Later, by the fire, John Grady's spurs and their jars of fermented cidron caught the light and kicked it back in a thousand broken pieces. Sixteen mustangs, that morning as wild as angry bees, barely stirred in their corral, their big heads nudging one another, proud, tired, anxious like they'd just stepped off the boat into a new world.
Think they're sore as we are? Rawlins asked, taking a swig off his drink.
I think they learned what rope's for.
John Grady lay back flat on the ground, rested his jar of cider on his chest and spread his arms out. My ass is rawer'n a scrubbed turnip, he said, and laughed.
The ranch hands and their miscellany of children had faded back into the bunkhouse as the fire waned. The ones who'd come in from as far as La Vega hoisted nieces and nephews on their shoulders, corked jugs of ginebra and hiked across la granja into the darkness. The crowd that had grown, over the span of the day, from old Chico who hauled branding irons and broken shoes to el herrero, his toothless wife and their chesty daughter to the cache of locals who'd caught wind of John Grady's shit-kickin' and came out to see the gringo who thought he could break los broncos. By the time they'd walked the sixteenth horse, head hung low and sweaty, through the swung open gate of the potrero, the crowd had right nearly burst into song.
Gotta do it again tomorrow, Rawlins said, not like a question.
Yeah, said John Grady, but look at 'em.
Rawlins glanced over to the potrero where the horses swayed together, only the flick of tail or the light sliding over the arc of a big brown eye to suggest where one body stopped and the next began. Low whinny and a tired moan. You're the master now, Rawlins said.
Always was, John Grady said, and Rawlins thought, Damn right.
Lacey Rawlins wasn't five years old yet when his mama died of trying to give birth to a baby. Buck Rawlins had come from Alabama in '27, lost the first Arabian in seven card stud and sold the second for a brand new timberland green International-Harvester and a whitewashed room on the stockyard side of old Grady's ranch. And then the Missus Grady's towheaded boy John needed a playmate, and Lacey came up first slopping cattle, then hauling water when his arms got big, then, finally, riding herd on the back of one of the old paints. Those years stretched out like something he'd read once, or heard on the radio, endless loops of resetting summer nights getting lost on moonshine with John Grady and looking up at the stars and making promises that started, When I get a ranch of my own. And there was no place on Earth that could beat East Texas. But then Grandfather Grady kicked the bucket and the Missus Grady had already gone off to San Antone, and John Grady wasn't talking about having a ranch of his own any more, he was talking about Mexico. Like it was some sort of horse Eden. And Lacey thought, Don't. Stay. Let's keep it just exactly like this.
Couldn't move if I was, said John Grady. I'm about goddamned perfect just lyin' here.
Rawlins thought, You are. And the moon came out from behind a cloud just long enough to throw her cool light on top of the fire's warm glow, and it caught John Grady's chin, tipped up proud-like, John Grady's tanned neck and shoulders, John Grady's bare chest under his hung-open flannel.
Lacey'd helped John Grady dress in his grandfather's boiled wool suit to meet the bankers and cash out his claim on his mother's land. Afterward, they'd come up to sit on the fence and John Grady took his shirt off and poured a bucket of water over his head and just dripped there a while, swinging his legs and looking down over the hills and the cattle pen and the pintos and dogs, like he was sizing up just what he was leaving behind.
Weren't a bad place to be a kid, John Grady had said. But when you grow up, you get an itchin' to see the world.
Lacey, who was almost four years older than John Grady, and who would that day, and every day after promise to follow John Grady to the ends of the Earth, said, I dunno. Your granddad left y'all a fine-ass piece of land, John Grady.
John Grady nodded. I can't stay, he said. You want to?
What, y'all give me the ranch? Shit. Like I'd stay without you.
I'd give you the ranch iffen I thought you wouldn't drive my mama bankrupt 'fore the season's over. But you know you got a hankerin' to see Mexico.
Lacey had just nodded, and watched the tiny beads of sweat and water roll down John Grady's hairless chest and pool in the waistband of his grandfather's boiled wool Sunday suit. Yeah, Lacey had said. Mexico.
Two weeks later they were a pile of sore hamstrings and bruises and John Grady's smooth chest rose and fell with his breathing in the firelight. Sixteen of the most beautiful horses Lacey had ever seen in his life stirred a couple hundred feet away, they, like Lacey, powerless against the man John Grady. Under the low whinnies and the spit of the fire, louder still than the strains of Spanish music that whistled from the bunkhouse came the chorus of crickets that said, This is a summer night and though you're bone-tired you ain't gonna ever have it better than this.
Shit, thought Lacey. This is what he meant.
And he thought, I could stay here with him just like this for a while. I could stay a good long while here in Mexico.
What happens when we do it? Rawlins asked John Grady. When we break 'em? We got a gig here?
We got it already, said John Grady. Them caballeros ain't seen the likes of us before, they'd be damned fools to let us up and go after what we showed 'em.
What you done showed 'em, Rawlins said.
He folded his arms under his head and tipped his hat down over his eyes to keep the fire off his cheeks. Not 'cause he gets flushed when he thinks of John Grady locking his thighs around the thrashing back of a mustang. Not 'cause in all his life he's never seen a man what can break a horse like John Grady, then amble back to the bunkhouse and put a couple of glasses away without so much as bragging on what he'd done. Not 'cause it turned out it didn't matter if it was Texas or Mexico, as long as it was John Grady.
We came to Mexico together, John Grady reminded him.
Nah, said Rawlins, under his hat. I followed you here.
Then they just lay there, too sore to move, while the fire burned down to low red embers and the horses slept, standing up, in their pen.