His blood sounded like disturbed earth pushed aside by a steely plow. He hung upside-down in a barn with his hat resting in sour hay while waves of brutal feeling pulsated throughout him. His forehead swelled with the memory of the night. He panicked, then felt his knife in his worn jeans and relaxed. He cut himself down, falling limp atop the last straw. He stood, knowing he would leave right then and there, no matter his work-worn exhaustion. He would abscond from Emma.
She reconnoitered him from his family's rundown Lubbock ranch, long before James Smith knew she existed. At the time he thought only of getting past the season, of the clouds and the one luxury in his life, books, but nothing of that affluent daughter of the Allens. She stalked him, then staked him, and that was that, for a time. He had little other choice in such a small community, until that day when he spurred her to string him up. James had done the decent thing, so he could not comprehend what would follow.
Emma's family had come from cotton, but they lost the reins after the Civil War. They left Houston and carved out an enormous ranch, bringing former slaves with them. But their labor was still marked with the brand, even if only herds bore the lettering. So, Emma was wood and iron, and she cast hot coals at the help. That sorry day, she had blasted Grace for drawing a tepid bath. Grace, a brilliant girl, fired back like a rhetorical gatling. Emma chased her screaming down the stairs with a fire poker, half-dressed, and cackling. James arrived early, well before the time of the cordial invitation, for which the preparatory bath had been drawn, but just in time to put a noose around his own neck. Grace blew past him out into the grass, and he turned to see his flame, vibrant and uncontrolled. He reached his hand into the air and caught the flying metal sent hurtling at Grace, then tried to calm Emma. She writhed like a snake in his arms. Then she went limp, fell back into his embrace and stared at him. As he stuttered, she smiled with hellfire on her lips.
"Oh, James, I'm dreadful sorry you had to see me in such a state."
"It's okay, Emma, I just don't know why you treat them that way."
"Never mind that, dearest. I really must finish my bath. Then won't you take me out on a hayride?"
He reared back as if she had hissed. "What do you mean? It's getting close to sundown. We can't—"
"We can't what?"
"Well, uh, y'know."
"But why can't we?"
"Because . . . um . . . "
"Why don't we?"
"Please, James, please!"
"Okay, fine. I'll, uh, get the wagon loaded. You sure your daddy won't—"
Then Emma kissed him on the cheek and strutted bare up the stairs. He went out and faced the red sun, thinking of the night. He struggled to gather the horses, who walked sideways from him, but succeeded by the time Emma said go.
The trip out was full of bumps and tension. James raced like the wheels. Then she told him to stop and laid flat in the back. He hovered over her, looking into her intense eyes, even as the world whirled and he was now on his back. She had her hands on his throat.
"You ever tell me what to do again and I'll tell my daddy your plans for me this night."
"I didn't do—"
"Then why'd you take me out in a wagon under obscurity?"
"What the hell, Emma?"
"You're mine for the rest of your miserable life, so shut your fucking mouth, James."
"I mean it. Did you know one of our slaves is buried out back? I killed him. And I'll kill you, too, if you don't shut the fuck up."
"E—" She kissed him to close his lips, then knocked him dark with the fire poker. She drove the wagon back to the house, levered him to the ground without mercy, and strung him up by his feet. Emma's father came to check, but she sent him away with rot sweet words. Then she stabled the horses and went to bed.
James didn't understand, but knew he had to fly right then and there. He pulled out a horse from the stables and prepared them for the ride. He almost took off, but then remembered something worth his life. He searched the wagon by hand in the dark until he found his favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo Vol. 1, then he was off in a fearful cloud of dust. He arrived at his home without much disturbance, then looted the pantry for hardtack and other vittles. He rolled up some hay for the horse in a blanket, grabbed a canteen, Vol. 2 and his cash, and left for good without a word to his family. He knew he'd be labeled as a horse thief, knew this was goodbye, but even the thought of being broken by that . . . woman was enough to sever any ties and risk the noose.
James had no set plan on where to go, just the vague idea of riding a train into the blue. His first inclination was to follow the Brazos down towards Abilene, but that seemed too obvious. Then he remembered there had been a big celebration when the Texas & Pacific Rail Line opened up a 'nearby' stop due south in Big Springs, just a few years before. That was only a couple days travel by horse. But he was still awful close to that demon, close enough to feel her sulfur breath. This first night would make all the difference, so he rode the horse hard, watching the land for ankle breakers under the panoptic moon.
By the break of day he'd covered just over thirty miles. He was wary of people and kept at a distance from the small settlement, not yet become a township. But both he and the horse needed rest, so he found a shaded spot near a clean-tasting lake and they bedded down for a few hours. The heat of the sun woke him. He shrugged off his exhaustion, fed and watered the horse again, then took off at a more moderated clip. His thoughts turned to the hardtack, but he knew his limits and felt safer putting on some more distance.
As he rode, his mind seemed to roll off the plains and circled around the regret of leaving. He saw his mother's smile, felt the premonitory bruise of her disappointment. But over the flat land of his home rose bright icy eyes that cooled his internals. Now he remembered that boy, why the name eluded him he didn't know, but just the same he saw his black face juxtaposed with the white sheet. Emma's admission made some kind of sick sense. The boy's death had been ruled an accident, but the circumstances were strange, not that the sheriff cared all too much. And even before all that he had seen how quickly she could jump from cloying honey to a smothering licorice. Her tongue was a saw, and cut she did. Then there were those little critters found around the property . . .
James decided to set up camp as he arrived at a river which he thought might be the Colorado. His new horse appreciated the break, and his own stomach had about gone on strike. He fixed up a fire and then started soaking the hardtack. James stared into the flames and wondered why she had picked him. She always said she knew he was the one upon first sight, but in retrospect James wasn't sure what that meant. There were a handful of other young men in Lubbock, all who pined after her like coyotes. And he wasn't special, besides his fondness for reading. He was no looker, didn't sport muscles, and couldn't rodeo worth a damn. His family was barely solvent, and he really had no future besides eking it out as a subpar rancher. In the whole town he was like the runt of the litter. There was no understanding her.
His eyes watered from the smoke of the flame. He moved over, but the carbon suspension followed him every which way. Eventually he just kept them shut tight and drifted off to sleep.
James woke to the sound of swelling warbles and a rosy kiss in the sky. That rest did him good. He stood and stretched, then brushed the horse with his hand.
"I guess I gotta think of you a name, since we're going to be fast friends." The horse whinnied while he thought. The animal was the color of a light wood, which reminded him of the sun-bleached driftwood when Edmond met his friend for life. He certainly needed one.
"Are you my Jacopo?" The horse neighed, shaking its long face. He stopped petting him. "I guess you don't see me as Edmond Dantès. Hell, I don't. Okay, what about Zatara?" Now he felt its face rub against his warm hand. "I'll take that as a yes. That's fine, I don't want to duel with Fernand, anyway."
He showered Zatara with affection while staring out at the lazy river winding between scores of trees on either side of the bank. James wondered if the Comanches that used to live in the area ever stood at this exact spot, if any of them watched the swiftness of the river and felt like him, sharing similar burdens. Then he sighed and readied Zatara.
He rode for two more thirsty days before reaching Big Springs. Both he and Zatara had already exhausted their supplies, and they greeted the small town tucked between two foothills with much relief. James also noted the brilliant sheen of the rail lines cutting across the bare ground, illuminated by the head of a slumbering giant peeking over the horizon. The town itself bustled with business on a scale he had never before seen. At roughly thirty-five times the population of newly-founded Lubbock, Big Springs resembled for James nothing less than Paris. There were dozens of buildings clustered around the rail stop, including several saloons. James was sure parched for a drink, but he thought it best to resupply before wasting away.
He tied his horse at the front of the nearest general store. The wood facade still sported polish, and the store manager was friendly enough. He filled his bag with more hardtack, but this time acquired a tub of lard and a meager quantity of salt. He eyed the slices of bacon behind the counter, but forced himself to turn away when he saw the price. He did shell out a buck for a small cast-iron skillet and some jerky, which he felt was a swindle, but he was desperate to refine the tasteless biscuits anyway he could.
When he left, the sun stood tall over the town like polished boots. James eyed the multitude of saloons, considering the dens of sin with thirst, but then recalled the true reason for his being in Big Spring, the next leg. The ticket office was rather unassuming, just a shriveled hutch. Were tracks not stretched into infinity beyond, James would have thought it an outhouse. Still, he approached the ticketmaster with due reverence. He was an uncombed man with wrinkled cuffs and mutton chops that waved in the wind. Every gust would blow one side or the other into his nose and mouth, triggering a rolling sneeze. His handkerchief looked like a white flag.
"Uh, yes, howdy. How much would a ticket to New York City cost?"
The ticketmaster looked at James like an impending tornado, then blew out both wispy chops with a loud clap. "This here is the Texas & Pacific Rail Line, we don't go out that far aways. You'd have to transfer to another line from any of our easternmost stops."
"Oh, okay. Well, any idea what it'd cost me to get over there? Always wanted to see the artificial lights."
"I haven't ever been out that way, but I've seen some of it. I guess you could take our line to New Orleans, then transfer to the Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans Railroad and ride to St. Louis, but that's as far as I know for sure."
"Yeah, but can you guess the cost, sir? I'm sure I can figure out the next transfer once I'm there."
"Well, as far as I can figure, it would cost somewheres around $55 to $60 or so. But like I said, I don't know their rates."
James resembled jerky in the blistering sun, sapped of his good humor. He only had $4.59 left over from the indispensable vittles.
The ticketmaster saw his salt and decided to cut it with some of life's lemons. "Didn't you say you were wanting to see them electric lamps?"
"Yeah, but I don't think I'd ever make it there. Not in my life."
"Well, you ain't gotta go that far. Fort Worth just got some of them a few years ago, I reckon that's a lot cheaper than seeing the Yanks."
James had no idea how such a blue moon had passed him by, something like that in his own state, the conjuring of an ethereal power. He knew he had to go.
"How much to Fort Worth?"
"That would be $5.59, young man."
James crumbled and returned to dust. He thanked the ticketmaster kindly no, wiped his face and spat out the grit of the raised winds, then shuffled over to drown his desperation and dreams. But just as he was to swing past the doors of the nearest oasis, a Nubian princess punched right through him. He ate the earth again. He heard the shuffle of feet and a deep male voice hollering just behind his back. James turned to see some middle-aged white man shaking the very same woman.
"Give me back my wallet you fucking thief." He slapped her across the face.
James jumped to his feet and pushed the man. "Hey, stop that!"
The man nearly tripped, caught himself, then stepped towards James with a fist raised, but his foot crunched through the tub of lard, becoming stuck fast. He reddened, then threw a hard punch that clipped James's chin. From dust to dust. The man became more aggressive towards the woman. James reached down to his holster, then realized he hadn't packed a pistol at all. But he worked himself up into a wrath at the disrespect, grabbed his 'new' cast-iron and swung like bat and ball. Score!
"Gee, thanks, mister." The woman got to her feet and extended her immaculate hand. "I'm Liberty Freeman."
James stuttered out his name, in awe of her airs.
"Well, Mr. Smith, I guess I owe you."
"Okay, James. Here's a buck for your efforts." She peeled a greenback from a long, leather wallet with an intricate, interlocking design. Liberty turned to go.
"Wait, Ms. Liberty. Why was that man bothering you?"
"Huh, you must be really wet around the ears. Because I'm black."
"So you didn't steal his wallet?"
"Of course not. But speak of the devil, you can have this." She offered up the fancy billfold.
"What is it?"
"His wallet. You sure you wouldn't do better pulling plows?"
James opened the pouch with the prudence of a cruel joke, but she was right, this was the man's wallet. "Now just a second. I thought—"
She winked. "I ain't say nothing about after he come for me."
Then James noticed the name burned into the leather, Carl Clementine. He was one of the sheriff's men. He looked down at Carl laying sunny-side up, and the yolk made him conscious of a handful of folks watching them both.
"I've got to get to Ft. Worth, this man is after me."
"Well, I don't think he's going nowhere fast, but sure he'll be after you since you done busted him good."
"No, I mean he was here in town looking for me." He wasn't, but now he would be.
"Oh, you didn't do it for little ol' me?" She fluttered her eyes then set a hard face. "I guess I'll have that bill back."
"No, I need- I didn't recognize him until I read his name here."
"I 'spose you can keep it then. As it happens, I'm heading to Ft. Worth, too. This ain't an invitation, but would you kindly ride with me?"
"Uh, sure. What for?"
She shook her head. "Anyhow, where you from?"
"Where the hell is that?"
"No place. North of here."
"Texas, not the reservation."
She didn't answer, but instead set the direction and pace. They braved the storm of sneezing at the ticketbooth, then went to the platform, where it was quiet save the wind.
"Well, I've never heard of your home." She looked him over. "You ain't strong, particularly good looking, nor got the gift of gab, so what's your deal?"
"What do you mean?"
"We're going to travel together a couple hundred miles. Now I know it's a little different borne by train, but look. I gotta know if you're useful, and how. So what'd you do?"
"I am . . . was . . . a ranch hand."
"Okay, horses. Too bad this is an iron horse. Next?"
"I don't really—"
"Come on, everyone has something."
"I read books."
She raised her eyebrows. "Okay, I can deal with that."
"Something wrong with books?"
"No, just you'd be surprised how few of y'all read, though you fought mighty hard to keep my people from the right."
He reddened. "You're right."
"Hey, you're alright. Now here's the plan: I'll play the help. You're the son of a wealthy rancher heading East to them big schools. You deflect anyone. Use your book learning."
"Okay, I can do that."
James heard the lumbering of a leviathan bellowing from lathe lungs. The train was at hand. The beast hissed, then emptied itself of people, who came streaming out, shielding their eyes from the reflections of the day. He was perplexed at the dense coiling mass, its sounds and sights. Then he remembered about Zatara.
"I've got to get my horse."
Liberty grabbed his arm. "There's not much time. Why don't you forget 'em?"
"How could I forget a horse?"
"Look, didn't you say that imbecile you brained was after you? How could he forget your horse?"
James accepted the practical truth mute. She gave his forearm a light squeeze. "It's okay, I know it's a lot of money, but you can pluck that from someone else's hand. That's the meaning of this whole country."
"Zatara is my friend. I have to go check."
"Well, I won't wait around if you mess up. I can take care of myself."
"I believe that, but I'll be back."
James took off running. The streets seemed thickened with new faces and suitcases, especially around the saloons. He couldn't see Zatara through them all. He dodged his way to the trough, but saw Zatara was gone. So was Clementine, and the tub of lard.
"All aboard!" The conductor yelled, like an oracle before the tempest.
James scanned back and forth, eaten by panic and sunk by another load of loss. Then he decided. "I'm sorry, Zatara! I'm sorry." He booked it back to the train and hopped on, just before the release of the brakes.
James took a breath, inspecting this undulating miracle. The inside was real nice, like Emma's home, but the comparison didn't discourage him. He swiveled like an owl, not seeing Liberty.
"Can I help you?" A voice from behind asked.
He whirled and stepped back, nearly bumping into a bespeckled speculator seated at the first row. James begged his pardon and then faced the car attendant.
"Um, howdy. I'm looking for my servant, she was holding our spots while I uh—"
"Ticket please." The attendant was a thin boy with head afire and freckles like descending ash. James flashed him his pass, then shoved it down into his bag.
"You'll be two cars down, sir."
James realized, scanning the fitted sheen of affluent fabrics, he had boarded into the first class section. The beauty of the place made a bit more sense. He passed on through the door at the end and came to a small gap outside, beyond which was another carriage. He stepped across careful as cattle while gripping the handrails. Then he went inside. This car was much the same, though less lavish. The pattern would hold. James went to the next car, his destination, and spied an elaborate feathered hat waving at him. Had to be Liberty.
"I see you didn't wait for me."
"Like I said. Find your horse?"
"No. Worse, I think Carl took him."
"Yeah. He's one of the sheriff's men. From Lubbock."
"What are you wanted for anyhow?"
"Probably horse theft. Hopefully that's all."
"Yeah, I left because of a woman."
Liberty let the point die. She really didn't care to know. "So you got any of them books on you?"
"Yeah, I took my favorite with me." James opened his satchel and pulled out Vol. I, then handed it to Liberty. She took it in with a smile.
"This was one of my people."
"It's pronounced 'doo-mah,' dumbass. His father was from Haiti and France, his mother came from Africa as a slave."
Liberty rolled her eyes. "It's an island next to Cuba."
"Is that where all them slaves rebelled?"
"That's the one."
"I don't know too much about it."
"That's probably because the slavers here didn't want word getting around. The US didn't even recognize Haiti until partway through the Civil War, six decades after the revolution."
"Oh." That was more than he could process.
Liberty turned the conversation back to Dumas, which seemed like safer territory than the brilliant example. "So I take it you're searching for Mercédès?"
James laughed, then trembled. "More like escaping Château d'If."
"So, she's the prison warden?"
"More than you could know."
"Believe me, I know what that is like."
James realized what she meant. "You're right, I apologize."
"Don't worry 'bout it. What'd you do to her?"
"What'd I do?"
"Well, yeah. You're the man. It's always the man."
"I s'pose that's true. Not in this case though. She's crazier than all hell."
"That's what they all say."
"No, I mean it."
"Laudanum or phosphorus didn't cut it?"
"Never mind, go on."
"She killed one of their sla . . . uh, former slaves. A little boy. A few years back. I didn't find out until she told me this past week. Then she, uh, threatened to charge me for rape, knocked me out cold, and strung me up by my feet in her barn all because I stopped her from killing another."
Liberty shook her head. This wasn't that uncommon a situation for black men, though anyone who would falsify such charges was clearly a monster.
"So I take it she's got means?"
"Boy, you stepped in it good."
"What exactly is your plan?"
"Well, first thing was I knew I wanted to get on the train, so I did. I thought I'd head out to New York to see the lights, but I ain't got the money. Now I guess I'm headed to Fort Worth since I hear they got some."
"Okay, but what about the girl?"
"Emma? I just escaped her daddy's man, and it's a big state."
"What's her family do?"
"And you're headed to Fort Worth, home of the Union Stockyard?"
"Yeah, I figure you didn't think that through. You'd best make some money and book it out of there quick. Pity you lost your horse."
Just then a burly conductor passed through, glancing at all the heads. His eyes fixated on Liberty. He licked at his lips like a lean coyote, then strode over.
"I'm going to need to see your ticket."
James started to rummage through his bag, kicking himself for not keeping the paper on his direct person.
"No, sir, you're okay. I just need to see her ticket." He glared at Liberty, his eyes cigarettes.
James cleared his throat, then put on what he thought was an educated accent.
"Good sir, this here is my servant. As you can see, she has a ticket, which I myself purchased."
The conductor looked her over, then back at James, then handed him her ticket. "Everything's in order. Have a good day."
Liberty melted into her chair, sighing. "Thank God."
"You had a ticket. I don't understand why I made the difference."
"He ain't care about a ticket. He either wanted to kick me off or get his kicks off."
"He's a Lord alright, just not a good one. None of y'all are."
James wasn't sure how to take that. "So, why are you going to Fort Worth?"
"I'm going to survey land for some friends of family."
"Where'd you come from?"
"I was just in California, but I'm from Chicago."
James whistled. "You traveled that far alone?"
"I told you, I can take care of myself. You on the other hand . . . "
Liberty pointed behind him at the back of the compartment. A man burst through the door and stuck his head in each seating area, pulling off hats and flashing a paper.
"Run out the door behind me and get to the roof."
James grabbed his stuff and bolted out the door, catching the man's attention. He charged down the aisle after him. The sudden explosion of color and wind almost knocked James off his feet, but he grabbed onto the rail and steadied himself. He turned, then stepped onto the rail in order to climb up onto the roof, but was hurled down to the floor. His limbs slapped the walls. James felt that the man was atop him, and fought. He tried tossing a few tired haymakers, but the man blocked and deflected each one until James fell back, breathing hard. Then the man reached to his belt and pulled out a folded paper, thrust it into James's face.
"You've been served."
The man recovered his hat, got up, and left, opposite his origin. James lay there dazed but determined to read the thick words of his dearest, or, at least that of her telegraph attorney. He folded the paper and stored it in his pocket, then pulled himself up, heaving. His muscles tensed with indeterminate apprehension. He walked back to the seat towards Liberty, but as he approached, the train began to whistle with brakes.
"Did you elude him?"
"Not really. He just handed me what I think is a lawsuit."
"No, from Emma."
The train came to a slow halt at an unassuming platform on the southside of Fort Worth, the sole passenger depot. They walked together without much conversation, then stepped out into the day. James looked around the train and lost his breath at the cityscape. If Big Springs were Paris, then Fort Worth had to be Xanadu. Just beyond the depot were several multi-storied buildings which loomed like mountains for the simple Lubbock boy.
"I've got to go see about that land for Ms. Davis. It was a pleasure, James. I wish you a speedy jailbreak."
He stretched out his hand and she clasped it. "Thank you, Liberty. If I ever make it out that way, I'll look you up in Chicago."
"Ask around for the African Methodist Episcopal, they'll know me."
"I'll remember. Safe journeys."
Liberty crossed the rail headed to the southeast. Soon she was lost in the dust and undeveloped tracts. Now James was as a leaf, tumbling without root or branch. He followed the path away from Liberty towards an enormous road. Riders, steeds, and stagecoaches descended and rose with the bumps of the clogged arterial passage. James could see smoke rising on either side of the channel of ceilings, off into the ambiguity. The whole Earth narrowed down the street, while he strutted like a penned stallion. Then a strange contraption caught his eye, sliding along rails as a skinned snake. People crowded its guts, looking out from openings. James realized this was a train in miniature. The vehicle stopped and let off dozens of people. He rushed over to the crowd and was carried like trout into the streetcar. James slipped by the payment and the mass pressed him into a window as the beast slouched north.
His view afforded him knowledge of the city hitherto unknown, of the scale, its peak. Each cross street was a Big Springs, avenged sevenfold. Bursts of math multiplied in his mind, each opening his heart to the diminished sky, though still blue and immortal. He smiled at the immensity of it all, this sprawling tower of babel. He wondered about the cosmos, wandered among its lands. Then he saw a memory.
Zatara was tied to a post in front of a large, raucous saloon. James disembarked at Fifteenth and walked up to his horse, who whinnied at his sight. He went to untie the reins when a man was ejected from the entrance. The man rolled his head on his back and saw James, then launched at him with the full force of the law. James recalled Clementine's ugly mug and jumped back, but tripped. By himself, his fate was sealed, but he was not alone.
Zatara reared up and blasted Carl good. He landed in a stiff cloud, ajar. Then the saloon doors swung wide with a sauntering suavity smoking a cigar. Bandoleras crossed her cut form, above her swishing dress. She pointed a pistol at Carl Clementine, cocked.
"Señor, you are confused."
Clementine reached for his pistol, so she shot him. He slumped and was dead. She puffed on her roll while surveying the moral damage from her vantage on the steps.
"And a horse thief, too."
"No, ma'am, that's me."
She turned to James. "I see you here with the horse and know that he is yours. Can you not feel his brotherhood?"
James gazed into one of the large brown eyes, patting his neck. He turned back to the woman.
"Then that is the law."
She descended with them, then bent and plucked a badge from Clementine's pocket. A few men ran over, one of them a Fort Worth deputy.
"This man here was a horse thief. Furthermore, he insulted my honor. This man can testify." She pointed at James, who gulped.
"Uh, y-yes. He did steal my horse, and later fought me when I tried to recover him."
Zatara neighed in agreement. The deputy crouched to inspect him, but found no wallet or other identifying information. He stood and looked at the other two men, then back to James and the woman.
"Well, he seems like a drifter. Eddy, go ask the barkeep if he had a room. That'll settle it."
She uncocked her arm. "Good, because he did not."
"And you, how did he insult you?"
"He solicited me."
"Well, it's the Acre, ma'am."
"Claro que si. But I am not the Acre."
Eddy ran back, wheezing from the effort. "He's probably a drifter. He ain't rented nothin', he just showed up struggling with the horse and beelined for a drink, then chatted up that lady there. She, uh, showed him what for."
"Yes, I can see that." The deputy shook his head. "Well, I suppose you're free to go. But if you disturb business again, then I reckon you'll become our business." His badge shone with pain.
"I understand." She tipped her hat, then walked over to James, the movement of her hips like waves, still smoking.
"Why did you help me?"
"You spoke my language. No tongue has since I left my home country. Besides, it seemed we had a common enemy."
"Where is your home?"
"That's a long ways, ain't it. Why are you out here?"
"I could not bear to witness the uneven suffering and self-enrichment under our dictator. Instead, I wanted to see who pulled his strings, to see which Europeans opened my people's veins again."
"Huh. What Europeans?"
"This land belongs to the Comanche and Wichita, no?"
"Oh, I don't really know Fort Worth, but out my way it was definitely the Comanches before us."
"In Fort Worth, too. They halted the colonial power of Spain, drove out newly freed México, and resisted your people for decades."
"I see your point. So, what Europeans, um, opened y'alls veins before?"
"Many. The Spanish, the French, the British. We drove them all out, just as you will be driven out one day. You will all be as Ozymandias."
James didn't speak what he thought was Spanish, but still, he was enchanted. He held up the conversation like a royal train. "What's it that we're doing to you now?"
"You prop up Porfirio Díaz with business and technology. You enable his theft twice over, stealing from the indio and mestizo, already victims. Our lands, our lives go to him and his cronies and your companies."
"I don't know anything about that, but I'm sorry for what we're doing."
She suddenly slapped him on the back and leaned into his ear. "Let's get a drink. By tonight you'll down the worm, güey."
"I would love to, but I don't drink with anyone without first knowing their name."
She laughed. "My name is Espada Trejo, now come!"
They walked just a few streets down, still on Main, still foot and hoof-deep in the bowels of Hell's Acre. Women congregated on the corners like preachers, while James stared, Mesmer's child, causing Espada to laugh.
"You can't help yourself, can you? You are like the neandertal man."
"He was a cave-dweller, a less advanced human."
"No, they live in trees, in Africa. Neandertal man was found in Germany."
The streetcar clanged. James pulled Zatara away as the metal wall rolled forward. One of the windows flashed, and he turned to look. A banshee leered at him, her eyes drowning the sun. He froze. His heart beat, his temples thumped. The sounds of the prostitutes and Johns faded behind the ringing of a bell. He choked on her perfume, entombed in a floral mausoleum. Espada shook him.
"We have to go . . . " He said, speech extended and low. "Get on Zatara."
James scooted back, giving Espada the saddle. He looked up at the streetcar and those drilling eyes unbroken. A group exited the vehicle, then it continued on into the dust and crossings. He could still feel her burning him. A man approached them with a package under the gaze of the sun. James opened it, revealing a lock of hair, his mother's.
"Emma says she'll be at the north end of Main. That you still have a chance to make things right."
"There's no right with her."
"Well, then to give her what she wants.
"I won't do that."
"Look back at that lock and think hard, boy."
The man walked away and found the nearest drink.
"Who is she? What is that hair?"
"She's a genie I just can't put back in the bottle. And this, well it's my mother's hair."
"That woman has your mother?"
"In all likelihood."
"I think you'll have to wait on that drink. Catch me up to speed while we go see about God's plan."
"I don't want to get you in any trouble."
"You already have. She saw you with me and Zatara. I'm trying to get us out."
So James told her about Emma and his escape, about her memory, long like her claws.
Espada clucked her tongue. "You have to confront her to exorcize this ghost."
"You don't know what she's like."
"No, but I know of chupacabras. Some years ago a foreman was hurting women while the rail was built. I confronted him, and he tried to hurt me. I killed him with a crucifix."
"I envy your resolve to bring the sword."
She smiled. "You can do this, too."
He shook his head. "What's a chupacabra?"
Espada halted Zatara before a hotel with red brick. "They suck the blood from the goats."
"Oh, like a vampyre."
Sitting in a splendid suit, a bearded Irishman looked up from his newspaper, then licked a pen and made a note for his manuscript. Espada swung and stepped off without a word. James watched her go for a while, then waited. She returned on a painted horse with a rifle in hand, hair streaming in the glow. James marveled at the wood and steel on her Winchester. The word 'crucifijo' was emblazoned on the stock in false gold.
"This is Tierra. She battles with us."
They rode in silence, each prognosticating. Their arrival at the starburst courtyard was marked by its somber bell. The land was a flat yard, clear save the arrayed forces and young trees circling the building. The traffic of the city made no sound before the bench. James avoided the grotesque glares from one steely gargoyle.
"James Smith, you are ordered to return to Lubbock with us for questioning." The sheriff's hat stood tall, like the steeple of a church, his badge a rosary.
His hat blew off his head, punctuated by a hole just above his cranium. He held up one hand to still the men. Smoke curled from Espada's crucifix.
"This matter is between James and Emma."
The sheriff turned to Emma, as did her father, riding a white horse beside her.
"She's right, daddy." She said with an obscured smile.
Emma descended from her black steed, whose eyes were red with war.
"James, darling." She said, batting her eyelashes.
He rose from Zatara, and they floated toward one another.
"You are mine. Submit to my hands, love. I will teach you."
James shook his head. "I am not your property. I've learned that's what's wrong here, that's always been what's wrong."
"Yes you are, doll. Everything is mine."
He smiled, then swelled into laughter. She reached across the void and gashed his face with her nails. James covered his wound and turned away in a grimace. She hovered around him, aloft.
Espada shot once into the air. Emma swung to face Espada, her hair hissing in the twilight. Then she crept back to her side and climbed the night mare. All told, eleven men stood in her wings. The rustling of feathers and leather shimmered across the city valley as they all drew their steel arms. Espada tossed James a pistol and popped two more rounds into her rifle.
Night arrived. No faces could be seen in the dark, until the lights buzzed alive like flies. Then James shot. He missed, but the horses started. A wall of death marched at them at Mach speed and all the guns added to the brilliance of artificial day.
Espada's face was livid with lever-action fire. She downed the sheriff and two of his men from the get-go. James tried hard, but couldn't hit the barn. Within moments the cavalry was broken, the sword had slashed seven of their fold. But she was empty and they were overwhelmed with a two-to-one disadvantage. Even through the thick smoke that obscured the bodies, Espada knew they were done.
"If you so much as move, I swear to God you'll be holier than Emmental." Emma's father shouted.
"What the hell's that?" James called through the dust and grit.
"It's a foreign cheese, you fucking idiot." Emma said, trotting her horse forward and leveling her pistol at Espada through a clearing in the gray.
Then the bell tolled like a cannon shot and all heads whipped to the tower. Emma's father snapped his head back in surprise, but recognition faded when the bullet lodged in his forehead. The other three men were crushed by a rain of ore. Emma took one look at her fallen posse and cut out, her mare chugging like a train without caboose. She looked back at James and he realized none of this was over.
Laughter echoed from the heavens as Justice raised her rifle to the sky. "Y'all better get. The whole town done heard us now."
"What about you?" James shouted.
"Don't worry, I sounded the warning, and now represent a land interest. But I'll have to lead them after you like hell hath no fury."
"This ain't done." James said, looking after Emma's dust.
Espada nudged Tierra closer to him. "No, but we're finished here. Come with me to my home, guero. She'll find we're the wasps to her flies."
James looked down at Zatara and rubbed his cheek. The horse whinnied, stamped its hooves. He was ready.
James faced Espada and smiled. "Alright, let's dive right into the sea."
They both raised their hands to Justice in a grateful OK, then bolted off down the road through the waves of unwelcoming arms.