Walter had a beer instead of champagne, watched the soldiers choosing their women, waited. Colonia Dublán
was known as a "sanitary" station, but it was really a whorehouse, una casa de citas, un lugar donde hay prostitutas
trabajando, un prostíbulo. Pershing and his men privately called it a remount station, as if women were horses and men were studs. But Walter kept its definition pure. It was a whorehouse. When he saw her first, he didn't think this. For a moment he allowed himself to think that it was sanitary, that good women meant for good men gathered here. It was the flip of his stomach, the surprise of seeing Mary Pretty Bird here in this whorehouse, a place where she could not be, that made him believe it was a good house. The impression was a short one, but an impression nonetheless.
Though the girl looked like Mary, she was Apache. She and Mary shared the same snaggled tooth, the thick Indian hair, the slight body and small breasts. She was Mary Pretty Bird and she was not Mary Pretty Bird. To Walter this made sense. He knew there were people who were two and three and four people at once. He didn't need to be told. They existed. The women here weren't Nuchu. They were Mexican and Apache, gathered by Pershing's men from Namiquipa, Galeana, Ahumada, Ojinaga, Tompochic, and Chihuahua. Small women who smelled of corn and manteca. But they looked like the Nuchu, broken women who were now touched by disease and poverty.
This was his lie to himself: He would save her. He would save her by dancing with her. Because she was Mary and Not Mary, he would buy the places of the men that came. Poor slight Mary. Poor starving Mary. Her winter of a thousand horses. Her place with the Nuchu. He would save her. He would go inside and see if it was her.
As he got closer, he saw that this one was younger than Mary, as if time had no meaning, as if a woman's face could stay forever the same. He would dance with her and pretend he was younger too. They would drink champagne and dance, him and the whore that looked like Mary. He would pretend for a moment that this wasn't really a war for water and that Pancho Villa was just another excuse. Just like with the Nuchu. All wars are for water, the rivers and the grazing land. Because if you cut into the flesh of the Chihuahua desert you find water, big holes of it, ojos de agua, eyes into ancient aquifers. And this is the real thing they had come to plunder.
He drank three beers before she arrived for her next dance. Then a tequila to steady his resolve. She swept the room with her dark eyes, looked down when she saw Walter. Walter felt his foolish heart flutter. Yes, this was Mary. This was her. She had been sent to him here. Mary, so that he could ask her once again. So that he could rescue her from this place. Her face was freshly washed, as were her privates from the last customer. Her sleeves were rolled up, showing her slight arms, her dark skin. She looked up again. Their eyes met.
Walter set down his drink, approached with definition. He could do this. He had the money, a goddamned pile of it as a civilian operator. He ran the real remount horses, sold plenty to the government, real horses for real riders. And Casas Grandes was a place where horses were worth more than whores. He had more money than all of Pershing's soldiers together.
"Bailamos," said Walter. "Let's dance."
"Okay, bailamos," said Mary but Not Mary.
As they touched Walter saw his lie dissolving. Her hands were oily, the skin of a whore. Her breath was sweet and sour all at once. He forced his mind around this, forced Not Mary to have cool hands like Mary, to have breath sweet from sucking on the stems of wild oats.
They were both slightly intoxicated, and their motions were halting. Soldiers came and went. Many asked to dance with her, but Walter brushed them off with a snarl, his tall form enough to make them doubt.
"Vamos ya," she said at last, tired of dancing.
Walter said, "Vamos ya" with her.
She lead him to her stall, her small hand pulling on him. A small room, enough for two. The linens were freshly washed, changed each day, stained at the end. A dresser. A wash basin. A bed with the legs of the bed sitting in dishes of kerosene to keep out the bedbugs. So a fellow couldn't smoke in there. A pair of hooks where the client was to hang his clothes. A wooden chair. A pot. Two shirts hanging. The smell of other men. Walter stood in the door and observed these things, then watched her remove her clothes. There was a scar on her back like a star, the flesh white and bumpy. He placed his hand over the scar, kissed her back.
"Son tres pesos," she whispered.
"Claro... o más. Tengo más." I have more. As if this meant something.
Walter's first moment inside her revealed that she was not Mary. She was instead Epifania, the small Apache whore who looked like Mary. Inside her was not like inside Mary. It was another woman. He couldn't force her into being Mary now. With Pershing's condoms, how could it be otherwise? This barrier between his penis and her vagina made her Not Mary. He said a prayer as he was inside her. "Ecani tawicuwatun ktelo." I will have a wife soon. Though it was technically not a Lakota prayer. That prayer would be said to the wind. Or it would be sung. This prayer he said in his head as he made believe that it was Mary beneath him. He came again and again inside her, as if this could prove that she was Mary.
Tom Threepersons was in the corral of the true remount station. He was counting horses. When a hundred came through the gate, he stopped counting and wrote a note to himself on a paper.
Walter approached, pulled himself up on the gate.
"You fucked her?" asked Threepersons.
Walter looked at the rodeo man's big, round face. Threepersons was smiling.
"All night long?"
"I did. Though I shouldn't even be telling you this. A man lying with whores is his business alone."
Threepersons laughed. "Yep. I did the same. Stayed all night. Couldn't keep my hands off her. That gal is damned pretty."
"You pretend she was your gal?"
Threepersons laughed harder now. "Well, shit, you ain't the only one she's been with. Though you pretended otherwise. I did too. Damned good pretending."
"Goddamn," said Walter. "Son of a bitch. I couldn't help it."
"Hope you didn't get upset just now when I told you I was with her too," said Threepersons. "I get it if you're upset. But understand I was there first, and don't make me out as a bad friend. She was pretty as a young deer. Couldn't help myself."
"Lord, she's beautiful."
"Yep, she is. And now we got something in common. She's a regular treasure whore. And you'll wait a week before you go back?" asked Threepersons. "Just to show you ain't hooked."
"I ain't hooked."
"There are people you'll have to fight. And if you pay for her, there won't be anything you can collect on. I know that might sound strange. You think when you buy something, it's yours. It ain't. Shit, I know this. I shouldn't but I do. I've already put that on a list of stupid shit that I've done. Knew a gal like that once in Reno. A soiled dove they called her. Pretty as candy. Couldn't keep my hands off of her. Big idiot Indian. Thought I could purchase people. I thought I knew everything."
They laughed together on this, then smoked a cigarette.
Walter waited two days and he was back in the whorehouse.
There were a few men who had heard of Epifania. He had to wait his turn behind Hadley, the slight built man from Arizona. Hadley came from the stalls, dancing, saying, "Hoo boy, I put a sting on it. Yes sir, that Apache girl is one fine lay. And I showed her the way. Yes I did."
Walter didn't like Hadley bragging, for discovering what he had discovered. So now he'd have to come every day, buy as many dances as he could.
Walter's fifth visit he came with food. They ate at her bed, then made love. Slowly this time, Walter not wanting to lose the moment, wishing that she could be Mary. Epifania silent as usual, her small hands folded over her back.
Walter sat on the edge of the bed, a hand on her thigh. He drew his fingers across her haunches, then let them rest on the small of her neck, a caress she wasn't used to.
"Sí, manana, sí."
Walter stood, went to put on his shirt, then sat again at the bedside.
"Que no veas a Hadley. Ese tipo trae mala suerte."
"Me paga bien, más que los otros."
Walter registered this. Hadley pays better than the others.
"Pago por él. Que no lo veas."
Epifania sat up, placed a hand on Walter's shoulder, pulled it away. She hesitated before asking, "Uste' me quiere?"
Do you want me? Or was it, do you love me? Walter frowned, bothered by the fact that she didn't tutear, that Walter
was never to be close like that, Epifania speaking to him as a stranger. Like the cowboys Walter hired out of
Michoacan, never daring to cross into the informal, keeping their distance. Even to a dog in his own house the
Indian would do this, the fast, truncated, uste', never lapsing into the vos of the southern coasts or the tú of the Indians in Sinaloa.
"Do I want you?"
"Yes, do you want me?"
Walter put on his shirt, kept his back turned to Epifania as he buttoned the garment. Or do I love you? He hadn't thought of this, that he could love a prostitute.
"Que no veas a Hadley."
She saw Hadley even though he asked her not to. Because Walter couldn't be there every hour. He couldn't control Pershing's men, as much as he thought he could. This time Hadley was drunker than normal. He broke Epifanias jaw, cut off her fingers, left her blind in one eye.
Tom Threepersons took the news silently, let Walter complain for a good while.
"I guess you know it was your fault," he said at last.
"I did. I do."
It was his goddamned fault. There he was, Walter staring at Epifania's broken face, thinking it was Mary. And then it was not Mary's face. Walter was not there with Tom Threepersons. He was back ten years now, and it was night and not day. The grass was prickly dry. The evening was cold. Walter had his hands on Mary's legs.
They felt smooth and cool in the night. Mary was skinnier now. He could see the delicate line of her collar bone, the taught pull of her neck. Walter shivered, though the cold was nothing to him. The shiver was perfunctory. The cold would never touch him. Even if there were snow, they would still lie there.
They kissed. And then the inevitable explorations of their bodies. They set their clothes out on the grass, made a bed. The moon was a sliver. And the nighttime insects were calling softly, working into the night. They made love. Then stopped. Then made love again. Mary began to cry.
Walter said, "Why are you crying?"
Mary turned away when she said, "I'm with Jim now."
"I know. I get it."
"He doesn't know I'm here."
"He doesn't know you're here," Walter said back. Though he didn't mean to show it, there was recrimination in his voice, as if he were saying Mary should be with Jim.
Walter rolled onto his back. Mary had her head in his arm.
He would be ashamed of a name like that. Indian Jim, the regular Indian name, the one the whites gave to the good Indian, the one that wouldn't start problems or get into fights. Walter had followed Mary on the path that lead from the village, thinking she was with a tougher man. But now Jim seemed appropriate. He would be a broken Indian. The fighters were all killed or hanged.
"Have you married him yet? A proper church thing?"
"Not yet. It was arranged as we do things. I thought it was how it was supposed to be. No church yet."
"You don't have to do this. There's other ways of doing things."
"We say who we are to marry. It's our tradition."
"Traditions don't have to be everything."
"It's our way."
"I don't like it."
"He was a man, Walter. Not skinny like you. Not young. A real man. Someone who could do things."
"Mary, you don't have to say this."
"No." And then, "I don't like him."
They lay for some time, looking up. The night sky was filtered, hazy. The owls wouldn't see so good in this light. Nor would the bobcat or the coyote. The haze would make them worried. These were nights now where the animals hurried, anxious about getting fat.
"Winter's coming," said Walter.
Mary began to cry again.
Walter replied by pulling Mary closer.
"Walter, don't do that now."
"But Mary, you're hurting."
"No, I'm hungry." Mary hid her face in her arms.
"You need food, Mary, I'll bring it."
"It's not that . . . "
"I will. I swear."
A sob exploded from her torso. And then another. Her body flexed. And then contorted. Mary sobbing. He was reminded of a donkey braying, and then of a child falling.
"It's my fault," said Walter. "I didn't mean to follow you out here. Something forced me. I don't know. I didn't have a choice on it. But I had to follow you."
"No, Walter, I wanted to be with you."
"I'll bring you whatever you need."
"I don't want anything, Walter. Don't help me. I don't need it."
"Mary, they won't starve you," said Walter, though he knew he was wrong by saying this. The government was planning on it. There would be no more shooting, nor more hangings. Just a slow depletion, a denial of water, of livestock. It was how the range wars worked.
Waska had told him this so many times when he was young that it was part of him now. When she came to his father's house, she had been part of the arrangement. Waska living on boiled grass and bentonite clay. Hungry Waska, who would never grow big no matter what she ate. Her brothers and sisters gone, the weak ones taken by common colds and runaway infections. And Mary had seen the same, her own family destroyed by the crush of winter.
"There are too many of them here," said Mary.
"I'm sorry, Mary," said Walter. "I'm damned sorry."
They gathered their clothes. Mary not looking at him. He ashamed that he was with her. She waiting for him to say something.
They mounted his horse, Mary on back, her thin arms around him like sticks. Walter rode slowly back towards the village. In the dark were other soldiers. Other couples on the path just like them, white men and Indian women meeting, scrambling in the night towards an unknown future.
"I'm sorry, Mary."
She placed her hand around his waist. Walter put his hand over hers.
Jim would be waiting when Mary returned. They would talk. Mary would lie to him about where she had been. Though they would both know she had been with Walter. There would be no accusations, just disappointment in what wasn't said.
As they approached the path to the village, Walter told himself what he was supposed to do. He had missed this that night at her uncle's house. The night they were supposed to run away. This was the story, how it should be done. They were to flee as had so many young lovers before that. It wasn't a new story. It had happened millions of times before. Two young hearts moving towards the other. He felt Mary's arms around his waist, clinging tightly, was reminded again how skinny she had become. This was his second chance. He could ride with her now and they would be together. But how far could he go? Where would they hide? Could he change his name? Could he find work? Perhaps somewhere out towards Oregon or up North in Canada, where they would remake themselves, where folks didn't care about these kind of arrangements.
Walter felt his breath shortening. The night's haze invaded his vision. It was as if he were riding in a cloud. He drew on the reins, let his horse go slower. He thought that by slowing things he could slow the inevitable. If she leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "Walter, let's leave this place," he knew would turn the horse south.
The horse stopped instinctively at the path, drew up. Walter couldn't say later how much time passed. It could have been five minutes or half an hour. Mary's arms were around Walter like ropes. He was present and disappearing all at once, listening to the boom of his heart, the cool of the night shattering him. He wanted Mary to choose him. If she slipped off the back of his horse, she would choose Jim. If she stayed, then they would go.
He would wait all night if he had to, Mary on the back of his horse, gripping him forever.
Mary slid to the ground. He held her hand as she dismounted. When she tugged at her arm, he gripped her for a moment.
Her face showed a flash of confusion. He knew what he was supposed to tell her. "Ecani tawicuwatun ktelo." I will have a wife soon. But his mouth was closed, resolute. How could he not speak now? Why had he chosen this moment to be silent?
"Walter, wana iblable ktso." I'm leaving now, Walter. The same words she has used that night in the cornfield. Behaviors repeating. Two people unable to change.
"Mary, wait . . . "
She pulled herself free, then turned along the path.
"You gonna do something."
"I'm thinking on it."
Walter wiped his face. He didn't like the memory, how it could come and go without him calling on it.
"You thinking about her? You look far away, anywhere but here," said Tom Threepersons.
"I am," said Walter.
"Goddamn, I saw that. Just looking at you I could tell."
"I figure you did."
"So you want to fix something you can't fix?"
"I guess I have to."
"You need help?"
"I wouldn't mind it."
"Well, goddamn, let's do this."
"Yeah, I guess we should."
Their moves were economic, unplanned. Both men had done this before. Though he was younger than Walter, Tom had already shot enough fellows in his day, starting with those men who'd killed his father. It didn't take him much to decide on killing. Walter was a bit slower, more circumspect, had only shot one man so far. He preferred fighting with his fists, knocking a man down, then working his head, his torso, letting the lesson stick, making sure the beating went deep and memorable.
The two men headed out in into the matorral. They didn't need to be told where Hadley and his crew were set up. They were at the edge of the grazing land, far enough off to hear someone coming, close enough not to be considered out of reach. They were at the edge of the command, the soldiers that would go first when Villa's men came, the ones that took the periphery like dogs.
The best grazing was out there in the ruins, a big, damned fertile valley. So men would be placed there to secure it. Walter and Tom worked their way a mile up from the encampment, came south towards the men. It was a useless measure. Though on watch, Hadley and his crew of two soldiers were gambling and drinking around their campfire. It didn't take much to see they'd been looting. They had property gathered up around them, articles they'd taken from folks' houses, mostly tack, bridles and saddles full of silver, things a fellow could move quick.
"I got three of her fingers now my pocket," Hadley was telling his boys.
"What you gonna pick your nose with them?" wondered the kid from Montana.
"Well, maybe I will. Or maybe I'll wipe my ass with them. I don't know," replied Hadley. "Or maybe you want to try that. I'll give you one. You wipe your ass with it."
The kid from Wyoming let a chuckle. Montana followed. It wasn't their first time with a bottle of tequila in their guts, but they were still young guzzlers, weren't practiced yet at boozing.
Walter and Tom exchanged glances. It was the perfect time to strike. They wouldn't waste time or thought on it. It was as it was supposed to be. Walter had seen this done enough times on the prairie to know its efficiency. It was just like popping melons. A fool who wasted time on this decision was a fool.
Walter and Tom simultaneously cocked their arms, threw their rifle butts forward. The butts met the back of the men's skulls. The men dropped forward silently, landed like sacks full of grain.
Hadley stood up, said, "What the hell, man?"
Walter stepped into the light of the fire, knocked Hadley down. Hadley knew enough to get off the ground, pulled back, pushed himself up, said, "What's this all about?"
"You sit down," ordered Walter.
Though Hadley was a slight man, he was fighter. Sitting down meant he was lost. He feinted to one side, scrambled away from the light of the fire towards his gun. His trajectory brought him towards Tom Threepersons. Tom stepped aside to let him pass as if he were inviting Hadley towards his weapon. Hadley was too drunk to know that this was a bad move. He kept going towards his firearm. Walter saw the knife appear, watched as Threepersons drew it in an arc by Hadley's neck.
Hadley let out a yelp, set off on a stilted run amongst the yucas and the agaves. He didn't get more than fifty yards into the matorral. Threeperson's knife had nicked an artery. By the time they arrived, Hadley had already bled out, was unconscious.
"Goddamn, I was just getting warmed up," said Tom.
"We got maybe half an hour," noted Walter. "I'll do this one, Tom. You set back."
"We'll do it together. Make it look like Villa's doing."
Walter couldn't see if the two they'd rifle butted were dead. He told himself he didn't care much either way, though his shaking hands made it tough as he went through their clothing. When one man started to make motions of consciousness, Tom Threepersons cut his neck, wiped his blade on the man's collar, then did the same to the second.
"I'll finish this. You do Hadley," instructed Tom.
Walter went back through the matorral. It wouldn't take much to make it look like Villa's men had struck. The methods were always the same. Walter drew a blade around Hadley's skull, tugged off Hadley's scalp in one pull. He walked a few yards, flung it into the bush. He returned to the dead man, went through Hadley's papers, scattered them about on the soil. He found Epifanias fingers in a front pocket, threw them down amongst the papers. If he had been by the fire, he would have read that Hadley was married, had a wife in kids in Arizona. Instead he found himself looking at the dark stain of blood that had flowed from Hadley's neck. He tried to pull his gaze away, felt himself looking into Hadley's neck as if this were the most important thing to do now, as if her were meant to do this.
Walter found him mind trailing again, going back to the Nuchu. He wished he had control over these things, but the memory wouldn't let him go. He saw he had a horse with him. It was a roan mare, about ten years old, already showing the beginning signs of Cushing's disease, its coat winterizing far too early for the season, making it look fatter than it was. The horse was the last of Walter's trades with Nuchu, an afterthought, and he wondered as he led the horse along the path to the Sioux village that the horse knew if she was going to die. The way she fell behind his own horse, nose to his tail, the desire to herd so strong that she could do nothing but follow, indicated she knew nothing. But it still made Walter think.
He had seen coyotes at two hundred yards off, fleeing the sting of a rifle they couldn't possibly see or be aware of, simply running, sensing the doom, running fast into the wind as if this could preserve them. And horses, when frightened, moved closer to the herd, tightened their bodies.
The Thunder Butte men were gone when Walter arrived at the home. It was a one-room log house with a dirt floor. By Walter's count there would be at least seven living in there. But now there were only the women. No children. Just the women. Mary, two older Sioux, then her cousin Josephine standing closest to the path. Mary looked once at Walter, moved towards the house, her face down. The two Thunder Butte women stood so that they formed a triangle of protection, Mary closest to the house, the women a few paces further away, waiting.
Josephine approached, said "Han, Walter."
Walter noticed Josephine was skinnier too. She had always been the plump cousin. Now her body looked straighter, hardened. He said, "Hau, Josephine. You doing okay?"
"I didn't expect you here."
"I came with Mary," said Josephine. She changed her stance, her body facing his, her round breasts obvious under her mission dress. Josephine, though older, had not been found a husband.
"I see," said Walter.
Josephine said, "You come for a visit?"
"I brought a horse. It's for you and Mary. Though mostly for Mary."
Josephine waited for Walter to say more. When it became obvious he would not, she said, "You know, you coming here isn't a good idea."
"No, probably not." Walter looked up at Mary, hoped she would return his gaze. But she had her face turned away, was brushing at something on the threshold of the house.
"There might be a fight."
"The horse is for you," said Walter. "They say this winter will be cold. I brought you the mare."
Walter pulled the mare forward on her lead. The horse shuffled forward, banged against Walter's saddle, pressed close into this herd of two, worried.
"You can have the halter too," said Walter. "I don't want it."
"Mary doesn't want you here," Josephine went on.
"No, I'm not staying."
"So maybe you better keep the horse."
Walter handed the lead to Josephine. She took his hand.
Walter began to pull away and she tugged on him.
"Where you going to be, Walter?"
"Just moving on."
Walter glanced up, hoped the Thunder Butte women couldn't see Josephine clinging to him. Their eyes were averted, watching the feet of the mare.
"By the cavalry camp?"
"I don't know. Maybe. I think," said Walter.
"Don't leave yet," said Josephine.
Walter said, "No." Though he knew he wouldn't be with the men from the division. They were rough types, gamblers and rogues. He would stay his distance. Though he was white, they would still consider him Indian.
Walter pulled his hand free from Josephine. He felt her eyes grazing his face, looking. He was confused that she had held his hand for so long but had told him to get along. He felt she could be his if he wanted. He would just have to make a promise. Agree. And she would come to him. They would make love. He was sure of it. He checked again with Mary. She turned her back, picked up a stick in front of the door.
"Don't come again, Walter."
"No, I won't."
Walter turned his horse, gave it a click. When he was a hundred yards down the path, he swiveled in his saddle, looked back.
The four women had already circled the mare. The older of the Thunder Butte women had produced a long-bladed knife. She swept the blade across the neck of the mare. The horse took a step back, pulled on the halter. Josephine held the lead tight. The mare faltered, waved her head. Josephine pulled the lead towards the earth. The mare fell to her front knees first. Her head swayed. Then the hindquarters came down slowly. She leant on her right flank, rolled slowly to the ground.
"Wamakaskan," observed Walter as he said into Hadley's neck, saw how a man and a horse shared the same blood.
Tom Threepersons came stamping up the matorral. He was also carrying a scalp. He flung it in the same direction Walter had sent Hadley's.
"Come on, bring yourself back," said Tom. "You can't get stuck out here."
"Shit, I don't like doing this," noted Walter. "I can't think right."
"This had to play out this way," said Threepersons. "You know that."
"Come on, let's get moving. We got tracks to cover."
The men went back along their path, brushing behind themselves a ramo seco as they walked. It wasn't far, a quarter of a mile at most before their prints mixed with the thousand other prints left by their occupation. Walter felt light and free and filthy all at once.