Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Shadow and the Hermit Woman

Shadow studied the looming crag with a critical eye, and with more concern than usual. His snares had been empty for three days,  Not much to eat was growing besides prickly pear, and that wasn't worth much. Shadow hadn't eaten in two days, and he felt weakness in his bones. Now he was nearly out of water. He really didn't feel like making this climb to the spring – but he didn't feel like dying, either. He needed to lug these bottles up to the spring, so weakness be damned.

Dog frisked around in the sand on the floor of the narrow canyon, ignoring Shadow and his troubles. Dumbass Dog. He could catch rats or rabbits any time he wanted, so Shadow's food troubles didn't concern him. He liked to drink, though. Probably he'd join Shadow up at the spring, and he'd want his share after. But he wouldn't help with the bottles.

Shadow gave the cliff one last look, then looped the cord that carried the empty bottles around his neck. Up was fairly easy – it was down that would be the problem. How much did three gallons of water weigh? He couldn't remember – not a lot, but it was plenty when you're easing your stiff, weak old self down the rocks. And there were two bottles, so that was six gallons. He could take them down one at a time, he supposed, that might be safer. But then he'd just have to go up and do it again. He muttered and headed up the talus slope toward the rock face.

It wasn't a proper cliff, like in the movies. Mountain climbers in the movies always seemed to pick sheer faces where you needed pitons and snap links and ropes. It made Shadow wonder if there were mountains somewhere that only had sheer faces, or if maybe mountain climbers were all crazy. There was always an easier way than that, or what was the point of doing it? And anyway, Shadow had made this climb plenty. There was an easier way that didn't involve this crawling over rocks, but it was up and over the plateau and miles out of his way. You still had to climb down and up several gullies, but they weren't as bad as this. But it was just too much walking with the heavy bottles. Shadow was getting hungry enough to – well, not scare him exactly. But he had to watch how much energy he used, because he was running on empty. No, the climb was the only way. Up we go.

It took fifteen, maybe twenty minutes if you stuck with it, but Shadow stopped several times to rest and keep the sweat down. He carefully didn't think about what his Plan B would be if the spring wasn't running. That had only happened once or twice and wasn't likely today, but Uncle Murphy had been having a lot of fun with him lately. Once he would have lugged his bottles to Fortier's place, where there was a well. But that was gone forever. He didn't know how to get Fortier's well pump working, and now anyway somebody had bought the parcel and it was off limits. Times like this he wished he'd made some sort of deal with the townies who were building houses here and there – they'd have wells. But Shadow didn't much like dealing with townies, and he wouldn't go there and beg.

Nearly at the level of the spring, Shadow stopped and took a peek. He could smell coyote and cat, but nothing so strong they might still be around. He sniffed again – Dog? He raised his head over the rock shelf and looked toward the ledge that held the spring, then grumpily relaxed. Yup – Dog. Dog had found his own way up, and was cheerfully lapping up the water. Cursing the burning in his muscles, Shadow heaved himself onto the shelf.

The spring trickled from a side of a rain-cut rock gully high in the canyon wall, where the gully had formed flat shelves. For some reason this particular shelf had a deep bowl in it where the water collected. It was a strange place for a spring, because they were usually further down in the flat. But all the springs like that were far, and on fenced parcels where Shadow didn't usually go. Shadow had discovered this one years and years ago, while exploring the canyon. Somebody had laid a line of cairns at the bottom of the long, long canyon, three rocks each, maybe a hundred yards apart. It didn't make any sense to him at first, but people were always stacking stones for reasons of their own. At first he had assumed the cairns would turn out to be as senseless as they usually did. But then the line ended at a larger cairn, placed at the mouth of a steep tributary gully. This was worth checking out, so he had climbed. And about two-thirds up the face, as he cautiously peeked over to the next highest shelf he had seen a spring robin on the rock, acting as if it were drinking water. It was too late in the year for snow melt to still be in the rocks, and too early for the rain. Mystified, Shadow had climbed further and found this spring. It was his most prized possession, and he had told few about the cairns.

In high summer the spring was iffy, but it didn't let him down today. Drink, relax, fill the bottles. He rested a while, then faced the long, scary climb down. At the best of times he didn't like this climb. He wished he had a proper shoulder strap to sling the bottles from, but he'd never scrounged one of those. What he had was a plaited strap made from clothesline he'd – well, sort of scrounged – from a parcel with a broken-down trailer where nobody lived. It would cut into his shoulder something cruel before he was halfway down, but that was life. He couldn't climb down and carry the bottles in his hands.

Almost made it, too. If he'd been stronger, quicker, the rock that broke off away from his foot wouldn't have meant much – it happened all the time. But he wasn't stronger or quicker, so he fell.

He didn't fall all that far. He bounced off a rock, hit the talus slope harder than he'd have wished, then rolled and slid halfway down the talus. He was head-down on the slope, on his back, and the bottles were trying to strangle him. He cut the cord with his belt knife and listened but didn't watch his precious bottles drop to the canyon. He didn't hear a splash, but the plastic wouldn't likely have survived the fall. He needed that water, but more than that he needed the bottles. He'd have to get new ones somehow, and wondered what he could find to trade.

But now it was time to wonder how bad he was hurt. He lay still, his knife in his hand, and thought about what parts hurt. His leg stung him terribly, but he could feel it when he tried to move his foot. Sheathing the knife he reached down carefully, trying not to bend too much. He touched the hurt and raised his hand to his eyes – there was a lot of blood. His side hurt really bad, and when he inhaled he felt like somebody was stabbing him. His back hurt, not too bad. His head didn't hurt. And he didn't seem to be able to work his left hand at all or even feel it; it was numb. Busted wrist? Arm? That was bad: He needed his hands to get off this slope. All that blood would draw visitors who wouldn't want to be friends. He needed down off this slope.

Dog came bouncing up the talus, snuffling and full of fun. Then he sniffed at Shadow's leg and stopped being playful. He wouldn't be any help, but Shadow hoped he'd stay out of the way. At least he was pretty sure Dog wouldn't eat him till he was dead, and that was more than he could say for anything else he was likely to meet. Shadow was suddenly a long way from home.

Okay, roll over. Oh, that hurt. Not too bad. You got one leg and one arm, so crawl. Gravity's done its worst, and now down is easier than up. Crawl, goddammit.

Somehow the worst of it was getting from the slope to the canyon floor, because that involved a way his body didn't want to bend anymore. He finally scooted sideways and rolled the last bit. He inched his way to the bottles. One was intact, for a wonder. The other had split its side and lost most of its water but not all. That was the one he wanted, because the full one might as well weigh a million pounds. He'd cut it open if he needed to, but would sure rather not. With his only working hand, Shadow got the split part upward. He slashed the split open so he could get his hand inside. Dog came to drink from it, and Shadow slapped him away. Mine! Dog didn't complain.

Now: How bad was he bleeding? He managed to drag himself up against a rock, sitting rather than laying. He cut away the leg of his pants. His thigh was oozing blood bad, but wasn't spurting anywhere. Okay. He cut the pants leg all the way around and pulled the cut part up, slicing it all the way down. Then he wadded up the cloth, dipped it into the water and squeezed it into his mouth. Dipped and drank, dipped and drank. He needed his strength: He needed all the strength he had, and he couldn't carry water with him. He might be gonna die, but not right here. When he'd drunk all he could hold he used the wet cloth to clean the sand and rock bits out of the wound, then bound the blood inside.


Time to crawl.

She didn't garden and she didn't keep livestock, so there wasn't much reason to work outside. But that didn't mean there weren't some outside chores that needed doing. Bernardo had delivered his wood yesterday. You could trust Bernardo that far – he wasn't the cheapest, but he did sell you an honest cord. He didn't stack it, though, and so now she was out stacking her new cord wood in its neat rack. Sometimes it seemed stupid to buy firewood in high summer, but she'd learned years ago it was really the best time to do it, all in all. Bernardo was too busy in the autumn to be reliable, and if you waited too long you could find yourself without wood. It was a little cheaper this way, too.

A dog barked suddenly, startlingly close. She spun in fear, raising the log she held defensively. None of the neighbor dogs had ever come around here! A feral? Ferals were dangerous.

The dog kept its distance, but didn't shut up. It stared at her, barking and barking. Something about it reminded her of that old television show she'd watched when she was a kid. Lassie. She remembered the old joke:

“Did Timmy fall down the well again, Girl? Stupid kid.”

The dog had large, intelligent brown eyes, intensely alive in an abrupt brow. It really did seem the dog wasn't warning her off, but that it wanted something from her. It broke off its noise, danced a few feet further away, and started barking again. It never took its eyes off her.

Collies, as everybody knew now, were dumb as rocks. The dogs that had played Lassie were chosen because they were pretty, not because they were smart. This one wasn't pretty at all. It was brown and skinny, maybe forty pounds, and it was quick. It danced around, never staying quite still. It really did act like it wanted...

Experimentally, she took a step toward it. As abruptly as she could imagine, it turned and ran several steps away. Then it spun, danced, barked.

Damned if that dog didn't want her to follow it.

He didn't know how long he'd crawled, but he knew how far. Not far enough. Now and then he looked back: He wasn't leaving a blood trail, but there was a track in the sand a blind pup could follow and he had to be leaving a great scent spoor. The canyon was behind him and he was in the wash, near the second turn he needed to make. Now he could keep to the wash or he could crawl into the brush. That was shorter but he wouldn't be able to see where he was going. Stupid to think about getting lost when the bushes were maybe two feet high, but it could happen. His mind was getting fuzzy; he'd better stick to the wash. He knew the wash; he couldn't get lost there.

The dog had disappeared, abandoned him already. It thought he was going to die. If he made it to the shack it would show up there sooner or later. If he didn't, it would come back for the body. Waste not, want not. Smart dog.

No, wait! He'd be able to see the old windmill once he was out of the channel of the wash. That was a good landmark, it wouldn't let him down. Even in the bushes he'd be able to see the windmill. He turned and crawled toward the bank.

She ran into the house for water and her gun. Back outside, the dog had approached the house cautiously. When it saw her it went into its dance again, really excited. She approached it and it ran away.

It ran toward the wash, stopping from time to time to let her catch up, never going completely out of sight. They went that way for a long time, up the wash toward the canyon. In the distance she saw something that didn't belong there. Something blue and shiny.

Water bottles? One was on its side, cut open and nearly empty. The dog quickly started drinking from it. There was blood on the rocks here, quite a lot of it. Back the way they'd come, there was a clear trail in the sand.

She stared at the dog, who was now staring back at her. “Well. Aren't you something?”

He heard panting behind him. Coyotes, not a cat. Strange: They shouldn't be this hungry. Rolling on his back in the bushes, he snatched at his knife. A line from a stupid old Buck Owens song: “Good buddy you may get me, but brother lemme tell you that it's gonna be after the fight.”

But the body that broke through the bushes wasn't a coyote, it was Dog. It danced around like it did sometimes when it'd found him after losing his scent for a while. “Don't think you're so smart, dammit,” he mumbled. “You're the one who ran off.” He sheathed the knife and rolled over again. Time to crawl.

Then he heard footsteps behind him, behind where the dog had come from.

The woman – Shadow couldn't remember her name, though he was pretty sure she'd told him at the time – had helped him hobble to his shack, helped him sew his leg back together, bound his wrist, brought him water and even food from her own stash. It was pretty damned clear she didn't like being near him any more than he wanted to be near her. She didn't offer the use of her well, so there was no invitation to hang around her place and he wouldn't have accepted that if she'd made it.

He didn't quite know what to make of her. She lived in a townie house, but she wasn't a townie. He knew she'd been there for a long time, he'd seen her move in. She had a townie job. But she definitely wasn't a townie. A townie would have talked about hospitals and made all sorts of fuss. A townie wouldn't have known what to do with a suture kit, and would have got upset when he did it himself.

You drop a rock in a pool, and the ripples go on and on. The ripples hit reeds or other rocks, and they send ripples running in other directions. No telling what'll happen. Shadow was on this slope, under this serape in this rain, because years ago he got hungry and fell off a fucking cliff.

She helped him. He'd always known sometime he'd have to help her back.


CorbinKale said...


Bustednuckles said...

I'm liking this. Keep after it.

Claire said...

I'm definitely liking it, too, Joel. And I'm having special fun with it because I've had glimpses of the world that inspired you.

It's fun vicariously walking that wash, climbing to that secret spring, and finally "seeing" the hermit woman of the Garage Mahal who remained a mere rumor the whole time I was down there.

I enjoy the way you've taken real elements and enlarged on their drama.