Saturday, May 07, 2005


Jack Kelley had been driving since the middle of the night, and swearing steadily since sunup. Goddamn roads. Goddamn dust. Goddamn small-town sheriff with the suspicious eyes, looking over Jack's Missouri plates. Not from around here? Jack had been sure the sheriff would call in the registration-- which was expired-- and then…
He'd thought he could get off the highway, onto the local roads, and find a place to hide out. But there was nothing out here, no people nor houses, not even any trees. And the goddamn dust plume-- he didn't remember leaving the pavement-- was hanging up behind him, red against the morning sky, like a signpost over his head. You could see it for miles. There was nowhere to hide, no place to run, and Jack Kelley was lost.
The Ford clattered and groaned, lurching in and out of ruts and potholes. Dust seeped in through the doors, through the plastic that replaced the triangle window at Jack's left shoulder. Dust powdered his skin and gritted his sleepless eyes. Dust and bitter fear clogged his mouth.
And then the left front tire blew, sending the Ford into a staggering slew that would have been a skid on pavement. Jack, thrown half out of his seat, turned off the ignition and climbed stiffly out of the truck. "Shit…"
The Ford was skewed half-way across the road, nose buried in brush. The tire was mere rags of rubber, the rim already bent against a rock. Jack did not have a spare.
He kicked the bumper of the truck. "Goddamn! Goddamn!" Threw his head back and howled at the sky: "God DAMN!"
The empty landscape returnd no echoes. The land stretched away wide, red, treeless and flat. Jack stared around him, eyes dull with fatigue. After a moment he reached inside the cab, pulled out his rifle, and began to trudge down the dirt track.
Noon came and went. The chill of the desert night had given way to a pleasant coolness by the time he left the truck; within an hour the sun was searingly hot. Jack had no water and there was no shade. He was weaving on his feet now, stumbling through the brush. The track had pinched out, or he had wandered off it; he wasn't sure. There was nothing to do except keep moving.
Abruptly the ground crumbled away under his feet. Jack swore, fumbling desperately at air, dust, falling rocks. He was sliding, falling, sliding again; dust and gravel tumbled around him. Then there was solid ground under him.
Jack sat up and looked around. He'd fallen into a tiny canyon, it seemed. Vertical walls of reddish sandstone, crumbly and pockmarked, rose around him. Above him the cliff was scarred by the slide that had brought him down. The floor of the canyon was level and sandy. A line of willows stretched away down the canyon.
Directly ahead of him, an ancient cottonwood tree spread its branches by a pool of water.
Jack crawled to the water and drank, head lowered to the surface like a big cat. The rifle, slung at his shoulder, dragged against the ground. Leaves rustled softly above his head; bleached driftwood was piled against the side of the trunk. Jack sprawled on the cool earth and slept.

He woke; hours later, it seemed. The canyon floor was in shadow, but the clifftops were still catching the sun. There was movement by the pool; he saw a deer bending to drink.
Food. Meat. Jack Kelley aimed and fired; the shot echoed off the rocks as the doe crumpled to her knees and fell on her side. Then it occurred to him that he had no way to cook or preserve meat, and no real idea of how to slaughter an animal.
Jack scrambled up, and only then saw the fawn, huddled motionless by the willows. His mouth watered. Young, tender… He raised the rifle again.
And the rifle flew up, out of his hands and back over his head. Jack lurched backward and fell, sitting down hard into the sand. He looked up to find a man standing over him.
The stranger was dark and slight, apparently youngish; there was no grey in his hair and his face was unlined and expressionless. But Jack flinched from the man's stare. "Uh… Who are you?"
"I am the keeper of this place," said the stranger.
Jack blinked, confused. "I-- I was lost. I didn't know it was private property--"
The other man's hand lashed out and caught him across the cheek. "Property? Is that all it means to you?"
"Hey!" Jack put a hand to his smarting face. "What the hell--"
"You just killed a doe. That's more meat than you can eat before it spoils. But you were ready to kill more. Waster!" The stranger slapped him again.
Jack scrambled up and back. "Look-- are you crazy? Who are you?" Hippie, druggie, back-to-nature freak… none of them seemed to fit. Jack couldn't make any sense out of this.
Eye to eye now, they stared at each other. "Who are you?" demanded the stranger.
"Jack. Jack Kelley." He spread his hands. "I was lost. I fell into the canyon-- I'm sorry about the deer but I was hungry and I didn't know there was anyone here. I just need to get on my way, I'm not looking for trouble, okay?"
"Where do you think you'd go?"
Jack started to speak, and then remembered the sheriff's hard eyes and the ripped front tire on the Ford. His mouth closed helplessly. There was nowhere to go.
"Call me Gavilan." The other man turned and beckoned to the fawn. She bounded across the sand and pressed up against his knee, trembling. Gavilan laid his hand on her head and turned back to Jack. "Since you killed her mother, she'll be your responsibility. Bring the doe; we won't waste the meat."
Gavilan turned away and began to walk down the canyon. Wordless, Jack Kelley hoisted the doe to his shoulders and staggered after.

Shadows deepened on the canyon floor; the sun crept up the walls and disappeared. Jack stumbled over half-hidden rocks, while brush tugged at his pants and his feet skidded in gravel. The doe's carcass seemed to grow heavier and heavier. Down here the canyon was wider and deeper. Jack saw damp patches in the sand, animal tracks crisscrossing the canyon floor; here and there, something had dug holes to get at the water.
"Here," said Gavilan. Jack looked up. On the east wall of the canyon there were steps-- really more of a ladder-- cut into the canyon wall. At the top of the steps, about halfway up the wall, there was a ledge; a wooden door swung half-open, admitting a glimpse of darkness. A cave, Jack thought. On the canyon floor there was a firepit.
"Ever slaughtered an animal?"
"Uh… no."
"Then you can dig a pit for the guts. Not too close to the cave. Keep walking downcanyon, I'll catch up to you."
Jack stumbled on in the gathering dusk. Behind him he heard Gavilan climbing the steps; the wooden door creaking, then Gavilan coming down again.
A little further down the canyon, Gavilan lit a lantern and set it on a flat rock. Jack let the doe's carcass slide to the ground and stretched, exhausted. Gavilan handed him a shovel and set him to digging. The sand was soft; it was easy to start the hole, harder to keep it from collapsing in. Gavilan came and looked over his shoulder. "Deeper," was all he said.
It seemed like hours later when Gavilan, finally satisfied, dumped the deer's guts into the pit and set Jack to filling it in. Gavilan shouldered the gutted carcass and headed back towards the cave, leaving Jack the shovel and the lantern. When Jack finally stumbled back up the canyon, Gavilan had hung the carcass and skinned it and built a fire. The smell of roasting venison made Jack's mouth water.
Gavilan offered him a dipper full of water, warm and sandy-tasting. Jack guessed it had come from a hole in the canyon floor, but he was too tired and thirsty to care. He drank it and slumped into the sand by the fire.
Then Gavilan was shaking him awake, pressing a skewer of roasted meat into his hands. "Eat, then sleep. Tomorrow there'll be a lot to do."
"Uh?" said Jack around a mouthful of meat.
"I need to teach you how to live in this place."
Jack swallowed. The venison was smoky and gamy and easily the best thing he'd ever tasted. "You mean, like desert survival stuff? I, uh, that's cool, but I really don't plan on sticking around here for too long."
Gavilan regarded him steadily in the flickering firelight. "You'll never leave here alive."
"The hell!" Jack jolted upright.
"You think you're the master of your own fate? Try it. Walk away." Gavilan gestured around the canyon.
"I got no reason to," said Jack sullenly, thinking of the sheriff. "Why would you want me hanging around?"
Gavilan hesitated, the first uncertainty Jack had seen in him. "It's not up to either of us."
Jack gulped down the last of his meat. Gavilan handed him another skewer. "So, who is it up to?"
Another hesitation. "This place… has a mind of its own. You won't understand what that means for a while yet."
"Okay…" This was beginning to sound pretty crazy, and Jack hadn't forgotten that Gavilan had hit him. (He'd forgotten the rifle twisting in his hands.) But he was too tired now to really worry about what was going on.
He followed Gavilan up the steps to the cave and curled up to sleep in a pile of skins and furs.
In the middle of the night, he woke and found something warm curled up against his back. It was the fawn; he'd forgotten all about her.

Gavilan kicked him awake. There was light showing around the door, but the sun wasn't up. “Quit...” Jack grumbled.
“Get up.” Gavilan kicked him harder. Jack couldn't roll away; the fawn was still wedged against his back. He swung himself over her and landed on the gritty stone on hands and knees. “Quit with the rough stuff! I'm awake!”
“Then move.” Gavilan pointed towards the door. Jack scrambled up and stumbled out onto the ledge. The steps were steep and treacherously uneven, and Gavilan was right behind him, crowding him, keeping him from taking his time.
Somehow Jack got to the bottom without falling. Gavilan shoved him. “Run.”
Jack ran, headed downcanyon. Gravel slithered under his feet; he watched for holes and boulders. You could break an ankle out here, easy. Gavilan followed a couple of paces behind him. Bastard would have made a good drill sergeant, thought Jack. He was panting, laboring through the sand; Gavilan was running lightly behind him, and if he was breathing hard at all Jack couldn't hear it.
The canyon bent, bent again. Jack plowed to a stop, gasping for breath. Gavilan shoved him hard. “Keep running!”
“God damn it...” gasped Jack. But his feet were moving again, almost without his volition, and the canyon walls jerked past in his sweat-blurred vision. They'd come well past the place where they'd slaughtered the doe.
And then there was nothing in front of him. Jack skidded, fell forwards, palms rasping on sand. He was looking over a cliff.
Jack's heart stuttered with terror. Down below, easily a hundred feet down, was a river, muddy-red water foaming over slick rocks. The cliffs echoed to the roar of the rapids. In a sudden dizzying reorientation, Jack saw that the canyon he was in was a creekbed, tributary to the river below; in the storm season, this canyon would flood, water surging higher than his head, pouring out into the larger canyon in a spectacular fall. Now, there was no water flowing where he knelt, but the cliff below him was stained and damp with seepage.
Gavilan stood over him, hands on hips. Jack twisted his head and stared up at the other man. “I could have run right off this cliff. I could have gotten killed!”
“But you didn't,” said Gavilan, and something shifted beneath his normally impassive demeanor. Relief? Disappointment? Contempt? Jack couldn't tell.
“No thanks to you!”
Gavilan shrugged. “We're going to run back now.”
“I got to catch my breath--”
Gavilan yanked Jack to his feet and shoved him away from the cliff. “Go!”
Jack went. It was uphill, and should have been harder; but there was nothing new about the running. Gavilan paced him, still not showing any signs of strain.
Back at the cave, Jack felt like collapsing. Pride kept him on his feet. Gavilan set him to work, grinding grain to make mush for the fawn. Breakfast for Jack was cold meat from the night before, washed down with warm water. Then Gavilan sent him to fetch more water, from a seep in the canyon wall just upcanyon from the cave. The fawn, whom Jack was beginning to call Faline, followed him to the seep but shied away when he tried to pet her.
When he brought the buckets back, Gavilan started him scraping the hide of the doe he'd killed the night before. Jack's legs ached from running, his back ached from digging the night before, his arms ached from carrying water, and now his hands were starting to hurt. But damned if he'd let Gavilan see him cave in; he kept at it, grimly, watching blisters form on his hands and break open.
Noon came, lighting the canyon floor; and went, creeping up the east wall. Jack was getting his bearings. In the afternoon, they walked downcanyon again. Brush snaked along the center of the canyon; Jack realized now that there was water just under the ground, flowing slowly towards the cliff and the river. There were snares set in the brush; Gavilan took rabbits from two of the snares, breaking their necks with a quick snap, and showed Jack how to reset them.
Evening found Jack as exhausted as the night before. But this time he managed to ask some questions.
“So... I understand about the hide scraping, and setting snares and stuff. What about the running?”
“You need to learn how to move properly.”
“And how not to run off cliffs?” Jack hazarded.
No smile from Gavilan. “That too.”
“I thought you wanted to teach me stuff,” said Jack. “How'd that work if I'd fallen into the river?”
“I never said I wanted to teach you. If you'd gotten killed this morning, you'd have wasted very little of my time.”
Jack's jaw dropped; but before he could think of anything to say, Faline butted up under his elbow and he lost his train of thought trying to save his bowl of stew from spilling.

The days fell into a pattern. Jack and Gavilan would rise at first light, run down to the dropoff and back. Jack's wind improved quickly, though he still had to push to keep up with Gavilan. They'd eat, usually something cold left over from the night before, and go about the day's business. Water had to be fetched, wood gathered-- there was a lot of driftwood in the canyon-- meat smoked, hides tanned, refuse buried. Jack learned to find animal runs in the brush and set snares in them. He learned to dig wild onions and sego lilies, gather chia seeds and groundcherries. As the season drew on, the seep in the canyon wall dried up and they had to dig for water in the creekbed.
Faline grew rapidly. After the first night at the cave, Gavilan made it Jack's job to feed her her mush, but she quickly graduated to browsing; the brush near the cave was starting to look thin. She still slept curled against Jack at night, never near Gavilan; in fact, Jack noticed that Gavilan never petted her, or paid attention to her beyond making sure that Jack was taking proper care of her. Jack thought he made up for it, though. It was hard to resist those big dark eyes, and even though the baby spots were nearly gone, she was an awfully cute animal.
Gavilan was a pretty cold fish all around, Jack thought. Since that first day, he'd shown no emotion to speak of. Even when kicking Jack out of bed, he'd treated it as nothing more than a mildly onerous task. Yet occasionally, Jack would turn around and catch Gavilan watching him with the same look he'd given him that first morning at the top of the cliff. Jack still couldn't make it out, but he thought it might be hope.
He'd lost track of time, but thought it was past midsummer when he finally raised some of the questions that had been churning in the back of his mind. It was late afternoon, and they were resting in the shade, Faline chewing her cud, Jack whittling idly on a twig, Gavilan just sitting. “So,” said Jack, not looking up from his twig, “What's it all about? Keeping this place?”
Gavilan considered the question. “It means taking care of it. Protecting it.”
“You mean, like protecting the animals?” Jack thought of Faline's mother, and his conscience twinged at him.
“No,” said Gavilan, with faint scorn. “Would you protect the rabbits, and let the coyotes starve? It's not that simple.
“No, it's the place that needs protecting. The... integrity... of the place.”
“That's really what you're teaching me,” said Jack, suddenly understanding.
“Maybe.” Gavilan stared at him; in the deep shadows of the canyon, it was hard to make out his face, but Jack thought he saw that look again.
Jack put down his twig and sat up. “How did you know I was there that day-- or did you just get lucky?”
“I was warned.”
“By what?”
“The place.”
“So... you protect it against guys like me? But maybe I might turn out to be one of the good guys, huh?”
“'Good' guys?” Gavilan sneered, a startling expression on that impassive face. “Good has nothing to do with it. Are you strong enough? Wary enough? Ruthless enough?”
His scorn set Jack's teeth on edge. “I killed a man.”
Gavilan seemed unsurprised. “On purpose.”
“Yes. No. I meant to burgle his damn store, I didn't know he was in the back. He came out with a shotgun, and I was behind him, I hit him with a tire iron... It was a mess. I don't even know for sure if he's dead. I ran for it.” Jack's face was hot with shame.
“So.” Gavilan looked away across the canyon. “Not wary enough to avoid the danger. Strong enough to kill, but not so ruthless you don't have regrets.”
“What the fuck's that supposed to mean? I'm not up to your standards?”
“It's not my standards at work here.” Gavilan looked him over, and then stood in one fluid motion. Jack rose as well, stepping back; he'd put the events of his first afternoon in the canyon mostly out of his mind, but it didn't do to forget that Gavilan was capable of hitting him.
Gavilan snapped his fingers, and Faline rose and went to him. He put a hand on her head; Jack was struck again by how much she'd grown. No mush for his little fawn Faline anymore.
“You're a grown deer, now,” said Gavilan to her. “You don't need humans any more. Humans aren't good for you.”
“Now, wait a--”
“Go,” said Gavilan.
Faline looked at Jack for one moment with the eyes of a wild creature. Then she turned and was gone, flashing away into the shadows.
"Faline!" cried Jack. "Gavilan, damn you, you didn't have to do that!"
"She wasn't yours to keep, Jack. You know that."
"You said she was mine!"
"I said she was your responsibility." Gavilan left him and went up the stair to the cave. Jack threw himself into the sand and put his face in his hands.
Time passed. Something caught Jack's attention: a gleam across the rocks, a flash of light reflected from… what? Metal. The blade of a knife. The big butcher knife in Gavilan's hand as he came down the stairs.
"You still owe this place a life, Jack."
"What?" Jack sprang up, backing away. "Gavilan-- put that thing down. I am not in the mood for another fucking lesson right now--"
"Lessons are over. You were safe while Faline needed you. Now it's time to pay your debt."
Jack felt his face pull back into a snarl. "You goddamned… I'm not gonna lie down for this! You come and get me, you bastard!"
Gavilan grinned mirthlessly. “Then run.”
And he was running, running up the canyon. Heart pounding in his chest. Gavilan behind him, relentless, driving him to go faster. Just like all the other times they had run together. But it wasn't like that at all, was it? Gavilan meant to kill Jack Kelley. He'd meant to all along. All that about teaching him was bullshit.
I can't fight him with the knife. I need a weapon. Sudden hope flashed through him. Jack dodged boulders, cut between clumps of willow. His feet were sure on the firm sand. The canyon narrowed around him, the walls dipping lower.
He rounded a bend in the canyon, instinctively avoiding a patch of loose gravel-- and there were the pool and the giant cottonwood. Jack hadn't seen this place since the day he'd fallen into the canyon and met Gavilan. And there was the rifle, discarded among the roots and driftwood.
Jack snatched it up and faced downcanyon. Gavilan was there, no more than twenty feet away, knife held at waist level. Jack trained the rifle on his chest. "Put down the knife!"
Gavilan's voice was soft. "This is what brought you here, Jack. You killed a man. You lashed out in fear and took a life."
The rifle was steady in Jack's hands. "I didn't know what I was doing then. I do now. You take another step and I'll kill you."
And Gavilan lunged. Jack squeezed the trigger. The shot echoed around the canyon; Jack shut his eyes.
He opened them. Gavilan was sprawled on the ground. Blood pulsed from a ragged hole in his shirt and soaked into the sand. Jack flung himself down next to Gavilan. "Why? Why'd you make me, why'd you…"
"Jack," gasped Gavilan. "I knew you'd be the one. I knew… you'd replace me."
"I'm tired. Been here so long. So long… Your job now. Keep this place."
Gavilan's eyes were sunken into his skull. As Jack watched, horrified, the flesh withered; the skin stretched tight across the bones, then fell away to dust. Gavilan was only a skeleton, a tangle of whitish hair, then not even that. Nothing was left.
Jack stood slowly, feeling the weight of the canyon settle around him like a heavy cloak. He understood the speech of the stones around him; he knew the warnings written in the sky and whispered by the dust. He heard the watching tree and felt the water flowing deep under the sand. Stone and water, wood and flesh, dust, wind, and sky claimed him. He was their protector, their servant, their prisoner. He would never leave this place alive.
How long ago had Gavilan come here, stalking across the desert like a young lion, angry and afraid? How many challengers had he killed or driven off? How long had it taken for him to grow weary, eventually to decide: The next one who comes, I'll train. And had there been some he'd trained who'd failed, left their bones to whiten somewhere in the canyon?
"I won't go like that," whispered Jack. He raised his voice. "You hear me? I won't die like this! I'll find another way!"
The canyon walls echoed to his voice, but the words overlapped into incomprehensible gibberish. There was no answer. Jack shouldered the rifle and began to walk down towards his cave.

The rest of the story is here...

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