Having described "the last straw," she listed Ben's previous offenses. Got into a gang fight and knocked a Mexican kid cold with a chunk of railroad spike hurled from his slingshot, and then, fearing he'd killed the kid, saddled his horse and fled into the mountains for three days, worrying her sick. With her case built (and pretty skillfully, thought the man of the law), she came to the point: would Joshua take Ben in for the next year? A big thing to ask of him, but she was at her wit's end, and Ben looked up to his uncle, the former cavalryman who had fought Geronimo.
Joshua smiled at the flattery. It wasn't as if he and Geronimo had met in a single combat. He had been in only a couple of brief skirmishes during the final campaign against the Apaches in '86. His memories consisted mostly of heat, dust, and burning eyes on endless, monotonous rides, pursuing a phantom across the desert and through the Dragoons and the Chiricahuas, until, with his people starved and exhausted, the phantom called it quits in a place called Skeleton Canyon. No, it wasn't flattery that convinced him to agree to Hattie's request. Rudy Hollister was only half of Ben's argument; the other half, he suspected, was Hattie herself. No great shakes as a mother, Joshua had reluctantly concluded. When Ben and Jeff were toddlers, she often left them alone in the house for hours, strapping them into high chairs so they wouldn't get into mischief while she visited with her friends or went shopping or took one of her rides. In matters of discipline she was inconsistent, indulgent one day, and the next . . . Well, there was that time when Ben was eight and engaged in some sort of obstreperous behavior. Hattie punished him by forcing him to walk barefoot over a trail cobbled with shale and junk rock chipped like half-finished spear points. He stubbed his toes, his feet bled, and he cried to her to pick him up, but she continued the torture until, in her reckoning, he'd learned his lesson.
Joshua figured he could do better, and the past year has proved him right. Not a lick of trouble, unless you count the time the schoolteacher caught Ben putting on a show with his unusual knife at recess. She wouldn't allow Ben to bring it to school from then on, and reprimanded Joshua for allowing his nephew to keep such an immoral objectand him the justice of the peace!
Ben is wearing the knife when he rides out of Lochiel, crossing into Mexico as easily as one might cross a street in Tucson or Phoenix. There is no barbed wire to impede him, no signpost except for a tall stone boundary marker to tell him that he is leaving the Arizona Territory. He's made this trip before but feels a small buzz nonethelessit's an adventure for a thirteen-year-old to ride alone into another country on a fine horse like Maggie, small, lithe, and fast, a possession he prizes more than the knife hanging from his belt in a plain leather sheath.
He holds her to a lively walk, though he's tempted to strike a lope to cool his face. A tropical humidity burdens the air, for it is the monsoon season on the vast Sonoran Desert, the time of year that stockmen anticipate with hope and fear: if the rains succeed, their herds will prosper and so will they; if the rains fail, as they did in the nineties, the grass will wither, the calves birthed in spring will grow weak and fall prey to coyotes and cougars, and the cows gathered in the fall will go to market underweight. The owners of big spreads will survive; the small operators will be droughted out.
The rains have been abundant this year. The grasslands have gone from pale yellow to bright green, "green as Ireland," Ben heard an immigrant miner say. Fat cattle graze everywhere, and golden poppies speckle the roadside. Far to the southeast a compact storm sweeps the horizon, a moving black island in the sea of sky, the rain an opaque curtain hung from cloud to earth. To the southwest, more clouds, towering over the San Antonios, spread out in a black anvil that sparks lightning.
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