Jul 17, 2011
The rhythmic clittety-clack of the train has a tranquilising effect – hypnotic - especially when rolling through the desert, heading for Los Alamos and the heat is so thick that you can stick a pin in it. It gets so it almost speaks to you. It tells, if you listen, stories of the desert rolling by outside the windows, of the Chinamen who came and died here to work for the railroad company and of the giant Negroes from out east, their skin so dark it would shine in the sunlight, who lifted the rails, in teams, into place and then their hammers would fall, in perfect rhythm to their work songs, planting the spikes.
That's the way it is or, at least, the way it was on that day. My mother was on the bench beside me and, as usual, her hair was tied up and pinned under one of those little hats that didn't do much against the sun. She had her Bible and was whispering, low, almost to the tune of the train. She was wearing her best, black travelling dress because, in Las Alamos, she was going to meet my new dad. I looked down at the wood planking of the carriage floor and noticed that her boots, kept firmly placed side by side, and the hem of her dress were covered in dust. She was gonna have a fit when she noticed that.
My real dad died. Ma took over the ranch and kept going after telling me, 'You're gonna have to be the man of the house for a while, Jamieson', and I did my best even though I was only 7 and it meant I didn't go to school no more.
I didn't have much fancy clothes to wear but Ma had done her best with me. She put me in a white shirt with a tan vest that reminded me of desert sand, some canvas trousers and boots that weren't too scuffed up. I wore a straw hat to keep my head from burnin' up.
The stranger sitting on the bench across from us was a complete mystery because, in the two hours we had been riding on the train, I never saw his face, just the front of a newspaper that came all the way from San Diego. His hands were tanned dark and had long, lean fingers with clean nails and he wore silver rings with all kinds of turquoise insets. I wondered if he was an Indian or a Mexican but he seemed too tall for that. His hat or, better, what I could see of it, was black like his suit, and not of the usual kind where the brim turns up on the sides but it just went flat all around. His coat was long and trailed off the seat a little and he kept it around him like he didn't feel the heat or nothing. Maybe, I thought again, he was a lawman come from up north looking for bandits. My mind thrilled with the possibilities.
I guessed that not many people travelled to Los Alamos in those days 'cause there were'nt many folks in the carriage. Most of who there were was sleeping. When the conductor came on, a little grey man with a striped shirt and arm bands what seemed like he never seen the sun, he did a little, rolling dance up the aisle with the roll of the train, checking tickets and telling people how long to the next stop. When he arrived to us, I was in luck, the man in the black suit folded his newspaper and placed it on the bench beside him. He stretched and removed his ticket from the inside pocket of his coat. When he did, his long coat fell open and I saw the butt of his revolver holstered to his hip.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life, at least, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my nine years of life and, years on and grown an old man, I've seen many things and some of them more beautiful. Still, at the time, I couldn't have imagined anything more beautiful.
It was silver and as shiny as a new nickel – so shiny that it reflected movement and light around. The handle was inlaid with some kind of design that I couldn't understand 'cause I couldn't see it too good and it was all in mother-of-pearl or something like that. I gawked.
The conductor checked our tickets, offered up by my mother who, then, replaced them in the apron of her dress. The stranger received his without a word and hid them back inside his coat. The conductor moved off and the stranger moved to retrieve his newspaper. At that point, I couldn't help myself.
“Yours sure is a handsome gun, Mister,” I shouted.
My mother blanched and slapped closed her Bible. The stranger stared at me and let the folded newspaper slip into his lap.
“Jamieson Stevens!” She was indignant. “You apologise right now for disturbing that man. I am so sorry, sir,” she said, turning to the stranger, “I do so apologise for my son's poor behaviour. I done brought him up to know better.”
The stranger nodded to my mother and lifted his hat, setting it on his knee. His long, grey hair was tied back in a tail with a leather lace.
“T'ain't nuthin', Ma'am,” he said, “boy's just curious, ain't you, son?”
I wasn't sure if I was regretting saying anything at all because I was suddenly very afraid of this man. If there was ever a voice that came out of the desert, it was his. It was as low and whispered as a hot wind and dusty of the kind that settles in your eyes and throat causing your teeth to grate together. His face was as dark as old leather and seamed and creased like the desert canyons had started in his face, growing outward. His eyes, when they turned on me, were so pale – bleached by the sun – and still, hardly blinking, that they seemed to look through you, knowing what was in your heart. I sat back against the bench, unsure what to do.
I nodded. That was my only response.
The stranger continued to study me. Then, with an exaggerated movement of his arm because of the length of the barrel, he drew the gun, spun the barrel, collecting the shells as they fell in his creased palm, and passed the gun to me. I looked at my mother.
“I do so insist, sir, that it ain't necessary to indulge his behaviour,” but she, too, gazed, surprised, at the shining revolver.
“It can't do no harm,” said the stranger and deposited the shells into the pocket of his vest where the chain of a pocket watch emerged. My hands extended and, when he released, fell into my lap under the weight of it, with my fingers curled around the butt and barrel, hardly knowing what to do.
“Where did you get it?” My question was an escaped whisper. The stranger was staring from the window of the carriage. Some mesas slowly distanced from view.
“It ain't mine,” he stated, neither turning nor his lips scarce moving.
“I took it from a man who tried to kill me.”
My mother's hand went to cover her mouth.
“Did... did you kill him?”
The stranger returned, his eyes focusing and he slowly replaced his hat. He leaned toward me and gently lifted the weight of the revolver from my palms.
“Sometimes,” he said, “the worst thing that you can do to a man is let him live knowing that he done wrong. It will eat at him until all he wants is death but, it don't come until God says it's time.”
After that, he said no more. I huddled beside my mother. The conversation with the black-suited stranger was over. He replaced the shells and holstered the revolver, hiding it with the tail of his coat and, with a nod to my mother, retreated behind his newspaper. When we arrived at Los Alamos, he neither moved nor acknowledged us as the porter arrived to collect our trunks and cases.
It was years later that I understood what he meant. It took only one glance into the eyes of a man who held a terrible secret – my own.