Ruidoso, Carrizozo, Ruidoso
Billy Sue Dolan was from Ruidoso, one town in a hundred New Mexico towns.
Except Ruidoso was in Lincoln County, the most violent part of that desolate state, where William McCarty or William H. Bonney or Billy the Kid, he would come to be known for the twenty-one men he’d reportedly slain, had seen ideal to make a home. Whether Billy, however, was from Ruidoso or else Carrizozo, another small town, was among Billy-experts a cause for debate. Lincoln was the certainty. In Ruidoso’s bleak downtown, with its Family Dollar and Tex-Mex cafe and insolvent state bank where drip coffee was served, Billy Sue’s father, Lester Dolan, owned the Six-Gun Museum devoted to Billy. While looking north to Carrizozo, in an equally bleak and insolvent downtown, was a second museum devoted to Billy, the William H. Bonney Historical Center and this one run by Wyatt Turnstall, a man that Sue’s father detested in full.
It had been, to both of their knowledge, an upset: something in the Lincoln War.
Dolan’s kinfolk had killed dozens of Turnstall’s. Or Turnstall’s kin had murdered Dolan’s. But where Dolan’s outfit was crisply maintained, with its wall-text displays and objects in vitrines, the other one (Turnstall’s) had fallen to ruin, more a curio house than a proper museum. Yet people driving through the state, punchy with scrub-brush and gas station soda, would skip over Dolan’s in favor of Turnstall’s.
It was the way of things those days.
Sue’s mother had died on the day Sue was born, a botch-up with the epidural. At the time of her death Billy Sue wasn’t named—her parents had not even known she was female—and so it had fallen on Lester, her father, to find out what she would be called. “Named a girl Billy. So sue me by God,” had been her father’s go-to line—at Labor Day picnics, her twelfth-birthday party, Planning and Zoning committees, Boll Weevil.
But only now at twenty-six, as she coasted her Chevy up 380 North behind eighteen-wheelers to get better mileage, the big-sky landscape going past in all of its lunar, incarnadined strangeness, did her father’s endearments return to her mind with a violent resentment that stunned her awake. She was chain-smoking red-boxed American Spirits, tossing the spent ones back into the glare. And though she’d been getting her master’s degree in Special Needs Ed at the Las Cruces campus, today she drove toward Carrizozo, where she was completing fieldwork toward her thesis.
One of her primary pupils was Curran, Wytatt Turnstall’s only son, a Fragile X-er twelve-years-old who didn’t mind listening to Billy Sue talking. In fact, she was going to meet Curran now for a session called in by the teacher, Mrs. Wirth.
“That boy is intent to lay waste to us all,” she had told Billy Sue on the phone just that morning. “Come and see,” said Mrs. Wirth, “if you can do that thing you do.”
When she got to the schoolhouse her stomach felt raw and Curran Turnstall had been locked in a classroom.
Mrs. Wirth rushed up to her. “He whimpers like he’s just been shot.”
“Did you happen to ask him why he was upset?”
“Why,” she said. “He needs a reason?”
As Billy Sue started to move toward the room, looming in the windowpane, the boy commenced a steady lunge that never brought him anywhere, as though he were after a carousel ring forever just outside his grasp.
And then he stiffened all at once. He stared at his feet and threw up in his lap.
He said: “Go home.” He said: “Home please.”
She said: “Curran, sweetheart, I am calling your daddy.” She held him to her for a time as it was their custom to do upon meeting, his drawn hollow face with the long nose and ears moving closer to hers as she patted his back.
“I want the green one.’
“Use your words.”
“I want the green and sweet one please.”
Sue pulled from her briefcase a shiny green apple and held it for him in a nest of Kleenex.
The first and only other time that Sue had dealt with Wyatt Turnstall, she’d been a girl of eight years old, day-tripping with Lester to see Carrizozo. Her father had spun it as daddy-and-daughter, Lester and Sue do the Land of Enchantment, but even then some part of her had known the mercenary truth. Lester had not even really pretended. The William H. Bonny Historical Center along the Main Street of the town with the famous daguerreotype portrait of Billy made into a sign that surmounted the door—leaning on a wall, slouch hat, Winchester rifle propped both barrels up—was the very first place they had stopped at that day, her father saying, “Lookee here,” and Billy Sue had known at once with a heave of despair in her eight-year-old stomach that the Sweetest Milkshake in the State was a lie.
Wyatt himself had conducted the tour. There were old wanted posters in secondhand frames, Billy’s saddle, Billy’s boots, a withered lock of Billy’s hair, the stuffed lunacy of a two-headed calf that had no recognizable link to the outlaw but that fit more or less with the place’s decor. Wyatt had been fine at first, taking them through the historical courses, but then at some point in the tour he had changed, his tone growing fevered, his logic more scattered. The gist of what he’d meant to say was more and more visibly murky to Sue, only that while he said it, it worried her faintly, like something she’d seen in a nightmare, recurring. His head was as long as his son’s was but thick, with clusters of muscle lumped under the cheeks and his teeth when he spoke were the teeth of a ghoul—yellow, raw-gummed and unevenly spaced. He, too, had Curran’s sagging ears but Wyatt wasn’t Fragile X; he was just a madman in a dingy tuxedo projecting his hot coffee breath in Sue’s face.
When they left the museum that day bound for home, she had heard Lester Dolan speak under his breath. “Competition, hell,” he’d said. “I wipe my ass with kooks like that.”
But the Wyatt Turnstall who pulled up at the school in the white Oldsmobile with the stuttering muffler was a modified beast from the man Sue remembered. Older by that eighteen years since Billy Sue had seen him last but soberer seeming and skinnier, too, and maybe in pain, how he came through the door, with his shoulder and elbow pressed into the crash-bar. He still was an imposing man and his head still resembled a lumpen batard though now it had a sight less hair, the top of it bare, with undignified wings.
Mrs. Wirth and Billy Sue were corralled around Curran Turnstall in the lobby. Wyatt came in saying, “Curran, come on,” but Curran didn’t come when called; he clung instead to Billy Sue. Standing tall and tired and hunched, wearing clinging tan pans and a rodeo shirt with vaguely patriotic eagles Wyatt said: “Curran, sweetheart. Now listen to me …” But he seemed to lose track of the rest of the sentence. “Sweet Lord above”—he clasped his hands and shook them at the popcorn ceiling—“make my dear and troubled son obey me this day of all days. Prithee, Lord!”
“Sue,” said Curran. “No, dad, Sue!” attempting to lose himself under Sue’s arm.
He marched into the midst of them and started to drag Curran back by the elbow.
“Hey, hey, hey,” said Mrs. Wirth as Curran moaned and stumbled toward him.
“Sweet Lord,” said the tall man, “surrender this child to his father’s benevolent influence, Lord!”
But Curran’s Velcros were dug into the carpet. He squealed while resisting his father’s forearm which Sue could see now had a few blurred tattoos; one that caught her eye was this: a cowboy in chaps crucified and on fire.
“I’ll come,” said Sue.
“To where?” said Wyatt.
“I’ll come with you out to the car,” answered Sue.
For the first time since Wyatt had walked through the door, he turned his eyes to look at Sue; they were blue as a baby’s and faintly red-rimmed as though something wild and ecstatic had seared them.
They’d scarcely arrived at the white Oldsmobile when Curran started up again, kicking out against Wyatt when Wyatt came toward him to get him strapped into the seat with the belt—there was only one functioning belt in the back and Curran couldn’t ride in front—and Sue had to get in there with him to calm him until Wyatt Turnstall had gunned up the engine. When Sue put her hand on the catch of the door, Curran kicked the driver’s seat, which sent his father hunching forward. “Lordy,” he said every time the seat jarred. “Lordy. Lordy. Lordy, Lord …” And when Wyatt suggested a ludicrous plan to roll the car slowly so Sue could jump out Sue had resigned herself not without interest to see them as far as the house where they lived.
“Such a day is this,” said Wyatt but before Sue could answer the junker lurched forward. They drove from the lot of the school toward the town. Mestiza along the highway roasting chiles, teen fishing the river ditch. Some biker dudes roared in a line into Allsup’s. Curran leaned happily into Sue’s hair.
“Sue, what?” Wyatt asked her.
“Beg pardon?” said Sue.
“Just asking what Curran here calls you at school.”
“They call me Miss Dolan.”
Wyatt put on the emergency break and opened the driver’s side door and jumped out, not to wrench Billy Sue from the car, as she’d thought, but to wheat-gluten paste something onto a post. They continued to drive toward the heart of the town, and Curran to nest in the fall of Sue’s hair, and every quarter-mile or so—too often, Sue thought, to be very effective—Wyatt would chop up the car’s parking break and adjourn to the building or bus-station kiosk or telephone post where he glued up a sign and Curran would watch him go loping away on his tan, stickman legs with the belt-fat on top.
One time when Wyatt got out of the car Billy Sue took a flyer from the top of the stack and folded it four-ways and tucked it from sight. Curran watched her quizzically. And when Wyatt got back in the car after that, the young boy would turn to her, bright with their secret, blaring his eyes at the place in Sue’s jeans where the little fluorescent green square was tucked up.
Of Curran’s mother, there were rumors.
Her name was Murietta Turnstall. She still lived with Wyatt and Curran, it went, in a mother-in-law out in back of the house but oftener wandered the streets of the town in a tattered nightdress with her hair in her face, rasping factual tidbits on Billy the Kid as though they had happened the place she now stood in.
“Here is where he shot McNab,” Murietta would say, loitering near the drugstore.
“Here is where he outgunned Garrett.”
“Here is where he kissed Paulita.”
“Here is where he took his gun and fired it above him, enraged at the fates. Some say that Orion,” the madwoman said, “is only Billy’s marksmanship.”
Sue had never seen her face but figured she was only cracked: a woman on the edge of things whose kin were exhausted of caring about her.
She had never come into the school, that was certain; it was only and ever just Wyatt who came but Sue had the feeling a motherly presence had combed Curran’s hair and arranged him a lunch and made sure he wasn’t wrapped up in a shirt he had dirtied with flecks of anxiety-vomit. Sue wondered if and then how much his father cleaned him up at all—his father, dark-eyed, skinny-fat, who could barely look after the teeth in his mouth.
When Wyatt had wheat-glutened most of the signs, they arrived by and by at the house where he lived—a modest adobe casita in green with solar panels on the roof and dried red chiles hung in rows across gutters tin-stamped with the face of the Virgin.
Curran clung to Billy Sue but when Wyatt got out of the car he ran off. Sue could see his chubby form moving into the shadows beyond the front-porch.
“I’m much obliged to you,” said Wyatt, “what all you done for me today but I would by lying I said I had time to drop you back off at your truck.”
Billy Sue told him: “Don’t worry. I’ll walk.”
“Got to get him settled in. Finish up with these flyers. Stop by the museum.”
Billy Sue nodded and hurried away.
“I’m sorry for you,” called the man in the yard. “Sorry you was raised by him. But that’s all right, how you turned out.” He gave pause a moment then shouted some more: “May the Good Lord reveal us his mysteries ere long!”
On her way back to town, Sue unfolded the flyer.
A hand-drawn depiction of Billy the Kid with his arms crossed in state on his chest, his eyes closed, his body contained by a shaded rectangle that Sue had pinned down as a coffin at first but that spread out behind him, the closer she looked, into something akin to the mouth of a cave. The stone that had formerly covered the hole was leaning to the left of it and the soon-to-be-risen cadaver of Billy beatific, almost, in the mouth of the cave. Below the bottom of the sketch there were three sets of numbers, each one with three parts. The first two were coordinates. The second was tomorrow’s date.
In a western-style font at the top of the page, as though branded there, were the following words:
COME YE FAITFHUL EACH AND ALL TO SEE GOD’S HIGHEST POWER DONE!! THE CHURCH OF THE SPIRIT OF BILLY THE KID SOLICITS YOUR CARE THAT THE DEAD MAY BE RAISED!!
DONATIONS ACCEPTED BY CASH AND BY CHECK IN CARE OF THE WILLIAM H. BONNEY MUSUEM!!
Out in front of the house there was Vargas as always, eyeing the cars that pulled into the drive. He sat on the porch-swing enjoying a Coke, heel of boot propped up on knee, the huge and ridiculous hat of a rancher obscuring his face from the end of the drive.
Vargas, who bought Billy Sue shots of Jager.
Vargas, with the pretty mouth.
Vargas, not even a true Mexican, a corn-fed boy with corn-blond hair who called himself Vargas for Narco street cred, like some Juarez assassin in crocodile boots
Just a few weeks before, Billy Sue had had bleeding, pain in her midsection, pain in her neck. The doctors were calling it tubal, ectopic. She had not been careful with condoms, she guessed. Vargas, still wearing his snap-shirt and boots, his Wrangler jeans around his ankles, twisting out from under Sue while shading his groin with the palm of his hand. Sue got wet but not that wet.
When Sue had admitted herself into County, stayed there the night and then checked out again, Vargas hadn’t even asked where she had been for thirty hours.
“How’s the sunset?”
“Fine,” said Vargas.
“How’s the secret service?”
He watched her a moment beneath the big hat. “Afternoon’s picking up from the place where I’m sitting. You want me to buy you a beer later on?”
“I don’t think so.”
She shook her head.
“So be that way.”
He tipped the hat at Billy Sue in a gesture of lewd and majestic dominion.
“I have to get with Lester quick.”
“You’re the only one stopping yourself,” Vargas said.
Sue’s father was making a sandwich mid-kitchen. He turned his face halfway to Sue. His head was debuting a new pair of glasses—rectangular, rimless, with black plastic arms. He steadied the sandwich with one of his hands while the other one circled the bread with the knife, and the crust came away in a single long strip that he flung over sideways and into the sink.
When the Six-Gun Museum had first started failing in the years after Billy Sue got out of high school, her father had been smart about it: bigger, sharper roadside sign, timeline mounted on the wall, boxy analog TV that showed a History Channel special. Ticket sales had not picked up and Lester had had to trim fat at the edges, only having the old documentary running when someone was walking around the museum. And then had the come the age of guidebooks, Lester poring over them, trying to see what it was about people that made them drive past where he was on the map. For a great many years, Sue could only assume, her father had thought either Wyatt was dead or that the place had long since closed but when he saw the kind review from the ironic soul who had authored the guidebook—the guide was called The Travelist and the pictures inside had a sepia cast and the author said things like “kitsch points” and “flaneuer”—the certainty gripped him that all of his losses were due painfully to another man’s gains.
Vargas, a louche unregenerate bachelor who solicited work with the odd migrant men that showed up at dawn in the Shell parking lot, had been someone to trust, in some way, going forward. He’d been working for Lester for most of a year. He was gallery guard at the Six-Gun Museum, purposeless bodyguard, plumber, companion; Sue could not say what he charged but the fee to retain him was coming from somewhere. In light of this fact and a host of unseen ones jumbled up with the stakes of the failing museum, Sue’s father was facing an IRS audit. His non-profit status was being revoked. The doorbell rang with process servers, FedEx jockeys, pizza guys, the terrified kid who walked Lester’s Great Dane at six in the morning and six every night, though Sue had to walk her herself in between lest she wreck up the place with her unwieldy feet. Instead of letting Vargas go and hiring a lawyer to clear the red tape, Sue’s father had doubled his salaried loafing to most every workday and into the weekend.
When Lester had lightly suggested to Sue she take the job in Carrizozo, she’d figured he might be attempting to help, what with her in a place with so many distractions. Yet when she first got there and saw Curran Turnstall Billy Sue knew she’d been played for a fool, but she kept going out there most weeks anyway, a wake of perverted resentment behind her.
That was the feeling en route there this morning that had whitened Sue knuckles and stunned her awake.
“Short bus running late tonight.”
“No one says that now,” said Sue.
“Aren’t I someone?” Lester said.
Billy Sue told him: “I brought this for you.”
She gave him the flyer, still creased from her pocket and he backed from her saying, “Whoa there,” his hands smeared. “Let’s give that another try.”
While he read the announcement she watched him with interest.
“Where did you find it?”
“A block from the school.”
Lester whistled. “Came himself?”
“This is the first time I’ve seen him in person.”
“And how did he strike you?” said Lester
“He see you?”
“Nah,” Sue said and shrugged. “He did he didn’t know my name.”
Lester watched her a moment still holding the flyer. And then gently he set it down. He drew out a knife from the base of the block and quartered the sandwich with two deft maneuvers. “Nightmare!” he called out. “Come on, Nightmare girl!” A snicker of claws, and a sloughing of weight, and a blasting of nose-breath and Nightmare came in, her father’s enormous and sable Great Dane, the unthinkable length of her lifting and setting, her handsome and satanic ears.
Sue said to her father: “Can I have some, please?”
“Of course you can darling.” He fed her a quarter.
The sandwich in concept was turkey-and-cheese but with manifold cheddar outweighing the turkey. It clotted like pot residue on her tongue—like the pot she and Vargas smoked out of a pipe intended to look like a lit cigarette before Sue could fuck herself into unfeeling in the low basement room where she studied and slept. When Sue woke up there weekend mornings, hungover in denim shorts, it sometimes would take her a minute or two to recognize the room as hers.
“You going to go out there and see what he’s up to?”
“Just might happen to,” said Lester.
“You going to take that cowboy with you?”
“Rather I should go alone?”
“You know that he’s waiting you out, don’t you, Dad.”
“Waiting me out in what sense?”
“By the hour.”
“Vargas is salaried.”
“Dad, you’re backpedaling.”
“Backpedaling shit, I’m telling you, girl. What, now?” He smiled at her. “He make a pass at you?”
Sue considered his face in the outlandish glasses. The Great Dane folded up her limbs. Her father knelt down with a piece of the sandwich and Nightmare consumed it in several quick bolts.
“What have you got against Vargas?” he said. “Vargas has been pretty good.”
“Just sick of looking at his face.”
“So that’s what I should say?” said Lester. “Sue here doesn’t like your face.”
“Sure,” said Sue.
Her father paused. “You are my daughter, after all.”
“He touched my ass,” said Billy Sue but Lester only looked at her. He was still kneeling over, cavorting with Nightmare, letting the dog at his mustard-stained fingers.
“Motherfucker,” said her father, in an almost genteel tone of voice, standing up. He was reading the flyer that Sue had brought for him, Wyatt Turnstall’s tent revival and seemed to read it several times before he tipped his head at Sue. “That history is more than a medicine show is the signature difference between him and me.” He picked up the flyer and folded it deftly. “History is happening now.”
They went to where they always went: the taqueria joint off 70.
Sue took her enchiladas Christmas, the green and the red sauce commingled on top. Vargas got the chimichangas. The grease from the bread would get up on his lip; that grease had been there since the day they released her. She’d pulled into her father’s drive with blood in her underwear, sore, bloated breasts and there had been Vargas, her father beside him, sipping pinion out of mugs, swapping lies. When Sue had gotten close enough for her father to see how exhausted she was, without standing up he had reached for his cup: “You need this more than I do, don’t you?”
But now it was Sue who was sitting with Vargas, high school sweethearts gone to seed. They drank slush margaritas in Styrofoam cups on the tiled concrete benches that looked on the road. They studied the traffic, the first bats of evening, the walls of the mesa beyond etched in pink. Vargas past a certain point, some pop of liquor in his blood, tried hooking an arm around Billy Sue’s legs to draw them up into his lap but she grappled with Vargas and got them away and put her hair behind her ears. He sipped at his Rita, leaned back on the bench.
“Your daddy has got himself tied in a pretzel.”
“His brand new glasses sure are nice.”
“He’s going to need them to see his way forward.”
“Enjoy it,” she told him. “He’s looking to fire you.”
“The Devil enthroned with a hard-on, he ain’t.”
“I’m thinking he might know,” said Sue.
He pointed from Sue to himself, back to Sue. “You mean?” he said.
“I’m not sure how, but only that a father knows. Anyway,” said Billy Sue, “we haven’t exactly been careful about it.”
Vargas considered the road for a time, nibbling the edge of his Styrofoam cup.
“I need this fucking job,” he said. “You know what I lived on before I met Lester?”
“Selling that ass in the Shell parking lot.”
“Work,” said Vargas. “Men do work.”
“What has he got planned for Wyatt?”
Vargas made a ritual of digging a smoke from his pack, lighting up.
“He’s going to go out there and teach him a lesson.”
“How do you play in?” said Sue.
“Just like I play on the average,” said Vargas. “Making him feel like he’s got bigger balls.”
“You’re not going to hurt him.”
“I never said that.”
“What the hell would be the point?”
“You get me something on Wyatt,” said Vargas, “and I might be willing to answer that question.”
“Something is a sadsack guy who takes in welfare for his son. There’s your something there,” Sue said.
“Sorry, girl. No deal,” said Vargas.
Sue moved down the bench, putting distance between them.
He pried off the top of his Styrofoam cup and held it tilted at his lips, using his straw with a trough at the end to shovel the last of the drink in his mouth.
The next day was Wednesday and Sue slept in late with neither class nor work to wake her. She’d been sleeping in later and later on Wednesdays, unable to open her eyes all the way, her basement room taking on soft, smeary focus, smears of laundry on the floor. To know the time, she gauged the light, the way it fell upon the walls. She’d tell the bedroom, “One more hour,” fall into her sweaty sheets. She often had pounding—a nascent hangover. One in her head and one more in her stomach. On the worst days she told herself that’s what it was—the aftereffects of fulfilling a need.
That afternoon, she drove to Wyatt’s, arriving in the wake of twilight, and the speeding by world was a phantasmal thing with the blood of the sun coming over the rocks. She was, in her essence, a creature of twilight, not leaving the house before then if she had to, steering her truck down the soft roads of night. When she got to the house she parked down on the street, a few blocks away from the gate to the yard.
Someone opened the door and the person was Wyatt. He tried to sidestep through the frame, obscuring whatever was back there behind him but Sue raised a hand at him, fluttered her wrist.
“Hi,” she said. “Can I come in?”
He lumbered backward from the door. Sue glimpsed an apron-shape carrying something, narrow flash of white and brown. The living room/dining room had a sectional couch to which Wyatt obliged her. When Billy Sue had settled in, she saw he was quietly, visibly drunk. He sunk a few inches too low on the couch and seemed to perceive an invisible music.
“I came here to warn you,” she told him outright. “Lester, my daddy, is gunning for you.”
He took a breath and hung his head. “Will these trials never end, I beseech of you Lord?”
“I’m telling you this because: Curran.” She paused. “I need you to be ready for him.”
“Ready for him,” said the madman. “Ready for him will or nil.”
Billy Sue realized a problem about him. He was not drunk like drunks are drunk but uncomfortably drunk and remorsefully, maybe, as though someone else had force-fed him the liquor.
“Battle of Lincoln,” he said suddenly. “Meakin Turnstall shot a man. This happened near the Ellis store. By that point they’d already raided McSween’s. Meakin, my father’s granddaddy,” said Wyatt, “put a shell in his father’s granddaddy, they say. Far north side. Beneath the eaves. Turnstall shot Dolan from off in the trees. Did for some Granny Smith apples behind him. Those Granny Smith apples, all pulped and blood-covered, when I think of your people, girl, that’s what I think of. Does he not know—your dad,” he said, “that William H. Bonney threw down on our side? “
“I’m not sure,” said Billy Sue. “But clearly that hasn’t discouraged his interests.”
“Each man walks his own strange path.”
He struck Billy Sue for a moment dead sober.
“When you go out there,” Sue said, “later. If you go out there at all, you go early. He means to be laying in wait when you get there.”
“Lord knows,” he said and laughed, but soft. “Lord knows what I will and won’t do when it comes. Let it cover me struggling in damnable weakness. The Lord only knows what we’ll do, it come time.”
Sue got back to Ruidoso just before Home Depot closed and she wandered the high orange, aisles with her cart. The store was largely empty then and the wheels of the cart made a dark burring drone. A pick, a shovel. Coil of rope. A garden trowel. Some planting stakes. Two plastic gallon jugs of water Sue happened to see in a case at the front. The nursery there was resplendent with twilight, shocking red pools of the stuff through the glass and the floor faintly damp from a hosing away of the soil chunks and leaves that the stock had offloaded.
“Let me guess: an office fern,” said an orange-aproned nursery worker behind her.
“Planter,” said Sue.
“For the home or the yard?”
Sue had a ready made answer: “The porch.”
“You’ll want something durable then,” said the man, beginning to lead her across the expanse. “Sun gets fierce here, you know that. Softens up then pulps the wood. What all were you looking to plant in it, darling?”
“Pardon me?” said Billy Sue.
The stack of planter types was lofty, cheap imitations of blood-wood and oak. Sue gazed to the top with her hand at her brow as though it would help her decide on which one.
“Zinnias,” said Billy Sue. “Actually, never mind, peonies, yeah.”
“Difference is a couple feet,” said the man in the apron, arraying the planters. “Zinnias are annuals while Peonies—“
“I know,” said Sue. “I said peonies, didn’t I?”
Out of all of the stories her father had told her about her namesake through the years, one story alone stuck in Billy Sue’s mind: Billy had been twenty-two. He had just been arrested for something or other—the Lincoln war was three years past—and he was serving out his time at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Lincoln, New Mexico, thirty miles from Ruidoso, though the way that her father had told it to Sue it might’ve been their own backyard. On the 28th of April, 1881, just after the outlaw had finished his dinner, he availed himself, somehow, of somebody’s pistol and started to blast his way out of the place. He killed the first guard with the pistol he’d stolen. It’s said that the bullet passed through him whole cloth, made a hole in the south-facing wall of the jail and you could peer through it, your eye to the darkness, looking for traces of Billy’s red dream. The second guard he did one better with a shotgun he’d stolen, they said, from the first. As for Billy himself he had fled from the jail but didn’t leave Lincoln till later that day, permitted instead to remain on the square, chatting with some guys he knew.
Instead of getting sleep that night, Sue took a stool at The Boot Spur and drank, and she sat, as she liked, at the joint of the bar, between the bathroom and the bottles. She didn’t read. She didn’t flirt. She didn’t even check her phone. She sat at the hardwood, her pint glass before her, a long-burning cigarette poised in her hand. The place began to trickle in: folks playing pool, punching codes to play records. She felt the milieu of it happening around her, a steady accretion of noise and behavior. She switched from drafts to that night’s special: tall boys of Tecate with a gold Sauza shot.
It was a fuck-it kind of drink and Sue said, “Fuuuuck it,” low and long.
By ten she had a proper buzz. Gangling dismounting and strides to the bathroom. There, she cranked the taps to hot while soaplessly she washed her hands.
She used a payphone and not hers to call Vargas, wanting the number to seem unfamiliar. Sure enough he picked up with a hitch in his voice, the snick of his lighter, the pop of his lips.
“You got something to tell me, Sue?”
“It’s not Wyatt Turnstall that you need to watch out for.”
“Fucking shit-faced, aren’t you? You think that I don’t have this number?”
She heard him dragging on his smoke. “Let me guess,” he said. “Your daddy.”
“Believe me,” she told him, “or fail to believe me.”
“What is he going to do, fire me?” said Vargas
“He’s a shitty ass carpenter, daddy,” said Sue, “but damned if he don’t clean up shop.”
When she finished the call, she went back to the bar and saw about another special. When her Spirits were gone she threw back the tequila and weaved through the benches, the groupings of bodies, to the hard-pack machine cozied up in the back. When the bastard contraption was out of her brand she started to batter it in with her foot, but the sound carried out to the man checking wallets who led her, his hand on her arm, to the door.
Sue woke up coughing, a hitch in her guts. She saw by her phone it was nine in the morning. Seeing the time wakefulness overtook her, a hollowed-out intensity, as though she were a fire-sale car that could push and not stop past the dregs of its engine.
The Six-Gun Museum had quartered its hours and Thursday through Monday was sure to be closed. Sue’s father worked in his home-office days, sorting through papers, emailing accountants. Later on he’d meet with Vargas so they could prepare for the passageway north but for now he was hunched at his swivel chair, noodling, and Sue passed him by as she went from the house. She backed her Chevy once again down the museum drive to the shed in the back and once again loaded the items inside it.
She cinched down a tarp and she started to drive.
Wyatt Turnstall’s battered flyer she tamped with the weight of the car’s GPS, following the neon roads, the voice of the woman who lived in the circuits. The coordinates beneath the sketch of Billy the Kid in his dark catacomb were taking her somewhere between the two towns. She didn’t drive unless she smoked, one yellow hard-pack giving way on the next. She sipped a Tecate mixed in with V8, a 6-pack of tallboys on ice in the back.
The place listed on Wyatt’s flyer was all but an alley of sun baked red clay beneath the shadow of a mesa, a few pinion trees at the base of the rock. The site had not been tinkered with or been set-dressed in any way, which agreed with the principle aim of the flyer, the act of faith that it implied. Sue heard cracker liturgies, saw flambeaus of headlights alive in the night. The high priest would rise on his dais of stone, intoning absurdly unto the assembled.
She drove her truck a quarter mile around the west edge of the mesa and parked it with its load intact in a place from the road that you couldn’t see coming. On foot, she ringed the mesa’s shade, drinking a tallboy, her hand to the stone. She could see the hair swaying in front of her face, her feet going here and now there in the dirt.
She saw the plume of desert dust before she even saw the car, the white Oldsmobile with the stuttering muffler making fast down the artery in from the highway. She made a spyglass of her hand and tried to see the driver’s face. The car parked, say, a hundred yards from where she stood beneath the rock and Wyatt got out while adjusting his pants, came around to the back door and leaned in a moment. Curran followed Wyatt out and the two of them walked through the desert to meet her, Curran holding Wyatt’s hand, loose-footed among the rocks.
“What’s he doing here?” said Sue.
“So I said to myself she is that kind of girl: who did wipe off the Savior’s bruised feet with her hair.”
“Did you come armed?” said Billy Sue but Wyatt did not answer her, just tried to make shade for his wobbling son beneath the cover of his arms.
“Sue,” said Curran. Once, again. “Sue come over, please,” he said. He peered up at her with his eyes squinted shut and then he ran into her arms. His small muscled body rebounded against her. He looked at her and then the ground and tottered back over to Wyatt again.
Her father and Vargas drove in off the highway two hours before the main event. Wyatt stood apart from her, a couple yards distant with Curran beside him. Her father and Vargas’ boots made a trail of diminutive dust clouds across the expanse; Vargas, absurdly, was wearing his spurs, deputation of eagles with sunburst tail-feathers. Her father’s new glasses were fumed with pale dust and he wiped off the dust from his blue-black lapels. Nightmare came on high and black like some otherworldly familiar between them, her mallet-shaped head shifting this way and that for superior predators, anything moving.
“Wyatt Turnstall,” said her father. “Guessing that you know my name?”
He turned and looked off at the sky, all the God-talk gone out of him, eerily sober. “This right here is my son Curran.”
“That’s my daughter over there.”
“She has a blessed soul,” said Wyatt. “Looking at her tells me so.”
“Mr. Dolan,” Vargas said, lightly touching Lester’s arm.
“And so we are met in these doldrums,” said Lester, as though unsure of what else to say and faintly awkward standing there before the man, the ruined child.
“Mr. Dolan,” Vargas said. “Shouldn’t we be getting on?”
“A couple hours from now,” said Lester, “your faithful are going to drive in off that highway. Tent religion, Mr. Turnstsall, is no kind of venue for sober discussion.”
“And what makes you think for a second,” said Wyatt, “that we’d go anywhere with you?”
“Because if you don’t I will shoot you,” said Lester. “Right here in this desert. In front of your son.”
Her father had already brandished the pistol, the deadly blunt nose of it pointing at Wyatt. Though he was trying hard to hide it Sue noticed his wrist, which was vibrating faintly. Smith & Wesson size nineteen; old-fashioned wheelgun with the wood-plated grip. She hadn’t seen Lester reveal it in earnest since she was pushing fifteen years when her father had used it to shoot down a crow that was pecking the museum sign into ribbons, the startling red and black splotch of it falling, garish confetti pitched down from the sky.
By Billy Sue’s odometer, they only drove a couple miles but the place that they stopped in was even more barren. A floating dimension of light and hardpan where their shadows lay dark and defined on the ground. There was nowhere to hide her truck, the lumpen shapes beneath the tarp and when Sue got out of her car to start walking toward Wyatt and Curran, parked some yards ahead, her father and Vargas were walking beside her, her father now casually holding the pistol, Vargas adjusting the asinine hat so the brim of it covered his face from the side.
“Missed you at the house,” said Lester.
“Figured we’d touch base out here.”
“It would’ve been nice to carpool,” said her father.
“What are you planning on, daddy?” said Sue. “What has he got that you don’t got already?”
“Pride,” her father said and quickened. “I am going to take it from him.”
“Meant to bury him,” said Wyatt, speaking to them through the car’s open window. “… bury him in sainted ground. I chose backaways, where it says on the flyer, because it was a special place. But this will do right fine, oh Lord. Though the flesh may be weak lo the ground is the same. I have him right here in my hand,” intoned Wyatt, beginning to rise from the car’s driver’s side.
Lester hurried toward him, stumbling, his pistol held out like a cop in a raid.
“Slow your roll there, Mr. Turnstall.”
As Billy Sue rounded the side of the car, she saw Wyatt Turnstall was cradling something. It was a kind of taper joint; it was air-sealed on top and the glass was a teardrop. Inside it rattled a portentous bone—femur, by the looks of it.
“Whose filthy ivories are those?”
“It is the bone that made him brave.”
“And when you have put it to rest,” said her father, “what miracle feat should we plan on not seeing?”
“The resurrection of his flesh.”
“You’re as bat-shit demented as everyone says.”
But all of this time, Billy Sue couldn’t peg him. He stood with one hand on the white Oldsmobile as though it provided him vital support and his teeth were the gruesomer here in the twilight, as dark as the teeth of medieval beggar—and yet as soon as he had spoken his bearing took on a remarkable poise.
“As soon as you don’t do whatever you’re planning—as soon as you decide to stop, he will hold all of you in his infinite mercy.”
“Why don’t you start digging for starters,” said Lester. “And then we’ll see what he can do.”
Wyatt and Vargas did most of the work. Vargas leading with the pick and Wyatt plunging with the shovel while Sue and her father and Curran stood on around the edges of the site. Nightmare paced outlandishly, man-eater arachnid from some gruesome fable. The ground was hard-going, a rough fingerbowl and then it was a crumbling bathtub, loose dirt raining down to the depths of the hole while brittle roots pushed through the sides. These they hacked away. They dug. They switched the handling of their tools. Wyatt’s picking was enormous; he came with the blade of it over his head while tensing his legs in a far-apart stance and followed through with all of him, a fantail of dirt spinning out of the hole.
Vargas dug a shovelful and he flung it behind him, still looking at Sue.
Because it was hot, Billy Sue cracked a beer.
Curran sat down at the lip so his legs dangled into the darkness beneath him. He watched the rough clockwork of sinew and steel and appeared to go into a slack-muscled trance, only shuddering slightly when Nightmare passed by him, sniffing the hair at the crown of his head. Once in a while he would mutter obliquely—something from his private realm: “Dark, dark hole,” or “Dirty dirt.”
“Daddy, daddy, up and down.”
When night was falling on the land the men were in below their heads.
“Think that’s deep enough?” said Lester.
Lester had electric lamps that he was arranging along the hole’s borders while Vargas got a boot-heel up, clinging to a couple roots and with a feline charge-and-leap he was barreling up to the surface again. Wyatt Turnstall in the hole was wiping his brow on the front of his shirt and when he had done that he reached in his pocket and took out the taper joint, turning it, watching.
Sue threw her empty in the pit and it rolled soundlessly to the bottom near Wyatt.
He said: “What the hell are we doing here, Lester?”
An aura of distant and unfocused light passed over the edge of the hole and passed on. Everyone there except Curran gazed after, even the dog, her ears pitched in the dark. A few moments more and a further succession, scores of dim and drifting lights, which Sue realized was the car caravan en route to Wyatt Turnstall’s service—to the former locale, a couple miles east, that they had driven from to here.
“Your loyal disciples arriveth,” said Lester.
“It is not me they serve,” said Wyatt.
“That piece of foam you’ve got in there?”
“His pivoting bone—where his legs joined his hips. Where his legs join his hips even now,” Wyatt said. “What you bury in vengeance and envy,” he cried, “comes back on you a thousandfold—“
Lester Dolan plunged his arms and shoveled dirt in Wyatt’s face.
But he spoke through it anyway, dirt dribbling out of his mouth and his hair, dirt making his voice a corroded, rough growl as Lester dug another load.
“—shall come for you, mighty, his pistols on fire and shall come for you, hale, with his reflexes—“
“Throw that bad boy up,” said Lester, gesturing at Wyatt’s pick.
But Wyatt half-covered in crumbling dirt like some tumbleweed golem just stood there and watched him. “Have to ask you twice?” said Lester. He put down the shovel and took up the pistol, ratcheting the hammer back, but then his face went flat and pale.
The hammer-click echoed, recurring behind him.
“It’s what you think it is,” said Vargas, holding his own gun against Lester’s skull.
“You po country son of a bitch,” Lester said. “What in the hell did that mad bastard tell you?”
“Nothing I couldn’t see plain for myself.”
Lester shifted, balked a moment. Vargas prodded him lightly just under the brainstem. He dropped the pistol. Nightmare barked.
“Throw that dog a fucking stick and when you do it say: Go long.”
“Nightmare,” said Lester. “You stay, Nightmare, girl.”
Nightmare flattened her ears to her skull and whined softly.
“Mr. Turnstall,” Vargas said, “from the place where I’m standing this doesn’t concern you but I’m still going to ask you to throw up that pick.”
“As you wish it,” Wyatt said.
He heaved the pick underhand up from the hole and it dropped in the dirt next to Lester, who flinched.
“I’m not sure that I can elicit in words the colossal fuckup you are making,” he said. “This is wide open county. Just open your eyes. You see somewhere to hide behind?”
Vargas carefully kicked Lester’s pistol behind him.
It slid through the dust and fetched up at Sue’s feet with improbable neatness, and Sue picked it up. She checked the six chambers and reckoned them full before tucking the gun in the back of her pants and watching her father and Vargas debate at the edge of the pit with the dirty man in it she started to piece her way backward again in the scrim of lamplight to the rear of her truck.
Curran had started to rock back and forth in incipient trauma, lips mumbling something.
The lights from the highway were still coming on, speeding past where they stood there five hundred yards out from the line of petitioners come to see Wyatt but fewer, Sue realized, with each passing minute. She imagined them parking their cars in the dark and milling around in the crossed streams of headlights, peering out against the night for moving shadows, signs of life.
“Get down in that hole with your buddy boy there,” Vargas was telling her father, gun jerking.
It was a snub-nosed .45, a sleeker, newer mold of weapon, and Sue thought that Vargas could shoot faster with it if things came to that at the edge of the pit.
“This isn’t about you and me,” Lester said. “Haven’t I paid you sustainable wages?”
“You were going to sell me out,” Sue could hear Vargas explaining to Lester but Sue had arrived at her car and climbed in, and when she started up the truck the roar was all that Sue could hear.
The pit with the lights and the men ringed around with the dog hunkered down on the opposite side was framed in the window of Sue’s idling truck like a sad diorama of mortals and beasts and putting the truck into sudden reverse she started to back toward the lot of them, hard. The diorama rushed up fast, Lester turning around in the glare of the taillights while Vargas was too busy wielding the gun to conceive of the object now hurdling toward him. Sue calculated a few meters right of where Curran sat at the edge of the hole to brake the truck with force enough that it hit Vargas square in the meat of the back, sending him forward in groping alarm into Lester half-turned but not out of the way and the lot of them went tumbling in after Wyatt, their arms and legs churning in wild indistinctness like some hoary and many-limbed carnival thing born out of the darkness beyond Lester’s lamps, a sheet of dirt arcing the top of the hole and pebbling down on their grumbling bodies. Billy Sue saw herself shut off the engine, put the parking break on and step down from the truck, the drunkenness swiftly and sharply gone from her as she stood next to Curran and peered in the hole. Vargas had been knocked unconscious. Wyatt and Lester were splayed on their backs, coughing up desert dust, blinking their eyes.
She motioned at them with her father’s six-shooter. “Somewhere down in that hole is a pistol,” she said. “Humor me and toss it up.”
“You stay right here. You stay,” said Sue.
“Noooo,” moaned Curran. “Back Sue, please.”
But Sue locked him into the cab of her truck.
He clawed against the windowpane, his long face distorted, his eyes wide with fright. She turned herself away from him and walked toward the edge of the hole with men in it but at the last moment she turned back around and walked to the window again, Curran’s face. The young boy was crying, his cheeks smeared with dirt. Sue wrote in the dust that had formed on the glass, “I’ll be right back” and left him there. She glanced back just once as she moved from the car to see him looking after her, tracing her words on his side of the window.
She ripped off the tarp, and unlevered the tailgate, and started to unpack the truck. The Home Depot planter was catafalque-sized and then for a man who was double Sue’s height, and Sue dragged it down off of the tailgate both-handed, a few pulpy bits chunking off of the rim. She didn’t look inside the hole while dragging the top of the planter to cap it. The only solid evidence that there were men in it at all was the voice of Sue’s father appealing to her, as changeable as desert weather.
“You killed your own mother and now you’ll kill me.”
Or: “How did I raise such a weapons-grade cunt?”
Or: “That four-legged bitch at the edge of the hole is more of a daughter to me than you are,” and Sue was hammering the stakes to hold the planter in the ground, the big heavy base of it filling the hole where it shortened the ceiling by nearly four feet, and then she took the coil of rope and paid it out around the stakes, lashing them on all four sides so that no one below could displace the arrangement, and when she stepped back from the tomb she had made to reward her hard work with another Tecate her father spoke up again, ragged and pleading, insisting that Vargas was mortally injured, she had shattered his back with the rear of her truck and though Lester could understand why Sue might want to see him suffer (he had never, he said, “been a storybook dad,” he had never “got” Sue, taken real pains to “know” her) he did not think that she could want to murder three men when she’d meant to kill one and she could still stop it, still save her own life, still pull up the stakes and un-stopper the hole.
She leaned against the living grave that she’d made for the father, the madman, the lover and relaxing her eyes she drank two more Tecates, the beers in her one hand, the gun in her other.
Billy Sue pictured them down in the hole. They would have to be squatting in close side by side for the meager allotment of floor space and ceiling, their necks craning up toward the slats in the wood where cool desert air would be filtering through. How long they could survive in there with no kind of water and limited air was something that Sue was serenely debating when Lester Dolan spoke her name.
“Billy Sue,” said her father—not Sue, but her name, which Sue realized he’d not called her in years. “Billy Sue, Billy Sue, what did we do to you?”
And she thought for a moment to tell them the truth: that they were too late and that that was the point. That the question itself had come too late to mean a thing to Billy Sue, she was already over it, already past it, already planning her subsequent moves.
And so she drank her last tallboy as the taillights of Wyatt’s assembled moved out, driving their cars down the same stretch of road but now in the other direction, toward town. She imagined them baffled and hunched at the wheel, the rapturous news of their prophet turned doubtful. Billy the Kid in his moldering chaps with the fate of mankind in his worm-eaten eyes would be holding his ground in the cars’ rearview mirrors. He would watch that leave-taking with none of the shrewdness for which he was famous throughout his brief life, but rather faintest melancholy, as of something from boyhood more sensed than recalled and with it the promise of life everlasting, that there lived a man who could make him divine.
Sue woke to the scrabbling and scratching of Nightmare upon the bottom of the planter. The dog had crept into the concavity and was raking its claws there while smelling the wood. Sue’s eyes were thick with the muck of drunk-sleep and she saw by the light it was well after dawn.
She had meant nothing more than to teach them a lesson.
She had not meant to go to sleep, to over-share her darkness with them.
She had meant in a couple of hours to unearth them, but here she had left them to gulp after air.
When Nightmare whined softly she pictured them corpses, moldy blue beneath the eyes.
She jumped in the planter and rapped with the gun upon the topside of the wood and shouted hoarsely: “Still alive? Still alive! Still alive! Still alive!” she repeated, no longer a question so much as a wish or the dawning awareness that she herself was.
“Okay, more or less,” she heard Vargas say weakly. “But we’re going to need water and lots of it, quick.”
She heard the voice of Wyatt Turnstall. In a strange and absurd baritone, he was singing: “… that saaaaved a wretch like me …”
“Quit your yowling,” Vargas said.
And then Sue heard her father’s voice. “Uncle,” he yelled from the depths of the hole. “Anything to shut him up.”
Grabbing the jugs from the pickup’s back-wall Sue almost didn’t notice Curran, who was slumped in the seat with a freeze-dried expression, his breath suffocated some time in the night.
Adrian Van Young is the author of the books The Man Who Noticed Everything and Shadows in Summerland, as well as Vampire Pool Party, a book for children. His fiction and nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Conjunctions, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, VICE, Slate, The Believer, and The New Yorker, among others. He lives in New Orleans with his wife Darcy and son Sebastian. Read more at adrianvanyoung.com.