This story has been excerpted from Jason S. Walters’ adult horror collection An Unforgiving Land by the publisher for promotional purposes. Feel free to share, reproduce, or distribute this story in any way you desire. The complete book is available on Amazon, http://www.barnesandnoble.com, and directly from the publisher at http://www.blackwyrm.com. It is also available in a wide variety of electronic formats on the web.
AN UNFORGIVING LAND: CRIPPLED STRAY
Loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man.
Maude lived way up in the Black Rocks, much farther back than anyone besides hunters ever cared to go. She was old, alone, and beyond giving a damn about most things. Her days were a patchwork of memories, chores, and regrets about things she couldn’t change.
The winter was a hard one: cold, wet, and covered with snow. Abstractly she knew that this was a good thing. Nevada was the driest state in the union, and her home lay in the driest part of that driest state. Water was always scarce; the last summer had been a holocaust of suffocating dust. All the excess snow would hold the topsoil down and, if they were lucky, strong spring rains would follow the harsh winter, cutting the “dust season” down to a month or two. But she didn’t expect they would get that lucky. Life generally didn’t work out that way in Nevada.
No, she didn’t like the winter much. The cold hurt her joints and bones in a way that the heat simply couldn’t, and snow made her life difficult in a way that dust never did. She had plenty of time to reflect on this as she shuffled up the mountainside away from her battered ranch house, ancient snowshoes creaking under her feet as they hit the thick, powdery snow. She needed firewood for her stove, and the only place she could find plentiful, easy to gather wood was in the aspen forests that clung to the gullies of Black Mountain. It was a difficult hike, but she had little choice. The horses were long dead and she hadn’t turned over her old, battered jeep in months. So she clumped determinedly up the frozen slope, her hands shoved deep into the pockets of her soiled Carheart jacket.
When her husband was alive they’d had a propane stove. They weren’t on any delivery route, however, so he’d rigged a fifty-gallon tank to his flatbed so that every two weeks when they traveled 100 miles to temple in Winnemucca he could refill it at the Pilot truck stop. Joseph had been clever like that. The whole ranch was rigged up with gadgets of various sorts he’d cobbled together to make her life easier: solar pumps, gravity-fed hydroelectric generators, geothermal water heating, and the like. He’d been a clever, sober man. It’d taken a long time for most of his inventions to break down.
It had been a year since Maude had felt like going to temple. Correspondingly, it had been a year since she’d had any propane. She’d made do with her great, great grandmother’s Franklin stove. The tough broad had hauled it all the way to Nevada from upstate New York in the settler days, and it gave her an odd feeling of comfort when she cooked on it. Heated up the house nicely too.
But the big stove took a lot of wood.
Maude was winded when she reached the aspen forest. She sat down on a fallen tree, gathered up some snow in her hands, and ate it for the moisture. The aspens moved about her, rustling as the afternoon wind moved through them. Aspens were the hardest trees that Maude knew of. Ethically hard. They shared a common root structure and, when the whole of them decided that a particular tree wasn’t brining in enough nutrition, they severed its roots. Aspen roots are shallow. The doomed tree blows over in the first storm.
Maude could never have been an aspen. If she were one, she would have moved down to Hualapai when Joe died. But her roots were too deep for that. She was a Russian Olive: ugly and spiky, with a taproot that drove its way down to the center of the Earth. She would fall over on her own terms.
After sitting for a while she began to get cold. So she began to gather wood. Branches only. Maude wasn’t strong enough to move logs down the mountain on her own, but she’d made a special sling that allowed her to carry half a week’s worth of tree limbs on her back. It was hard going, but what wasn’t?
She was almost done gathering wood when she saw the first one. It was large for a coyote - a little bigger than a border collie, perhaps – and its fine brown and white coat glistened as the light reflected off of the snow. They locked eyes: hers brown and watery, it’s shocking blue on white. She could feel its sharp predator brain calculating behind those eyes, weighing the pros and cons. Human = dangerous. But old. Weak. Alone.
It made up its mind and howled. A few moments later the second one appeared. It was a little smaller than the first, but otherwise identical, and it looked at the first coyote rather than her. A mate, perhaps? A child? The big coyote continued howling.
Another appeared, then another, and finally a fifth. They began to slowly circle the old woman, who remained motionless with her bundle of wood. She could see that her presence excited them, and that made her a little excited for them in turn. They were handsome, healthy animals, but lean and a bit desperate looking. She felt bad for them. It had obviously been a difficult winter for them too.
The animals circled closer, growling and trying to build up their courage. It’s difficult for a coyote to attack a live human being, even an old or crippled one. Men were dangerous; maybe the most dangerous creature they would ever encounter. Every fiber in their canine beings must have been demanding that they run away, urging them to flee from a prey as likely to bring death as nourishment. Maude felt sorry for them, but admired their courage, even as they grew closer, closer…
The coyotes froze. The largest one stopped howling. As if by remote control they all turned at once to peer at something in the forest. She peered too, but could see nothing besides the winter wind moving through an empty forest of aspens. She looked even harder but still couldn’t see anything. This didn’t surprise her. Her eyesight wasn’t the best - and the coyotes’ eyesight probably was the best. They froze for an instant like a scene from one of those fancy collector plates you hang on your wall.
How beautiful! she thought. Then the entire pack turned and bolted down the hill away from her without so much as a yelp, vanishing from sight as if they had never been there at all. Maude continued to wait, curious about what had scared them away. A mountain lion, perhaps? Yet nothing came out of the woods and, after a bit, she knew that nothing would.
“Damn.” She said out loud. Still alive.
* * *
Maude and her husband had lived the hard, strict lives of rural western Mormons. It had never occurred to them to do otherwise. Descendents of the original settlers who’d followed Brigham Young to the promised land of Deseret, they’d simple taken up where their parents had left off, living the lives their kind had always lived. Unfortunately, their four progeny had had other ideas, and moved either to Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, depending on how they felt about that. It was disheartening as it was inevitable.
Then he’d died, leaving her alone for the first time in her long life.
Because she was who she was Maude couldn’t commit suicide. It was a sin - and she’d never been very big on sin. Still, she wanted to die. The melancholy desire had begun to permeate her existence. It whispered to her on the winds that blew down from the snow topped mountains that towered around her. Had she been from someplace other than the Black Rock Desert she would have known that living all alone in the winter out in the high country wasn’t doing her mood any good. But she wasn’t from another place, had never been from another place, and would never be from another place. Things simply were what they were.
The various children had come around and tried to convince her to move in with them after Joe had died. The two from Los Angeles she never even gave serious thought to. She knew that their dwellings would be nothing more than bus stops on the way to a retirement home. Of the two from Salt Lake City, her son’s visit had been purely perfunctory. He was a good man but he didn’t want her, and she didn’t want him, and that was perfectly agreeable. He’d done his duty in coming out. Her daughter that lived north of Provo she gave some serious thought to. But, in the end, she couldn’t visualize leaving. It was impossible.
Joe had died a particularly pointless death. He’d pulled over on I-80 to help a family from Nebraska who were stranded with a busted radiator and been struck by a careless trucker as he walked around the side of his pickup to get his toolbox. The semi had crushed his skull and ripped off one of his feet. He’d bled to death before the ambulance could get him to the hospital to pronounce him brain dead.
It was typical of Joe. Dying while trying to do the right thing for somebody he didn’t even know.
So. Her beloved husband was dead, her quarrelsome children were gone, and she was alone living amongst the ruins of her life. She reflected on this as she washed her hands in the kitchen sink after lighting a fire. Had she ever lived anywhere else she would have known that the water pressure in her house was terrible, maybe a third of what it was in the city. But she hadn’t, so she didn’t. She’d always figured that the water pressure in the city was extreme and wasteful, and that the city people were deliberately rubbing their aquatic wealth in normal people’s faces. In her mind, that would be just like them. But she didn’t think about that right then. Her loneliness had become as big, epic, and remorseless as the land she lived in. It just went on and on and didn’t end and didn’t leave any time for thinking about the sorts of frivolous people who lived in sophisticated places like Lovelock. There was no crutch for her to lean on in the broken leg of loneliness, either. Her faith was a strict one: no alcohol, no drugs, and no cigarettes. Not even a cup of tea after breakfast.
Still, though she couldn’t kill herself, she didn’t have to duck and weave out of death’s way all the time, either. Maude had always figured that, like most extremely elderly people, she would get pneumonia here in her ramshackle little home at some point. She wouldn’t tell anyone if they called, and no one would check in time, and she would quietly pass away in the bed she’d slept in her entire adult life. And that would be all right.
But Maude was a desert rat born and bred. Tough. And death didn’t seem to want her. Still, the encounter with the coyotes earlier that day had opened up an entire realm of new and exciting possibilities. She’s always known that there were dangerous creatures in the desert. Rattlesnakes, coyotes, mountain lions, and other thinks that nobody much liked to talk about. But she’d coexisted with them for so long that she’d never really thought about getting killed by one of them. It would be a fitting death. What would a Frenchman say? Oh, yes: ap-re-po.
She contemplated being eaten alive while she consumed her meager supper. She had to admit it didn’t sound very appealing. There would be a certain amount of irony to it, though. She couldn’t count the number of desert creatures she had eaten. Now they would eat her right back.
After she was done she took a small cup of broth from the mulligan stew she kept going on the stove all winter out onto her rickety front porch and sat down to watch the sunset. She wrapped a stained quilt comforter about herself for warmth and waited. She didn’t know for what. For the coyote pack from the mountains, perhaps? Would they come if she wished for them too hard enough? She closed her eyes and concentrated hard, causing her wrinkled features to collapse inward toward the center of her face. Maude pictured them: canine. Their behavior almost - but not quite - human. Faces mysterious and unreadable. Their eyes piercing, intelligent, and unfathomable.
A familiar howl broke her concentration. She opened her eyes and looked out onto the snow-covered hillside. They were there, this pack. Her pack. Coming toward her even as the sun sputtered and died behind the distant Granite Mountains. Death’s comforting hand. Five claws on five fingers.
Maude didn’t go inside of the house to get a rifle, as Joe would have done. For a moment she felt like she should go inside and get them something to eat. Out of kindness. Then she let out an uncharacteristic, dark chuckle. Why did she need to go inside to get something she’d already brought out?
They were spread out before her home in a line with the largest – the one whom she had first encountered on the mountain – standing on the right side and the smallest standing on the left. They were equally spaced, as if some unforeseen force had placed them carefully before her porch, and they stared at her with the sort of hungry, aggressive good cheer that only a canine can possess.
She rose from her rocking chair, shedding her tattered quilt and indifferently exposing her flesh to the bitter winter air. She drifted toward one of the beams that suspended the porch’s low roof, clinging to it as she might the railing of a ship in a storm. As one creature the coyotes stepped forward, their eyes gleaming in anticipation. She waited. With another cautious step, then another, they moved toward her home, twenty paws crunching in the newly fallen snow. She clenched her eyes shut and waited, a shudder of horrified anticipation running through her body as her broken, yellowed nails dugs into the bare wood of the beam.
Silence followed by more silence. Cautiously she opened her eyes. The pack had stopped only a few feet from the battered front steps of her home. They were breathing heavily as if fatigued, hot air streaming exhaust-like from their black nostrils. Yet they also seemed to be frozen in place. It was as if they’d been carved from the quartz-like ice that lay about them all in clumps on the ground.
The littlest tried to take a cautious step forward, then hesitated in the way that nervous dogs do. Finally, she whined and put her foot back in its place. The largest turned and looked up the boulder and snow strewn slopes of Black Mountain, far and away at something distant and hidden from the eyes of men. He howled in frustration, for an instant defiant. Then with a shudder the pack turned and fled away from the ranch house, vanishing into the mist and twilight.
* * *
The next time she saw the pack Maude was on her hands and knees digging potatoes out of the frozen ground. Because it was the middle of winter, her quarter-acre garden was under two feet of snow and a quarter inch of ice. Portions of it, such as her beloved plot of herbs, were unreachable. But she’d used her old rusty pickaxe to get past the ice to the dry, dusty soil of her potato patch. She rooted around in that bitter reminder of summer in search of any elusive, small spuds that had escaped her autumn attentions. There were always two or three hidden in there somewhere.
This time the coyotes didn’t even try to approach her. They stood perfectly still at a distance of about a hundred yards, watching her with a bitter hunger in their eyes. She stood and spread her arms wide so that the winter wind blew her ragged Carhart behind her like the wings of a skeletal bird.
She braced herself for death but they came no closer.
“What do I have to do?” she screamed. “Pour barbecue sauce all over myself?”
But instead of tearing her to pieces they turned and strode mournfully away.
* * *
It was after a particularly viscous storm of snow, sleet, and dust had lashed her home that Maude awoke one morning to find him on her porch. He was obviously injured, a single long hind leg missing its vital pad. She could see drops blood forming a trail from her house back out into the frozen wilderness from which he had come. Probably lost it to an old bobcat trap, she reflected. He stopped licking his crippled limb to look up at her mournfully as she peered at him through a cracked front window.
She dropped her tattered curtains back into place and pretended he wasn’t there.
* * *
The next morning she drew her curtain back to find him still in the same spot, shivering and taking shallow breaths of cold January air. His maimed leg stuck out oddly as if he had simply given up on licking the ghastly would and left it where it was. A thin layer of snow clung to his matted brown coat, giving him a literally “frosted” appearance.
Opening the door a tiny amount, she set a bowl of mulligan stew down by his muzzle. Hot from the stove, it gave off an aromatic steam heavy with jackrabbit, aspen onions, and carrot. She slammed the door shut as soon as he opened his green-on-white eyes.
* * *
Over the next several days Maude set out more and more bowls of food, until her front porch was littered with heavy blue glass vessels that had been licked clean by her crippled guest’s enormous tongue. He grew visibly stronger, shivering less and taking time out from tending to his wound to examine his surroundings with his large, green eyes. This was good, as she knew that he had to be strong for the work ahead.
In the meantime Maude was building up her courage. She cleaned herself up as best she could without having reliable running water, donned the pink and white dress she had worn to temple for several years, and finally put on a set of earrings that had been handed down to her by her grandmother. When she felt sufficiently dressed up, she flung the front door of her home wide. Once again she stood there with her arms outstretched, this time in her Sunday best. Eyes squeezed shut she braced herself for the dreadful, flesh-rending end that was sure to come.
She opened one eye tentatively and looked down. He rose tentatively, teetering a bit because of his maimed limb. His piercing green eyes looked into hers from a position that was nearly level.
“Eat me.” She commanded firmly, using a tone of voice that had once sent dogs, children, and a husband scurrying to do her will. The green eyes just stared at her.
“Eat me.” She said more loudly, beginning to get frustrated. She had dressed up nicely for this, after all. He made no motion.
“Eat me!” she screamed, and he started toward her. Maude stiffened, awaiting the coming pain with an intensity that was almost unbearable in its longing. But he brushed pass her gently, ambling into the living room of her home with a rolling gate to collapse like a sack of stones as close to the stove as he could get without singing his fur. He sighed contentedly, and then rolled over to present his stomach.
“Well I’ll be damned.” said Maude. It was one of the few times in her life she had uttered a profanity
* * *
The two of them settled into a routine of sorts. He slept in a bony pile at the foot of her bed, yawning and stretching when she creakily rose to her feet at six each morning. Then he patiently hobbled after her as she went through the ritual of her morning chores, not actually helping with anything but always willing to listen to what she had to say. This was a considerable comfort to the old woman. It had been many years since Maude had had anyone around to talk to. There were occasional visitors, of course, but with them she horded her words in a manner peculiar to deep desert folk. It was as if there was a limited supply of words available to a rancher for the duration of his or her life, making their careless use as unthinkable as wasting food, water, or some other valuable resource. Yet around him words began to flow out of her tight lips like springmelt pouring over the sides of a badly maintained irrigation ditch. There wasn’t any need to organize her thoughts into the clipped, careful sentences she was accustomed to allowing through her lips, either. She could speak all she liked in an unthinkable wealth of words, never pausing to worry whether the jumble of verbiage made sense in the context that she uttered it. She could start a sentence one day, continue it the next, or the day after that, or not at all.
The fact that he didn’t talk back didn’t hurt, either.
“It’s when the first and last child leaves that you feel it bad.” She told him as she hung her laundry out on the tattered, rectangular clothesline. “The one’s in the middle don’t matter so much. Less’ their special, of course, like Opal Joe’s son. In that case they don’t never leave. That’s its own kind of hurt, but I never had one of those.”
“When the first one goes it hits you that the others are eventually going to go too. It’s like rabbit punches to the gut, one after another, till you’re all alone. When the last one goes you know that you’re old. Nothing to do then but hope they make you grandchildren and, if they do, that they’ll bring them around now and again.”
“Some are luckier in that department than others.” She added pointedly. The two of them walked back inside through the dry, ankle-deep snow, their feet making soft crunching sounds as they went along. He dropped down by the Franklin stove with a sigh, a pool of water quickly forming around him as the snow that clung to his coat began to melt. She began to wash the dishes, her wrinkled hands seemingly impervious to the effects of the nearly frozen water that came hesitantly from the tap.
“When I was young we didn’t move all that far from home.” She continued. “My parents ranched over near Sulfur their whole lives. Two of my brothers never did leave home. Never married, either. Just kept working till they fell over, too.”
She was silent for a while after that. Maude dried her dishes then put them away in her age-cracked cupboards.
“We all believed that this was Deseret: the Promised Land. Or that it would be if we worked hard enough, anyhow. None of my children believe it, or at least not strongly enough to stay out here. They couldn’t wait to leave.”
“I’ve never understood it.” She shook her head. “Why would you want to live some place like Los Angeles? What do they have there that we don’t have?”
He made a deep, muffled sound in what might have been agreement.
* * *
It was a couple of days later that Maude decided to call him Joe. He reminded her of her dead husband: big, quiet, and willing to listen. He had green eyes too - though they weren’t shaped the same as her dead husband’s. She announced this to him one evening as they sat beside the Franklin stove, desperately trying to outlast a blizzard that had already driven the thermometer down below freezing. The wind outside blew so hard that it rattled the old, single-pane windows of the ranch house. It was as if God’s fist was trying to rip the old stick home from its foundations.
“You don’t mind, do you Joseph?” she asked the stained ceiling idly. “You ain’t using the name down here no more, and it would be a lot easier if I had something to call him. Giving him a dog name don’t seem fitting, all things considered, and it would feel good to say your name each day like we always did. ‘Good morning Joe.’ ‘The weather sure is cold, isn’t it Joe.’ ‘Know what I mean, Joe?’”
She looked down at the new Joe.
“So how do you feel about your new name, Joe? Is it to your liking?”
Joe pivoted one ear toward her for a moment, and then let it drop back down to the side of his enormous head. He looked up at her from the floor with his large green eyes, emotions and desires unknowable. Satisfied, she nodded back.
“Glad you approve, Joe.”
* * *
It’s the things you trust that always get you killed, thought Rusty Guerrero. The things that are familiar and comforting. Your heart. Booze. Your car. Your pecker. Doing the right thing. That’s what’d gotten Big Joe. Being a fucking Good Samaritan for some damn tourists. Killed the best man in the desert. But that wouldn’t get him. Never. He was no fucking Mother Teresa.
Rusty sincerely told himself this even as he maneuvered his battered, highly modified Chevy K-10 across the frozen surface of the Playa toward Maude’s isolated ranch. He was a small man that was somehow also big. His mother had been short, short-tempered, and very Irish, his father shorter, shorter-tempered, and even more Mexican. Both were from Nevada, and had never visited the nations that gave them their self-proclaimed identities. The resulting genetic brawl left Rusty with carrot red hair (now going gray at the temples), dark features, a prow-like Aztec nose, and the bulky, slope-shouldered physique of a power lifter: which he had been for a while after getting out of the Army for the first time.
The Playa was dangerous as hell in the winter. Screw up and your rig would end up sunken three feet into the ground until the following summer. If it hadn’t been frozen into a solid block of ice, he couldn’t have attempted the crossing at all. Guerrero cursed wildly in three different languages as he careened about the road – or where he imagined the road to be beneath the ice, in any case. In Rusty’s world profanities were magical things, angelic beings with the power to carry a man’s terrors and weaknesses far away into the verbal ionosphere. Potent, magical words that plugged up the vulnerable holes in his soul, leaving him stronger than before. A man that didn’t swear was a cripple, forever doomed to dwell in the cellar of his emotions alongside his own fears.
Or so he told himself. Big Joe never swore. Had no fears that Guerrero was aware of, either. The angry little bruiser had respected the fuck out of that man. But he’d never understood him. They were distinct roads leading to the same location. Two very different ways of solving the same problem: always parallel, never intersecting. Big Joe had lived in the very heart of the deep desert with an effortlessness that still baffled a man who had to fight like hell for every amp of off-grid power, every gallon of homemade methane, and every scrawny rabbit he put in his family’s stewpot. Without anger Guerrero was nothing, could do nothing. It was a basic law of nature: nothing could be accomplished in the Black Rock without a supreme, bitter act of will and sacrifice. How gentle Big Joe had escaped this equation was a mystery that puzzled Guerrero to this day.
The old woman’s battered house appeared in the distance, a brown speck against an infinite field of white. The squat man had several milk crates of supplies for her. They were mostly dried goods, but included a few luxuries like cookies and a box of colorful candies. Unfortunately, all of the products in his rig were Western Family brand - the fourth worst thing to be forced upon rural Nevadans besides perpetually high fuel prices, the BLM, and political disenfranchisement. Western Family made sure that everything thing they sold was of the lowest possible quality in the smallest amounts at the highest price. They also supplied all of the general stores between the Paiute Reservation and the Oregon border. It was all he could get without going 140 miles to the Spanish Springs Wal-Mart.
“Well, it’ll make her happy anyhow.” He muttered between profanities. “Old people do love their sweets. Probably helps to make up for the lack of sex, liquor, and violence.” It was yet another thing not to look forward too as he got older.
Rusty Guerrero owed Big Joe. Without his help and sage advice the angry little man and his family would never have made it out in the deep desert. The number of things he had taught him were too numerous to remember: how to fix a Ford 8-N tractor, how to tap a renegade methane well, how to make gunpowder, how to keep rabbits out of a spinach patch, how to align solar panels. The list seemed endless, and since Joe wasn’t around to pay back, Guerrero settled for helping out his widow whenever he could. Of course, for all of his profane bluster the angry little man had a long list of people that he “owed” – and helped out because he owed. This was only the first stop on a retributive route that included Tyson (gives him good dogs), Opal Joe (makes his wife jewelry), Hippie (advice on growing dope), and his own brother.
But Guerrero didn’t like to think about his brother all that much.
He veered off down a flat area of snow he thought was probably the old woman’s driveway, the rear of his truck swerving back and forth like a pendulum, sending geysers of filthy snow in every direction. Fucking winter. Frozen fucker was even worse than the fucking summer, which was pretty bad too. Dust. Snow. High winds. Oceans of smoke blown in from California forest fires. Flash floods. Sagebrush fires that came seemingly from nowhere, destroyed everything in their path, and vanished before the volunteer fire department could find them. Whiteouts, brownouts, and “smud” storms in which rain, dust, and snow combined into a single foul mixture that blew sideways into your windshield like shit from God’s own ass. The Black Rock Desert was pure hell.
Guerrero knew that he would never live anywhere else. He would die here.
The Chevy K-10 slid to a halt in a patch of mud that he sincerely hoped wasn’t Maude’s front yard. Grass was hard as hell to grow in the desert, and he didn’t want to undo any of what was left of Big Joe’s lifetime of work. Guerrero unclenched his hands from the battered steering wheel. He exhaled, and then began searching around the cab of his truck for a can of Redman. Pressing a moist clump of the chewing tobacco into his gum, he began to feel a bit better as a comforting rush of nicotine flooded through his system. It was a nasty habit. He knew it was a nasty habit. There was no way he couldn’t know. His wife was fond of reminding him of how nasty it was on a daily basis. It was part of the accepted, established rhythm of their marriage. But he couldn’t swear very well with a mouth full of dip, so in her opinion his bad habit had its advantages too.
Guerrero grumbled his way out of the car, went to the back seat, and plucked out Maude’s two milk cartons of supplies. He stomped his way through the snow onto her porch and, with his standard lack of tact, threw open the front door and strode in. Maude sat on her usual spot on the scruffy couch that dominated her small living room. Something else lay sprawled out across her feet.
He dropped the groceries, which hit the ground with a resounding thud, sending cans rolling across the floor in every direction.
“Jesus-H-Fucking-Christ’s-Half-Brother-Harold!” shouted Guerrero. Right before he swallowed his chew. It stung as it slid unnaturally down his throat, but the little man barely noticed. He sprinted back across the room to where Joe’s ancient lever action rifle lay slung over the doorway. Chambered for forty-five Long Colt, it spat out low velocity slugs of lead guaranteed to reduce anything’s pulse to zero over zero.
“Rusty, please don’t swear in my home.” The thing at her feet began to growl. He fumbled with the firearm, clumsily chambering a round and bringing it to bear. The growling grew louder as the thing began to rise…
“Rusty, for goodness sake put that rifle down. Joe, you sit down too. I don’t want any violence in my home.” Her tone was stern and brooked no disagreement. Guerrero lowered the rifle. The thing dropped back to the floor grumbling, one large green eye still focused on the unwelcome intruder.
“You’re calling it Joe?” he choked incredulously. “Maude, how could you do such a thing? This… thing isn’t Joe. It isn’t anything like him!”
“Well, I don’t know.” She replied thoughtfully. “My husband was a big fellow, and Joe’s a pretty big example of what he is. A wolf or something…”
“Maude, that’s not a wolf. That’s not any sort of fucking dog.”
“Mind the swearing, Rusty.” He replied sternly. “In any case, I liked my husband a lot. He was a good listener. Didn’t talk much. Joe here is a good listener, too. He doesn’t talk at all. He just follows me around and sighs in that way that big dogs sigh.”
“Maude, that ain’t no…”
“We’re getting along pretty well.” She interrupted. Maude walked around to where her supplies had spilled and began gathering them up. She favored him with a gap-toothed smile upon finding the bag of cheap candies, and then rose unsteadily to her feet.
“I don’t feel so abandoned no more since he came around.” She lied. “The loneliness ain’t eating at me like it used to. Maybe in the Spring I’ll even go visit my daughter in Salt Lake City.”
Guerrero grunted. He placed the old rifle back onto its hooks, and then turned to stare angrily down at “Joe” – who glared maliciously back. Neither the bulky, red-haired man nor the creature liked what he saw. But Guerrero was wise in both the ways of the Black Rock and what it did to people over time. He was shrewd about what it did to everything else over time, too. There were a couple of different explanations for “Joe.”
“Maude, I’m not real sure about ‘Joe’ here.” He began slowly. “He might be sick. Or worse. Maybe I should bring Tyson around to have a look at him - or my brother. Either one of them should be able to…”
It began to growl again. Maude shook her head.
“I don’t want either of those two mountain men in my home. Tyson is a monster. Your kin’s worse than a monster. No. Joe and me are fine.”
“What do I owe you, Rusty?” she changed the subject. “They do that direct deposit thing with my social security. I could write you a check.”
Guerrero shook his head. It was an old routine between the two of them.
“Didn’t cost much, Maude. Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, then say hello to your wife for me. Tell her thank you for those blackberry preserves she sent over last time. I’ll gather some aspen onions for her next time I’m up in the mountains. They’re best eaten fresh, but they’ll keep until next time you come up.”
Rusty was being dismissed - and he knew it. A gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach told him that he should snatch the rifle back off of the wall, brain the thing looking fiercely up at him from the floor with the stock, and then finish it off with a couple of well placed rounds to the head. He was reasonably certain that he could accomplish this before the lamed beast could even get to its feet.
Yet he took no action. It wasn’t fear that stayed his hand. Guerrero was too tough, too fast, and too irritable by nature to be scared. Aggravated by everything, he wasn’t frightened by much. But he had the odd feeling looking at the old woman and her unnatural pet that he’d stumbled into a story not his own. He’d slipped into this bizarre, unfolding tragedy by accident; he wasn’t destined to participate in whatever horror that was about to unfold. (He knew for certain it would be a tragedy and a horror. It could hardly be anything else.) This drama had to play out however it played out without his interference. Wordlessly, Guerrero turned and walked out the door.
He knew that he would never see the old woman alive again.
* * *
The winter continued as if there had never been anything but winter. Life was an equal mixture of gray skies, powdery snow, mud, and cold. Maude waited to catch pneumonia - or at the very least to fall down, break a hip, and then catch pneumonia. But it didn’t happen. A lifetime spent on a ranch had made her tough even in the twilight of her years. She was old, but not actually frail. When she fell down it just hurt. Nothing ever broke.
Maude had always wondered why rural Nevada had the highest rate of suicide in the country. Now she knew. If you survived to midlife out in the American Outback, unclaimed by alcohol or traffic accidents or cigarettes or uranium tainted water or violence or anything else, odds were good that you were hard to kill. It was possible to linger on, to continue far beyond your expiration date into a sort of half-death in which your dreams were gone and the people you loved were gone and the world you knew was gone, but somehow you were still there. You and the big empty land and the snow and yourself and yourself and yourself: and exclamation point standing in the center of an unforgiving land, waiting for God to strike you down like He had everything else in your world, and to close Genesis of your youth out with the Revelations of death.
Only He didn’t.
She sighed to herself. Those other folks had it easy. They weren’t Mormon - or at least they weren’t really Mormon – and she was. A shotgun in the mouth, a ten-cent birdshot shell, the taste of gun oil, a finger gripping a trigger, and then it was done with. The Gentiles had it easy. Maude would have to find another way.
She had all but given up on the idea of Joe eating her. He seemed offended at the very idea; even though she explained that he would be doing her a very big favor.
“I bet I don’t taste all that bad.” She insisted. “Maybe like jerked pork or something. You could make it quick.” But he only sighed and hobbled out of the room, shaking his massive head and muttering to himself in that way all dogs do. Well, she came to think of it, in the way she always imagined they did. Only he actually did that.
She began to have a recurring dirty dream at night. To be honest it wasn’t actually that dirty, but they made her feel quite randy, which at her age was pretty much the same thing. It was a very simple dream, really. She would emerge from the dark cavern of slumber to find that someone was lying on top of her. At first she would think it was Big Joe, quietly sexing her in the middle of the night the way he used to do right up until the day he died. But then she would remember that he was dead, and the masculine-smelling figure mounting her would become the new Joe, all hairy and panting and possessive in that way big dogs get when they love you. But that didn’t seem right either – even in winter it was too hot for him to sleep on the bed – so it went back to being her dead husband Joe, then new Joe, and so forth until it became very confusing – but also quite pleasant.
She would wake up panting, hoping she was having a heart attack or that Joe had changed his mind and was killing her, but to no avail. It was just a damn orgasm.
* * *
Finally Maude had had enough. She’d made sense of the dream. Joe was calling to her from heaven through the most intimate bond possible. What other explanation could there be? She was just stalling because she worried that the new Joe still needed her and because she was frightened of dying, but that was a sad excuse. He would be fine, and she had killed so many chickens and rabbits with her bare hands that being anxious about her own death seemed cowardly to her. She wouldn’t even have to do anything but call up the Hand of Death. They would take care of it. If Joe hadn’t kept interfering she would happily be little more than frozen coyote scat and a gnawed skull under the sagebrush somewhere. They had come before. They would come again.
Maude knew that Joe would never let her go. It was obvious that he didn’t want to be alone. Why else had he stayed after his foot had healed? He was just another poor crippled stray that the ocean of life had washed up on the endless beach of the Black Rock Desert. That fact that he wasn’t human didn’t make any difference. He was one more reverse-castaway, marooning himself away from the rhythm of life and time and change onto an eternal island of snow, sand, and huge open skies as so many others had.
Maude knew and understood these things, if a bit unconsciously. What she did know is that she wanted to go to the Celestial Kingdom and be with her dead husband for eternity. To a Deseret more glorious than any that could be envisioned on Earth. She had one foot in the doorway to that heaven and only the anchor of her body was holding her back. So that night she got a footstool and went into the cupboard above the stove where she kept her herbal remedies in a series of antique crystal cookie jars. Removing her entire supply of valerian root, she ground it into a fine mash using a cheese grader and mixed it in his with evening stew. He wasn’t a picky eater; sure enough he consumed his entire portion, valerian root and all. He paced about the room a few times in his usual fashion, wandered back to the bedroom, and collapsed at the foot of her bed. The big creature was soon snoring – a lusty, odd, comfortable sound. Maude sat up thinking for a while, and then she too retired. She wanted to have that peculiar dream one more time and to sleep next to her friend. The last, only, and final one she would have.
* * *
When Maude awoke it was snowing. Grey sunlight shone feebly through the curtain of white. Joe slumbered peacefully on the floor in his spot, the slits on the sides of his nostrils flaring and un-flaring as he snored softly. She smiled tenderly at him. It was hard to imagine a better friend to have when the credits finally, inevitably rolled on the end of her life. Before things finally went to black and the curtains tumbled. Quietly she left the room, latching the door behind her as she went.
Without dressing she walked out onto her rickety porch and from there out into the ankle-deep snow. The cold dug into her withered flesh but she didn’t care. She kept walking and, as she did so, used her mind to call out to the Hand of Death: summoning it from beyond, pulling it in from the hidden reaches of The Playa, and The Granites, and The Calicos. Summoning her end as surely as the final shovel of dirt falling upon the surface of a newly buried grave.
And they came.
There was no howling this time. The coyotes weren’t so healthy and handsome looking now, either. In fact, they had grown so thin that it seemed almost impossible they could still be alive at all. They were like concentration camp survivors in canine form, and she felt a twinge of pity for them. Determined to have their prey, they surrounded her on all sides, the smallest before her and the largest behind. They whined, glancing nervously back at her home, as if asking permission from their lame god to begin the sacrifice.
Only it wasn’t his permission to give. It was hers. “Go ahead.” She whispered at them. “Bring me home. Take me to Deseret.”
They closed in. From within the house she heard a cry of alarm, followed by the sound of a large body slamming against a door. She spread her arms wide and closed her eyes. The smallest Death closed her anvil-like jaws about Maude’s ankle, snapping it like a twig. The howls from within the house became more desperate as she tumbled to the ground. Then they were atop of her, ripping at her ancient breasts, biting into her flesh, laying open the jugular of her throat. She smiled, and blood poured from her mouth.
With a scream Joe exploded through the pine board wall of the ranch house, crashing through the railing of the porch and flying into the gray twilight of the snowstorm. Then he was among them, laying out death to Death. He flung the smallest coyote against a fencepost, her backbone breaking with an audible “Snap!” before her limp body collapsed into the snow. He stood upright, grabbed the largest one with his enormous forepaws, and ripped its massive head from its shoulders in a spray of blood and gore that painted the snow red in an enormous radius around the fray. Flinging the lifeless hunks to the ground with a snarl, he sank his massive fangs into another. It struggled and screamed as the grinding of its jaws turned the coyote’s flesh and bones into so much bloody pulp. When it stopped struggling he spat its lifeless corpse to the ground.
With three fingers of the hand amputated, the two remaining fingers fled into the obscurity of the snow.
Joe gathered Maude up into his arms. She was cold, and her blood spilled onto the snow as he stood to his full height. She reached upward with a single, shaking hand to stroke the side of his muzzle.
“Joe.” She said softly. “Take me… take me to Deseret.”
The huge creature turned his muzzle to the sky and howled. It was a terrible, mournful, and desperate sound that echoed to the farthest corners of the Black Rock Desert in defiance of all natural law. On the other size of High Rock Canyon, Tyson’s mutant pack picked up his inhuman cry, one after the other until the renegade breeder emerged from his shack, clutching his rifle in his hands and blinking dazedly at the snow- obscured dawn. In the saddle formed where the Granite Mountains meet the much lower Banjo, the Guerrero family paused from their hastily consumed breakfast to stare in horror at the fearsome head of their clan. Rusty Guerrero cursed instinctively, then sighed, shook his head, and sadly returned to drinking his coffee. High atop the Granites themselves, a massive bear of a man in a bloodstained lab coat paused at his dissection table. Pulling a surgical facemask away from his mouth, he cocked his head curiously toward the mouth of his cave and listened intently, an inexplicable smile slowly crossing his bearded countenance. In the puzzling town of Hualapai, Uncle Hank awoke with a start on his couch, sending a priceless copy of Kit Carson’s Hidden Diaries and Western Observations flying into a pile of half-consumed bottles of expensive Czech absinthe. On his flat screen Marylyn Monroe’s beautiful frozen face stared back at him from where he had paused The Misfits the night before.
Lowering his massive head to his breast, the monster known as Joe finally fell silent. Clutching Maude tightly to his breast, he staggered forward on two unsteady legs and vanished into the storm.