Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Range On The Home: Chapter 1

A relatively uneventful month of amblin’ found Zack well into Colorado Territory, in the late afternoon, facing a sight he’d never seen. He’d heard about, but never quite gotten around to seein’, the White Sands of New Mexico, but the descriptions he’d heard of them had not prepared him for this: before him lay a stretch of huge, dun colored sand dunes, the tallest of which couldn’t have been less than a coupla hundred feet high. They reposed, in ancient sleepiness, near the northern portion of a long, flat valley; bordered on all sides by low, unprepossessing hills. This was certainly not the way he’d pictured Colorado country from old Joe’s Sample’s colorful descriptions and tall tales. The land that he had crossed up till now resembled New Mexico and Arizona more’n anythin’ else. Yet now these sinuous pyramids of sand rose starkly light-brown before him, like somethin' from a book of tales about the Great African Desert, or Araby.
It was right warm this summer out on the high New Mexico plateau. Zack sat with his back up against a stunted pine tree, fortuitously curved to fit his frame, eating the nuts he had shaken down and then laboriously harvrsted with the sharp tip of his Bowie knife, looking longingly at the inviting prospect of the not-too-distant hills and mountains ahead, with their shady scrub forests and occasional fast flowing mountain streams. With any luck, he hoped to be within their cool confines by sundown, a fat trout spitted over his campfire and his feet propped up on his saddle. Jezebelle, unexpectedly, and for no apparent reason, gave out a nervous whinny.
“What’sa’matter girl? Hear a rattler, or a 'Pache?” He listened carefully to the slight sounds elicited by the wind through the scrubbrush. “Naw,” he opined aloud, “more likely you’re just a-hankerin’ to be up in those hills, same as me.” He made a comforting clucking sound and she immediately came over to him. He stood up, offering her his last handful of piƱon nuts, brushing the husks and pine cone pieces from his lap, and the dusty brown dirt from his seat. She accepted his offering, and as he wiped the salty sweat crust from his brow and then pulled his broad-brimmed felt hat back down over his curly, reddish-blonde hair (ever-so-slightly interspersed with an occasional strand of gray), he peered intently towards those enticing foothills, attempting to pick out the most likely path into, and upwards, through them. After a moment’s hesitation, he mounted, gave the mare a pat on the neck, and said: “C’mon now ‘Belle. ‘Hain’t got all day to be a-lollygaggin’ ‘roun’, gettin’ what brains we got fried.”
The slanting afternoon sunlight illuminated his deeply lined face. The exertions of a honest life of tedious toil, the swelt of day and the chill of night, the erosive effects of wind and water had left their marks on him, etching his face and his very being as surely as they had the sandstone of the surrounding desert. He had often joked that his skin had weathered so well he could play dead and pull it off, so dessicated and wrinkled were his face, neck and hands. Therefore and thereby, he seems of indeterminate age . He could be anywhere from thirty-five to fourty-five (tho’ he’s actually only thirty-six). The type of man whose visage might make most women dilate on first meeting, he was often garrulous and longwinded, with a repetoire of jokes and puns for all occassions. Most men that knew him instinctively wished to impress him with their new jokes, and he would always guffaw with glee while filing each new punchline away to be delivered when he next hit town.
He has always looked just like what he was: a “cowpoke”, someone having chosen a life in natural surroundings over ANY of the incentives wealth or roots or civilization might offer. Six foot in his (when he had ‘em) stockings, and with not an ounce of fat on his well-muscled and wiry 180 lb. frame, he meets the circumstances of his life head-on, with no quarter asked, or given. Good with animals and with children, honest and true to his word, capable of drinking to excess without becoming stupid, clumsy, or a cad; he endures and seemingly thrives on the vagaries and exigencies of his life’s vicissitudes. Now then, though, Zack was headed for Southern Colorado for a much needed change of scenery, and for the job his old friend, Joe Sample (“I’ll try near anythin’ once’st, jest t’be true to ma callin’ ya see. Git it?”) had always assured him would be waiting for him if he ever wanted it.
“Lotta head of cattle an’ a lotta work for a good ‘hand up that-a-way,” Joe had often been heard to say, spitting a brown gobbet of steaming juice from the corner of his permanently stained lips, product of the ever-present piece of “‘plug’ tobaccee” forever resident in his constantly moving mouth. “Yep,” he’d spit and say, squinting out at the sere desert landscape where they'd first met with a look of pure disgust, “not like this here god-dam’ desert: bake in the summer and freeze your tail in the winter. They got soft grass and mountain clover for months, months by god — make you wanna take off your duds and just roll aroun’ in them cool green meadows, like a stud stallion in a dustpit.” Spit. “They got mountains up thar make make these here hills look like shitpiles, an’ that there Rocky Mountain water’s clear an’ clean an’ cold an’ sweet as honey! Why, I e’en heer’d tell that the deer and the rabbits; fat cottontails mind, not nasty stringy jacks like we got here, come right up to your camp of a night, just a-beggin’ to be eaten.” Spit. “Yep,” he’d sigh, hitch up his britches, and shake his grey-maned head dolefully, “that there’s country a body’d wanna settle down in, I reckon.”
But when Zack would ask why he didn’t go on up there if it was so fine, Joe would just spit, sigh, and once again shake his head, exclaiming: “Too old’s what it is, jes’ too dam’ old, I guess. I’m jest too blamed old to to be movin’ on, this late in life.” Spit. “‘Sides, I got roots down here, friends like, an’ a man my age’s gotta think ‘bout his future, an’ security an’ such.”
Zack had always felt like telling his friend that he didn’t see much future for him in New Mexico, but he’d always held his tongue, thinking it would be kinda’ mean — let the old man have a few dreams to comfort him in his dotage — who could tell? Maybe the Triple-O would keep him on in his later years, doin’ the easy chores.
Zack imagined these thoughts stretchin’ out behind him, sorta like the wafting dustpuffs ‘Belle raised with each hoof-fall, hangin’ there in the hot and heavy air (once even wreathing a startled-from-slumber Gila Monster in an evanescent and ocherous halo, a sight he marveled upon, as he glanced back along his trail), ‘cross the plains and hills of his path as he climbed slowly into the loomin’ mass of the Sangre De Christo Mountains, named for the blood-red color the ubiquitous mineral deposits there lent to the hues of the native soil. If those memories had been tangible things, kinda’ like that dust, he thought he might have watched them settle slowly into the horsetracks, footprints and wagon ruts he’d left by the thousands across the land in his life’s passage; until they too, like the visible signs of his passing presence, blew away in the willful and omnipresent wind.
Maybe his proximity to these dunes had somethin’ to do with the strange lights and sounds that had wakened him from his sleep late last night, and his discovery of several strangely cut-up cattle carcasses the day before. At first Zach had thought he was back in Canada, and the Northern Lights had, as they sometimes did, come to be seen far south of their accustomed occurrence, and out of season; for these lights kinda looked like them, all flowin’ and colored like an outta’ focus rainbow, only way lower, and closer. But then, he’d remembered just where he was and, at the same time, also realized that accompanyin’ the lights was an eerie whistlin’ whine, an eldritch hum like nothin’ he’d ever heard or e’en heer’d tell of before. So strange a sound it was that the hairs on the back of his neck rose as one, to stand straight out from his skin, before both the sound and lights quickly faded away; as did he, back to a troubled sleep.
Slowly he guided Jezebelle to the right, along a small patch of hard-packed open ground. There, the sand ended so abruptly that it might have been tidied up at night by broom-wielding elves. Zack and ‘Belle entered a small stand of short pines on the other side of the open ground that grew ‘midst piles of granite boulders, rough-hewn and strewn randomly as if tossed like seeds from some giant’s hand. Perhaps that huge troll, or ogre, had been grindin’ those rocks for eons, like a miller grindin’ grain, producing these huge hills of rock dust, ready for makin’ into giant flapjacks; for sustenance down through the ages.
Zack stared at the high dune tops and the graceful snake-like curves of the sand in fascination. He was seriously considering a climb, just for the fun of it, when he, for some reason, pulled ‘Belle up short. He might have stopped there because the dunes stopped, right there, as abruptly as they had started; or because the horse and he needed a rest; or to allow them both to answer the call of nature. Actually though, none of these things were the reason. If he had been intrigued by the sight of the dunes, he was now thunderstruck by the unimaginable prospect before him. Slack-jawed, he gaped at the immense scintillating metallic object directly in front of him, some fifty feet away.
Sharp along its edges, curvin’ at the top and bottom in identical, flattened arcs, like two pie tins melted together (without visible seam), this — thing — hung motionless, without visible support, some ten or fifteen feet above the ground. Kinda like pie plates, yeah, but the pie they would bake would be a good two-hundred feet across! The thing was so big, his brain balked at comparin’ it to anythin’ he’d ever come across. Zach’s mind kinda seized-up, like a wagon wheel gone long without greasin’, just lookin’ at it (an’ those hairs on his neck, like the hackles on a frightened dog, all rose up again).
It hung so rigidly in the air there that it might have been painted on the backdrop of hills and sky behind. Almost unconsciously he looked for the ropes above it, or the poles beneath it that he knew must be holding it up. Neither were to be seen, and Zack wondered whether they might be made of some kind of glass. To what could even transparent glass ropes have been attached in a clear blue sky? He rubbed his eyes, thinkin’ it might be some strange kind of mirage brought on by his long days on the trail and/or lack of water, but it still wouldn’t go away. He sat frozen thereafter, atop his increasingly skittish mount, until a particularly plaintive whinny from the redoubtable mare brought him ‘round to some awareness of his surroundin’s and his place in them.
“Jeezus, ‘Belle”, he finally whispered, “what in the hell is it?”
In the next instant, he came to a realization that her alarm, perhaps, had less to do with the apparition of this hanging golden plate-thing, than it did with whatever was causin’ the approaching dust cloud to the southwest, behind the hummin’ thing hanging in front of them. She was rigidly facin’ that loomin’ dust-cloud, legs wide apart as though suspicious of her balance on level ground. Her ears were cocked full forward, her nostrils flared and eyes wide, concentratin’ on whatever it was a-causin’ that commotion. It had a somewhat familiar appearance to Zack; as a matter of fact, it looked like it belonged to a small herd of stampedin’ stock — possibly wild horses. That would at least explain Jezebelle’s interest, if not her apparent slight fright.
Believin’ that this explicable occurrence and the inexplicable phenomena in front of him had no connection, he urged ‘Belle forward, his apprehension now overcome by his curiosity. The horse refused to move, or to even budge an inch from her rigid stance. She didn’t seem to be at all aware of the thing in the air before her; instead, she seemed hypnotized by the approaching tan turbulence. In spite of her fright, she took one deliberate step forward, at his spurred urgin’, and then another.
“O.K. then girl. Hold on now. Whoa.” He pulled back on her reins, and she stopped, somewhat nervously yet studiously facing that approachin’ herd, utterin’ that particular bilabial exhalation of resignation peculiar to horses, donkeys and mules: “p-b-p-b-p-b-p-b-p-ph”; and tossin’ her head, evidently quite relieved to be goin’ no further. He could make out some shapes in the dustcloud now as they came into view over the top of a low rise about a half-mile away. As he squinted into the setting sun he was able to pick out individual figures, and realized that the small herd approaching consisted of not only a dozen or so horses, but at least as many cattle, a number of mule deer, a large lumberin’ hulk that he thought might be a bear, and numerous smaller leapin’, hoppin’ and flyin’ shapes that appeared to be antelopes, rabbits and sundry sage grouse.
“Well, I’ll be swiggered,” he breathed to himself. The only time he’d ever seen animals run together like this was before a brush fire he’d witnessed once in Oklahoma. But, there wasn’t any fire here and now, so what in tarnation were they a-runnin’ from?
As he pondered this question with growing unease, a hum of a distinctly higher pitch became more and more audible. He scratched his neck reflexively and his hand came away damp and matted with hair that was apparently falling out. “What is it, girl? . . . What in tarnation is . . .”
The question remained unfinished. Through the driftin’ dust, he could now make out what it was that propelled the animals to such haste — say better, herded them, right on the edge of panic, toward the horse and rider. Flashin’ golden as they dipped and swerved, reflectin’ the sunlight like mirrors, came a good score or so of pie-plate shaped disks — exact duplicates, on a much smaller scale, of the one monster disk still a-hangin’ in front of ‘em. As this realization struck home, he heard a loud “whoosh”, and a blast of cool air threw a cloud of dust into his eyes. He pulled his soppin’ bandana up, over his nose and mouth and steadied the horse as it tried to rear and dance away sideways, squintin’ in the fine flying dirt. The air around him pulsed and vibrated as though a railroad train were goin’ through a tunnel, or on greased tracks, such that the normal squeals of metal-on-metal were subdued. When tears had washed tracks through the caked coat of dust down his face, Zack saw that a section of the massive, hoverin’ disk had fallen open, and was, in fact, touchin’ the ground, formin’ a golden ramp leadin’ up to a rectangular openin’. The hummin’ grew louder.
“I’m dead, dyin’ or real bad sick,” Zack thought. “Mebbe it’s the end o’ the world. That’s it, it’s Judgement Day! I’m in deep shit now.” His mind froze at that last thought. So this was the “wheels within wheels” writ about in Ezekiel, which he vaguely remembered from childhood. He knew he shudda’ paid more attention in Bible class. He just knew his daydreamin’ would come back to haunt him someday. So this was the golden chariot of God, seen only by prophets, or madmen, or the dead. He wondered which of the categories his miserable existence fell within. Somehow, pessimistically he had no choice but to conclude, one way or another, that it had to be the last of the three alternatives.
He watched quietly now, resigned to his fate, his fear having turned into a body-and-mind dullin’ numbness; or more like he was paralyzed, the way a jackrabbit was frozen by the stare of the rattler that was about to swallow it whole. He watched, without even tryin’ to ride away, as the small disks drove those critters right up that ramp, into the insides of that thing, better’n a pack of sheepdogs doin’ their level best to impress their master. As the last deer and rangecows disappeared up that ramp, almost as an after thought, three of the small disks veered off and circled around behind Zack and ‘Belle. At first just swoopin’ at Zack like jays at a crow; and then, when he simply ducked and stared at them slack-jawed, hittin’ him with tiny lightnin’ bolts that burned him and made ‘Belle half-crazy; the pair was driven (herded - he thought again) toward and up that ramp. He leaned down, grasped her tightly around her neck, closed his eyes, gripped both of his sphincters tightly, as they seemed about to loose themselves, and tried to remember The Lord’s Prayer. “By God,” he thought, “at least I can show Him I know at least that!”, and then cringed, buryin’ his face deeper into Jezebelle’s mane as he apologized over and over again mentally as he thought of his possible blasphemy. Then, they were up the ramp and inside the thing .

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