Arivaca was quiet. A few children were putting up flyers for the Busk Ceremony and stringing paper cranes along the post office horse rail. The oldest one, named Jeremy, was the son of a man who called himself Hoot. Hoot owned a boot and leather repair store called, incredibly, Hoot’s Boot Farm. As Jack passed, the kids began to argue about which direction to wind the string around the rail, and it had come down to a disagreement about the term “clockwise.”
He stopped to watch.
“I think it goes under and then back,” said one kid. He was barefoot, and wore a button down shirt with the arms torn off.
“No cabron, it’s from left to right,” said another one, “like how the hour comes first.”
They looked at the railing, trying to picture how “left to right” would work in three dimensions. He felt a measure of pride watching them problem solve, work together, though they seemed to lack the proper resources for a solution. After a while, it occurred to Jack that these kids had never seen an analogue clock. He couldn’t help himself, finally, from trying to engage them, but it came out all wrong.
“What do paper cranes have to do with the Busk Ceremony?” he asked.
Jeremy looked at him defiantly. He was at an age where adults were just beginning to reveal their true ignorance, and he was eager to show Jack he was on to him. “What does the Busk Ceremony have to do with boots?” he said.
The other kids, younger and still worshipping the false god of adulthood, froze, waiting to see what would happen.
The kid had a point, and Jack nodded gravely, then walked on. When your father calls himself Hoot, you probably have more to worry about than analogue clocks.
He moved in shadows down West 5th street, which met with 5th Avenue coming up from the south and veered Northwest in front of Desmonda’s at the far end of town, giving the Inn’s three rooms a long view of Arivaca’s main drag. Jo hadn’t said where she was staying, which meant she must be there.
Jack knew she wouldn’t have come around if it weren’t important, but how he could be of any help he couldn’t possibly imagine. When Jo had left five years ago, Jack had remained strangely calm about it. He hadn’t expected her to disappear, but what he felt when she did wasn’t surprise. It was a mixture of regret, sorrow and pride. It was something he couldn’t describe, and the strangest part was that it had made him love her even more. Which had been fine. He found that he could love her from afar, and that it could still fuel him, it could get him out of bed and help get his work done and that it didn’t matter where she’d gone, or that she wouldn’t return.
Of course, that was when she wouldn’t return. Now that she was back, all this suddenly sounded like the most ridiculous shit he’d ever heard.
Jack saw Jo sitting with a man out front of the Inn, and he broke off to the south until he could cross 5th Avenue without being seen. He crept back along the road, and passed an old man and his son singing for change. Though he couldn’t understand much of it, he made out some of the words; it seemed to be about the man’s brother. But then there was something about being together forever, which made it sound romantic. He didn’t get it. When the boy came over to him with his hand out, however, he fished a few coins out of his pocket and smiled. What the hell do I know about love, he thought.
A few more steps and Jack could clearly see and hear Jo and the man, who, he was surprised to find, was black. Hadn’t Jo said he was Seminole? They were speaking about Border Run!, and sitting together like old friends. He’d nearly forgotten how Jo brought people out from their shells, how she could cut through tension like a sweet melody. He waited for a minute, wanting to see whether she’d give something away about their intentions, but when Jo began to describe his meeting with the ACHP, he couldn’t help himself; he walked forward into the lit parking lot.
“It would satisfy their interests and contribute to the public good,” he recited. “Those were my words to the man, if I remember right.”
The man with Jo stood up as he came close, and held out his hand. He was big, with broad shoulders and a square jaw. He had a serious face, but his eyes were less so, and Jack felt relieved. This man couldn’t be looking for a place to hide, at least. The man standing before Jack had nothing to run from.
“It’s an honor to meet you, friend.”
Jack shook his hand, and looked at Jo. “Jo,” he said, and nodded.
“Thank you for coming,” she said softly.
“I’m Micah. Want a beer?”
He opened a bottle and handed it to Jack, who leaned against a pole and turned, looking up West 5th through the center of town. “Quiet night,” he said.
“Sorry we don’t have another chair. I guess you heard Jo telling me about your outfit. You want to tell the story?”
Jack kicked his heel against the pole, dislodging imaginary dirt. “Well,” he said, “I’m in DC to speak with the man from ACHP. Raymond Wolf is his name. He’s still up there, far as I know. I wait outside his office, and I’m probably a little ruffled from being on the road, and here’s this secretary keeping an eye on me over her horn-rimmed bifocals.”
“Oh come on,” Micah said, “you’re embellishing.”
“I’m telling it to you as it happened,” Jack lied. “She’s peering over these mother- of-pearl, horn-rimmed glasses with her little eyes and her big gray hair, just shuffling papers. Probably thought I’d just go away if they put me off long enough, but I figured eventually they had to let me in, you know?”
Micah shrugged. “It’s a public service, isn’t it?”
“Exactly right. So finally I’m let into this enormous office, just cavernous, with unread books lining the walls and all these shiny brass lamps, and there’s Wolf, sitting behind a wooden desk wearing a three-piece suit. He’s a big man, bald, and he had a thin mustache on his lip, sort of old fashioned. This man was everything I wasn’t, see, but he motions for me to sit, and I take out the papers I’d come with and spread them across his desk. Then he listens to me ramble on for a few minutes, and looks over the papers I’d brought and nods, making little noises I’m taking as agreement.”
“No shit, so you were making headway.”
“Well, I’m talking his ear off is what I’m doing, but suddenly he stands and walks out from behind his desk and over to a table by the windows, and that’s when I notice his boots.”
“The man’s wearing a pair of riding boots. They’re spotless, you know, they’d probably never seen any action, but there it was. That’s when I knew.”
“But it wasn’t like you thought,” Jo said.
“No. After letting me ramble like a nitwit he just stands up and holds out his hand and says he’d like to make a deal.”
Micah looked astonished. “So you’re in a partnership with—”
Jack shook his head and took a long pull from his bottle. “Deal didn’t happen.”
“They wanted the land,” Jo said.
The two men turned to Jo as if expecting her to continue, but as quickly as she’d spoken up she retreated back into silence.
“It’s true,” Jack confirmed. “The deal Wolf offered was that I could quote permanently reside on the land, and you know, be involved with the center, but that I’d have to turn the property over.”
“Which you were unprepared to do.”
“As I remain.”
“So what did you say?”
“Well, I told him very politely to fuck off, and accused him of turning his back on the state of Arizona.”
“To which he responded that if I was really interested in the center, and the area for that matter—we both knew what it would mean for the town—I’d sacrifice my personal stake in the matter.”
Micah let out a long, low whistle and finished his beer. “Heck if they aren’t always a step ahead.”
“So how’d you get from your original idea to what you’ve got going now?”
“Well…” Jack sipped his beer. “Let’s just say it was a struggle to garner interest in a strictly educational outpost.”
The three of them stood in silence, staring up through the motionless town. There was a burst of laughter in the distance, and Jack figured it was coming from the Double Barrel. How long had it been since he’d set foot in the place? He used to take Jo there once or twice a week, and she’d make him dance with her to whatever they could make the half-broken, half-empty jukebox play.
Micah stood. “So you’re no friend of the Feds, I take it.”
Jack spit. “You could say that.”
At this point Micah’s face changed. His eyes lost the light Jack had noticed earlier. He looked over to Jo, who was holding her empty bottle, pulling the label off and pasting it back on again, and she nodded.
“Jack, I’m glad to hear it, because I’m going to be frank with you right now, and say that I’ve come here for your help. Now, this is the kind of help that only a man who has a certain—let’s call it an independence of mind—that only a man like that could offer.”
Jack felt his stomach tighten, but he kept a solid gaze and finished his beer. So this was it. He was about to learn what Jo had been up to for the last five years. By the sound of things, it wasn’t going to be entirely above board. He thought about Jo standing in the visitor center all those years ago, her face lowered in some mixture of embarrassment, pity and fear, handing out flyers to the groups at Border Run! Even with her downcast eyes she’d controlled the room, and the groups had watched and walked around her as they would a rattlesnake, taking her papers quickly as though she might bite an idle hand. When it came down to it, Jack hadn’t stopped her because he was proud of what she was doing. He’d wanted to talk with her about making her information an official part of the tour, but he’d hesitated, he’d half-expected her to laugh at him. Or to think he was mocking her. He’d waited, and he’d waited too long. He looked at Jo’s bright white skin, glowing in the near-dark of the porch light. How beautiful she was. How quietly wild. Her red hair stood out in this blank, arid land like a flame, but just like a flame she was also at home in its heat, somehow simultaneously alien to this wilderness and of it. Jo stood now, and opened the door to their room.
“Why don’t we go inside,” Micah said. “There’s a picture I want to show you.”