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American Fantasy Indigenous

                                Changing Track

The water was surprisingly cold, and the current more swift than expected. But it was only a small river, running a little high because of the summer rains.  It carried him downstream maybe a hundred yards, before he hit a backwater. From there it was an easy swim to shore. Over some large boulders, up a small cliff, and he was on the mesa top, walking north.

After the first mile or so, his feet began to feel a little tender in the wet shoes. He sat down in the dirt to put on dry socks, getting his stll damp Wranglers muddy. Usually immaculately dressed in custom tailored suits, he laughed at the contrast. Ol’ Muddy Butt, that’s me.

He broke into a jog. Six miles, then seven. The heat of the summer day made him thirsty. The lack of his usual ration of bourbon was nauseating. He scraped away the pebbles under a large sagebrush, and lay down, head in the shade. The sky was such a brilliant blue that even with his dark glasses, it almost hurt to look at it. He closed his eyes.

The tickle of little ant feet on his arm woke him. He tried to jog again, but the nausea was so severe that he was on his knees vomiting before he got very far. In the distance, he could see a dark band of trees in a fold of the hills. Get up and go, wimp. But the muscular body he worked so hard to mainain was shaky, weak,  every cell yearning for the 160 proof anesthetic to which it had long been accustomed. He lay back down, imagining the warm soil drawing the alcohol out of him, leaving him in peace.

Even in the desert, nights can be cold. The chill woke him this time. The moon had risen, giving enough light for avoiding rocks and brush. He was so dry that his lips were stuck to his teeth. There were pools of spring water up there, in the canyon, under the trees. Finishing the water in his camel pack, he walked on as the sky began to turn dove grey, then sunrise orange.

A large flat rock beside the spring was the perfect seat. But it was occupied. The fat rattler, was almost invisible, it’s brown and tan scales blending with the mottled shade under the trees. If it had not lifted that broad triangular head, he might have missed it. He broke a dead branch from a uniper tree, and poked at the snake. It give a warning rattle, tongue flicking out, and struck, hurling half the length of it’s body toward him. Leaping to the side, he laughed. “Come on, big boy. Beat it.” Two more unsuccessful strikes, and the snake conceded the field, disappearing down a small arroyo.

“So, Enrique,” the man said out loud, “that was incredibly stupid. What am I trying to prove? July would say that I am an idiot, and she is right.” He sighed. Would he ever be able to change enough to be the man she deserved? He had tried, but bourbon and loose girls had been his solace for so long. Over the years, he had arrested dozens of men who had fallen into the same trap.  He knew it. He could see it plain as day. It was a behavior pattern that led to nothing but a lonely, bitter end in a bar fight, or an auto accident─or suicide.

He settled on the rock, removed shoes and socks. and dipped bare feet in the cool water of a little pool. The trickling spring re-filled his camel pack. Steriizing tablets would make it drinkable in a little while. He rummaged in his pack for a slice of jerky, holding it between cheek and teeth so it would last longer, giving him the illusion that it was an adequete meal. He had done this many times in his youth, but now, at forty-five, what had satisfied his fifteen-year-old body seemed woefully inadequate.

“Damn it, July, you little brat! You drove me to this, and you don’t even know it. Now here I am, talking to myself in the wilderness like the nutcase I am trying not to be.”

The sun warmed his back. It would be hot soon. He would stay in this canyon as long as possible. It went deep into the mountains, taking him close to his goal. Socks and shoes on, pack slung on his back, he started jogging again.

The noon day sun dazzled his eyes even through his dark aviators. Sweat gathered around his waist band and plastered his shirt to his back. His breathe was beginning to whistle through his teeth. Not as good shape as I thought I was. The narrow deer path was steep, climbing up the canyon-side. A rock rolled under his foot, and he slipped, tumbling down the long, rough slope. There was a flash of light, and then nothing.

He woke, hearing someone grunting in pain. It took a minute for him to realize that was him, wasn’t it? Someone was kicking him, and there was a voice. “Get up, grandson. Get up.”

“What? Grandfather?” He tried to roll over in the rocks, but his ribs! Ay de mi, as his mother would say.  He drew a few shallow breaths. Okay, not serious, just painful. And no one’s kicking me, especially not my grandfather. He would have laughed at himself if it didn’t hurt so much. Hell, he had never even met old Iron Horse, who had died more than sixty years ago. Even Enrique’s dad barely remembered his famous father, the warrior, the hero of World War One.

“Okay, Mora, get up. Enough with the weird hallucinations.” He struggled to rise, and eventually made it. He thought about turning back. He wanted to turn back. But July worried about his drinking, and he was not going to ask her to marry a drunkard. One slow step after another, he climbed higher.

His grandfather’s people had lived in these canyons and mountains for untold generations, and as a boy, he had spent many, many days and nights in this wild land. But since his Army days, he had been wrapped up in career and booze and girls, sometimes forgetting this real world of rocks and trees and wildlife. This was his real home, not the apartment in the city.

He paused to catch his breath, holding an arm tight to his side to ease the pain in his ribs. Thud, thud, thud. His pulse pounded in his ears. And there was something else. He cocked his head, listening. It sounded like a drum beat. Tap, tap, tap. He snorted. “Imagining things again. Did I hit my head that hard?” He climbed on. Thud, tap. Thud, tap. His feet moved in the same rhythm.

Gradually, he sensed another presence. Was that a moccasined foot beside his? Did that bee just speak to him? He understood what it said. A doe, drinking from a pool, wished him a safe journey, then bent to drink again.

It was sunset when he reached the meadow at the top of the mountain. He collected a small stash of tinder, and using his bifocals, focused the sun’s final rays on the dry grass and twigs. It only took a minute before there was a wisp of smoke. He blew gently until a small flame caught hold, and chuckled. His mother had always gotten after him for doing this, afraid that in his youthful carelessness, he might start a wildfire some day.

There were dead branches everywhere. He broke a few into shorter lengths and soon had a nice little fire going on a bare spot of ground. Once it burned down to coals,  he would spread them out so the warm ground could help him sleep through the coming cold night.

Jerky, dried fruit, and a handful of Oreos served for dinner. He sat on a log watching the night come on as tiny lights, almost like fireflys, began to sparkle in the town far below. There was a rustling in the brush along the little creek. Something big rolled a rock. He sat prefectly still, barely breathing. Many predators lived in these woods, wild as they were, and he was unarmed.

In a minute, a big bull elk stepped into the meadow, raising it’s muzzle, sniffing the human scent. The antlers were still in velvet, but breeding season was coming on, and even in velvet, those antlers were lethal weapons. It took a dozen steps toward him.

There was no logical solution here. He coudn’t out run an elk. The fire was almost out, so there was no flaming branch to scare it away. He rose, spreading open hands in the universal sign of peace. “Hello, brother. I am just visiting. I’ll be gone at first light.” It snorted and stepped closer. He swallowed convulsively, wondering if this was it, a bloody end to his pitiful life. But as they regarded each other, fear faded, and a sense of peace came to him.

Of course. I’m hallucinating. Just an old drunk hallucinating. He mocked himself and looked away, then back. The elk was still there, and it’s eyes seemed to twinkle. It was just the reflection from starlight on leaves or something, of course, but somehow….

 He woke to the twittering of little pine siskins in the tree tops. It had been a cold night, but the warm ground and his reflective emergency tarp had kept him warm enough. What crazy dreams I had yesterday. That’s what too much booze does to you, I guess. He yawned and stretched.

There was a sudden noise, and he spun around to see the elk still there. It gave a soft whistling grunt, a farewell, and disappeared into the brush. Stunned, confused, he stood there in silence as the sun rose, touching his face, warming his body, penetrating his soul.

He mentally shook himself. Stop trying to figure it out. But he knew something big had happened. He had changed. He felt whole, strong, in control. He could be powerful, like that old bull elk, like he was before all the booze and bar girls. Maybe he could be the right man for July after all.

 He smiled. That was totally weird. I have never had such a vivid dream. It was almost like a real elk shared his strength, or wisdom, or whatever with me. He chuckled, bending to wash his face in the creek.

And there, in the soft soil by his knee, were the perfect dual crescents of an elk hoof print, so fresh that water was still seeping into them.

October 01, 2021 18:56

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