M. M. M. Hayes
Quentin Ghlee had commandeered a nineteenth-century one-room schoolhouse abandoned out on the Mhuirich ranch, and the following summers he built on a lean-to with storage beneath it for mining tools, an underground compartment weighted closed by a massive chair. Every winter, hunters or snowmobilers, parties foraging in the wilderness area, even forest service or BLM officials had been known to break into buildings uninhabited during the heavy snows. Household utensils, appliances, or fixtures would disappear, even old phones or picture frames if they might be antique. But summers? Ah. Then Ghlee would return with the swallows, unearth what bare essentials he needed for shack existence, and work all day dynamiting and breaking rock in his mine. Finally, tired, dirty, and satisfied with his progress along a gold-bearing outcrop of quartz, he would set himself down in a well-worn folding chair and drink down the evening sun.
Sunset was a moment that always surprised him and never repeated itself. This evening’s sun spreading shifting dunes of melon-gold clouds, films of it settling over the ragged horizon of the Rough Hills, turning the slopes fiery, then golden, then oyster blue, the peaks diamond-pointed with the last slant rays of light, canyons and gullies already dark and secret, returned to themselves. An endless show, every night, the silent guardian Venus edging in, impatient for the night to begin. He never tired of it. Sprawled under his makeshift canopy, drink in hand, he slipped warmly into the cold mountain night.
He had arrived back in high country from Salt Lake City three days ago, had taken stock of what work his diggings needed this year, and totted up a list of things to buy in Elko – mostly dynamite and sour mash. Stocked with a Jeep-full of canned baked beans that he’d brought from Utah, he had borrowed back his goat from Mhuirich’s ranch, which he passed on the way. Today he’d noticed a slow leak in one leg of his WWII surplus Jeep and decided to stop by Barnabus Mhuirich’s tool shed to get a patch and fix his tire before he set out again on the two-hundred-mile round trek to Elko. Might even stop by Barnabus’s tool shed tonight, start for Elko tomorrow. Play it by ear.
It was good to be back. Good to be back. He missed the quiet up here, missed the loneliness, the heat and itch of grasshoppers rasping in the afternoon, the proximity of the sky and clouds so low their shadows moved like giant blight over the sage and hollows and foothills ascending out of the valley. Ten-thirty every morning, like a church bell, the jets from Mountain Home Air Base broke the sound barrier. Ghlee still hired on as a mining engineer, even though he’d retired five years ago when he turned fifty-five, but these days Salt Lake City tightened around him – more traffic, more anger, more people moving in from the East and telling all the westerners how to live, even though they’d fled what they were trying to duplicate. And it changed the weather! Smog, body heat, elbows. Lifelong neighbors and business associates squeezed you now, turned on a man. Ghlee’s own wife Ellie actually shot him – well, to be fair, he’d shot her first, during a late-night descent into a discussion about President Bush. The woman kept at him and wouldn’t listen either, just wouldn’t shut up and listen, which drove him nuts. She still did. He shouldn’t have shot her of course, no, not good, but it was late and they’d both been drinking and, to tell the truth, he couldn’t remember doing it anyway, the shooting that is. But he’d apologized, damn it, and the woman, with malicious aforethought, had waited a whole year to waylay him up here, in the same spot, with the same gun, the old warhorse. A survivor, he had to give her that.
He carried the face wound permanently, a mangled left cheek that looked like the black lava spilled across southern Idaho. Ghlee had been forced, what choice did he have, to quit inviting Ellie to come to Nevada with him. Fine with her, she said, but even without Ellie there was no end of evil afoot. Ghlee preferred spending some of each Utah winter in the southern hemisphere, and last year his own brother had jumped uranium claims Ghlee had staked in Patagonia. No one could be trusted. People may not know what they wanted, but they wouldn’t keep their misery to themselves.
Too many people on the planet, if anyone asked him, which no one had, but that’s what he thought anyway. The whole globe was proving the trapped-rat thesis, so that you got yourself out to what was supposed to be the middle of nowhere – Elko, say – and you find gamblers, prostitutes, hippies, gun runners, and lately gangs of Mexicans marrying Indian girls and using them to deal meth, all the way up Idaho, he’d heard. Old and new people coming up out of the sewers, although Elko didn’t need sewers, there was so little rain. Just let ‘er run off.
Out here, working on abandoned mines under a metal blue sky, no one could get to him. Oh they would, sooner or later – he’d heard motorcycles up on the county road this afternoon. Sooner or later the overflow would stumble across the corkscrew entry into this maze of mountain valleys, but for the moment this was that one lost corner of the planet, roads impassable nine months of the year, which not too many folks had found. A place where a man could finish a thought.
Well-warmed and lubricated, he sat and watched the night sky take over. The icy gleam of stars blanketed him with indifference, the coyotes laughed in the hills. On his own, Ghlee slipped quietly into the land, the air, the warmth of sour mash and a welcome consciousness that old Ghlee himself was headed for that great dust migration. Still, in the meantime – In the meantime.
He may have dozed. Yes, he definitely dozed, but the cold woke him, and he pushed himself up out of the saggy yellow and lime-striped folding chair and pocketed a square bottle for companionship. He shuffled off for his Jeep, which was also for the junk heap soon, the two of them on last legs, but tough old legs. They’d do another three hundred thousand miles together, he’d warrant, both of them too ornery to go down easy.
Late now, but a good time to stop by Barnabus Mhuirich’s tool shed, so Ghlee drove the Jeep up the dusty spur to the county road, without lights because he liked moving in moonlight, after thirty summers up here knowing this road as well as his own fingernails. Yep, he’d knock off as many jackrabbits as he could, catching them from behind in the dark. Collect ’em on the way home, skin ’em tonight and fry up rabbit for breakfast. Ghlee liked to look out from the inside of the night.
What he saw tonight, up the road a good ways, were silhouettes, two of them, just past Barnabus’s house and walking south down the road. They carried bags, or maybe blankets. He couldn’t tell in moonlight, so he pulled to the side of the road, well north of Barnabus’s. The two lurching shadows, heavy-footed walkers, looked to be men. After a while they sat and shook loose whatever it was and covered themselves.
Ghlee pulled out his bottle and calculated. These wouldn’t be ranchers, not with nothing better to do than sneak along a dark road well past the middle of the night. Ranchers’d be sleeping fast, with chores waiting at dawn, and that was only an hour or two away. No ranch hands either, not traveling these roads on their feet. Ha! Ghlee laughed at his own pun, had some more companionship, and leaned back, shoulders melting into his seat.
Pretty soon the shadows rose and rocked away, one charging, one limping and falling behind. Interesting, the lameness, the weak one who couldn’t keep up. Ghlee heard them yelling, although not what they said. It didn’t make much sense, and he consulted his bottle and listened to the percussive arrhythmia of their shouting, the fricatives of what sounded like swearing and obscenities.
The straggler sat again, but the second silhouette walked ahead. After about ten minutes, Ghlee concluded that what he’d found were little blobs of trouble bubbling up from places Ghlee had escaped. Here were your basic rats, moving in and digging into the alkali to reconnoiter these pristine mountains. Already they were turning on each other. Ha! Hadn’t he said as much?
He stirred his Jeep awake, thought to get his pistol from the seat, but decided his hands, molded by pickax handles, were weapons enough. He pottered forward in the Jeep to the sitter, who had become a dark spot, barely visible on the side of the road with the hill of sage behind him. Ghlee kept his window open to hear any more sounds of what had seemed a pretty fair facsimile of a fight. He rolled to a stop and leaned out the window. “You in trouble there?” he croaked, slurring to disguise his curiosity.
The figure struggled upright. “Sure am.” A boy, teenager perhaps, stood and limped to Ghlee’s window. A slight kid, not much mass to him, with his head shaved bald and earrings up and down both ears. Ghlee never could remember in which ear jewelry signaled strange music, but both ears cinched it. Certified strange. The boy poked his noggin in the Jeep window, blond stubble now visible, and with him came a stink that immediately put Ghlee in mind of garbage. The voice even cracked, started high and finished low and hoarse: “There any way we could get a ride to Elko? Or anywhere we could get some gas?” He peered inside the Jeep, the passenger side and then in the back, and Ghlee chuckled, thinking the kid – he was a kid – probably thought he could handle this old guy. The boy came closer, his voice stronger and deeper. “We had a motorcycle accident, up to the pass. My bike slid off this wall of snow, and then we didn’t know – a rancher down here told us – there’s a town, t’other side of the pass? Instead we walked all day to get back to that paved road from Elko. I smashed my leg going over the cliff, and it hurts like hell. I need a doctor.”
Ghlee pursed his mouth and noticed the boy flinch at the mangled right side of his face, Ellie’s brand. Ghlee couldn’t even grow beard to cover it, although tiny whiskers did grow out of crevices. The boy stepped away. “It’s OK,” said Quentin, used to the reaction. He touched his face. “I had a little accident myself. But get in. Get in. I’ll take a look at the leg.”
“You a doctor?” Suspicion, tinged with challenge.
Ghlee loved it. “Nope.” He leaned back and squeezed the wheel. “No doctors up here so we learn to do for ourselves. But I can patch up a leg and get it so’s you can walk on it, and maybe we can find you a good knot of wood to use as a walking stick.”
“I got a friend. In Elko. He might could come get me.”
“Sure. We’ll call your friend.”
“Call? I thought you were headin’ towards town. Why aren’t your lights on?”
“Don’t need ’em. Saves gas. And hell no, I’m not going to town in the middle of the night, not about to. But you can make a call from my place. I’m just back up the road some.”
“I . . . I’m with a friend too. Just went round the corner.” The boy pointed, his voice turning whiney. They both looked at the swath of gravel disappearing around a hill of high sage.
“Where?” said Ghlee. “Don’t see nobody.”
“Well, he’s up there. Could we pick him up too?”
“Don’t see a thing.”
“He’s there. You can’t see him around that next turn, not in the dark.”
Can’t see around the corner in the light either, thought Ghlee, but he said, “He can’t be too worried about you then. That blood on your leg? Cougar probably out stalking your scent right now.”
“You bet, cougar. Where’d you think they lived?”
The kid made a funny gurgling sound. “But on the road? They come down here?”
“Never noticed cougar paying much attention to traffic signs, if that’s what you mean.”
“No. No. But – If we could just find Dewayne -”
“Dewayne? He Indian?”
“Well then. Indian set loose in sagebrush, he’ll be fine. Like B’rer Rabbit. We’ll fix that leg a yours, and put you back here. He’ll be around somewheres. But it’s late. I got to get home and go to bed. I’ve a big day ahead of me. And I don’t think you’ll find many other offers tonight.”
“But – ” and the boy looked behind the Jeep, “you some kind of sheriff or something? Where you comin’ from?”
“What difference does that make? And hell no, I’m no sheriff, just . . . your basic . . . knight-errant, roaming the land to right all wrongs, stamp out discord, find folks . . . in distress.” Ghlee laughed at himself. “Found you, didn’t I?”
The boy moved back another step. “Oh, fuck.” He rolled his eyes. “Well, OK. I’m in distress. What’s your name?”
“Cain!” Ghlee lied, then suddenly sensed discovery and, excited by the danger, upped the stakes. He added his real last name. “Cain Ghlee.”
“Glee? You’re kidding. Like in wheeeee?”
“Sometimes.” Kid’s a loudmouth. Which warmed Ghlee’s heart. Warmed his heart. Made him . . . gleeful.
“Where’s your place?”
“Oh, com’on, get in. Or . . . get lost! I’ll help, but I want to get going.” And he did.
The boy wavered, his nose twitching.
Ghlee felt the moment stop, as if neither of them were breathing. The boy lifted his hand and let it drop, looked at the corner ahead, and Ghlee felt a wave of heat begin, blood rising in his head, the familiar warm tingle through his thighs. Here, surfacing right beneath Quentin’s feet, came your classic rat, nose twitching as it emerged from the warrens of gambling and prostitution in Elko, and here he crept in, thinking he’d discovered these clean-smelling mountains. Ghlee felt a pulse in his chest and solid forearms.
Then the surrender: a final look up the disappearing road, a shaky sigh, and the youngster limped around to the passenger door. Settled in the seat beside Ghlee, he slammed the door, and already Ghlee caught the scent. Putrefaction. The old man felt his body click into place, poised to erupt.
Plan your work and work your plan, his father always said when Ghlee screwed up and needed to be taught a lesson. Ghlee turned the Jeep around and headed back to his cabin. This half-grown rodent would return, to show his friends the valley. Ghlee could imagine them on their motorcycles, raising dust devils all the way up the road to the pass. That’s what would happen, if he let it. Once people saw what they could get away with, they poured through the holes, the law of the bad example. That was the way the world worked, and it was this world Ghlee calibrated, measured, and put in motion. If there was another world, another time, fine, he’d be some part of that, too, but here and now he was one of the forces that operated according to a system of physical laws, same as the stars circulated according to a pattern beyond their own control. What did it tell him, this oily urchin stumbling into his private territory? He felt the quick flick of something unseen, heard a discordant hiss in the sounds of the night, and shuddered, chilled even as he sped toward the incandescent moment of tying the boy to the chair in the shed.