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For the next two weeks they would ride by night, they would make no fire.
They had struck the shoes from their horses and filled the nail holes in with clay and those who still had tobacco used their pouches to spit in and they slept in caves and on bare stone.
They rode their horses through the tracks of their dismounting and they buried their stool like cats and they barely spoke at all. Crossing those barren gravel reefs in the night they seemed remote and without substance.
Like a patrol condemned to ride out some ancient curse. A thing surmised from the blackness by the creak of leather and the chink of metal.
They crossed the del Norte and rode south into a land more hostile yet. All day they crouched like owls under the niggard acacia shade and peered out upon that cooking world.
Dust devils stood on the horizon like the smoke of distant fires but of living things there was none. They eyed the sun in its circus and at dusk, they rode out upon the cooling plain where the western sky was the color of blood.
At a desert well they dismounted and drank jaw to jaw with their horses and remounted and rode on. The little desert wolves yapped in the dark and Glanton’s dog trotted beneath the horse’s belly, its footfalls stitched precisely among the hooves.
A year later he is in Saint Louis. He is taken on for New Orleans aboard a flatboat. Forty-two days on the river.
At night the steamboats hoot and trudge past through the black waters all alight like cities adrift. They break up the float and sell the lumber and he walks in the streets and hears tongues he has not heard before.
He lives in a room above a courtyard behind a tavern and he comes down at night like some fairybook beast to fight with the sailors. He is not big but he has big wrists, big hands.
His shoulders are set close. The child’s face is curiously untouched behind the scars, the eyes oddly innocent. They fight with fists, feet, bottles, or knives.
All races, all breeds. Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes. Men from lands so far and queer that standing over them where they lie bleeding in the mud he feels mankind itself vindicated.
On a certain night, a Maltese boatswain shoots him in the back with a small pistol. Swinging to deal with the man he is shot again just below the heart.
The man flees and he leans against the bar with the blood running out of his shirt. The others look away. After a while, he sits on the floor.
He lies in a cot in the room upstairs for two weeks while the tavernkeeper’s wife attends to him. She brings his meals, she carries out his slops. A hardworking woman with a wiry body like a man’s.
By the time he is mended, he has no money to pay her and he leaves in the night and sleeps on the riverbank until he can find a boat that will take him on. The boat is going to Texas.
Only now is the child finally divested of all that he has been.
His origins become remote as is his destiny and not again in all the world’s turning will there be terrains so wild and barbarous to try whether the stuff of creation may be shaped to man’s will or whether his own heart is not another kind of clay.
The passengers are a diffident lot. They cage their eyes and no man asks another what it is that brings him here. He sleeps on the deck, a pilgrim among others.
He watches the dim shore rise and fall. Gray seabirds gawking. Flights of pelicans coastwise above the gray swells.
They disembark aboard a lighter, settlers with their chattels, all studying the low coastline, the thin bight of sand and scrub pine swimming in the haze.
He walks through the narrow streets of the port. The air smells of salt and newly sawn lumber.
At night whores call to him from the dark like souls in want. A week and he is on the move again, a few dollars in his purse that he’s earned, walking the sand roads of the southern night alone, his hands balled in the cotton pockets of his cheap coat.
Earthen causeways across the marshland. Egrets in their rookeries were white as candles among the moss. The wind has a raw edge to it and leaves lope by the roadside and skelter on in the night fields.
He moves north through small settlements and farms, working for day wages and found. He sees a parricide hanged in a crossroads hamlet and the man’s friends run forward and pull his legs and he hangs dead from his rope while urine darkens his trousers.
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