My Dearest Pearl,
Your letter arrived last week, and of course I read it many times like I do, then put it in the box with all your others, which you know I cherish.
I will tell you once again how awfully proud you make your old Pa. Doing so fine in your studies, and your thinking now you may want to be a doctor, which I fully agree with. Why, you're so much smarter than your old man it makes my heart nearly burst.
You love your college, I can see that in your letters, and I am happy for you, Pearl. Lawrence is a good town for you, so pretty and peaceful it is now, and how strange to think back to the mad Quantrill days when he burnt it down and slaughtered so many. Well, that's another story and best forgotten.
In your letter you asked me to tell you about Uncle William. Which surprised me some because you were so young I didn't know if you even remembered him. But I reckon by now you've come across all manner of stories about him, about his criminal ways, and the stories grow bigger every year. And maybe you're starting to recall some things about your "uncle," and the other stuff doesn't square, and so what is one to think?
I understand your confusion. You want me to set the record straight, to tell you the truth of William. Well, I will tell you what I know about him, but I caution that not everything may be factual. Not like your classes anyway. My story will be truthful, to the best of my recollection, which is different than factual. It will be my truth, which I guess is the only truth that matters.
I first noticed your Uncle William when he popped up at the Majestic. This would of been several years before he found you. Let's see, I can date it, 'cause it was the year of the big Centennial celebration. I can still picture him, just a boy really, sitting alone at dinner at our boarding house just shoveling it in like he always did, stretching to grab another pork chop, another heap of potatoes, and yapping for another pitcher of milk. I tell you, he kept me and your grandma running!
Well, the next night there were a few cowboys sitting with him, all yukking it up, listening to him go on about how he tricked some Apaches in a horse race. And the next night, a full table of rowdy boys and men all going crazy over William.
The first time I actually spoke to him was at a stag dance. You see, every fortnight in Santa Fe a stag dance was held at the Galaxy Saloon. The dances were very popular events. Cattle-boys and silver-diggers came in from all over the Territory.
Men dancing with men, does that seem strange to you, Honey? Well, it's like this-their jobs were lonely ones to begin with, and the big ol' New Mexico desert made them even lonelier. And people get starved for companionship, for a little human touch, hell, any kind of touch, and with so few women in Santa Fe back then, you can understand how the dances filled a need.
The tables at the Galaxy would be shoved to the corners of the room, fiddlers and guitar pickers were rounded up, the pastor's wife would play the piano, the guys would pair up, and the time would pass in a very lively and interesting way.
Well, William was standing surrounded by a gaggle of cowpokes and prospectors, some of the rougher crowd, like Whip Wilson, Pox Larry, and Slack-Jaw. They were all singing this soppy corridos, mostly just braying, 'cept for William. Pearl, did you ever hear your uncle sing? Oh my, his voice was like crystal, its sound nearly angelic, it was.
Anyway, when their song was finished, William came right over and asked me to dance. Interrupted me in mid-drink, he did, and I nearly choked.
Because, really, why me? I was never one to advertise myself, you know what I mean? I rarely danced at stag night. I preferred to stand back, propping up the bar, nursing my limit of two Galaxy beers, just observing. I was interested in people, but only as objects of study, you might say.
William strutted up to me, cocking his head to one side and wearing his crooked smile. His spurs made a tinny sound on the floor, which I found kinda silly because why wear 'em at a dance?
"Hola, me amigo," he said, like I was some old friend, and he punched my arm, spilling half my beer. "I know you from the Majestic, don't I?"
I introduced myself. "Erasmus Finegarten. My ma owns the Majestic. I seen you there." I wiped the beer off my sleeve.
"Erasmus! I just knew you were a thinker!" he said. "Well, E-ras-mus, vamanos!" And before I could say anything, he was pulling me onto the dance floor. "You know the two-step?"
I tell you, that boy could dance! Even though he played the woman-he wore the red bandanna on his sleeve-he led me, and he knew just what to do.
"The steps are quick, quick, then slow, slow. Like this. Yep, you got it, amigo!"
At first he had to pull me around the room, but slowly I figured it out.
"Now, see, we're going to open," he instructed, turning my body. "And we promenade. Like that! Yes sir!"
I couldn't help myself, I had to smile at his antics. And soon I was mimicking his swaggering moves. We sashayed around the room, dodging other dancers, jostling tables, and generally making a scene. The other men stopped and stared, then they started cheering us.
William and I careened through the Galaxy. I held on tight trying to keep pace. His hold practiced and true. I studied the boy. He lacked the grime and stink most of the men had. He seemed not to sweat at all. He wore a bright white shirt that smelled of Ma's laundry soap. His eyes were very blue, and his blond hair was slicked back. He was clean-shaved. No, I take that back—he didn't yet shave at all.
William, thoroughly enjoying the dance, executed a whiplash move, and I threw my head back, taking in the painted stars on the Galaxy ceiling as if for the first time. The stars whirred through the sky.
"Someday we'll be flying up to those stars," the boy shouted. "I'd just love to go up there. How about you, Erasmus? You ever want to shoot up to the stars?"
I could think of no reply, as the music reached a crescendo.
Finally, the fiddle players were exhausted, and their medley screeched to an end.
I felt flushed and dizzy. "Golly! That's all I can muster for one night," I told my dance partner. William wanted me to stay out on the floor, but I offered to buy him a drink instead.
"I don't drink," he said. "But if you buy me a ginger ale, I'll surely be grateful."
At the bar we talked briefly before his friends came over, heckling, and swallowed him up. I recall that Pox Larry gave me an odd look, but at the time I didn't think anything of it.
Over the next few weeks, in brief snatches, at the Majestic, at the Galaxy, from William and from others, I learned some things about my new friend. As with all things William, I cannot verify the truth of any of it.
He told me his name was William Bonney. Another time he told me it was Henry McCarty. He also went by William Antrim, if it suited him. He was about 17 at the time, but he looked younger. I was six years older, so I maybe seemed like an old man to him.
He told me he'd come from New York City and Indiana and Wichita. He could of told me Brazil or the moon, for all I knew of places. A year before, he was living in Silver City, way south in the Territory, when his ma died of consumption. After that, his stepdad vamoosed. William tracked him down, but stepdad told him to get lost, so the boy did. Since then, as near as I could figure, he'd just been a rolling stone.
Not until much later did I learn that when William showed up in Santa Fe, there was already a warrant out for his arrest for robbing a laundry and escaping from jail.
Now, your grandma, she just loved William. That's 'cause he was always so nice around her. It was always, Yes, ma'm, or Sure thing, Mrs. Finegarten, or You're looking beautiful today, Mrs. Finegarten. To which Ma would blush and say, Oh, go on with you, William.
Ma would say to me, You know, that William, someday he'll be somebody. She told me that quite often, to the point where I got jealous of him.
William and I started to pal around. That boy, your uncle, was always on the go, he always wanted to do things, and it was fun to be around him. I'd find him a horse, and we'd go riding outside of town. He'd show me how he could ride on the side of the horse just like the Apaches did. He was surprisingly graceful. He might of been double-jointed, I don't know.
He had a riata, and he'd practice with that. He'd have me stand five yards away, and he'd cast a loop over me just perfect. Then I'd go out ten yards, and he'd try again and again until he got it down, and pretty soon, he could haul me in from twenty yards away. Then he'd try it with me running and darting this way and that, and he got where he could rope me in from anywheres.
What he really loved most was to practice with his Colt Frontier. We'd set up bottles aways away on a rock or cactus, and William would shoot at 'em. But never your normal stand and aim, no, he'd already graduated from college on that. Instead, he was always moving, he'd spin and fire, or hit the ground, jump up, and shoot, or even, swear to God, he'd do a cartwheel and shoot. He could do these tricks with either hand, always trying to draw faster and faster.
"Boom, I got you, you rapscallion," he'd cry out. "Pow, you're dead, you villain!"
This practice your uncle never tired of. We'd both be all sunburned, and finally I'd plead, William, let's get back, for God's sake, I'm getting hungry, and the Majestic needs me.
But even into the night William's motor was still running. I doubt he slept much. After finishing my work battenin' down the hatches at the Majestic, I'd walk by his room, and I'd see a light. I'd stop in, and he'd be reading. Because your uncle was a big reader, do you remember that? Just like you are. That kid, he just seemed to be interested in everything.
"There's so much to learn, Erasmus!" he'd complain to me. "So many books, I'm going to run out of time!"
He'd even read some Erasmus, which is how he recognized my name. But his all-time favorite, hands down, was Jules Verne. He couldn't get enough of that guy!
"Erasmus, just think about taking a ship to the moon!" Musing about this, he smiled, and excitement lit up his face. "Or sailing over Europe in a hot-air balloon! Up there so high, people look smaller than ants!"
As if any of these incredible voyages could ever really happen! But for William, he believed in them. He'd wag his head in awe. "I will to do that someday, yes sir!"
Your grandma made William a cook at the Majestic. She felt he ought to have something useful to do, make some money of his own. She likely worried he was taking me away from the Majestic too often. William was a quick learner, and he picked up things in the kitchen real fast. Honestly, he got where he could make one hell of a Denver omelette.
But his kitchen days didn't last. He just couldn't stay put in one place very long. He found he could make more money dealing cards at the Galaxy, and it was a whole lot easier.
When I wasn't palling around with William, I found myself thinking about him, wondering what he was up to. Ma and I both tried to coax him back to the kitchen. We worried about him.
"The boarders are asking for your omelettes, William." I told him. "Why don't you come on back?"
"Gee thanks, amigo," he said, "but the Galaxy suits me better."
I started to hear rustlings around town that made me more worried. Suspicions of William cheating at cards. Someone seen him lifting dime novels at the General Store. And the sheriff, he was rumored to be tracking the boy's movements.
Around this time, money went missing from our cash box at the Majestic, which I didn't put together until much later.
It didn't make me happy that William was spending more and more time with various shady characters, them with their hats pulled low, them with whiskey-breath or wooden teeth or whip-scars. The men followed him around town like he was some walking, talking ringmaster.
One night I interrupted his reading to voice my concerns. "William, those guys you're hanging with. I don't think they're so hot. I don't think they're good for you."
William put down his Jules Verne and looked up at me with surprise. "What do you mean, amigo? You mean guys like Pox and Slack? Why, they're all right. They're simpatico. Interesting types."
"Be careful, William. You're better than them."
"Better? What makes you think I'm so good?"
I considered this. "Well, how nice you treat my ma, for example," And how you treat me, I thought.
He mused about this for a minute. "Erasmus, you don't really know me, now do you? You hardly know me."
Well, he had me there. I left his room more confused than ever.
We had another stag dance at the Galaxy. That night there was more drinking than usual. Some guy pulled into town with a wagon full of cheap beer he was promoting. Tombstone Brew he called it, and the men were lapping it up.
Again, your uncle was the center of attention. He'd come into a little money, and he was buying rounds for his pals. He was spinning his yarns—everyone crowding closer so they could hear—some tale about his horse dropping dead of heat stroke and him walking fifty miles through the desert to Las Cruces.
And then he sang this song. "El Corrido de Kansas." You know, it's the one where the cowboys swim the Salado, bring the steers home, and end up buying nice hats. Well, he sang it lovely, it just floored everyone.
Anyway, then your uncle asked me to dance. We danced to one tune and then another and then another. I confess, we made a handsome pair. Others set their beers down and watched us. There was longing in the room. Did I imagine it?
Pox Larry, wiping beer from chin, shoved his way over to us and said he was cutting in. I started to let go of William, but your uncle held on.
"Not right now, Pox Larry," William said. "In a while. I want to dance one more with my pal."
Rebuffed, Pox Larry slid back to the bar, and the gang had a good laugh over this.
Pox Larry sulked while your uncle and I danced a waltz. I can still hear it in my head, it was the one called "Vienna Blood."
The two of us glided through the Galaxy, and for those minutes I forgot myself. I didn't feel so ill at ease like I often did back then. If I was a religious man, I might say I felt, for a moment, the grace of God.
Well, "Vienna Blood" roused to a finish. My knees felt weak. I told William, Thanks, the dances were swell. He gave me his cracked smile.
But later that night, outside the Galaxy, as the crowd was leaving, things went wrong.
Pox Larry ploughed his shoulder into me. It was no accident.
"Pardon me, Sweetie," he laughed.
I ignored him and started to head home to the Majestic. Outside in the street, the light from the Galaxy was shining on us like we were on a stage.
Pox called out, "You too good to talk to a cowboy? Whatever your name is."
I should of kept walking. Instead, I turned and faced him. "It's Erasmus. And no, I'm not too good to talk to a cowboy."
"E-ras-what? Eras-Mouse?" Pox Larry spit in the street. "Well, I guess the Mouse has spoken!" By now a crowd had formed.
"Don't call him that." It was William, and he had pushed between us. "Let him be, Pox."
The cowboy, his face inflamed, glared at us. "And who is going to make me?" Pox placed his right hand on the handle of his holstered gun. The onlookers groaned and took two steps back.
"William, I can fight my own fights," I found myself saying.
"Hear that, everyone, the Mouse wants to fight me!" Pox smirked. "William, step aside."
William raised his left hand as if to halt the cowboy. "Pox, I don't want to hurt you."
Then a few things happened very fast.
The cowboy drew his pistol. That was a mistake. For William had years of practice in his arm. In a blur, his gun was out and already smoking. His first bullet hit Pox's gun, which went pinwheeling into the crowd. William's second bullet tore through the cowboy's right leg, chaps and all.
For a minute Pox looked down and studied his leg in a bemused fashion. "Why, William, why'd you go and do that?" he whined. "I was just havin' some fun."
And then the crowd gasped because now the leg wound was spurting blood.
"Damn," said Pox. He clutched the wound, fell to his knees and then onto his side.
I looked to William, feeling so terrible and guilty for this turn of events. But his blue eyes were as calm and cold and distant as some lake on the moon.
Meanwhile, Pox squirmed in the street while his life-blood shot out. The blood pooled, glistening for a second, until the hungry dirt lapped it up, and then with remarkable speed, he laid dead, and the townspeople, feeling somewhat ashamed, slunk off.
Back at the Majestic I sat by William's door waiting for him to return. I'm not sure where he wandered off to after the gunfight, but I waited, and I replayed the scene and concluded, logically, that the sheriff would do nothing, as everyone had seen it was clear self-defense, and thus no harm would come to William. I waited and thought these thoughts, and felt sorry for myself, until I gave up and went back to my room to sleep.
It was sometime in the night that William made his escape, one of his many escapes in a career of running. In the morning, when I finally got the key from Ma and opened his room, it was empty of all his belongings. Except for one thing. On his bed he'd left me his worn copy of From the Earth to the Moon.
Your grandma once had this cuckoo clock. Not a fancy German one like you might see, but a cheap one. It had a birdy that popped out that sang quite loudly before popping back in. It was kind of beautiful, this many-colored bird, it really was! And at first it worked, singing right on the hour, every hour. Everyone in the dining room at the Majestic would stop whatever they were doing and watch that thing go, and they would smile and chuckle and say, I'll be damned.
But then that cuckoo clock got strange. It went off the rez, as they say. Oh, that birdy would still pop out, but at unexpected times, like whenever it wanted to. It was very surprising and eventually, very annoying.
A couple times I tried to fix it. I'd take it off the wall and down to a little work bench we had in the basement of the Majestic. I'd open up the back of it and stare at all the wires and gears. Very complicated! I'd try twisting and fooling with some of the wires, and I'd oil the gears, but nothing I ever did made it work right. In fact, I probably made the damn thing worse. I tell you, that crazy bird had a mind of its own. All day, all night, many times per hour, it would burst forth. It just wanted to sing when it wanted to sing!
Finally, we had a drunken boarder who took a deep dislike to that bird. One night that boarder threw a fit, he ripped the clock off the wall, carried it outside and shot the thing full of holes. And you know what? That wondrous little birdy popped out one last time, it croaked a single note, then it just stopped, with its beak open, never to sing again.
Well, here's the thing, I think William was kind of like that cuckoo clock. He was such a wondrous thing. Everyone just wanted to stop and watch him and listen to him. He got your attention. He was special all right. He was bold, and he had the most interesting stories. But he also had something wrong inside him, some clutchy gear, some too-tight wire. Something that was off that got more and more off as time went on. God knows, I tried to fix him. Maybe others tried too. But his insides were pretty tangled, so I guess there was little chance to save him.
Anyway, five years went by. I thought I might get a letter from William, but no such luck. Instead, to my dismay, the newspapers began to report on his escapades, which grew steadily in their outrage.
As near as I can figure, when he left the Majestic, your uncle lit out for the Arizona Territory. He probably was a ranch hand there. Then I seen an article about some Billy the Kid that kills a blacksmith in Bonita. Well, I studied the drawing, and I put two and two together. That sure looks like my William, I thought. He was always hankering for a nickname. He'd say, You're not a somebody if you don't have a nickname. Well, now he got one.
Then of course came the Lincoln County War, which likely you heard of. That sorry clash 'twix the big-money ranchers. Over pieces of paper, beef contracts, can you believe it! A battle which your uncle got all caught up in.
I have this theory. I think William had a big need for a father. And 'ol Tunstall came along, became his boss, and filled that need. And you know, William made such fearsome loyalties!
Anyway, when Tunstall was shot dead, I think your uncle pretty much came completely apart. That's my theory.
When the war ended, there were dead men littered everywhere, some say 19, some say two dozen, who really knows, and your uncle, unrepentant, was on the run, and the bigwigs in the Territory were intent on bringing him down.
William turned up among the Mescalero, at the Agency there, and a bookkeeper ended up dead.
William seemed to always find himself where trouble was. He was in Lincoln when he watched someone set fire to a lawyer. Seeing an opportunity, your uncle made a deal with Wallace, the new governor—I'll testify against the murderer, if you give me amnesty. Well, but it was a Wallace trick, and William ended up in jail. Which, of course, he quickly escaped from.
He next turned up in Fort Sumner. His black cloud accompanying him. Billy the Kid was a big name now, and he was dogged by crazy types. In a saloon he ended up killing some joker over a game of nothing.
William fled to the ranch of a friend. Somewhere near Corona. Sheriff followed with a posse. Sheriff ended up dead. Yet again your uncle was on the run. But now a U.S. Marshall was on his tail. Man by name of Pat Garrett. And this chaser was different 'cause he was more fame-seeking and more murderous than all the rest, even more than William.
Well, now here is where you enter the story, my darling Pearl.
Because this is when, at the Majestic, in the middle of the night, I got a knock on my door.
"Erasmus! Hombre!" A raspy whisper, from behind the door. "It's your ol' pal. It's William."
Well, there stood my friend. But gone was his boy-hood. Flat-out looked dead on his feet, dirt-lined, hollow-eyed, and twitchy.
"Good God, William! Or what is it I should call you?" In that moment, I was mad at him for all he'd done and not done.
He just pushed past me into my room. It was then I saw this little someone tagging close behind him.
And I just looked you over with the greatest surprise, as you might imagine. You were the most beautiful child I'd ever seen-half-Apache, I judged, with shining black hair parted in the middle, naja cheekbones, sunburned skin, and fierce blue eyes. You stood there in your dusty buckskins staring straight at me, defiant and unafraid.
I guessed you to be around five years old.
"This is Pearl," William said. "She's been calling me Tio."
He placed his hand on my shoulder to stall my questions. "We're pretty hungry, Amigo."
"Of course." And I raced downstairs and brought back whatever kitchen leftovers I could find—bread, fried chicken, bowls of pinto beans—which you and your uncle devoured. Silently, I watched you two eat.
"I found her along the road to Santa Fe. No water, no nothing, just walking straight north up the road. I judged she'd be dead in two days."
Your uncle studied you. "She doesn't say much. My guess is, she ran away from the Muscalero Rez."
Well, I watched you watch me, and then you were surveying my room, fixing on every little thing, until you finally landed on the Jules Verne. I tell you, you grabbed that book and touched the cover and ran your fingers over the image of the moon and the rocket and whispered some words. And don't you know, you wouldn't put the book down! You held it like, like it was some kind of life raft.
"Now that's something!" William's old laugh brought back memories. "She's a fan, just like I am."
"William, what the hell are you doing here?"
He didn't answer for a while, nor would he look at me. Finally, he gave me his crooked smile. "Well, I guess the dance is almost over. But hot damn, it's been a wild ride."
"Papers say you're in a lot of trouble."
"I guess half the Territory is chasing me. And the other half's cheering me."
"You could give yourself up. Serve some time. Make amends."
William laughed. "Tried that."
"So now what?"
"Now I'm just here to say hello. Then I got to vamoose. Head north, get lost among the Navaho."
"Can I do anything for you?"
But he was lost in thought. "Remember those dances at the Galaxy?"
Pearl, you were clutching your Jules Verne book and whispering words again. You were studying a picture of two men, on rocky land, near a half-buried rocket.
I looked at William. "Do I remember?" I sighed. "I remember you were going to fly up to the moon someday."
"Maybe she will do that," your uncle said, smiling. He ran his hand along the frill of your buckskin. "Which brings me to my point, Erasmus. Can you keep her?"
"Where I'm going, she'll only come to harm. You can keep her safe."
"Oh, hell, William, Billy the Kid, whatever your name is!"
But your uncle was already standing and moving to the door. "I got to keep moving."
At the door he stopped and turned. "You know what?" He paused to think of a word. "You can just call me querida. It's been good seeing you again, old Pal."
I heard his spurs on the stairs, I heard his horse snort as William jumped on, and I heard him gallop away.
As near as I can reckon, 'ol Pat Garret was at that very moment closing in and not more than a day behind.
Well, dear Pearl, I have told you all I know about your uncle. I hope it answers some of your questions.
I hope it reminds you how you came to live with your grandma and me. I also hope you understand—if you don't already—that you, my dearest Pearl, were a gift. An act of love.
And maybe, you will take away one more thing, which is this—If you someday be a doctor, you stay humble. Because not everyone can be fixed. No matter how much of your heart you give.
Honey, I have blabbed on far too long and surely have kept you from your studies. So go back to your books now.
But remember to take your breaks too. Get outside and walk and be thankful. Right now, I can picture those redbud trees on campus, and I bet they are in full bloom, aren't they? Well, you get out and walk amongst them and smell the blossoms and know you are loved.
Sweet dreams, Honey,
Your loving Pa