"I did not mean that at all," he says. "I'm too accurate with it to stick myself."
"Right glad you are so confident," Joshua says, arching his sandy brown eyebrows. He squints at the sun, which is swinging from east to southeast over the far blue ranges of Sonora. "Your uncle's favorite refreshment needs replenishment. Seeing as how you have got so much free time, take a ride over to Esteban's for me."
Esteban's is a cantina in Santa Cruz, a small pueblo some six or seven miles over the border. In Joshua's estimation, the tequila sold there is superior to the brands peddled in Lochiel's saloonsraw smuggled hooch suitable for the uneducated palates of cowboys and miners, but not for a discriminating man such as himself.
"I'll saddle Maggie right away," Ben replies. Any chance to ride his pinto mare is welcome.
He collects the money from his uncle and starts toward the livery stables. Joshua watches him walk away, the shirt billowing as if it were hanging from a coat hanger, empty of flesh and bone. He's grown close to Ben in the past year, closer than he wanted to, and tries not to think about the boy's departure. He'd become accustomed to loneliness. When Ben came to live with him, nine years had passed since he buried Gabriela and the infant son who'd died with her, strangled by the umbilical cord, hanged by the organ that had sustained him in the womb.
That was in Nogales, where Joshua had been serving as post-master. After the funeral he returned home and opened the door, and the silence inside seemed to lunge at him as if alive. He walked out, abandoning everything he and Gabriela had owned, and never went back. No, the silence in this house will not be half so dreadful when Ben leaves for Tucson, but it will take some getting used to.
Hattie had written him last summer: "There's nothing we can do with him, and this is the last straw." For some petty slight, Ben had declared that he was going to whip his stepfather, who greeted the threat with a laugh. So she said, and Joshua had no reason to doubt his sister. Rudy Hollister was good-natured and was besides six feet two inches tall, with the arms and shoulders of the section hand he'd been before the railroad promoted him to supervisor. When Ben rushed him, he placed a hand on the boy's forehead and allowed him to flail the air until he could no longer keep his arms up. As reported by Hattie, Hollister said, "Don't look like you're ready to lick me just yet," and that should have been the end of it. But the humiliation had been too much for Ben. He seized a poker from the fireplace and threw it at his stepfather"like a red Indian would throw a lance."
Ben's missile struck wide of its mark, but it raised Rudy's ire. "Tanned his hide but good," Hattie's letter went on. "First and only time Rudy laid a hand on either one of the boys. The only reason I can figure Ben hates him like he does is for not being his father, like he thinks Tom's death was Rudy's fault."
That did not surprise the Justice. Ben had worshiped his father, though he was often away from home, as a U.S. Customs officer patrolling the border, then as a territorial ranger, chasing outlaws and rustlers. Maybe Ben worshiped him because he was gone so much. The irony was that Tom Erskine, who'd survived gunfire from Mexican smugglers and white desperadoes, died as the result of a kick from a rank horse. Ruptured his liver.
Six months later Hattie married Rudy and moved to Tucson. Said she needed a man in the house to help her raise two rambunctious boys. Still, her swift remarriage caused a scandal in Lochiel. Might have had the decency to at least wait a year, the town gossips whispered. The rumor was that good-looking, fun-loving Hattie needed a man for other purposes. There was something, well, carnal about her; during Tom's absences, a hunger plain to every man in town would come into her eyes. She often went on solitary ridesthe woman could ride like an Apache bravespurring her horse into reckless gallops to blow off sexual steam.
Excerpted from Crossers by Philip Caputo Copyright © 2009 by Philip Caputo. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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