Vibrating were the floorboards. Vibrating were the tables and chairs. Vibrating was the air. And before they could see it, they heard it—a freight train bawling its lonesomeness, and they turned their gaze to the rattling windows.
Boxcars rumbled past the cantina’s windows, and a yellow head came bursting into view. The yellow head belonged to a boy who was not yet a teenager. His face flashed in one window, disappeared, flashed in another, and was gone.
The boy was running toward an open boxcar. He stumbled, nearly fell and shot ahead. As his fingers gripped the edge of the door, a hand from behind seized his shirt collar. The boy reared up on his heels and collapsed to the ground beside the boots of a railroad cop.
With his hand on the back of the boy’s neck, the railroad cop marched the boy inside the cantina. Filling the doorway with his wide blue shoulders, the railroad cop asked in Spanish if any of them knew the boy, and the Mexican musicians shook their heads no. The railroad cop turned to leave, swiveling the boy around by the neck, and at that instant the band leader emerged from the kitchen, an open bottle of Coca-Cola in each hand. The band leader, who had blue eyes and who was not Mexican, shambled across the floorboards, favoring his right leg, and asked the boy if he was thirsty.
The boy took the bottle in his strong country hand and drank two large swallows, breathing through his nose. The band leader asked the boy where he lived, and the boy blinked his large brown eyes and lowered the bottle.
Trailer camp, the boy said.
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What’s your name, son?
Howdy, Tommy. My name’s Billy.
I’ll give you a lift home if Red says it’s okay.
Billy threw a look to the railroad cop, and the railroad cop nodded his consent. Billy turned around to his band and said: La práctica ha terminado, and left the cantina with the boy.
Dust stirred into the air as Billy’s Model T spun out from the cantina to the unpaved road. The dust had traveled here, to Pueblo, Colorado, on prairie winds from Oklahoma and Kansas, and now it was traveling once more, riding a hobo current of air and drifting through the open windows of Billy’s car to settle on their clothes like powdered sugar. Formerly the dust had been the nourishing earth of flowing prairie grasses, and afterwards the life-giving topsoil of ten thousand wheat farms, but now it was just dust, plain unadulterated dust, blowing with indirection and indifference.
The car was built in ’27, the last year of production. Billy had bought it as a retirement gift for himself, but went on working for some five more years. He had kept the car in good condition until this year, when the dusters rolled in. The dust had pocked tiny holes in the green paint and sooted the top halves of the headlights so many times they looked permanently half asleep. Inside the car the dust had seeded itself into the crevices of the seats and darkened the white striping to dun.
In silence they passed an unused rail yard and a hobo encampment, which was a piece of scrubland with a dozen men stretched out on the ground and sitting on crates, and they turned onto the blacktop, where they overtook an ice wagon. As the Model T rolled into town, Billy eyed his passenger askant. The boy’s hair had congregated into clumps on his head.
Your hair is dirty, Billy said.
I like dirty hair.
Oh, you like dirty hair.
If I keep it dirty all the time, I don’t have to wash it.
Billy nodded his head at the superior logic. And you don’t like shampoo.
Pa says we can’t afford any.
What about soap?
When’s the last time you had a shower?
Week ago, trailer camp. A lady lent me her soap.
How long since your mother was around?
Died a year after I was born.
Lucky you still got your pa.
Don’t like my pa.
Didn’t like mine neither.
They fell silent again and Billy took the car into the center of town before he renewed the conversation.
Where were you fixin on goin with that freight, son?
Would’ve taken you a spell. That freight was headed to Chicago.
Tommy’s lips pulled back in a grin. His teeth were like dominoes falling out of a bag, all jumbled on top of each other.
That freight was goin to New Mexico, Tommy said. You can’t fool me.
I wouldn’t fool you, Tommy. So what were you fixin to do in New Mexico? Steal horses? Rustle some cattle? Or maybe just kill a man?
Tommy’s eyes opened in surprise.
I was young once too, Billy said with a smile.
He wheeled the car past the red-brick buildings of Main Street, past the sidewalks dense with whites and Mexicans. Scattered among them were a few black-skinned men, some mestizos, a Navajo woman and two full-blooded Ute braves, whose land this once was and who always walked with the ghosts of their ancestors. All the men were booted up like cowboys, even the businessmen. And all wore hats against the sun. Only the cottonwood trees along the sidewalk braved the sun without cover, and their bravery was not inborn. It came from buckets of Arkansas River by way of the townsfolk, who looked upon the trees as their kin.
Billy slowed down behind the town’s electric streetcar and pointed out a storefront shaded by a copper awning.
You been there yet, Tommy?
That’s the Federal Bakery. Fresh doughnuts there four times a day. 6:00 a.m., 10:00 a.m., noon and 2:00 p.m.
Don’t have enough money for a doughnut.
Don’t have to buy none. People go there just to watch the doughnuts shoot out of the machine. Always a crowd at the window when it happens.
A hatless man in a worn jacket dashed across the street in front of Billy’s car, and Tommy ducked down in his seat. Billy continued along the street and told Tommy it was all right, the man had gone inside Earl’s Diner. Downshifting behind a slow-moving truck, Billy flicked his gaze at Tommy and asked casually who the man was. Tommy’s response was to slope further down in his seat and chew his top lip.
Approaching the town’s main stoplight, Billy pulled on the handbrake until the car rolled to a stop. Tommy drew his body upright and peered through the passenger window with furtive eyes. Flinging himself out the door the next moment, he disappeared into a crowd on the sidewalk. The stoplight turned green, and Billy pushed his foot on the spring-loaded pedal to engage low gear. All that was left of the momentary encounter between the two strangers was an empty bottle of Coca-Cola rocking on the floor and a slim paperback that had wedged itself into the crevice of the seat. Billy plucked the book out and brought it forward to his eyes. Part of the cover was missing, but the title was still legible—Outlaws of the Wild West. He turned the book over and read the breathless exclamation on the back—Thousands of Hardcover Readers! Spinning the wheel, he drew up to Earl’s Diner and parked the car.
Peter Meech has had an international career as a writer, producer and director for television and film. “Billy (the Kid)” is his debut novel. He has written, produced and directed several short films and has several television credits. He received a Master’s degree at Stanford, where he received the Stanford Nicholl writing award.