Courage is found in unlikely places.
Miguel Luna squinted at a furnace-hot sky the color of brass and saw an angel.
He stopped walking and stared. The angel grew larger, and after a few moments Miguel realized it was no angel but a man, coming straight down like a rock.
Miguel scanned the sky and saw a twin propeller airplane so high up that he could not hear the engines. That was where the man had been, then, before he fell through the sky. The plane banked, making a tight spiral like a gliding buzzard, circling high above the falling man. It finished one complete turn, then flew in a straight line toward the southwest. Miguel turned his eyes again to the plummeting figure.
The man wore a dark coat and tie, with both flapping behind his body like flags in a terrible wind, and he held something to his chest with one hand the way someone holds a pillow. The man would hit somewhere in front of him, Miguel thought, where a mirage showed a large, shimmering lake.
There was nothing to do but watch.
The man hit in the center of the mirage. A small puff of pale dust rose into the air. Miguel found grim humor in it: A plume of dust in the middle of a lake. He started toward the site knowing the man was dead, but feeling like someone should acknowledge this one’s last moments on earth. It
is what people did.
The front edge of the mirage disappeared as he approached, only to lengthen on the side farthest from him. Miguel found the site with no trouble. The falling man had impacted at the lip of a small arroyo and caused the upper third of the arroyo wall to shear and partially cover the body when it slammed a final time into the gravel bottom ten feet below. The freshly exposed earth wall was darker than the parched soil around it, and a wicked looking upturned blade of black rock protruded from the center. A hand-wide smear of red streaked one side.
Miguel eased down a rabbit’s game trail no wider than a playing card, keeping his feet heel-to-toe like a tightrope walker until he stood in the bottom. The man’s face was demolished by the impact, and Miguel avoided looking at it. A thin, metal briefcase lay open several feet to the side of the collapsed wall of earth, and pale yellow papers danced across the ground, fluttering like wounded canaries as the swirling breeze pushed them left and right across rocks, sand and gravel.
There was also the hand.
The severed hand had an inch of flesh and bone above the wrist, and the fingers still loosely grasped the briefcase handle. Miguel looked from the severed hand to the blood-streaked stone blade protruding from the wall above his head.
Miguel turned his face into a hot breeze that felt like wind across a large fire. The swirling air scooted yellow papers further down the arroyo, so Miguel trotted to the papers and gathered them. There were seven pieces that formed three complete pages, and one other that showed the bottom quarter missing. The yellow paper had fine blue lines across it at regular intervals. The handwritten sentences and diagrams on them were in blue ink, and Miguel thought the words were written fast because the ends of words trailed ink to the next words, and much of the letters, like the m and w especially, were so poorly written that the m almost looked like an n, and the w could be mistaken for a u. Miguel sighed, arranged the pages in a rough order and placed them in the briefcase. He closed it, surprised how easily the latch snapped shut, and placed the hand and briefcase beside the dead man’s head.
It took Miguel several minutes to find a stick strong enough to dig at the arroyo walls and cave them in so the dead man and his briefcase were completely covered. He rested then, panting in the heat.
When it was time to leave, he climbed from the draw and looked down at the makeshift grave. It would be gone in the next desert rain, when the water would wash all trace of man and briefcase and grave from existence. Nothing was permanent in El Despoblado. Nothing but the heat and the mountains. And death.
He looked into the distance and recognized the dark mass of a low mountain range. The ranch was there, work was there, and cold, sweet water bubbling from the small spring behind the patron’s home was there.
Just then something caught his eye. A glint of sunlight off something shiny, near the edge of the arroyo. It was a wristwatch, caught in the twisted, black branches of a dead greasewood that resembled a tarantula lying on its back. He reached in and picked up the watch. The center third of the wristband was gone, leaving two short, dangling metal stubs on each side. The crystal was broken, but he could see the watch ticking away. He stuffed it in the mochila.
There was no returning to the dead man just to bury this small thing. Not in this heat. What good would it be to a dead man? No, he would keep it. It might be useful in some way. With that last thought, Miguel felt the watch might be a bit of luck on his journey.
He walked away from the arroyo and estimated another day and night after this one, and then he would be there. Miguel pictured the spring and could almost taste the cold water bubbling from the rock. He slipped the small backpack’s straps from his shoulders and opened the top flap, pulling a quart mason jar of water from inside the canvas. The water was brownish and cloudy, like from a swamp, and the jar was overly warm in his hand. This was the last of it from two days ago, when he pushed surface scum aside and scooped the last remaining liquid from an old, abandoned livestock trough made of native rock and crude concrete.
Half the water remained. Pieces of sediment and debris floated in it, along with four small lime halves he had squeezed in that day to help with the taste. Miguel unscrewed the lid and took a long, slow swallow of the hundred-degree water before screwing the lid in place. His mouth tasted like green river scum splashed with stale lime juice. Miguel almost retched, but held it down.
He put the Mason jar in the mochila, then re-slung it on his shoulders, knowing the remaining water would have to last him. The thought made his skin crawl. It is not enough, he thought. Miguel glanced at the hot desert sky and saw no more angels falling. He lowered his gaze and trudged forward, then stopped and looked far into the distance along his back trail to see if the Patrulla, the Border Patrol, were still coming.
Hunter Kincaid took the western straw hat off and fanned her face. “I feel like my legs are going to fall off. How are you even standing?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You know, with your advanced age…”
Raymond snorted. He was bent at the waist, hands on his knees, looking down at pale desert ground that was as hot as a steam iron through the bottoms of his boots. “You’re so funny. I’m not old, I’m in my prime. I’m not even sweating.”
“That’s because you don’t have any water left in your system. You cut an artery right now and I’ll see red dust pour out.” She took off her Camelbak and handed it to him. “I’ll half it with you.”
Raymond straightened, “You didn’t add any of that tutti-frutti flavored stuff to it, did you?” He sniffed the nozzle.