issue thirty
art gallery
past issues
current issue
(6170 words)
Kristine Zeigler
Cover This Country Like Snow
       The boy walked in the waning light, unaware that the cold had spread across his hairless skin and that the mild, cloying warmth that day was no indication the season was at an end. He did not notice that the heavy, dull air of winter was still in the sky, was cradled by the mountains. He did not foretell the snow that would come and break upon the ground for forty-two more days and nights. Determined to find his friend, the boy swung himself over a low fence and a pile of fresh-cut pine lumber. The cheating stream of the sun began to escape behind the hulking ridge of the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range as he crouched inside a new corral in what is now known as Round Valley. For months he had taken this same path to get to Mister Billy, a young steer belonging to Lefty McAuliffe. Lefty didn't mind that the boy, who he called George, was so often about the place. A slight Paiute of uncertain age, his skin too soft to yet be a man, with eyes that seemed to view a world beyond this one and hands expressing themselves in constant movement like a ribbon of water, this George was different, a bit aloof, but altogether harmless. Every now and then Lefty would yell at George to "Git," as he had so much to do and George's presence slowed him down. Lefty did not always tolerate the lingering stare, at once as empty as it was full, of this boy, or almost man, this dumb Indian.

George wondered what had changed. Quail, rabbits, and giant sagebrush here yesterday. Today, dusty saddles slung over new posts and metallic feed troughs brimming with hay. He stood and found his Mister Billy, a dark red-brown Hereford with a white face, a silken hide, and eyes bordered by patches of pale pink skin and gray eyelashes. Mister Billy swished his long tail in greeting.

"Who took the sage? Where did the rabbit run to?" George asked.

"Don't think I rightly know," said the steer. Mister Billy lowered his neck in vain toward what should have been spring grasses pushing through the soil. It was past the time when George's father would dig out his ditches to water the wild hyacinths and yellow nut grass.

George placed his palm alongside the sturdy animal's neck and ran it over the brown skin toward the leg. George liked this new cow breed so recently brought to his valley home. It was gentler than mule deer, did not mind being petted, and liked to have a conversation every evening. He then scratched Mister Billy where the steer's hair curled tightly behind the ears.

Mister Billy pulled hay into his mouth and ground it against his back teeth, the mixing of saliva turning the alfalfa into a satisfying delicacy. His chewing slowed, his eyelids closed, and he began to dream, a talent given to all hoofed animals but perfected by bovines. Mister Billy saw a two-legged creature with a desert-colored fur coat and a full tail.

Shall I warn the others? Mister Billy wondered.

"Hello, Mister Billy. Lovely evening tonight."


"Yes, it's a strange sight, isn't it, me on two legs? I have come to give you news, Mister Billy, and it isn't the kind of news one delivers on four legs, if you know what I mean."

"So you've come to bring the warning call?"

"Yes, Mister Billy. I am the emissary of Eagle, and he has foreseen a battle that will begin tonight."

"Will this battle put my herd in harm's way?"

"Mister Billy, you will be the cause of the battle."

"But I hold no ill feelings toward any men!"

"That is of no consequence. Mister Billy, your George will be by your side when it happens, and he will be the one harmed."

"Is there anything I can do to change this?"

"You can try, but it has been foretold and Eagle is never wrong."

"You've pulled tricks like this before, Coyote."

"But I come on two legs. I cannot lie, Mister Billy."

"You speak truth. I can see it in your eyes and your taut whiskers. Thank you, Coyote. I must gather the others and leave the corral. We'll hide until after nightfall. Perhaps George will forget me."

"Mister Billy, I doubt it will work."

Before the steer could argue otherwise, Coyote fell to all four legs and was soon gone.

When Mister Billy awoke, he felt the cud in his mouth and George's warm, steady hand on his back. He blinked and then remembered Coyote's warning. Mister Billy shook George's hand free.

"Cows, calves, and steers, we must head to the canyon! Now!" He scraped his hoof against the chalky dirt and issued a long lowing command that awakened all of the cattle from their twilight dreams and stirred in each of them a desire to obey.

George leapt out of the herd's way. The frenetic cattle stampeded behind Mister Billy, stirring up dust and rocks as they disappeared behind a stand of trees at the edge of George's vision. George, paralyzed by fear that he had done something terribly wrong, began to worry that the cows were in danger. He waited until the moon rose and then set out to find Mister Billy. George, fast as a deer, filled his lungs with long draws of the mountain's air. His feet gripped the face of the granite valley as easy as a bighorn sheep, gaining in altitude, noticing the icy patches clinging in the crevices of the canyon's boulder pilings. He ran and he ran, bent on finding his friend and not thinking of his hunger or thirst or taxed muscles. He did not stop until he saw the dim hulking shadows of the cattle.

"Oh, Mister Billy, there you are!" George threw his arms around the cow's neck. "I thought you were angry at me."

"I'm not upset at all. We are merely taking precautions. I spoke to Coyote after all. You must leave, you are in danger, my George. Go and continue, as far as you can. Your legs are still strong."

"But why?"

"The battle is coming. I've heard of others. Bloody gunfights. Many vanquished. So many brown men dead. So many white men dead. I don't know, George. Your people -- what match are they for greater numbers and their guns?"

George placed his right hand on Mister Billy's neck as they ambled up the canyon beneath the spindly branches of aspen trees stretching for the remnant light. "George, the white men are like stars above our heads. They are the sands in the Owens River. You can take away sand, but more will come. There are many, many wrongs. But can you climb Mount Tom and extinguish the light from the stars?" George admitted he could not.

"George, how will you gather enough guns, powder, lead, dried meat for your warriors, and fresh grass to feed your horses? Your enemies have all of these and far more than they can ever use."

"I don't have enemies!" George shouted. His eyes were glistening, reflecting the pulse of the stars.

"The army of white men," Mister Billy whispered, "will cover this country like snow."

As the two silenced their voices and listened only to the water washing over flattened stones, a cowboy named Lawrence Jones spotted a stolen Hereford with an Indian man, aimed his rifle at the tall shadow standing next to the McAuliffe-branded steer, and fired. The bullet traveled through George's heart, puncturing it so efficiently that he scarcely felt it as he fell into the fern fronds. He wondered why he did not see Mister Billy. Then he was summoned to the Great Camp in the sky, where he would wait for his father, content in the warm protection of his mother, his grandfather, and all of his mothers and fathers before that.

Mister Billy, startled by the shot, ran toward the creek, stumbled into the glacial waters, and landed awkwardly in a small eddy. He raised his head to gain his bearings and saw Lawrence Jones kneeling by George, shaking the dead boy's shoulder. Jones's and Mister Billy's eyes met, and Jones released George and barked at Mister Billy, "Ignorant steer, get the hell up. We got to get back to Lefty's!"

Mister Billy was able to right himself and wade out of the creek and back up to the trail. He paused over George's body and sniffed the death that had overtaken his lean rabbit-running muscles. George's eyes and mouth took on the same shape -- hollowed openings that led to nothingness. Mister Billy shook his head, walked behind the cowboy, and sighed deeply. Coyote was right. The battle was beginning. "I've failed you," Mister Billy said as George was hauled up by the cowboy, his wounded side against the horse's back and his blood flowing into the horse's sweat.

Lawrence Jones knew his boss, Lefty McAuliffe, would be pleased. The Indians had gone far enough. They had killed at least three head of cattle this winter and this would have been the fourth. Boy would have killed Lefty's cow and fed on it for weeks, he thought. Well, no sir, not on my watch. "I had begun to suspicion," he whispered, "so I took care of it."

The rest of the confused cattle huddled near the bottom of the creek. Lawrence set to the task of driving them back into the valley.

It was well past supper when Lawrence Jones stood near Lefty's kitchen window, hoping the missus would invite him to sit down for mutton broth and a plate of fish. Lefty appeared inside, his cheeks glowing from the heated water his wife had brought for his toilet. In the kitchen lantern's glow, Lawrence saw the L-shaped scar beneath Lefty's ear, the skin pink like the pads of a kitten's paw. An Indian arrow, it was widely known, had narrowly missed the spot that brings blood to the head but had inscribed its traces on the side of Lefty's neck nonetheless. Lefty strode through the kitchen to the hall that led to the back door, brushing his wife aside to give a vigorous shake to his hired man's hand. Lawrence Jones requested a moment alone just to talk a little business, a proposition that Lefty enjoyed hearing very much for he was on the lookout for men who thought about the enterprise as much as he did.

"Cold night, isn't it, Lawrence? I hope summer comes here soon. Been a long and cruel winter for all of us. Twenty days of snow since May. Here it is halfway into June already. Nothing like this in New York, I can tell you that. This is frozen heartbreak," Lefty said.        

Lawrence nodded and shifted his gaze outside to a dark form beneath a stand of cottonwoods planted at the edge of the road. "Sir, I got something to show you."

Lefty and Lawrence walked to the figure propped up against the trunk of the largest tree in the yard. Lefty squatted to get a better look.

"Good God, what have we got here?" Lefty pulled George's matted hair away. "Lawrence, you gone and killed yourself a crazy Indian child!"

"Thought you'd be proud," Lawrence said.

"This boy never gives us any problems! He don't even talk. He just walks around the ranch and mumbles to the cows and horses. I even put him to work a few times. You gone and killed a harmless pest is what you done." The obsidian sky concealed the color vanishing from Lawrence's face.

"But sir," Lawrence stammered, "he was taking the cows up the ravine. He was stealing your cows. Taking advantage. I've been on the job one month only, but I seen how they been taking the cows. They're living off the fat provided by us and it ain't fair, sir."

"George couldn't steal a cow. He wouldn't a known what to do with it. He couldn't barely get by in this world. He had a touch of the melancholy like," Lefty said. "Didn't even speak in his own tongue," he added with a sigh.

"Ah, hell, Lawrence. Maybe you gone and done him a favor. Poor coot." The two men looked down on George. Lefty called to his night guards, who were also volunteer militia men in this far-flung American settlement. "Take care of the body. And close his mouth and eyes, for God's sake," Lefty barked. "When you're done, you better ride up to Aurora in the morning. Get there before too many days pass and notify the Rifles there what happened. Ask for extra men to be sent this way. We're going to need protection, boys. They'll attack soon as word gets to them that their George is killed."

Lawrence Jones, on the advice of Lefty, stayed inside the barn with the two armed men stationed outside. He rested atop an army cot, lying on his back, staring at the wooden beams, and listening closely to rats moving in and out of food stores. He did not fall asleep. He imagined every twig that cracked and each coyote's step as an Indian chief approaching. He pulled the blanket tighter around his body and covered his eyes with it. Somehow, what you can't see is less powerful when underneath the wool. He blew hot breath into the rough fibers of the blanket to ward off the barn's stiffening, unforgiving air, air as oppressive as humid summers in Carthage and just as full of discomfort.

Lefty worried too. He moved Lawrence as far from the house and his wife as he could while still providing protection to his employee. "Goddamned hothead," he muttered to himself as he loaded his rifle. Here, he could clean his gun and keep an eye on the barn, the bunkhouse, and the distant borders of his ranch.

The next day, Lawrence volunteered to ride with the night guards, thinking it best to help the reinforcement effort against the Paiute that he had precipitated. He had slept only after dawn broke, his breath flowing normally after a fitful night listening to branches brushing the windows and vermin racing through the barn's eaves.

On the trail, sagebrush chipmunks and mountain cottontail rabbits spooked the horses, prompting one of the guards to remark that something just wasn't right, that they all ought to be on the lookout.

"I got a feeling, boys," the guard said. An hour passed. Lawrence Jones's eyelids dipped of their own accord, and his chin rested on his chest. His horse sidestepped volcanic rocks and silver miners' rubbish -- broken pickaxes, tin pans beset by bullet holes, frayed wool socks, and empty bean and tomato cans. Lawrence felt the weight of his head and suddenly jerked awake. He yawned. A thick snowfall adhered to the valley floor. Lawrence pulled his coat tighter around his neck and adjusted his hat. But after a few minutes, he was unable to resist sleep. It came despite the dense flakes and weak sunlight. Then he saw it. The coyote.

Coyote, who panted as if fresh from pursuit of his dinner, fixed his eyes on Lawrence Jones. The coyote whispered in man's language: "The battle will begin. You have angered the chief." But Lawrence did not believe in animals speaking, even in a dream, so he quickly shook his head, took stock of his horse's steps, and called to the man in front for the distance left to ride. "About halfway," the guard said.

Lawrence realized he had not eaten since noon the previous day. Remembering the small satchel that the cook had tied to his saddle, Lawrence unraveled its contents and set about eating the corn bread with butter. The snow abruptly halted and the sky was clearing. He looked up after finishing his small but satisfying meal and did not see either guard. I've fallen a bit behind, he thought, but he did not worry since he could hear the bits inside their horses' mouths chiming against the metal rein hooks. Lawrence smiled. He was happy. The West was made for men like him -- risk-takers with lightning reflexes and a willingness to stake a claim and work the land from its wasteful slumber. He took a deep breath, yawned, and unknowingly closed his eyes.

Lawrence Jones spotted a large, handsome steer branded with Lefty's mark not twenty paces from where his horse plodded along the trail. What is that steer doing so far from the ranch? He recognized the steer, but why? Why did the dang Hereford remind him of something? He rubbed his eyes. A boy suddenly appeared, walking alongside the dark brown Hereford. The boy's right hand rested on the steer's neck. The dumb Indian? Impossible! He was dead! He was buried! Lawrence questioned the day, the passing storm, the horse he rode, who was now very jumpy and disobedient. Lawrence did not believe in ghosts, in an afterlife, in visions or dreams. And since he did not believe in what he saw, he chose to look away, unscrew the cap from his canteen, and pour water over his face.

"Having a hard time staying awake there, Jones?" the guard behind him asked, riding so close that his horse's snout touched the tail of Lawrence's horse. Lawrence jumped.

"Where did you come from?"

"Been riding right behind you all along," the guard said. Lawrence turned to offer his canteen.

"No, no, I got plenty myself. I don't get thirsty in this cold," the guard said. "You keep that water for yourself. You're going to need it. Got a ways to go just yet."

"You see a steer and a boy walking next to it?"

The guard answered, much to Lawrence's relief, "No, ain't seen nothing and nobody since we left. Don't typically see any cattle this way. Maybe a miner now and then. You new around here?"

"Yes, just started working for Lefty about a month ago. Came from Carthage, Illinois, originally."

"This place ain't nothing like where you from, is it?" the guard asked.

The air was suddenly silent, the horses' hooves made no sound, crows ceased their staccato calls, and rabbits hopped noiselessly between the rocks and brush. Lawrence looked at the sky, expecting darkening clouds or impending lightning to explain the quiet that had overcome the land so quickly. He slapped the palm of his hand against his head. Maybe my hearing's going, he thought, or worse, my mind.

Up ahead, the first guard shouted, "Indians!" An arrow missed Lawrence and his horse's head by an uncomfortable margin. The arrow did not seem as weak or as bad as he had heard from the other ranch hands around Lefty's. He ducked, clutched the reins, and gave a fierce series of kicks to his horse. The second guard pulled his rifle from across his chest and aimed toward large boulders where a band of Paiutes had arrayed themselves. Their horses were now uncontrollable and ran off the trail toward a ravine with a small dry creek bed. Lawrence struggled to gather up the reins, which had fallen from his grip. He looked frantically for Indians on either side and managed to remove the revolver from his hip. His horse followed the first guard's closely. Another arrow was loosed upon Lawrence, and it came closer to its intended resting point. Lawrence slumped forward onto the horse's neck, tasting the coarse, long strands of salty mane in his mouth. He raised his head, quickly surveyed his body, and concluded he had not been hit. He looked ahead and realized the guard in front had fallen out of the saddle. Lawrence turned and saw the guard on the ground, an arrow firmly planted in his chest. He wondered if he should turn around, but the second man rode closely behind, spurring all of the horses onward.

When Lawrence, the remaining guard, and the horse with the empty saddle arrived in Aurora, the miners had already come into town for their supper. Main Street was busy and no one paid attention to the two men. Lawrence and the guard walked into the Tunnel Saloon, where their soiled clothing and unshaven faces went unremarked. The guard bought Lawrence two whiskeys and three for himself. Then they proceeded to the Wingate Building to see about the Rifles -- the Esmeralda Rangers' militia. Lawrence let the guard do all the talking. He didn't pay close attention, but he heard the guard say "Lefty's employee," "killed down the gully a few miles west," and "no end to what they'll do."

The Rifles man turned to Lawrence and the night guard. "Well, what's Lefty's man getting killed for?"

"Sometimes there's no reason," the guard said. But since there was one, Lawrence spoke up.

"Even the score. I killed an Indian that was stealing one of Lefty's cows."

"I see. It's time to show these Indians a thing or two. Get washed up, gentlemen. Join the Rifles for supper. Twenty-five cents at Harkness's place will get you a meal." He waved Lawrence and the guard toward the back, where some women in loose-fitting cottons delivered a steady supply of hot water.

After his bath, Lawrence walked to Pine Street, feeling renewed and optimistic that this whole Indian business would get resolved and the people would be protected. He fancied himself playing the part of civilian soldier who would prepare a battle plan and win a hero's welcome back in the valley. He stopped short of Harkness's and set aside his thoughts on the Indian problem when he saw a dozen men in a strange fervor gathered around what appeared to be a small animal skin. It was no animal. A lantern's light cast diabolical shadows on skin and hair coated in dried blood -- the scalp of Lefty's dead guard. No man dared touch the thing.

"Beasts," one of the men said. "They've the heart of lions. Revenge, they have got to have it, and more to come too, I bet."

"But they're stealing our property, and they've got to know that isn't right," Lawrence said. His voice cracked. The Esmeralda Rangers exchanged knowing glances.

"You're not talking about regular people here," the man said. "They like to dance over the scalps. Not this time. We're facing a race that hasn't never had the rule of law. But I tell you one thing. Some of them are intelligent. May be Indians, but some of them's got minds, sharp minds."

After dinner, the company began drinking gin and smoking Havana cigars at Porter's. These amusements seemed to relieve, for Lawrence anyway, the memory of the dead guard and postpone the dread that would settle in as the skies darkened. In the distance, a coyote called. Lawrence looked up, his breath now short and his palms watery. A man slapped him on the back.

"You jumpy, Mr. Jones? Don't worry, nothing is gonna happen here in Aurora. Coyote is a problem in the Indian stories, but he isn't gonna come after you. In their tales, Coyote is always trying to take something that don't belong to him. He's a troublemaker, and because he's clever, he survives. A considerable creature, if you ask me," the man added as he poured himself more Old Tom Holland's.

Eventually, Lawrence retired to his cot to get some sleep. But he tossed and turned, waking early in the morning to seek his blanket, which he had torn off in his fitful sleep. He sat up, recalling a fragment of a dream in which a coyote with lustrous fur instructed him to follow a reedy but imposing Indian. His head throbbed from the gin. I am a no-account fool, he thought. He leaned back on the cot and closed his eyes, listening to the twitters of quail as they sought their breakfast just outside the window.

Soon, his dreaming returned and Lawrence was powerless to stop its course. He found himself walking along the Owens River where Lefty's cattle had worn a path among the cattails. They had trammeled the wild heliotrope's pale blue petals, which had not yet learned to take shelter among hardier plants. The flow of the brown water, full of small fish darting through the lazy current, reflected Lawrence's lanky frame. Just ahead of Lawrence walked a wide-shouldered Indian and a small boy. Lawrence was unafraid, curious even, so he picked up his pace to catch up and present himself. The young Indian spoke first.

"This is my father, the Irrigator," he said in English. The boy's fingers flicked against each other and fluttered up from his sides, as animated as butterfly wings after weeks in a tight cocoon.

"Hello, I am Lawrence," he answered in an unknown tongue.

"You speak our language," the father said. "You will help us to build a small ditch? We need to water our crops."

"I will help," Lawrence said. "But where are your crops?"

"Seeds and tubers, just that way," the Irrigator replied.

"Can men live on that alone?"

"Father is the chosen man to water the fields this year. Our food store is small, but with blessings from rain and the river, it is enough for all of us to eat," the young boy said, his teeth bright as dried bones. The sun warmed their chests as they walked.

"I know a thing or two about ditches," Lawrence began. "I'm Mormon. We practically invented farming in the desert. Let me walk with you. I will dig a beautiful ditch and keep it clear of weeds." The boy smiled and the tall father nodded.

A rooster crowed before sunrise, waking Lawrence, who was weary from the dreams, the visions, the animals, and the Indians who visited despite his protests. I must get some real sleep, he thought, rising to pack his saddlebag to return to the ranch and one of the small bunkhouse beds at Lefty's.

The detachment rode along Pine Street as the sun began to rise. Lawrence's eyes were swollen and he yawned repeatedly, never seeming able to take in a full gulp of air. His appetite for vengeance seemed to have decreased, and he looked at the other men for a sign of their commitment to this new battle. He shook his head, hoping that the treacherous thoughts that clouded his mind would disintegrate and fall away. Surely the lack of sleep and uneasy dreams were contributing to his doubts? Of course he would kill Indians today, and of course he belonged in this detachment as the proud employee of Lefty McAuliffe and his cattle ranch. He picked the yellow crust from the corners of his eyes and emptied water from his canteen straight into his throat.

As the detachment neared Lefty's, a scout cried out that Indians were approaching on foot.

"One of them is Shoandow," the scout said. "Don't got into nothing with us before, but keep your guard up. You never know."

Lawrence got a long look at what appeared to be a trustworthy man. But hadn't Lawrence's mother told him not to trust nobody in the West, that scoundrels and thieves looked charming at every glance? Lawrence wondered if the Esmeralda Rangers would shoot now or later. Some of the militia men seemed to know Shoandow and lowered their rifles.

"This is an Indian we can do business with," the scout said under his breath.

Shoandow spoke first. "I come to tell you that I am here to recover a colt, a mare, and one with red color and white whiskers."

"You here to say your horses been stolen?" the Ranger asked.

"Yes, I regret to say. My horse was a black female, and her son is black too. Our shaman lost his roan. Stolen last night while we slept in the rocks." Shoandow's face nodded toward the slough bordered by the tablelands.

"You leave your weapons here, Chief, and we'll let you pass by to go about seeing where your horses have gotten off to. Suspect they ran off in the night."

"Didn't run off, sir. Stolen."

"Well, it could have been miners up in Benton," the Ranger said.

"We will go now," Shoandow said.

"You will lay down your guns," the Ranger said sternly. "Your people will not kill any more of ours."

"But we need protection. Just as you. You killed one of our sons, the boy you called George," Shoandow said. Lawrence held his breath. One of the braves behind Shoandow moved his left hand toward his otter skin quiver. A Rifle's horse moved anxiously, tapping its hooves and swishing its tail. Then the Ranger fired. Shoandow fell back like timber being cut in an alpine meadow, slow and graceful. Lawrence's horse bucked, let out an alarmed high-pitched cry, and circled on itself before charging away from the trail. Under a rainstorm of Indian arrows, the horse was full of terror. Lawrence bounced hard in the saddle, his boots having slipped from the stirrups and his hands unable to catch onto the reins, which had fallen around the horse's ears. He bent down to embrace the horse's neck in hopes that his own hair would miraculously blend into the horse's mane, and that perhaps his entire body would fuse with the horse's ample chest and shoulders, long legs, and tufted fetlocks.

An Indian loosed an arrow that grazed the horse's rump. Though the horse had felt more irritation from a gnat or a black fly, it leaped and wheeled on its haunches, possessed of a furious energy and demonic determination, and when the front hooves hit the ground, Lawrence saw that he was not fleeing from certain death, but galloping headlong into it. The reins remained just out of reach. With a better view, the Indian hit Lawrence with ease, and the Indian's obsidian point lodged itself underneath Lawrence's skin and burned into the flesh between his bottom-most ribs on his left side. Lawrence squinted and gripped the moist mane, unable to control the horse, whose mouth tossed back copious drops of froth that landed in Lawrence's eyes. The arrow, erratic as it bounced between Lawrence's rib cage and the horse's neck, succumbed to the commotion, its shaft eventually breaking off inside the wound.

Lawrence closed his eyes and said a prayer, but not the kind of prayer his mother said with him before bed so many years ago. It was a prayer that he didn't think of himself. It seemed to come through him from a glacial bellows up above, a vast current of stony air flapping its course through his blood. He looked up and saw wings, wings so enormous they blocked out the sun's rays. He could make out a hooked beak and a white-crowned head. Surely this was a trick from the Indian obsidian? Then he heard the eagle.

"Brother, they are all dead. Return to your home. Let this battle be done and the summer begin. Let this insufferable winter end and the people be fed. Return home, young brother, they are all dead."

The horse stopped its terrifying gallop, yanked its head in the direction of Mount Tom, and started off again at breakneck speed. Lawrence felt the point bury itself farther into his body. Lefty's ranch neared and the horse, exhausted as it was, kept a steady pace, its eyes still enlarged and wild, its nostrils flared and straining to take in enough air.

When they arrived, the horse stopped without command. Lawrence dismounted and led it into the corral near the bunkhouse, making sure to fill the water trough and leave a pile of fresh hay for the spent animal. He then walked absently to his bed. The other ranch hands were still out in the valley, and for this he was glad. He desired only to sleep, not caring to administer to his wound or report on the events.

When Lawrence woke several hours later to the silence of the valley darkness, he felt strangely elated, his limbs tingling with a careless joy and his eyes freshly seeing despite the black veil of the hour. Lawrence rose, tucked in his wool shirt, placed his hat on top of his head, and pushed the door. He walked past the corral, past the barn, around the McAuliffe home, and out a wooden gate to the cottonwood-lined road. He walked down through the valley until he reached the cliffs of the volcanic tableland. He found a narrow trail that mounted the ancient ash flow, up the steep-sloped wall covered with fine pale sand and rocks. He climbed, undeterred by the difficult soil into which his boots sank, eyeing the way so suddenly illuminated by the moon. He touched his side from time to time as if to search for something he had lost.

When he reached the top, he turned. No one stirred in the bunkhouse below. Lefty's rooms remained dark. The land seemed to be taking a giant breath, suspended between night and day. Then, emerging from the cottonwoods, a procession: a steer, a young Paiute, and a coyote. Flying closely behind, a bird. Lawrence did not shake his head this time or blame the vision on his fatigued state. The young man below stopped, turned toward the uplifted earth where Lawrence was perched, and held his hand above his head, revealing fingers dancing in the moon's shower of light, fingers climbing an invisible ladder, gesturing to the top of the tablelands. Lawrence stood, raised his own arm, and nodded toward the animals and the Indian. The Indian turned back to the south, and walked alone, his companions' heads lowered in respect and assent as he left the valley.

Lawrence was overcome with a sudden pain in his side and fell to the sandy cap of the scarp. Fatigue descended on his chest. He rolled onto his back, comfortable if only because he had not slept well for many nights and anyplace would do.

He slipped into a dream, following the Indian all night and half the next day, all the way to Owens Lake, which had not yet dried up. Birds called to one another as they pounced on the lake's abundance. Their cacophony replaced the sound of his heart, their flapping bodies blanketing the water so that Lawrence was unsure if a lake even pooled beneath their gathered feathers, claws, and beaks. Lawrence wanted to find the Indian, but the birds were too numerous and made too much noise. He bent over and placed his finger in the water, touching what had once been snow before making its alpine to desert valley journey. The air turned quiet and the birds flew up toward the mountains. He sat on the edge of the lake and listened to the howls of distant coyotes and the calls of an eagle. Their plaintive sounds filled the valley from west to east, from the jagged and snowy peaks to the rounded copper hills and ancient volcanic cones. They echoed from the miners' claims all the way to the bristlecone trees who listened from their sentry posts in the rain shadow, their boughs bending imperceptibly in unified comprehension.

Life would be different for everyone -- man, river, tree, lake, steer, coyote, and eagle. All would be changed. All were changing, the trees said, adding that it had always been so. The Indian was gone. Lawrence wondered if he had drowned in the lake's endless waters.

The dream ended, and Lawrence gratefully slept unmolested atop the salmon-colored tableland until the sun shone harshly on his beaten frame. When he awoke, he adjusted his hat and took a stilted breath.

The obsidian point remained between his ribs, coming ever so close to puncturing the sac of breath and the cage of one beat-up, but still beating, heart. It never did. Every now and then, a small amount of pain sprung from his side, but Lawrence Jones did not complain. He would stand for a few moments and look across to the cliffs topped by a pink spine, summoning the Indian, the cow, the coyote, and the eagle. They always came, but their appearance was quickly followed by a dusty swirl of sand. After many years, Lawrence realized no one else would or could catch him in this act of seeing what could not be seen. "The wind's whipping up on that ridge," Lawrence would say to Lefty, and always Lefty replied, "Why, sure is."

That morning on the scarp, Lawrence Jones lowered himself down the slope and went back to Lefty's ranch and the Hereford cattle, back to the possibilities of this new frontier, back to the battles that would be fought to bring more men to the valley. He thought only of his thirst and hunger and hoped that the cook would be up and have the coffee on the stove and some bacon frying in his iron skillet. For now, it was easier to think of breakfast.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Kristine Zeigler. All rights reserved.