The young pronghorn breaks from his mother and comes to a stop in a struggling patch of milkweed, just far enough from the others to give me a clean shot, my first in two days. And I am hungry. At the center of the herd, the dominant buck has been keeping his harem on the move and packed tight around him for nearly a hundred miles, while showing less and less regard for the weary juveniles. Soon his patience will end and he will run the yearlings off for good. Few will survive. The young one I have my eye on would be lucky to last a day. I don't give much thought to taking out the buck; the entire band would perish. And I would need to be stark mad with starvation to consider killing a doe. The expectant femalesâthree by my countâwill soon give birth to fawns that, a year from now, the buck will push out, as he will this lot in the coming days.
I float down from the saddle and guide Storm backward a few paces out of view. His gray coat sweated nearly black, the stallion folds his hind legs without protest and goes all the way down to the hard-packed ground, breathing heavy, welcoming a rest after the back-breaking pursuit. For all his stubbornness, Storm has always shown the sense to keep quiet when the moment calls and now is no exception. Any noise would mean more running. And while I suspect a faster and more sure-footed horse the Territory has never known, staying both downwind and within reach of the fleetest animals on the continent has proved all the challenge we care to handle. I let the Spencer fall from my shoulder and melt in behind a low outcropping of rock on a bluff overlooking the mesa where the pronghorn have finally taken a moment to graze.
The juvenile, with his nubby excuse for antlers, has not looked up onceâtoo ravaged with hungerâand has strayed beyond his mother's realm of comfort. The doe lifts her head, throwing her large, rear-arching rackâevery bit as impressive as the buck'sâhigh in the air. Even through the cool breeze I hear her chirping at her offspring. But his head stays down, greedily devouring the tender young shoots that had tried to get a jump on spring.
I bring up the rifle and slide it down the glove of my left hand to keep it from chinking against the boulder. My bare right palm silently throws the bolt and finds the trigger. Peering down the barrel, I settle my pulse to near stillness with every breath. The yearling takes a cursory step toward his mother, but still has not looked up.
I know your hunger, friend
. My belly tightens at the reminder of it. Only when I have him sighted to the heart do I close my eyes and say a prayer to the Great Spirit, thanking him for this young brother who will sustain me. And for good measure I throw in a prayer to the White God too, but my eyes snap open to a faint buzzing behind me. I pray it is only a mosquito, but I know it is not, not in this cold.
The yearling has shifted now, turned three-quarter so his rump faces me. I need him profile for a clean kill. What I do not need is any ruckus out of Storm. The buzzing grows louder, and I know I am in trouble.
Settle down, Storm. Just a horsefly.
The words are more thought than sound, but he gets the message, and by the second snort, I know he does not care.
All at once, the yearling lifts his small head. It is not much to work with, but will have to do. Storm hates horseflies and cannot be trusted to ignore one now. I let out half a breath and then hold, the gentle action of the trigger succumbing to the pressure beneath my finger. And then in one bursting momentâthe trigger in mid-journeyâeverything splinters. Storm uncorks a wallop of a squeal. The rifle cracks. And a dozen startled pronghorn find full-speed in a single bound. I see the yearling's knees buckle, but then recover, and he is off with the others, gobbling up ten yards of sagebrush with every leap and doing his best to keep up.
I scramble up from the rock. Storm is on his back, kicking wildly at a pesky, minuscule adversary that has probably not even bitten him yet. At the sight of me, the stallion rolls over and springs to his feet. I sling up and heel him straight toward a steep embankment better suited for mountain goats. And just like that, we are off chasing antelope again. This time I make sure he hears me. “You got no one to blame but yourself, on this one!”
Against the beige floor of the mesa, the entire band of pronghorn is little more than bobbing flashes of white, rapidly vanishing in the opposite direction. Hardly a spray of dust betrays the retreat. But then a flutter of movement, unexpected, fractures from the herd. The yearling. His mother is there too, compelled to encourage her offspring through his injury and if not, at least away from the band. Emboldened by their scent, Storm makes quick work of the embankment and, stunned to find pronghorn growing larger in his vision for a change, needs no urging as the ground levels out.
The yearling picks up the sound of Storm's thunder and scrambles to mount an escape. But his movements have lost their precision, his strides now guided only by panic. With nothing but open country to one side, the doe nudges her charge toward a rising formation of sandstone, hoping to lose us among the towering spires that jut abruptly from the mesa floor. The remainder of the herd is but a speck on the horizon. I veer the stallion right, cutting off any sudden jailbreak.
The doe, desperate for alternatives, starts up the slopeâinto the jagged outcropsâbut such unsure footing is bighorn domain, not antelope. The yearling wants no part of the rocks or of me or Stormâbouncing a stride or two in one direction and then back the otherâdeeply distressed by all options. The doe lowers her head and chirps. Only then does the yearling turn for the rocks. He takes one uncertain leap and then falters, his neck and head grazing the stone surface before he rights himself and bounds up to his mother. A dark, wet smear colors the rock where his head touched, and when he turns back, I see the red-soaked fur down the side of his neck. He might even be blind in that eye. I am surprised he made it this far. But bounding over the sagebrush comes as natural to an antelope as telling lies to a White Man; it is what they do, even when they don't know they are doing it.
The yearling vanishes up into the rocks, yet his mother remains. She stands there, defiant, willing us to move along, but there is resignation in her breathâas if she knows nothing can be done to save the yearling. All at once, Storm rears up and unleashes a mighty blow. I squeeze my thighs tight against his flanks and toss my weight forward to keep from being thrown. Something about this place has him all twisted up.
The doe has seen enough. She scampers down the slope, giving the fuming stallion a wide birth as she reaches the flat ground and in no time is striding off after the herd.
“Since when you spook at a few drops of blood?” I say to Storm. “Ain't like he's bleeding out.” True that no horse rushes toward the scent of fresh blood by its own accord, but Storm's sudden refusal to take another step is bullheaded even for him. “You been pampered too long. Lost your taste for battle.” I swing down and drop the ground hitch. “You stay put.”
Storm nickers a brief response and I give his ear a scratch before returning my thoughts to the pronghorn. He is up there, hiding somewhere, and I do not want him to suffer more than he already has. I draw my knife and palm the blade against my forearm as I start up the slope. I follow the droplets along the red rock, but my mind falls back to Storm. I have charged that stallion headlong into horrors a hundred times worse, up in the Sangres, where fresh blood coated everything and squirted from the necks of dying White Men. So his behavior now sits funny, for certain. Cresting the rise, I stop and sniff the air. Death lurks hereâa faint, unmistakable whisper of decaying flesh.
“Dang it,” glancing back at Storm. “Burns me to no end when your nose is better than mine.” I start to think the doe's course up to the rocks was more than coincidence. Humans have graveyards. Animals have theirs. Sometimes the only thing we can give ourselves is a quiet place to die. The pronghorn has found his against the base of a striated point of rock, out of view to all but the most determined follower. He lies on the ground, his head lolling sideways to find me with his one good eye. But there is no protest anymore, only exhaustion. His thin legs twitch as I kneel beside him and stroke his flank. “Easy, friend.” I keep my voice soft and slide my left hand gently up his neck to the prongs, making sure I get a strong grip. The prongs may be stubs, but could still cause plenty damage. And when I have his head firmly in my hand I ask his forgivenessâfor choosing himâfor the sloppy kill that I now promise to finish clean. I whisper the words, a secret between the two of us. Then his eyes flutter and with a quick, sure thrust, I let the knife do its work. It is over in an instant. Even the steady breeze takes pause to mourn. And in the stillness, the stench of death finds sturdier footing.
It radiates from the cracks and hidden recesses of the rocks. I cast a look skyward, expecting to find the slow, circling glide of condors crisscrossing the bright sun, but there is nothing, not even a cloud, to interrupt the blue vastness. To this dayâwriting about a time so many years goneâI do not know what compelled me to keep walking. I could have thrown the pronghorn over my shoulder, field-dressed him a mile from here along the bank of the Great River andâif we rode all nightâbeen in Santa Fe by breakfast. The property-agent fellow told me to call on him in a week, and that he might have a little money for me, not that I care much either way if he don't. That was nine days ago, maybe ten. Our goal is Californiaâall the way to San Francisco. I aim to get Storm and myself there in one piece even if we have to walk, or book his passage on a steamer around the Hornâwith him in the hold and me toiling in the bowels of the engine room to pay for it.
But instead, I step over the yearling and follow the scent around a corner of sandstone to a row of shadowy openings in the rocks. The hard sunlight cuts through the recesses as I slide along a narrowing ledge, revealing the dusty, inner depths of the hollows. The ledge dwindles to half a boot-length, and I have to shuck off my gloves and feel along the rock face for the tiniest handhold. After several yards, the ledge widens out into a small landing, made smaller on the left side by a pile of stones laid against the sheer cliff face. The right side falls off in a steep, unbroken drop down to the mesa floor. I look back at the pile of stones, their blacked hue in stark contrast to the orangey colors of the sandstone. These rocks were placed deliberately, in the style of the Apache. When the
bury their deadâunder a stump or in the hollow of a treeâthey lay small boulders around the grave to ward off coyotes. I see no sign of coyote up here, but peering over the edge of the landing, directly below, I spot a frustrated patchwork of coyote tracks, where they tried to solve the riddle of the sheer cliff before eventually giving up. Whoever took the effort to haul these stones along the edge did so at great peril. I kneel down and pluck a greasy condor feather from among the stones. Looks like the carrion birds took their shot as well, but came up as empty as the four-legged scavengers.
The stone pile comes up to my knee. Above it, wedged into a wide crack in the cliff surface, is a caked confection of dried mud and grass. I pinch off a bit, rolling the stuff between my fingers until the dirt crumbles away, leaving only the browned fragments of once-green river grass. We are miles from where it grows, which means this displaced mixtureâthe kind used as mortar in the hogans of the Navajoâwas also hauled here and slapped into the rock by hand. And there is plenty of it. I follow the trail of muddy concrete up the crevasse to where it turns horizontal and then extends another few feet before descending back toward the landing. Just above the rock pile, the crack expands to the width of a man's fist, every inch of it packed with the homemade mortar. I give it a firm shove and my fist goes straight through, into an empty space behind. When I withdraw my hand I uncork a hellish gust of such putrid stink and decay that I am retching over the side before I can catch myself, my empty belly coughing forth nothing but bile. Turning my head, spitting out the taste of my own insides, I gulp down precious breaths of clean air before pulling my mascada up over my nose and mouth. I suck the dust from the coarse fabric into my lungs, but it is better than ingesting the unspeakable foulness of what lies dead beyond this improvised tomb.
My heartbeat quickening in my ears, I claw away at what is left of the mortar, chunks at a time, until the shape of the crevice becomes clear. A door. A stone door, well matched in color to the surrounding sandstone. I kick away the small boulders piled against it, shuttling rocks the size of melons across the landing. Sweated through, my blood pounding, I put my back into the work, as the boulders get larger closer to the door. At the bottom, wedged against the sandstone, lays a sturdy rock twice as heavy as the others. It takes all my strength, but with a final push, I feel the squat boulder start to budge. All at once there is a low scraping sound. I look up. Dirtâthe mortar from aboveârains down, blinding me as the noise builds to a solid rumble. I steady myself against the stone door and feel the great slab falling toward me.
Nearly blind, I hurl myself sidewaysâinto the airâtoward what I hope is the ledge that brought me here. My aim is only half right. I crash hard into the lip of the ledge, my hip and forearm taking the brunt of it. I bounce off the ledge and feel gravity sucking me downward. I throw my arm upâflailing for anything more than a fistful of air. Somehow my fingers find the lip and I brace for impact against the side of the rock. The falling slab booms like a shotgun as it slams into the landingâits momentum kicking it end-over-end as it flips upward and slides twenty feet to the ground, where it cleaves in two and spews forth a canon shot of dust and caliche. Hanging midair, my arm and hip stinging with hot knives, I can only marvel at how a mule-headed stallion is longer for this world than a curious fool. But I am alive andâpulling myself back up to the ledgeârest fairly certain that none of my bones have broke.