How the whole thing started is a mystery to most people, even the police. But those of us who were around 145th Street and Broadway, up in Harlem, knew something new was happening the day Billy Consigas came to town. His mother had moved to New York from southern Texas to escape an abusive husband: “A roustabout name of Henry Ryder,” Billy told us.
He got in good with the girls because, before long, he had a job with the NYPD, training their horses in a special area of Central Park. He’d take young ladies up there in the early hours of the morning and teach them how to ride. Nesta Brown told me that if a man takes a girl riding in the morning he will most likely be riding her that night.
Girls our age flocked around Billy and I never heard one of them call him a dog.
The black cowboy also had the most beautiful pistol any of us had ever seen. It was a silvery Colt Cowboy .44 six-shooter etched with all kinds of designs and finished with a polished horn handle. The holster for his 10-inch pistol was black with silver studs. And even though I am no fan of cowboy films, when I saw how fast Billy could draw I downloaded 14 cowboy films.
Underneath he was wearing his brown holster and black gun. He was hatless and his pale skin shone in the shadowy light.
One time, over by the Hudson, uptown, this big dude was chasing down some man that he claimed owed him money. The big man caught the little one and started beating him. The poor guy fell to the pavement and was bleeding from his mouth and forehead. That’s when the big man started kicking him.
After two or three kicks Billy Consigas walked up and said, “All right now, he’s had enough.”
When I tell you that the bully was big I mean it in every way possible: He was tall and fat and had biceps almost the size of his head. He was fast too. He hit Billy—who was five-10 and 160 at most—right in the chest. Billy flew back and hit the wall behind him. We all thought he was going to get himself killed.
The little man on the ground got up and started running.
Billy pushed off from the wall, took a deep breath, and then he smiled. Smiled!
“Fuck you, you grinnin’ fool,” the big man yelled, and then he ran right at Billy.
We never found out what happened to him because we heard sirens and scattered.
After that fight Billy became like a hero among the young men and women up around 145th. He didn’t consider himself a leader because of something he called the Cowboy Code. I never got all the ins and outs of that system but it had something to do with being self-sufficient and treating all others equally. Leaders, he thought, were only for the weak.
“Felix,” he said to me late one afternoon when I was showing him around Times Square, “a man has to stand up on his own two feet. The only leaders they should evah have is parents, teachers and generals during time of war. Other than that we all just people come from our mothers and headed for the grave.”
Billy talked like that. He bought me a hot dog and I paid for our tickets to the wax museum. We walked in the crowds for hours. He was especially intrigued by the Singing Cowboy, who wore only a Stetson hat and underpants as he played the guitar and posed for photographs.
“What do you think about that?” I asked after Billy stared at the street performer for at least three minutes.
“Like any other child’s cartoon on the television.”
When we were walking toward the train someone said, “I’ll be damned, a nigger in a cowboy hat. I never seen anything like that before.”
I turned first and saw a group of five young white men and three young women. They were maybe a year or two older than us. The guys sported new-looking blue jeans and fancy shirts like the ones Billy wore. The girls had on modern party dresses, slight and short. I was nervous because it was only the two of us against five of them, not counting the girls.
I say “against” because the leader, a tall and skinny guy with a long and somehow misshapen face, had used the word nigger, and that word—in that tone of voice and that situation—meant conflict.
That was what Billy did: He made people happy and proud, brave and courageous.
“A peckawood with a problem,” Billy said jovially. “That’s more common than rattlesnakes down a prairie hole.”
“You sound like Texas,” the speaker of the group speculated.
“And you sound like horseshit.”
“Where you come from, boy?” the white youth asked.
“From a long line’a men.”
In any other situation I would have run but I didn’t want Billy to think less of me. So I squared my shoulders and wondered which one of the five I could get at before his friends got to me.
That was what Billy did: He made people happy and proud, brave and courageous—qualities that rarely served a poor black man or boy well.
“You think you man enough to take us?” the leader asked.
“At five to two?” Billy asked. “All we got to do is stand our ground and we prove better than some gang’a roughnecks.”
The leader smiled, a grin that was a close relative of Billy’s violent mirth.
I realized that I was holding my breath.
“My name is Nacogdoches,” the white youth claimed.
“You a cowboy, Billy?”
“I’ve been in a rodeo or two.”
I thought of Billy taking down that giant on the Hudson. He wasn’t afraid because he’d brought down steers with that same hold.
All the youngsters in our neighborhood knew about the showdown, as Billy called it, scheduled for Wednesday night.
“You a gunslinger?” Nacogdoches said to Billy.
The warped-faced white youth’s eyebrows raised and his smile broadened.
“Is one of these fine ladies your girl?” Billy asked.
A strawberry blonde moved her shoulders in such a way to indicate that she was the one.
“No bullets,” Billy said as if they had already agreed on the gunfight. “Just a video camera feed. If you win I’ll spit polish your green boots right on that corner in just my long johns and hat at high noon on a Saturday. If you lose, that pretty girl will agree to have dinner with me at the place and time of my choosin’.”
The girl tried to frown but instead a smile grazed her lips. She wasn’t really that pretty, I thought, but had the kind of face that you’d want to nod to at a party or if you sat near her on a subway train.
Nacogdoches was biting his lower lip.
“Okay,” he said at last. “When and where?”
“There’s a youth center down on 63rd,” I said. “Lazarus House. We do it there in three days at 10 at night.”
In spite of the offer my plan was simply to get away.
The principals agreed and I gave Nacogdoches the address.
“What kinda crazy luck you have to have that you run into another cowboy with a six-shooter somewhere in the middle of a million people?” I asked Billy on the number 1 train.
“It’s the bright lights,” the black cowboy opined.
“You know a cowboy loves the stars more than anything. He’s drawn to the lights like a moth to fire. Times Square is bright like the heavens come down to the ground. And you know two cowboys will see each other. No, no, Felix. It would be a wonder if we didn’t meet up sooner or later.”
“We don’t have to do this thing, Bill,” I said. “We just don’t show up and it’ll all blow over.”
“Maybe so,” he said, “but we will be there.”
All the youngsters in our neighborhood knew about the showdown, as Billy called it, scheduled for Wednesday night. They gossiped about it and bragged on their black cowboy hero. In the interim I saw Billy every day because I was his assigned tutor.
“Hello, Felix,” Mrs. Consigas greeted me on that Wednesday afternoon. She was a dark-skinned black woman with a young face. “You’re a little early, aren’t you?”
“What’s that you’re carryin’?”
“My uncle’s video camera.”
“My sister’s in a dance recital after and I’m going to video it for my mother. She works nights.” It was all lies, but Marion Consigas didn’t know my mother or my sister.
He had the silver gun out before Nacogdoches had his barrel level.
“It takes me a long time to get the idea,” he said to me at our first tutoring session, “but once I got it, it’s there forever.”
He didn’t talk about the showdown at all. I told some friends where it was happening, including Sheila Grant, a girl I wanted but who had eyes only for the Harlem Cowboy—Billy Consigas.
Billy struggled through the workbook lesson and somewhere around eight he said, “Time to go.”
We all—Billy, Sheila and five guys—arrived early. My brother Terrence, who worked at Lazarus House as a nighttime security guard, was waiting at the side entrance. He told us that Nacogdoches was already inside with his posse.
My brother was 19, three years older than I. He was nervous but Billy ponied up $20 for the use of the gym, and Terrence was always looking for more money.
Nacogdoches was there with the same seven friends. This detail said something about the ugly Southerner that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
While I set up the tripod and video cam, Billy and Nacogdoches decided on the rules.
“Best out of three,” the white cowboy said.
“And we check to make sure that each other’s gun is empty before each duel,” added Billy.
“Duel?” Nacogdoches sneered. “What are you, some kinda English faggot?”
“I am what I am,” Billy said, “and that’s more than enough for you.”
Nacogdoches frowned and balled his fists. Billy wasn’t school trained but he once told me that all true cowboys could sing and were poets. The white gunslinger couldn’t match him with words and so he said, “Thalia will count. On three we draw.”
Billy nodded, no longer smiling. The duelists checked each other’s gun and then took their places six steps apart. The white guy had a mean look on his face. Billy was as peaceful as moonlight on the Hudson. He wasn’t handsome, but Billy had a look that made you feel like there was something good somewhere, something you could depend on.
Thalia, that was Nacogdoches’s girl, counted out loud. When she got to three Nacogdoches slapped his brown leather holster, coming up with his black iron gun at incredible speed. But when we looked at the replay it was obvious, even to Nacogdoches’s friends, that easygoing Billy had his piece out first. The black cowboy’s movements were fluid, seamless.
Nacogdoches was slower on the second draw. We didn’t even have to look at the replay.
After that Billy started undoing the leather string that laced the bottom of the black and silver holster to his right thigh.
“What you doin’?” Nacogdoches asked.
“Two outta three,” Billy said.
“I want the last draw.”
“You scared?” Nacogdoches asked in a taunting tone.
Billy smiled and shook his head. He tied the lace again and I turned on the camera.
“One,” Thalia said, and a sense of doom descended upon me.
“Two,” she pronounced. It struck me that this last contest meant far more than two young men proving themselves.
But Billy was faster still. On the video replay he had the silver gun out and had played like he was fanning the hammer with his left hand before Nacogdoches had his barrel level.
“We could have hot dogs on that corner where I said I’d shine your boyfriend’s shoes,” Billy suggested to Thalia.
“No you won’t,” Nacogdoches said.
“That was the bet,” Billy countered, the ass-kicking smile back on his lips.
“You didn’t pull the trigger,” his rival argued.
“Why I wanna pull on a trigger when I know the gun is empty?”
“You could draw faster if you didn’t move your finger. Any fool could pull a gun out by its butt.”
Billy squinted as if he was on his beloved prairie trying to make out a shadow on the horizon. He shook his head ever so slightly and then shrugged, moving his shoulders no more than an inch.
“Thank you, Terrence,” Billy said waving to my brother, who was standing next to the exit door. “We finished here.”
“You didn’t pull the trigger,” Nacogdoches said again.
“I won,” Billy replied.
Terrence herded us out the door and onto 63rd.
Thalia, who was wearing black jeans and a calico blouse, walked up to Billy and shook his hand. He gave her a quizzical stare but she lowered her head and turned away.
“I won!” Nacogdoches said as he and his friends walked toward Central Park.
We were headed to the train when Billy asked me to come with him as Sheila and the rest walked to the subway. He said he wanted to talk about something as we strolled north on Broadway.
But before he had the chance someone said, “Stop right there.”
I was already nervous. Most of my life I had spent at my home, at church or in school, where I had been an honor student every year, every semester. I wasn’t used to running the street with armed friends and watching duels.
Two uniformed policemen were getting out of their black-and-white cruiser. Billy had his six-shooter in a battered brown leather satchel and the police had the right of stop-and-frisk.
Once again I had the urge to run but I knew that wouldn’t end well.
One cop was white and the other black.
“What are you doing here so late at night, boys?” the black cop asked.
“Good evening, Officer O’Brien,” Billy said to the white policeman.
“Consigas?” he replied.
“You get that parade trot down yet?”
“This is the kid I was telling you about, Frank,” the white cop said to his partner.
“He can do anything on a horse. A real-life cowboy from Texas.”
“I was just playin’ basketball with my friend Felix here down at Lazarus House,” Billy said.
O’Brien asked Billy a few things about riding and then shook my friend’s hand, shook his hand.
“I thought the Cowboy Code said you shouldn’t lie,” I said when we were installed on the train.
“She gave me her phone number,” Billy replied.
“That Thalia gave me her phone number on a little piece of paper when she shook my hand.”
“What do you think I should do?”
“You should call her and have lunch at that barbecue place with me and Sheila Grant,” I advised. “That way it’ll be friendly.”
Billy called Thalia the next day. He told her what I had said (and later regretted), and she agreed to the date.
“She said,” Billy told me, “that Nacogdoches had obviously lost and she felt that it was her obligation to go on a date with the winning cowboy.”
The lunch was set for Saturday.
“What you mean he’s goin’ out with that white girl?” Sheila said when I asked her to come along.
“It’s the bet,” I explained lamely. “He kind of has to go.”
“I bet he wouldn’t think so if she was black.”
“You know better than that, girl. Billy’s doing it because he won and she knows it.”
“Sounds stupid to me.”
“That mean you’re not comin’?”
We ordered hot links, brisket, fried chicken and pork ribs with corn bread, collard greens, fried pickles and a whole platter full of french fries.
“So where all you Southerners come from?” Sheila asked Thalia after we’d ordered.
“Only Nacky and one of the others, Braughm, are from the South. They’re both out of Nashville. We all go to this private school called Reese on Staten Island.
Most of the kids there are rich and have what they call social-behavior problems.”
“But all his friends dress like cowboys,” I said.
“They just wanna be like him,” Thalia said with a twist to her lips. I remember thinking that if she was Caribbean she would have sucked a tooth.
“So you’re rich?” Sheila asked Thalia as if it was some kind of indictment.
“No. My mother teaches there and she didn’t like the kind of friends I had in public school. I like your hair. I wish I could do something like that with mine.”
Sheila had thick corded braids that flowed down her back. She was a beautiful girl. She lost her angry attitude when Thalia complimented her.
“So Nacogdoches is like some kind of juvenile delinquent?” Billy asked.
“He got in trouble down South stealing. I think his parents just wanted to get rid of him. Anyway he’s graduating this June. Says he’s going out to California.”
That’s when the food came. We spent the rest of the lunch talking and joking.
Thalia was a painter who wanted to specialize in horses. That’s what drew her to Nacogdoches. He kept a horse at a stable in Connecticut and promised to bring her up there someday.
“But now I think he was just sayin’ that to get in good with me,” the white girl added.
MORE FICTION? WE GOT YOU
“It’s not a date unless you two kiss,” Sheila said when we were out in front of the Iron Spur Barbecue House.
Thalia kissed Billy on the cheek and Sheila snapped the picture with her cell phone camera. Billy left with Thalia and Sheila gave me a few friendly kisses before I walked her home.
The next morning Thalia and Billy met us at the gate of the police stables—they were both wearing the same clothes from the day before.
I had problems keeping up with my horse. I was just bouncing, bouncing—up and down, to the side and almost to the ground once or twice—but we had a good time. The girls became friends and Billy was glad that we were there together.
“You know, Felix,” he said to me when we were returning the big animals to their stalls, “I realized yesterday that there are good people everywhere—not only in the place you come from.”
Like every other citizen of the world with a cell phone, Sheila was an amateur photographer. She took pictures of us on our horses, out in the park and of me, Billy and Thalia walking side by side. Thalia’s arm was linked with Billy’s.
Things returned to normal after that, more or less. I continued in my post as secretary of the student council and helped Billy write a paper for his remedial English class, an essay about a book of cowboy poetry his grandfather had given him. Sheila and Thalia became Facebook friends. They shared pictures and started telling each other about their experiences in different boroughs and at different schools.
Over the next two weeks I asked Sheila to go out with me six times, but she always had some reason to say no.
Then one afternoon Sheila was waiting outside my German class, clutching her beloved smartphone.
“Hey, Sheil,” I said trying to sound nonchalant.
“Look at this,” she said, thrusting the phone into my hand.
On the screen was a photograph of Thalia. She had a black eye and bloody lip, and she seemed to be in the middle of a scream or a cry.
“Flip it,” Sheila said.
There were seven pictures. It became obvious after the second shot that Thalia was being beaten while someone took pictures. In two shots someone was pulling her hair and slapping her. In another photo she was hunched over clutching her stomach with both hands as if someone had kicked her.
“Who sent you these?” I asked Sheila.
“It came from her phone. There was a text too.”
The text read, This is what happens to whores and race traitors.
“I don’t really care for computers,” he said. But I think he was just afraid of them.
The night before, he’d finished the fifth rewrite of the essay. He really did have deep insights into poetry written by people who turned their lives into verse. We did a word-by-word examination of his spelling and grammar before I dared to broach the thing that was foremost in my mind.
“I need to show you something, Billy.”
“What’s that, Felix? You don’t think that the paper’s good enough?”
I located the forwarded files from Sheila’s phone and showed him the pictures. Billy swiped through them saying not a word. His eyes seemed to get smaller but he wasn’t squinting. If he drew a breath I couldn’t tell.
After some minutes and close perusal of the photos, Billy said, “Can you send this motherfucker a note?”
Playground above 150 on the Hudson. Midnight tonight. Come ready. Come heavy.
Billy strapped on the pistol in his bedroom. It was exactly as he had done at Lazarus House but this time he tied the holster to his left leg.
“I thought you were right-handed,” I said.
“Two-handed,” Billy said, showing the first smile since he had seen the photos. “But I’m a little better with my left.”
At 11:35 he donned an off-white trench coat and we left the house.
“Where you goin’?” Billy’s mother said from the kitchen table, where she was drinking tea and watching TV.
“Over to Felix’s,” said my friend. “He’s gonna help me type my paper into his computer so then I can send the file to Miss Andrews.”
Outside we hailed a green cab and had her take us to the park.
Nacogdoches Early and his posse were waiting for us. Thalia was with them but as soon as we appeared she ran to us. Her face was swollen from the punishment she’d received.
“That’s right,” Nacogdoches said. “Go on over to them. That’s where you belong.”
A few moments later Sheila, Tom Tellerman and Teriq Strickland walked into the empty children’s playground. I had called Sheila and she notified our other friends.
Nacogdoches was wearing a bright-colored Mexican poncho that he flung off.
Underneath he was wearing his brown holster and black gun. He was hatless and his pale skin shone in the shadowy light.
There was no need for words. Billy and Nacogdoches squared off with about 10 paces between them.
“Thalia?” Billy called.
“Yeah?” she said.
“You strong enough to count to three, honey?”
Thalia walked to the river side of the two cowboys. The rest of us, white and black, moved out of the line of fire.
“One,” Thalia said and I was reminded of the sense of fate I’d experienced at Lazarus House.
“Two,” she announced, and I wanted to scream.
Before she was able to say the last number Nacogdoches reached for his pistol. He pulled out the gun and fired. But before that, with snake-like fluidity, Billy drew and shot. Nacogdoches’s bullet went wild, landing, I believe, somewhere out on the Hudson. The young white man was dead before he hit the concrete. I remember that he fell on a chalk-drawn hopscotch design.
There was another shot and I looked to see Braughm, the other Southerner, aiming a pistol at Billy—who was now down on one knee. Billy shot once, hitting his assailant in the upper thigh. Two others of Nacogdoches’s posse had guns, but Billy shot both of them before they could fire—one in the shins and the other in the shoulder.
After that we all ran.
At a coffee shop on 125th Street Billy was again wearing his trench coat and drinking from a bowl of chicken noodle soup. Sheila and Thalia were with us.
“You think he’s dead?” Billy asked me.
“You hit him in the head.”
Billy nodded and grimaced.
“It ain’t no fun when somebody dies,” he said.
After a few minutes of silence I noticed a red spot at the right shoulder of his off-white coat.
“I think I need to get out of town,” he said.
“I’ll go with you,” Thalia offered.
“That’d be nice,” Billy said kindly, “but with all them bruises we’d be stopped before the train made it out of Penn Station.”
Sheila’s aunt and uncle were out of town, so we cleaned and dressed Billy’s wound at their place. The bullet had come in through the front and gone out the back of Billy’s shoulder.
“Lucky that Braughm had steel-jacketed slugs,” Billy said. “A soft bullet woulda tore me up.”
“I never wanted to live up here anyway,” he said.
“What do you want me to tell your mom?”
“I’ll write her, don’t you worry about that. If she calls, tell her I left your place just before midnight and you don’t know where I went.”
He boarded the 5:11 A.M. train and that was the last I saw of him. But his effects lingered for some time.
The police found Nacogdoches Early and followed the bloody trail back to his friends. All they knew was that there was some black kid named Billy who killed Nacogdoches in a gunfight. The cops got to my brother but he was no help, saying truthfully that he’d made the Lazarus deal with some kid named Billy but never knew where he’d come from.
Thalia told them about the beating but she’d tossed her phone and the cops never followed the electronic trail.
The three major newspapers loved the romance of a shoot-out on the Hudson. In the weeks that followed there were 17 Western-style gunfights across the city—black, white and brown would-be gunslingers dueling. No one was killed, but the mayor and the chief of police ratcheted up the stop-and-frisk program until even rich people started to complain. It all died down within six months’ time. Billy’s mother left Harlem, and I graduated a year early.
I was in my fourth year at Harvard, majoring in English literature with an emphasis on Yeats, when I received an unopened letter forwarded to me by my sister.
Over the years I have meant to write to you but was always on the move, and whenever I started the words didn’t add up to much. I am very sorry for what I did when you knew me back then. There was no excuse for what Nacogdoches Early did to Thalia, but that didn’t give me the right to take his life. Maybe if it had been a fair fight, maybe if I didn’t know I could beat him, it would have been all right. But I knew I was the better gunman and so what I did was murder.
I have spent my time since then in the country, from Montana to Northern California, riding horses and taking work as I find it. I see my mother from time to time. She moved back to Texas after Henry Ryder died and she didn’t have to be afraid of him anymore.
You were a good friend, Felix, and I appreciate you sticking by me even though you could have got in trouble too.
Maybe you should burn this letter after you read it. Whatever you do I’ll be writing again. Maybe one day we’ll even see each other in Times Square, or maybe on the Hudson.
Your friend, Billy
I haven’t burned Billy’s confession—not yet. I keep meaning to.
In the years since I have received 11 more letters from the Harlem Cowboy. In the last few he’s written some very nice poetry about nature and manhood. His words mean a lot to me. His convictions about right and wrong give me the strength to not see myself as a victim.
I got my Ph.D. from Harvard and now teach American literature at the University of Texas. In Billy’s most recent letter he said that a girlfriend googled me and found out that I now lived in the Lone Star state.
“Don’t be too surprised if I drop by your classroom one day, professor,” he wrote. “In a long life you only get a few friends, and that’s all she wrote.”