The Crossing: An extract from his new novel, the second part of The Border Trilogy
Sunday 14 August 1994
The horse stopped and backed and stamped. He held the animal and patted it and spoke to it and watched the wolf. His heart was slamming inside his chest like something that wanted out. She was caught by the right forefoot. The drag had caught in a cholla less than a hundred feet from the fire and there she stood. He patted the horse and spoke to it and reached down and unfastened the buckle on the saddlescabbard and slid the rifle free and stepped down and dropped the reins. The wolf crouched slightly. As if she'd try to hide. Then she stood again and looked at him and looked off towards the mountains.
When he approached she bared her teeth but she did not growl and she kept her yellow eyes from off his person. White bone showed in the bloody wound between the jaws of the trap. He could see her teats through the thin fur of her underbelly and she kept her tail tucked and pulled at the trap and stood.
He walked around her. She turned and backed. The sun was well up and in the sun her fur was a grayish dun with paler tips at the ruff and a black stripe along the back and she turned and backed to the length of the chain and her flanks sucked in and out with the motion of her breathing. He squatted on the ground and stood the rifle before him and held it by the forestock and he squatted there for a long time. He was in no way prepared for what he beheld. He tried to remember what his father had said. If her leg were broke or she were caught by the paw. He looked at the height of the sun and he looked back out toward the road. When he looked at the wolf again she was lying down but when his eyes fell upon her she stood again. The standing horse tossed its head and the bridlebit clinked but she paid no attention to the horse at all. He rose and walked back and scabbarded the rifle and took up the reins and mounted up and turned the horse and headed out to the road. Half way he stopped again and turned and looked back. The wolf was watching him as before. He sat the horse a long time. The sun warm on his back. The world waiting. Then he rode back to the wolf.
She rose and stood with her sides caving in and out. She carried her head low and her tongue hung trembling between the long incisors of her lower jaw. He undid the string from his catchrope and slung it over his shoulder and stepped down. He took some lengths of pigginstring from the mochila behind the saddle and looped them through his belt and unlimbered the catchrope and walked around the wolf. The horse was no use to him because if it leaned back on the rope it would kill the wolf or pull it from the trap or both. He circled the wolf and looked for something to tie to that he could stretch her. There was nothing that his rope would reach and double and finally he took off his coat and blindfolded the horse with it and led it forward upwind of the wolf and dropped the reins that it would stand. Then he paid out the rope and built his loop and dropped it over her. She stepped through it with the trap and looked at it and looked at him. Now he had the rope over the trapchain. He looked at it in disgust and dropped the rope and walked out in the desert until he found a paloverde and he cut from it a pole some seven feet long with a forked branch at the end and came back trimming off the limbs with his knife. She watched him. He snared the loop with the end of the pole and pulled it toward him. He thought she might bite at the pole but she did not. When he got the loop in his hand he had to pay the whole 40 feet of rope back through the honda and begin again. She watched the rope make its traverse with great attention and when the end of it had passed over the trapchain and withdrew through the dead grass she lay down again. He built a smaller loop and came forward. She stood. He swung the loop and she flattened her ears and ducked and bared her teeth at him. He made two more tries and on the third the loop dropped over her neck and he snatched the rope taut. She stood twisting on her hindlegs holding the heavy trap up at her chest and snapping at the rope and pawing with her free foot. She let out a low whine which was the first sound she had made.
He stepped back and stretched her out till she lay gasping on the ground and he backed toward the horse paying out rope and then looped the rope about the saddlehorn and came back carrying the free end. He winced to see her bloodied foreleg stretched in the trap but there was no help for it. She got her hindquarters up off the ground and scrabbled sideways and she twisted and fought the rope and slung her head from side to side and even once got completely to her feet again before he pulled her down. He squatted holding the rope just a few feet from her and after a while she lay gasping quietly in the dirt. She looked toward him with her yellow eyes and closed them slowly and then looked away.
He stood on the rope with one foot and took out his knife again and reached carefully and got hold of the paloverde pole. He cut a threefoot length from the end of it and put the knife back in his pocket and took a length of the pigginstring from his belt and made a noose with it and took it in his teeth. Then he stepped off the rope and picked up the end of it and moved toward her with the stick. She watched with one almond eye, deep yellow, deepening to amber at the iris. She strained at the rope, her face in the dirt, her mouth open and her teeth so white, so perfectly made. He pulled the rope tighter where it was belayed around the saddlehorn. He pulled until he'd shut off her air and then he jammed the stick between her teeth.
She made no sound. She bowed up and twisted her head and bit at the stick and tried to get quit of it. He hauled on the rope and stretched her out wild and gagging and forced her lower jaw to the ground with the stick and stepped on the rope again with his boot not a foot from those teeth. Then he took the pigginstring from his mouth and dropped the loop of it over her muzzle and jerked it tight and seized her by one ear and made three turns of the cord about her jaws faster than eye could follow and halfhitched it and fell upon her, kneeling with the living wolf gasping between his legs and sucking air and her tongue working within the teeth all stuck with dirt and debris. She looked up at him, the eye delicately aslant, the knowledge of the world it held sufficient to the day if not to the day's evil. Then she closed her eyes and he slacked the rope and stood and stepped away and she lay breathing heavily with her forefoot stretched behind her in the trap and the stick in her mouth. He stood gasping himself. Cold as it was he was wringing wet with sweat. He turned and looked at the horse where it stood with his coat over its head. By damn, he said. By damn. He coiled the loose rope from off the ground and walked back to the horse and lifted the rope up and over the saddlehorn and untied the coatsleeves from under the horse's jaw and unhooded it and laid the coat across the saddle. The horse lifted its head and blew and looked toward the wolf and he patted it on the neck and spoke to it and got the clamps out of the mochila and pulled the coil of rope up over his shoulder and turned back to the wolf.
Before he could reach her she leapt up and lunged against the trapchain twisting and slinging her head and pawing at her mouth with her free foot. He pulled her down with the rope and held her. A white foam seethed between her teeth. He approached slowly and reached and held her by the stick in her jaws and spoke to her but his voice seemed only to make her shudder. He looked at the leg in the trap. It looked bad. He got hold of the trap and put the clamp over the spring and screwed it down and then did the second spring. When the eye of the spring dropped past the hinges in the plate the jaws fell open and her wrecked forefoot spilled out limp and bloody with the white bone shining. He reached to touch it but she snatched it away and stood. He was amazed at her quickness. She stood squared off at him, her eyes level with his where he knelt, still not meeting his gaze. He slid the coil of rope off his shoulder to the ground and picked up the end of it and wrapped it around his fist in a double grip. Then he let go slack the short end of the rope by which he held her. She tested the injured foot on the ground and drew it up again.
Go on, he said. If you think you can.
She turned and wheeled away. So quick. He hardly had time to get one heel in front of himin the dirt before she hit the end of the rope. She did a cartwheel and landed on her back and jerked him forward on to his elbows. He scrambled up but she was already off in another direction and when she hit the end of the rope again she almost snatched him off the ground. He turned and dug both heels in and took a turn of the rope around his wrist. She had swung toward the horse now and the horse snorted and set off toward the road at a trot with the reins trailing. She ran at the end of the rope in a circle until she passed the cholla that had first caught the trapchain drag and here the rope brought her around until she stood snubbed and gasping, among the thorns.
He rose and walked up to her. She squatted and flattened her ears. Slobber swung in white strings from her jaw. He took out his knife and reached and got hold of the stick in her mouth and he spoke to her and stroked her head but she only winced and shivered.
It aint no use to fight it, he told her.
He cut t he trailing length of the paloverde off short at the side of her mouth and put the knife away and walked the end of the rope around the cholla till it was free and then led her twisting and shaking her head out on to the open ground. He could not believe how strong she was. He stood spraddlelegged with the rope in both hands across his thighs and turned and scanned the country for some sight of his horse. She would not quit struggling and he got hold of the rope end again and sat with it doubled in his fist and dug both heels in and let her go. When she hit the end of the rope this time she flew into the air and landed on her back and lay there. He hauled on the rope and dragged her towards him through the dirt.
Get up, he said. You aint hurt.
He walked down and stood over her where she lay panting. He looked at the injuredleg. There was a flap of loose skin pushed down around her ankle like a sock and the wound was dirty and stuck with twigs and leaves. He knelt and touched her. Come on, he said. You've done run my horse off so let's go find him.
By the time he'd dragged her out to the road he was all but exhausted. The horse was standing a hundred yards away grazing in the bar ditch. It raised its head and looked at him and bent to graze again. He halfhitched the catchrope to a fencepost and took the last length of cord from his belt and tied the honda to the rope that the noose could not back off loose and then he rose and walked back across the pasture to pick his coat up off the ground and to get the trap.
When he got back she wassnubbed up against the fencepost and half strangling where she'd gone back and forth. He dropped the trap and knelt and unhitched the rope from the post and paid the whole length of it back and forth through the wires until he had her free again. She got up and sat in the dusty grass and looked off wildly up the road toward the mountains with the foam seething between her teeth and dripping from the paloverde stick.
You aint got no damn sense, he told her.
He rose and put on his coat and jammed the clamps into his coatpocket and slung the trap over his shoulder by the chain and then dragged her out into the middle of the road and set off with her behind him sliding stifflegged and raking a trail through the dust and gravel.
The horse raised itshead to study them, chewing ruminatively. Then it turned and set off down the road.
He stopped and stood looking after it. He turned and looked back at the wolf. In the distance he could hear the chug of the old rancher's Model A and he realised that she had heard it some time ago. He shortened up the rope a couple of reaches and dragged the wolf through the bar ditch and stood by the fence and watched the truck come over the hill and approach in its attendant dust and clatter. The old man slowed and peered. The wolf was jerking and twisting and the boy stood behind her and held her with both hands. By the time the truck had pulled abreast of them he was lying on the ground with his legs scissored about her midriff and his arms around her neck. The old man stopped and sat the idling truck and leaned across and rolled down the window. What in the hell, he said. What in the hell.
You reckon you could turn that thing off? the boy said.
That's a damn wolf.
Yessir it is.
What in the hell.
The truck's scarin her.
Boy what's wrong with you? That thing comes out of that riggin it'll eat you alive.
What are you doin with him?
It's a she.
It's a what?
A she. It's a she.
Hell fire, it dont make a damn he or she. What are you doin with it?
Fixin to take it home.
Whatever in the contumacious hell for?
Can you not turn that thing off?
It aint all that easy to start again.
Well could I maybe get you to drive down there and catch my horse for me and bring him back. I'd tie her up but she gets all fuzzled up in the fencewire.
What I'd liketo do is to try and save you the trouble of bein eat, the old man said. What are you takin it home for?
It's kindly a long story.
Well I'd sure like to hear it.
The boy looked down the road where the horse stood grazing. He looked at the old man. Well, he said. My daddy wanted me to come and get him if I caught her but I didnt want to leave her cause they's been some vaqueros takin their dinner over yonder and I figured they'd probably shoot her so I just decided to take her on home with me.
Have you always been crazy?
I dont know. I never was much put to the test before today.
How old are you?
Well you aint got the sense God give a goose. Did you know that?
You may be right.
How do you expect your horse to tolerate a bunch of nonsense such as this.
If I can get him caught he wont have a whole lot of say about it.
You plan on leadin that thing behind a horse?
How you expect to get her to do that?
She aint got a whole lot of choice either.
The old man sat looking at him. Then he climbed out of the truck and shut the door and adjusted hishat and walked around and stood at the edge of the bar ditch. He had on canvas pants and a blanketlined canvas coat with a corduroy collar and he wore boots with walkingheels and a full beaver John B Stetson hat.
How close can I get? he said.
Close as you want.
He crossed the ditch and came up and stood looking at the wolf. He looked at the boy and he looked at the wolf some more.
She's fixin to have pups.
Damn good thing you caught her.
Can you touch her?
Yessir. You can touch her.
The old man squatted and put his hand on the wolf. The wolf bowed and writhed and he snatched his hand away. Then he touched her again. He looked at the boy. Wolf, he said.
What do you aim to do with her?
I dont know.
I guess you'll collect the bounty. Sell the hide.
She dont much like bein touched, does she?
No sir. Not much.
When we used to bring cattle up the valley from down around Cienega Springs why first night we'd generally hit in about Government Draw and make camp there. And you could hear em all across the valley. Them first warm nights. You'd nearly always hear em in that part of the valley. I aint heard one in years.
She come up from Mexico.
I dont doubt it. Ever other damn thing does.
He rose and looked off down the road to where the horse was grazing. You want my advice, he said, you'll let me fetch you that rifle I see sticking out of the boot yonder and shoot this son of a bitch right between the eyes and be done with it.
If I can just get my horse caught I'll be all right, the boy said.
Well. You suit yourself.
Yessir. I aim to.
The old manshook his head. All right, he said. Wait here and I'll go get him.
I aint goin nowheres, the boy said.
He went back to the truck and got in and drove down to where the horse was standing. When the horse saw the truck coming it crossed through the bar ditch and stood against the fence and the old man got out and walked the horse down along the fence until he could catch the trailing reins and then he led the horse back up the road. The boy sat holding the wolf. It was very quiet. The only sound along the road was the faint dry clop of the horse's hooves in the gravel and the steady chugging of the truck where the old man had left it idling by the roadside.
When he dragged the wolf out to the road the horse backed and stood facing her.
Maybe you better tie the horse, the old man said.
If you'll just hold him a minute I'll be all right.
I aint sure but what I'd about as soon hold the wolf.
The boy paid out enough slack so that the wolf could get to the bar ditch but not enoughfor her to reach the fence. He dallied the rope to the saddlehorn and turned the wolf loose and she scampered for the ditch on three legs and hit the rope end and flipped endwise and got up and crouched in the ditch and lay waiting. The boy turned and took the reins from the old man and put one knuckle to his hatbrim.
I'm much obliged, he said.
That's all right. It's been a interesting day.
Yessir. Mine aint over.
No it aint. You mind shedont get that mouth loose, you hear? She'll take a chunk out of you you couldnt put in your hat.
He stood in the stirrup and swung up and checked the dally and nudged his hat back and nodded to the old man. I'm much obliged, he said.
When he put the horse forward the wolf came up out of the ditch at the end of the rope with the game foot to her chest and swung into the road and went dragging after the horse stifflegged and rigid as a piece of taxidermy. He stopped and looked back.
The old man was standing in the road watching them.
Sir? he said.
Maybe you better go on by and get your truck. So you wont have to pass us.
I think that's a good idea.
He walked down and got into the truck and tumed and looked back at them. The boy raised his hand. The old man looked like he might be going to call something to him but he didnt and he lifted his hand and turned and pulled away down the road toward Cloverdale.
He went on. Gusts of wind were blowing dust off the top of the road. When he looked back at her she had her windward eye asquint against the blowing grit and she was hobbling along after the horse with her head lowered. He stopped and she came slightly forward to slack the rope and then turned and went down into the bar ditch again.
He was about to put the horse forward when she squatted in the ditch and began to make water. When she was done she turned and sniffed at the spot and checked the wind with her nose and then came up into the road and stood with her tail between her hocks and the wind making little furrows in her hair.
The boy sat the horse a long time watching her. Then he got down and dropped the reins and got his canteen and walked around to where she was standing. She backed along the reach of the rope. He slung the canteen over his shoulder and
stepped over the rope and held it between his knee and pulled her to him. She twisted and stood but he got hold of the noose and doubledit in his fist and forced her down into the grass by the side of the road and got astraddle of her. It was all he could do to hold her. Heslung the canteen around and unscrewed the cap with his teeth. The horse stamped in the road and he spoke to it and then holding the wolf by the stick in her mouth with her head against his knee he began slowly to pour water into the side of her mouth. She lay still. Her eye stopped moving. Then she began to swallow.
Most of the water ran out on the ground but he continued to trickle it between her teeth along the greenstick bit. When the canteen was empty he let go of the stick and she lay quietly getting her breath. He stood and stepped back but she didnt move. He swung the cap up by its chain and screwed it back on to the canteen and walked back out to the horse and slung the canteen over the mochila and looked back at her. She was standing watching him. He mounted up and nudged the horse forward. When he looked back she was limping along at the end of the rope. When he stopped she stopped. An hour down the road he stopped for a long time. He was at Robertson's cross-fence. Ahead an hour's ride lay Cloverdale and the road north.
South lay the open country. The yellow grass heeled under the blowing wind and sunlight was running over the country before the moving clouds. The horse shook its head and stamped and stood. Damn all of it, the boy said. Just damn all of it.
He turned the horse and crossed through the ditch and rode up onto the broad plain that stretched away before him south toward the mountains of Mexico.
Midday they crossed through a low pass in the easternmost spur of the Guadalupes and rode out down the open valley. They saw riders on the plain in the distance but the riders rode on. Late afternoon they passed through the last low cones of hills on that volcanic ground and an hour later they came to the last fence in the country.
It was a crossfence running east and west. On the other side was a dirt track. He turned the horse east and followed the fence. There was a cattletrail along the fence but he rode a rope length from it that the wolf not cross under the wires and by and by he came to a ranch house.
He sat the horse on a slight rise of ground and studied the house. He could see no safe place to leave the wolf so he continued on. At the gate he dismounted and unpinned the chain and swung the gate open and led horse and wolf through and closed the gate again and remounted. The wolf was standing bowed up in the road with its hair all wrong like something pulled backwards out of a pipe and when he put the horse forward she came skidding behind with her legs locked. He looked back at her. If I'd been eatin these people's cows, he said, I wouldnt want to come calling neither.
Before he could put the horse forward again there was a great howl from the directionof the house and when he looked three large hounds were coming up the road very low and very fast.
Shit almighty, he said.
He stepped down and snubbed the reins to the top fencewire and snatched the rifle out of the scabbard. Bird's eyes were rolling and he began to stamp about in the road. The wolf stood stock still with her tail up and her hair straight out. The horse turned and backed at the reins, the fencewire bowed. He heard in the melee a staple pop and he suddenly saw as in an evil dream the spectre of the horse at full gallop on the plain with the wolf behind at the end of the rope and the dogs in wild pursuit and he snatched the rope from about the saddlehorn just as the reins broke and the horse wheeled and went pounding and he turned with the rifle and the wolf to stand off the dogs suddenly all about him in a bedlam of howling and teeth and whited eyes.
They circled scrabbling in the dirt of the road and he pulled the wolf hard up against his leg and yelled at them and whacked them away with the barrel of the rifle. Two were carrying broken lengths of chain at their collar and the third wore no collar at all. In all that whirling pandemonium he could feel the wolf trembling electrically against him and her heart hammering.
They were working hounds and although they circled and bayed he knew that they would be loath to attack anything a man held in absolute custody even if it was a wolf. He turned with them and caught one of them in the side of the head with the barrel of the rifle. Git, he shouted. Git. By now two men were coming from the house at a trot.
They called the dogs by name and two of the dogs actually stopped and looked back down the road. The third arched its back and came at the wolf with a mincing sidelong step and popped its teeth at her and drew away again and stood howling.
One of the men had a dinnernapkin hanging from the neck of his shirt and he was breathing heavily. You Julie, he called. Git.
Damnation. Get a stick or somethin, RL. Good God.
The other man unlatched his buckle and whipped his belt out through the loops and began to lay about him with the buckle end. Instantly the dogs were yelping and scurrying. The older man stopped and stood with his hands on his hips catching his breath. He turned to the boy. He saw the napkin in his shirt and pulled it free and wiped his forehead with it and stuck the napkin in his back pocket. You mind tellin me what the hell you're doin? he said.
Tryin to keep these damn dogs off of my wolf.
Dont give me no smart answer.
I aint. I comeup on your fence and went to huntin a gate is all. I didnt know all hell was fixin to bust loose.
What the hell did you expect was goin to happen?
I didnt know there was dogs here.
Well hell, you seen the house didnt you?
The man squinted at him. You're Will Parham's boy. Aint you?
What's your name?
Well Billy this might sound to you like a ignorantquestion but what in the hell are you doin with that thing?
I caught it.
Well I reckon you did. It's the one with the stick in its mouth. Where are you started with it?
I was startedhome.
No you wasnt. You was headed yonway.
I was startedhome with it when I changed my mind.
What did you change it to?
The boy didnt answer. The dogs were pacing up and down, the hair standing along their backs.
RL, take the dogs on to the house and put em up. Tell Mama I'll be there directly.
He turned to the boy again. How do you aim to get your horse back?
Walk him down, I reckon.
Well it's about two miles to the first cattleguard.
The boy stood holding the wolf. He looked off down the road in the direction the horse had gone.
Will that thing ride in a truck? the man said.
The boy gave him a peculiar look.
Hell, the man said. I want you to listen at me. RL can you take him in the truck to catch his horse?
Yessir. Is his horse hard to catch?
Your horse hard to catch? the man said.
He says it aint.
Well unless he just wants to go ridin I reckon I can get his horse for him.
You dont want to ride with that wolf is what it is, the man said.
It aint that I dont want to. It's that I aint goin to.
Well I was fixin to say that since it's liable to jump out of the bed of the truck why dont you take it up front in the cab with you and the boy can ride in the back?
RL had the dogs by their trailing pieces of chain and was fastening the third dog to them with his belt. I got a life sized picture of me ridin up the road with a wolf in the cab of my truck, he said. I can just see it plain as day.
The man stood looking at the wolf. He reached to adjust his hat but he had no hat on so he scratched his head. He looked at the boy. And here I thought I knowed all the lunatics in this valley, he said. Country crowdin up the way it is. You caint hardly keep up with your own neighbors even. Have you had your supper?
Well come on to the house.
What do you want me to do with her?
This here wolf.
Well I guess it'll just have to lay around the kitchen till we get done eatin.
Lay around the kitchen?
It's a joke, son. Hell fire. You brought that thing in the house you could hear my wife in Albuquerque with the wires down.
I dontwant to leave her outside. Somethin's liable to jump her.
I know that. Just come on. I wouldnt leave her out for nobody to see noways. They'd come and get me with a butterfly net.
They put the wolf in the smokehouse and left her and walked back to the kitchen. The man looked at the rifle the boy was carrying but he didnt say anything. When they got to the kitchen door the boy stood the rifle against the side of the house and the man held the door for him and they went in. The woman had put the supper above the oven to warm and she brought everything out again and set a plate for the boy. Outside they heard RL start the truck. They passed the dishes, bowls of mashed potatoes and pinto beans and a platter of fried steaks. When he had his plate loaded with about all it could hold he looked up at the man. The man nodded at his plate.
We done blessed the food once, he said. So unless you got some personal business to conduct just tuck on in.
They began to eat.
Mama, the man said, see if you can get him to tell us where it is he's headed with that lobo.
If he dont want to say he dont have to, the woman said.
I'm takin her to Mexico.
The man reached for the butter. Well, he said. That seems like a good idea.
I'm goin to take her down there and turn her loose.
The man nodded. Turn her loose,he said.
She's got some pups somewheres, aint she?
No sir. Not yet she dont.
You sure about that?
Yessir. She's fixin to have some.
What have you got against the Mexicans?
I dont have nothin against em.
You just figured they might could use another wolf or two.
The boy cut a piece from his steak and forked it up. The man watched him.
How are they fixed for rattlesnakes down there do you reckon?
I aint takin her to give to nobody. I'm just takin her down there and turnin her loose. It's where she come from.
The man trowelled butter very methodically along the edge of a biscuit with his knife. He put the top back on the biscuit and looked at the boy.
You a very peculiar kid, he said. Did you know that?
No sir. I was always just like everbody else far as I know.
Well you aint.
Tell me this. You aint plannin on just dumpin that thing across the line are you? Cause if you are I'm goin to follow you out there with a rifle.
I was goin to take her back to the mountains.
Take her back to the mountains, the man said. He looked at the biscuit speculatively and then bit slowly into it.
Where all is your family from? the woman said.
We're up at the Charcas.
She means before that, the man said.
We come out of Grant County. And De Baca fore that.
The man nodded.
We been down here a long time.
What's a long time?
Goin on ten years.
Tenyears, the man said. Time just flies, dont it?
Go on and eat your supper, the woman said. Dont pay no attention to him.
They ate. After a while the truck pulled into the yard and passed the house and the woman got up from the table and went to get RL's plate from the warmer over the stove.
When they walked out after supper it was evening and growing cold and the sun was low over the mountains to the west. Bird stood in the yard tied by a rope halter to the gate and the bridle and reins were hung over the saddlehorn. The woman stood in the kitchen door and watched them cross toward the smokehouse.
The man lifted the open lock from the haspstaple and the boy pushed the door in carefully. She was standing, backed into the corner. There was no window in the little adobe building and she blinked when the light fell across her.
She's all right, the boy said.
He pushed the door open.
That poor thing, the woman said.
The rancher turned patiently. Jane Ellen, he said, what are you doin out here?
That leg looks awful. I'm goin to get Jaime.
You're goin to what?
Just wait here.
She turned and set off across the yard. Half way she pulled off the coat she'd thrown overher shoulders and put it on. The man leaned in the door and shook his head.
Where was she goin? the boy said.
More craziness, the man said. We could be in a epidemic. He stood in the doorway and rolled a smoke while the boy sat holding the wolf by the rope. You dont use these do you? the man said.
That's good. Dont start.
He smoked. He looked at the boy. What would you take for her cash money? he said.
She aint for sale.
What would you take if she was?
I wouldnt. Cause she aint.
When the woman came back she had with her an old Mexican who carried a small green tin deedbox under his arm. He greeted the rancher and nudged his hat and entered the smokehouse with the woman behind him. The woman was carrying a bundle of clean sheeting. The Mexican nodded to the boy and touched his hat again and knelt in front of the wolf and looked at it.
Puede detenerla? he said.
Si, said the boy.
Necesitas mas luz? the woman said.
Si, said the Mexican.
The man stepped out into the yard and dropped the cigarette and stepped on it. They moved the wolf toward the door and the boy held her while the Mexican took her by the elbow and studied the damaged foreleg. The woman set the tin box on the floor and opened it and took out a bottle of witch-hazel and doped a piece of the sheeting with it. She handed it to the Mexican and he took it and looked at the boy.
Esta's listo, joven?
He renewed his grip on the wolf and wrapped his legs around her. The Mexican took hold of the wolf's foreleg and began to clean the wound.
She let out a strangled yelp and reared twisting in the boy's arms and snatched her foot out of the Mexican's grip.
Otra vez, the Mexican said.
They began again.
On the second attempt she slung the boy about the room and the Mexican stepped back quickly. The woman had already backed away. The wolf was standing with the slobber seething in and out between her teeth and the boy was lying on the floor beneath her hanging on to her neck. The rancher out in the yard had started to roll another cigarette but now he put the sack back in his shirtpocket and adjusted his hat.
Hang on a minute, he said. Damnation. Just hold it a minute.
He climbed through the door and reached and got hold of the wolf by the rope and twisted the rope in his fist.
People hear about me givin first aid to a damn wolf I wont be able to live in this county, he said.
All right. Do your damndest. Andale.
They finished their surgery in the last light of the sun. The Mexican had pulled the loose flap of skin into place and he sat patiently sewing it with a small curved needle clamped in a haemostat and when he was done he daubed it with Corona Salve and wrapped it in sheeting and tied it. RL had come out and stood watching them and picking his teeth.
Did you give her some water? the woman said.
Yes mam. It's kindly hard for her to drink.
I guess if you took that thing off of her she'd bite.
The rancher stepped over the wolf and out into the yard.
Bite, he said. Good God almighty.
When he rode out thirty minutes later it was all but dark. He'd given thetrap to the rancher to keep for him and he had a huge lunch wrapped in a cloth packed away in the mochila along with the rest of the sheeting and the jar of Corona Salve and he had an old Saltillo blanket rolled and tied behind the saddle. Someone had spliced new . leather into the broken bridle-reins and the wolf was wearing a harnessleather dogcollar with a brass plate that had the rancher's name and RFD number and Cloverdale NM stamped into it. The rancher walked out to the gate with him and undid the gatelatch and swung it open and the boy led the horse through with the wolf behind and mounted up.
You take care, son, the man said.
Yessir. I will. Thank you.
I thought about keepin you here. Send for your daddy.
Yessir. I know you did.
He may want to whip me over it.
No he wont.
Well. Watch out for the banditos.
Yessir. I will. I thank you and the missus.
The man nodded. The boy raised one hand and reined the horseabout and set out across the darkening land with the wolf hobbling behind. The man stood at the gate watching after him. All to the south was the dark of the mountains where they rode and he could not skylight them there and soon they were swallowed up and lost horse and rider in the oncoming night. The last thing he saw on that windblown waste was the white bandaged leg of the wolf moving random and staccato like some pale djinn out there antic in the growing cold and dark. Then it too vanished and he closed the gate and turned toward the house.
THEY CROSSED in that deep twilight a broad volcanic plain bounded within the rim of hills. The hills were a deep blue in the blue dusk and the round feet of the pony clopped flatly on the gravel of the desert floor. The night was falling down from the east and the darkness that passed over them came in a sudden breath of cold and stillness and passed on. As if the darkness had a soul itself that was the sun's assassin hurrying to the west as once men did believe, as they may again. They rode up off the plain in the final dying light man and wolf and horse over a terraceland of low hills much eroded by the wind and they crossed through a fenceline or crossed where a fenceline once had been, the wires long down and rolled and carried off and the little naked mesquite posts wandering singlefile away into the night like an enfilade of bent and twisted pensioners. They rode through the pass in the dark and there he sat the horse and watched lightning to the south far over the plains of Mexico. The wind was thrashing softly through the trees in the pass and in the wind were spits of sleet. He made his camp in the lee of an arroyo south of the pass and gathered wood and made a fire and gave the wolf all the water she would drink. Then he tied her to the washedout elbow of a cottonwood and walked back and unsaddled and hobbled the horse. He unrolled the blanket and threw it over his shoulders and took the mochila and went and sat before the fire. The wolf sat on her haunches below him in the draw and watched him with her intractile eyes so red in the firelight. From time to time she would bend to try the bindings on her leg with her sideteeth but she could not grip them for the stick in her jaws.
He took a sandwich of steak and lightbread from the mochila and unwrapped it and sat eating. The little fire sawed about in the wind and the fine sleet fell slant upon them out of the darkness and hissed in the coals. He ate and watched the wolf. She pricked her ears and turned and looked out at the night but whatever was passing passed and after a while she stood and looked bleakly at the ground that was not of her choosing and circled three times and lay down facing the fire with her tail over her nose.
He woke all night with the cold. He'd rise and mend back the fire and she was always watching him. When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void, a world construed out of blood and blood's alachest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to devour it. He wrapped himself in the blanket and watched her. When those eyes and the nation to which they stood witness were gone at last with their dignity back into their origins there would perhaps be other fires and other witnesses and other worlds otherwise beheld. But they would not be this one.
The last few hours before the dawn he did sleep, cold or no. He rose in the gray light and pulled the blanket about him and knelt and tried to blow life into the dead ashes of the fire. He walked out to where he could watch the east for the sunrise. A mottled scud of clouds lay across the neutral desert sky. The wind had abated and the dawn was soundless.
When he approached the wolf holding the canteen she did not bridle or arch her back at him. He touched her and she edged away. He held her by the collar and pushed her down and sat trickling the water between her teeth while her tongue worked and her gullet jerked and the cold slant eye watched his hand. He held his hand under her jaw at the far side to save the water running out on the ground and she drank the canteen dry. He sat stroking her. Then he reached down and felt her belly. She struggled and her eye rolled wildly. He spoke to her softly. He put the flat of his hand between her warm and naked teats. He held it there for a long time. Then he felt something move.
When he set out across the valley to the south the grass was golden in the morning sun. Antelope were grazing on the plain a half mile to the east. He looked back to see if she had taken notice of them but she had not. She limped along behind the horse steadfast and doglike and in this fashion they crossed sometime near noon the international boundary line into Mexico, State of Sonora, undifferentiated in its terrain as the country they quit and yet wholly alien and wholly strange. He sat the horse and looked out over the red hills. To the east he could see one of the concrete obelisks that stood for a boundary marker. In that desert waste it had the look of some monument to a lost expedition.
Two hours later they'd left the valley and begun to climb through the low hills. Sparse grass and ocotillo. A few thin cattle trotted off before them. By and by they struck the Cajon Bonita which was the main trail south through the mountains and by the side of this track an hour later they came upon a small rancho.
He sat the horse and pulled the wolf close to him by the rope and he called out and waited to see if dogs would show but none did. He rode slowly. There were three crumbling adobe houses and a man dressed in rags stood in the doorway of one of them. The place had the look of an old waystation fallen into ruin. He rode forward and halted in front of the man and sat with his hands crossed at the wrists and resting on the pommel of his saddle.
A donde va? the man said.
A las montanas.
The man nodded. He wiped his nose with his sleeve and turned and looked toward the mountains so spoken. As if he had not properly considered them before. He looked at the boy and at the horse and at the wolf.
Bueno, said the man. Bueno.
The day was cold for all that the sun shone and yet the man was half naked nor was there any smoke coming from the buildings. He looked at the wolf.
Es bueno cazadora su perra.
The boy looked at the wolf. Si, he said. Mejor no hay.
Bueno, said the man. Bueno. He asked the boy if he had tobacco, if he had coffee, if he had meat. The boy had none of these things and the man seemed to accept the inevitable truth of it. He stood leaning in the doorway, looking at the ground. After a while the boy realised that he was discussing something with himself.
Bueno, the boy said. Hasta luego.
The man flung up one arm. His rags flapped about him. Andale he said.
Herode on. When he looked back the man was still in the doorway. He was looking out back down the trail as if to see who might be coming next.
By late afternoon when he would dismount and advance toward her with the canteen she would dip slowly to the groundlike a circus animal and roll on to her side waiting. The yellow eye watching, the ear shifting with little movements within the arc of its rotation. He didn't know how much of the water she was getting or how much she needed. He sat trickling the water between her teeth and looking into her eye. He touched the pleated corner of her mouth. He studied the veined and velvet grotto into which the audible world poured. He began to talk to her. The horse raised its head from its trailside grazing and looked back at him.
They rode on. The country was high rolling desert and the trail ran the crests of the ridges and although it seemed travelled he saw no one. On the slopes were acacia, scrub oak. Open parks of juniper. In the evening a rabbit appeared in the middle of the trail a hundred feet in front of him and he reined the horse up and put two fingers to his teeth and whistled and the rabbit froze and he stepped down and shucked the rifle backward out of the scabbard and cocked it all in a single movement and raised the rifle and fired.
The horse shied wildly and he snatched the reins out of the air and hauled it around and got it calmed. The wolf had vanished into the trailside brush. He held the rifle at his waist and levered the spent shell out of the chamber and caught it and put it in his pocket and levered a fresh shell in and let down the hammer with his thumb and undallied the rope and let the reins drop and walked back to see about the wolf.
She was trembling in the weeds just short of a small twisted juniper where she'd sought to hide. At his approach she sprang against the rope and stood thrashing. He stood the rifle against a tree and walked her down along the rope and held her and talked to her but he could not calm her and she did not stop trembling. After a while he took the rifle and went back out to the horse and shoved the rifle into the scabbard and walked back up the trail to look for the rabbit.
There was a long furrow down the centre of the track that the rifle slug had ploughed and the rabbit had been slung up into the bushes where it lay with its guts hanging in gray loops. It was all but in two pieces and he pooled it up all warm and downy in his hands with the head lolling and carried it out through the woods till he could find a windfall tree. There he kicked away the loose pine bark with the heel of his boot and brushed and blew it clean and laid the rabbit across the wood and took out his knife and straddling the log he skinned the rabbit out and gutted it and cut off the head and feet. He diced up the liver and heart on the log with his knife and sat looking at it. It didnt look much. He wiped his hand in the dead grass and took the rabbit and began to fillet strips from the back and hindquarters and to dice them as well until what he did have made a handful and then he wrapped them in the skin of the rabbit and folded away the knife.
He walked back and spiked the dead rabbit on a broken pine limb and went to where the wolf lay crouched. He squatted and held his hand out to her but she backed away at the end of the rope. He took a small piece of the rabbit's liver and held it to her. She sniffed it delicately. He watched her eyes and the speculation in them. He watched the leather nostrils. She turned her head to one side and when he offered the piece again she tried to back away.
Maybe you just aint hungry enough yet, he said. But you're fixin to get that way.
He made camp that night in a little swale under the windward side of the ridge and he skewered the rabbit on a paloverde pole and set it to broil in front of the fire before he even went to see about the horse and the wolf. When he approached her she stood and the first thing he saw was that the wrapping was gone from her leg. Then he saw that the stick between her teeth was gone. Then he saw that the cord with which her mouth was tied was gone.
She stoo d square to him with the hackles standing along her back. The catchrope tied to her collar and looped along the ground was frayed and wet where she'd been chewing it.
He stopped and stood dead still. He backed along the rope until he reached the horse andthen untied the rope from the saddlehorn. He didnt take his eyes from her. Holding the free end of the rope he began to circle the wolf. She turned in place watching him. He put a small pine tree between them. He tried to move in a casual manner but he felt all his motives naked to her. He handed the rope in a loop over the top of a high limb and caught it again and then backed away and pulled the rope taut. The slack came uncoiled out of the weeds and pine needles and tugged at her collar. She lowered her head and followed.
When she was standing under the limb he pulled the rope until her forefeet were all but off the ground and then slacked it just slightly and tied the rope off and stood looking at her. She bared her teeth at him and turned and tried to move away but she could not. She seemed to be at odds what to do. After a while she raised her injured leg and began to lick it.
He went back to the fire and piled on all the wood he'd collected. Then he got the canteen and he took one of the last of the sandwiches from the mochila and shucked it out of its wrapper and carried the canteen and the paper back to the wolf.
She watched while he scooped out a hole in the soft turf and she watched while he beat it smooth with the back of his bootheel. Then he spread the paper in the depression and weighed it with a rock and poured it full from the canteen.
He untied the rope and paid out slack as he backed away. She stood watching him. He stepped back a few more paces and squatted on the ground holding the rope. She looked at the fire and she looked at him. She sat on her haunches and licked her sore chops. He rose and went to the hole and poured in more water and splashed it about. Then he screwed the cap back on the canteen and stood it beside the waterhole and backed away again and sat. They watched each other. It was almost dark. She stood and tested the air with small nudging motions of her nose. Then she began to come forward.
When she reached the water she sniffed at it tentatively and raised her head to look at him. She looked at the fire again and at the shape of the horse beyond the fire. Her eyes glowed in the light. She lowered her nose to sniff at the water. Her eyes did not leave him or cease to burn and as she lowered her head to drink the reflection of her eyes came up in the dark water like some other self of wolf that did inhere in the earth or wait in every secret place even to such false waterholes as this that the wolf would be always corroborate to herself and never wholly abandoned in the world.
He squatted there watching her with the rope in both hands. Likea man entrusted with the keeping of something which he hardly knew the use of. When she'd drunk the hole dry she licked her mouth and looked at him and then leaned and sniffed at the canteen. The canteen fell over and she jerked away from it and then backed off to her site under the limb and sat again and began to lick her foot again. He pulled the rope snug overhead and tied it and then walked back to the fire. He turned the rabbit on its spit and got the rabbitskin with the diced pieces and walked back and wafted it in front of her. Then he spread the skin open on the ground and untied and slacked the rope and backed away with it.
He watched her.
She leaned and sniffed the air.
It's rabbit, he said. I guess you aint ever eat any rabbit before.
He waited to see if she would come forward but she would not. He took the wind's direction by the smoke from the fire and gathered up the skin and carried it around upwind of her and held it out again in one hand while he held the rope with the other. He laid the skin down and backed away but still she made no move.
Hewalked around and tied off the rope as before and went back to the fire. The rabbit on the spit was half burnt and half raw and he sat and ate it and then with his knife constructed a muzzle out of his belt and out of two long pieces of leather that he cut from the fender of the saddle. He fitted the pieces with slits and latigos, studying the wolf from time to time where she lay curled under the tree with the rope ascending vertically in the firelight.
I reckon you think you'll wait till I'm asleep and then you can see about gettin loose, he said.
She rais ed her head and looked at him.
Yeah, he said. I'm talkin to you.
'The Crossing' is published by Picador on 26 August
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