I'm invisible as I slide silently around the corner of my bedroom and into a hallway leading to the back door, left open because of the heat of summer. Bending slightly, I glide silently down an empty corridor toward the outside. Back to the wall, I avoid several creaking boards in its thinly-carpeted expanse.

On this early July morning in 1953, the back door has been left open at night; only a screen-door and an eyehook protecting my family from the elements and invading Mongols.

Traversing that short remaining distance takes concentration and speed. I can hear my mother stirring as I pass an open bedroom door. In this heat, doors and windows in our home are seldom closed. I step on the far left of the doorway -- the board squeaks on the other side -- and pull sharply down and inward on the handle with one hand while unhooking a latch with the other. Swinging it open, I hop over the sill and onto a small back porch.

"Elroy. You get back in here." She caught me.

"I'm not doin' anything, Ma," I call back inside while standing on the porch, bare thirteen-year-old feet yearning to keep moving.

"You're going for that old shed again, that's what you're doing. I told you to stay away from there. It's too dangerous. Get back in the house."

She caught me out there yesterday. We've only lived here about a week and the ancient wooden structure out back has been pulling me like a magnet. From the outside, it looks exactly like those old log cabins in my history book at school, except for the rear, where wooden planks were used -- the only clue to a more modern origin. I just know it's filled with treasures, maybe guns or relics of some bygone age. I'll bet there are boxes of magazines and books out there, many from before I was even born.

I found a box of comics in our old house, up in the attic. We ain't got no attic here, but we got that shed. It's just as good, but only downstairs is all. There's a big padlock on the door, but I found a loose board in the back. Through it, I saw all kinds of boxes and stuff inside. Too dark to see good, though.

I like to read, and can understand all of the words in comic books. I tried the Bible once, but only once. Jeez, that's something else. Some of the words in there are easy, but I can't understand much about what they’re saying. That's about all the books we have. Papa don't read good and don't believe in them. He won't even let a newspaper in the house.

"Man was made to work and God gave him woman to help. We don't have time for useless reading," he says.

Me, I want to learn to read good, maybe even write books when I grow up. I know I have to go out and have adventures to write about. So much to do, so much to see, so much to live.

And here I am, already thirteen and ain't done nothing yet. School's full of stupid jerks. All they want to do is play games and fight, and the game -- more likely than not -- is to beat me up….

"Elroy, Dumbboy," they yell, "we'll give you a head start."

Then, the game is, I run and they chase me. I run better than before, but they always catch me, then Tommy sits on my face and farts while the rest of them laugh. And the girls all watch and laugh too. Even Shirley, the cute one.

It's not my fault I can't read and write as good as them. Papa doesn't let me do that school stuff at home.

"I gotta send you to school," he tells me, "cause the law makes me, but here at home you do what the hell I tell you. And that don't need no damned books. You get out and mow that yard like I told you." That sort of thing.

He works, does something at a factory downtown, like twelve-fifteen hours a day. And not a darn thing when he gets home. Just sits in this big chair and yells at me and Ma.

We moved, but I still go to that same old school. The one where they don't like me none. Papa don't know it, but I snuck some of those comics when we moved. Maybe I can hide them in the shed? It's way out there in the corner of a big yard I'll have to mow. The thing is real, real old and looks like it's gonna fall down any minute. It fooled me, anyway, because it's made real heavy and thick. I had a hard time finding a way in. It took me a long time to find that loose board in the back. Even then, Papa called and I had to go back in the house, so I don't know what's inside. The suspense is killing me.

"You hear me, Elroy?" Ma calls. "I don't hear you coming back in?"

"Okay, okay." I go back inside, slamming the screen-door behind me.

***

"You done with that lawn yet, boy?" I can hear Papa calling from the porch. He just got home from work. "Where the hell you get to?"

I finished a while before and am sitting under the high back-porch, spiderwebs catching in my hair as I read a schoolbook. I have a lot of trouble getting my homework done, making the teachers think I'm dumb or something. I just can't do it at home. I tried working at the library once, but Papa got on my ass for not being home for my chores.

There's a cardboard box I found and keep it under here so I can sneak out and study. The trouble is, I don't have no light, so I can't study at night, and so my schoolwork still suffers. At the old house, I could sometimes go up to the attic where there was a light, after Papa went to sleep. If he sees me with a book, he'll find work for me to do instead.

Anyways, when I hear him up there, walking around and yelling, I sneak out the side and squirm around the corner of the house so he won't see where I come from.

"Here, Papa," I call back from alongside the house, then trot to the porch. "I just now finished."

He already has the old push-type manual mower I was using, and is pulling it back toward the old shed. As I come up to him, he's trying the lock.

"Damn padlock," he mumbles, trying to shake it open. "Forgot about that sucker, and ain't got no damn key." He shakes the lock. "Don't suppose you have any way to get in the damn thing?" He looks at me.

"I dunno, Papa," I lie. I want to get in first, to explore. Going in with him will ruin the adventure.

"Well, it won't hurt none to leave it outside a night or two. Ain’t gonna rain. I'll get something and knock that old lock off later. You get all your chores done?"

I don't know what to answer. It's a trick question. If I say "yes" he might find me something else to do. If I say "no" he might get mad and ask, "why not?"

"Uh, yeah, I think so." Sort of a compromise.

I breathe out in relief as he looks at me, turns around, and goes back into the house. I'm off the hook for awhile.

After the screen-door slams shut behind him, I hurry around the back of the shed. With a mild “Screeech” the loose board swings aside about ten-inches, barely enough for me to squeeze in.

The inside of the, maybe 10'x10', room looks about like I expected. Boxes, wooden and cardboard, are piled up along one side with no space between them and the wall. The other side has ancient machinery and a wooden barrel. A large rusty lawnmower or something sits in the center, with just enough room to squeeze by on all sides. I'm lucky. The back wall contains mostly shelving and my hole is in about the only clear space on the bottom shelf. A foot on either side and I wouldn't have been able to get inside.

My attention goes immediately to piles of magazines and newspapers on the shelves. Dust flies as I grab at them. There’s a little light from a dusty window in back of the shed, high up. Enough that I can see a date on the top newspaper. It's an old one, February sixth, 1911. Man, this shed must be old, I think. So old it doesn’t even smell much, more like dirt or mildew with a hint of old spices.

Hey, I think, looking back at the lawnmower. I find it's not really a lawnmower, more like some kind of a plow or old farm thing. Or, it could be a lawnmower, so old it looks strange is all? Anyway, it's real old too. There ain't enough light for me to really read the newspaper, though. If I try real hard, I might, but I'm too interested in exploring to bother.

I open the tops and look into some of the boxes. One's full of old shoes, and another has glass jars filled with nails and screws. The barrel has metal pipes and other junk in it. All are interesting things that, like the reading stuff, can be left till later. I can see behind one pile of boxes, and something gleaming in a sparse ray of sunlight. Of course, that's the next thing to check out.

I recoil. It looks like a skeleton, of something dead. A few seconds later, recovering and curious, I squeeze back in and look closer. The first thing I see is that it's not human. Sighing in relief -- but just a little disappointed -- I take a closer look. The thing looks kinda like a human, but not quite. I've been looking at the foot, which has hooves -- divided into four parts, not two like a cow. I've seen a cow skeleton before and don't know of any animal that has a four-toed hoof. Strange. It’s front legs end in finger bones. It's about my size or maybe larger, I think, looking in the dim light from the tiny window.

What caught my attention is something shiny on its front leg. Stooping down, heart beating wildly at the thought of actually touching a skeleton, I take hold of the shiny thing and shake it. With a clattering of dry bones on the wooden floor, it comes off. As I stand, I notice something else. In the skeleton's rib cage, among the bones, is what looks like an arrow with a wooden shaft. I grab it too and hurriedly back out, bumping my shoulder on and shaking the boxes in my haste.

I see that the shiny thing is a kind of bracelet. Like a watch, except with no hands and too many knobs and things on it. Since I can't see too good, I go back and hold it near the hole next to the broken board.

It slips easily over my hand and, somehow, tightens onto my left wrist -- like it has a mind of it's own. Although I pull on it, and even shake my hand, it stays tight. I have to admit, it looks nice but what the hell good is it and how do I get it off? I wonder. I don't want to go through life with something like that on my wrist.

I notice the arrow, still clutched in my hand. It's about four-feet long and looks like from in those old western shows on television. It's a lot cruder though, not too straight, and I can see the feathers at one end don't match. They're not all one color or nothing, like maybe a kid made it by hand. The other end has a sharpened stone on it. Not a metal tip like in the movies, just a stone tied on with strings. It must have been plenty good though, I think. It obviously killed the guy, which is what I think of the skeleton -- even if it isn't a real person. The next thing I do is pile some of the lighter boxes up in front of the skeleton, figuring I can hide it from Papa. I don't know why, maybe because I'm stealing the guy's bracelet.

I want to take the darn thing off but, since I can't, leave the shed and take the arrow back into the house, trying not to make the bracelet obvious. I figure I'll take them both to school tomorrow and show a teacher. Maybe Mr. Simpson in my Social Studies class? He's real smart. Anyway, I put on a long-sleeved shirt to hide the bracelet. I don't want my parents to see it. They'd be sure to ask questions.

***

"I have to admit, Elroy, I don't know much about Arizona pre-history, but this looks like a real old arrow," Mr. Simpson tells me. "Maybe from before Europeans came over. One of the first things we did was give and sell them metal arrowheads. I've never seen a whole arrow. Mostly the wood rots away quickly, especially since they have to strip the protection of the bark off. Also, feathers dry out and deteriorate with age. It looks old, but can't really be all that old, not in one piece. You might have someone's school project here."

I don't know why, but I never do show him the bracelet, maybe because the bell is about to ring for my next class. Actually, I want to try out all those buttons and things on it.

"Why don't you leave it with me for awhile?" he asks, meaning the arrow. "Maybe I can find someone that knows more? Mr. Samson in shop class might remember if they had a class in making them or something."

"Sure. I don't need it any," I tell him.

By the time I get home, I still haven't checked out the bracelet, having school and other things on my mind. I go to my nest under the back porch and take a close look.

There are three dials and two buttons. The buttons are at each side, recessed so they don't stick out much. I think it's to make sure you don't press them by mistake. Two of the dials are one inside the other, and the other, the smallest one, is sitting off by itself. I wonder how it tells time, and how to set it? That's probably all it needs, if it's a watch, to be set right. Or, maybe, I think of Dick Tracy comics, it's some kind of wrist radio? Maybe with one dial to set stations and the other for the volume?

Thinking it's the on and volume switch, I turn the small one, feeling for a click. Nothing happens, though, but when I push the button on that side, the breeze coming under the porch from one side to the other seems to stop coming in. Now that's real strange, I think. How can my bracelet stop the wind?

To check about the breeze, I crawl out into the backyard. Standing up, I see a woman walking across the road. At least she should be walking, but is only standing there, one foot raised like she's balancing.

I watch for a minute or so, waiting for her to lower her foot or fall over, but she doesn't. She just stands there, not moving, and I notice there's still no breeze. Did my bracelet do that? I wonder. No. No way.

But when I turn the dial back and push the button again, I look at the woman and see her walking normally, soon out of sight. Let me tell you, am I surprised? You can bet your butt I am. Even the wind comes back. I can only stand there, unable to think. I can't believe it.

Heart beating wildly and feeling a little weak I go back inside the house. My mother is stirring a pot of something on the stove. Walking up behind her, I turn the dial over all the way. She freezes. Not only does she freeze in place, but so does the steam from the pot, and the air gets dead again.

I move back to the doorway, feeling like something is pressing against me, making it like walking through water or something. When I turn the dial off, everything is back to normal. I smell food in the pot and find it easier to breathe. Even the air and smell had stood still.

I tiptoe upstairs to my bedroom and lie on the unmade bed, wondering what I can do with this power? I can think of many, many things. Bullies, for example. I can easily run away from those kids that are always chasing me. But, I think, why even run away, since I can kick Tommy's butt anytime I want? School takes on another meaning. One where I'm not picked on. Where I'm the biggest bully. I lie there and daydream, eventually falling asleep.

Later, after supper, I happen to remember the other dials and buttons on what is obviously not a watch or radio. Taking a chance, I press buttons. Neither one does anything, but the smaller dial doesn't work anymore. When I press the button next to it again it works, I see. That button turns that dial on or off.

Luckily, I'm downstairs, standing on the ground when I try out the other dials. One is inside the other, both hard to turn. The outer one is real hard to turn, so I leave it alone, at its old setting. Holding the bracelet up to the light, I can see strange writing on them, that I can't read. I turn the inner dial round and round, remembering the setting it had been on at the beginning. A good thing I do, since I need it to get home.

What happens is that, when I turn that inner dial and then push the button next to it, I fall several inches, landing on two-foot-high grass. I've only mowed the lawn yesterday, is my first thought.

Standing, I see nothing but tall grass, as far as I can see. Well, there is a bunch of trees in the distance. So I walk that way, struggling through the stalks, with a strong smell of wet vegetation. A cloud of nits zeros in, almost choking me as I brush them away.

Standing under the trees, I see a herd of animals far away. I shade my eyes and try to make them out. They look like pictures of American buffaloes. Now, I know darn well we ain't got none around here.

After all these surprises, I barely notice a metallic click, then the loud "Boom" of a gun going off and a cloud of blue smoke drifting over me, making me cough loudly.

"What the hell you doing here, boy?" I hear a gruff voice.

When I turn around, there is the dirtiest, biggest and meanest-looking man I have ever seen. He's holding a gun that's taller than I am. I swear, the guy both looks like a bear and stinks like a bear that ate a skunk must smell.

He has on stiff canvas trousers and some kind of skin over his shoulder. The boots, covering huge feet, are different colors, one with a buckle and the other without. The pants stick out obscenely, stiff and unwashed. He has no shirt or undershirt on at all, with only a vest made of some kind of fur.

And his face? His hair sticks out in every direction, as does a full beard and mustache. I mean, this guy would frighten any weaker animal -- and certainly scares me. I have'ta pee, and right away.

"I said, boy, what the hell you doing around here?" his voice booms. I really have to pee. It's a case of pee my pants, or not. I simply turn, take it out, and let go. I fully expect him to bite my head off before I finish.

"Ya see that shot, boy? Five-hunerd'-yard if it's a foot. This old Henry can sure put'um in there."

I see a virtual river hitting a tree next to my trickle. I have to step back or get splashed. When I turn, I see the apparition is still there, towering far above and also wetting the bushes.

"You want'a drink, boy?" it asks, finishing.

"Yeah. Yes. I mean, yes sir," I answer. My throat is pretty dry.

We go through to the other side of the trees where he has a campfire with some sort of lean-to. Over the fire, I see a very large chunk of meat hanging on a couple of "Y" shaped sticks, a metal skewer through its center. A dented tin coffeepot sits on a rock alongside the hot coals, an open burlap bag lying nearby. I can see cooking canisters in and around it. One is labeled "Salt," and another "Coffee."

Since he sits on the ground like an Indian, I do too. He reaches into another burlap bag and brings out a whiskey bottle, takes a long swig, then hands it to me.

"To good hunting, boy," he says. The man notices me hesitating. My father doesn't let me drink his whiskey. "Go ahead. It's good for you. Drink it," he almost yells at the end, finishing with, "When a man offers a good luck drink you always drink it. Not drinkin' is an easy way to get yur’self dead."

I take two snorts, to make darned sure I stay among the living, although for a few moments I think I committed suicide. Jeez, that stuff tastes bad.

"Water.... Please," I plead.

He only laughs.

"Water?" he says. "That's horse drink. A man drinks whiskey."

He offers me the bottle again, and I take another drink, to prove I'm a man -- a thirteen-year-old man.

"My mother tried to give me milk, once't. My old man slapped her so hard she never tried again," he tells me. "Those Injun squaws has some funny ideas. The meat's bout ready, boy.

By the way, what's your name? Mine's Asshole. Asshole of the Plains, cause a man messes with me and I tears him a new asshole." He thumps a bare chest, sounding like a club hitting a hollow log. "Half white, half red, half Mex, an all mean."

"Uh, Elroy. Elroy Mathers. Glad to meet you, uh ... Asshole."

"Well, not be needin’ a-jawing, Elroy me boy. Les' dig in."

He reaches into his bag, bringing out a knife about a foot long and throwing it to stick in the ground in front of me. It's so heavy it takes both my hands to pull it out.

Asshole don't waste any time. He steadies the meat with one dirty hand while hacking off a huge chunk, using an even bigger knife, with the other.

I try to emulate him, reaching one hand over and grabbing the carcass, sword in my other hand.

"Yooouuuch," I jerk back, feeling the heat and listening to muffled laughter as Asshole guffaws through a mouthful of food. For some reason, it doesn't sound like the kids. Unlike with them, it doesn't sound like mean laughing.

I try again, this time using only the tips of my fingers. The knife is very sharp, slicing effortlessly though the roast, blood dripping as I cut.

We eat in deadly earnest silence. For Asshole, eating is an end in itself, not needing small talk. Afterward, sharing his bottle, he tells me about himself.

"I'm the bestest buffalo hunter in the territories," he brags. "Once't I got me three-hundred in one day, sunup to sunup. Those were the days. Now, I'm lucky to see that many in a week.

"You should'a see'd 'um, Elroy. Herds miles wide, far as a man can spit with the wind. I woun't even have ta aim, just crank off the shots fast as I could load, a hit ever' time, they's so thick."

"Uh. I wonder why I never saw any around here? This is Arizona, ain't it?" I'm getting suspicious. I mean, this can't be, like, my back yard.

"Arizona? What's an Arizona? This here? This here's Injun Country."

"And, and what year is it?"

"Dunno, bout '30 or '40, somethin' like that."

"1830?"

"Guess so, why? I's not too good with figures." For the first time, he seems embarrassed.

"Yeah, me neither, Asshole. Hey, I'm feeling drunk. I better go home."

"Go home? Boy, I needs me a swamper ta help skin that thing I done shot. You can't leave me now."

Now, with the drink and the thought of skinning a buffalo, all that bloody meat wants to come back up.

"I'll be back in a minute, Asshole. I ... I ... gotta go for a minute."

Without waiting for an answer, I stagger for the bushes.

Finished throwing up, I wipe my mouth and try to think. It occurs to me that the bracelet got me here -- it sure better get me back. I study the dials, then align the inner dial with the mark on the outer one, the original setting, and push the button.

I look around, seeing myself between houses two streets over from mine. I hurry home and sneak upstairs, foregoing supper in favor of an early sleep. Time enough to think things over in the morning, sober.

I have a headache in the morning, but have to go to school. In fact, I wouldn't miss it today for anything -- not with my bracelet. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to get even with those bullies.

My town is an old one, originally called "Death Hill" because of a flat-topped and raised area on the outskirts of town where a bunch'a pioneers were killed once. That hilltop is now occupied by the post office and city-hall.

It was also famous, even has a bronze plaque paid for by the VFW, for its gunfights and duels. They were usually by visiting cowboys and town marshals, back in the old days.

Now, we're called "Thimbletown," after the largest rancher in those days, a man named Jeremiah Thimble. Henry McCarty, better known as Billy the Kid, is said to have gunned down one man on that hill, the same with Wild Bill Hickok. It's funny that Billy was said to have killed only twenty-one men, yet forty towns claim those kills. I like the sound of Death Hill better.

Hungover and anxious, I board the school bus. As an experiment, I turn the small dial the other way, pressing the button. That bus ride is an experience. Everyone on the bus seems to jerk around like puppets as time slows down for me. When they move, they become blurs. The bus driver keeps strict control on that bus. He doesn't allow any horseplay. But kids will be kids and constantly turn around, talking to each other and reaching hands from seat to seat. Their heads jerk around, back and forth, too fast for me to see, becoming blurs.

Interested, I try different settings, slow to fast, back and forth. The sounds alternate from squeaking to squawking, to a low unintelligible mumble. Trees and houses outside zip by, then crawl, as I twist the dial and push the button. Getting tired of the long trip, I set it back to normal, with a smile on my face. At least the ride gives my hangover time to go away.

I get off the bus and walk inside. Since classes will start before long, kids are clustered around their lockers in the hallways, getting books out and putting jackets inside. Nobody has time to bother me.

I, however, have all the time in the world. If I felt like it, I could speed up time for myself and take a long nap in those few minutes.

Tommy, the bully, is at his locker when I come up behind him, my own time sped up. He stands next to the open door, hands on a stack of books inside. I have to squeeze around Janet, one of the prettiest girls -- and one that doesn't like me much. I stand back, taking my time, and give him a swift kick in the butt. Then I go back down the hall and set the time back to normal.

As I push the button, Tommy slams into his locker, swings around, and hits Janet in the boobs.

"You bastard," I can hear him yell.

Janet falls back, landing on her butt. All the other kids turn to look and laugh, as do I. One of them not laughing is Janet's boyfriend, Freddy. He runs over and hits Tommy. They fight while Janet sits on the floor, crying.

About that time, Mrs. James comes out of her room and sees the fight, hurrying over to stop it, and getting hit by Tommy.

After that, all four of them march off to the principals office.

Still laughing, I go to my homeroom. I can't wait for recess.

Like always at recess, I go to a section of stone fence around the playground, sitting down to read a book. I don't -- or didn't before -- have much opportunity to read novels at home. So I keep library books in my locker to read at school.

And, like always, Tommy and some others come over to have fun with me. I've been anxiously counting on it.

"Whatcha' readin', Dumbdumb?" one of the boys asks. I can see another boy jumping the fence, a little ways off, probably going to pull me over it from behind -- like they've done before -- by one shoving and another pulling.

A couple of girls, standing over by the swings, are watching -- including Shirley. Tommy stands a little ways away -- also watching. Probably because he's already been in to see the principal once today, he won't want to be directly involved.

"Uh, 'Tom Sawyer'," I tell him, keeping an eye on the other boy, now sneaking behind me. Casually, I reach my right hand to my left wrist. As the first boy abruptly steps directly in front of me and extends his hands, I push the button.

Everyone freezes as I get up and put my book down. First the one in front of me. I walk behind him and push the back of his head forward. Then I sit down and swing my legs back over the fence. Going behind the second boy, I carefully swing his shoulders to the right position, like aiming a cannon, and push his head toward the first boy, kicking his butt to make sure. Going back to the fence, I sit down a foot to the side and pick up my book. When things are set up, I push the button again.

"Thunk." The two bang together, hard; slamming into each other, heads going both ways like two pool balls hitting.

They get up, one is crying like a baby and the other looks funny, probably dazed. I glance up from my book, seeing Shirley smiling and pointing.

Tommy runs over. He seems angry.

"What you doing to my friends, Elroy? He starts to reach for me, but stops as I stand up, stepping toward him. I'm not afraid of him anymore -- since all I have to do is push that button. It feels nice, not being afraid.

"I didn't do anything, goofball," I tell him, standing in his face. I can see him swinging his fist; even as I push my faithful button. With all the time in the world, I look around, seeing all the kids watching -- even the Principal from his window. Shirley has a big grin on her pretty face.

Turning back, I wind up and hit Tommy in the face, twice -- real hard, too. Then I step back and press the button. Tommy doesn't stumble. It looks like his feet leave the ground as he flies backward, landing on his back and unconscious.

I don't have to push my button for action. Suddenly everything is happening at once. Teachers appear out of nowhere and the other kids rush over. Some of them go to the other boys, but Shirley and Janet come over to me, real happy like.

"It's about time someone beat him up," Janet says, probably because Tommy hit her before. Shirley pushes her away and grabs my right hand.

"Did you hurt your hand, Elroy?"

She gives me a nice look, one I never saw her give anyone before -- and I have been watching. "I'll bet that hurt your little hand."

My heart flutters and I know I get red in the face as she raises my hand and kisses it.

"Careful, it hurts a lot. I guess I hit him pretty hard," I reply, wanting to grab her and pull her close. Hey, why not? I think. I push my button. I find I can reach over and kiss her lips, pressing my face against her neck and breathing in a womanly smell. Tentatively, I run my hands over her little boobs, squeezing gently. I try to pull the front of her blouse open but, regaining my senses, stop myself. After all, she might feel it later. Instead, I back up and start time again, knowing my face is red by then -- from guilt.

They take Tommy to the nurse's office and me and the other boys to see the Principal.

"You two have detention for the next ten days," he tells them. After they leave, he turns to me. "You're lucky, Elroy. I saw the whole thing. I don't know why those two wanted to fight in front of you, but know you had nothing to do with it. And I saw Tommy attack you for no reason. But you better watch out. I have my eye on you. I can't put a finger on it, but know you were involved, somehow." He looks me over. "Coincidences like that don't just happen out of nowhere."

As I walk out, he tells me, "Good fight, though. He didn't get a chance to touch you."

After school, I get to sit and talk to Shirley and Janet while we wait for the buses. Even during classes, the kids treat me a lot nicer. One of the two boys I fought earlier even offers me a stick of gum.

Oh, boy, this bracelet has changed my life, I reflect on the way home. On a whim, I sit in the back of the bus and slow down time, doing my homework during the trip. Afterwards, I stop it entirely, lie down across the seat and take a long nap. I don't have any way to tell how long I slept, and it makes no difference at all. The bus hasn't moved an inch while I was asleep. I do notice the air is a little stale when I wake up; it's the gasping for air that wakes me. Once I start time again and fresh air flows in the bus windows, I'm okay.

***

"What's come over you, boy?" Papa is in a good mood. "You've been getting all your chores done lately. I ain't had to be on your ass all week." He sits down with his after-work beer. "See, Elroy, I work a lot of hours then have only a short time to relax before going to bed; and then repeating it the next morning. I simply don't have time or energy to mow lawns or clean up outside. So you have to do it for us.

"Your mother is busy enough with her own work, even sewing for other people. To make ends meet, we all have to do our jobs." He twists the top off his beer and sits back with a sigh. "I'll be glad when you get old enough to quit that damned school and get a real job. Maybe your mother won't have to do that extra crap to make money."

Money. Money? I don't remember thinking of money much. I mean, I know my family doesn't have as much as some of the others. I have to take my lunch to school in a sack most of the time, even if they have hamburgers and fries in the cafeteria. That makes me mad sometimes.

But I've never really paid a lot of attention. After all, we're not as poor as Kenny's family. Sure, I'd like to have some, but other things seem more important. I get an allowance, which is usually enough for me. I guess it's the way I've been taught. Papa takes care of all that money stuff, and I've never heard Ma complain. I've seen her sewing things a lot, but always figured it's her hobby or something.

But it gets me thinking. There must be some way this bracelet can get me money? Of course, from reading, I know I can steal it. That's very tempting. Now, I don't really have anything against that, except that someone else will have to pay for it if I do, like, take a bunch out of a cash-register. Then, I'll be rich but the store, or worse yet some poor clerk, will be poorer. I don't want that.

If I was older I could find all kinds of ways, but what can a thirteen-year-old do? Well, with plenty of time, I start looking around.

One thing I notice is a pack of six of those disposable plastic lighters. Both my parents smoke cigarettes, so we have them and lighters lying all around the house. They give me an idea. I have a few dollars saved up in my dresser drawer. I take it out and buy a half-dozen packs of lighters. Now, maybe I can make some money, I think.

I figure that something like these lighters will sell well in the past. After all, even back then there were a lot of smokers and all they had were matches. Having something light, water-proof and shiny will appeal to cigar smokers. Gold will be good, but any old coins will also have increased in value.

Since I want plenty of time for the project, I wait until Saturday morning. Papa sleeps late on the weekends, making up for all the hours he has to work during the week. On most Saturday mornings, Ma walks a couple blocks to catch the city bus and do the week's shopping.

She likes me to go with her, since I can help carry the groceries and stuff home. That way, two of us carrying bags, she doesn't have to take a taxi. We don't have enough money for a car.

"Of course you can go with me, Elroy. I can use the help," she tells me when I ask.

"I wanna take back some library books, too, Ma," I tell her. "Papa doesn't know I have them, and they're due on Tuesday." A small lie, but I need an excuse for the plastic bag of lighters. I put a couple of magazines from the shed in with them, so's the bag has the right shape.

"Are we really that poor, Ma?" I ask.

"There are a lot of people poorer than us, honey," she says, getting out her shopping cart, the one with wheels on it. "We don't do so bad."

"Then why we gotta take the bus, instead of having our own car?"

"We'll get one someday. It takes a lot of money though, more than we have right now."

I think about that on the way to town. I anticipate making a lot from these lighters, maybe enough for a car? Na, but still, who knows? They must be valuable. Well, anyway, we take the bus to town.

"You meet me in an hour at the grocery store," she tells me. "Or, if I already left, here in the park. This’s where the bus stops."

"Okay," I tell her, taking my bag and leaving. I do go to the library across the street, but only in case she's watching, though unlikely. Then I look for somewhere out of the way and set my bracelet to about the same place as when I met Asshole before. I move the dial over a little, though. I don't really want to run into him again. He might be angry because I left him like that -- to skin the buffalo by himself.

I find myself behind a building. The place smells bad, like shit, and the ground's muddy. I wish I was wearing my boots. Walking around to the front, I see it's a saloon with people standing along the street. The street itself is only a big mud hole with no paving at all. I don't see any cars, only horses and wagons. The smell is awful, with little breeze.

Everybody seems in a good mood, though, like they're waiting for something. As I push through the crowd on a wide wooden sidewalk, I hear cheering up the street.

In general, the people seem dirty and dressed in rough clothing. I guess I'm used to wash-and-wear clothes. Theirs are mostly wool and cotton, real rough by present standards. So is their talk. I hear a lot of cussing and some words I don't understand that still seem like cussing.

"Here he comes," one woman says to another. "Least he drove them damn Yankees out’a here. We can do without the bastards -- them telling us how to live."

"They wasn't so bad, Ethel," another says. "They paid for their keep."

"Sure they did, they got all’a the money up North. We gotta scrabble for a few bits while they spend like water. An' tellin' us we can't have slaves? Ain't none'a their business if we got slaves."

"You ain't got no slaves. What you care, Ethel?"

"Well ... maybe not now, but I might."

"None of us got them, ceptin' Mr. Thimble, he's got a couple. It don't bother me none," a third voice pops up.

"Anyway, I'm glad he done chased them Yankees out'a here. We don't need them, not at all," Ethel says.

"And that one, Joshua, seems like a nice guy -- for a Negro. He helped me load my wagon, over at Jamison's, and he didn't have to do that."

"Shusssh, here they come."

I hear cheering coming closer and a troop of cavalry, dressed in neat gray uniforms, comes along the street. Everyone stops talking and starts cheering. Interested in the bit of history, I ask a tall teenager standing next to me.

"Who is it, anyway?"

He turns a little, looking down and almost hitting me in the side with a large pistol stuck in the front of his belt.

"That guy in front? He's Colonel Baylor. He just finished driving the Yankees out'a Arizona and New Mexico territory. Guess he's riding through is all, and has'ta get back to the war."

I watch the parade until it turns a corner and out of sight. The crowd rapidly disperses into businesses and along the wooden sidewalks, leaving me almost alone.

Now I don't know what to do. I'm here, but have no idea how to sell things. Maybe they have laws about selling, and I might have to get permission or something?

Seeing a store across the street, one with barrels and stuff for sale outside, I figure maybe I can sell them to the owner and get back home before my mother's finished.

It smells much better inside. Not like modern stores but a mixture of strong smells: oil, vinegar from a barrel of pickles, leather, and something sweet -- maybe candy.

The big room is literally stuffed with stuff, if you know what I mean. Barrels of things like the pickles, nails, and items I don't recognize are spotted around the room. Shelves cover three walls, loaded with cloth, farm stuff, and canned and bottled goods. There isn't any big picture window, but enough light comes in to show me a counter along the back wall with glass containers of candy and tobacco on display. A clerk in shirt sleeves stands behind the counter, reading a newspaper. He sees me as I walk through the maze and up to the counter.

"What ya need kid?" he asks. "Maybe some candy? I got some nice peppermint sticks, right out'a the box?"

"Na. Not today. I wanna sell you something."

"Like what?"

I pull a pack of lighters out of the bag and slap them on the counter.

"What the devil is that thing. Is it edible?"

"Cigarette lighters. Like matches, only they last for months. They're even waterproof," I tell him.

He picks the pack up and studies it, turning it around and around.

"How's it work? If you gotta light it with a match, how's it last for months?"

Oh, damn, I think. He's never seen a plastic package before. He thinks its one big thing. I take it back and tear the pack apart, spilling the lighters onto the counter. Picking one up, I thumb the knob, producing a flame.

"Well, I'll be a horse biscuit, it makes fire."

He picks up one and tries to light it, holding it upside down and, of course, not getting it to light. Then he drags the top across the wooden counter, doing nothing but scratching the surface.

"Don't even work."

I have to show him how to light the thing.

"But what good is it? Nothing but a little tiny fire. It'd be hard to light a pipe with this thing."

I have to show him more, how the little slide on the side makes a bigger flame.

"See?" I tell him. "A match only lights one time, but this lighter will work for months, lighting every time. And another thing, it's waterproof. If you get it wet, it still works."

He still looks dubious, twisting it around, looking at it sideways and all, snapping it over and over to watch the flame.

"Uh, maybe. Uh, how much you want for these things?"

"How about a dollar apiece?" I ask. I don't know it then, but I'm about to get a lesson in salesmanship.

"Let me tell you, right off, kid," he tells me. "I can't get more than a nickel for them, myself. Matches cost me a dollar for a hundred boxes of fifty in a box. That means a penny a box, my cost. I can sell them, maybe, for two cents a box. Most of the time it's three boxes for two cents. Sometimes, if I have cigars or tobacco that's getting old, I give away the matches just to sell the cigars. Now, how many of these things can you supply me?"

"I have six of these packs. That's, let's see now ... thirty-six of them," I tell him.

"And how many more?"

"That's all I got."

"Well, boy. You see, if I sell these for, say, a nickel, people might like them and want more. I'd need a steady supply, otherwise they'd bug me to no end. If I can only get a nickel apiece, I can only afford to give you, at the very most, three cents apiece, which comes to $ 1.08 for all of them. Now, for a onetime profit of 72 cents, I'd have to put up with bitching when I ran out.

"See what I mean? It's not worth the hassle." He has the nerve to grin at me. "Tell you what. I might be able to use them myself. I'll give you a dollar for the lot?"

Now, the lighters cost me six-dollars. I think, should I sell them for a dollar? The dollar -- if in old coins -- might be worth more back in my time? I know that people pay for old money. If I got a dollar worth of gold, it would be worth more in my time, which makes it hard to decide. While I'm thinking, I hear a voice behind me.

"I need smokes, right away," it says.

Turning, I see one of those soldiers. It looks like the one that was riding in front, with all kinds of medals on him and those scrambled egg things on his hat.

"Yes sir, Colonel Baylor," the clerk says, looking nervous. "Right here, sir. I have some real fine Mexican cigars, just came in. Very fresh."

"You got a whole box? Maybe two? I don't get to town very often." The colonel bends over the case.

I notice he hasn't shaved for awhile. From a distance, with all that shiny stuff, and on a horse, I hadn't noticed. He sees the colorful plastic lighters on the counter.

"Now, what the holy hell are those?" he asks, picking one up and going through the same sort of examination as the clerk had. "What the holy hell are these," he repeats, a puzzled look on his face.

Nervously, I have to go through the whole spiel with him, even the price.

"I'll give you fifty cents apiece, boy," he tells me. "They'll be good in the field. I have'ta spend time in the rain and my matches get wet." He looks at the clerk, who's still standing there, watching the transaction. "And hurry with those cigars. I got a whole damn troop waiting outside."

The Colonel peels off bills from a large roll, hands them to me and the clerk, grabs his cigars and my bag, and leaves.

Transaction completed, I grin sheepishly at the clerk and also leave. I still have to meet my mother.

Stepping behind the General Store, I return to my present time, having made a profit of twelve dollars.

I needn't have worried, finding my mother only halfway through her grocery list by the time I get there. I've also learned a lesson. I can return at the same moment I've left. It doesn't make any difference how long I stay in the past.

It isn't until we return home and I'm in my nest under the porch that I take out my profit and look at it. That's when I learn another lesson in economics. I've been paid in Confederate money. There's so much of it on the market around here that the stuff is virtually worthless.

***

Ma's kinda sick. Papa gets a neighbor to take her to see the doctor. What's strange is that he takes a day off work to go along. They're gone for hours and I have to wash the dishes and clean the kitchen before they get back.

I still can't figure out any way to get money. Now I'm broke, so I can't even buy something to sell in the past. When they get back, Papa calls me off to the side.

"Your mother has to stay in bed for awhile, so I guess you'll have to do the housework after that damned school crap. Don't worry about the yard, I'll get it," he says.

So, for about a week I have to do the housework. Even though I can speed up time, it still takes me the same real time and effort to get the work done. It only seems quicker is all, but is still as tiring. I never realized all the work involved and I'm glad I'm not a girl and have to look for a lifetime doing it. Since I still have to go to school, I don't use my bracelet much except to get a good night's sleep.

I don't have any more trouble at school. Going is a pleasure now, with nobody bothering me. And the girls, especially Shirley, like me. Even Papa is nicer to me lately, since I have to take care of Ma. The next Saturday, Ma can get out of bed.

"If I give you a list and the money," she asks, "can you go downtown and get a few things?"

"Yeah, I can do that," I answer. With my control of time, I know I can go on another adventure. Maybe even see Asshole again? If I nudge the dial a little, I can see him a few years later than before. I don't think he'll keep a grudge that long.

Since I have all the time in the world, I hide between two trucks behind the supermarket and press my button.

***

I find myself out on the prairie; not too far from our town. I can see it in the distance. Guess the town hasn't gotten to where the market stands in my time yet. I see a distinctive tree standing a few feet away and try to remember exactly what it looks like, and the distance to where I stand. Then I use my feet to scuff up the grass as much as I can. I don't want to end up inside a supermarket wall when I go back.

As I walk around the -- now much smaller -- town, I notice the general store I've been in before isn't even there, only a stable with horses grazing behind it, them looking me over as I approach. A few years seems to make quite a difference.

I see kids playing behind one of the buildings and walk over that way. Maybe, I think, they might give me an idea on how to make some money, or at least tell me the date?

"Hey, look at the dude," one of them says. "What you doing around here, kid?"

"Hi. I'm new here, just moved in." I try to start a conversation. "You know a buffalo hunter named Asshole?"

They cluster around me. One of the biggest boys pokes me in the chest.

"You, a little squirt like you, hang around with buffalo hunters?" He laughs, poking me again. "At least you smell like one." He laughs, the others joining in.

"Look'a that fancy thing on his arm, Tony?" one of them says. "A little rich kid."

"I'm not rich, and I do know Asshole," I tell them, getting angry. "You seen him around?"

"Didn't your rich mama tell you not to swear, kid?" The boy pokes me again.

"Let's ... let's kick his butt, Tony," another boy suggests.

"Yeah, let's," from a laughing fourth boy, grabbing me from behind and lifting me from the ground.

They grab my arms and I can't get to the bracelet. One of them punches me on the cheek, jolting my head back. As I struggle, I can feel someone trying to take off my bracelet.

"Hey! Get away from that boy," I hear.

The punks drop me to the ground and stand up straight, looking behind me.

"Run," Tony yells. "We didn't mean nothin', Billy."

"Scat," the man yells back.

I look up, from where I'm lying in the dust, to see a much older boy standing near me. He's got some sort of stove-pipe hat on and has a big revolver stuck in his belt. He bends down and helps me to my feet.

"You okay, kid?" he asks, looking over at the retreating toughs. "Those boys are always raising hell, stealing and breaking things."

"Yes sir, I'm okay." I brush myself off, then ask, "You wouldn't happen to know a buffalo hunter named Asshole would you?"

"Nope. I know an old prospector though, that calls himself that," he says, laughing. "He told me that since everyone else calls him an asshole, he might as well do it too." Billy shakes his head. "'Sides, there ain't no buffalo hunters anymore. No buffalo, neither."

"Is he around here? I know him from before, a long time ago."

"Don't think so. Guys like that don't come to town very often."

"Well, thanks for saving me," I say.

"Yeah. I can't stand them kids, neither," he says. "By the way, my name's William McCarty."

"What you up to here in Arizona?" I recognize the name.

"Cowboy work on one'a the ranches. I ain't gonna be here long, though. I got a new job pretty quick, hauling timber for the army at Camp Grant. They pay real good."

"And being a cowboy ain't no good?" I ask. Like most young boys, I've always wanted to be a cowboy. To ride a horse and herd those "doggies" across the vastness of the prairie. Shooting rattlesnakes and making love to beautiful saloon girls. Not to mention shooting at Indians as they attack my wagon-train. Wait a minute. Cowboys don't use wagon-trains, do they?

"Nope,"McCarty shakes his head, "ain't no good a'tall."

"I dunno, it still sounds good to me. Better than hauling logs somewheres."

"Come on back with me, if you want," he offers. "Maybe you can get my old job when I leave?"

Oh, boy, I think. Me! A real cowboy. I don't have to worry about time. I can stay for years and still buy my groceries and get home in time. Ain't I the master of time?

"Okay with me, Mr. McCarty," I tell him, full of enthusiasm. "Oh, by the way, what year is this, anyway?"

"Jeeze, about 1876, I guess. These years seem to run together out here. And call me Billy, everyone else does."

Darn, I think, I set that dial wrong. I only wanted about 1860, about fifteen-years too far. Let's see, if Asshole was in his thirties when I saw him before, he must be ... oh, about ... forty to sixty now. He probably won't even remember me.

So the two of us set out for the ranch. Billy surprises me. Instead of finding his horse, we walk to a set of railroad tracks and walk along a line of huge cars until Billy finds an empty flatcar.

"Hop up, Elroy," he commands, jumping onto a short ladder at one end. Confused, I do the same and we find a place to sit on the large wooden surface. The sun burns down on us as we wait.

"You ain't got a horse?" I ask. I thought all cowboys rode horses.

"Na. The ranch has, though. They loan me one when I need it. This is more comfortable than a horse. The train goes right by the ranch, so no reason to bother with a horse."

That makes sense. We sit a while in silence.

"You ever heard of a guy named 'Billy the Kid,'" he asks.

I look over at my companion, cautious.

"Yeah. I read about him, why?"

"That's me," he says, proudly, poking at his chest, "I'm on the run, see? That's why I gotta move around a lot." He scowls. "If'n I don't, someone might recognize me. I made a mistake once.”

"Uh, you really kill all those men?" I ask, wondering if I should jump off or not.

"Kill someone? You're nuts. I ain't killed nobody. All I did was break out'a jail once't. A friend stole some clothes off a Chinaman, just a joke. The sheriff found them on me and arrested me. I didn't like it there, so I lit out. If they catch me, they'll put me back in jail."

"Oh, I must'a made a mistake."

"I'm good with a gun, though," he says, taking the big revolver out of his belt. "I spend most of my money on shells to practice with. I want'a be a lawman someday."

"I dunno," I answer, pondering, "If you go to jail, you probably can't be a cop."

"What's a 'cop'?"

"I mean a lawman."

"Sure I can. If I go far enough, somewheres they don't know me, I can."

"I dunno, maybe," I say, "I dunno, though."

"Well, I will, just you wait and see," he sounds like he's getting angry. I better cut it out, I think. I don't wanna be Billy the Kid's first notch. I must be meeting him before he started killing.

The train makes a lot of noise, shuddering and jerking into motion. Where it had been hot sitting still on sun-heated planks, it now gets chilly as the wind whips by us. I have to hold on tight to a huge eye-bolt as the car bumps over the rails. I've always thought the ride would be smooth, but it isn't. Maybe because passenger cars probably have springs and stuff while flatcars don't?

It isn't very fast, though, and slows down when we get near a cluster of houses coming up on our left-hand side. There's a big hill before we reach the buildings, which turn out to be the ranch we want.

"When I say, 'jump,' you do it," Billy tells me. “Don’t you wait a’tall. Just jump.”

I dunno, it seems awfully fast. The trouble is, I realize, I don't know where I'm gonna end up if I don't.

"Jump."

I do, landing flat on my butt and rolling into a pile of cinders and stones. I hurt all over but nothing seems broken. Billy, now ... somehow he lands on his feet and runs like hell until he slows down. He doesn't fall down at all. I wish he would have told me how to do it.

We walk about a half-mile to the ranch, right up to the front door of a house. I see a sprinkling of other buildings, interspersed by lone trees and patches of grass on an otherwise hard-packed dirt lot. I recognize a stable and a barn, but there are a good many more of them, like a very small town.

One building has a fire inside and large doors standing open. A man with a bare chest is in there, pounding something with a hammer. It must be a blacksmith, I think. Another one is long and low with several windows. A couple of men are sitting in chairs outside the door. One of them waves at us.

Billy knocks on the door of the house and a woman opens it. She's wearing an apron and holding a large wooden spoon. Her hair is mussed up.

"What you want, Billy?"

"Is Mr. Thimble home, ma'am?"

"Come on in. I'll get him," she says, stepping back.

We go in and stand in a living room full of heavy-looking furniture. The tables seem about a foot thick, with large massive chairs and a couch. It looks homey though.

A few minutes later, this little man with glasses comes in.

"What you want, Billy?" He sounds a little grumpy.

"This boy, Elroy, wants my old job when I leave."

"You ever work on a ranch?" the man asks me.

"Uh, no. Guess not."

"Guess not? You either have or you haven't, no guessing."

"No, sir, I haven't."

"You a hard worker? No room to be lazy here."

"Yes, sir. I'm a hard worker."

"Okay then, five-dollars a month, a bed and food. Every other Sunday off when we're not on the range. When Billy leaves, you get twenty a month, thirty on the drive. Okay with you?"

"Yes, sir." I don't understand it all, but don't want to say so.

"You don't get paid until a month after Billy leaves. I can't afford no extra hands that leave in the night. You just work with Billy, here, and learn from him."

"Yes, sir," I answer. Oh, my god. I'm a cowboy.

***

Billy takes me back to the long low building -- a bunkhouse. I feel the eyes of the men outside steady on me in sudden silence as we walk past them and then inside. The interior is one long room. Three pot-bellied wood-burning stoves are spaced between a dozen wooden bunks, six on each side of the room. A cooking stove stands at the other end, complete with cupboards built onto the walls. On our end, there are a couple of tables with straight chairs, three men sitting at them. One of the men is sewing on what looks like a shirt. The other two are watching us but, so far, nobody says anything.

"There are eight of us. You make nine. Pick any of the empty bunks," Billy tells me. "I'll go out and rustle you up some gear."

I find an empty bunk in a corner, the ones near the stoves are taken, and lie down. The three men at the table are watching me. They don't seem angry, only curious. They work as a team but rarely get close. I guess it's because there's a lot of competition for jobs, especially between cattle drives.

I'm shy, not knowing anything about the job and don't want to approach them. For one thing, they look pretty rough, all of them older and larger than me. Eventually, Billy storms back in with an armful of items.

"I got everything but a saddle," he tells me. "You'll have to wait until I leave to get mine."

That still surprises me. Billy the Kid without either a horse or saddle to his name. It's a different image than in the movies. They never mention things like money, or how all those traveling cowboys and outlaws make a living. I guess I assumed Billy went out and robbed a bank when he needed money.

"I got you chaps to protect your legs," he says, breaking my train of thought. "You'll need them on the trail, if you don't want to get your legs bloody from brambles and bushes."

"Why doesn't anyone talk to me?" I whisper to him, so the others can't hear.

"Well, cowboys don't do a lot of talking and most of these guys are strangers to each other, too. Mr. Thimble only has two hired-hands most of the time. Those two are out working on their regular chores right now, taking care of the horses, cleaning up and that sort of thing.

"Most of us are only here for the roundup, branding, and cattle drive. In between times, we're more like saddle bums, going around from place to place looking for temporary jobs. So they's a lot more out of work cowboys than they is jobs."

"I'd think you'd travel together for safety, like from wild Indians?"

"Ain't all that many Injuns left around here and it wouldn't work. If they go's around together and only one gets hired, the group'll soon break up. A lot of the time, you'll find, a rancher won't like a person’s looks or race or only needs one more hand for a couple of weeks to fix fences or something. It's better to go it alone."

He also has a pair of worn-out boots that fit real loose. What the hell, I figure, I'll probably be riding a horse most of the time.

"I'll give you a couple pairs of my old shirts and pants," he tells me. "I only want to take one bag of things when I leave."

Looking up at him, I can imagine how those clothes will fit. Wanting to save my own clothing to wear home, I dress in some of Billy's. I feel and look, silly. I have to roll the cuffs up on the pants. The same with the shirtsleeves. The boots flop around on my feet, until I put on three pairs of socks; then, they're not so bad, except for being heavy to walk in.

I'm put to work the next day. My first task is to shovel horse-turds from the corral into a bucket, then carry the bucket to a pit. The crap is used to help make compost for gardening. On the way back, I carry water to a wooden trough for the saddle-horses to drink from. After that I have to carry oats for them to eat, making more horseshit for me to carry the next day. All the time, the stupid animals look at me and crap. They know they have me by the short hairs.

***

Since I'm only learning to ride a horse, my butt gets sorer than hell. My legs, also not used to it, are constantly sore. For the last month, I've been riding the gentlest horse they have.

Of course, the other cowboys are out rounding up doggies, meaning lone calves born the season before. They've already found most of the cattle, which roam around like they please until needed. While the rest of the guys are doing the branding, I have to keep the fire going and clean crud off the branding-irons using a chisel with a hammer. Being new, not a good horse handler, and the youngest, I don't ride much -- only get the crappy jobs.

***

"Well, take it easy, Elroy. Maybe I'll see you around," Billy says as he gathers up his gear, picks up a Winchester rifle and leaves to jump the train. I'm on my own.

Then comes the cattle drive itself. It's expected to take at least three weeks. Finally, I think, I'll learn to handle the herd, like on television.

"Elroy," Mr. Thimble tells me, "you get to drive the bed wagon."

There go my dreams.

That's the wagon holding bedding, war-bags comtaining personal gear of the drovers and other gear. It also serves to hold cow-chips for the fire. It looks like I can't get away from shoveling shit.

Part of my job, as well as Cookie's with the chuck-wagon, is to stop when we see a scattering of dry cow-pats on the trail and pile them in our wagons. They make good fuel when we stop for the night. Often, the prairie doesn't have much loose wood for fires. I also have to help Cookie with the evening meal.

(Sitting by the roadside on a summer's day.
Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away.
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees.
Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas.

Peas, peas, peas, peas.
Eating goober peas.
Goodness, how delicious,
Eating goober peas.)

I hear Cookie singing that song in the wagon ahead of mine. It looks so peaceful on the prairie -- nothing much but grass and a few trees. It's an old Civil War song sung by both sides during that conflict.

(When a horse-man passes, the soldiers have a rule.
To cry out their loudest, 'Mister, here's your mule!'
But another custom, enchanting-er than these.
Is wearing out your grinders, eating goober peas.

Peas, peas, peas, peas.
Eating goober peas.
Goodness, how delicious,
Eating goober peas.)

I help set up the chuck-wagon when we stop for the night. My job is to open cabinets, lower the back which serves as a somewhat level workspace and exposes shelves of condiments. The small wagon is both kitchen and storage area, including multiple barrels of water along both outside flanks. Sometime during the day, if we find a river or stream Cookie and I top them off in order to have water during dry spells.

While Cookie does his magic, I start a fire and help him out. When the meal is ready, I ring a bell and the herders come riding in. Some line up while others go to my wagon to dig out bedrolls, tobacco and other leisure supplies. If there's a fallen and dried up tree nearby. I can save my load of crap for later.

"You watch the beans, Elroy," Cookie tells me, "and for Christ's sake, don't let them burn." He shakes his head. "If they're burnt, we'll be hanging from that tree over yonder by morning."

You can bet I'm careful.

While I stir, he's skinning and cutting up a couple of rabbits and a wild turkey the drovers found.

These meals are mostly dry beans, soaking during the day in a sealed pot, along with any animals the men happen to catch or shoot along the way. A lot of that is rattlesnake, which makes good stew. But mostly it's beans. I do get more pay for the drive but also work more hours for it.

(Just before the battle, the General hears a row.
He says, "The Yanks are coming, I hear their rifles now."
He looks down the roadway, and what d'ya think he sees?
It's the Georgia Militia, cracking goober peas.

Peas, peas, peas, peas.
Eating goober peas.
Goodness, how delicious,
Eating goober peas.)

Meal ready, I ladle goober peas -- beans to me -- to the drovers. I don't know how he does it but Cookie knows just how much to fix. The first days are mostly the beans. Then, as the men get tired of them, he has other things to break the monotony, like a roasted calf. Although Mr. Thimble groans every time, we’re allowed a certain number of them -- usually those crippled on the trail.

Those are cooked during the night in a dutch oven. That's a large metal pot with a heavy lid to keep the steam in. 'Tween times, it's hauled upside-down on top'a his wagon.

We, meaning myself, dig a pit and burn wood until down to hot coals, then put the covered oven with meat in the hole and fill it up with other coals, covering the whole thing with dirt. In the morning, I dig the pot back out and we hoist it onto the wagon-seat beside Cookie.

(I think my song has lasted just about enough.
The subject is interesting, but the rhymes are mighty rough.
I wish the war was over, so free from rags and fleas.
We'd kiss our wives and sweethearts, and say good-bye to goober peas.

Peas, peas, peas, peas.
Eating goober peas
Goodness, how delicious,
Eating goober peas.)

After the others, including Cookie, sack out, I still have to clean the cooking utensils and pans. You can see where I don't have much time to read or look at the scenery.

Finally, after about a month, we see a large fenced-in area in the distance with corrals containing thousands of cattle. The drive is about over.

My mind is filled with thoughts of dance-hall girls and shootouts when we finish the drive. I'm disappointed though, since the town looks the same as the one I left. Not only ain't I got enough money to buy a drink but I'm too tired to want one. All I do that first night is go to sleep early.

Cookie doesn't even fix a meal for the drovers. Most of them head for saloons and restaurants in town and the rest of us make-do from leftovers.

After the cattle are sold, Mr. Thimble calls us together.

"Thanks, boys," he says. "Please line up at the table here."

He pays us off from a big bag of cash. I get all of ninety-six dollars and sixteen-cents.

"Hope to see you all next year," he tells us and walks away.

I'm on my own again. This time, however, I'm smart. I go to the bank and buy coins. The clerk looks at me funny when I ask, “And give me the oldest rolls you have, that have been lying around a while,” but gives me the money.

Now, I don't know what to do. I'm in a town over a hundred miles from home. Do I take the train back or hitch a ride? I'll tell you, I'm far too tired to hitch and don't want to spend the money. Mr. Thimble solves that problem.

"You want to drive the empty bed wagon back, Elroy?" he asks me. "I'll pay you five-dollars and you can help Cookie eat the rest of the food?"

I jump at the chance. It's not as tiring as the way up here and we make good time without cooking except for ourselves. We also get plenty of sleep. We get back to Thimbletown, as it's now called after my boss. I dress in my original clothes, go back to my own time, and do my shopping at the supermarket.

And that's my life as a real cowboy, rarely riding a horse except for practice and never firing a revolver. I did, though, buy a new Colt before I left, as an investment. I figured it would be worth much more in my time. I considered buying two of them but all those rolls of coins and one gun -- not to mention Ma's groceries -- were already weighing me down.

***

I'm tired when I finally get home, though only an hour or so has passed in my own time. It's hard to hit it exactly. I briefly wonder what would happen if I should screw up and meet myself. After reflection, if occurs to me that I can easily avoid that problem, since I'd remember it beforehand and simply be somewhere else at the time as though it never happened. Besides, it would have to be close and I never came back at the exact same spot where I had left. It might be a fine experiment for later, if I have the nerve to risk being obliterated. I'm not the suicidal type.

Putting the groceries down, I go upstairs to my room. I hear Papa talking in the living room but don’t bother going in. I’m still tired and want only to sleep.

"I have next weekend off. I think I'll finally be able to clean that old shed out," he says.

"Do it carefully, honey," Mama says. "Some of that stuff might be valuable."

"Ha, fat chance. With our luck, it's all gonna be junk. And, since we don't even have a car, I'll have to pay to have it hauled away."

The next morning, before catching the school bus I plant my rolls of coins in one of the top boxes for my father to find. Although a hundred years old, they're in perfect condition.

***

"Elroy, I hardly recognized you," Shirley greets me at school. "It's like you grew up overnight."

"Na, I dunno." I don't know what to say. We're in class, so I can't use a mirror. While I was a cowboy, we only had one mirror, a little thing that was sometimes used to shave and that I'd never had occasion to use.

The teacher also seems surprised, which causes me a little alarm. I have been gone for six months or so -- but only over the weekend to my schoolmates. When class is over, I hurry to the restroom to check.

Damned if I don't look older, as old as a senior with muscles where I hadn't had them before. Also with a deep suntan. I look completely different from the week before. Much healthier, in fact. I remember that my parents still haven't seen me since I got back.

***

The stuff hits the fan, in a manner of speaking, when I get home from school. In a way, I've been dreading it. In another way, I look forward to seeing my parents after being away for all that time. It isn't until later that night that I realize just how much I have changed. I now face my troubles like an adult. I don't even consider any grandiose schemes or excuses. I guess I learned that on the trail.

My mother is in the kitchen when I walk in, wearing her apron and peeling potatoes. My father isn't in the room but the coins are -- sitting on the table along with a magazine about rare coins.

"Elroy. It's about time you got home, son," she says, eyes widening as she takes in my appearance. "Wha.... What hap -- happened? It is.... Yes, it is you. But you're different, older. How ... overnight?"

"I see you found some coins, Ma," I interrupt, wanting to change the subject. Desperately wanting to change the subject. "Where did these come from?" I sit down at the table, my back to her.

"I never heard of that before, it's unnatur...."

"Hey, Ma, the money here. Where did you get it?"

She comes around the table, still looking at my face. Then, as though confused, shakes her head.

"Uh, the money? Uh, your father was finally cleaning that shed out back. He found those in a box, along with some kind of an ape skeleton. It's all so strange. Did they have apes or monkeys here back then -- in the old days?"

"Must have," I say, trying to keep the subject away from my aging, "or maybe a circus came through or some college guy or doctor owned the place? A lot of reasons, Ma. I wouldn't worry about it, since it's long dead and gone."

"Guess you're right, honey. Maybe only a circus or something."

"What about the coins?" I ask again.

"Oh. Your father found them and then went out and bought that magazine on old coins. They don't look old to me but, according to the dates, must be -- or fake, maybe?" She seems a little relieved -- more relaxed than a few moments ago. "He went downtown with a few, to have them checked out."

The living-room is also cluttered with items from the shed, rusty goods spread out and lying around on all the tables, the couch and the floor.

"He find all this stuff too?" I ask, picking up and examining a teapot or something. Of course I have seen this stuff before but not officially. After all, the door to the shed has been locked since long before we moved here and I was ordered to stay out.

"Uh, huh," she answers. "All this junk came from that shed. At least he wiped them off before bringing them in here."

"You never know, Ma. It might be worth a lot of money. Look at these dinner plates. Probably worth thousands of dollars ... apiece."

"Sure, or nothing. I'll bet we have to pay the junkman to pick this stuff up."

"I wanna see that monkey skeleton, Ma. Where's it at?"

"Probably still there, for all I know. I certainly don't give a darn," she says, shuddering, "about any old bones. At least they’re not human."

It occurs to me that I don't want the alien explorer, now considered almost a friend, to end up in a museum display or even being experimented on. After using its bracelet, I feel a kinship with the creature. Despite knowing my father will be mad as hell, I go out to the shed.

I see the skeleton, now in a cleared space with a few, mostly empty, boxes around it. It takes me a minute or so to find an ancient square-bladed shovel I know is there somewhere.

Slowly and reverently, I pick up the bones and deposit them into one of the boxes. The box is even lighter than the shovel as I carry both out into the woods and find a clear spot under the trees. I turn around slowly, finding a good view of planted fields and prairie extending into the distance. It appears, to my unpracticed eye, to be a fit place to lay an explorer. I start digging -- not a very satisfying task.

***

My father has returned by the time I get back to the house and see a car in the driveway. He's excited, so much so that he doesn't even comment on my appearance.

"We're rich," he tells me. "Those coins are worth a ton of money to collectors. See my, our, car outside? I only had to sell six coins for it. And they're not even the most expensive." He's fairly bouncing around between my mother in the kitchen and me in the living room.

Without thinking, he sits on the couch and on some ancient farm implement. Not even the pain dulls his excitement as he springs back up to clear a space to sit.

"And I have an expert coming out tomorrow to look at this stuff," he says. "Maybe even that skeleton can be sold to a museum."

"Uh, Pa," I tell him, still standing next to a table, "I, uh, I buried that skeleton."

He jumps to his feet, exclaiming, "What! Why the hell did you do that? It might have cost us money." It doesn't ruin his gaiety, though. "No matter, we can dig it back up tomorrow."

I shake my head. "No," I tell him, shaking inside. "No, we won't. Let him, it, rest in peace."

He looks up at me, then down my length. Neither of us had realized it but I'm now almost as tall as my father and much more muscular. For all of a minute, we look at each other, in silence.

"Maybe you're right, son ... Elroy. We'll do it your way."

***

It's not enough money for him to quit work, nor enough for us to live in luxury, but the money lets us pay off the house and buy a three-year-old car. It also pays the hospital bills and lets my mother stop work. So, in many respects, it is a large improvement.

I also find myself treated differently, both at home and at school. The other kids at school seem so juvenile to me. Conversations about childhood subjects seem unimportant. I guess I've grown up in more ways than one.

In history class, Mr. Edwards and I get into an argument.

"Don't be mislead by movies and television," he tells us. "Billy the kid was nothing but a punk, worthless without his guns."

Now, no way am I going to let that slip by, knowing Billy like I do.

"I don't agree, Mr. Edwards. Billy was basically a nice guy. At the beginning, the only reason he was in trouble was that he helped a friend by hiding stolen goods. He didn't steal them and in fact was only an honest man who made bad decisions."

Which doesn't sit well with a teacher. It's never good to contradict a teacher, especially if you're in your teens and have no college degree. For a few moments, we stand head to head, glaring at each other. I'm lucky to get off with a little detention.

Since my father has sold or thrown away everything from the old shed, I clean the thing up and put in furniture in order to have a place to read without him seeing me. Since I've grown older and more muscular, he can't spank me for it anymore but still doesn't like my wasting my time with books. I even put in electricity. It's like a home away from home, or a kid's playhouse. Of course, I still have to share the space with the lawnmower and other junk. I hate that darned mower.

I'm too busy for awhile to make another time trip. Finally, I think that maybe I'll try the future for a change.

Although not really necessary, I wait until the Christmas holidays when we have an extended vacation from school. My parents plan taking a couple of weeks to see relatives in Texas, leaving me alone for awhile.

"Now you be careful, Elroy. Stay home and out of trouble," Ma orders as they're loading the car for the trip. I have plenty of food at home and, in our semi-rural area, they don't expect any dangers.

When they leave, I load a school backpack with food and other staples, including the black-powder Colt revolver I'd bought at the ranch and never fired. Putting on heavy hiking boots, I prepare for a journey into time.

Setting the bracelet dial far into the future -- why not go all the way? I figure -- I brace myself and push the button.

***

I find myself standing among buildings in a miniature city, the tallest one only up to my chest, most not even reaching my knees. One foot is on a narrow roadway and the other smack-dab in the middle of a toy two-story building.

And the rats! Whoever built it -- as some sort of toy or display? -- must have been gone for a long time, since rats are everywhere, running from me in packs as well as individually.

I look around, seeing forests in one direction and a desert in the other. Naturally I head for the wooded area, trying to avoid crushing more of the display than necessary. There must be some people around here? I think. After all, someone built the little structures.

Feeling something scratching around inside the top of my left boot, I stop and reach two fingers inside, touching a furry body that moves down toward the sole. Shaking my head and not really wanting to either crush the creature or get bitten, I carefully take off the boot, finding a small rat hiding in the toe. It must be too frightened to bite me, I think, and playing dead as I bring it out. Playing dead doesn't work in this case, since I can feel its heart beating wildly.

I start to put it down then, for no real reason, figure the forest would be a better place for the poor frightened little creature. I pet it briefly, scratch it behind the ears and put it in my shirt pocket. Then I continue walking as I feel it scratching around in there, maybe trying to get comfortable.

As I approach the wooded patch, a half mile from where I first appeared, I hear what sounds like muttering.

"Uhh, dooir. uhhh, dooir, blurkkk, muttssee. uhh, dooir, uhh," it goes, When I turn around to see what's making the sounds, seemingly talking in a foreign language, I can't see anybody around me. It takes a few moments to attribute the sound to the tiny rodent.

I look down at my shirt, pulling the top of the pocket open. The rat's standing there, teeth snapping, muttering and waving one paw at me. The other clasps the top of the pocket, maybe to steady itself.

At first, I stare at it, wondering, what the hell? Then I see its paw, not the one waving in anger but the one stationary at the top of my shirt pocket. Something seems strange about it.

Carefully, I pick it up again and look more closely. It grabs my finger, tightly. Too tightly. Then it hits me, what has seemed strange. The rat has four fingers -- and an opposable thumb. I've been taught in school that only humans have a thumb like that, made to grasp tools.

"Uhh, dooir. uhhh, dooir, you, speak, you, speak, you speak." it repeats.

"I speak," I tell it.

"I speak ... I speak ... too?" it says in a strident squeaky voice. "Too? Is good, is doodd?"

I hold it up close to my face, to hear clearly. Could I be mistaken?

"Stupe. Triple stupe, careful, stupe," it says, wiggling around while grasping my hand with both paws. "bloogit, stupe. High, it be, stupe. Bloogit, double bloogit."

It seems frightened of me, or of me dropping it.

Hissing, it stares me in the face.

"Stupe," In an angry voice.

"You can talk? Na. I must be crazy. A talking rat."

"Bloogit, stupe two-leg Gloodor. Yes, I speak. Me no stupe."

Carefully, I put it back in my pocket, from where it continues yelling that I'm a stupe and a Gloodor, which I can only believe means it doesn't think highly of me.

I keep walking, now among familiar buckeye trees. They're planted in rows, like in an orchard except the underbrush is heavy and high. My small companion makes no move to escape or bite, muttering invectives for awhile before quieting down.

Now intrigued by the rodent, I make no move to return it to the ground. Amazing, but if it can talk and I'm not hallucinating it might tell me something about this age.

Behind me, I hear sirens. Looking back at the tiny town -- or city? -- I see activity as small vehicles and aircraft seem to come from nowhere to congregate at that location.

Feeling a little apprehensive, I hurry through the trees, avoiding any open areas. I feel like an escaping convict as I rush through heavy underbrush.

"You done did it, Stupe," I hear from my shirt pocket. "Gloodor."

After what seems a long time and becoming tired, I come to a river. Panting, I sit down on a rock to think. Looking around, all I see is wilderness.

Sitting quietly and listening to the sounds of crickets, my breathing calms, as does my heartbeat. While walking, I hadn't been aware of fear, not until now in the quiet of the forest.

"Beegor? I ... I want beegor, water? Is water?" the rat asks.

I've clean forgotten about the rodent.

"Yeah, sure. Water."

I take the small rodent out gently and sit it down by the river, where it goes down to the water to sip at cool liquid. I fully expect it to run but it comes back to jump up beside me. As I watch, it takes something out of a pouch on its waist. The container is rat-colored or covered with fur and I haven't noticed it before.

There is a small flame and a puff of smoke, which causes me to jerk backward.

"Stupe. Glukor stupe. Smoke is all."

I see the rat is puffing on what looks all the world like a cigar.

"What we do now, you do now, stupe?"

"Stop calling me 'stupe'," I tell it. "I think I know that meaning at least. My name's Elroy."

"Kay, Elroy. My Roscoe. What you do now, stu ... Elroy?"

"I dunno, Roscoe. You have any suggestions?"

I feel silly, talking to a rat.

"I say we get’ta hell out’a here. I say. Army come soon. Boom go the Elroy, Boooooomy."

"We? You can leave anytime. I won't stop you."

The rat shrugs and raises both front paws, as if in defeat.

"Maybe I stay? No reason go back. More fun you."

"Oh, the adventurous type, are you?"

"Uh, yeah. Me go school, learn stup ... you guys talk. Wild you guys, least a few 'round here."

"You show me where?"

"Ha. Eat me."

"You getting nasty again?"

"Na. Real eat me if I show."

"Speaking of eating, I'm hungry, myself."

Roscoe jumps to all four paws, drops his cigar and appears to be ready to run.

"No! Wait, Roscoe. Not you. I mean I have food for both of us."

He looks at me kind of dubiously and finally sits back down, picking up his smoldering cigar.

"H’okay. Wat'cha got?"

I dig through my pack and bring out a ham sandwich and potato chips for myself. Finding a chocolate-chip cookie, I give it to the rat, along with a potato chip.

Testing the chip, he ignores it and nibbles on the cookie. The thing itself is half his size.

"Good. We don't got much Dooglos. Big cost."

"You use money? I mean 'pay'?"

"Jeez, stupe. No steal like you guys."

After eating, the two of us talk. I tell him about myself and that I travel through time. I don't tell him how, though.

"Nuts. Lyin’ stupe."

I don't argue, instead ask him to tell me about his society.

Roscoe is a linguist, speaking several rat languages as well as a couple of dead ones -- like human. There not being much work in that field, he's currently the equivalent of a laborer, cleaning sewers.

I can't blame him for wanting out of that job and having a few adventures for a change. He has once spent time with a captive human, enough to know a little about them and practice his language skills.

"Are there any of them around here?" I ask. "And can you show me?"

"Yeh, but wild an can hurt."

"I can protect us," I tell him, thinking of my Colt revolver.

"Hah! They mean. Maybe close by. Can ugoolbi, smell."

"Show me?"

So we spend the rest of the day walking through the woods. Soon the neat rows of trees degrade into a real forest, hard to walk through with all the underbrush.

During one portion of our walk, between ever-more-frequent breaks, he shows me something in the brush.

"Seeit? Droppings."

He shows me a pile of human feces. They must be close, I figure, getting out my revolver, just in case.

Meanwhile, I hear aircraft flying over the trees and see flashes of metal up there. Obviously the rats are looking for me but can't see through the foliage. And I am avoiding clearings.

"Hoooooooey," I hear in the distance, with another "hooooot, hoooot," coming from another direction.

It's getting darker, the sun going down, when I see motion out of the corner of my eye. Roscoe, by that time must be frightened, since I feel claws through my shirt.

A rock comes whizzing out of the trees, bouncing around in the underbrush. It's followed by others as well as sharp sticks, forcing us out into a nearby clearing. It's too dark to see where they're coming from.

"Yeeep," Roscoe says, an understandable cry in any language.

I feel the same.

I raise my revolver, firing into the trees in several directions but only bringing on more wild cries and flying objects.

It must be the flashes from my revolver or black powder smoke, because I hear ever more tiny aircraft coming closer.

Loud explosions are next, as the rat-craft bomb around us. Oops, I think. Time to get the hell out of here.

"Get a hell out'a here," Roscoe echoes my thoughts.

Since I already have the bracelet set for home, I hurriedly push the button.

***

Whooo! It's suddenly peaceful as I find myself standing in a wheat field in the moonlight. A two-lane road is visible in the near distance. I recognize the location, some miles from my home.

"Wa' appen?" comes from my shirt pocket.

In my panic, I've forgotten about the rat. I'm thinking I probably should have sat him down first.

"At's okie," Roscoe tells me, "stayin' 'round may be fun. You take back later, yes?"

"Sure, Roscoe. Anytime."

"Okie. I maybe stay 'while an study you. I bet they's a lot’ta gorls around?"

"Female rats? Probably. I ain't seen very many, but they're probably around."

"I din't see any towns or farms?"

"They stay in holes."

"Holes in'a groun, ya mean? Rats do that?"

"Around here, they do, unless there are some in my house."

He shakes his head as though he can't believe it.

***

For the next week, I lay low and stay home. School is out for the summer, so I spend time with the rat, finding out what happened after our human civilization failed, and why.

According to Roscoe Rat, humans had a nuclear war that destroyed their society, sending the survivors back to the stone age, while the radiation caused some rats on the periphery of the destruction to gain in intelligent. There were still original rats around, ancient rat language being one of Roscoe's skills. Although now almost extinct, there were a few humans struggling to survive.

As summer wears on, I again have the urge to time travel, thinking it will be a good time to try to find Asshole the trapper. Roscoe, wanting adventure, asks to come along.

He has found a girlfriend, the two setting up a home in my shed and forcing me to keep the door locked so my father doesn't find them.

***

"She's nice but kinda dumb and dirty," Roscoe tells me. We're packing to go on another time trip. "Doesn't understand bathing, though, Not at all."

His English has gotten much better while living with me. I've built him a travel crate, strapped on top of my own backpack. That way Roscoe can see where we're going and talk on the way.

"She's not heavy," I joke. "We can carry her along with us."

"No way. I couldn't stand the unwashed smell and who knows how many other girls I might find on the trip?"

It seems Roscoe is not a very faithful rodent. He is, though, much better with English.

I've decided that the best way to find my trapper friend will be to return to the same time frame where I left him the last time. That way, with any luck, he won't have even missed me. During my time on the ranch, I have helped skin enough cattle to no longer be squeamish about doing the same to that buffalo. Grisly work, but I've become used to it.

"Let's get going," I tell the rat.

He waits as I shoulder my pack, then scampers up my arm to his box on one shoulder. I hear scrabbling and a few curses as Roscoe adjusts his seating and straps himself in.

Since the roads are better in this period and I remember where I came out the last time, I walk to the correct spot then push the button on my wrist.

Abruptly, I find myself among bushes and underbrush, some head high, my feet embedded in soft marshy ground. Taking a few moments to look around, I see a campfire in the distance. Through underbrush and trees, I see Asshole poking at the fire.

As I lift a foot to walk out, I stop, seeing a young kid walk toward another stand of bushes. Is that me? I think. Me only a year ago? Damn, but he looks young and vulnerable. Have I changed that much?

Well, I consider, I'd better wait a while until he uses his bracelet to leave. It wouldn't do for him to see me or for Asshole to see both of us together. And what will Asshole say when I step out? I mean the new me, older, heavier, taller? I should have taken all that into consideration. Shit. I'll either have to say I'm someone else or tell him what's going on.

"Here we are," Roscoe says from behind my shoulder. "He's as ugly as the wild ones in my time."

"You're not so good looking yourself, rat."

"Ha. You should talk."

A couple of hours later, figuring my younger self has gotten away -- after all, if not I'd remember it -- I shrug and come out of hiding.

I don't know what to expect as I walk through heavy underbrush, heading for the campfire. Asshole looks over and sees me ... then turns back to his coffee.

"You grew up pretty damned fast," he says.

"You're not surprised?"

"Na. I expected it. I saw you had Goolkie's bracelet. Time travelers don't surprise me anymore."

"Goolkie? You mean the apelike guy?"

"Yeah. Nice guy, though. What happened to the bracelet?"

I don't know which startles me more, him knowing about time travelers, or ... or ... I can't help raising my arm, noticing for the first time that my bracelet is gone. How the hell am I going to get home?

Asshole puts down a tin cup and rummages through a backpack, coming up with a strange-looking plastic object.

"Well, guess we better skin that beast," he says.

Still in shock, mind working double ... no, triple time, I can only follow. We walk over to the dead buffalo. Having skinned cattle, I expect to have a gory, bloody and exhaustive job ahead of me.

Asshole points the device at the carcass. A bluish light extends from his hand to the animal, playing over it. The trapper turns the thing off and goes over to slowly roll the skin into a cylinder. The naked carcass lies there, red but no blood leaking that I can see.

"Goolkie gave it to me," he says.

"Where did you meet Goolkie," I ask, "and where did he come from?"

"I thought you knew him? You had his bracelet?"

"I ... I never met him. I found him dead, or at least his skeleton, in a shed at my house."

"A shed? Dead?" Asshole pauses. "Well, I guess it happens to everybody, even time travelers." Asshole throws the bloodless pelt over his shoulder. "I wouldn't tell him that, though. He's gonna show up before long. Goolkie was here yesterday after I shot this thing. He asked for the meat. All I wanted was the pelt, anyway."

"How's he coming back when he's dead?" I ask. Another thing occurs to me, I should have noticed before but was still in shock from him recognizing me and my bracelet being gone. "And why are you talking normally now? You look like before but speak like a normal person?"

"Come on, Elroy, my boy. From what Goolkie told me, time traveling can get pretty damned complex." He shrugs, starting back to camp. "He'd better. He's gotta take me back home ... and it looks like he has to take you, too." He grins, "Before, I was playing with you. I like to talk that way, especially in town."

"And what about me? Don't forget the rat."

Hearing Roscoe, Asshole jumps, looking around.

"Here. Look up on his shoulder, stupe. Jeez, ain't any of you guys seen a rat before?"

"What the hell is that?" Asshole says, looking closer, as though he can't believe his eyes.

"Oh. Excuse me. This is Roscoe, a rat from the future." I tell the still incredulous hunter. Getting back to camp, I have to tell him all about Roscoe and how rats took over the future world.

"Tell me about that shed, Elroy," Asshole says. "And is there a house there? A two-story wooden one? With a deep ditch alongside the house? And is it south of Thimbletown, Arizona? And is the shed about ten-by-ten feet inside, set about fifty yards back of the house?"

"Yeah. Right on all counts, except the ditch."

"I'll bet that's my house, too. And I built that shed. Have it full of old tools and magazines right now. But Goolkie uses it as a sort of home away from home. Stores things there to take back to his own time. I even have a bed set up for the rare occasions when he feels like taking a nap."

"Uh, what year did you come from?" I ask.

"He-he-he. You guys slay me," Roscoe says, laughing, "All this useless interaction. No wonder you're almost extinct."

"Shut up, rat," Asshole makes like he's going to slap Roscoe, who ducks down behind his saucer of whiskey, still laughing.

I, too, have to smile at the thought, just beginning to realize the problems this Goolkie must face.

"1932," Asshole tells me.

That jibes with the magazines I found, the last one in 1931.

"And when and where did Goolkie come from?" I ask.

"Gimme some ... some more," Roscoe Interrupts, "Wisky."

Asshole stops talking to pour more whiskey in the rat's saucer.

"Way back, long before humans, he says. According to him, it was before the dinosaurs. There were two intelligent species back then, his and the rats."

"Yeeeah. I to ... thunked, yeah." Roscoe nods, dipping his snout into the saucer for another sip.

"I see rats can't hold their liquor," Asshole observes.

"Yeah? You wan ... wanna fight, stupe?" The rat staggers to his back legs, waving his paws around.

"Sorry, Roscoe. I was only joking," Asshole tells the rat, who sits back down, apparently placated.

We sit for awhile, drinking Asshole's whiskey, each lost in his own thoughts.

"Uh and what are you doing here?" I ask.

"I ran into Goolkie. Somehow he appeared on my property. Who knows why with that guy. He asked about our society and we became friends. Eventually, he sort of moved into my shed.” Asshole grinned through his beard. “He loves chocolate bars. Says he couldn't find them in any other age.

"Anyway, I'm an accountant and the old west has been a fetish of mine. I spend half my pay on souvenirs, which can get expensive. Goolkie asked if I wanted to actually come here and try being a real hunter.

I spent most of my savings on gold nuggets. He brought me here and I bought all these trappings, figuring that it was a good investment." He looks over at the hide. "And I have these authentic buffalo hides I can turn into rugs."

Getting pie-eyed, all three of us bed-down by the fire.

When I wake, I see a furry back, the creature sitting on a log and mumbling to someone in front of it. It doesn't take too much imagination to know it's this Goolkie.

Rising, I go over, seeing it's talking to Roscoe. The rat is dipping his snout in another saucer of whiskey.

I can't understand the conversation. From up close, it's clearer but still not understandable. Some unknown language.

"Hi, Elroy," Roscoe greets me. "We're talking in ancient rat. Goolkie learned it when he was a kid. A little different than the version I know but we can understand each other," he tells me. "Pull up a log and have a swig. Hair of the cat, Right?”

"So you're the human that has my time travel bracelet?" Goolkie asks. "We know that someone does, did, or will, according to how you look at it but not who or how. Can you tell me how you got it?"

Despite Asshole's advice, I tell him.

"Jeeze. I can't say I like it but the rules have to be followed. You caused us to make a lot of changes, as it is," he tells me, voice a little shaky. "Oh, I knew I would die on this trip, I already told my younger self and my parents. Which, incidentally, is why I was given the bracelet in the first place.

"Time travel is a privilege and an honor reserved for few of us. When I was young, an older me came to see my family, in our nest, telling us that he was me and that he, I, was to come to a tragic end while collecting data. You see, we keep records of all that transpires throughout history. From our position near the beginning of sentient creatures, my race is in a unique position to observe but not change the future.

"We noticed that someone had been making small but not crucial changes. Almost converting Billy the Kid to honesty, for instance. Also, we had one emergency where we had to collect plastic cigarette lighters from a period long before plastic had been invented. Hey. Those things aren't biodegradable, you know? What if some historian found one on a civil war battlefield, or described them in a report from the era?

Now, I have the sad mission of going back to tell my family and the younger me that he’s going to die, like I've already done. That and telling my people that you used my bracelet to do that damage."

"Sorry, I didn't realize I was causing problems for you."

"You couldn't know. It’s just bad luck."

"And, now that you know, why can't you avoid the whole thing and not get yourself killed?" I have to ask.

"We have strict rules. I have to continue because I have continued. I’m not allowed to change history, even to save myself," he says, looking at me. "Besides, if I don't die on schedule another time traveler will probably come back earlier and kill me as a baby, or one of my parents. It would be ordained by the Ploctical Council. Then I'd have missed all these adventures. Besides, since that wasn't done, I know I will follow through.

"Don't feel bad. I knew it was coming, only not how. After I take all of you back to your times, I'm scheduled to take notes on a Seminole war in the 1640s. That explains the stone arrow. I fear it's where I'll meet my end."

"And end up in my, I mean my and Asshole's, shed?"

"Right. And the whole thing will start over."

By this time, Asshole is up, dressed and listening.

"I'll get packed," he says. "I don't feel like any breakfast. We might as well get it over with."

"Can I go with you?" Roscoe asks. "You can take me home last."

"It can't hurt anything, Roscoe. Why not?" Goolkie answers.

We all help Asshole pack. Just before he takes me back, I have one more question.

"I noticed my, your, bracelet disappeared from my wrist after I got here," I ask. "Why was that?"

"Simple. Only one instance of each bracelet can exist in the same time period. Your younger self needed it and you didn't, so your copy disappeared." He raises one arm, showing he has the bracelet.

"Oh," I say. The bright sunlight also disappears, to turn to a cloudy day. I look around.

I'm home, alone and with no bracelet. On a whim, before I go into the house I check the shed again. Nope, no dead rat. Roscoe probably made it home.

The End.
Charlie – hvysmker