I’d expected even a first-year lab geek like Geoff Parmenter would know how to dress in the field. But then I’d been wrong in guessing how modern humans might act since I was a kid. Surely anyone over the age of ten would know enough not to wear brand new white Nike Air Forces on a trip into the sand and basalt crags of the Sonoran Desert. Wouldn’t they?
“Hey, Bronsky, you sure you know where you’re going? I’m pretty sure most of these tracks are headed in the other direction,” Parmenter said from the right seat of our all-terrain.
They always turn back or don’t come back at all, I thought.
True, though, looking west, the desert horizon draws wheel ruts like a magnet, focuses them to a tiny point in the dusty distance, as if looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. It’s been that way since the 1860s, horses, wagons, marching feet and gold-fever dreams. Or so they tell me. But I wasn’t looking for some Spanish soldier’s wet dream El Dorado. Parmenter and I were searching for a different kind of treasure. Treasure the Conquistadors, gold seekers and commercial mining operators probably would ignore…if we were lucky. More than likely, if they did find it, they’d just destroy it like they destroyed everything else they considered without value.
“Barbarians,” I muttered.
“What’s that you say, Bronsky?” Parmenter said.
“Hang on,” I replied, and yanked the wheel to the right bumping us out of the mainstream and onto the virgin hard pan and wind-crusted sand toward the alkali fog even further southwest. Neither Arizona nor Mexico actually claimed what hid within. Though some politicians drew an invisible line over that cloud of secrets in 1849 after the War with Mexico.
It’s just that no one ever told whoever lived in the mountains behind that arid mist. If anyone still did.
“So you really think we’re going to find something out there, dude?”
“Something?” I replied.
“You know what I mean,” Parmenter said, peering at me over his $200 aviator Ray-Bans.
“You mean El Dorado? Not in the sense some civilian might. But we’re definitely headed in there for archeological, anthropological, don’t-really-know-if-it-exists kind of treasure.”
“Still, it could be gold artifacts, right?”
I’d had to tell him we were looking for such treasure so his family might bankroll my little expedition.
“If I’m right, and I’m almost positive I am, and if weather, animals, man or time itself hasn’t destroyed this little Anasazi offshoot shrine, you’ll be picking your teeth with some golden something by Friday night,” I kind of lied. “Now pull up your bandana, ‘cause you might choke on what we’re about to drive through.”
I was hoping that might intellectually or physically keep his yap shut for an hour or so as I picked our way over rocks and ruts and arroyos as we began gaining some altitude above the desert floor. I called it a day as soon as the sun started turning everything to gold when it crested the peaks in front of us. Sundown was going to fall on us like an avalanche and I didn’t need a broken axle to end our excursion almost before we started.
The next morning, as I sized up the trail before us, I had to give Parmenter the bad news we’d be hoofing it from here on out.
“That’s it? We drive one day into this hell hole and now I’ve gotta schlep this crap like a damn donkey for who knows how many days?”
His snowy white Nikes had taken on the ochre color of the desert and I could see a slight cut beside the right one’s toe box.
“I told you there’d be some walking,” I said.
“Just place your feet in my footprints. I’ll try to keep you safe.”
“You’d better, Bronsky. My dad paid enough for this stupid jaunt. It’s gotta get me a Masters, the Parmenters some real notoriety and him some kind of golden booty in return for his largess to some bookish Bohunk from Buffalo.”
I figured right then if I killed him just one day’s hike up in these rocks, hidden the body just right, no one would ever find him. And I doubt anyone would actually miss him. From the sound of things, his old man was more intent on owning some golden piece of history — as long as it had value beyond the history. Mr. Parmenter would miss the Hummer more. Nah, it was a nice charitable contribution, a tax write-off for guys like him.
“Let’s get going before the sun gets too high, Geoff. My research shows two days’ hike to the pit house shrine,” I said over my shoulder. I heard him grunt and curse under the weight of his pack. But I heard the shuffle of those sneakers in the dust, too. Too bad.
The climb was pretty much as I expected, steep and hot, even just after dawn. What I hadn’t really counted on was two days worth of corridors-like arroyos and ravines we had to snake through. There was something odd about them, though. And to my surprise, Parmenter picked up on it.
“These rock walls look a little strange to you, Bronsky? So steep and narrow? Almost like someone dug them.”
“I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Parmenter. Because they’re cut like this, we get shade for longer in the day. You just keep hitting those walls with that spray paint when we make a turn. One thing I don’t want is to get lost in this maze,” I said.
What I didn’t say — out loud — was “with you.” For a guy who was not in the best of shape for a trek like this, Parmenter could talk and complain and prattle non-stop. If I had to spend more than a week with this guy, one of us was going to have to die. And, by then, I didn’t care which of us.
We camped by a small stream that night. The stream was a good sign. It meant we were near either a water source or we’d stumbled into one of these proto-Hohokam canals for which their coming generations would be noted. Either way, I knew we were getting close.
“What was that?” Parmenter said as he shifted to look up trail.
“Same stuff we’ve been listening to for the past three nights, Geoff. The demise of some rodent by a snake. The demise of a snake by a coyote. Or the demise of a coyote by a javelina or mountain cat.”
“That answer doesn’t exactly put me at ease, Bronsky. I thought I saw something. Where’s your gun?”
I was afraid he’d ask me that.
“The animals are more afraid of us and our fire than we are of them.”
“Speak for yourself, Bwana Bronsky. I’d sleep a ton easier, if at all, if I had that cowboy gun of yours on my hip,” Parmenter said. He was serious.
“One, no freaking way, Sundance. Two, my hiking gun, my registration and license. Three, I don’t need you beside me, or worse yet behind me, with a weapon you have no idea how to use, feeling all jumpy because some rabbit flipped over a rock. I don’t like guns. And a pistol is designed really for one thing. Besides, a miss at a target in these narrow walls could ricochet four or five times in God knows which directions before the bullet came to rest. So, about my ‘cowboy gun?’ Yeah…no.”
“Well at least take it out of your pack. Just in case. I really am worried now. That sound was different.”
“Well, taller,” Parmenter said with a straight face.
“The sound you heard and the shadow you say you saw in this desolate place, where no one has lived for hundreds of years, sounded ‘taller,’ you say.”
“Yeah. Like when you were a kid and you heard a sound outside your room and you didn’t worry if it was shorter, ‘cause you knew it was your sister. But if it was taller it might be your father and if he stopped by your door…”
“Whoa, Geoffrey. We might be venturing into the arroyo of too much information here. No offense, but I think we’d be better off without a flood of emotional history coming downstream.” I felt kinda sorry for the goof now. This bit of drama punctuated the unspoken reason he was so hot to trot about finding something on our expedition. Dude was a walking text of Abnormal Psych 303. I knew he had daddy issues, but I never realized they were Daddy Issues.
“I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise,” I said. And I mostly meant it.
The next day I knew we were close. Parmenter was right. These corridors were hand-cut, and probably by the priests who hid out up here from the Franciscan padres who were sent to civilize a civilization that was twice as old as Spain’s. Okay, they were there to erase it and replace it with their brand of Catholicism and maybe snag a bit of El Dorado for their trouble.
By mid-afternoon, we were dragging. I knew I was getting pretty silly with the heat and Parmenter had even shut up. So I was about to call for our last break before our final leg of the day, when I took a left at a T in the trail and turned to tell Parmenter to mark an arrow on the wall to our right.
I never saw the pit I fell into. I knew I was hurt, but I didn’t think too badly. I’d dropped into one of the pit homes of the ancient priests we had come to find.
“Jesus, are you all right, Bronsky?” Parmenter called down from the edge of the pit.
“Yeah, knee hurts a little and I hit my head on this…holy mother of…”
“What? What do you see down there?”
“Beauty, man. True beauty,” I replied.
Okay, so I already was zoomy from lack of water and the heat. And I might have been knocked wonky from landing on my head after my knee gave. But right there in front of me I could see as pristine a piece of Hohokam art as any this side of the gift shop at the Arizona Museum of Natural history. And those were molded in Bangladesh.
“What the hell do you see?”
I crawled over to human-sized niche horizontally cut into the stone wall of the pit. It looked like it was a place for someone to sleep and I wondered who it was slept there four or five hundred years ago.
And then I saw the dried meat and fresh root vegetables and began wondering who was still sleeping there.
“Oh man, I think I really slammed my head.”
“Tell me what you see, Bronsky! Artifacts? Any gold?”
I hadn’t even noticed the glints the nearly vertical sun-ray spotlight bounced from two shining human-shaped statuettes, as well as a plate and some kind of blade. All I could focus on was the white four-legged figure with black stripes. Some might think it a zebra. But I knew it was probably some prehistoric horse. Or the legend of one.
“Can you climb out of there?” Parmenter asked.
“No, it’s too deep and the walls a nearly vertical. Any footholds are cut too low to climb up very far. Besides, I really bunged up my knee.”
“Can you toss up the gold?”
He wasn’t kidding.
“I mean it, Bronsky. Throw the good stuff up here and then I’ll find something to help you out,” Parementer said, like he was ordering some posh meal at The Parish in Tucson on his daddy’s Amex Black.
There really was no other way. So I tossed up the two little golden guys, the plate and the knife. No way would I even touch that little white equine answered prayer. Took a photo of it with my phone, though. All it was good for with no service out here.
As I was snapping a couple more shots of the contents of the niche, I yelled up from the pit, “C’mon, Parmenter, fun’s fun. Get me out of here.”
“What? So you can grab all the glory and short-change me of my big-time degree, my notoriety and put all this shiny stuff and whatever else I can find here in some museum? Nah, this is where we part company, Bronsky. Thanks for the ride.”
That’s when I saw the shadow run across the wall. I couldn’t tell what it was for sure. It had a head like a horse, but the arms of a man. What it also had was Parmenter. He screamed, then I heard gunshots. The creep must have stolen my gun in the night.
Maybe it was only one gunshot that missed or went through the shadow and echoed around the walls. Then I felt more pain in my leg and everything went black.
When I woke up I was sitting against the wall next to the pit. My leg had a bandage on it covering a scratch the bullet cut into me from Parmenter’s (errant?) shot. I saw Parmenter lying against the wall opposite me. He wore a bandage, too, only on his hand.
On the edge of the pit I saw the golden artifacts had been returned to their rightful place. Only now the plate had something resting on it. Looked like more dried meat.
I limped over to Parmenter to check his hand. Maybe he got nicked on a shot I didn’t hear. That’s when I noticed what was under his bandage. Or wasn’t. Four fingertips off his right hand. I didn’t need to get a closer look at that plate. Or the stained blade lying next to it. I didn’t need to see any of that gold again. Neither did Geoff Parmenter.
It took us four days to get back to the truck. Four weeks to heal up. And now it’s been four years since I’ve seen Parmenter, who the doctors think went crazy from the heat. I mean, c’mon. Who’d believe he was attacked by a white headed horse man that lived in the shadows out there in desert mountains he couldn’t remember how to get to?
He wasn’t a very good student either. He never saw the literature about how some Hohokam priests wore headdresses like striped horses in their secret rites. He never saw that white equine statuette, either.
You know, like this one right here. Wanna see?
Been a while since I’ve been able to attempt writing a short story. What’s always helped me, though is Canadian writer and teacher’s Six Weeks, Six Sense challenge. Week 1 was Sight. I don’t think I hit the target like I used to. Also, it took three days to do what used to take and afternoon. But here’s the first draft of this week’s effort.