I was due at his trailer to go over the rest of his testimony. Hadn’t slept in nights. Not real sleep. Just veering into the vacant rooms of dreams without inhabiting them, or snagging a voice that called my name. Udenni’s voice. Seeing her face. Feeding my tears into the Dolores, the River of Sorrows. The trial upcoming in less than two weeks, and I couldn’t get Puett’s face out of my visions. His seething redwall face glowering down from his throne, and the court of jesters behind me guffawing, their laughter tearing into my back in great gaffs.
Then I’d flit back over the line into waking, and either surrender and rise two hours ahead of the alarm clock, or else pass out a half hour before it went off. I obsessed all night long, writing notes about how I’d ask this specific question, then if Cash objected and Puett sustained it, I’d go into that line of inquiry. I had it all down to the individual words, all written out on reams and reams of paper. Yet no order of battle survives the first shot, I knew.
On Saturday morning, I pulled up at his trailer. The wicked sun glinted off the soft corner of the Airstream. Its blunt shape made it seem as if Yale lived inside a giant snub-nosed bullet. Behind the line of the Airstream, a black storm marbled the sky, and the forested hills behind the town of Dolores marshaled the clouds.
I wanted to front the damaging material from the MMPI and the other psych tests. I wanted to show Yale how to testify to it first, on direct examination, to beat Cash to the punch by revealing it before he could point to it on cross examination. Typical trial strategy.
Yale knew we were supposed to meet, but I saw him pull out from a break in the woods up ahead, driving Claycomb’s old beater truck. The road ran straight through Claycomb’s land and ended out on the highway. I honked but he was too far up the road to hear, so I followed him in my Yaris, a low-rider affair I’d had to rent since my truck was up on blocks for a transmission rebuild.
He made a right on the highway toward Dolores. I had to wait for a lumbering Winnebago to pass by before I could turn onto the main road and follow. I tried to catch him, but I couldn’t pass the RV. All the highways out here were two-laners and Mesa Verde took in 500,000 visitors each summer.
“Why don’t you speed up, lard ass?” I said, adopting the local custom of touristic resentment.
Yale headed northwest toward Dove Creek. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t catch up to him. A trooper drove behind me through Pleasant Valley and past Yellow Jacket, so I couldn’t really speed even when I reached a passing lane.
By the time the trooper dropped off, we were just south of Dove Creek. I figured Yale was heading to the Undying Lands, the land of his birth in southeast Utah.
“Damn,” I said. “He’s gonna disappear into that canyon country up there for who knows how long and I’m gonna lose my last best chance to prep him for trial. Fuck.”
But just before Dove Creek, he veered onto a dirt road and followed the signs toward the Dolores River Overlook. Storms swathed the isolated pyramid of Lone Cone, a monadnock to the east. Lone Cone had been thunder-making all morning.
He drove up through Ponderosa stands. I tried to catch up, but the road devolved into v-ruts with depths disguised by the rains that had pummeled through last night. I had to slow down to make sure my shitty rent-a-car wouldn’t bottom out.
He headed for the high rims of the Dolores River Canyon. What the hell was he doing up here? Could this be where he disappeared to for days on end when Claycomb needed him most, during calving season? I wanted to find out. I wanted to spy on him. Maybe it would shed light on his demented, anti-social MMPI results. I was one desperate son of a bitch.
So I laid back. He didn’t know I drove a Yaris, so I figured he didn’t know it was me who followed him.
He parked in a turnout, as high above the canyon as he could get. I parked in the shoulder about a quarter-mile back. I grabbed my jacket against the coming rain and followed him to an overlook.
He hiked out to a headland that jutted into Dolores Canyon. I tracked him from the other side of the hogback, making sure I kept below the dry-stone wall that held people back from tumbling off the cliff.
East, the Lizard Head Wilderness stretched up into snow caps that blurred behind curtains of distant thundershowers. Below, the buttes and cuestas of the canyon’s rim were a Grand Canyon in miniature, with terraces stepping down from sheer scarp faces to talus slopes. Ponderosa groves and some invading P-J fingers carpeted the lower slopes. At bottom, the River of Sorrows weaved its meanders.
An eroded plateau yawned north toward Disappointment Valley. To the west, a storm headed this way from Utah, parting into northern and southern pincers around the La Sal Mountains near Moab, and then rejoining at the range’s southern flank.
He carried no gear. Violent winds whipped up fast. Clouds snagged themselves on the rounded peaks of the Abajo Mountains in the northwest. Due west, the Bear’s Ears stood like watchtowers over Cedar Mesa. Southwest, the faint jumble of Monument Valley lay scattered like building blocks behind the wax paper wall cloud of the storm. In moments, a ceiling of swelling mammatus clouds leveled out the distant battlements to the west.
Lightning split into a wishbone across the river canyon from where we stood, at the mouth of Disappointment Creek. Updrafts of warm canyon air swirled around me, yet Yale’s Bradford stayed firm on his head.
A microburst ripped juniper berries from a stand of trees. Branches flew whole from grayed pinion stands. The sky bled dark ink, seeding the dry earth. Thunder sounded out in percussive notes drummed along the fault lines below. A tiny flake of wet shale caught in my eye. I stabbed at it with my finger. When I opened my eye again, I’d lost Yale in fog which ascended from an inverted layer of clouds beneath us.
“Yale!” But my voice was lost in the cry of wind and the thrum of thunder. A leader bolt struck the north rim just across the river, and the whole scarp shuddered.
“Yale!” A few bullets of rain splattered my cheek. The wind in my ears dizzied me.
The skin on my arms prickled in the icy air. The hair on my arm stood, even wet it rose up like the hair on a mad dog. That tang of ozone fixed in the air. I hit the ground just as the leader crackled out a few feet away, exploding a clump of Mormon tea into flames.
I stumbled over slickrock and reached the edge of a cliff that dropped down into the canyon, a promontory engulfed by the storm on three sides. An ellipsoid of sandstone cairns bound in mist marked the outer edge of a fire ring. The mist withdrew in fingered scarves to reveal the figure of a man sitting in the middle of the ellipse, a sacrifice awaiting death and transfiguration.
Lightning raked the summit around him, booms shook me to my knees. The figure sat with its back to me, hatless, unmoving, its head pointed toward the Undying Lands northwest. The silhouette gazed up at the nightmare sky. A downdraft unloaded on its unguarded shape. The figure motionless, waiting to be swept away in the microburst. The shadow looked down now, offering nothing.
I cupped my hands and cried “Yale!”
Storm breath ripped in and out and the soaked clothes on his statue shape fluttered and trilled. I crawled toward him, keeping lower than the scrub. I needed to save us both.
Many miles away in the bean fields northwest of Dove Creek, the clouds broke. Through the aperture, bars of sunlight ran wild, scorching the plain like beacons from an extraterrestrial craft. I looked back at Yale, and he’d dissolved into the clouds. At first, I thought he jumped. But there was no body twisted at the bottom. He’d just slipped into the storm, slipped my knot.
© 2022 by Michael C. Just
Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.
You can purchase the book through this website. Or go straight to amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+dirt+journey+of+a+mystic+cowboy&crid=1S40Q4BXSUWJ6&sprefix=the+dirt%3A+journey+of+a+m%2Caps%2C180&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_23
Mike’s other titles, including The Crippy, The Mind Altar, and Canyon Calls, are available through this website or through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002
Four of his short stories have recently been published online:
Lies, Ltd. has been published by The Mystery Tribune @ Lies, Ltd.: Literary Short Fiction by Michael C. Just (mysterytribune.com)
The Obligate Carnivore has been published by the Scarlet Leaf Review @ Category: MICHAEL JUST – SCARLET LEAF REVIEW
I See You, Too has been published by the 96th of October @ I See You, Too – 96th of October
Offload, a short story about a man who can heal any disease, is now live and can be read at The Worlds Within at Offload – The Worlds Within