by M.D. Parker
Chapter 1: YESTERDAY
He knew where to leave the trail. He had made the hike every week for years. The ageless canvas pack, with its sew marks from the multitude of repairs, rode over his left shoulder. It always felt awkward on his left, but the right shoulder ached more and more with each passing year. He wondered if old age might finally be catching up with him — if only a few decades late.
He paused for one last look behind, verifying that no one was within sight, before he stepped around the rock outcropping and dropped into the wash. The recent wind and rain had brushed the sandy wash smooth, leaving only a graveled whisper of his own tracks from the week before. The rains had been heavier this winter than anyone had expected, but the season was changing. Yet, he could still feel it in his shoulder and the ancient joints that bent his legs. He could smell the damp building in the air, though he didn’t expect a full rain. He felt the humidity crawl across his skin, dampening the pits under his arms. A line of sweat slid down his back and he felt the moistness building high in his crotch. He stopped, wiped his arm across his forehead, and pulled a water bottle from his little canvas sack. One large swallow rolled down his throat before he splashed some onto his thin gray hair. He drank a second time from the bottle before dropping it back into his sack, slinging the pack onto his shoulder, and sidestepping around the scraggly scrub brush.
His arm caught the spines of an acacia bush, and the bush refused to yield. He yanked free from the cat-like claws. He looked down and his eyes widened when he saw the thin drops of red popping through the long white line the thorns had drawn on his bare forearm. He dropped the pack and pulled the handkerchief from his back pocket in one motion. He dabbed his arm as his chest hauled in deep breaths. He sat himself on the dying gray-white log of a fallen Joshua Tree holding the rag tight on his arm. A clicking howl from some distant world met his ears.
Knowing that the sound was borne of his imagination did little to comfort him as he lifted the rag and looked at the long scratch. He scanned the ground, searching, with frantic haste; no drops had made contact with the sand or rocks under him. He wet the cloth and dabbed it across his arm, wiping away any of the thin blood trails attempting to find a path down his arm to the sand below. The rapid breathing only subsided when he pulled back the rag and found no new droplets forming. He flexed his arms a few times and watched the cut. He had to be sure. Could not risk spilling any of his own blood this close to the boundary. He shoved the damp handkerchief into the front pouch of his knapsack, and waited a few more moments until his breathing had fully returned to normal.
Following the path of his previous footsteps, he left the dry wash and stepped through a cluster of old rock formations. There, his tracks were joined by another set; prints shaped like the clubs on a deck of cards. It looked like more than one came through. He scanned the nearby tiny caves and crevices, but saw nothing. Coyotes hid well in the middle of the day. As he came through the cluster, the bottom half of the mountainous formation he’d been marching toward came ito full view. The large boulder pile looked more like a giant’s toy blocks kicked about in a temper tantrum, than a proper mountain. This way or that, he thought, jus’ glad I won’t be climbin’ over it.
On the other side was the fence line. There he would find the posts set in place more than a hundred years ago. ‘No trespassing’ signs that were much younger than the fence, but ancient in their own right, would be tacked to him. Signs that were put there by people who knew not what they should fear trespassing against. His destination, however, was on this side of the mountain, for the signs were not enough to protect those who would disregard the fence’s purpose. He drank a third time from the water bottle.
He found the first stop quickly. Tucked up beside an stunted oak that was infested with the hanging piles of desert mistletoe. The mistletoe’s drab orange color stood in stark contrast to the decaying gray wood of the ancient desert sentry. He stepped around the tree. Careful to avoid a repeat, he reached around the needles of the cactus infested underbrush. Gently he stepped into a prickly pear, pushing it sideways, with his boot. It did not care how the blood was shed,nor its origin.
Under the shadowed side, a dinner-plate sized flat rock lay embedded in the hard crust of graveled sand. He lowered himself to his knees. He opened the pack beside him and removed the small plastic quart of black paint. He set the container down. He reached in the bag and pulled free a small paintbrush. The bristled head was no bigger around than his pinky finger. He unscrewed the lid on the paint. He took the brush in his hand, and drew in a slow deep breath. A second deep breath followed. His hand steady, he dipped the brush in the paint, and began to trace over the remnants of the flaked color already on the stone. With each stroke he studied his work. His eyes squinted down to make sure each centimeter of the symbol was correct. The off-centered ‘J’ with what looked like fingers to him, hung down from the cross bar at the top. Inside the hook an extra swirl like the keys on those big brass horns he had seen marching bands carry. An additional flared line came off the right side, and he was done. It was perfect. It was exactly as it needed to be; exactly as he had done a hundred times before. He hoped he was right and the rain would be soft, or not come at all. He knew he’d have to change his schedule over the next few days to come back and check it. He knew better than to take chances.
He replaced the lid back on and dropped it back in the bag. His knees popped as he stood up. He carried the brush in his free hand as he walked to his next stop a few hundred yards away. There he knelt down and repeated the process on an oblong chunk of rock, with a new symbol. Beside the rock an old tin can sat pressed into the coarse sand, its rusted red as dark as venous blood. The metal was so thin he could nearly see through it; just another ghost of the past held to this place. Things die slower in the desert, like me, he thought.
With the touch up paint on what he thought of as the ‘squashed bug’ symbol completed, he tucked away the paint and brush into his canvas knapsack. The paint was nearly empty. He would have to make a drive to the store before he could venture through the eastside. A fresh can of paint would do all the ones he still had left to check and leave enough for touch ups if the rain came harder than expected. As he stood he was happy to only hear one knee pop. The paint had flaked more than he had hoped for. He knew the sigils on the rocks had probably not been doing their job.
“All fixed up now though,” he said.
With his water bottle in hand, he slung the bag back over his shoulder and reminded himself, again, that he’d have to deviate from his schedule and come check his work if it did rain hard. He had thought about waiting until after the rain, but he knew it had been too long since he’d checked on these two. He scolded himself for how long he had let them go without being checked.
“Yup, you’re gettin’ old, Jack.”
The trip back through the wash and around the rocks slowed him. The afternoon sun was bearing down. That time of the year in the high desert where the days got hot, the nights would freeze your bones, and the wind was as sharp against your skin as if a thousand shards of glass rode upon it.
It was rare, but it did happen. Those moments in the middle of the day, when an animal more accustomed to the night, would make an appearance. As he rejoined the main trail he was greeted by one of the desert’s oldest residents. Its thin fur matted down. The gray and brown of its coat blended into the rocks and sand under its feet. It lifted its snout and Jack halted. It had found the remains of a hiker’s granola bar. The wrapper held down under one paw as it looked up at him. Its tongue swept across its snout, pulling a crumb between its jaws. Both man and coyote sized each other up.
“You stay back from there. You know better. You know what’s o’er them hills. Go back the way you came old fella, an’ I’ll be goin’ my way. Ain’t no reason for us to be botherin’ one another. Long as you stay away — don’t be disturbin’ him.” Jack held his eyes at a squint, his brow crinkled down.
He changed up his grip on the water bottle. The coyote did not move. The wrapper under his paw was already coated in dust. Had to be around for a day or two before becoming the scavenger’s midday snack. Man and beast regarded each other for a minute, neither yielding any ground. Jack snapped his feet forward and hiked the bottle up.
“Go on, git outta here! And stay away from there,” he said, his voice raised to a shout. It came out gruff and graveled.
The coyote yielded. It snatched up the remains from the ground and took off at a trot down the path. It retraced its marks along the trail a few yards before darting sideways into the brush. It looked back every few feet until it disappeared into the rocks even farther to the west. Jack watched it until it was out of sight. Then, he drank the last of his water before heading back to the trailhead where the old pickup truck awaited his return.
The door of the truck squalled in protest as he climbed in. Two turns of the key and it finally came to life. He forced the long granny-shifter into reverse and released the clutch. Jack watched the rearview as he drove away from the trailhead.
Home tonight, town tomorrow, and check those wards I done as soon as I git the eastside all finished up, he thought.
He caught the next gear and the fifty year old truck picked up speed. He stopped watching the rearview mirror, but he could still feel that guttural clicking sound echoing somewhere in his memory.