light.
Celsa told me what happened. Saval was a sly one. Two days before Billy came to stay, they had slaughtered a pig and Celsa made enough carne adovada to last a week. But Saval said it had turned—it was a lie—and dumped it all in the ditch for the coyotes to feast on. There was nothin' to eat that night, and when Saval handed Billy the butcher knife, the wheels were in motion.
Mister Peter knew he was coming, and not just for a slice of fresh beef. Some Judas let the master know about Billy's intentions for his sister, and there was no way he was gonna' let that happen. Billy was only careless a moment, but that's all it took.
I can still see his blood running across Mister Peter's bedroom floor. I watched it come in waves, and I saw the beaver hide floating on top. It would still be floating to this day, but Garrett squashed it with his bootheel and that's why all of us go the same way Billy did, sinking down into the next world.
After his body was laid out on the table, I asked everyone to leave so I could take care of my little boy. I removed my clothes and washed him from head to toe, slowly, respectfully, singin' that song he used to like, the one about the fox in the hen house, hummin' that refrain in his ear, knowin' he was hearin' me, never so sure of anything in my life.
When I was finished, I let 'em all in and all the women was crying and moanin' with their hair all around his bare feet and there was wailing like you never heard before or since. I did not shed one tear. Outside it was full dark and the summer wind came up in the night sky and was blowing the stars here and there and I knew Billy was out there, home at last.
I stepped into the room, trying to follow Pete's voice, trying to make out his frame in the darkness. There was a flash and I knew I was hit with hot blood pourin' out my chest. I saw my momma in her bed and she held the handkerchief up to her mouth and it was spotted with blood, too. I was bathed in a white light and floatin' over my own body and overwhelmed with the feeling that everything was all right.
I saw my daddy dropping me off at Miss Sarah's boarding house and then I felt myself shimmying up through the chimney of the jailhouse and when I passed from the darkness into the sunshine on the roof it was like my momma givin' birth and I understood for the first time how I spent my whole life running away.
But now I was a glowing ball of light movin' in space with every other soul who ever lived, John Tunstall and Sheriff Brady and Windy Cahill and all of em', everyone and everything all together in the same swift-moving stream. And I saw myself riding through the desert at night, riding off to find my daddy, riding down by the river with Paulita, riding with gunshots ringing all around me, always riding, riding. Folks always gettin' their suspenders all in a knot about the meanin' of life. Well, I'm here to tell you it's nothing but riding, riding. Every one of us riding toward the sunset just over the next rise.
My body was in a coffin and my coffin was in a wagon and the wagon was carryin' my bones to the graveyard. Deluvina and Paulita and Celsa and other good ladies were walking behind in black shawls and some was weepin' and I wanted to tell em' "Don't you cry, everything's all right," but of course, they couldn't hear me.
That night I came to Paulita as a ghost—and don't go gettin' your long johns in a knot. A ghost is nothin' but a soulless spirit. I knocked a couple of things around and made the Bible fall from a shelf, just to let her know I was there. When she got into bed, I went with her, just so's she could feel my weight beside her. She was cryin' cause I was gone and we never made it out and everybody was sayin' she was growin' large with our child. When I put my arm around her, I could feel her body shakin' and shiverin' and I told her it was all right. Everyone is a liar from the governor to Albert Jennings Fountain all the way down to Garrett and your brother, liars all of 'em. But it's all right. It's all right.
Then I went to Celsa and she was in bed, too, and I put my hand on her cheek and she was healed. She already knew about the light, so's I just reassured her: "You're right, baby . . . you're right." Yes, there was pain, especially tonight, but there is a place beyond those tears where nobody cries no more. She was headin' out for this place, and she was gonna' get there.
When I came to Deluvina, she was out in the darkness beyond the corral lookin' up at the stars. A red-tail hawk was perched on the very top branch of the tall pinon tree next to the railing; That was me. A breeze was blowin' in from the west, lifting the ends of her dark black hair; That was me, too. Her face was set like flint, and I was able to hear her thoughts.
I was floating over Sumner like a huge bird, watching everything. I felt I was a part of everything and everything was a part of me. One with the sky, one with dirt and rocks. Just like the crickets chirpin' in the night.
A bull and two heffers came trundling up to the rail like they wanted to be near her. She was sittin' on the ledge of that big boulder Pete's daddy tried to move out of there with teams of horses but never could. The cowboys used to call it "the rock of ages." It was like she herself was part of that stone, quiet and still and takin' it all in. The stars in sky was as plentiful as the sand on the mesa and their light shone in the darkness and the soft breeze blew 'em all around and it was so, so peaceful. For the first time I understood the pain I caused throughout my life, and I even felt sorry for the families of the fellers I killed.
Deluvina knew what it all meant but she wasn't sayin', so neither will I. You and me and all of us will understand on the last day when it all comes full circle. The ain't one of us that don't need mercy. They ain't one of us who ain't forgiven.