Summary: The brothers are pursued into Spirit Canyon where they face a powerful and unpredictable foe.
Rating k+ (8,820 words)
June 20, 1860
They’re bickerin’ again. Naw, scratch that. They’re still bickerin.’
The sounds of them two goin’ at each other is like the sound of crickets at night—it’s just always there. I can’t say I even hear their noise most of the time. I notice mostly when it’s missin.’
It’s a fine summer day. We’re lucky—the days have been gettin’ longer, and that means we can get a lot closer to home before it gets full dark. I say that part out loud, and Adam decides to jump in with a little lecture on the summer solstice and eclipses. I see our kid brother pullin’ faces behind Adam’s back. If our eldest brother sees him, Little Joe is liable to get swatted clean out of the saddle
I don’t need Adam to tell me about the seasons. I know as well as him, better probably, that tomorrow will be the longest day of the year. I don’t need the almanac to tell me neither. I learned to pay attention to what was goin’ on around me from the time I was little.
We’ve spent a week gettin’ our business done in Lake’s Crossing. Pa’s had it in mind for a while that Little Joe will eventually take responsibility for developin’ the horse business. With all the mess lookin’ to happen back east and with the Indians out here, the Army should be a first-rate customer for all of the horses we can find and break.
Of course, Little Joe believes that he knows all about horses and how to run this operation. The way the rest of us sees it, he has a way to go. Pa sent the three of us with a string of horses to sell at Lake’s Crossing so that Adam and me could give Joe a lesson in the business end.
I gotta hand it to the boy. He worked real hard to get those horses ready to go. Not only that, he worked hard and behaved himself on the trail to Lake’s Crossing. Hardly a cross word out of his mouth the whole trip up, and for Joe that’s sayin’ somethin.’ He kept his mouth closed and his ears open while Adam negotiated with the buyers, and he minded us more than he’s done in years. When we walked away from the corral with all that money in our pockets, Adam told me that maybe Joe had finally grown up.
We shoulda seen it coming. See, Adam keeps his mind on the job; work is work, and you don’t fool around while you got business to attend to. He gets serious and stays serious. That ain’t Joe’s way; he likes to have some fun while he works. When he gets too buttoned up, that fun is gonna leak out somehow, and it won’t necessarily be a pretty sight.
That corral was the last time we saw “all-business Joe,” and a little while later “nothing-but-hijinx Joe” showed up. All of Joe’s tomfoolery shot out of him like one of those geysers. And most of that tomfoolery was aimed right at Adam.
For example, at the hotel, I don’t know how Joe managed his pranks considerin’ we didn’t even share a room with Adam, but he made sure that Adam’s bed was short-sheeted every night we stayed in town. Not only that but a little gal Adam had been flirtin’ with somehow got the impression my eldest brother had left a pitiful crippled wife and a passel of young’uns back home. She pinned his ears back somethin’ awful when Adam tried to pick up the conversation with her. And here on the trail back? The boy’s put everything but socks in Adam’s boots. I’ll admit I’ve laughed nearly as hard as Joe has over these shenanigans, but the difference between me and Joe is I know when to quit.
Joe even managed to start a ruckus with a crowd of fellers in a saloon we left a while back. Of course, he didn’t mean to bother anyone ‘cept Adam, but one of his pranks went sour and ended in spilt drinks, a busted-up card game and a little brawl that we had to haul him out of. When we rode outta there today, those fellers looked like they wanted to tear us up ten ways from Sunday.
That town’s a dry, dusty coupla hours behind us now. We’re takin’ it easy for the horses, and I’m tryin’ to enjoy the scenery. It would be a heck of a lot easier if Joe wasn’t chatterin’ away like he does. Every now and then he stops talkin’ just long enough to try to knock one of our hats off. Mostly he’s tellin’ us how he would have whupped those fellers in the saloon if we hadn’t saved them from him. Adam is lookin’ at Joe like he can understand those fellers’ point of view. His patience is worn clean out.
“Boy, one of these days, I might just shoot you to put you out of my misery.”
Joe cackles at the idea. Of course, he don’t look a bit concerned. We both know better. That’s just the way Adam talks sometimes. Joe knows Adam will take a few pokes at him when he needs it, but mostly Adam keeps Joe from getting’ hurt or worse.
“Naw, you wouldn’t do that, elder brother. I’m the one who makes sure things don’t get too dull for ya. Besides, what would Pa say if you brought me home tied over my horse?”
That kid’ll say anything sometimes. I don’t like the way this talk is headed, and I let them both know it. They hush, and we let the horses breathe while we drink the warm water in our canteens and decide where and when we’ll make camp. The sun’s way down, and shadows are gatherin.’ It’ll be dark soon, and I don’t cotton to havin’ Chubb stick a foot in a gopher hole.
I lift my hat off my sweaty forehead and scrub off some of the sweat with my sleeve. I hear somethin’—a little like thunder. Nope, it’s worse than rain. Some riders are comin’ fast. There’s a cloud of dust on the trail behind us, and somehow I get the feelin’ no one’s comin’ to invite us to a party. Leastways, not a party the three of us would enjoy.
“Looks like the trouble you started is following you home,” Adam snarls at Joe.
“What trouble? We don’t know those guys have anything to do with us.” Joe’s got a point. Unfortunately, it’s Adam’s point that gets proved when those riders decide to take some shots at us.
This spot ain’t no place to make a stand. There’s no cover, and it won’t be long before we’re close enough for those wild shots to be a whole lot more dangerous. We have to decide now what to do. We could ride hard and hope to outrun them. That wouldn’t be a bad idea if it wasn’t half dark. The problem is that a fall from a gallopin’ horse could be just as rough as taking a bullet from one of those yahoos.
As usual, Adam makes the decision. He’s been sizing up where we are and where we can get to fast. He jerks his head the direction he wants us to go and shouts “Spirit Canyon.” We turn our horses and kick ‘em to gallop.
I hate Spirit Canyon.
Folks around these parts are familiar with Spirit Canyon. It ain’t that far from the Virginia City road. The canyon is about a mile long with a spring located about dead center. The interestin’ part of the place is that it is chock full of pictures of animals and people scratched on the flat fronts of big ol’ red rocks. I don’t mean just a few pictures. I mean hundreds, maybe thousands of these drawings all lined up and down that canyon.
I’ve been in the canyon a few times mainly when I used it for a shortcut or when I needed the water. During the day, it’s a mighty impressive place. The last time I was there, the sky was as blue as the lake and those red rocks with all those pictures stood forth against the blue sky in a way that would make any man stop and stare. Adam thinks those pictures were made by Indians dead and gone long before the Paiutes come to live around here. He keeps sayin’ that he wants to go there and survey the canyon to maybe sketch the place like folks do when they travel to see the pyramids in Egypt.
Adam never seems to pick up on what’s in that canyon aside from those drawings and the spring.
When Adam’s actin’ smug, he tells me I’m too old for ghost stories. When I’m feelin’ ornery, I poke him in the jaw for actin’ smug. Adam’s trouble is that he don’t believe in stuff he can’t see and measure. When I’m in that canyon, I know somethin’ else is in there, too. And that somethin’ else isn’t the run of the mill critters we know. When I’m there, I can feel a hot, sour breath on the back of my neck. Sometimes I can hear a whisper of a growl in my ear from a voice that ain’t really there. Somethin’ in that place believes I don’t belong there. I show respect when I’m in that canyon, and I watch my step.
I ain’t never been in that canyon at night. I sure wouldn’t go there tonight if we didn’t have to. But Adam’s right. It’s a good place to hole up in. Those rocks lean against each leaving plenty of space for a man to squeeze into. The rocks are piled high enough for us to climb and keep a good eye on whoever is followin.’ And if those men don’t follow us through, we can come out the other side and take the trail home to the Ponderosa.
It’s dark, and the early stars are shinin’ on the horizon when we approach Spirit Canyon. We can’t see the crowd of riders behind us, but they can’t be but a few miles back. We slow up at the canyon entrance. We don’t even get a few yards into that canyon before our horses seem to lose their minds. Sport is pawin’ the air and twistin’ around. Adam jumps off. He tries to hold Sport’s rein while he grabs for his rifle and canteen. Cochise is actin’ just as crazy, and Joe jumps down to hold her head and whisper into her ear. It don’t do no good. Cochise is pullin’ at the bridle, and Joe can barely hang on. Even Chubb, the easygoin’est horse you could ever find is dancin’ and shufflin’ like he’s walkin’ over hot coals. I give up and get down too. I barely hit the ground next to him before all three horses break away from us and run away from that canyon faster than I have ever seen them run. It’s the craziest thing—I never seen those animals act that way.
“Forget them!” Adam is shouting and gesturing for us to head into the canyon. He’s got his rifle and canteen along with his sidearm. I’ve got my canteen and sidearm; my rifle is still in the scabbard tied to my gear. Joe, of course, didn’t think of grabbing anything when he climbed off Cochise. He’s only wearing his pistol- didn’t grab a canteen, a rifle, didn’t even grab hold of his jacket. The two of them start running toward those rocks.
There are times, mostly in the mountains, when I’ve walked between trees or shrubs and didn’t know until too late that an orb spider had spun a big ol’ web across the path. The web’ll cling to my face and body, and there seems no way to get loose from it. I’ll just stand there for a minute pawing at the air and wipin’ at my arms and face tryin’ to get shed of that cloying veil.
Well, as I run into that canyon, somehow it feels the same way. Of course, no spider can actually spin a web that wide. But as I rush through the entrance, I feel somethin’ like a curtain brush against me, and I start brushin’ away at the feelin’ trying to get loose of whatever’s clingin’ to me.
That ain’t the worst of it. The ground under my feet is movin.’ It ain’t an earthquake. I’ve experienced earthquakes. This feels like the time I was on the river pushin’ at logs jammed up against the bank. I’d balance on a log that’d roll one direction while I felt the current of the water under the log pullin’ in another direction. Another reason this ain’t no earthquake; there ain’t no rumble like what comes with an earthquake. Instead, there’s dead silence while the ground ripples under me. Not only that, I seem to be the only one feelin’ the ground move. Adam and Joe don’t even seem to notice what’s happening for the minute or so it takes for that ripplin’ to stop.
“What’s wrong with you, Hoss? We need to get a move on.” Joe looks at me like he thinks I’ve gone plumb crazy. What’s wrong with me is bein’ in this canyon, but there ain’t no need to waste words on these brothers of mine.
“Listen, you two,” Adam calls us together. “They have to be right behind us. We’ll split up. Find someplace to hide; make it somewhere we can watch who comes through. With any luck, there won’t be any trouble after all.”
“Yep, until we have to go to the trouble of finding our horses,” Joe mutters.
“First things first, Joe. Come on.” Adam grabs Joe’s arm and pulls him away.
The two of them head over to where them big stones covered with pictures of birds, animals, and shapes are jumbled up together. I watch Joe climb up on top of some of those rocks and head out of sight. Adam moves slower; he’s a little more cautious, and he looks over his shoulder a lot. I stay on the other side of the canyon opposite most of them picture rocks.
There’s a full moon climbing the sky, and it throws silvery light and deep shadows across those rocks and the cliff rising behind them. I should be grateful for the light, but somethin’ about this moonlight makes these pictures seem to dance and shimmer.
I crouch behind a boulder and get quiet. Lots of folks don’t think about the best way to move around in the dark. You can see a lot more than you think if you let your eyes adjust to the surroundings. You can hear a lot, too. I don’t know if sounds travel better at night or not. But it always seems to me that small sounds feel a whole lot bigger in the dark.
I can hear Joe scrabblin’ around on top of those rocks. That boy loves to run and climb, but it would be easy for him to catch a boot heel in a hole and bust an ankle. He needs to watch what he’s doin. I can hear Adam, too. He moves soft, but he’s draggin’ his feet just enough to make a little scufflin’ noise. I expect he’s checkin’ out crannies and crevices of these rocks for critters that he would just as soon not share a hidin’ spot with.
There’s somethin’ else now, too. It ain’t that crowd of yahoos we figure are after us. I hear a low growl, and it sounds like it’s comin’ from somethin’ big. I cock my head around and listen hard. I’m tryin’ to figure out which direction that growl’s comin’ from. The problem is the noise seems to come from all around us.
I peer into the moonlight and search for somethin’, anythin’ that could be hidin’ in those shadows. For just a minute, I think I see a wolf crouching on top of a rock. But that can’t be a wolf, can it? If it is a wolf, it’s the biggest darn wolf I ever seen. It’s almost man-size in height, and I glimpse yellow eyes glowin’ in the dark. Then, suddenly whatever I see, it don’t look like a wolf at all. It looks more like a man with bright yellow eyes standin’ tall and broad. When I blink, whatever I saw is gone.
A coyote yips and howls in the direction Joe took off. Dang, I hope he’s bein’ careful. Most coyotes would just as soon stay away from humans. If this critter is close, could be ‘cause it’s sick.
I can barely see Adam moving down the canyon away from the end we came in on. Wearing all black clothes like he does makes him seem to melt into the shadows. I expect that my big white hat and white shirt are a mite easier to see in the moonlight. I take care to cling to the shadows myself.
Still no sign of anyone else. I can’t hear no horses either. That seems odd to me. Those jaspers weren’t that far away, and I should be able to hear them. They must’ve slowed down so as to sneak up on us.
I see Adam has decided to climb up on some rocks where he can get a better look at the place. He sets himself down in a shadowy spot with his back against some rock. If he’s feelin’ like I am, his nerves are stretched, and he’s ready to react instantly to whatever comes his way.
I look up at that big ol’ full moon. What the . . . ? It’s changin’ color. Instead of the silvery white it has been, the moon’s glow is slowly turnin’ blood red. What was Adam yammerin’ about earlier? Oh, yeah, the almanac predicted an eclipse. I shake my head. Why not? On top of everythin’ else, we got an eclipse tonight.
It’s been a quiet night, but now nothin’ seems to be standin’ still. The ripples I felt under my feet earlier seemed to have moved into the air. I see shadows shift and move. Sometimes, I think I see a critter. Sometimes, I almost think I see a man. The goose bumps are risin’ on my arms, and the back of my neck is a little clammy. I’m just about willin’ to face those fellers out in the open after all.
When Adam cracks off a rifle shot behind me, I’m so startled that my heart skips beatin.’ I take a moment to catch myself, and then I hear it. It’s a long deep cry of despair and regret. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this sound before, but I’d know it anywhere. My brother Adam is cryin.’
I forget all about watchin’ out for those fellers chasin’ us. I head toward the sounds I hear Adam makin.’ I shout for him to hold on. I tell him I’m comin.’ I don’t see no sign of Joe, and he doesn’t answer when I call.
When I come up on Adam, he’s on his knees with his rifle on the ground beside him. He’s got his face in his hands, and he’s rockin’ back and forth in torment. I start talkin’ easy to him. I sure don’t want to startle him. A good-sized coyote skitters past us, and I wonder if the coyote attacked my brother.
I crouch next to Adam and lay my hand on his shoulder. He jerks and looks up at me. His face is a pure mask of sorrow. He grabs my shirt, and I hold onto him and beg him to tell me what happened.
“Did you see it, Hoss? That huge wolf? I could feel it behind me. I could hear it growl. I saw it. I knew I was going to have to shoot it. But . . . I didn’t see him . . . I would never have shot if I’d seen him . . . I don’t know what got it into me . . . I just wanted to kill that wolf. And now he’s dead.” Adam’s got his face back in his hands, and he’s sobbing.
“Who’s dead, Adam. The wolf?”
“No, not the wolf!” Adam is shoutin’ at me. He’s actin’ like he can’t believe I’m so thick headed. “Joe’s dead! I shot him! I shot at the wolf, but Joe came around the rock, and I shot Joe instead.”
I fall hard on my backside. Adam shot Joe?! That can’t be. I don’t see no sign of Joe. I start talkin’ gentle and soothin’ again.
“Hold on, there, brother. Where did this happen? Where did ya see Joe?”
Adam gestures wildly to his right. He points at the ground.
“He’s there! He’s right there! He’s dead, and I killed him. How I am going to face Pa?”
I already know that Joe ain’t on the ground beside us, but I get up and take a good look around where Adam is gesturin’. I don’t see anything that points to Joe—no blood, no boot marks, just coyote tracks. I call for Joe again, but he still don’t answer.
“Listen here, Adam. I think this moonlight is playin’ tricks on you. Joe ain’t here. You didn’t shoot him. You didn’t kill him.” I grab the canteen Adam has hung around his shoulder, and I make him take some of the water. He drinks a little, but he don’t pay no attention to what I say. He just keeps on sobbin’ that he shot at the wolf and killed our baby brother instead.
We’re in a pickle now. There ain’t no doubt about it. Somethin’s got a hold of Adam’s mind; Joe ain’t nowhere to be seen; and we may still have those fellers comin’ for us. One thing for sure, I’m gettin’ the two of us off these rocks and back down on the ground.
I pull at my oldest brother. I put his arm around my shoulder and catch him around the waist. I have to drag him away from the spot where he’s so certain that Joe lies dead. Adam’s talkin’ clean out of his head the whole time and fightin’ to stay up on that rock. I strong arm him down to the canyon floor and ease him to ground.
There it is again. The ground is moving and rippling under my feet. Suddenly, I hear the sounds of those men chasing us. I hear horses protestin’ and fightin’ their riders. Riders are shoutin’ and cussin.’ They’re here; those yahoos are in the canyon with us. I push Adam behind some rocks on the other side of the canyon as far away from those picture rocks as I can get him quick. I squat down next to him, hand him his canteen, and tell him to stay put, to stay hidden. If he hears me, he don’t act like he cares. But he does settle down where I put him.
I gotta find Joe. No more splittin’ up. We’re all stayin’ together until we get out of here. I don’t dare shout for Joe. I’m gonna have to leave Adam and go find the ornery runt. Crouching down again next to Adam, I get my face close to his. He still won’t look at me. I shake his shoulder a little and catch his face between my hands. His cheeks are wet with tears, and he’s moaning. I ain’t never seen him like this, and it scares me somethin’ fierce. I shush him a little and use my handkerchief to wipe his face. I press the hankie into his hand and tell him I gonna go get Joe. I don’t think he even notices.
“I’ll be back, brother. I’m gonna see what’s goin’ on, and I’ll find Joe.”
When I straighten up, I look back toward the mouth of the canyon where we came in and where those shouts are comin’ from. Nothin’ looks right to me. This canyon ain’t but about a mile long. A good runner, like Joe, could rush from end to end in less than ten minutes. But the ruckus I’m hearin’ now seems a whole lot further away. I can’t understand it; I should be able to see somethin’ happening. Nothin. I don’t see ‘em, and their voices sound like they’re a long way off. Somehow, this canyon looks like it grew.
I head down the canyon in the direction I last saw Little Joe. Stayin’ in the shadows, I look over my shoulder a lot. Finally, I see a skinny fellow coming toward me. He’s staggerin’ like he’s come a long way. I’m not sure at first, but it’s Joe. He’s weaving and stumblin’ down the hillside. He don’t see me, and he don’t even act like he knows where he’s at. He falls hard and rolls down the side of the hill. I start to run toward him, and he lifts his head off the ground. Joe ain’t lookin’ at me; he spies that spring. He starts crawlin’ painfully toward it like the thought of water is the only thing on his mind. Before he gets to the water, his body jerks as though somethin’ has grabbed him. He rolls onto his back, and his arms pin themselves to his sides and his ankles slam together. He lays there gaspin’ until I finally reach him.
“What’s wrong with you, boy?”
What in blazes has he done to himself? His clothes are filthy and stiff with dried sweat. His face is hot and dry, and he flinches back from my hand on his cheek like my touch hurts him. He acts like he’s tied, hand and foot, but there’s no rope on him. I pull at his hands and feet to force them apart. Then, I scoop my arm under his shoulders and hold the canteen to his mouth. He drinks like he hasn’t had water in days.
“So hot . . . so thirsty . . . lost . . .” Lost?! This canyon is a good place to hide in, but it ain’t the kind of place someone is liable to get lost in. It ain’t hot here either, and I can’t imagine what happened to him in a few minutes time to get him into a state like this. I let him drink and hold him.
“What happened, Joe?” I’d love a chance to make some sense of this. He starts to whisper some story that I can’t make out. The only clear thing I can hear him say is “wolf.”
As soon as I can wrest the canteen from him, I haul Joe to his feet and drag him at a trot back to the spot I left Adam. I lay the kid on the ground next to my older brother and try to get Adam to look at Joe and realize the boy ain’t dead. Nothin’ doin. Adam is still caught up in whatever nightmare has hold of him, and Joe lies next to him not makin’ a sound. I need to get my brothers to some help.
Durned if I don’t hear the sound of gunfire comin’ from behind us. Maybe those yahoos managed to hang on to their mounts. I could borrow a couple of horses and get us out of here. I look down at my brothers. I hate to leave them here. I surely do. But I can’t do much by myself to help them. I turn away and head toward the sounds.
Somethin’ hurtles past me hittin’ me in the legs. It looks like that same coyote I been seein’ boundin’ down the trail before me. It came down from those picture rocks, and it’s runnin’ toward the sounds, too.
The light in the canyon seems different now. The moon is gettin’ darker and redder with each passing second. The silvery light that made all them pictures shimmer and move earlier is gone. Now, as the moon loses light, these pictures are gatherin’ light. Some of them drawings look like they’re etched with embers. The outlines of the birds and turtles and stick men start to glow dimly like they’re being painted with fire.
I hustle through that canyon trying not to look at those rocks. Ahead of me, I can just see a gang of men. It looks like it was those fellers we left in the saloon after all. They don’t notice me. They’re too busy arguing and fighting among themselves. They’re cussin’ and pushin’ at each. Now that I can hear ‘em more clear, they sound drunk and scared. One of ‘em yelps and points up at the top of the rocks in front of them.
“Look, there’s that kid.” I follow the path of his arm and just about fall over in surprise. Up there, on the rocks is Joe. He’s standing there grinnin’ at them with his arms crossed over his chest. I know I left him back yonder on the ground sicker than a dog. Yet, there he stands up on those rocks hale and hearty with a nasty glint in his eye.
There’s somethin’ about that glint in his eye that makes my blood run cold. His eyes shine yellow in the dark like when you catch sight of some critter’s eyes, maybe a coyote, reflecting back firelight. Whatever that is up there, it ain’t my brother.
Quicker than you can catch your breath, those hombres grab their weapons and start firing at what they see. Gunshots ricochet off the rock, but nothin’ seems to hit what they’re aimin’ at. The man they think is Joe has disappeared. I catch sight of a coyote’s tawny coat as it sprints away from the gunfire.
Now, these fellers are confused. One of them is a big feller with a face full of scraggly beard and a gut straining at the flannel shirt buttoned over it. Someone gives him a shove and tells him to check out the rocks. That ‘un don’t want to do it, but he gives in. The big guy climbs those rocks, but he does it slow and careful. He ain’t a kid no more. He reaches the spot where the man that looked like Joe stood. I can see him lookin’ around all confused then he yells down that there ain’t no one there.
There’s somethin’ movin’ behind the man—a flash of tawny brown. Maybe the coyote is back. Now I’m sure it’s the critter, and it’s gone for that jasper’s throat. The coyote has to be sick, rabid maybe.
All of a sudden, it looks like that feller is fightin’ another man, a kid with curly brown hair wearing a grey shirt and tan pants. Those boys watchin’ start yellin’ that the kid is back, and someone needs to shoot him. They don’t have a lick of sense. It sounds like all of them start shootin’ at once, and they don’t stop ‘til their buddy falls off that rock and lands at their feet full of the lead they just filled him with.
That shuts ‘em up for a minute. They cast their eyes up on that rock looking for “Joe.” But, he ain’t there. He was never there. And they can’t figure it out. Finally, one of the men, with more than a passing resemblance to the dead man, steps up to the feller they shot. He leans over him and puts his head on his chest. It ain’t no use. It’s clear to everyone the man’s dead.
“You skunk,” The fellow leaning over the corpse looks up at one of his buddies. “You killed my brother. You wanted him dead since that girl in Placerville.” He draws his gun and points it at the man he just accused.
“Now, Tom . . . this was all just an accident. We all saw that kid up there. He must have been the one that shot Dusty.” The guy is backing up toward the rocks trying to get some distance between them.
“It was you,” the dead man’s brother ain’t lettin’ up. “You shot him in cold blood. You must’ve planned this. You led us into this hell hole so that you could get back at Dusty.”
Tom has his target backed right up against one of them picture rocks. I hadn’t been payin’ attention, but all these pictures around us are glowing so bright now the images seem to leap off the rocks and hover in mid air. Tom raises his arm and shoots his man in the face.
No one says a word. The boys are in shock. Those pictures that I saw floatin’ in air are quivering now and buzzin’ like angry bees.
I’m hearin’ that growl again. It’s comin’ from everywhere and nowhere. These men hear it, too, and it makes ‘em panic. They all draw their guns and circle around tryin’ to find this monster. I ease myself even further back away from this gang. They haven’t seen me yet, and I aim to keep it that way.
Horses or no horses, I ain’t waitin’ no more. I’m gonna go back up the canyon trail toward my brothers. Somethin’ else is fixin’ to happen here, and I don’t want to be caught up in it.
The buzzin’ is so loud I put my hands over my ears. The hairs on my neck and arms are standin’ up, and my skin is tinglin’ like lightning has struck. I turn on my heel to hightail it back to my brothers.
I come face to face with Joe.
He musta followed me tryin’ to help. He looks even worse than when I left him. He reaches a hand out to me and then crumples to the ground without makin’ a sound. Lyin’ there with his left arm thrown over his head, he looks like he’s sleepin’ on the settee. I ain’t sure he’s still breathin,’ and I scramble down next to him as quick as I can to check. Before I can touch him, I see that his eyes are open just a little and glowin’ yellow. His lip is curled in a dog snarl.
I back away from him a few yards and watch. That buzz in my ears is louder than ever, but it ain’t loud enough to drown out the sound of my heart thumpin’ in my chest. I want to touch Joe so bad, it’s all I can do to stay clear. I sneak a look at the darkenin’ moon, and when I look back, Joe’s gone.
I put my hands on my knees to take a few shuddering breaths. How are we gonna get outta this?
“Dear God, let me get to my brothers. Help me get us out of here.” I say it over and over in my head and out loud. I get up on my feet, and I keep repeatin’ those words. I want to sing it like a hymn. I just might try doin’ that.
“Dear God, let me get to my brothers. Help me get us out of here.”
I’m runnin’ up that canyon trail. The moon is full of blood and dark smudges. The pictures are alive – birds, animals, men, and shapes of all kinds are hangin’ in the air and twistin’ in some kind of demon dance. Fascinated by it all for a minute, I stop to watch. When I start to move again, Adam’s standin’ on the trail.
He sure looks better than when I left him. Not a trace of tears, no sorrow. He’s standin’ tall and his eyes are burnin’ a hole through me. His body is quiverin’ with tension, and his right hand is hoverin’ over the pistol in his holster. The buzzin’ sound that had quieted to a soft drone is risin’ again. I feel as angry as I ever felt in my life lookin’ over at my brother facin’ me down. I ain’t no gunslinger. But right now, I can picture puttin’ a real tight shot group in the middle of his chest. My hand is movin’ toward my pistol, and I flex my fingers a little in anticipation. When I hear the growl, it sorta wakes me up.
“Dear God, let me get to my brothers. Help me get us out of here.”
This ain’t Adam. I shake my head and relax my hands and arms. I concentrate real hard on breathing steady and look at the thing in front of me in the eye. It ain’t spoke; maybe it can’t speak. But I believe I can wait it out.
“Adam’s” hand moves toward his pistol. He smirks at me a little and raises that sarcastic eyebrow of his. He gestures at my hip, inviting me to take a shot. I shake my head. I ain’t playin’ this game. He shrugs, it’s as if he’s sayin’—“It’s your funeral.” But he still don’t make a sound. I stand still with the cold sweat tracing rivers down my back. “Adam” raises the gun and aims right at my chest. I’d like to keep my eyes open, but I can’t bear to watch what I know is gonna happen. I close my eyes and hear him shoot me. I can’t help but flinch at the sound. I can even smell the gun smoke. When I open my eyes, I look down at my shirt front and watch bloody wounds bloom and then fade on my chest. I blink again even though I don’t want to. As soon as my eyes close, “Adam” melts into the shadows.
I gotta find my brothers right now and get us out of here.
I run. I run as fast as I can back to the spot I left them. Whatever I hear or think I hear, I don’t pay it no mind. Whatever I see or think I see in the corner of my eye, I ignore.
I’m runnin’ so hard, I have to skid to a clumsy halt in the gravelly soil when I reach my brothers.
I touch Adam first. His face is clammy with sweat, and he’s breathin’ hard. He’s still mutterin’ about shootin’ Joe, and he don’t recognize me or pay attention when I talk to him. I’m sure he’s in shock, but I can’t stop now to tend to him. We gotta move on outta here.
Even while I turn to see about Joe, I keep my hand on Adam just to make sure I don’t lose him. Joe hasn’t stirred from where I left him. I kneel down and touch his face. His skin is hot and dry. His pulse is weak. Whatever is in this canyon is killin’ my brothers, and I’m not sure what to do anymore.
“Dear God, help me get us out of here.”
This time when I hear the wolf growl, I spot it right away. The biggest darn black wolf I’ve ever seen or imagined is yards in front of us. It’s an animal from a nightmare. I’m sure it can rip out our throats before I’ll ever get off a shot. Worse, I ain’t at all sure that a bullet will do it any harm. The wolf’s sittin’ on its haunches, its head trackin’ my every movement, and if a critter can glare that’s what it’s doin’ now. Practically at its feet, the coyote that’s been at the heart of the trouble all along is cowering. We look at each other . . . this wolf and me. I don’t know what possesses me, but I start to talk to it.
“Look, we never intended to come in here tonight. We were chased, and this seemed to be the best idea.” The wolf doesn’t appear to be acceptin’ my reasoning. Its lips are starting to curl into a snarl. I try again.
“This is your place, anyone can see that. We weren’t invited, and I get that we aren’t welcome. I’m sorry about that. All I want to do is leave right now with my brothers and never come back.” The wolf glares at me again with those yellow eyes.
“Dear God, help me get us out of here.”
I breathe my prayer again under my breath and decide to take a chance.
I grab Adam around his upper arm and drag him to his feet. I make sure his canteen is looped around him.
“Please, Adam, stand here for me for just a bit,” I’m beggin’ him. I need him to walk if he can ‘cause I see I’m gonna have to carry Joe. I take hold of the boy and drape him over my shoulder, his limp arms bumpin’ my back. I get a quick memory of totin’ him to bed like this when he was a little kid. The thought makes me chuckle and sorta sob at the same time. I stand up and grab hold of Adam’s arm and give him a tug. I’m gonna walk us out.
The wolf and coyote are still there on the rock. But it’s like seein’ them through a campfire now. Their bodies are flickerin’ and changin’ behind tongues of fire. They’re animals one moment and men the next moment. When the strange fire dies down they’re animals again.
That wolf raises his massive head and looks me in the eye. Then it turns and gazes up the canyon. When I follow what it’s lookin’ at, I want to weep with relief. Our horses. All three of our horses are standin’ quiet just a few yards from us. I can’t say I’m convinced this ain’t another trick, but I’m gonna go with it just the same.
I haul Adam alongside me as best I can totin’ Joe over my shoulder. Adam’s not resistin’ me exactly, but he ain’t helpin’ none either. Thanks heavens, the horses are quiet. I don’t know what I’d do if they spooked now. I push Adam toward Sport and talk him into mountin’ up. Adam’s clumsy, and even though he gets his foot in the stirrup, he needs me to give him a push into the saddle. I take his reins and walk over to Cochise grabbin’ her reins and tie them to Sport’s gear. I try to figure how to get Joe up on Chubb without lettin’ loose of the other horses. I end up loopin’ Sport’s reins around my holster. Somehow, I throw Joe across the saddle and let him go limp over Chubb’s neck. I mount up quick behind him then grab Sport’s reins. Putting my arm around Joe’s waist, I pull my little brother close. I’m scared to look back and more scared not to look. The wolf and coyote are there on the rocks watching us. They don’t make any move toward us, and I take that as a sign.
I kick Chubb in the sides and move us as fast as I know how out of the canyon.
The curtain we pass through at the end of the canyon feels more like the brush of willow branches than the sticky spider’s web I felt at the other side. The farther we get from Spirit Canyon, the better I feel. By the time we’ve gone a mile, a crushin’ weight I didn’t realize I’d been carryin’ seems to melt from my shoulders. I remember to whisper my gratitude skyward.
The light’s better outside of that canyon. The moon’s not lookin’ so blood splashed now; pretty soon the eclipse will be over. The air is sweet and fresh. The only sounds now are the nighttime noises that I’ve known since childhood; the sounds that seep through my window at home and lull me to sleep.
I wonder what’s goin’ to happen or maybe has already happened to those men who followed us. I feel bad for ‘em, but Heaven help me, I don’t feel bad enough to go back and look for ‘em.
My brothers aren’t doin’ as well as I hoped. I was countin’ on them perkin’ up once we got shed of that place, but it looks like I’m gonna be disappointed. Maybe a coupla miles from the canyon, I decide to stop and find a likely place to rest and doctor up Adam and Joe.
I don’t think I’ve ever built a fire quicker. I settle Adam first. Sport’s blanket gets tucked around my eldest brother, and I prop his feet up on the saddle. His skin’s still clammy, and he’s shiverin’, but he looks like he’s gonna sleep. I scoop Joe up and scootch close enough to Adam to keep a hand on him. Layin’ Joe against my chest, I take a good look at his face. He’s still mighty flushed, and his skin is hot and dry. Even his lips are cracked and bloody like he’s been bakin’ in the desert sun. I take the canteen and dribble water down his throat, stoppin’ every now and then to spread some water across his face and neck.
I don’t understand it. I was sure that once we got outta there, both of them would snap out of whatever it was that grabbed hold of them. That ain’t happened yet. Maybe even if a man can escape Spirit Canyon, he can’t escape completely. Don’t matter. I keep takin’ care of them all night long, watchin’ and hopin’ for the best. When I see the first pink threads of dawn on the horizon, I don’t believe I ever saw a more beautiful sight.
The voice in my ear is a tad gentler than the tug I feel on my arm. When I manage to pry my eyes open, I see Adam’s face hoverin’ over me blockin’ out the morning sun. I blink a couple of times and try real hard to remember where I’m at. Everything that happened to us rushes back to me, and I grab Adam by the arm and pull myself up to sit.
“Long night, brother?” Adam asks me. He looks mighty happy to see me awake. I gotta say I feel the same way about him.
“Let me take a look at you!” I hold onto him even though he’s tryin’ to pull away from me. I study his face. He’s well again. The choking feeling in my throat eases up a bit until I remember that I had been holding onto Joe.
“Where’s Joe?” I don’t see him nowhere.
“Joe’s fine. He’s tryin’ to scare up some game for a late breakfast. Look, I’m sorry for waking you. I’m sure you needed the rest. We just thought that if we could get a move on soon we’d be able to make the ranch in time for supper.”
“I can’t tell you how good that idea sounds to me, Adam.” He offers me a canteen, and I take a long swig before layin’ it aside. I scrub my gritty eyes with the heel of my hand before I put both hands on my lower back. With most of the night spent sittin’ with my back against my saddle, I can sure feel it now.
“We were sick.” Adam says it like it’s a fact, but he makes it sound like a question.
“Yup, you can say that. Do you remember?”
“No, not really. I figured it out when I woke up tucked in blankets with my feet elevated. I figured Little Joe must have been even worse off because his head was in your lap.” Adam’s face looks worried and irritated. He don’t like things to be out of his control, and he sure don’t like not knowing what’s happenin’ to him.
“How do you feel now?”
He shrugs. “Not sick. It’s hard to explain. I feel hollow almost, wrung out, like I’ve gone days without eating but I’m not hungry. I can’t find the right words.” He’s huffy now. Adam can always find the right words.
“What do you remember?” I’m a little scared I asked. I want to know that he’s all right in his mind now, but I’m not real sure I’m ready to relive everything.
“Well,” he’s chewing his lower lip as he thinks. “I remember seeing those men coming after us. I remember that we decided to hide out in Spirit Canyon . . .”
“You decided.” I grouch at him.
“Right. And then, I woke up here this morning. Did those fellows catch up with us? Was there a fight?”
“Naw. They didn’t catch up to us. You tellin’ me you don’t remember nothin’ else?” I ask him.
Adam shakes his head. “Not really. Maybe we got into some bad whiskey at that saloon . . . that would explain the nightmares.” He’s talkin’ mostly to himself.
I’m decidin’ how to tell him what happened when I hear gravel crunch behind us. Little Joe’s comin’ up on us with a couple of rabbits in his hand. He tosses the critters down and plops onto the ground beside me.
Last night the boy looked plumb awful. I never saw him so sick. This morning, he’s lookin’ his usual jaunty self. I let loose a sigh and rest my head on my arm for a minute. I look up and meet his shinin’ green eyes.
“How you doin,’ Punkin?” I ask him. He grins at me and gives my shoulder a shove.
“Fine as frog’s hair,” he tells me. “Especially this morning when I thought I was waking up in some pretty girl’s lap, and it turned out to be just my big galoot of a brother.” He cackles at his joke, but the look he gives me is grateful, and he throws his arm around my neck.
Joe dresses out those rabbits right quick and puts them over the fire. Adam has done decided that the two of them got poisoned by the rotgut whiskey they’d been drinkin’ in the saloon. That’s how he explains it to Joe who just shrugs and goes along. Adam won’t say nothin’ more about his nightmares, but I catch him watchin’ Joe and lookin’ upset.
I ask Joe what he remembers and he can’t go no further than Adam—that them fellers were chasin’ us and we got into the canyon. But his dreams were different and he don’t mind talkin’ about it.
“I don’t remember much,” Joe says. “You know how it is when you wake up. The whole dream just dries up and blows away. But there was a horse . . .” He stops for a minute while we get over laughin’ at him. Count on Joe. If it ain’t a girl in his dream, then it has to be a horse. “Listen, it was a real special horse; I don’t know why. But I had it, and then it was gone, and everything went wrong . . . and that’s all I got.”
I know then I can’t tell them what happened last night. They wouldn’t believe me. Besides, somewhere in those nightmares, they probably know more than I do about what happened.
“Well, I‘ve got a hankering to get home to my bed and some real cooking.” Adam tosses the last of his coffee into the fire, and we break camp. That’s when he notices his rifle is missing.
He gets real upset and asks me when I seen it last. I pretend I don’t know. But I do, of course. We left the rifle back in that canyon, and I guarantee we ain’t goin’ back for it.
Adam does his best to argue me into back trackin’ to look for the rifle. There’s no way I’m goin’ back, and I tell him so. He calls me a Missouri mule, and I grab his arm.
“Look here, Adam, my mind’s made up. Leave the dadburned thing. You’ll get another. We’re goin’ home.”
He can see that I mean it, and he knows me well enough to give in. We get on our horses and turn toward home. Adam wants to take the usual trail. Joe wants to take a short cut. Their usual noise fills the air around us.
They’re bickerin’ again. Thank God, they’re still bickerin.
Check out the stunning nighttime image of Lagomarsino Canyon that inspired this story.
Spirit Canyon is my name for a real place: Lagomarsino Canyon. The canyon is known for its petroglyphs (images scratched or carved into rock) and petrographs (images painted onto rock). The nearly 2,000 images found in the canyon have been estimated to be as old as 14,000 years. The purpose of the images is not clear; scholars assume that they had ritual importance. The image featured with this story is a picture of part of the canyon. The Paiutes of the era were aware of the canyon, but had no idea “who” created the images.
The date used in the story is the actual date of a total lunar eclipse preceding the summer solstice by only a few hours. Many cultures associate increased spiritual power around astronomical events.
Wolf and Coyote are major features in Paiute (as well as other Native American) mythology. Wolf is an authority figure and Coyote is the classic trickster.
Other Stories by this Author
- Remembrance (by Belle)
- The Christmas Hostage (by Belle)
- In Absentia (by Belle)
- Loss (by Belle)
- Wish (by Belle)