← Return home

Nary a Moon for the Mother of Billy the Kid

Pamela Ryder

excerpted from The Lists of Billy the Kid (forthcoming)

The doctor must be summoned. The younger son is sent. You’ll go Joe, says Billy. You’ll see the sign. Dr. A. Broadwater - All Ailments. Now git.

The room has gone cold. Billy fills the kettle, feeds the stove fire. The mother moans and gasps in her sleep. He binds a bundle of sage with string—dried leaf and twig—and touches it to the flame. It quickly catches and he waves it out. Smoke wafts. Odor of the earth and the high desert at dusk.

The mother is awake now, coughing. She sees the smoking leaves. Is it a spell? she says. Or is it Apache magic? Get away with you now, she says. Fly away.

It’s sage, Mam. To ease up your breathing.

Or would it be the Wee Folk you’re conjuring, to come in the night and do me in. She peers all around the room. Joe? she says. Where’s my Joe gone? Where’s my boy?

It’s me here, Mam. It’s Billy.

Along the Arroyo San Vincente, a herd of buffalo graze the sloughgrass banks. An old bull rests in a mud wallow. The calves nurse.

Out past the town, a coyote has chased down a jack-rabbit and tears into its flank. A magpie sits in an overhanging limb of cottonwood and waits.

The black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) will follow its favorite coyote setting out on a hunt, observe the kill, and finally alight on the carcass to scavenge the meat.

Joe now, bringing the man he has sought—the doctor with his doctorly satchel-bag in hand—coming down White Hog Road, and what would one expect a doctor in these parts to be? A learned man perhaps. A man educated in notable institutions back East, bearing certificates complete with gold seals and degrees in scrolled calligraphy attesting to years of study, or fine forgeries thereof, or forgeries even not so fine but shabbily wrought, for who in need of a physician in these the far-flung parts makes further inquiries or even takes a closer look? Or perhaps he is a doctor true, but in seeking atonement for prior professional blunders and bungles, took up doctoring in that city of immigrants—New York City—in the forlorn enclaves of the poor and the foreign born and thereby the scorned, the Germans, the Italians, the Irish included in that number—tending to the down-and-out and destitute, the consumptive, and the poxed, as well as attending to the births of living children and ones born dead and the ones he thought better off if they were—those creatures so deformed that, on more than one occasion, he surreptitiously assisted in their demise (a pinch of the tiny nose between pointing finger and thumb, a bit of rag stuffed in the mouth—Ah Mrs. Zianetti, she’s with the angels now or So sorry Mrs. O’Halleran, but it was God’s will to take him), he eventually became suffocated by the suffering and screams and squalor of the city, and so headed south to more seemly cities and civilized districts—Atlanta, Charleston, Charlotte to name a few—until after a series of medical mishaps was run out of said districts on the customary rail and high-tailed it in a westerly direction. Or perhaps he is a man proficient—or one not so proficient—in the doctoring of horses, hogs, and longhorns, and in the remedies for swine mange and bovine tender-teat and equine bloat but certainly not averse to expanding his services to the human breed. Or perhaps he is a man with no aptitude in medical care for man nor beast, but adept instead in taxidermy, specializing in the mounting of the heads of ungulate hunting trophies—buffalo, antelope, elk—brought down by the rich come west on shooting expeditions with their photographers in tow, and each wanting something more tangible than a framed tintype of their newly bullet-ridden kill to take home and hang on a wall. And perhaps he may even be a man moving on from furred creatures to become self-employed in the business of human taxidermy, better known as embalming, and who had been kept busy at Shiloh and Chickamauga and Manassas and so many a siege and skirmish lesser named, there a witness to the carnage (once again: the suffering, screams, squalor) that created within him a heavy heart and a rage at heaven, and though he had previously lacked the knack of rejuvenating living men, discovered he had a talent in the preservation of the dead, the interruption of the rot of their bodies, the restoration of the fallen and mutilated by the minié ball by correcting the pallor of exsanguination with rouge, rebuilding shot-away sockets with papier-mâché, and replacing eyes with the glass orbs he had once inserted into the heads of hunting trophies, so that the mothers and the wives and children of the dead may one last time gaze upon what once were fathers and husbands and sons. And when that great conflict concluded, he took himself and his hardened heart forged in horror and quenched in spilled blood to territories west where disputes are negotiated with colts and carbines and frequent gunplay is a given, is nearly mythical, and opportunities for undertakers abound. And where he also might resume doctoring of sorts and take on the infirmities of those on the western frontier, selling his cure-all Dr. Broadwater’s Bodily Rejuvenator from a table set up outside his tent in the thoroughfare under the signboard that reads All Ailments, though few would notice (nor understand) the miniscule printing below it that reads Post-Mortem Care.

Next house on the right sir, Billy hears Joe say.

Billy steps into the street and he sees them—his brother and the doctor he has fetched along, the small boy hurrying to the long strides of the man, the two of them silhouetted in the open road by the setting sun, a bloom of clouds behind them the color of water-cut blood. The color of the stains on her pillow. The color of the glutinous fruit and clot of seeds of the prickly pear. The color of cherry bark tea untouched in the cup.

And now Billy stands at the log house door. Here we are sir, says Joe. This here’s Billy, my brother. Watch your step now, sir. There’s those two steps there.  

Billy hoists the lantern, and his face is suddenly illuminated—that pinched, small face of his—and the lanternlight giving his jut-out ears a translucent look. A bat, thinks Dr. Arthur Broadwater, a rabid creature flying past the moon, and he is suddenly off balance just enough to lose his footing on the tread that has gone to rot where it meets the riser, and he grasps for the newel post, but that too is not right, that too is wobbled, and he stumbles forward losing his grip on the handle of his satchel-bag and bashing his nose to the post. Immediate gush of blood, fleeting vision of stars and bouncing black beads.

My God, says Dr. Arthur Broadwater.

Billy! cries Joe.

That damn step, says Billy, setting down the lantern and taking ahold of the doctor. Can you stand, sir? says Billy.

The doctor tries to stand. His knees buckle under and he sinks again. The beefsteak and beer he recently swallowed at the Hotspot Hotel comes up sour in his mouth and spills onto his shirt. He looks down at the mess, brushes at the cloth with the back of his hand. I’ll just sit a minute, he says. Stars fade. Black beads recede. Yes, yes. I’m alright. He touches his nose, blood there on his fingers. That step, he says.

It’s a killer for sure, says Billy, hoisting the doctor who staggers and leans against him. Do you need a doctor? says Billy.

Billy hangs the lantern, turns up the wick. There the one room and all within it discernable at a glance. Table, chair, chair, stove, bed, and blankets over the mound of the mother more diminished by the day. Here sir, says Joe. They sit the doctor in a chair by the bed, where Mrs. Catherine Antrim faintly coughs in her sleep, faced away to the wall. Billy has brought him a clean rag to hold against his smashed nose. Broken most like, says Billy.

Dr. Arthur Broadwater chomps his teeth together and wiggles an incisor with his finger.

Your mouth too then? says Billy.

Loose, he says, but likely won’t lose it. He looks up at Billy. He sees that this boy is not so much a bat—those ears, yes—but that overbite and malocclusion reminiscent more of a muskrat. Or rabbit. Yes, rabbit, such as the rabbit-looking baby he now recalls from his doctoring days in New York a decade ago, oh a decade at least—called to an Irish family such as this one and the baby born with a deformity such as this one, if you could even call it that. Newborn and toothless, of course, but a narrow and forward held mandible and, as he also recalls—a difficult delivery. And the family’s name? What was their name? Not Antrim, no. It was Mc something. Or Mac something. McDonnel or MacDoyle. Or was it just Doyle.

We have the kettle on, says Joe. We have tea, sir.

I thank you, but let’s see what we can do for your mother.

Billy leans in and whispers in her ear. Mam, wake up. We have the doctor. Come, roll over and see.

No, she groans. No, she groans. I know what you do. You be bringing me more of your wickedness.

What’s that she’s saying? says Dr. Arthur Broadwater.

Just an Irish thing, says Billy. Pay no mind.

Mam, says Joe. It’s doctor Broadwater. From town. I fetched him myself. Come, Mam. There’s a good Mam, says Joe.

Broadwater? she says. She rolls away from the wall and turns to face them, and he sees her eyes deep in their craters. The hollows at her temples. Her lips drawn back over the teeth, gums gone pale as life-blood seeps into the cavities where there once were lungs. But he has seen the look of the slowly dying and nearly dead before, the good doctor has. He has attended the consumptives of the cities—chests caved, barely breathing—and the skeleton-men let loose from Andersonville at the close of the war—beyond help but shipped back north. But this woman—her face bears a familiarity beyond that of the wasted he has known.

Dr. Arthur Broadwater moves his chair closer in.  Good evening to you, Mrs. Antrim.

And yourself, she says.

Your boy Joe here. He tells me you’ve been doing poorly.

Joseph, yes. My Joe. My youngest, she says. Where you be, lad?

Right here Mam, says Joe as he steps closer.

And your oldest? he says and nods toward Billy.

That one goes by Billy. Fourteen year that one, says Mrs. Catherine Antrim. But you’d hardly know it. He’s born small, she says. Nearly strangled in me. He just barely lived.

Dr. Arthur Broadwater looks Billy over, as if to make a well-considered assessment. He notes that yes, the boy is small. He notes the protrusion of his incisors—likely malocclusion, likely congenital. He notes the sloping shoulders—undoubtedly a weakness of the trapezius musculature. And lastly: that fullness of his shirt across the upper back, the excess fold of cloth, the way the garment has been loosely tucked into the boy’s belt—oh yes, most probably due to some deformity, likely a winging of the scapula against the cloth. All in all, mild bodily malformation. And yet, there be a brightness to the boy. A strength. A quickness that compensates for any disproportions.

Well now Billy, says Dr. Arthur Broadwater. Not to worry. You’ve got plenty time for growing still ahead of you, son.

Hasn’t yet, says Mrs. Catherine Antrim.  She feels around in the bed, under the blanket, under the pillow.

What you looking for Mam? says Joe.

My spit rag, she says. Where’d it get to?

Dr. Arthur Broadwater soon concludes the examination of his patient, the reason he was summoned. He has looked into her mouth and asked her to lift her tongue. He has placed his fingers on the angle of her mandible and felt there the tender swellings of scrofula. He has sounded her chest with a thump of his finger and heard not resonance of air-filled spaces but as expected, the dullness of suppuration. He has unfastened the upper buttons on her camisole in the disinterested manner befitting a physician opening a patient’s clothing and has produced a stethoscope from his satchel-bag. He has taken a moment to adjust the earpieces, to warm the bell in his hand, to sound the diaphragm with a tap of his finger. He has deliberately yawned to banish any perception of a personal or non-professional interest there before he pressed the bell of it to her in the space above and under her breasts—alternating left-right, left-right—and listened there with an expression of benign interest and not of disgust as he smelled the rose water she had sprinkled on herself to mask the odor of necrosis. He has tilted her forward to rest against her youngest son (Joe come help me here), and he has again listened within spaces between and below her shoulder blades. He has stayed some minutes in this position, hearing the bubbling of pus and blood and in some places nothing at all, but frowning slightly so that his assessment does not appear perfunctory, but instead an attempt to sort things out, make a decision, come up with—with something, while only dreading the pronouncements he will be expected to make. He has—with a bit of fumbling—refastened the buttons of her camisole. (There you go. Do I have that right?) Fluffed and re-adjusted her pillow. Eased her back onto it. (How is that, fairly comfortable? Or a little bit higher?) He has asked to see what medicines she is taking. He has inquired, as is expected of him, as to which may be providing a degree of relief and which are decidedly not. He has been shown the bottles of assorted concoctions, teas, elixirs. He has examined the leaves and stems and the little bundles of sage.

What about these? Billy says. These ones Apache. These ones Mexican.

You can keep on trying with these, says Dr. Arthur Broadwater, if she’ll take them.

I won’t, says Catherine Antrim, still facing the wall.

This one’s from the preacher, says Joe. Leviticus Elixir.

No, not that one. Don’t bother with that one.

Or this? says Billy. Dr. Broadwater’s Bodily Rejuvenator.

Well now, says Dr. Arthur Broadwater. Just when did you buy that?

Well now, says Billy. I didn’t.

I see, says Dr. Arthur Broadwater.

Should we keep on giving it? She’ll take it time to time.

No. Don’t bother her with that one either. It’s just soda-water and cayenne.

He puts on his hat. He takes up his doctorly satchel-bag. He steps to the bed. Goodbye Mrs. Antrim, he says. I am sorry we have met under these…but she has put her face to the wall again.

Doctor Broadwater’s leaving Mam, says Joe.

Broadwater? she says.

Dr. Arthur Broadwater and Billy at the log house door, on the log house step. The doctor puts his hand on the newel post, then thinks better of it. Well now, he says to Billy.

She asked for a doctor, so we brung you, says Billy.

I’m sorry, son. But there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing to be done.

One thing, says Billy.

Certainly, says Dr. Arthur Broadwater.  

Don’t be calling me son. I ain’t. Not nobody’s, Billy says. He lifts the lantern. Now mind that step, he says. And turns away once the doctor has descended.

Billy now back at her bedside. Will you take some tea, mam? We have crackers, too. And cake. Your cake.

She looks past him. At nothing. At the walls. The air.

Mam, says Billy, do you know who I am?  

Joe. You’re my Joe, she says.

No, says Billy. I’m the other one. I’m Billy.

You, she says. I never knew who you were.

I never knew who I was neither, says Billy.

Magpies roost in the choke cherry on White Hog Lane. They softly clack and chatter in their sleep.

The woodstove door creaks open.

Catherine awakens and finds a gathering of Wee Folk there, dressed in their little coats and mouse-skin capes and their miniscule knitted caps, tossing bits of straw and creosote twigs into the fire and clapping their tiny mittened hands when the straws glow and curl and the twigs spark.

She raises herself up. She sees the firelight flicker across their small faces. What do you want? she says. Have you come back for the boy?

The one of them in green britches speaks. Do you mean your Billy? No, Catherine. We come for you. We’ve been wanting to hear an old Irish tune. We’ve been waiting to hear.

I don’t do no singing. Not no more, says Catherine.

Come now Catherine, says the one in mouse-skin. Try while you still have your breath.

Billy’s the one you want, she says. You brung him to me and you’ll take him back.

Not Billy not now, says the one in green. But go on then, he says. Sing it for us, that’s a good Mam.

Catherine falls back against her pillow. He wasn’t mine, she says, but I raised him best I could.

Out past the dry arroyo, the coyote has eaten its fill. The magpie flies down from its perch.

According to Apache myth, seeing a magpie in the morning signifies the coming of rain or wind or blood.

Dr. Arthur Broadwater stands in the road for a moment. Still night. No cover of clouds. Aureole of moon. Still September, but the year soon will be ending. A pulmonary vessel will break and blood will rise in her throat and fill her mouth and she too will soon be ending. He has attended more deaths than births of late. Bloody events—both coming and going. As it was when he was summoned to one in particular. In Irishtown New York it was. Doctor—it’s my missus—something’s gone wrong—please come. The mother past screams and shrieks, and now only moaning. The child already emerging. A blue-faced bit of a baby. Dusky blue, the color of twilight. One gasp, then nothing. Its eyes open but dimming. The limbs coming next gone limp. Its neck noosed in the birth cordage. He recalls the slime and the blood, and he shudders—he had never gotten used to the horrid quagmire of being born, never gotten used to having his hands in the slickness of it. And this one was worse, even worse: sliding his fingers through the mucous and blood and slipping them under this slackless and twisting cincture, this snare. Finally digging under the child’s chin and finding purchase there on an unslimed fold of its mottling skin, freeing him, unraveling this runt who now breathes, screams. Lives. Its tweaked little face gone from twilight to daybreak, bright with its howling. So small, and its mouth a bit odd, the maxilla a bit pronounced, likely to be bucked of tooth, but no matter: alive, oh alive. Oh Doctor. Oh let me see him. Oh the poor little laddie. And then the stink of a strange first shit foul as fresh pig dung, smooth as a black slug sliding out from its anus. McBean? McKenna? What was that name? Antrim perhaps. Perhaps McCarty. He wonders what has become of them, that family he visited, that birth years ago in Irishtown. He remembers the howls and whimpers of that odd little fellow. He hears the yip and talk of coyotes somewhere.

And he hears the tumult coming from the thoroughfare of Silver City—the shouts of the sellers, the random gunshot, the music—a piano—from the saloon. He hears the preacher still at work in his tent, leading the ransomed and the rejoicing in the singing of I’ll Fly Away.

Once more comes the chorus of coyotes, nearly a song itself. Melancholy what most might say. Dr. Arthur Broadwater looks skyward: there the stars and stars, some bright, some dim, some seen only with the wayward glance of looking away. And that one there, steady and unshimmering. Unlike the rest of the lights in the sky. That one he knew, had learned as a boy. Jupiter. In the paw of the lion. And a comfort to see every night before it fades with the dawn. And a moon, any bit of a moon, would be a kind of a comfort. But nary a moon tonight, not even a sliver to sing to. And yet, the coyotes make their joyful noise. Dr. Arthur Broadwater says it aloud: A joyful noise.

And from the thoroughfare, the dull clamor of commerce continues. He hears the farrier still at work in the livery—the clang of the anvil and hammer. A gunshot. A scream. The saloon piano playing on.

And finally, from out past the town, from most far off he hears the lowing of the last of the bison fording the cold waters of the Arroyo San Vincente. So the same, he thinks, as the moan of a woman giving birth or summoning death.

The vocalizations of the yellow-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) include a melodious call to a mate, an anguished cry when seized by a predator, and a grieving song that summons other birds to what is known as a magpie funeral—a gathering around a dead or dying member of their flock.

⬡ ⬡ ⬡

Pamela Ryder is the author of two novels in stories and a short story collection. “Nary a Moon for the Mother of Billy the Kid” is from a new novel. Contact: pamela_ryder@yahoo.com.  Website: pamelaryder.com.