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Creek Running North

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June 02, 2005

Harquahala (2)

The bottom of the wash was sandy. Eloy had had a little trouble keeping his truck from getting dug in the last time he’d come out here. Not this time, damn it. He punched the gas just as he went down in, and then popped the shift lever into neutral. He hit bottom. His shocks complained. Scalding coffee sloshed out of the cup on the dash, landed on his jeans. Left front fender glanced off a boulder. But his plan worked: the old Ford bounced right across the wash and up the four-foot bank on the far side.

A cloud of dust settled on the creosote bushes. It was a left at the fork, then nine-tenths of a mile to another fork, and take the right. The road – now a two-rut, red brome grass growing in the middle – scuttled sidelong up the bajada. Eloy reached the first stand of saguaros, found the wide swath of bare desert pavement he had remembered, pulled over and got out. He pulled his crowbar from the bed, and the backpack frame and tumpline. The truck’s engine clicked as it cooled. Up along the ridge that petered out just to the south of his parking space, three mature saguaro stems grew from a single base. That was the spot. The soapstone was just beyond.

It was hot. Eloy cursed himself silently as he walked, crowbar in hand. He should have been up here, gotten that rock, and been back home by now. This time of day he should have been under the ramada, roughing out the piece with the reciprocating saw. Rising at ten and eating breakfast until noon had put him out here in the heat of day, and those afternoon clouds boiling up over Harquahala Peak didn't make him happy. Monsoons were not to be trifled with out here.

The vein of steatite was where he had left it a year ago. It didn't show on any geological map. Local rockhounds had somehow neglected to catalog it. Eloy was pretty sure he was the only person who knew of the vein, and he... well, he wasn't talking. The rock face had eroded only a little since his visit a year ago. The scrapes he'd made with the crowbar looked fresh. Last year he'd pounded wedges into a seam in the rock, split out a two hundred pound piece, laboriously sawn an inch-deep kerf with a masonrty saw, pounded wdges into the kerf to split the rock in two, and hauled one piece home. Half of that piece was now scattered around his shed, dust in the corners and bits of filigreed chip - three-dimensional doodles. The other half, carved and oiled, sat in a hotel lobby in Sedona. It had been too long since he'd finished that one. It was time now.

He pushed the crowbar's blade into what was left of the old crack. The piece he'd put back in place, about two feet long by six inches wide by eight deep, rolled out onto his right steel-toed boot. He yanked it out from underneath. Didn't seem damaged. The backpack frame came off his shoulders, and Eloy laid it alongside the rock. Give me a place to stand, said Archimedes. Wedge the crowbar under the far side of the rock, jam a rounded granite cobble underneath for a fulcrum, and I can get this hundred-twenty-pound stone onto the backpack frame. On Eloy's fourth try, it worked.

It was very hot now, with no breeze to stir the sweaty tank-top under Eloy's denim shirt. He fished in his back pocket for the nylon rope and lashed the rock as tightly as he could to the frame, scraping his knuckles as he threaded the cord underneath.

And then, the fun part. He tilted the frame and rock on end with the crowbar, leaning them up against the rock face. Sat down in front of the pack. Slipped the tumpline over his brow, tightened the leader. Slipped left arm, then right, into the shoulder straps. Tightened every compression strap he could reach, then tightened them all again. Eloy took a deep, aching breath, sweat fairly flowing into his eyes. He held the breath, pushed it out all the way, and rolled forward onto his hands and knees.

Good god. Was this really such a good idea? A hundred-twenty pounds of rock riding piggyback. Eloy bid a silent farewell to his disks and knees, brought the crowbar up with his right hand, and slowly, achingly, got to his feet. Not bad. The rest is just patience. Using the crowbar as a cane, watching very carefully where he put each foot, he needed only half an hour to get back to his truck. And then lower the gate, and turn around carefully, and sit, and then comes that blessed post-pack feeling: lighter than air.

A swig of water and it was time to head for pavement. Eloy was nervous. The clouds over Harquahala looked pretty damned ominous. He was reluctant to race down the rutted roads: why go to all this trouble just to smash the rock against the bed liner, breaking it into useless shards? He kept the speedometer hovering at fifteen, watching lightning strike the summit in his rear-view mirror.

At long last he reached the wash, gunned the engine, barreled down over the lip, began to roll up the far side... and felt his rear wheels dig themselves into the sand. Raindrops began to dot the windshield. He got out. His truck was at thirty degrees from the horizontal, front tires just up on the rim of the wash, rears dug in about eight inches, tailgate resting flat on the sand.

He found a couple big, flat rocks, and jammed one beneath each rear wheel. Started the engine, popped it into first gear, and nothing happened save more rut-digging. He fished behind the seat for his camp shovel.

Half an hour later, he'd dug a foot of sand out from beneath the tailgate, and replaced the rocks beneath the tires. The jangle of keys in the ignition, the roar of an overheated engine, the whine of tires digging themselves still farther into the sand. And then another noise, like a freight train coming toward him at high speed. It was far distant, but getting louder. Eloy closed his eyes in frustration, laid his forehead against the steering wheel for just a moment. And then grabbed a milk crate from its spot on the passenger seat.

The ground started to shake. The leaves of the creosote bushes lining the wash began to tremble. Eloy carried the crate and camp shovel twenty yards up the hill, felt suddenly in his shirt pocket, ran back to get the matches from the Ford's glove box.

An inch-high tongue flowed into the hole Eloy had dug, filled it, sank into the sand with a hiss. Then a trickle, a mere four inches deep, raced past Eloy.

A wall of water, brown and flecked with foam, rounded a curve upwash. It pushed a breeze before it. The flood surged under and around the truck, lapping up against the tailgate. And then it rose, and rose some more. Eloy stepped back, felt his shirt pocket for a cigarette, remembered he hadn't smoked for ten years. The flood was racing into the truckbed now, eddies swirling over the wheel wells. A surge in the flood, and the truck jumped sideways a foot or so. Logs and rocks roared past, some of them dinging the truck's side and fenders.

Eloy wished the truck a wistful, silent goodbye. He walked back to the crate, carried it and the shovel to a nearby ironwood. He pulled a wool blanket from the crate, spread it out in the tree's sparse shade. He took a nap.

He woke as the sun was setting. His truck, to his immense surprise, was still there. It was right-side-up and everything, though with a brand new crop of dents on the upstream side. The water had not reached the engine compartment. Eloy carefully walked down into the wash, wary of quicksand. The flood had dropped a floor of cobbles around the rear wheels. The truckbed was full of flood wrack. On the floor of the wash lay an odd black object. Eloy picked it up: a wallet. Forty dollars and a credit card.

Eloy tossed it into the cab, then went to unload some of the wrack from the bed. Atop it all, a section of rusted chicken wire. That went, flattened out, beneath the rear wheels: a godsend! There was a broken mine timber, a saguaro skeleton, six or seven thorny ocotillo stems. There was about a half ton of sand. There was a glint of white: a pointed tooth, which came free from the sand attached to the skull in which it grew. A javelina, probably dead in the wash for years.

Eloy started shoveling sand back into the wash, careful to throw it away from the tires. One shovel full, then two, and another and another, and then on the eighth scoop, the shovel got stuck ever so slightly. Beneath something flexible. Pliable. Curious, he wedged the shovel beneath the obstruction and pried. Whatever it was under there came loose, emerged from the sand into the dim twilight.

A hand.

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 2, 2005 11:14 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

Damn. I'm hooked.

Posted by: OGeorge at June 3, 2005 01:55 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs