Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, excerpted in the March 1992 issue of Esquire, marked a new chapter in the career of a writer already recognized as one of America’s finest storytellers. The first volume in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy is the story of 16-year-old John Grady Cole, the last in a long line of Texas ranchers. When Grady is displaced by the sale of his ancestral home, he rides into Mexico to find work as a cowboy for hire. At once a coming-of-age story and an elegy for a lost way of life, the novel’s romanticism was a sharp contract to McCarthy’s characteristically bleak fiction. The shift in style paid off, netting McCarthy the National Book Award and bringing him a new level of public attention (not that the notoriously reclusive author craved the spotlight). To read every Esquire story ever published, upgrade to All Access.
The Hacienda de Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción was a ranch of fourteen thousand hectares situated along the edge of the Bolsón de Cuatro Ciénagas in the state of Coahuila. The western sections ran into the Sierra de Anteojo to elevations of nine thousand feet but south and east the ranch occupied part of the broad barrial or basin floor of the bolson and was well watered with natural springs and clear streams and dotted with marshes and shallow lakes or lagunas. In the lakes and in the streams were species of fish not known elsewhere on earth and birds and lizards and other forms of life as well, all long relict here, for the desert stretched away on every side.
La Purísima was one of very few ranches in that part of Mexico retaining the full complement of six square leagues of land allotted by the colonizing legislation of 1824 and the owner, Don Héctor Rocha y Villareal, was one of the few hacendados who actually lived on the land he claimed, land that had been in his family for 170 years. He was forty-seven years old and he was the first male heir in all that new-world lineage to attain such an age.
He ran upwards of a thousand head of cattle on this land. He kept a house in Mexico City where his wife lived. He flew his own airplane. He loved horses. When he rode up to the gerente’s house that morning he was accompanied by four friends and by a retinue of mozos and two pack animals saddled with hardwood kyacks, one empty, the other carrying their noon provisions. They were attended by a pack of greyhound dogs and the dogs were lean and silver in color and they flowed among the legs of the horses silent and fluid as running mercury and the horses paid them no mind at all. The hacendado halloed the house and the gerente emerged in his shirtsleeves and they spoke briefly and the gerente nodded and the hacendado spoke to his friends and then all rode on. When they passed the bunkhouse and rode through the gate and turned into the road upcountry some of the vaqueros were catching their horses in the trap and leading them out to saddle them for the day’s work. John Grady and Rawlins stood in the doorway drinking their coffee.
Yonder he is, said Rawlins.
John Grady nodded and slung the dregs of coffee out into the yard.
Where the hell do you reckon they’re goin? said Rawlins.
I’d say they’re goin to run coyotes.
They aint got no guns.
They got ropes.
Rawlins looked at him. Are you shittin me?
I dont think so.
Well I’d damn sure like to see it.
I would too. You ready?
They worked two days in the holding pens branding and earmarking and castrating and dehorning and inoculating. On the third day the vaqueros brought a small herd of wild three-year-old colts down from the mesa and penned them and in the evening Rawlins and John Grady walked out to look them over. They were bunched against the fence at the far side of the enclosure and they were a mixed lot, roans and duns and bays and a few paints, and they were of varied size and conformation. John Grady opened the gate and he and Rawlins walked in and he closed it behind them. The horrified animals began to climb over one another and to break up and move along the fence in both directions.
That’s as spooky a bunch of horses as I ever saw, said Rawlins.
They dont know what we are.
Dont know what we are?
I dont think so. I dont think they’ve ever seen a man afoot.
Rawlins leaned and spat.
You see anything there you’d have?
There’s horses there.
Look at that dark bay. Right yonder.
That horse wont weigh eight hundred pounds.
Yeah he will. Look at the hindquarters on him. He’d make a cow horse. Look at that roan yonder.
That coonfooted son of a bitch?
Well, yeah he is a little. All right. That other roan. That third one to the right.
The one with the white on him?
That’s kindly a funny lookin horse to me.
No he aint. He’s just colored peculiar.
You dont think that means nothin? He’s got white feet.
That’s a good horse. Look at his head. Look at the jaw on him. You got to remember their tails are all growed out.
Yeah. Maybe. Rawlins shook his head doubtfully. You used to be awful particular about horses. Maybe you just aint seen any in a long time.
John Grady nodded. Yeah, he said. Well. I aint forgot what they’re supposed to look like.
The horses had grouped again at the far end of the pen and stood rolling their eyes and running their heads along each other’s necks.
They got one thing goin for em, said Rawlins.
They aint had no Mexican to try and break em.
John Grady nodded.
They studied the horses.
How many are there? said John Grady.
Rawlins looked them over. Fifteen. Sixteen.
I make it sixteen.
You think you and me could break all of em in four days?
Depends on what you call broke.
Just halfway decent greenbroke horses. Say six saddles. Double and stop and stand still to be saddled.
Rawlins took his tobacco from his pocket and pushed back his hat.
What you got in mind? he said.
Breakin these horses.
Why four days?
You think we could do it?
They intend puttin em in the roughstring? My feelin is that any horse broke in four days is liable to come unbroke in four more.
They’re out of horses is how come em to be down here in the first place.
Rawlins dabbed tobacco into the cupped paper. You’re tellin me that what we’re lookin at here is our own string?
That’s my guess.
We’re lookin at ridin some cold-jawed son of a bitch broke with one of them damned Mexican ringbits.
Rawlins nodded. What would you do, sideline em?
You think there’s that much rope on the place?
I dont know.
You’d be a wore-out sumbuck. I’ll tell you that.
Think how good you’d sleep.
Rawlins put the cigarette in his mouth and fished about for a match. What else do you know that you aint told me?
Armando says the old man’s got horses all over that mountain.
How many horses.
Somethin like four hundred head.
Rawlins looked at him. He popped the match with his thumbnail and lit the cigarette and flipped the match away.
What else? said Rawlins.
Let’s go talk to the man.
They went to work on the green colts daybreak Sunday morning, dressing in the half dark in clothes still wet from their washing them the night before and walking out to the potrero before the stars were down, eating a cold tortilla wrapped around a scoop of cold beans and no coffee and carrying their forty-foot maguey catch-ropes coiled over their shoulders. They carried saddle blankets and a bosalea or riding hackamore with a metal noseband and John Grady carried a pair of clean gunnysacks he’d slept on and his Hamley saddle with the stirrups already shortened.
They stood looking at the horses. The horses shifted and stood, gray shapes in the gray morning. Stacked on the ground outside the gate were coils of every kind of rope, cotton and manila and plaited rawhide and maguey and ixtle down to lengths of old woven hair mecates and hand-plaited piecings of binder twine. Stacked against the fence were the sixteen rope hackamores they’d spent the evening tying in the bunkhouse.
Rawlins stuffed the last of the tortilla in his jaw and wiped his hands on his trousers and undid the wire and opened the gate.
John Grady followed him in and stood the saddle on the ground and went back out and brought in a handful of ropes and hackamores and squatted to sort them. Rawlins stood building his loop.
I take it you dont give a particular damn what order they come in, he said.
You take it correctly, cousin.
You dead set on sackin these varmints out?
My old daddy always said that the purpose of breakin a horse was to ride it and if you got one to break, you just as well to saddle up and climb aboard and get on with it.
John Grady grinned. Was your old daddy a certified peeler?
I never heard him claim to be. But I damn sure seen him hang and rattle a time or two.
Well you’re fixin to see some more of it.
We goin to bust em twice?
I never saw one that completely believed it the first time or ever doubted it the second.
John Grady smiled. I’ll make em believe, he said. You’ll see.
I’m goin to tell you right now, cousin. This is a heathenish bunch.
The horses were already moving. He took the first one that broke and rolled his loop and forefooted the colt and it hit the ground with a tremendous thump. The other horses flared and bunched and looked back wildly. Before the colt could struggle up, John Grady had squatted on its neck and pulled its head up and to one side and was holding the horse by the muzzle with the long bony head pressed against his chest and the hot sweet breath of it flooding up from the dark wells of its nostrils over his face and neck like news from another world. They did not smell like horses. They smelled like what they were, wild animals. He held the horse’s face against his chest and he could feel along his inner thighs the blood pumping through the arteries and he could smell the fear and he cupped his hand over the horse’s eyes and stroked them and he did not stop talking to the horse at all, speaking in a low steady voice and telling it all that he intended to do and cupping the animal’s eyes and stroking the terror out.
Rawlins took one of the lengths of siderope from around his neck where he’d hung them and made a slip noose and hitched it around the pastern of the hind leg and drew the leg up and halfhitched it to the horse’s forelegs. He freed the catch-rope and pitched it away and took the hackamore and they fitted it over the horse’s muzzle and ears and John Grady ran his thumb in the animal’s mouth and Rawlins fitted the mouth rope and then slipnoosed a second siderope to the other rear leg. Then he tied both sideropes to the hackamore.
You all set? he said.
He let go the horse’s head and rose and stepped away. The horse struggled up and turned and shot out one hind foot and snatched itself around in a half circle and fell over. It got up and kicked again and fell again. When it got up the third time it stood kicking and snatching its head about in a little dance. It stood. It walked away and stood again. Then it shot out a hind leg and fell again.
It lay there for a while thinking things over and when it got up it stood for a minute and then it hopped up and down three times and then it just stood glaring at them. Rawlins had his catch-rope and was building his loop again. The other horses watched with great interest from the far side of the potrero.
These sumbucks are as crazy as a shithouse rat, he said.
You pick out the one you think is craziest, said John Grady, and I’ll give you a finished horse this time Sunday week.
Finished for who?
To your satisfaction.
Bullshit, said Rawlins.
By the time they had three of the horses sidelined in the trap blowing and glaring about there were several vaqueros at the gate drinking coffee in a leisurely fashion and watching the proceedings.
By midmorning eight of the horses stood tied and the other eight were wilder than deer, scattering along the fence and bunching and running in a rising sea of dust as the day warmed, coming to reckon slowly with the remorselessness of this rendering of their fluid and collective selves into that condition of separate and helpless paralysis which seemed to be among them like a creeping plague. The entire complement of vaqueros had come from the bunkhouse to watch and by noon all sixteen of the mesteños were standing about in the potrero sidehobbled to their own hackamores and faced about in every direction and all communion among them broken. They looked like animals trussed up by children for fun and they stood waiting for they knew not what with the voice of the breaker still running in their brains like the voice of some god come to inhabit them.
When they went down to the bunkhouse for dinner the vaqueros seemed to treat them with a certain deference but whether it was the deference accorded the accomplished or that accorded mental defectives they were unsure. No one asked them their opinion of the horses or queried them as to their method. When they went back up to the trap in the afternoon there were some twenty people standing about looking at the horses—women, children, young girls, and men—and all waiting for them to return.
Where the hell did they come from? said Rawlins.
I dont know.
Word gets around when the circus come to town, dont it?
They passed nodding through the crowd and entered the trap and fastened the gate.
You picked one out? said John Grady.
Yeah. For pure crazy I nominate that bucketheaded son of a bitch standin right yonder.
The man’s a judge of horseflesh.
He’s a judge of craziness.
He watched while John Grady walked up to the animal and tied a twelve-foot length of rope to the hackamore. Then he led it through the gate out of the potrero and into the corral where the horses would be ridden. Rawlins thought the horse would shy or try to rear but it didn’t. He got the sack and hobbleropes and came up and while John Grady talked to the horse he hobbled the front legs together and then took the mecate rope and handed John Grady the sack and he held the horse while for the next quarter hour John Grady floated the sack over the animal and under it and rubbed its head with the sack and passed it across the horse’s face and ran it up and down and between the animal’s legs talking to the horse the while and rubbing against it and leaning against it. Then he got the saddle.
What good do you think it does to waller all over a horse thataway? said Rawlins.
I dont know, said John Grady. I aint a horse.
He lifted the blanket and placed it on the animal’s back and smoothed it and stood stroking the animal and talking to it and then he bent and picked up the saddle and lifted it with the cinches strapped up and the off stirrup hung over the horn and sat it on the horse’s back and rocked it into place. The horse never moved. He bent and reached under and pulled up the strap and cinched it. The horse’s ears went back and he talked to it and then pulled up the cinch again and he leaned against the horse and talked to it just as if it were neither crazy nor lethal. Rawlins looked toward the corral gate. There were fifty or more people watching. Folk were picnicking on the ground. Fathers held up babies. John Grady lifted off the stirrup from the saddle horn and let it drop. Then he hauled up the cinchstrap again and buckled it. All right, he said.
Hold him, said Rawlins.
He held the mecate while Rawlins undid the sideropes from the hackamore and knelt and tied them to the front hobbles. Then they slipped the hackamore off the horse’s head and John Grady raised the bosalea and gently fitted it over the horse’s nose and fitted the mouth rope and headstall. He gathered the reins and looped them over the horse’s head and nodded and Rawlins knelt and undid the hobbles and pulled the slip nooses until the siderope loops fell to the ground at the horse’s rear hooves. Then he stepped away.
John Grady put one foot in the stirrup and pressed himself flat against the horse’s shoulder talking to it and then swung up into the saddle.
The horse stood stock-still. It shot out one hind foot to test the air and stood again and then it threw itself sideways and twisted and kicked and stood snorting. John Grady touched it up in the ribs with his bootheels and it stepped forward. He reined it and it turned. Rawlins spat in disgust. John Grady turned the horse again and came back by.
What the hell kind of a bronc is that? said Rawlins. You think that’s what these people paid good money to see?
By dark he’d ridden eleven of the sixteen horses. Not all of them so tractable. Someone had built a fire on the ground outside the potrero and there were something like a hundred people gathered, some come from the pueblo of La Vega six miles to the south, some from farther. He rode the last five horses by the light of that fire, the horses dancing, turning in the light, their red eyes flashing. When they were done the horses stood in the potrero or stepped about trailing their hackamore ropes over the ground with such circumspection not to tread upon them and snatch down their sore noses that they moved with an air of great elegance and seemliness. The wild and frantic band of mustangs that had circled the potrero that morning like marbles swirled in a jar could hardly be said to exist, and the animals whinnied to one another in the dark and answered back as if some one among their number were missing, or some thing.
When they walked down to the bunkhouse in the dark the bonfire was still burning and someone had brought a guitar and someone else a mouth harp. Three separate strangers offered them a drink from bottles of mescal before they were clear of the crowd.
The kitchen was empty and they got their dinner from the stove and sat at the table. Rawlins watched John Grady. He was chewing woodenly and half-tottering on the bench.
You aint tired are you, bud? he said.
No, said John Grady. I was tired five hours ago.
Dont drink no more of that coffee. It’ll keep you awake.
When they walked out in the morning at daybreak the fire was still smoldering and there were four or five men lying asleep on the ground, some with blankets and some without. Every horse in the potrero watched them come through the gate.
You remember how they come? said Rawlins.
Yeah. I remember em. I know you remember your buddy yonder.
Yeah, I know the son of a bitch.
When he walked up to the horse with the sack it turned and went trotting. He walked it down against the fence and picked up the rope and pulled it around and it stood quivering and he walked up to it and began to talk to it and then to stroke it with the sack. Rawlins went to fetch the blankets and the saddle and the bosalea.
By ten that night he’d ridden the entire remuda of sixteen horses and Rawlins had ridden them a second time each. They rode them again Tuesday and on Wednesday morning at daybreak with the first horse saddled and the sun not up John Grady rode toward the gate.
Open her up, he said.
Let me saddle a catch-horse.
We aint got time.
If that son of a bitch sets your ass out in the stickers you’ll have time.
I guess I’d better stay in the saddle then.
Let me saddle up one of these good horses.
He rode out of the trap leading Rawlins’s horse and waited while Rawlins shut the gate and mounted up beside him. The green horses stepped and sidled nervously.
This is kindly the blind leadin the blind, aint it?
Rawlins nodded. It’s sort of like old T-bone Watts when he worked for Daddy they all fussed about him havin bad breath. He told em it was bettern no breath at all.
John Grady grinned and booted the horse forward into a trot and they set out up the road.
Midafternoon he’d ridden all the horses again and while Rawlins worked with them in the trap he rode the little grullo of Rawlins’s choice up into the country. Two miles above the ranch where the road ran by sedge and willow and wild plum along the edge of the laguna a young girl rode past him on a black Arabian saddle horse.
He heard the horse behind him and would have turned to look but he heard it change gaits. He didn’t look at her until the Arabian was alongside his horse, stepping with its neck arched and one eye on the mesteño not with wariness but some faint equine disgust. She wore English riding boots and jodhpurs and a blue twill hacking jacket and she carried a riding crop. She passed five feet away and turned her fine-boned face and looked full at him. She had blue eyes and she nodded or perhaps she only lowered her head slightly to better see what sort of horse he rode, just the slightest tilt of the broad black hat set level on her head, the slightest lifting of the long black hair. She passed and the horse changed gaits again and she sat the horse more than well, riding erect with her broad shoulders and trotting the horse up the road. The mesteño had stopped and sulled in the road with its forefeet spread and he sat looking after her. He’d half-meant to speak but those eyes had altered the world forever in the space of a heartbeat. She disappeared beyond the lakeside willows. A flock of small birds rose up and passed back over him with thin calls.
That evening when Antonio and the gerente came up to the trap to inspect the horses he was teaching the grullo to back with Rawlins in the saddle. They watched, the gerente picking his teeth. Antonio rode the two horses that were standing saddled, sawing them back and forth in the corral and pulling them up short. He dismounted and nodded and he and the gerente looked over the horses in the other wing of the corral and then they left. Rawlins and John Grady looked at each other. They unsaddled the horses and turned them in with the remuda and walked back down to the house carrying their saddles and gear and washed up for supper. The vaqueros were at the table and they got their plates and helped themselves at the stove and got their coffee and came to the table and swung a leg over and sat down. There was a clay dish of tortillas in the center of the table with a towel over it and when John Grady pointed and asked that it be passed hands from both sides of the table took up the dish and it was handed down in this manner like a ceremonial bowl.
Three days later they were in the mountains. The caporal had sent a mozo with them to cook and see to the horses and he’d sent three young vaqueros not much older than they. The mozo was an old man with a bad leg named Luis who had fought at Torreón and San Pedro and later at Zacatecas and the boys were boys from the country, two of them born on the hacienda. Only one of the three had ever been as far as Monterrey. They rode up into the mountains trailing three horses apiece in their string with packhorses to haul the grub and cooktent and they hunted the wild horses in the upland forests in the pine and madroño and in the arroyos where they’d gone to hide and they drove them pounding over the high mesas and penned them in the stone ravine fitted ten years earlier with fence and gates and there the horses milled and squealed and clambered at the rock slopes and turned upon one another biting and kicking while John Grady walked among them in the sweat and dust and bedlam with his rope as if they were no more than some evil dream of horse. They camped at night on the high headlands where their wind-tattered fire sawed about in the darkness and Luis told them tales of the country and the people who lived in it and the people who died and how they died. He’d loved horses all his life and he and his father and two brothers had fought in the cavalry and his father and his brothers had died in the cavalry but they’d all despised Victoriano Huerta above all other men and the deeds of Huerta above all other visited evils. He said that compared to Huerta Judas was himself but another Christ and one of the young vaqueros looked away and another blessed himself. He said that war had destroyed the country and that men believe the cure for war is war as the curandero prescribes the serpent’s flesh for its bite. He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. Men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold. His own father said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.
Lastly he said that he had seen the souls of horses and that it was a terrible thing to see. He said that it could be seen under certain circumstances attending the death of a horse because the horse shares a common soul and its separate life only forms it out of all horses and makes it mortal. He said that if a person understood the soul of the horse then he would understand all horses that ever were.
They sat smoking, watching the deepest embers of the fire where the red coals cracked and broke.
Y de los hombres? said John Grady.
The old man shaped his mouth how to answer. Finally he said that among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all was probably an illusion. Rawlins asked him in his bad Spanish if there was a heaven for horses but he shook his head and said that a horse had no need of heaven. Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man only said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing.
They drove the mares down through the draws and arroyos out of the mountains and across the watered grasslands of the bolson and penned them. They were at this work for three weeks until by the end of April they had over eighty mares in the trap, most of them halter-broke, some already sorted out for saddlehorses. By then the roundup was underway and droves of cattle were moving daily down out of the open country onto the ranch pastures and although some of the vaqueros had no more than two or three horses to their string the new horses stayed in the trap. On the second morning of May the red Cessna plane came in from the south and circled the ranch and banked and dropped and glided from sight beyond the trees.
An hour later John Grady was standing in the ranch house kitchen with his hat in his hands. A woman was washing dishes at the sink and a man was sitting at the table reading a newspaper. The woman wiped her hands on her apron and went off into another part of the house and in a few minutes she returned. Un ratito, she said.
John Grady nodded. Gracias, he said.
The man rose and folded the newspaper and crossed the kitchen and came back with a wooden rack of butcher and boning knives together with an oilstone and set them out on the paper. At the same moment Don Héctor appeared in the doorway and stood looking at John Grady.
He was a spare man with broad shoulders and graying hair and he was tall in the manner of norteños and light of skin. He entered the kitchen and introduced himself and John Grady shifted his hat to his left hand and they shook hands.
María, said the hacendado. Café por favor.
He held out his hand palm upward toward the doorway and John Grady crossed the kitchen and entered the hall. The house was cool and quiet and smelled of wax and flowers. A tall case clock stood in the hallway to the left with brass weights that moved slowly behind their casement doors. He turned to look back and the hacendado smiled and extended his hand toward the dining room doorway. Pásale, he said.
They sat at a long table of English walnut. The walls of the room were covered with blue damask and hung with portraits of men and horses. At the end of the room was a walnut sideboard with some chafingdishes and decanters set out upon it, and along the windowsill outside taking the sun were four cats. Don Héctor reached behind him and took a china ashtray from the sideboard and placed it before them and took from his shirt pocket a small tin box of English cigarettes and opened them and offered them to John Grady and John Grady took one.
Gracias, he said.
The hacendado placed the tin on the table between them and took a silver lighter from his pocket and lit the boy’s cigarette and then his own.
The man blew a thin stream of smoke slowly down table and smiled.
Bueno, he said. We can speak English.
Como le convenga, said John Grady.
Armando tells me that you understand horses.
I’ve been around em some.
The hacendado smoked thoughtfully. He seemed to be waiting for more to be said. The man who’d been sitting in the kitchen reading the paper entered the room with a silver tray carrying a coffee service with cups and cream pitcher and a sugar bowl together with a plate of bizcochos. He set the tray on the table and stood a moment and the hacendado thanked him and he went out again.
Don Héctor set out the cups himself and poured the coffee and nodded at the tray. Please help yourself, he said.
Thank you. I just take it black.
You are from Texas.
The hacendado nodded again. He sipped his coffee. He was seated sideways to the table with his legs crossed. He flexed his foot in the chocolate-colored veal boot and turned and looked at John Grady and smiled.
Why are you here? he said.
John Grady looked at him. He looked down the table where the shadows of the sunning cats sat in a row like cutout cats all leaning slightly aslant. He looked at the hacendado again.
I just wanted to see the country, I reckon. Or we did.
May I ask how old are you?
The hacendado raised his eyebrows. Sixteen, he said.
The hacendado smiled again. When I was sixteen I told people I was eighteen.
John Grady sipped his coffee.
Your friend is sixteen also?
But you are the leader.
We dont have no leaders. We’re just buddies.
He nudged the plate forward. Please, he said. Help yourself.
Thank you. I just got up from the breakfast table.
The hacendado tipped the ash from his cigarette into the china ashtray and sat back again.
What is your opinion of the mares, he said.
There’s some good mares in that bunch.
Yes. Do you know a horse called Three Bars?
That’s a thoroughbred horse.
You know the horse?
I know he run in the Brazilian Grand Prix. I think he come out of Kentucky but he’s owned by a man named Vail out of Douglas, Arizona.
Yes. The horse was foaled at Monterey Farm in Paris, Kentucky. The stallion I have bought is a half brother out of the same mare.
Yessir. Where’s he at?
He is en route.
En route. From Mexico. The hacendado smiled. He has been standing at stud.
You intend to raise racehorses?
No. I intend to raise quarter horses.
To use here on the ranch?
You aim to breed this stallion to your mares.
Yes. What is your opinion?
I dont have a opinion. I’ve known a few breeders and some with a world of experience but I’ve noticed they were all pretty short on opinions. I do know there’s been some good cow horses sired out of thoroughbreds.
Yes. How much importance do you give to the mare?
Same as the sire. In my opinion.
Most breeders place more confidence in the horse.
Yessir. They do.
The hacendado smiled. I happen to agree with you.
John Grady leaned and tipped the ash from his cigarette. You dont have to agree with me.
No. Nor you with me.
Tell me about the horses up on the mesa.
There may be a few of them good mares still up there but not many. The rest I’d pretty much call scrubs. Even some of them might make a half-decent cow horse. Just all around usin kind of a horse. Spanish ponies, what we used to call em. Chihuahua horses. Old Barb stock. They’re small and they’re a little on the light side and they dont have the hindquarters you’d want in a cutting horse but you can rope off of em. . . .
He stopped. He looked at the hat in his lap and ran his fingers along the crease and looked up. I aint tellin you nothing you dont know.
The hacendado took up the coffee pitcher and poured their cups.
Do you know what a criollo is?
Yessir. That’s a argentine horse.
The hacendado studied him.
Do you know a book called The Horse in America, by Wallace?
Yessir. I’ve read it front to back.
The hacendado nodded and stubbed out his cigarette and pushed back his chair. Come, he said. I will show you some horses.
They sat opposite on their bunks with their elbows on their knees leaning forward and looking down at their folded hands. After a while Rawlins spoke. He didn’t look up.
It’s a opportunity for you. Aint no reason for you to turn it down that I can see.
If you dont want me to I wont. I’ll stick right here.
It aint like you was goin off someplace.
We’ll still be workin together. Bringin in horses and all. Rawlins nodded. John Grady watched him.
You just say the word and I’ll tell him no.
Aint no reason to do that, said Rawlins. Its a opportunity for you.
In the morning they ate breakfast and Rawlins went out to work the pens. When he came in at noon John Grady’s tick was rolled up at the head of his bunk and his gear was gone. Rawlins went on to the back to wash up for dinner.
The barn was built on the English style and it was sheathed with milled one-by-fours and painted white and it had a cupola and a weather vane on top of the cupola. His room was at the far end next to the saddleroom. Across the bay was another cubicle where there lived an old groom who’d worked for Rocha’s father. When John Grady led his horse through the barn the old man came out and stood and looked at the horse. Then he looked at its feet. Then he looked at John Grady. Then he turned and went back into his room and shut the door.
In the afternoon while he was working one of the new mares in the corral outside the barn the old man came out and watched him. John Grady said him a good afternoon and the old man nodded and said one back.
When he took the mare back to the barn the old man was pulling the cinchstrap on the black Arabian. The girl stood with her back to him. When the shadow of the mare darkened the bay door she turned and looked.
Buenas tardes, he said.
Buenas tardes, she said. She reached and slid her fingers under the strap to check it. He stood at the bay door. She raised up and passed the reins over the horse’s head and put her foot in the stirrup and stood up into the saddle and turned the horse and rode down the bay and out the door.
That night as he lay in his cot he could hear music from the house and as he was drifting to sleep his thoughts were of horses and of the open country and of horses. Horses still wild on the mesa who’d never seen a man afoot and who knew nothing of him or his life yet in whose souls he would come to reside forever.
They went up into the mountains a week later with the mozo and two of the vaqueros and after the vaqueros had turned in in their blankets he and Rawlins sat by the fire on the rim of the mesa drinking coffee. Rawlins took out his tobacco and John Grady took out cigarettes and shook the pack at him. Rawlins put his tobacco back.
Where’d you get the readyrolls?
In La Vega.
He nodded. He took a brand from the fire and lit the cigarette and John Grady leaned and lit his own.
You say she goes to school in Mexico City?
How old is she?
Rawlins nodded. What kind of a school is it she goes to?
I dont know. It’s some kind of a prep school or somethin.
Fancy sort of school.
Yeah. Fancy sort of school.
Rawlins smoked. Well, he said. She’s a fancy sort of girl.
No she aint.
Rawlins was leaning against his propped saddle, sitting with his legs crossed sideways onto the fire. He looked at the cigarette.
Well, he said. I’ve told you before but I dont reckon you’ll listen now any more than you done then.
Yeah. I know.
I just figure you must enjoy cryin yourself to sleep at night.
John Grady didn’t answer.
This one of course she probably dates guys got their own airplanes let alone cars.
You’re probably right.
I’m glad to hear you say it.
It dont help nothing though, does it?
Rawlins sucked on the cigarette. They sat for a long time. Finally he pitched the stub of the cigarette into the fire. I’m goin to bed, he said.
Yeah, said John Grady. I guess that’s a good idea.
They spread their sugans and he pulled off his boots and stood them beside him and stretched out in his blankets. The fire had burned to coals and he lay looking up at the stars in their places and the hot belt of matter that ran the chord of the dark vault overhead and he put his hands on the ground at either side of him and pressed them against the earth and in that coldly burning canopy of black he slowly turned dead center to the world, all of it taut and trembling and moving enormous and alive under his hands.
What’s her name? said Rawlins in the darkness.
Alejandra. Her name is Alejandra.
Sunday afternoon they rode into the town of La Vega on horses they’d been working out of the new string. They’d had their hair cut with sheep shears by an esquilador at the ranch and the backs of their necks above their collars were white as scars and they wore their hats cocked forward on their heads and they looked from side to side as they jogged along as if to challenge the countryside or anything it might hold. They raced the animals on the road at a fifty-cent bet and John Grady won and they swapped horses and he won on Rawlins’s horse. They rode the horses at a gallop and they rode them at a trot and the horses were hot and lathered and squatted and stamped in the road and the campesinos afoot in the road with baskets of garden stuff or pails covered with cheesecloth would press to the edge of the road or climb through the roadside brush and cactus to watch wide-eyed the young horsemen on their horses passing and the horses mouthing froth and champing and the riders calling to one another in their alien tongue and passing in a muted fury that seemed scarcely to be contained in the space allotted them and yet leaving all unchanged where they had been: dust, sunlight, a singing bird.
Although the night was cool the double doors of the grange stood open and the man selling the tickets was seated in a chair on a raised wooden platform just within the doors so that he must lean down to each in a gesture akin to benevolence and take their coins and hand them down their tickets or pass upon the ticket stubs of those who were only returning from outside. The old adobe hall was buttressed along its outer walls with piers not all of which had been a part of its design and there were no windows and the walls were swagged and cracked. A string of electric bulbs ran the length of the hall at either side and the bulbs were covered with paper bags that had been painted and the brushstrokes showed through in the light and the reds and greens and blues were all muted and much of a piece. The floor was swept but there were pockets of seeds underfoot and drifts of straw and at the far end of the hall a small orchestra labored on a stage of grain pellets under a bandshell rigged from sheeting. Along the foot of the stage were lights set in fruit cans and colored crepe that smoldered throughout the night. The mouths of the cans were lensed with tinted cellophane and they cast upon the sheeting a shadow play in the lights and smoke of antic demon players and a pair of goat hawks arced chittering through the partial darkness overhead.
John Grady and Rawlins and a boy named Roberto from the ranch stood just beyond the reach of light at the door among the cars and wagons and passed among themselves a pint medicine bottle of mescal. Roberto held the bottle to the light.
A las chicas, he said.
He drank and handed off the bottle. They drank. They poured salt from a paper onto their wrists and licked it off and Roberto pushed the cob stopper into the neck of the bottle and hid the bottle behind the tire of a parked truck and they passed around a pack of chewing gum.
Listo? he said.
She was dancing with a tall boy from the San Pablo ranch and she wore a blue dress and her mouth was red. He and Rawlins and Roberto stood with other youths along the wall and watched the dancers and watched beyond the dancers the young girls at the far side of the hall. He moved along past the groups. The air smelled of straw and sweat and a rich spice of colognes. Under the bandshell the accordion player struggled with his instrument and slammed his boot on the boards in countertime and stepped back and the trumpet player came forward. Her eyes above the shoulder of her partner swept across him where he stood. Her black hair done up in a blue ribbon and the nape of her neck pale as porcelain. When she turned again she smiled.
He’d never touched her and her hand was small and her waist so slight and she looked at him with great forthrightness and smiled and put her face against his shoulder. They turned under the lights. A long trumpet note guided the dancers on their separate and collective paths. Moths circled the paper lights aloft and the goat hawks passed down the wires and flared and arced upward into the darkness again.
She spoke in an English learned largely from school books and he tested each phrase for the meanings he wished to hear, repeating them silently to himself and then questioning them anew. She said that she was glad that he’d come.
I told you I would.
They turned, the trumpet rapped.
Did you not think I would?
She tossed her head back and looked at him, smiling, her eyes aglint. Al contrario, she said. I knew you would come.
At the band’s intermission they made their way to the refreshment stand and he bought two lemonades in paper cones and they went out and walked in the night air. They walked along the road and there were other couples in the road and they passed and wished them a good evening. The air was cool and it smelled of earth and perfume and horses. She took his arm and she laughed and called him a mojado-reverso, so rare a creature and one to be treasured. He told her about his life. How his grandfather was dead and the ranch sold. They sat on a low concrete water trough and with her shoes in her lap and her naked feet crossed in the dust she drew patterns in the dark water with her finger. She’d been away at school for three years. Her mother lived in Mexico and she went to the house on Sundays for dinner and sometimes she and her mother would dine alone in the city and go to the theater or the ballet. Her mother thought that life on the hacienda was lonely and yet living in the city she seemed to have few friends.
She becomes angry with me because I always want to come here. She says that I prefer my father to her.
She nodded. Yes. But that is not why I come. Anyway, she says I will change my mind.
About coming here?
She looked at him and smiled. Shall we go in?
He looked toward the lights. The music had started.
She stood and bent with one hand on his shoulder and slipped on her shoes.
He rode back alone with the smell of her perfume on his shirt. The horses were still tied and standing at the edge of the barn but he could not find Rawlins or Roberto. When he untied his horse the other two tossed their heads and whinnied softly to go.
The Hacendado had bought the horse through an agent sight unseen at the spring sales in Lexington and he’d sent Armando’s brother Antonio to get the animal and bring it back. He was a deep chestnut in color and stood sixteen hands high and weighed about 1,400 pounds and he was well muscled and heavily boned for his breed. When they brought him in the trailer in the third week of May and John Grady and Señor Rocha walked out to the barn to look at him John Grady simply pushed open the door to the stall and entered and walked up to the horse and leaned against it and began to rub it and talk to it softly in Spanish.
Le gusta? said the hacendado.
John Grady nodded. That’s a hell of a horse, he said.
In the days to follow the hacendado would come up to the corral where they’d shaped the manada and he and John Grady would walk among the mares and John Grady would argue their points and the hacendado would muse and nod and walk away a fixed distance and stand looking back and nod and muse again and walk off with his eyes to the ground to a fresh vantage point and then look up to see the mare anew. But there were two things they agreed upon wholly and that were never spoken and that was that God had put horses on earth to work cattle and that other than cattle there was no wealth proper to a man.
They stabled the stallion away from the mares in a barn up at the gerente’s and as the mares came into season he and Antonio bred them. They bred mares almost daily for three weeks and sometimes twice daily and Antonio regarded the stallion with great reverence and great love and he called him caballo padre and like John Grady he would talk to the horse and he conspired with John Grady in telling the hacendado that the horse needed to be ridden to keep it manageable. Because John Grady loved to ride the horse. In truth he loved to be seen riding it. In truth he loved for her to see him riding it.
He’d go to the kitchen in the dark for his coffee and saddle the horse at daybreak with only the little desert doves waking in the orchard and the air still fresh and cool and he and the stallion would come sideways out of the stable with the animal prancing and pounding the ground and arching its neck and they’d ride out along the ciénaga road and along the verge of the marshes while the sun rose riding up flights of ducks out of the shallows or geese or mergansers that would beat away over the water scattering the haze and rising up would turn to birds of gold in a sun not yet visible from the bolson floor.
He’d ride sometimes clear to the upper end of the laguna before the horse would even stop trembling and he spoke constantly to it in Spanish in phrases almost biblical repeating again and again the strictures of a yet untabled law. Soy comandante de las yequas, he would say, yo y yo solo. Sin la caridad de estas manos no tengas nada. Ni comida ni agua ni hijos. Soy yo que traigo las yequas de las montañas, las yeguas jovenes, las yeguas salvajes y ardientes. While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of whose will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of whose will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations and of whose will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned.
There were times in those early mornings in the kitchen when he returned to the house for his breakfast with María stirring about and stoking with wood the great nickel-mounted cookstove or rolling out dough on the marble counter top that he would hear her singing somewhere in the house or smell the faintest breath of hyacinth as if she’d passed in the outer hall. And sometimes she would ride in the mornings also and he knew she was in the dining room across the hall by herself and Carlos would take her breakfast tray to her with coffee and fruit and once riding in the low hills to the north he’d seen her coming along the ciénaga road two miles away and he had seen her riding in the parkland above the marshes and once he came upon her leading the horse through the shallows of the lakeshore among the tules with her skirts caught up above her knees while redwing blackbirds circled and cried, pausing and bending and gathering white water lilies with the black horse standing in the lake behind her patient as a dog.
He’d not spoken to her since the night of the dance at La Vega. She went with her father to Mexico and he returned alone. There was no one he could ask about her. By now he’d taken to riding the stallion bareback, kicking off his boots and swinging up while Antonio still stood holding the trembling mare by the twitch, the mare standing with her legs spread and her head down and the breath rifling in and out of her. Coming out of the barn with his bare heels under the horse’s barrel and the horse lathered and dripping and half-crazed and pounding up the ciénaga road riding with just a rope hackamore and the sweat of the horse and the smell of the mare on him and the veins pulsing under the wet hide and him leaning low along the horse’s neck talking to him softly and obscenely. It was in this condition that all unexpectedly one evening he came upon her returning on the black Arabian down the ciénaga road.
He reined in the horse and it stopped and stood trembling and stepped about in the road slinging its head in a froth from side to side. She sat her horse. He took off his hat and passed his shirt sleeve across his forehead and waved her forward and put his hat back on and reined the horse off the road and through the sedge and turned so that he could watch her pass. She put the horse forward and came on and as she came abreast of him he touched the brim of his hat with his forefinger and nodded and he thought she would go past but she did not. She stopped and turned her wide face to him. Skeins of light off the water played upon the black hide of the horse. He sat the sweating stallion like a highwayman under her gaze. She was waiting for him to speak and afterward he would try to remember what it was he’d said. He only knew it made her smile and that had not been his intent. She turned and looked off across the lake where the late sun glinted and she looked back at him and at the horse.
I want to ride him, she said.
I want to ride him.
She regarded him levelly from under the black hat brim.
He looked out across the sedge tilting in the wind off the lake as if there might be some help for him in that quarter. He looked at her.
When? he said.
When did you want to ride him?
Now. I want to ride him now.
He looked down at the horse as if surprised to see it there.
He dont have a saddle on.
Yes, she said. I know.
He pressed the horse between his heels and at the same time pulled on the reins of the hackamore to make the horse appear uncertain and difficult but the horse only stood.
I dont know if the patron would want you to ride him. Your father.
She smiled at him a pitying smile and there was no pity in it. She stepped to the ground and lifted the reins over the black horse’s head and turned and stood looking at him with the reins behind her back.
Get down, she said.
Are you sure about this?
He slid to the ground. The insides of his trouser legs were hot and wet.
What do you aim to do with your horse?
I want you to take him to the barn for me.
Somebody will see me at the house.
Take him to Armando’s.
You’re fixin to get me in trouble.
You are in trouble.
She turned and looped the reins over the saddlehorn and came forward and took the hackamore reins from him and put them up and turned and put one hand on his shoulder. He could feel his heart pumping. He bent and made a stirrup of his laced fingers and she put her boot into his hands and he lifted her and she swung up onto the stallion’s back and looked down at him and then booted the horse forward and went loping out up the track along the edge of the lake and was lost to view.
He rode back slowly on the Arabian. The sun was a long time descending. He thought she might overtake him that they could change the horses back again but she did not and in the red twilight he led the black horse past Armando’s house afoot and took it to the stable behind the house and removed the bridle and loosed the cinch and left it standing in the bay saddled and tied with a rope halter to the hitchingrail. There was no light on at the house and he thought perhaps there was no one home but as he walked back out down the drive past the house the light came on in the kitchen. He walked more quickly. He heard the door open behind him but he didn’t turn to look back to see who it was and whoever it was they did not speak or call to him.
The last time that he saw her before she returned to Mexico she was coming down out of the mountains riding very stately and erect out of a rainsquall building to the north and the dark clouds towering above her. She rode with her hat pulled down in the front and fastened under her chin with a drawtie and as she rode her black hair twisted and blew about her shoulders and the lightning fell silently down through the black clouds behind her and she rode all seeming unaware down through the low hills while the first spits of rain blew on the wind and onto the upper pasturelands and past the pale and reedy lakes erect and stately until the rain caught her up and shrouded her figure away in that wild summer landscape, real horse, real rider, real land and sky, and yet a dream withal.
The Duena Alfonsa was both grandaunt and godmother to the girl and her life at the hacienda invested it with Old World ties and with antiquity and tradition. Save for the old leatherbound volumes the books in the library were her books and the piano was her piano. The ancient stereopticon in the parlor and the matched pair of Greener guns in the Italian wardrobe in Don Héctor’s room had been her brother’s and it was her brother with whom she stood in the photos taken in front of cathedrals in the capitals of Europe, she and her sister-in-law in white summer clothes, her brother in vested suit and tie and panama hat. His dark moustache. Dark Spanish eyes. The stance of a grandee. The most antique of the several oil portraits in the parlor with its dark patina crazed like an old porcelain glazing was of her great-grandfather and dated from Toledo in 1797. The most recent was she herself full length in formal gown on the occasion of her quinceaños at Rosario in 1892.
John Grady had never seen her. Perhaps a figure glimpsed passing along the hallway. He did not know that she was aware of his existence until a week after the girl returned to Mexico he was invited to come to the house in the evening to play chess. When he showed up at the kitchen dressed in new shirt and canvas pants María was still washing the supper dishes. She turned and studied him where he stood with his hat in his hands. Bueno, she said. Te espera.
He thanked her and crossed the kitchen and went up the hall and stood in the dining room door. She rose from the table where she was sitting. She inclined her head very slightly. Good evening, she said. Please come in. I am Señorita Alfonsa.
She was dressed in a dark gray skirt and a white pleated blouse and her gray hair was gathered up behind and she looked like the schoolteacher she in fact had been. She spoke with an English accent. She held out one hand and he almost stepped forward to take it before he realized that she was gesturing toward the chair at her right.
Evening, mam, he said. I’m John Grady Cole.
Please, she said. Be seated. I am happy that you have come.
Thank you mam.
He pulled back the chair and sat and put his hat in the chair beside him and looked at the board. She set her thumbs against the edge and pushed it slightly toward him. The board was pieced from blocks of circassian walnut and bird’s-eye maple with a border of inlaid pearl and the chessmen were of carved ivory and black horn.
They were well into the second game and he had taken both knights and a bishop when she made two moves in succession that gave him pause. He studied the board. It occurred to him that she might be curious to know if he would throw the game and he realized that he had in fact already considered it and he knew she’d thought of it before he had. He sat back and looked at the board. She watched him. He leaned forward and moved his bishop and mated her in four moves.
She smiled again. Where did you learn to play chess?
My father taught me.
He must be a very good player.
She watched him, not unkindly. She smiled.
Alejandra will be in Mexico with her mother for two weeks. Then she will be here for the summer.
Whatever my appearance may suggest, I am not a particularly old-fashioned woman. Here we live in a small world. A close world. Alejandra and I disagree strongly. Quite strongly in fact. She is much like me at that age and I seem at times to be struggling with my own past self.
She broke off. She set the cup and saucer to one side. The polished wood of the table held a round shape of breath where they’d stood that diminished from the edges in and vanished. She looked up.
You see that I cannot help but be sympathetic to Alejandra. Even at her worst. But I wont have her unhappy. I wont have her spoken ill of. Or gossiped about. I know what that is. She thinks that she can toss her head and dismiss everything. In an ideal world the gossip of the idle would be of no consequence. But I have seen the consequences in the real world and they can be very grave indeed. They can be consequences of a gravity not excluding bloodshed. Not excluding death. I saw this in my own family. What Alejandra dismisses as a matter of mere appearance or outmoded custom . . . She made a whisking motion with the imperfect hand that was both a dismissal and a summation. She composed her hands again and looked at him.
Even though you are younger than she it is not proper for you to be seen riding in the campo together without supervision. Since this was carried to my ears I considered whether to speak to Alejandra about it and I have decided not to.
She leaned back. He could hear the clock ticking in the hall. There was no sound from the kitchen. She sat watching him.
What do you want me to do? he said.
I want you to be considerate of a young girl’s reputation.
I never meant not to be.
She smiled. I believe you, she said. But you must understand. This is another country. Here a woman’s reputation is all she has.
There is no forgiveness, you see.
There is no forgiveness. For women. A man may lose his honor and regain it again. But a woman cannot. She cannot.
They sat. She watched him. He tapped the crown of his seated hat with the tips of his four fingers and looked up.
I guess I’d have to say that that dont seem right.
Right? she said. Oh. Yes. Well.
She turned one hand in the air as if reminded of something she’d misplaced. No, she said. No. It’s not a matter of right. You must understand. It is a matter of who must say. In this matter I get to say. I am the one who gets to say.
The clock ticked in the hall. She sat watching him. He picked up his hat.
On the Mesa they watched a storm that had made it up to the north. At sundown a troubled light. The dark jade shapes of the lagunillas below them lay in the floor of the desert savanna like piercings through to another sky. The laminar bands of color to the west bleeding out under the hammered clouds. A sudden violetcolored hooding of the earth.
They sat tailorwise on ground that shuddered under the thunder and they fed the fire out of the ruins of an old fence. Birds were coming down out of the half-darkness upcountry and shearing away off the edge of the mesa and to the north the lightning stood along the rimlands like burning mandrake.
What else did she say? said Rawlins.
That was about it.
You think she was speakin for Rocha?
I don’t think she speaks for anybody but her.
She thinks you got eyes for the daughter.
I do have eyes for the daughter.
You got eyes for the spread?
John Grady studied the fire. I don’t know, he said. I aint thought about it.
Sure you aint, said Rawlins.
He looked at Rawlins and he looked into the fire again.
When is she comin back?
About a week.
I guess I dont see what evidence you got that she’s all that interested in you.
John Grady nodded. I just do. I can talk to her.
The first drops of rain hissed in the fire. He looked at Rawlins.
You aint sorry you come down here are you?
They sat hooded under their slickers. They spoke out of the hoods as if addressing the night.
I know the old man likes you, said Rawlins. But that dont mean he’ll set still for you courtin his daughter.
Yeah, I know.
I dont see you holdin no aces.
What I see is you fixin to get us fired and run off the place.
They watched the fire. The wire that had burned out of the fence posts lay in garbled shapes all about the ground and coils of it stood in the fire and coils of it pulsed red hot deep in the coals. The horses had come in out of the darkness and stood at the edge of the firelight in the falling rain dark and sleek with their red eyes burning in the night.
You still aint told me what answer you give her, said Rawlins.
I told her I’d do whatever she asked.
What did she ask?
I aint sure.
They sat watching the fire.
Did you give her your word? said Rawlins.
I dont know. I dont know if I did or not.
Well either you did or you didn’t.
That’s what I’d of thought. But I dont know.
Five nights later asleep in his bunk in the barn there was a tap at the door. He sat up. Someone was standing outside the door. He could see a light through the boardjoinings.
Momento, he said.
He rose and pulled on his trousers in the dark and opened the door. She was standing in the barn bay holding a flashlight in one hand with the light pointed at the ground.
What is it? he whispered.
She held the light up as if to verify the truth of this. He couldn’t think what to say.
What time is it?
I dont know. Eleven or something.
He looked across the narrow corridor to the groom’s door.
We’re going to wake Estéban, he said.
Then invite me in.
He stepped back and she came in past him all rustling of clothes and the rich parade of her hair and perfume. He pulled the door to and ran shut the wooden latch with the heel of his hand and turned and looked at her.
I better not turn the light on, he said.
It’s all right. The generator’s off anyway. What did she say to you?
She must of told you what she said.
Of course she told me. What did she say?
You want to set down?
She turned and sat sideways on the bed and tucked one foot beneath her. She laid the burning flashlight on the bed and then she pushed it under the blanket where it suffused the room with a soft glow.
She didn’t want me to be seen with you. Out on the campo.
Armando told her that you rode my horse in.
I wont be treated in such a manner, she said.
Her face was strange and theatrical in the uplight. She passed one hand across the blanket as if she’d brush something away. She looked up at him and her face was pale and austere in the underlight and her eyes lost in the darkly shadowed hollows save only for the glint of them and he could see her throat move in the light and he saw in her face and in her figure something he’d not seen before and the name of that thing was sorrow.
I thought you were my friend, she said.
Tell me what to do, he said. I’ll do anything you say.
The nightdamp laid the dust going up the ciénaga road and they rode the horses side by side at a walk, sitting the animals bareback and riding with hackamores. Leading the horses by hand out through the gate into the road and mounting up and riding the horses side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west and some dogs barking over toward the shearing-sheds and the greyhounds answering back from their pens and him closing the gate and turning and holding his cupped hands for her to step into and lifting her onto the black horse’s naked back and then untying the stallion from the gate and stepping once onto the gate slat and mounting up all in one motion and turning the horse and them riding side by side up the ciénaga road with the moon in the west like a moon of the white linen hung from wires and some dogs barking.
They’d be gone sometimes till near daybreak and he’d put the stallion up and go to the house for his breakfast and an hour later meet Antonio back at the stable and walk up past the gerente’s house to the trap where the mares stood waiting.
They’d ride at night up along the western mesa two hours from the ranch and sometimes he’d build a fire and they could see the gaslights at the hacienda gates far below them floating in a pool of black and sometimes the lights seemed to move as if the world down there turned on some other center and they saw stars fall to earth by the hundreds and she told him stories of her father’s family and of Mexico. Going back they’d walk the horses into the lake and the horses would stand and drink with the water at their chests and the stars in the lake bobbed and tilted where they drank and if it rained in the mountains the air would be close and the night more warm and one night he left her and rode down along the edge of the lake through the sedge and willow and slid from the horse’s back and pulled off his boots and his clothes and walked out into the lake where the moon slid away before him and ducks gobbled out there in the dark. The water was black and warm and he turned in the lake and spread his arms in the water and the water was so dark and so silky and he watched across the still black surface to where she stood on the shore with the horse and watched where she stepped from her pooled clothing so pale, so pale, like a chrysalis emerging, and walked into the water.
She paused midway to look back. Standing there trembling in the water and not from the cold for there was none. Do not speak to her. Do not call. When she reached him he held out his hand and she took it. She was so pale in the lake she seemed to be burning. Like foxfire in a darkened wood. That burned cold. Like the moon that burned cold. Her black hair floating on the water about her, falling and floating on the water. She put her other arm about his shoulder and looked toward the moon in the west do not speak to her do not call and then she turned her face up to him. Sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh, sweeter for the betrayal. Nesting cranes that stood singlefooted among the cane on the south shore had pulled their slender beaks from their wing pits to watch. Me quieres? she said. Yes, he said. He said her name. God yes, he said.
He came up from the barn washed and combed and a clean shirt on and he and Rawlins sat on crates under the ramada of the bunkhouse and smoked while they waited for supper. There was talking and laughing in the bunkhouse and then it ceased. Two of the vaqueros came to the door and stood. Rawlins turned and looked north along the road. Five Mexican rangers were coming down the road riding single file. They were dressed in khaki uniforms and they rode good horses and they wore pistols in beltholsters and carried carbines in their saddlescabbards. Rawlins stood. The other vaqueros had come to the door and stood looking out. As the riders passed on the road the leader glanced across at the bunkhouse at the men under the ramada, at the men standing at the door. Then they went on from sight past the gerente’s house, five riders riding single file down out of the north through the twilight toward the tile-roofed ranch house below them.
When he came back down through the dark to the barn the five horses were standing under the pecan trees at the far side of the house. They hadn’t been unsaddled and in the morning they were gone. The following night she came to his bed and she came every night for nine nights running, pushing the door shut and latching it, and turning in the slatted light at God knew what hour and stepping out of her clothes and sliding cool and naked against him in the narrow bunk all softness and perfume and the lushness of her black hair falling over him and no caution to her at all. Saying I don’t care I don’t care. Drawing blood with her teeth where he held the heel of his hand against her mouth that she not cry out. Sleeping against his chest where he could not sleep at all and rising when the east was already gray with dawn and going to the kitchen to get her breakfast as if she were only up early.
Then she was gone back to the city. The following evening when he came in he passed Estéban in the barn bay and spoke to the old man and the old man spoke back but did not look at him. He washed up and went to the house and ate his dinner in the kitchen and after he’d eaten he and the hacendado sat at the dining room table and logged the stud book and the hacendado questioned him and made notes on the mares and then leaned back and sat smoking his cigar and tapping his pencil against the edge of the table. He looked up.
You don’t read French?
The bloody French are quite excellent on the subject of horses. Do you play billiards?
Do you play billiards?
Yessir. Some. Pool anyways.
The hacendado folded shut the books and pushed back his chair and rose and he followed him out down the hall and through the salon and through the library to the paneled double doors at the far end of the room. The hacendado opened these doors and they entered a darkened room that smelled of must and old wood.
He pulled a tasseled chain and lit an ornate tin chandelier suspended from the ceiling. Beneath it an antique table of some dark wood with lions carved into the legs. The table was covered with a drop of yellow oilcloth and the chandelier had been lowered from the twenty-foot ceiling with a length of common trace chain.
They stood on either side of the table and folded the cloth toward the middle and folded it again and then lifted it away and took it past the end of the table and walked toward each other and the hacendado took the cloth and carried it over and laid it on some chairs.
He racked the balls and handed the cue ball to John Grady. It was ivory and yellow with age and the grain of the ivory was visible in it. He broke the balls and they played straight pool and the hacendado beat him easily, walking about the table and chalking his cue with a deft rotary motion and announcing the shots in Spanish. He played slowly and studied the shots and the lay of the table and as he studied and as he played he spoke of the revolution and of the history of Mexico and he spoke of the dueña Alfonsa.
She was educated in Europe. She learned these ideas, these . . .
He moved his hand in a gesture the boy had seen the aunt make also.
She has always had these ideas. Catorce.
He bent and shot and stood and chalked his cue. He shook his head. One country is not another country. Mexico is not Europe. But it is a complicated business.
He bent and shot the seven ball into the side pocket. He walked around the table.
They went to France for their education. All these young people.
They all returned full of ideas. But ideas. . . . People of my generation are more cautious. I think we don’t believe that people can be improved in their character by reason. That seems a very French idea.
He chalked, he moved. He bent and shot and then stood surveying the new lay of the table.
Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.
He looked at John Grady and smiled and looked at the table.
That of course is the Spanish idea. You see. The idea of Quixote. But even Cervantes could not envision such a country as Mexico. Alfonsita tells me I am only being selfish in not wanting to send Alejandra. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps she is right. Diez.
Send her where?
The hacendado had bent to shoot. He raised up again and looked at his guest. To France. To send her to France.
He paused and chalked his cue again.
Why do I bother myself? Eh? She will go. Who am I? A father. A father is nothing.
He bent to shoot and missed his shot and stepped back from the table.
There, he said. You see? You see how this is bad for one’s billiard game? This thinking? The French have come into my house to mutilate my billiard game. No evil is beyond them.
He sat on his bunk in the dark with his pillow in his two arms and he leaned his face into it and drank in her scent and tried to refashion in his mind her self and voice. He whispered half-aloud the words she’d said. Tell me what to do. I’ll do anything you say. The selfsame words he’d said to her. She’d wept against his naked chest while he held her but there was nothing to tell her and there was nothing to do and in the morning she was gone.
The following Sunday Antonio invited him to his brother’s house for dinner and afterward they sat in the shade of the ramada off the kitchen and rolled a cigarette and smoked and discussed the horses. Then they discussed other things. John Grady told him of playing billiards with the hacendado and Antonio—sitting in an old Mennonite chair the caning of which had been replaced with canvas, his hat on one knee and his hands together—received this news with the gravity proper to it, looking down at the burning cigarette and nodding his head. John Grady looked off through the trees toward the house, the white walls and the red clay roof tiles.
Digame, he said. Cuál es lo peor: Que estoy pobre o que soy Americano?
The vaquero shook his head. Una llave de oro abre cualquier puerta, he said.
He looked at the boy. He tipped the ash from the end of the cigarette and he said that the boy wished to know his thought. Wished perhaps his advice. But that no one could advise him.
Tienes razón, said John Grady. He looked at the vaquero. He said that when she returned he intended to speak to her with the greatest seriousness. He said that he intended to know her heart.
The vaquero looked at him. He looked toward the house. He seemed puzzled and he said that she was here. That she was here now.
Sí. Ella está aquí. Desde ayer.
He lay awake all night until the dawn. Listening to the silence in the bay. The shifting of the bedded horses. Their breathing. In the morning he walked up to the bunkhouse to take his breakfast. Rawlins stood in the door of the kitchen and studied him.
You look like you been rode hard and put up wet, he said.
They sat at the table and ate. Rawlins leaned back and fished his tobacco out of his shirt pocket.
I keep waitin for you to unload your wagon, he said. I got to go to work here in a few minutes.
I just come up to see you.
It don’t have to be about somethin does it?
No. Don’t have to. He popped a match on the underside of the table and lit his cigarette and shook out the match and put it in his plate.
I hope you know what you’re doin, he said.
John Grady drained the last of his coffee and put the cup on his plate along with the silver. He got his hat from the bench beside him and put it on and stood up to take his dishes to the sink.
You said you didn’t have no hard feelins about me goin down there.
I don’t have no hard feelins about you goin down there.
John Grady nodded. All right, he said.
Rawlins watched him go to the sink and watched him go to the door. He thought he might tum and say something else but he didn’t.
He worked with the mares all day and in the evening he heard the airplane start up. He came out of the barn and watched. The plane came out of the trees and rose into the late sunlight and banked and turned and leveled out headed southwest. He couldn’t see who was in the plane but he watched it out of sight anyway.
Two days later he and Rawlins were in the mountains again. They rode hard hazing the wild manadas out of the high valleys and they camped at their old site on the south slope of the Anteojos where they’d camped with Luis and they ate beans and barbecued goat meat wrapped in tortillas and drank black coffee.
We aint got many more trips up here, have we? said Rawlins.
John Grady shook his head. No, he said. Probably not.
Rawlins sipped his coffee and watched the fire. Suddenly three greyhounds trotted into the light one behind the other and circled the fire, pale and skeletal shapes with the hide stretched taut over their ribs and their eyes red in the firelight. Rawlins half-rose, spilling his coffee.
What in the hell, he said.
John Grady stood and looked out into the darkness. The dogs vanished as suddenly as they had come.
They stood waiting. No one came.
What the hell, said Rawlins.
He walked out a little ways from the fire and stood listening. He looked back at John Grady.
You want to holler?
Them dogs aint up here by theirselves, he said.
You think he’s huntin us?
If he wants us he can find us.
Rawlins walked back to the fire. He poured fresh coffee and stood listening.
He’s probably up here with a bunch of his buddies.
John Grady didnt answer.
Dont you reckon? said Rawlins.
They rode up to the catchpen in the morning expecting to come upon the hacendado and his friends but they did not come upon him. In the days that followed they saw no sign of him. Three days later they set off down the mountain herding before them eleven young mares and they reached the hacienda at dark and put the mares up and went to the bunkhouse and ate. Some of the vaqueros were still at the table drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes but one by one they drifted away.
The following morning at gray daybreak two men entered his cubicle with drawn pistols and put a flashlight in his eyes and ordered him to get up.
He sat up. He swung his legs over the edge of the bunk. The man holding the light was just a shape behind it but he could see the pistol he held. It was a Colt automatic service pistol. He shaded his eyes. There were men with rifles standing in the bay.
Quién és? he said.
The man swung the light at his feet and ordered him to get his boots and clothes. He stood and got his trousers and pulled them on and sat and pulled on his boots and reached and got his shirt.
Vámonos, said the man.
He stood and buttoned his shirt.
Dónde están sus armas? the man said.
No tengo armas.
He spoke to the man behind him and two men came forward and began to look through his things. They dumped out the wooden coffee box on the floor and kicked through his clothes and his shaving things and they turned the mattress over on the floor. They were dressed in greasy and blackened khaki uniforms and they smelled of sweat and woodsmoke.
Dónde está su caballo?
En el segundo puesto.
They led him out down the bay to the saddleroom and he got his saddle and his blankets and by then Redbo was standing in the barn bay, stepping nervously. They came back past Estéban’s cuarto but there was no sign that the old man was even awake. They held the light while he saddled his horse and then they walked out into the dawn where the other horses were standing. One of the guards was carrying Rawlins’s rifle and Rawlins was sitting slumped in the saddle on his horse with his hands cuffed before him and the reins on the ground.
They jabbed him forward with a rifle.
What’s this about, pardner? he said.
Rawlins didnt answer. He leaned and spat and looked away.
No hable, said the leader. Vámonos.
He mounted up and they cuffed his wrists and handed him the reins and then all mounted up and they turned their horses and rode two by two out of the lot through the standing gate. When they passed the bunkhouse the lights were on and the vaqueros were standing in the door or squatting along the ramada. They watched the riders pass, the Americans behind the leader and his lieutenant, the others six in number riding in pairs behind in their caps and uniforms with their carbines resting across the pommels of their saddles, all riding out along the ciénaga road and upcountry toward the north.
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