“You say your name is Baltimore, huh?”
She nodded, once. The barrel of his gun, staring at her, intently.
“Well, what kind of a name is that?”
“Not my real one.” She mumbled.
“Baltimore is not my real name.”
“Well, what’s your name then, girl?”
“Baltimore. And don’t make me say it again.”
And before he could cock the pistol pointed towards her, she was saddled up and already somewhere else below the light of the moon.
The boss rolled over in his night sack. The young cowhand, next to him, awake and on his back. His head, cradled by his dusty, tired hands. In the distance, the silhouette of a rock formation curved like the body of a woman sleeping on her side. The young cowhand is silent, immersed in a version of night that is his and his alone. It is in times like these when he finds himself not on the trail at all. He is in his windowless bedroom. Submerged in warm bath water. He is a child who sleeps in his boots and falls from his saddles. He has stolen a sacred hour, minute, second, or two, to catch a long-forgotten whiff of his mother’s braided hair. He is the most alone and ashamed. He wishes for someone near to wake along with him. To see if they could recognize him amongst these thoughts. Has it been that long since he pushed his father’s plow? The coos of the nearby cattle make them sound like doves. The crackling spit of this night’s shrinking fire, the moans of men scattered like the fallen soldiers they could have very nearly been. All within this sleepless stage of night. A time when distant howls are offered up to one great, watercolor moon. The young cowhand stares up from his bed of thirsty soil and wonders, what’s in a name?
“Boss, I saw her again last night.”
“I saw her again last night.”
Sometimes, the young cowhand thinks that Boss sees this world in black and white. An imposing shadow of a man who only speaks in whispers and half whispers. A man who lets the love of others slip right through his fingers like sand. A sharp man, a laureled man, a tough man, but a man nonetheless.
“How did you come across her?” Boss grunts.
“Strange luck, I guess.”
“Hm. Have you rode back and told the others?”
“Well, go on!”
He went. The young cowhand rode all the way down the line of beasts and men like a quickly shot arrow. His horse’s tail followed in one, straight-edged motion like the fletching. The chuck wagon was last in the line and eating up the dust from the others. A “wo-ho-ho!” before Pots, the cook, yanked back the reins. The young cowhand squinted and thought about where to begin. His horse slowed to a canter and went into a swaying stance along the wagon’s side. With that, the trumpets sounded.
What will it be, then? We all wonder, don’t we? A Stampede? A flash from a lightning bolt? A bullet shot? What will it be that causes the hands of another to hammer, hammer, hammer those sticks into the ground? The act, like death itself, far transcends its symbol. We recognize it, tip our hats to it, move past it, but it remains. The cross on the side of the trail within our minds, remains. A nail tapped into the middle just barely holds it all together. A name carved by the sharp point of some jagged nearby rock. Two sticks and a name left here, alone, along the side of a dusty trail. Boy, what’s in a name? And by this time, Pots saw him swaying there in a trance and urgently asked with a thick and furrowed brow–
“Well, what is it boy?”
The young cowhand’s thoughts were wrapped up in all of that. Those visions of someone else’s hands hammering two sticks, in the shape of a cross, into the dirt. He was sweating and at the same time, panting.
“I saw her again.”
Then the young cowhand turned his head to slowly look back over each of his shoulders as if to identify where some far off, unheard sound was coming from.
The idea was Vulture’s. For, if Boss knew it, he wouldn’t have been proud of it or even allowed it. The young cowhand kept quiet. Paced. He knew how to be fatherless. He kept looking over at Boss’ fire in the distance. The reminder. Then, he would look back down at the ground. Guilt. He was supposed to be on guard. Pots was in on it and his cook boy was too dumb to keep out of it, so they let him in on it too. All to take place the hour before the owl calls. There was little to no idea of what to do with her after they caught her. Vulture just cared about getting her caught.
“Ain’t nobody steals from this here outfit without paying for it…”
(this was when Vulture’s black eyes glistened.)
Vulture was motherless. He wanted Boss kept out only until he needed to be let in. He held the key. He thread the needle. Vulture spit from between his teeth. Pots chewed on a piece of straw and the men watched him like it was the first time they had ever seen such a thing. Such silent mouths shook hands with roaring minds. The cattle moved among their bedding ground, separate but together. The men felt them move. They’d become them on this trail. The cattle looked on at the men and just knew.
The young cowhand rubbed the back of his neck with his palm and stared intently at the ground. His dust coated hand was rubbing the back of his nape to soothe himself while his thoughts raced on like a galloping freight. When suddenly, the brake applied, the young cowhand cupped his neck, awoke from the meadow he was just in and dragged those long, graceful, and blistered fingers along the side of his neck. He did this ever so gently as he raised his head to the howls of wolves in the form of drunken laughter:
“You’re the only one she seems to appear for, Howdy.”
“I’m starting to think she’s got the hots for you, son.”
“Was it a ghost? Mother Mary? Speak boy…speak! What did she look like in the night?”
And with that, an apple rolled, with force, out from somewhere nearby. Along with its roll, it churned like wagon wheels. A sound the men knew all too well. The apple stopped right there, at the square toe of Vulture’s boot. All the men looked down at it together. They drew their pistols like a reflex, but could see nothing in the velvet black of night that could convince them to pull their triggers. Boss’ fire glowed in the distance. The yucas, catching moonlight, gleamed like freshly polished daggers pointing outstretched towards the stars. Some sort of war was declared here, now. Pots let loose a shot that echoed towards the canyons. They heard not a sound of neighing or bustling or any kind of movement around them—just some nervous gasps from the spying cattle. So much for not telling Boss. He heard. Nobody spoke and the tension let loose like a spool of unraveling fabric. Pot’s cook boy just leaned close and whispered,
“I didn’t know apple trees grow ‘round here, Mr. Pots.”
Vulture bent down, picked up the apple that had landed at his toe boot and examined the single human bite in it. The apple’s flesh was illuminated by the light of the stars, along with yucca.
And with that, the young cowhand dreamt: He was bone-tired, but still rose up out of himself and followed wherever the wind told him to go. Weak, but strong. Naked, but clothed. Barefoot he walked among meadow grass. Not here. The flowers, so familiar, each distinct. He knew each one by name. Crocuses, snowdrops, forget me nots. All wild, but aware and still in this moment, as nostalgia breathed a pause in the present. Waiting, always waiting…Names. That’s right, girl, what’s in a name? That’s not why I’m here. Well, tell me. Tell me why you left me with that question. Why me? What is it that I have done for you to come and take me here? Why show me those hammering hands? Who sent you? Was it my mother? I don’t even carry a gun, boy. Then why me? I no longer say I love, because I no longer do. Hush, boy. That’s not why I’m here. She and her horse looked dipped in silver. Her shadow began to speak. Your boss, boy. Does he know about me? My boss? Well, yes I suppose I’ve told him. Good. And those men know too? Well, yes… Good. Why’d you kick that apple? Cause that scene? They’re onto you, they’ll kill you! You do realize, after having their way with you…why is it always me you bring here? Hush. Look, I’ve only got so much to offer you in whispers. Baltimore… Don’t call me that, not you. Not me? Look, I don’t know what it is you’re after here, miss, I’ll call you miss, but this trail ain’t no place for you. An outfit moving a thousand head of cattle is really no place for you. No shoes? No gun? I have overcome. I am here. Overcome? Huh, miss? I’m not interested in cattle. How ‘bout you tell me what it is you are interested in then? I may be able to help you. What is it about you? She squints…Me? Ah, you’re still a boy. Miss? I really just want to help you get whatever it is you want from us. Is it food? You’re hungry? Is that why you’ve been stealing from the wagon? Miss? How about you just tell me what you want and nobody gets hurt…Stop. There’s something I need you to ask your boss for me. Ask it only once, you hear?
The young cowhand looked at her, intently. The air, thick like honey. His eyes must have said yes, anything, for she went on.
Ask your boss, look him square in the eye and ask him to answer this one thing–how good are you at dying?
And with that, the young cowhand woke. Pale as an eggshell he was, and dry at the mouth. Boss was there, grunting from his sleep sack and telling him to pour an entire pot of coffee down his throat.
“It must be the remuda she wants.” Boss said, contemplating.
“No, boss. I don’t think so…she’s got her own horse.”
“Her own horse? Where? Have you seen it?”
“Did it look like one of ours?”
“Boss, no, look…she only spoke to me for a few minutes and wouldn’t tell me why she is here or what she wants. But she wanted me to ask you something…Boss, it’s kind of a funny thing for me to be asking you.”
“Well, shoot.” He looked adamant, but not entirely ready.
“Boss, she wanted me to ask you this here thing…well,”
The young cowhand paused and looked Boss right in the eyes just as she said to do.
“Well, it was something like…” he rubbed the back of his neck and hesitated,
“How good are you…at dying? Or something like that.”
Boss looked back at him either frightened, filled with love, or overcome by betrayal– as if he muttered Boss’ unknown final words aloud for him. The young cowhand waited, waited, waited, for some sort of a sign about what was going on behind the mahogany of Boss’ eyes, but he only saw a setting sun in there. Like the dust particles settling after the strike of a lightning bolt. A bone had snapped and was laying there, shattered into pieces, broken. The young cowhand, scurrying to pick up each scrap was carefully clutching fragments in his parted hands like glittering relics. It rattled inside him like a snake. Boss said nothing. He gazed on, into the fire. The cattle knew. He knew not. Was that the trumpet sound from the other day, off calling, well done? This outpouring of destiny was all starting to feel too much for the young cowhand. It felt much like half-heartedly breaking in a steer you know isn’t quite ready to turn. Like slitting the throat of some pulsing and living beast and deciding for him that it was his time to die simply because he was slowing you down. Like hearing the sear of the branding iron meet the flesh it was intended for. Like watching one of the youngest orphaned hands in this outfit, just over the age of twelve, fall from the saddle of his horse into a battleground of chaos below. “Quick, stampede!” While the men all just looked on and watched the trampling occur because they told themselves that it was his damned fate, not theirs. On this trail, reaching for guns had become a reflex, but loving one another had not. For, Boss always said that the men had to move, move, move–even when one of theirs was getting the breath stomped out of him before he barely even had the chance to breath it. This, Boss said, was what made one good at living, not dying— along the trail.
“Drink up, drink up…”
Now it was the young cowhand trailing off his words, coaxing Boss to swallow a sip of coffee even though his own face still had yet to regain its color. He was gentle with his eyes as they looked on and begged Boss to choke out some meaning to her words–how good are you at dying? He could hear her whisper it as if she were there. The young cowhand peered down again at the dust feeling guilty that yet again, he had nothing to offer this man except his gaze. The dust, something that was all around them then. It coated the skin, buried the body and tread beneath their swollen feet. Miles and miles of dust they had ridden. Covered by it, bathed in it, they had basically eaten it. It had become them too. Even a windstorm of dust could not cover the fact that few remained. Two sleep sacks, two horses and a fire was all that they were now. They would not see this herd through to the end. The young cowhand knew all he needed to know just from what Boss had shown him in his eyes. Have you a friend like that? The young cowhand knew that Boss was wrapped up in something bad. Far worse than anything Vulture had in mind. Vulture didn’t think like that. He could leave them the next day without saying goodbye. No attachments, and with the men never even knowing his birth name.
Boss wrapped his hands around his knees. The way a listening child sits. He thought. How long has it been since I have heard the sound of moving water? So long, that I don’t even remember what it is that I still miss. This feeling just persists. I’m not well enough to walk these miles. I’m not strong enough to move this herd. I’ve lost my scout and the smell of water with it. I’m not upright enough to even sit my horse. My men will surely go while my golden ramrod sleeps beside me. Boy, we remain, both wrapped within the folded wings of night. Alone. Exhausted. Bathed in dust. Boy, I haven’t lost you, yet. How is it you look at me the way you always do? The willow still weeps, the valerian still sleeps, and the meadow still greens, my friend. The days will go on, even without me. Even the stars have lost their meaning before they dissolve into the dawn. Orion’s Belt is nothing more than a holster where a cowboy keeps his gun. A string of pearls upon the neck of a woman he once knew. Who are you? My second in command–so unaware of what the wind has spoken, she will tell you what I am and make you kiss my cheek. She takes the name of where I’m from miles east of here. I am nothing like a father. You can skin me down to bones, but that I’ll never be. How good are you at dying? Her reply when I looked her square into the eyes so many shades of night ago and muttered, I’ll love you till my dying day. And now, she’s found me through you. She’ll meet you each night by the tall grass and remind you that you can never love, no, never love upon life’s long meander. For boy, love is only dust.
Camp was nothing but a forgotten fire. The young cowhand and Boss always slept separate from the others to keep watch. When they got back, to where the others should have been, the grounds were scavenged through. The cattle, gone, the remuda with it. The chuck wagon laid spilt upon the dirt lifeless like an upturned insect. Pots was gone. The sleep sacks were thrown and trampled through. Remaining food was scattered. Vulture, the only man in sight, laid dead with an arrow standing tall and proud upon his chest. His blood had already pooled and dried beside him.
The young cowhand rubbed his neck and turned, without words to gather the remaining horses. Boss just stood.
“Is this it, Boss?” The young cowhand asked.
“Depends on what?”
“How good we are at staying alive”
The cowhand paused at this.
“Ain’t that the same as how good we are at dying?”
Boss then looked at the young cowhand and he knew that not a trace of boyhood was left in his body.
Perhaps that is when you know you’re grown. When the place you call home stops feeling like it and becomes just a place you’re passing through. And all that can just happen, in an instant, with no feeling at all, like water poured atop a flame that had its skirt pulled high above the knees kicking and shamelessly dancing just moments ago. The young cowhand stopped being able to look Boss directly in the eyes that day. It was like nature wouldn’t allow him to do so anymore. When Boss was near him, he heard the constant rattle of the snake and avoided the eyes. For so long, Boss was motionless, asleep, like upturned gravel. Now, he revealed himself, diamond backed, alert, coiled. Boss gulped his canteen of whiskey, already drunk. The rattle became like the ticking of time itself as the young cowhand watched Boss leave himself across the fire during the nights. Boss was thinking, though he wasn’t moving. The rattle, the reminder. The silence, the threat. The young cowhand could no longer sleep through the night without hearing it. He was the steer about to be taken down by a snake in the grass. He dreamt, many nights, of Boss’ split and quivering black tongue reaching towards his body. He’d jolt awake to find Boss gone and off somewhere. He no longer had time to wait. To trace the edges of where the cold body ended and the warm dust began. To count the seconds in between. The young cowhand never saw Baltimore again either. Though, when he left Boss lying there, fireless and deep in the belly of the night, he made sure he poured into Boss’ whiskey canteen with a heavy hand the crumbled nightshade that she had left behind exactly for that intent. Perhaps Boss was expecting it, leaving it right there for the young cowhand to find while off somewhere in the night. The phantom wind, tipping the young cowhand’s hat for him. And before the young cowhand rode on, he remembered to hammer two thin sticks into the dirt behind Boss’ sleep sack, a cross. Memory now. He covered Boss’ face with his black leather hat, spun the spurs on his boots which sounded the rattle and gently covered him with dust. In Boss’ hand, he placed his bulletless pistol. He cut the rope tying up Boss’ horse and watched its sleek, muscular body go, go, get! before the young cowhand mounted his own horse and rode off, alone, into his own version of the night.