The house key on its leather thong had nearly worn through the corner of the mailing envelope in which it had arrived. The gate latch was a loose affair operated by another thong, of a piece with the first, running through a circular hole in one of the upright planks that made the wooden gate. I drew back on the latch and pulled the gate toward me, crossed the patio behind the adobe wall, and fitted the key to the lock. The door opened smoothly inward and I entered the house with the north wind at my back, pushing hard against the door to press it shut. “We made it,” I said aloud.
The house looked the same as when I had last visited it in September except for the framed bullfight posters on the west wall of the big room. I crossed the tile floor to the kitchen, lifted the telephone from its recessed shelf, and dialed Jim Catron in Contreras.
“I made it,” I said when he picked up.
“Welcome to New Mexico. Can you get over here in 30 minutes?”
“Come tomorrow night then. Lyle is making chicken enchiladas with green chile. It’s traditional with the Catrons.”
“I need to unpack.”
“You can’t spend New Year’s Eve alone “
“Yes I can.”
The western sky was electric blue streaked with flaming pink and orange clouds above the violet outline of the San Mateo Mountains and the black berg called Ladrone Peak. In the 36 hours and 768 miles coming down from Wyoming three feet of snow had melted or evaporated from the bed of the pickup truck, leaving the spare tire resting once more on the steel floor. I took the parrots in their travel cages from the cab, carried them indoors, and put them in the guest bedroom away from the cat who presently descended from the loft, waving her tail graciously, to welcome me. When I had brought in the suitcases and the book boxes wrapped in plastic trash bags I built a fire in the wood stove, put the cat out, and fixed a drink. Outside the sunset colors faded, blending with the scent of cedar smoke from the hearth. It was warm enough still to sit out on the portal for a single drink.
I carried the glass outside and sat against the wall of the house facing the eastern mountains turning rose-colored beneath the pine-forested peaks where the shining snow lingered from the last storm. While I sat drinking with my feet on the low wall of the portal a covey of quail emerged from the grama grass to drink from the pond and scratch in the surrounding dirt while the sentinel bird watched from a wooden bench. The summer before Jim Rauen, having a highball on the portal, saw a turtle break from the desert bushes, paddle rapidly across the bare ground, and dive into the water among the lily pads on the far side of the pond. Ignoring the schools of panicked minnows, the turtle surfaced the next morning and demanded food, acceptable in the form of hamburger meat rolled into pellets and fed to him by hand at the water’s edge. Now he slept in the mud at the bottom of the pond, slowly processing hamburger and working up a prodigious appetite to emerge with him in the spring. I finished the drink and went indoors, fixed a fresh one, and drank it while the water boiled for beans and rice. I ate them with chipotle sauce and a glass of red wine. Then I let the cat back in and went to bed, leaving the dishes in the sink and the fire to burn itself out with the penultimate day of the year. Before retiring I took from one of the suitcases the old Confederate pistol I had brought with me from the north and placed it on the table beside the bed. Following Second Manassas, the verification by an officer on McClellan’s staff who had attended West Point with R.H. Chilton, an adjutant general to Robert E. Lee, of Chilton’s handwriting on a critical battle order allowed the Union commander to move against Lee, on his way to attack Harper’s Ferry, at South Mountain. Surrounded in the darkness by roosting birds in a silent house that was not my house but was home anyway, I fell asleep. My body is not my house, either.
All things draw to water on the desert. Boiling coffee next morning I saw through the window a redtailed hawk standing in water above his leggings, watching the house with a round yellow eye that never blinked. He stayed for more than an hour, and left without my seeing him go. After his departure the quail reappeared at a run across the gravel toward the pond, wobbly and ridiculous, as if their flightedness were lost in absence of mind. Individuals survive for a year and a half or two years, barely long enough to grow to maturity, hatch a brood, and raise it. In the middle of winter when the pond freezes over they skate on the ice, sliding and falling on their beaks, not thinking to spread their wings. Their globular bodies supported by twiggy legs, each one of the overlapping gray, white, and brown feathers placed precisely within the overall pattern, look perfectly made above their perfect reflections in the still water. I let the parrots out to play and fed them, then took a walk along the Santa Fe track crossing the east mesa from the railroad yard at Belen to Blue Springs Canyon in the eastern mountains.
Walking on the crossties between the rails I watched the signal light turn green ahead and listened for the locomotive blowing at the Burris ranch crossing beyond the long cut. Each began as a liquid glow beyond the perspective point, refined itself into three lights arranged triangularly, and acquired a train behind it as the engine approached. The blunt red nose with its yellow emblem emerged from the diesel hum and the whine of the transmission, and then the four locomotive units went by in a blast of bittersweet exhaust. The rails flexed, falling and rising beneath a mile of passing freight cars, and when the train was gone the emptiness on the desert felt as complete as before the Spanish made their way north from Old Mexico, up the Rio Grande trench to the settlement at Santa Fe; following the river backward toward its origins in the Sangre de Christo mountains at the beginning of time, traveling in reverse direction to the Zuni in their muddy pueblos whose baked roofs Coronado’s scouts mistook for gold, and behind them the Anasazi, doomed by an accommodation to their high desert home that was too much aesthetic, too little ecological. The Sandia, Manzano, and Pino mountains, the San Matcos and the Magdalenas, Ladrone Peak and the volcanic necks west of Albuquerque: these great natural landmarks remain unchanged, to human sight at least, four centuries after the Spanish caravans first traversed the Camino Real and Apache braves raided and killed along the Jornado del Muerte, and 134 years exactly after Brigadier General George H. Sibley led a Confederate force north from El Paso to ambush and defeat by a volunteer army of trappers and miners at Glorieta Pass north of Albuquerque, then back to El Paso again, taking a detour west around the San Mateo mountains. As Sibley and his men retreated south they were flanked by Union forces across the river, who skirmished with them outside the hamlet of Los Lunas. Fifty miles farther south at Contreras, Jim Catron recently unearthed the metal frame of an 1858 Remington .44 caliber revolver while reclaiming his land from the salt cedar breaks growing up from the river bottom. Catron guessed from the empty cylinder, annealed by rust to the frame, that the weapon had been thrown away in desperation by its Union possessor, or that it had fallen to the ground when he was shot. One hundred and thirty-four years later the War for Southern Independence persists, in other forms and guises and with effects utterly different from those that Grant or Lee could possibly have envisioned at Appomattox Courthouse.
I faced about and saw that the brown pall over Albuquerque had been swept away by gray storm clouds supported by an anvil base cutting against the blue sky. Sliding south the cloud built steadily back from the mountains, overshadowing the valley and obscuring it with veils of dust. Dust blew into my eyes and nose and tumbleweeds scraped under the barbed wire fencing and rolled across the railroad grade. The wind whistled in the electrical wires beside the track and one of the Air Force’s old transport planes roared overhead, attempting to return to base in Albuquerque. I drew my hat brim over mv face and pushed into the funnel of yellow dust along the service road, past yuccas vibrating-like clumps of whirring green knives. At Tierra Grande the screening express tress bent above the tiled roofs of the houses. Inch-high waxes swept the surface of the pond and wind rattled the swamp cooler on the roof and banged the skylight as I went from room to room in the house switching on lights. The lights flickered several times, browned, and went out for good, and I brought candles from the cupboard and sat in the kitchen reading a book beside an iron candelabrum while outside the dust clouds darkened through shades of gray and purple to black. They settled when the wind dropped and died, and a clear afterlight appeared in the sky above the mountains as if the clouds had blotted the night and carried it with them to earth. I washed up by candlelight and went to bed with the birds, leaving the old year to expire and the new one to be born in silence and the dark.
Deep in the night I awoke and lay in darkness listening for the sound that had wakened me. I was nearly asleep again when I heard it: sharp, lonely, and defiant, unmistakable. Quietly I slipped from the bed, climbed the wooden staircase to the loft, and looked down through an east window on the pond. Its surface was still and silver in the moonlight, eclipsing the pale sand between the clumps of sagebrush and grass. As I looked the sound came a third time, undisguised and very close, drawing my eyes to the right-angled figure terminating in the pointed upraised muzzle. The lever-action varmint rifle stood propped behind me against the loft rail. Gently raising the window I felt the desert cold on my face and the warm interior air on the back of my neck as it slipped past me into the night. He was a big coyote, edged by moonlight in the ends of his long winter coat as he shifted his weight on his haunches and howled again, the free voice of the wild and the wild voice of the free, past and present, forever and ever. I watched him until mv face was stiff with the cold and all the warmth of the house seemed to have flowed away and dispersed itself in the night. Then I shut the window carefully not to interrupt the music, went downstairs, and got into bed again among the parrots, muttering and ruffling their feathers in the darkness.
I was up at dawn to make coffee and light a fire in the stove, using the supplementary sections of the three- and four day old newspapers I had brought down from Salt Lake City and Cortez, Colorado, to get the flames started. When the cedar logs were burning strongly I poured coffee and drank the pot while I read the news sections. The sun got up behind the Manzanos and a solitary robin arrived to drink at the margin of ice around the rocky perimeter of the pond. The air was still, the sky opalescent above the dark mountains. It was going to be a fine day, perhaps even a good year. I cut a green apple and fed it to the parrots for their breakfast. Then I called Jim Catron in Contreras.
“Are you going over to Reserve soon?”
“The commission meets Monday. Do you want to ride along?”
“We’ll burn a couple of steaks when we get home. Or some other politically incorrect thing.”
“It’s a good start anyway.”
“And drink good whiskey.” “Even better.”
“We’re going to win. Maybe not in our lifetime. But we are going to win.”
“That will be good enough for me.”
“Happy New Year to you.”
“Yes. Happy New Year.”