WE LEFT THE BEST Western early the next morning. The first drops of rain hit the windshield and smacked against the roof of the Buick like someone on a typewriter. Everyone was quiet as we headed out to San Francisco to see Oliver’s uncle, to pick up some uppers and whatever else he had for him.
I pulled down the sun visor and leaned into the little rectangular mirror there to get a closer look at where Enrique caught me with an elbow, my cheekbone swollen and purple like a plum. I touched the bruise gently and imagined my hands around my brother’s throat, squeezing.
The rain came down harder and the wipers went back and forth across the windshield. Catface meowed in the backseat. Oliver asked me if we were heading in the right direction and I just nodded. I wasn’t in the mood to talk.
Everyone in the car said as little as possible. We all, to some degree, hated one another.
The land around us was beige and lonely and the highway cut right through it. We came around a bend and we were surrounded by hills, and up along their backs there were windmills, hundreds of them—an army of white propellers whirling in the rain.
I was looking up at one of them, watching the giant blades turn sluggishly as if it were coming to a stop, when Oliver slammed on the brakes.
Up ahead there was a gray plume of smoke rising from a flipped-over truck, the windshield shattered into a mosaic of glass. On the shoulder of the highway there was a jackknifed horse trailer, silver and dented like a beer can.
Oh my God, Ashley said.
Oliver stopped the car and we all stepped out onto the road. I jogged toward the truck, where the driver was upside down and still seatbelted in. Enrique kneeled down and knocked on the driver-side window. The driver turned toward us, his forehead bloodied. He fumbled for the car door and slowly jerked open the cracked window.
Are you okay? I asked.
Ayúdame, the man said.
Oliver crouched and turned onto his back and reached up inside the car, struggling to release the seatbelt. Damn thing, he said. It’s stuck.
¿Necesitas un cuchillo? the man asked. His forehead was slashed with bits of glass stuck in it and the blood leaked into his hair.
Do you need a knife? I shouted.
No, I got it. There, Oliver said, and scooted out of the truck.
The man’s head was bent and his shoulders rested against the roof of the truck. Enrique and I reached in and pulled him gently out of the car like a newborn.
¿Qué pasó? I asked the man.
Un camión, he said. Él entró en mi vereda.
What’s he saying? Oliver asked.
He said another truck went into his lane.
Mi caballo, the man said, sitting up and looking at the ruined trailer. Mi caballo.
The rain came down fast and loud, soaking our clothes and flattening our hair against our foreheads.
The man rose and staggered over toward the trailer by the roadside and we followed him. Ashley was already standing there, her arms folded across her chest.
The man’s horse was vanilla white and spotted with tan freckles. One of his hindquarters was twisted grotesquely where a bone poked through the skin. Blood seeped out of the wound and down his ruined leg and dripped into the muddy earth. The horse snorted and twitched and whinnied, his eyes big as Ping-Pong balls.
A guttural sound came out of the man’s throat and he began to weep, his hand over his mouth. Ay, Dios mío, he said. Mi caballo lindo.
We stood there beside the man with the rain pelting us and looked down at the horse, the horror in his eyes.
Traffic backed up on both lanes. A woman in a BMW looked on with her mouth half open while a child in the backseat made squiggles on the fogged-up window with his fingertip. A man on a cell phone stepped out of his car and ran toward us, the rain darkening his shirt. The police are on the way, he said. Is anyone hurt?
He is, Oliver said, pointing to the man stumbling over to his ruined truck. He got on his hands and knees and reached up into the smashed-out window on the passenger side. He unlatched the glove compartment and all its contents dropped onto the roof of the truck. Then he was coming toward us through the downpour, carrying a gun and mumbling something in Spanish.
What the hell? Enrique said.
The man on the cell phone turned around and hurried back to his car, his shoes splashing on the highway. He’d already done all he was capable of doing.
The horse grunted and the rain spattered against his body. The man crouched down with his gun and rubbed the horse’s neck.
I can’t watch this, Ashley said, and walked back to our car.
We stood there—me, Enrique, and Oliver—and watched the man consoling his animal. There was only one option and the man held it in his hand. It was a Colt .45, long-barreled and steel blue.
Lo siento, he said, and stood up and pointed the revolver at the horse’s head.
Enrique turned away. Oliver turned away. I didn’t.
Lo siento, the man said again.
The horse groaned and it sounded like there was thunder inside him. There was a long pause and it seemed as if I could count the raindrops if I wanted to.
The man lowered the gun and covered his eyes with his hand. No puedo, he said.
Enrique turned around, then Oliver.
Por favor, the man said, alguno de ustedes.
What did he say? Oliver asked.
He wants one of us to do it, Enrique said.
The man cried and grabbed the revolver by the barrel and held it toward us. Yo no puedo, he said.
The horse snorted loudly, his body shuddered and flinched.
Por favor, the man said. Mi caballo está sufriendo.
Enrique turned and walked toward our car with his hands shoved deep in his pockets.
The man held the revolver out for Oliver, who folded his arms and took a step back. No way, uh-uh, he said.
The man held the gun toward me. Le pido, he said, weeping.
I took the revolver from him and the man pulled the hammer back for me. En la cabeza, he said, and tapped his forehead with his middle finger. Aquí, he said, and then walked away. His legs buckled under him and he hit the pavement. The woman in the BMW jumped out of her car. She held her umbrella over the man while another motorist rolled up his jacket and placed it under his head. Oliver turned away and headed back to the Buick.
I was alone with the horse. The rain came down and the puddles splashed around me in a thousand little explosions and the horse grunted and shook violently, his eyes wild and helpless.
I looked at the revolver in my hand and saw that my nubby finger wouldn’t reach around the trigger. I thought of the brick that severed it, how seconds before Enrique was sitting cross-legged on the grass as I pedaled toward the ramp. I thought how soon after I lost my finger my dad beat Enrique for the first time.
I switched the revolver over to my left hand and it felt strange holding the gun that way, like I was using someone else’s hand, someone else’s fingers.
I aimed between the horse’s eyes. If I had known a prayer I would’ve said it then, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. We were two different animals. The horse understood things like field and hay, sunlight and sky. Not mercy.
I pulled the trigger and the gun blast threw me down onto the wet pavement. My ears buzzed and rang like feedback from a guitar and were still ringing when the police arrived and kept on ringing all the way home.