the Ford Explorer and the cab of the flatbed truck.

So this was both the reality and the legacy of Jack Collins, Hackberry thought. He wasn’t the light bearer who fell like a shooting star from the heavens. He was the canker in the rose, the worm that flies through the howling storm, a vain and petty and mean-spirited man who left a dirty smudge on all that he touched. He had no power of his own; he was assigned it by others whose personal fears were so great, they would abandon all they believed in and surrender themselves to a self-manufactured caricature who had hijacked their religion.

But Hackberry knew that if there was any lesson or wisdom in his thoughts, he would not be able to pass it on. The only wisdom an old man learns in this world is that his life experience is ultimately his sole possession. It is also the measure of his worth as a human being, the sum of his offering to whatever hand created him, and the ticket he carries with him into eternity. But if a man tries to put all the lessons he has learned on a road map for others, he might as well dip his pen into invisible ink.

They walked miles in the rain, into the hills and through ravines and across flooded creek beds, the sky growing blacker and blacker. Pam stumbled and dropped the AR15. Krill picked it up and then pulled the shotgun from Hackberry’s hand and placed both weapons across his shoulders, draping one hand on the barrels and the other on the stocks, his head hanging forward.

“Give them back,” Hackberry said.

“I am all right, senor, ” Krill said. “I would not harm you. You are very good people. I like you very much.”

“You’re wanted for a capital crime,” Hackberry said.

“I know. But that has nothing to do with us. This is Mexico,” Krill said. “It is a place where everything is crazy. I told that to La Magdalena when I cut her down from the beam in the cellar. I told her she smelled like seawater. I told her she was probably a Chinese mermaid and didn’t know it. She thought that was very funny.”

“Say that again?” Hackberry asked.

“I’m very tired. We must go on,” Krill said.

That was what they did. On and on, through rocks and brambles and thorns and deadfalls and cactus and dry washes and tree branches that lashed back into their faces and cut their skin like whips. The sky was as black as oil smoke, the explosions of lightning deafening inside the canyons. But when the four of them ascended a trail that led to a bare knoll, a peculiar event happened. They found themselves in front of two telegraph poles that had no wires attached to the crosspieces; to the west of the knoll was an infinite plain that seemed to extend beyond the edge of the storm into a band of blue sky on the earth’s rim. The wind was bitter and filled with grit, the telegraph poles trembling in the holes where they were sunk, a twisted piece of metal roof bouncing and clanging across the knoll’s surface. Krill stood at the top of the knoll, his arms hanging over the rifle and shotgun stretched across his shoulders.

“It’s stopped raining,” he said. “Look, you can see it blowing like crystal behind us and out on the plain and down in the canyon, but here there is no rain. Que bueno. I think I will stay right here.”

“Come with us,” Anton said.

“No, this is my place. I am content here,” he replied. “Good-bye to you, Chinese mermaid. And thank you, Sheriff Holland and Senorita Pam. All of you are very nice.”

So this is how it ends, Hackberry thought. A man under a capital sentence stands impaled in a grandiose fashion against a blackened sky, ignoring the fact that he has become a human lightning rod, while two women and another man gaze up at him, all of them stenciled like figures on a triptych, all of them caught in roles they did not choose for themselves.

Maybe the mermaids have not made it to Texas yet, but give them time, and in the meanwhile blessed be God for all dappled things, wherever they occur, Hackberry said to himself, his eyes fixed on the band of blue light in the west.

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