Jimmy was seventeen years old and nervous before the dance. He was tall, skinny, and awkward. Looking out at the world through a single knothole, he saw an ugly sight in the mirror: his eye patch. He asked himself: If I was some girl, would I wanna dance with a patch like that there? His scowling reflection shook its head. But then he saw himself smile as he remembered how hard his cousin Rhoda had worked giving him dancing lessons. She had only come up to his waist. He had felt like a big old clumsy buffalo dancing with a graceful deer. After all that effort trying to learn to polka, he wondered if he would actually work up the nerve to ask a girl to polka with him. Maybe he should just ask Rhoda. But it might embarrass her, and who wants to be embarrassed? Besides, she might turn him down. He told his mind: Just shut up!
When everybody was ready, all dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes even though it wasn't Sunday, the whole family climbed aboard a wagon dragged along by two plodding plow horses. Aunt Orlena was dressed in a long grey dress and grey bonnet. Uncle Isaac wore his baggy black suit, which was beginning to turn brown, and a black string tie. Cousin Jeff had on a black suit, too, newer than his father's, but even baggier, bought with the expectation that he would grow into it someday. Little Rhoda and littler Naomi looked pretty in blue flour-sack dresses and pigtails. Jimmy, who didn't have a suit, was ashamed of his butternut homespun pants and shirt, but he was proud of his new bandanna, which was fire red.
Jimmy wished the team would pull faster and stir up a little breeze. It was hot on this July night in the middle of Texas. Everybody said this summer was shaping up to be the hottest and driest in memory. Even at this slow pace, the horses were lathered. They had worked hard all day in the field and must be tired. Now that he thought about it, Jimmy figured they had earned the right to plod slowly.
The wagon followed the road that led to the dreaded Weatherford schoolhouse, but Jimmy didn't mind because school was out for the summer. The closer they got, the more crowded the road grew, the more the little girls giggled, and the more nervous Jimmy became. When the wagon reached the school, the playground, which tonight would double as the dance floor, was already busy and noisy. Children were shouting and laughing, and the fiddles were tuning up. The sun was just setting, making even butternut look almost golden.
When Jimmy was getting out of the wagon, he tripped on something and almost fell on his face. He hated his own clumsiness. He hated the heavy clodhopper farmer's boots that weighed him down and made his feet feel like heavy hooves. How was he going to be able to dance? He longed for the lightness of his moccasins with the long fringe trailing out behind like a kite's tail. He could dance in those. But they were long --
No, Jimmy told himself, don't think about the past. It was too painful. Recalling his lost moccasins would just lead to remembering other losses, unbearable losses. Just think about here and now. But here and now was troubling, too. He couldn't dance. Not really. Not these dances.
Rhoda and Naomi ran off to be with other little girls. Cousin Jeff slouched off to look for his friends. Aunt Orlena and Uncle Isaac moved off to join the other adults who were busy talking about rainfall and crops. Jimmy kept the plow horses company. He didn't really fit with any group. He wasn't quite a member of the family, wasn't quite white in the eyes of many, wasn't quite right either, was too big for grade school and too dumb for high school. So he talked to the plow horses.
"O Great Goddogs, thank you for pulling the wagon," Jimmy said softly in the Comanche tongue. "I'm sorry you have to stand here. I know it must be boring, but at least there are two of you. You can keep each other company. There's just one of me."
Then Jimmy realized that several of the kids had noticed him talking to the horses. They were looking at him funny. Now they really thought he was crazy. He nervously started to put his hands in his pockets, but discovered that they were already there.
As the air darkened and cooled, Jimmy noticed individuals melting together into dark clumps. He saw girl clumps and boy clumps, big-kid clumps and little-kid clumps, farmer clumps and farmers' wives clumps. Then a clump of musicians started playing a tune, and the other clumps started breaking apart and reforming.
Drawn by the music, Jimmy moved closer to the musicians: two fiddlers were seated in leaned-back wooden chairs with cowboy hats perched on the backs of their heads. They looked to be in their twenties. A young woman about the same age played an upright piano. Jimmy wondered how she had gotten it from her living room to the playground. An old man probably in his seventies was playing a harmonica.
Jimmy rocked back and forth to the music, trying to work up the courage to ask somebody to dance. By the light of a full moon -- assisted by several lanterns hung from trees -- he studied the couples on the dirt dance floor. There were teenage couples and middle-age couples and old-age couples. And there were some mixed-age couples -- fathers dancing with daughters, grandmas dancing with grandsons. He tried to comprehend the dance steps, but he just got more and more confused. The swaying couples weren't dancing a polka -- he could tell that much -- but he didn't know what they were dancing. They seemed to move their feet very fast, the same way they had seemed to talk back before he learned to understand them. The dancers were beginning to kick up a good bit of dust, which the orange moon turned into gold dust. It gilded the swaying bodies and made them look like dancing statues. Jimmy thought the dancers looked so pretty that he longed to join them, but longing was as far as he got. Frightened by the strange dance steps, he soon returned to the horses.
Still, Jimmy's gaze kept reverting again and again to a brown-haired girl in a yellow calico dress which had some sort of design on it. He couldn't quite make out the pattern in the darkness. He had seen her at school, had seen her at services at the Hard-Shell Baptist Church, had nodded to her and even said hello to her a couple of times. Like most of the girls, she was a farmer's daughter, but he thought she was prettier than the others. He remembered that her name was Rachel.
"Should I ask her to dance?" he asked the horses in the "Human" tongue. "I mean if they ever play a polka." There wasn't a word for "polka" in the Human tongue so he said it in English. "What do you think?"
One of the horses flicked its tail and shifted its weight from one hind leg to the other.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.
Jimmy told himself that he was not a "running-heart." He reminded himself that he had been on the warpath and so should not be afraid of something as harmless as a young girl at a dance.
The band moved from one tune to another. Listening closely, Jimmy thought he heard a polka. Watching closely, he thought he recognized polka steps being performed on the packed earth. He saw his cousin Jeff dancing what appeared to be a polka with a horse-faced girl. He hated the idea of Jeff being braver than he was, so he started walking.
As he made his way across the playground, Jimmy tripped again. He blamed his big boots. He blamed his unhappiness. Whatever was to blame, he was not graceful on his feet. He would have to be crazy to ask a pretty girl to dance. But then everybody already thought he was crazy, so what did he have to lose? He just hoped he wouldn't trip on the dance floor and fall on top of her. He reminded himself that he wasn't just awkward but also ugly. His hand went up and touched the patch over his ruined eye.
And then there was that damn birthmark that made him look even uglier. He touched it, too. The mark was just a series of small purple dots arranged much like the stars in the Big Dipper, only it had a couple of extra stars in its handle. The pointer stars of the Dipper's cup lined up not with the North Star but with his missing left eye, with his patch. The birthmark seemed to be pointing at the patch, making sure nobody missed it, not that many ever did. With his patch, with his birthmark, he would have to be crazy to think that any girl would --
"Scuse me," Jimmy mumbled. "Wanna dance?"
Rachel, the pretty girl in the yellow dress, didn't say anything. He couldn't tell whether she was shy or just hadn't heard.
"Wanna dance?" he asked louder.
She looked uncomfortable.
"No," she said at last. "I'm sorry."
Jimmy raced his running-heart back across the playground. He felt clumsier than ever and uglier than ever. And he even felt less white. He didn't belong here with these people.
Standing with the horses once again, Jimmy couldn't help thinking about Lifts Something. She hadn't refused to dance with him. She had been willing to love him. But she was --
No, stoppit, Jimmy scolded himself. Don't think her name. Don't think about the past at all. How many times did he have to remind himself? Wouldn't he ever learn?
Although he was discouraged, Jimmy felt he owed it to himself to pick out another girl, work up his courage, and ask her to dance. He wished he could see the girls better, not just whether they were pretty or not, but whether they looked sympathetic. He found his curiosity -- or whatever it was -- focusing more and more on a redhead with freckles. He really couldn't see her spots or even the color of her hair in the dim light, but he had seen her at school and church and knew what she looked like. He told himself that she was much prettier than the first girl he had asked. He should have started with her. What had he been thinking of? He didn't really know her, but everybody said she was nice. She wouldn't hurt his feelings. This girl's name was Sarah.
When the band played another polka, Jimmy gathered his courage and made another clumsy charge across the dusty dance floor. He didn't trip this time, which he took to be a good omen.
"Scuse me," he repeated the formula. "Wanna dance?"
Sarah looked embarrassed. Jimmy couldn't think of anything else to say and didn't know what to do. He just stood there.
"I'm sorry," Sarah said at last.
Jimmy shook his head. He couldn't believe it. What had happened to all her niceness? His expression asked: Why not?
"I cain't," she said.
"You cain't?" he asked. His face said: Why would you hurt me?
"My daddy told me not to," she whispered.
Jimmy turned and fled once again. So that was it. The girls' parents had told them not to dance with the savage. They believed he was unclean. They thought he was half-heathen. They knew he was crazy because he was always talking about the biggest canyon in the world, the prettiest place in the world, the best ranching country in the world -- which they figured was about as real as the Seven Cities of Gold. They didn't want him touching their daughters. He would show them. Maybe.
Jimmy said goodbye to the horses and started walking home.
Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Latham
Code of the West
Jimmy's astonishing and triumphant achievement at the fair changes his life. With the prize money he follows his dream, recruits cowboys, puts together a herd of cattle, and drives them across the plains to a deep canyon, where he intends to make his own private kingdom. Goodnight's luck and courage bring him an early and gratifying success. Above all, they bring him the comradeship of his men, and the friendship of a lifetime, when he meets Jack Loving, who is everything Jimmy Goodnight isn't -- handsome, graceful, a naturally gifted horseman, and a great dancer. Together, Goodnight and Loving make a formidable team, and their relationship is one of complete trust, the bedrock on which Goodnight's growing empire rests, on a seemingly solid foundation -- until a woman appears with whom both men fall in love.
All goes well until Goodnight makes a fearful, vengeful, and unforgiving enemy, takes on an Eastern big businessman as a partner -- and falls in love with his beautiful daughter Revelie, and fails to notice the growing mutual attraction bet-ween Revelie and Loving...
Compulsively readable, cleverly interweaving Western history (Loving and Goodnight are both based on real people in the historical West) and Arthurian legend, Code of the West is a powerful love story, a sweeping adventure, a great "Western" -- and just the kind of unexpected, unusual, and hugely successful work of fiction that has sealed Aaron Latham's reputation.