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Brightest New Mexico. In the vivid light each rock and tree and cloud and mountain existed with a End of force and clarity that seemed not natural but supernatural. Yet it also felt as familiar as home, the country of dreams, the land I had known from the beginning.
We were riding north from El Paso in my grandfather's pickup truck, bound for the village of Baker and the old man's ranch. This was in early June: the glare of the desert sun, glancing off the steel hood of the truck, stung my eyes with such intensity that I had to close them now and then for relief. And I could almost feel the fierce dry heat, like that of an oven, drawing the moisture from my body; I thought with longing of the cool water bag that hung from the hood latch over the grille in front, inaccessible. I wished that Grandfather would stop for a minute and give us time for a drink, but I was too proud and foolish to ask him; twelve years old, I thought it important to appear tougher than I really was.
When my eyes stopped aching I could open them again, raise my head and watch the highway and fence and telephone fine, all geometrically straight and parallel, rolling forever toward us. Heat waves shimmered over the asphalt, giving the road far ahead a transParent, liquid look, an illusion which receded before us as fast as we approached.
Staring ahead, I saw a vulture rise from the flattened carcass of a rabbit on the pavement and hover nearby while we passed over his lunch. Beyond the black bird with his white-trimmed wings soared the western sky, the immense and violet sky flowing over alkali Rats and dunes of sand and gypsum toward the mountains that stoodlike chains of islands, like a convoy of purple ships, along the horizon.
Those mouiatains -- they seemed at once both close by and impossibly remote, an easy walk away and yet beyond the limits of the imagination. Between us lay the clear and empty wilderness of scattered mesquite trees and creosote shrubs and streambeds where water ran as seldom as the rain came down. Each summer for three years I had come to New Mexico; each time I gazed upon the moon-dead landscape and asked myself: what is out there? And each time I concluded: something is out there-maybe everything. To me the desert looked like a form of Paradise. AM it always Will.
The shadow of the vulture flashed by on the right.
Grandfather put his big freckled hand on my knee. "See the jack rabbit, Billy?"
"Yes sir. That's number ten. Ten dead jack rabbits on the road since we left El Paso."
"Well, that means we're almost home. They average about one dead rabbit every five miles. This year. Now ten years ago you could drive all the way from Baker to El Paso and see maybe one rabbit."
The old man, crouching under the roof of the cab, squinted through his spectacles at the road unpeeling ahead, like a seam on the world. Seventy years old, he drove at seventy miles an hour. In that flat and empty land such a speed seemed leisurely. He crouched because the roof of the truck was too low. Ile truck, almost new, had a cab wide enough to accomodate four men but not high enough for one. Part of the trouble was Grandfather's hat, which was one foot tall, but he could not take it off because that would be immodest. So he spread himself laterally as much as he could, putting his left elbow and shoulder out the window and his right arm across the top of the, seat.
The steering wheel he controlled with the tip of his left forefinger.
"A rabbit is a kind of rat, Grandfather."
"I've heard about that. And we haven't looked at the whole thing, either. This system benefits the vulture, as we noticed a minute ago. It helps preserve the balance of nature. Over-all efficiency, I call it. We also have efficient overalls. Did you bring yours?"
"Yes sir." I looked out the rear window to make sure my suitcase was still in the bed of the truck. It was there, my leather companion all the way from Pittsburgh.
"You'll need them," the old man said. "We got work to do tomorrow. You and me and Lee, we're going up on the mountain tomorrow, gonna look for a horse and a lion. How does that sound?"
"That sounds wonderful, Grandfather. Lee's coming too?"
"He said he'd come."
A glow of pleasure spread through my nerves. I hadn't seen Lee Mackie for nine months-the nine months I'd spent imprisoned in school back East-and I missed him. I could never imagine a finer man than Lee; when I thought of him I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be Lee Mackie II.
"Will we see him today? Is he out at the ranch now?... As I looked at Grandfather, waiting for his answer, I hooked my arm around the gallon jug at my side, our gift for Lee, which we had selected that morning in the market place of Juarez. There was another jug beside it, Grandfather's gift for himself. And on my feet were brand-new boots with built-up heels and toes sharp enough to kick holes in door panels, the first genuine cowboy boots I had ever possessed.
"He said held try to get out there sometime tonight. Your Lee's a busy man these days, Billy. He's got himself a wife now, and a broker's license, and a real estate office, and a big fat automobile with four headlights and six taillights and three hundred and fifty...