The hell are you hoping to find out there anyway?
The ranger’s words ring in my ears. Not accusatory, more a suggestion of concern. Few come out into this dusty scrubland by choice unless they have a good reason.
Did I have a good reason? No, but I had needed to get away, for a night or two at least. Maybe even longer. Indeed, as the path winds its way up the dusty hillscape, I find myself wondering if that is reason enough.
The sagebrush at my knees too leers with that questioning affront, and I trudge forward as though in a daydream, hardly capable of realising that I’m really out here, in the dimming rays of the evening sun, sand and dust and rocks as far as the eye can see. Far off in the distance, I hear a truck barrel along some isolated highway, sound carried by the rolling hillscape, and moments later a coyote answers in response; a quick yip and then nothing but the wind.
No, this was a conscious choice. One made for lack of alternative, but a choice nonetheless. I was told to go. That I needed to get out.
Again, my chest clenches and my stomach sinks. I pause and raise my face to where the sun hangs low in the sky, squinting so as to force down the rising lump in my throat. A breath, a moment of stillness, and I push on.
Just as the ranger claimed, the shack itself is a decrepit, ramshackle affair, and from the moment I see it in the distance my heart sinks. ‘An old farmstead, long abandoned.’ My dismay turns to dread as each reluctant footstep draws me closer, and the dark smudge of wood grows into a rotting tangle of mould-riven timber and collapsing beams. I come to a stop in the dust, a few meters from the structure and shrug off my pack.
An old, dark building, the cabin offers shelter from the wind, and little else. The windows are rimmed with shattered glass and tattered curtains, and the interior emits the strong scent of mildew and must. A rusting bedframe sits in the corner, with a lockbox next to it. A pot belly stove and basin accentuate the scene. Weathered boards line the walls, paint long worn from them by the elements, and nails protrude where the timber has crumbled away.
As I peer in, I am struck by the thought that it would not be remiss in an old western, as the scene of a final duel. For a moment, I imagine a pistol at my hip, a horse at my back, and a spur-clad bandito leaning against the wall, drawling something like; ‘So after all this time, you finally came looking for me?’
That I have.
I set up camp as the sun sinks ever lower in the sky, gathering brush and twigs from the cabin’s environs and building a fire in that little teepee structure. I move methodically, working just as the camping guide had told me. It is comforting to see my fire grow. Piece by piece, I am building something I will consume for myself, and use to survive. A spark from my lighter and the dry twigs catch. Woodsmoke and ash, that dim orange glow, desperately clinging to the life I have given it. I sit in the dust, arms over my knees, and watch as the sun slips below the horizon. I am high up here, and I can see the desert stretch out for miles in all directions. I could be the last person alive, were it not for the distant, intermittent sounds of vehicles.
The sun begins to slip below the horizon, and I watch it go, the deep, dark blues of night enveloping its silhouette. I hold out my hands and feel the warmth of my own glow. The glow I created. I feel it on my arms and on my face, and I smile. Not a smile of joy, or even pride. It’s a smile laced with misgiving, the smile you use to say goodbye to someone you love.
Tears. That ugly crying face. Her fists on your arms. Glass on the floor. Screaming. That little face from behind the door. Fear. Sorrow.
In another moment I am overcome with emotion, the sinking in the pit of my stomach spreading across my frame. My throat closes up and my vision swims so I angle my face downward and watch the dust beneath me turn splotchy and wet. I shake, I scream. I rage and mumble to myself and when I am done and exhausted and all that is within has been pulled out and borne to the night sky I slump to the side, defeated.
The clinking of spurs sounds, and footsteps in the dust. Through watery vision I see the bandito crouch down before my fire.
‘Get it together, hombre.’ He tells me. ‘All in the past now.’
Minutes that could have been hours pass, and I finally pull myself together, wiping gunk from my eyes and mucus from my nose. The fire smoulders, though it has been reduced to flickering coals and the occasional wisp of smoke. The cool night air has replaced the oppressive afternoon heat, and the moon is bright in the sky, along with thousands upon thousands of stars. My body aches, as it well should, and I am busy rubbing feeling back into legs when I finally notice the snake.
It slithers its way past my hastily constructed fire pit with a carefree ease that I might have considered frightening in a more sound state of mind; head low to the ground and body winding in that uniquely reptilian fashion. It is quiet, the rattling skin on its tail its only warning of presence, and I know in its head lies potent enough venom to kill me. Still though, I am not afraid. I regard the creature, and for a moment, I convince myself to see in the serpent’s dark eyes that same cautious curiosity. After all, I am an interloper in this place, just as he would be in my home.
I wonder if I have ever even been this close to a snake before, and it occurs to me suddenly that they are beautiful animals, for all their danger.
Breaking free of the trance, I push myself to my feet and the snake quickly slips past me, disappearing in seconds between the foundation timbers on the cabin’s edge. I frown, sorry to have spooked the elegant creature, but decide that its exit is an indicator to get up.
I drag my pack into the cabin, and scan the room once more. The brightness of the moon outside shines through the broken windows; affording more than enough lighting for me to find my way. The ambiance seems less hostile the second time around, and with more objective eyes, my gaze finally comes to rest upon the lockbox, the only thing in the room that holds no immediate utility.
The bandito looks up at me from below the brim of his hat, a grin playing off his lips.
‘Wondering what’s in the box, amigo?’
I am wondering. On arrival, I had been wrapped up enough in my own thoughts to ignore it, but now… curiosity has begun to creep in. My pack drops to the floorboards with a thunk, forgotten.
I step forward slowly, as though I might frighten the box in the same way I had frightened the snake moments before, but of course the silly thing doesn’t move. Another step, then another, and then a tentative hand extends out to the metal frame.
It’s cool to the touch, and almost comforting to hold. It must contain something good. Without any further hesitation I flip open the latch. The mechanism pops with a rusty click and the lid rises with little resistance.
The bandito whistles. ‘Nice one, compadre. You could run far with this.’
Inside, bathed in the pale light of the night sky, is money. Maybe two good stacks of hundred-dollar bills, enough to buy a plane ticket and fly far, far away. I regard them for a moment, before my eyes flick over to the little notebook sitting to the side of the money. Small and unassuming, a black cover and a bound loop over the top. My grubby fingers undo the loop, and open the first page.
On it lies the face of a woman. She is young, maybe seventeen, with curly, short hair and low brows. I cannot tell for the graphite of the sketch, but I imagine that her eyes are a piercing blue. The artist has obviously put a significant amount of effort into his work, for the detailing on her complexion and shadows are impeccable. I flip the page to see her again, though this time she sits in the shade, and her features arc upward in a laugh. The next page carries her likeness again, and the next, and the next. She does many things; washing, dancing, playing music, sewing, but she is never sad, always either intently gazing or smiling. As the book goes on so too does she grow into an older lady, almost as though I am watching her life play out before me. I pause as I come to the final page, realising that it contains no drawing, rather a letter.
‘For my Louisa, who I will alw-'
I shut the notebook, guilt in my stomach. No. This was not meant for me.
None of this.
I have my own story.
I set the lockbox’s contents back as I found it, money and all, before closing the lid and laying it back on the floor carefully. The click sounds again, but it has a greater air of finality; as though laying itself to rest. I glance up, expecting to see the bandito shaking his head with disapproval, but he is gone.
Outside, the stars shine down, more numerous than they had ever been in the city, and I lean against the cabin’s side, watching those distant specks of light. In the distance the crickets chirp, the coyotes howl, and another truck rumbles along. I glance down to see a snake, my snake, slither out from under the cabin and dart into the undergrowth. I imagine that it is heading for the highway, maybe even all the way back to town, and maybe even back to them, to try and make things right.
In the morning, I will follow.