Jonas’s route to the top of the tableland presents an arduous climb with a cumbersome load.
Hand and footholds are unreliable. A jutting stone may have nothing but a skin of soil to hold it in place. A sturdy-looking plant near to hand may be deeply rooted, or barely so, and so many of them have teeth.
A fall here would be the end, and a pointless one.
A short but near-vertical pitch presents an impasse. It receives his consideration for a time, during which he unloads and ponders his alternatives. His purchase here, a wide stone shelf, provides few of them.
At the broken end of the ledge, a narrow, stony cleft appears unattractive, but less vertical and barely a gap from accessible.
He shoulders his lariat and, without other encumberment for the moment, steps over and up into the slot. A short climb is made long by the need to be certain about the placement of one’s weight. There is no need to hurry; he has all day.
The rock cut opens onto the next level, an expanse of lichen-encrusted stone and desiccated grass clinging to crusty soil.
He secures his rope to a solid outcropping at the top of the fissure and uses it to brace his descent. Below, the mochila is secured to the end of it and, after one last careful climb, he hauls the load up and out.
The way from here is steep, but manageable. The sun has had a good head start on him, but he can see the rimrocks and the way to reach them.
The last pitch is grueling, a punishing climb becoming easier as he approaches the mesa top and Jonas’s world opens from a singular focus on the placement of hands and feet. He turns to face what has been at his back since his ascent began. It is a vista of the New Mexican country without a sign of human existence in any direction.
To the east, the land falls away in tatters. Fractured landscape plunges downward maybe hundreds of feet, then stretches out as far as the eye can see, an undulating plain squatting angrily in an inhospitable temperature. Southward, the same. To the west, the tips of the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise from wavering heat-haze.
Unrelenting sun finds the peak of its climb up a cloudless sky and Jonas takes refuge beneath an undercut arroyo bank to wait out the swelter of mid-day.
A sidewinder’s already claimed the shade and, made cantankerous by the heat, challenges him for it. Partially obscured by a clump of tinder-dry shrubbery, its color and markings blend into the surroundings. True to its nature, the snake offers a polite warning before it strikes. It’s an insistent, stuttering buzz, a vibration so sharp in the still air that it’s easily the sonic equivalent of sparks in dry brush.
He can’t hear it. He’s shuffling off his gear as the snake uncoils to back up its threat.
Caught up mid-air, the rattler dangles, writhing in a furious, twisting knot, jaw agape with Jonas’s thumb against it. He holds the creature out at eye level as it whips itself around his arm and he begins to talk to it.
“Ah hoh, sinte hla. You almost had me there, didn’t ya? Hear me well, little brother. I honor your survival in this hard land an’ your right to be here, but shade’s scarce and I don’t trust you to share this’n with me. Here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ll let you go find cool where I can’t. I got no desire to end your life, but you come back again, you’re gonna be supper. You know I never lied to ya, so make up your mind. I’m pretty hungry.”
Not for the last time, he observes the mighty peculiar sensation of not being able to hear his own voice.
The snake relaxes its grip. He hums to it as he uncoils its body from his arm and lays it out on the bed of the arroyo, releasing its head and stepping away without haste. It lies motionless for a moment or two, then throws a couple loops out into the coarse, pebbly sand and skids away. He watches it slip into the shadow of a small boulder not far, but far enough.
“There ya go. Good decision,” Jonas says and turns back to the task at hand. He cuts a couple twigs of scrub to brush out the cavity. Aside from a couple displaced scorpions, the space is clear.
Sleep is the only worthwhile activity while the desert slowly broils, but it’s fitful and unrewarding. The blaze of sun is just stretching into the horizon as he stirs himself from a troubled dream. Only part he remembers, Ohank’o was in it.
He clambers up out of the cut and surveys the no-man’s land fanned out in the sun’s slanting rays. Here at day’s end, the busted rim of the mesa presents an abrupt edge set in sharp contrast against the lower desert beyond, washed in hues of brown sugar and blood.
To the southwest the land drop begins a long, fractured curve southward into more desolation. To the west, most of a great blinding eye is perched upon the mountain tops. It stares at him across the wasteland.
Nothing moves, not even the air. Waves of heat make weirdly shifting mirrors in the distance on the parched surface of the tablerocks.
He slips back down the incline to where his belongings lay.
A tin of peaches opens with the heel of his knife. The fruit’s not pretty, but has retained much of its sweetness and the juice slides down his throat in a luscious, syrupy sluice. He sips from his canteen. There’s about a half left in it. More than enough, he thinks, then wonders why he thought that. More than enough for what?
< To get where you’re going, of course.
From the aching silence between his ears, an answer, silent as well, but clear enough. The heat and isolation has him talking to himself.
‘And where’s that ‘zacly?’ he wonders.
< Not far.
‘What’s not far?’
< Where you’re going.
< Maybe you quit chasing an idle thought around in a circle and get moving, you’ll find out.
Jonas screws the canteen lid down and stows the precious water away with an odd sense of disconnection.
‘How do ya know it ain’t far?’
< What ain’t?
‘Where I’m goin’.’
< Where are you goin’?
‘What… ? Why, I reckon I’m goin’ where you told me I was goin’ that ain’t far. An’ how far’s ‘not far’ anyway? Is that not far on foot, or not far by train?’
< You’re wasting time.
‘How do you know that where I’m goin’s not far?’
< How do you know anything? Where have you been all your life? Did you forget how this works?
‘I didn’t know when I set out. Still don’t. An’ I don’t see anything out there ahead of me in all those miles but more miles.’
< Then why are you up here at all?
‘I was drawn this way.’
< Is that right? What drew you, do you suppose?
‘Well, that’s about the nut, ain’t it?’
< It is for a fact.
This leads to a brooding pause. It seems a legitimate question he’s asked himself and the desert is in no apparent hurry.
‘Had me a choice of directions and I picked one. That’s all.’
Some’ve said only crazy people talk to themselves. Others insist you’re only crazy if you catch yourself saying “Huh?” a lot. He’s almost sure he hasn’t been in this unmerciful heat quite that long yet. Course, the answer to the question’s simple.
‘I don’t know. It felt right.’
< You do know. You knew the instant you heard that quiet voice behind your loud thoughts. Just like you know it now. Living like a wasicu has made you lazy, half-blood. You’ve forgotten who you are and where you came from. Are you too White now to see what’s right in front of you?
Like a key in a lock, the thought awakens a sorrow, and the anger that follows it, steeping for twenty-five years among the fat-eaters, and Jonas shouts into the still air.
“I ain’t forgotten anything! Least of all where I come from, or that I was sent away from it. I ain’t forgotten my father an’ me had everything we loved ripped away from us…” He doesn’t shout the words. He whispers them. “…for nothing!”
< Not for nothing.
“Oh yeah? Why, then?”
< Because if you had remained there, Sunka Nunpa, you never would have found me.
The last rays of sunlight brush the high desert and the silence, without and within, frames those words.
He is not talking to himself.
Jonas snatches his medicine bag out of his shirt and fumbles it open. He removes the object and holds it up in steepled fingers.
The blaze of white light flaring from each of its facets illuminate the wash like lightning streaming from his fingers and Jonas almost drops it, snatching it up in his cupped hands. Radiance beams between his fingers for another moment, then fades. Almost.
< You possess an uncommon awareness Jonas Two Dogs. This is why I have chosen you.
“Chosen…? What are you talkin’ about? I picked you up.”
< That you did.
“What are you?”
< I am the same as you. Slow light.
“I don’t understand.”
< In your thoughts is a concept. Your father, Daniel, chose to call it the Inexplicable Mystery, all that is known and all that is not known and all that cannot be known. Wonder and terror is how your grandfather conveyed his idea of it to you. These have shaped how you conceive that everywhere-presence in your own moments of reflection. You and I are attributes of that same all-encompassing essence, each of us given unique expression.
That is a passel to take in all at once. Might take a spell to cogitate the whole of it. Better for now maybe to just leap straight ahead to the obvious question.
“Whaddaya want with me?”
< Only for you to do what you do.
“That’s all? Do what I do? That’s it?”
“And you’re just along for the ride.”
“Well… okay. What do I call ya?”
< It does not matter. I have been called many things. None of them are what I am.
“Then I will call you Ile Slohan.”
< This is the language of your childhood. You have spoken it with none but your father since your separation from the People, and that was long ago in your terms. These words mean to you, ‘slow light’. You have surpassed those who have sought to name, contain, or control me before this connection. It is enough.”
It occurs to Jonas, placing the spirit-object back into the stiff leather bag, that he very much misses his grandfather’s counsel. The old man shared so many things with him, recalled now through the window of a boy’s experiences and memory. Some are still vibrant with meaning and purpose and some, not lost perhaps, but elusive.
Old Standing Elk would know how to handle such a powerful presence.
Always such thoughts lead to speculation about whether his grandfather is still alive—whether any of them are still alive. His mother. His sister. His heart-bond brother, and all the others left behind. Left behind they may be, the proud People that nurtured him, but never far from his thoughts.
Stories abound of how the Sioux nation chose to resist the overwhelming odds against them. He has heard these accounts for years. They’re not generally told from the perspective of the red man that has seen the ruthless advance and encroachment upon their land and lives by wave upon unrelenting wave of two-leggeds, the fat-eaters who respect nothing, take what no one can own, and mow down anything and anyone in their path.
Except for a brief respite while the insane Whites were at war with themselves, the Sioux have been in conflict with those led by the double-tongued White chiefs. Thus, the fate of his own band and family is a mystery that never fails to tear at his heart. Best to trust that Tunkasila will care for them as only Tunkasila can and just let it go. Anything else hurts too much and accomplishes nothing.
He tests the lashings that bind the demon blade, hoists his saddlebags, and settles his load over a tired shoulder. It’s not as heavy as his sadness.
He climbs once more out of the gulch. The mountains away yonder are caped in dusky purple and limned in gold by the failing sunlight. A single bright star hangs unblinking above them. Twilight has come and the Powers have awakened.
Wherever he’s going now, it’s not far.
. . .
The waxing moon’s allowed him to journey with passable care during the cool of night and though he’s got no good idea where he’s headed, rugged miles seem to pass beneath his boots anyway, his progress a stubborn, resolute traipse.
During the period between night closing around him and moonrise, progress is slow.
Jonas’s pace is deliberate, his gait narrow, sending his knowing ahead. It wouldn’t do at all to step off into a gully, stumble through a cactus patch, or blunder into an agave.
That would be worse. Rigid, triangular leaves tapering to a needle point pierce deep and leave a wound that refuses to close. Getting boogered up out here would be a predicament all right, and those’re not the only dangers to a lone wayfarer in the dark waste.
So intent is he on his route with only starlight to give him bearing, some time passes before he realizes something is pacing him in the darkness to his left.
He does not break stride but continues walking, shadowed by an entity of the desert, alien to it, yet at home there. It is a danger he had never considered.
One does not, his grandfather warned him many years ago, engage the Powers recklessly—not unless one is prepared to attract one of those pesky life or death struggles. The risk of being transported to their realm is one of several unappealing alternatives.
They might choose to look like men. They might even offer knowledge or guidance if it pleases them to do so, but they are unfathomable and the price of their counsel is dear.
He gives voice to the song the thunder beings gave to him so many years ago. It shields hm. The shade maintains its distance, matching his pace.
A prickling sensation behind his right ear sends a shock through him and a sense of relief follows the thrill of its passing. He recognizes the presence of another. This one he knows well, a grandfather many generations removed.
His mother’s people named him Walks Far. He was a warrior of great principle and personal power when he journeyed in this world. He has chosen to accompany Jonas on this Earth-walk, although he comes in his own time and keeps his own counsel. Even so, Jonas has always welcomed the combination of strength and humility this seven-times-great grandfather brings as his spirit-guardian. Perhaps never so much as now.
Bracketed by these two unlikely traveling companions, each balancing an enigmatic equation he’ll not pretend to understand, Jonas continues into the night until long after the cold lamp of hanhepi wi, the night sun, comes out to light his way.
Waxing, she arches overhead, casting her eerie brilliance across the wasteland and it’s good she’s come, for the way has grown difficult. The ground is shattered and perilous, scarred by ravines that force him to change course roundabout rather than risk injury climbing.
He stops twice to rest, drink, test and resettle his load.
Walks Far and the desert power remain as they had been since he sensed them, grandfather at his side, peril beyond his understanding far too close to allow him to relax.
The man-shape seems to melt and flow like a candle in a fire, although nothing falls to the gritty soil at its feet, nor does its form appear to diminish in the slightest.
The moon is riding above the western range upon the occasion of Jonas’s second respite and, readying himself once more, he observes the first pale suggestion of the new day offering faint outline to the eastern horizon. Night prepares to relinquish its hold on the world.
Drawn by that fact alone, perhaps, or to the thing secured to the mochila slung on a weary shoulder, or maybe to the spirit-object nestled above his heart, the shadow that has paced him through the night closes in.
Jonas drops his burden and meets it on his feet, bracing for a struggle he neither wants, nor can avoid.
He has faced life on its own terms since his childhood ended, most often alone. Since the day the crows led him away from the caravan a week ago, he has lived on a knife-edge with the unknown on each side. If this is what he’s come alone into this no-man’s land to do, then he is here and he will meet it full split.
The thing approaches, reaching out.
At his right shoulder, Walks Far has drawn his bow and taken aim at the uninvited one’s heart. Whether it has a heart or no, Jonas can scarcely imagine what effect his grandfather’s serrated spirit-arrowhead might have on such a one, but it has been given pause.
It halts a dripping arm’s length away.
The stand-off ends with a wailing cry Jonas perceives only as a new pressure in his ears. The shadow turns and flees toward the deeper dark of the mesa rim with a speed no living thing could match.
Jonas has held his breath and clenched his jaw tight in anticipation of the shock that must surely come from a physical clash with a night power and releases both. A shudder rattles him. He inhales cool, dry air now made sweet with reprieve from a nameless fate.
He feels a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“Pilamaya yo, Grandfather. I am grateful for your protection. Wopila!”
Walks Far taps the thing on Jonas’s chest.
He feels a sharp chill and again the familiar prickle as Walks Far touches both of his ears. The sense of a weight pressing in against the blaring silence in them increases. The echo of the tunnel-mouthed monster’s killing voice is so silent in his head it is deafening. The pain and pressure are enough to force him to pull away, but he does not.
Then Walks Far is gone like vapor on a breeze, other inexplicable spirit business to attend, no doubt.
Jonas takes a few tentative steps. Those went well, so he takes a few more. A small low-growing plant with smooth, tough-looking leaves that shimmer in the moonlight catches his eye. He gives it the gift of water and returns to his belongings where they lie in a heap.
The demon blade is still secure in its makeshift containment. He allows his legs to fold under him and snugs the lashings anyway. Easier on his back down here than bending over, but now he’s got to overcome gravity again and it seems to be increasing as the new day approaches. Sleep would be welcome.
He has several more hours before the new day’s heat will drive him to find cover. He satisfies himself with some jerky and a long pull from the canteen before gathering up his load, striking out once more in the light of the lowering moon.
Dawn breaks with a pastel wash of colors across Earth and sky, painting the distant mountains and high desert. The moon witnesses the event, watching the sun rise in ponderous progression from the eastern expanse before itself settling with a final wink behind the peaks of the Rockies’ southern arm.
By the time Jonas’s strides carry him to a vaguely defined trace across the otherwise trackless waste, the sun has reached more than halfway to its zenith. it stares down with a harsh, oppressive glower over Jonas’s shoulder as he reads the dusty imprints crossing his path.
The tracks curve southwest between the ragged edge of the mesa to his left and a low, wide butte that’s been jutting up in front of him the last mile or so. A few carts and heavy wagons, draft animals and riders have passed this way in both directions, but only one recently, headed northward.
The fluted ribs of the butte attract Jonas’s interest with the intent of finding shelter from the furnace of mid-day. He resists setting a brisk pace in that direction. He can maintain this plodding march that far without pushing himself beyond endurance. Besides, he’s following a wagon trail a wasicu child could pick out. The going is easy by comparison to the previous day and night.
He minds his steps, scanning the hard ground ahead for track or print. A shallow wheel rut here, a line of softer, gravelly sand stirred by hoofs there and nearly covered since by some scouring wind, all serve to mark at intervals the route he first reckoned.
The bluff ahead is looming now and he casts his eyes across its face, seeking some accessible refuge from the blaze of midday arrived with a vengeance. High in the air above the weathered pinnacles poking out from the near corner of the butte there is motion.
Perhaps twenty or more turkey vultures, turning in a lazy boil on the rising air, spiral hundreds of feet above him, weightless. Jonas is a motionless speck on the mesa top, staring upward.
A single windrider peels off from the top of the column and glides high above the line of the mesa rim.
The rest of the committee follows the leader in their own time in an eventual, but orderly file. Not a single wing flaps as Jonas watches them soar in procession maybe a mile ahead of him, then catch a new updraft and begin climbing once more in a patient eddy.
Jonas can see another such convocation in similar occupation beyond them where the mesa jogs sharply south and maybe another much further on, but the haze is making it difficult to know for sure. Curiosity demands that he turn to look behind.
Three more columns of the great birds are aligned there as well. One such group is even now crossing between him and the sun. Watching them pass overhead, having never witnessed, nor ever heard of such a congress, Jonas determines that regardless the heat, he is bound to follow their lead.
For several hours he tags on this convention of his grandfather’s spirit helpers. They are stretched out ahead of him all along the sheer drop to his left, riding air more than a thousand feet above the lower floor of the desert plain. None of them yet have flapped a wing.
Jonas is not at all surprised to see that the faint wagon trail he noticed before has marked out the same route along the rimrock.
Well before the last of the sky travelers has soared beyond the range of his vision, a stiff hot wind is pressing at his back. Raw gusts are kicking up off the stovetop, swirling dust and flinging tumbleweed.
He pauses to retrieve the duster from his mochila. The afternoon sun slides toward the mountain sentinels, standing now well off his right shoulder as he shifts his load onto it. He pulls his bandana over nose and mouth and squints against the windborne grit, seeking refuge.
The butte that might have offered such is far behind him and no other outcropping formation is visible above the tableland’s surface. One of those deep gulches would be welcome about now. The rising gale presses him forward.
What was earlier sharp discomfort and pressure in his ears, has added a penetrating spike to each side of his head, and his mind, aching for any familiar sound, has produced instead a senseless ghost of noise upon which no sound intrudes. As a whole, it’s become a powerful annoyance. Along with the fierceness of the wind and the pelting, stinging, driven sand and the soundless wail and the pain of it, is a memory riddled with questions.
What were those horrors that stepped out of the hole in the air? What happened to the two ebon star-folk? Did the Power that rests at this moment over his heart come with them? Does it belong to the big man with the cannon tucked up under his cloak? The woman?
With so much he does not know, this is certain. Ile Slohan belongs to no one.
A tumbler brushes past him in high pursuit of a twisting dust spirit. It stops abruptly maybe a hundred feet away and hangs shuddering crazily in the air as curtains of dust fold in waves across his blurred vision.
Approaching the suspended knot of dry brush, Jonas sees what it is through slitted, watering eyes. It’s caught up on something fixed in the ground.
He dislodges the wad and it flies away, leaving behind a rectangular piece of wood nailed crosswise to a post set deep in the rocky soil. Inscribed there, in letters crude and bold, is a single word.