Sanchez tracked the boy nearly a month before he caught up to him in Monclova. Followed horse tracks by day, looked for firelight at night, gathered what he could from others as he passed through Plainsview and San Angelo and Langtry. Some wished not to speak of the boy, but others told their minds. Called him evil.
The boy was wanted for the death of his Ma and Pa. Most thought he killed his eleven-year-old sister too, and some said he had raped her beforehand. The only thing certain was a five hundred dollar bounty for his head or one thousand for him alive, and that was all that concerned Sanchez.
Sanchez imagined finding the boy holed in a bar or barricaded on a motel balcony. The boy would take hostages and threaten lives, and it would take cunning and bravado and a steady rifle hand to bring him to justice, all of which Sanchez told himself he possessed.
It was not this way.
From afar Sanchez spotted a lone horse beneath the moonlight and rode upon it and found the boy asleep in the saddle. His clothes were not his own. The shirt loose through the shoulders, baggy around his waist where it tucked into his jeans, belt notched tight through a hole riddled by knife tip. Sanchez told the boy he was under arrest, and the boy yawned and wiped his eyes, and when Sanchez produced the manacles from his saddlebags the boy put forth his hands. Sanchez turned the boy’s horse and slipped a halter about its neck, which he tied to his own saddle, and they turned east towards Amarillo. The boy was asleep again in no time at all.
They rode through the night and the next day, and the only sound was the clopping of hooves and the jostling metal of the saddles, and when that faded only the swirling of dust. Waves of heat warped the cacti and the elevation in the distance and the very air itself for miles and miles.
“What’s your name?” asked the boy in the late evening, the horses pattering around a ridge.
“Well, Sanchez. I gotta piss.”
Sanchez took his rifle from the scabbard, and when he removed the manacles from the boy’s hands he jumped back like he might be bitten. The boy walked to the edge of the mesa, and Sanchez trained the rifle barrel on his back.
“You’re not going to shoot me with my pecker out, are you?”
“I’m not going to shoot you at all if I can help it. You’re worth more to me alive.”
The boy urinated noiselessly off the overhang.
“Ain’t that the damndest thing?”
The boy zipped his pants.
“They’re going to pay you more so they can kill me theirselves.”
Further into the mountains they found a stream and stopped to water the horses. Sanchez said it was a good place to stay the night. He unsaddled the horses and started a fire and saw to dinner and made coffee. Lying in the dust, his head propped against his saddle, the boy scooped rice and beans with a tortilla, and he chewed each bite fully and swallowed it away before he began another.
People said the boy had axed his Pa while the man was sleeping. Split his head crosswise, through the eyes and bridge of the nose. Lopped his forehead clear off like cutting the cap from a cigar. Sanchez watched his manacled hands—small and hard—tried to see them gripping the handle.
Night came and the fire danced, maddened the boy’s face. But when the coals faltered to a glow his features softened, and he seemed to Sanchez no more than a schoolyard bully. The boy caught him looking, and Sanchez looked away.
In the morning keys were missing from Sanchez’s belt. Where the boy had slept the manacles lay open like theatre masks. Sanchez scrambled to his feet and had his Colt from its holster before he noticed the boy’s horse still tethered to his own. The boy appeared over the hill, his mouth wet from the stream and glistening in the morning light, and when he saw Sanchez with the pistol he did not alter his stride.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Having a drink.”
Sanchez scooped the manacles from the dust and flung them at the boy.
“I couldn’t sleep with my hands together like that.”
“Put them on.”
When he had, Sanchez moved to check them.
“Where are the keys?”
The boy pointed both hands at Sanchez’s bedroll.
Sanchez saddled the boy’s horse and draped the boy’s arms over its flank, hooking his hands over the pommel, untucked his shirt and rolled it about his neck. Sanchez took the belt from his own waist and began to stripe the boy. He was gulping at the dusty air before the boy cried out. Neither horse was startled. He kicked sand in the fire and helped the boy into his stirrups before saddling his own animal.
The two rode on, loped together by the halter like great sheets on a clothesline, one black horse and one blonde. The sun was before them in the east, and not a word until it was behind them, washing everything in orange and scorching the expanse around them.
“Why ain’t you gone?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
“So far you ain’t seemed deserving of it.”
In the days that followed they passed rock formations that looked like globs of molasses dripped from a spoon. Niños rode past them bareback on mules, and they saw the boy’s manacles and jeered at him. The boy turned and spat, and he shifted forward in the saddle, riding tall, like a marionette pulled erect by the heavens.
It rained, and the riders were soaked through, and when they reached the Rio Grande it was too high to cross. They spent the night beneath an overhang of rock accompanied by a small fire, Sanchez strained over his maps in the flickering light and the boy watching from the opposite wall.
“Laredo’s our best bet.”
“Might be,” said Sanchez. He had just traced their way through the city with a pencil.
“My folks ran cattle through there for years. It’s an easy cross, and by then the water will be down.”
With that the boy reclined and closed his eyes as if his saying had made it so, and for his effort he had earned a rest. Sanchez looked at his maps a while longer but did not change the markings.
The next day and the days thereafter Sanchez did not tie the boy’s horse. When they dipped south into Mexico, a fifteen-mile stretch lay between them and Laredo. It was flat and barren, and they could see the city walls in the distance, quivering in the heat.
The boy spoke to the land before him. “They’re going to hang me in Amarillo.”
“That’s for a judge to decide.”
“They say I killed my family.”
The boy turned and spat. “What say we race?”
“Don’t think so.”
“They call me the fastest thing in Amarillo, mind the train.”
“Then that settles it.”
The boy slid from his horse. Sanchez opened his mouth, but the boy bent over and stepped through his cuffs. Hands behind him, he struggled back into the stirrups and adjusted himself in the saddle.
Sanchez grinned. “You don’t stand a rainman’s chance in hell.”
“One way to see.”
The boy took off, and Sanchez whipped his reigns, and the open air swallowed the dust as quickly as it was stirred. Both riders leaned forward in their saddles against their horses’ straining necks, became sleek arrows and whispered encouragements like they were sharing secrets amid the whirlwind of pounding hooves, iron shoes crashing in the dirt.
But the boy was an extension of the horse itself—like he’d been born with the animal, as integral as hooves or hide—and he anticipated its movements and lightened its load by shifting his weight accordingly. So the blonde gelding pulled ahead, widening the margin until it could not be overtaken, and Sanchez watched the boy’s fingers wink behind him like a tail of his own as he grew smaller and smaller still.
When Sanchez reached Laredo the boy was set down with one boot over the other, leaned against a Joshua, whistling an old gospel. Sanchez motioned him up and turned him and unclamped the manacles. The boy rubbed the raw skin of his wrists and did not speak.
The horses were half-quit, so they led them into the city to find water. Mexican children ran amongst them, and they tipped their hats to girls who whispered and giggled, and there was no difference discernable between the two riders.
They soon found a man to water their horses. He led them to a trough outside an adobe hut. “Hermanos?” he asked as the animals drank.
Sanchez shook his head, and the boy spoke Spanish faster than he could follow. The man’s eyes changed as the boy spoke. Sanchez thanked him, and the man wished them buena suerte. When they had remounted and were outside the city, Sanchez spoke.
“Reckon we could make Crystal City fore dark?”
They reached Crystal City by nightfall. The boy had unsaddled and was searching stones for a fire pit when Sanchez rode past and waved him into the city streets of packed clay. They came to a motel, and Sanchez bought a room, but when the boy entered the innkeeper recognized him and sent for the police. Sanchez explained their position, and the man recalled his clerk but said that the boy must sleep in the stable. The boy agreed before Sanchez could argue.
The riders left their horses and walked to a café, and this time the boy entered first, looking at his boots. Sanchez behind him with the butt of the Colt flashing in his belt, and the heel of his hand on it. The place was empty save three men sitting on stools at the counter, and those men watched over their shoulders until Sanchez sat the boy in a booth and took the other side and set the pistol between them. The floor tile was sticky with mop scum, and the tabletop was chrome like the barrel of the gun.
Sanchez ordered a steak and potatoes with gravy and coffee, and the boy ordered the same, asking for each item anew as if none of it had been ordered before, maybe ever.
The camarera paid no mind to the Colt until she returned to the counter, where the men spoke to her in low voices, and she glanced towards the booth and returned to the kitchen. She brought their food and coffee all at once, balancing plates like a circus performer, and she spoke no word and did not return until the two had left.
Sanchez ate the meat like he had waited on it his whole life, but the boy paced himself, used the fork in his left hand and the knife in his right to shear slivers from the steak and then replaced the knife on the paper napkin and swapped the fork from left to right and chewed each bite wholly before beginning another. When Sanchez noticed it he slowed too and felt a heaviness come over him, and when he could bear it no longer he spoke.
“Why’d you kill them?”
“Ain’t telling you that.”
“Why’d you stop at Laredo?”
The boy did not hurry his chewing, and after he had swallowed he wiped his mouth.
“I reckon the same reason I didn’t leave the night before you beat me, or when you took off those cuffs, or any other time.”
Sanchez took his coffee. It had gone cold.
“I won’t tell you death don’t scare me.” The boy forked his last bite of steak and ran it through stray gravy and spoke again before he brought it to his mouth. “I’ve got reckoning to do. Tomorrow seems as right a time as any.”
Sanchez left money on the table and the two left without another word—Sanchez to the motel and the boy to the stable. And the others at the counter spoke plenty for them both and watched them through the glass until they turned at a crossroads.
The radio in the motel room did not work, leaving Sanchez alone with his thoughts. There were two beds. Sanchez prepared one for sleeping then took the personal effects from his pack and lined them on the other. He showered, washed dirt and dust from his body and got all he could from his greasy hair with a half bar of soap. A desert’s worth collected in a silty mess at his feet, and Sanchez ran the water for some time to push it down the drain.
Wrapped in a towel he selected a straight razor and wet his cheeks, and he nicked his face several times, barely minding what he did. Then Sanchez drew a bath and eased into it, closed his eyes and thought of the boy: what he had done, what he had said, what that man had called them—hermanos. Thought about whether the boy was a boy or a murderer or some other creature altogether. The boy stepping to the platform. The boy wearing the hood. The boy swinging from the rope, and everyone gathering to watch him piss himself, to watch his legs kick.
The morning sun was bright, and upon leaving his room Sanchez squinted to make out the boy already saddled on his horse, again whistling gospel. He did not ask the boy if he was ready.
Amarillo had caught word of their coming, and its people lined the streets. They cursed the boy and dangled nooses in front of him and his horse.
“I heard he killed another family in Langtry just so as to sleep in their house.”
“Wouldn’t put it past him.”
“And another couple fellers in Monclova just for asking how old he was.”
“Wouldn’t put a bit of it.”
Some threw rotten fruit, so Sanchez rode abreast with the boy to shield what he could, but the boy and his horse were hit aplenty, leaving strange blotches red and purple like bruising knife wounds. The boy fixed his eyes before him and rode upright towards his reckoning.
Sanchez slowed his horse. The crowd grew quiet as he slid the rifle from its scabbard and steadied it across his arm, training the barrel on the boy’s back. Church bells rang in the distance. He squeezed the trigger, and the people exploded—men throwing their hats in the air and everyone thanking their Almighty. The boy slumped forward in the saddle, same as Sanchez had found him sleeping.
The bullet cleared his ribcage, and blood ran from his chest into the gelding’s eyes, but the horse did not falter a step. Sanchez led the animal to the courthouse. He took the boy from the stirrups—limp as a sack of meal and weighing near the same—and lay him upon the steps of carved stone before the great white columns. He collected his five hundred from the clerk, and when he returned the crowd had dispersed and the body was gone—only the blinded gelding, reigns blowing in the wind.
He mounted the mare, and before his second foot found the stirrup the horse started out of the city. As she picked up speed the muscles of her hindquarters stretched tight and bulged through the skin. Sanchez leaned forward and patted her neck, but he could find no encouragement to whisper.