Sunup had come and gone when they left the box canyon behind and turned southwest to the cantina town of Tortuga, a day’s ride away. The surface terrain was rust-tinted by the weathering of the surrounding escarpments that in millennia past had been mountain-high dunes tamped into sandstone by time and the trickle of alkali, and sealed in that strata of rose-red and yellow and brick lay the petrified bodies of beasts that once roamed these regions, the first sedimentary deposition bearing the bones of upright reptiles the size of the very hills that quaked at their lumbering, and above these lay rodents bigger than boulders, and higher still the three-toed horses as small as dogs, and soon the dapple gray that died that morning would take its place above its ancestral remains, as would the chestnut and the appaloosa and the bay, soon to be stripped of muscle and hide by the creatures that consume carrion in these districts of hardpan and heat—the scavenger birds that thrust their featherless faces into decay, the dung beetles that burrow the innards, the flesh-flies that swarm and hatch and swarm again—until the desert does its work to entomb their bones grain by grain in bright bands of stone the color of maize and sundown and watered blood.
The land was mainly level, scored with dry washes and barren draws. The Choctaw pony kept to an even trot, but the others stumbled on among the stands of chaparral sage and chamisa where flycatchers rose from their perches in the brush at their approach. It was near midday when they turned their horses away from Las Cruces—too big a town for horse trading, they agreed—and headed south on the Jornada del Muerto. It was just sundown when the bay mare and the chestnut went lame and the appaloosa began blowing pink foam from its nostrils.
And it was well past dusk when Brushy McKnight and Hare Glasser and Billy Antrim Bonney rode into the oxbow town of Tortuga.
Editor’s Note: This fiction is an excerpt from Ryder’s work-in-progress, The Lists of Billy the Kid.