Authors: Hari Kunzru
“What kind of light?”
“From the boy. Did they say the boy was giving off light?”
Everyone looked at him like he was insane.
There was more news. A family of homesteaders down near the mineral pool at Palm Springs had lost a boy two months previously. Ten years old, he’d last been seen climbing rocks in the vicinity of an old mine working. For most of the men gathered round Danville Craw’s scarred pine table, that clinched it. There was a missing boy and a kidnapper.
The only question was how to proceed with the manhunt. Once again, Deighton spoke up.
“There’s no way the boy I saw was ten years old. He couldn’t have been more than six, seven, at most.”
“Professor,” said Calhoun carefully, “thanking you for your concern, but I reckon it’s time you got back to your books. I’ll handle it from here on in.”
“You’re sending riders up into the Saddlebacks?”
“I imagine that’s how it’ll pan out.”
“I want to go with you.”
“You heard. I want you to deputize me.”
“With respect, Professor, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
Craw, drinking coffee with his feet up on the table, laughed scornfully. Deighton turned on him. “I know the language. I’m certainly a damn sight better at dealing with Indians than that fool Ellis Waghorn. And I have the Ford. I think I’d be very useful.”
Calhoun shook his head. “You reckon on tracking him in your automobile? That Indian ain’t sticking to no roads. He’s somewhere out in the Saddlebacks, climbing for all he’s worth. Your flivver ain’t gonna be worth shit once we get past the rail depot.”
“I can ride.”
“You got a horse?”
“I’ll borrow one from Mr. Craw here.”
“Hell you will.”
“Then I’ll buy one. I’ll give you a fair price.”
Calhoun thought for a moment. “Well, we do need every man we can get. But what about your health, if you don’t mind my asking? If you can’t keep up, we ain’t gonna be able to wait on you.”
“Let me worry about my health.”
“All right, then. I’ll swear you in.”
“Thank you, Sheriff Calhoun.”
“One thing, Professor, before I do. I’ve seen how you rub people up the wrong way. You come along on this and you’re under my authority. I know about how you was a college man and an officer in the war
and heaven knows y’all got the scars to prove it. But you ain’t no officer now. You’re just a deputy. So you do as I say and keep your mouth shut, ’specially around Ellis Waghorn. I won’t stand for no more incidents like yesterday.”
The speech made Deighton furious, but he nodded assent.
“OK. Raise your right hand. Do you swear to keep and preserve the peace in the county of San Bernardino, and to quiet and suppress all affrays, riots and insurrections, for which purpose, and for the service of process in civil and criminal cases, and in apprehending and securing any person for felony or breach of the peace you may be called upon at such time as needed?”
“By the authority vested in me, I appoint you a temporary deputy of this county. Get the man a horse, Danville.”
Deighton walked with Craw to a corral near the bunkhouse. The place was a mess, crates stacked up in teetering piles against a tumbledown shed, bits of tack hanging higgledy-piggledy from the hitch rail. In the pen, five half-wild mustangs stepped and kicked, shying away as the men drew near. Craw unpromisingly described them as “green broke.” Privately Deighton thought that was an overstatement.
“Don’t you have any properly trained horses?”
“Well, listen to him. Yes, sir, I do. Trouble is my men took them. You want to try out one of these or have you changed your mind?”
A few hands drifted over to the rail to watch. Deighton pointed at a bay that seemed marginally more docile than the others. Craw ducked under the fence and slipped a hackamore over its head, then walked it around with a lead rope as it stamped and shied. Deighton stuck with his choice. It was impossible to say whether it was considered good or bad by the authorities leaning on the rail. The horse skipped from side to side as he mounted, turning its head and eyeing him angrily. He trotted it a couple of times around the corral without incident, then tied it to the rail. Deighton had learned to ride English-style back east. This was different; even the tack was strange, the big square-skirted saddle with the high pommel, the unfamiliar bridle. Craw looked appraisingly at him and started to talk money. Once they’d agreed on a price, an exorbitant
amount that Deighton secretly knew he had no means of paying, he joined the other posse members getting ready, filling a canteen, retrieving his bedroll from the car, packing a leather bag with some tinned beans and franks, a razor, a bar of soap, Friar Garcés’s book. All about him, men were cinching saddles, slipping carbines into scabbards. He saw Ellis Waghorn watching him, his lip curled. For a moment Deighton imagined him being hit by a howitzer blast, leaping high in the air.
They rode out an hour later. As the sun rose higher, they followed the line of barbed-wire fence that demarcated the Bar-T from the BIA reservation. A fine cloud of white limestone dust rose up over the horses, settling on the riders like sieved flour. Ahead of them the desert stretched away in the direction of the Saddlebacks, a serrated ocher ridge rising abruptly from the white plain. As they headed away from Craw’s land, they climbed up through fields of rounded boulders, dipping down again into wide sandy washes, a rhythm that began to vary only as they neared a formation of dunes. Around noon they sighted a line of telegraph poles. Half an hour later they hit the railroad track and followed it until they came to the adobe buildings and big metal water tank of the railroad depot.
As Calhoun and Waghorn pored over maps and planned their route, Deighton lined up to refill his canteen from a big clay olla. When it came to his turn, he drank from the tin dipper and laved a little water over his head. The tracker, Francisco Lobo, was smoking and looking out at the mountains. He was a tiny man, barely five feet tall, with a hooked nose and a smooth round face that made it hard to tell his age. He wore his hair short, with a crumpled pinstripe suit jacket and a straw hat crammed down low over his head, an ensemble that gave him an oddly formal look. Deighton walked over and stood beside him.
“Who do you think it is?”
Lobo looked blank.
“The fugitive. Who is he?”
“Just a man, I guess.”
“I’ve heard of Indian tribes raising up white children, but that was a long time ago. Pioneer days. I don’t understand why he’s got this boy.”
“I ain’t even sure there is a boy.”
Just then Calhoun blew a whistle, shouting at everyone to gather round to get their orders. Some men would ride a handcar to the next station east, where they’d pick up horses and try to cut the fugitive off on the other side of the range. The others were to head for the mountains, trying to pick up the Indian’s tracks. They dispersed to saddle up, then rode out in two lines, each group heading for one of the old mining trails that ran through the mountains. They were barely an hour out from the depot when Lobo held up his hand. The men dismounted and gathered to look at what he’d found. To Deighton it was barely visible, an insignificant oval displacement of sand. Lobo walked on. He found a second print, then a third.
“He was running fast,” the tracker said. “Very fast, heading for the mountains.”
Calhoun shook his head in disbelief. “Look at the length of his stride. It’s what, six, seven feet? That’s incredible.”
Craw was skeptical. “It ain’t real. He’s doing something, disguising his tracks.”
“I don’t see how.”
“I’ve heard of this before,” said Lobo, “but I never saw it for myself. The man’s a true runner. He knows how to run the old way.”
“The old way?”
“Not like ordinary men.”
Lobo shielded his eyes and looked toward the mountains.
“I don’t think we’ll catch him.”
Calhoun was irritated. “I don’t care if he’s an old-running Indian or a young ’un, he can’t keep that pace up forever. Besides, there’s no food up there. He can’t have picked up anything to eat between the Bar-T and here. He’ll be tired and hungry and he’ll slow down. We’ll get him.”
Lobo shook his head. “I don’t know, Sheriff, sir. There’s more to eat in the mountains than you think. And some of the People hide food up there for when they’re hunting. Piñones, jerky. Maybe he knows a place.”
Calhoun didn’t like being contradicted. He spat on the ground, then pulled out a pocket mirror, which he used to signal the second group of riders, some miles to the south. When he saw them change their course,
he gave the order to saddle up. They rode on, following the footprints toward the mountain range, making their way across a plain of round rocks scattered with ocotillo and sage. Gradually, the shadows lengthened and the warm evening light softened the landscape, turning the white rocks honey-yellow. By the time the heat had gone out of the air, they were at the foot of the mountains, and hadn’t found any sign of the fugitive for an hour or more. At dusk they were following the only plausible route, a narrow trail up a steep ridge, watching the last orange glow recede from the desert below. As they notched the pass, they saw it led down into a natural shelter formed by two steep walls of rock. Shepherds had built a paddock and a crude stone hut with a horse’s skull nailed over the doorway. The hut was in ruins, and must have last been used many years previously, but there was wood stacked inside and water in an old stone tank. They made camp there. By the time the second posse arrived, they had a fire and coffee on the go. The hobbled horses nosed about for fodder, while the men ate beans and tortillas. Deighton took his plate and sat down next to Lobo. Though no one else was paying much attention, he spoke in a lowered voice, aware that the tracker might not want to speak openly. “Why did you say we’re never going to catch him?”
“Like I said, he’s a true runner.”
“What does that mean?”
“In the old times, there were messengers who could cover two hundred miles in a day. True runners. They knew there’s more than one way to run.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When I was a boy, we lived over on the other side of the river. There was a band of men who ran together. Not to get any place. Just for the joy of running. One of them was a young feller name of John Smith, though he had other names. When he was with his friends he ran ordinary, but on his own he ran another way, the old way, least that’s what people used to say. There’s a story about John Smith, how he and his friends are camped by Paiute Holes and he says good-bye and gets up to go to a camp way upriver, place they call Adobe Hanging Like Tears.
His friends watch him run off, running easy like he always does. They’re curious about how he runs when he’s alone, so they decide to follow him. At first they find his footsteps, long footsteps like we just saw. But they keep getting longer and longer, ten feet, twenty feet, until they just disappear. John Smith’s friends run upriver, following the path. After some days they come to Adobe Hanging Like Tears and they say to the people there, did you see John Smith? And the people say yes, he was here on such and such a day, just as the sun was rising. It was the same morning he left Paiute Holes.”
“So this John Smith was a shaman?”
“No, no, he never carried a stick, never had visions. He was just a man.”
“But he had a magic way of traveling.”
“Not magic. He never used magic. He just knew how to run.”
That was the end of Lobo’s story. As Deighton lay by the fire, his head propped uncomfortably on his saddle, many things seemed to collapse into one: the runner disappearing and reappearing instantaneously at his destination, the wandering Spanish friar, Coyote clinging to the reed and weaving his way into the Land of the Dead. Was this where Garcés had journeyed in his lost days? Was this where the running Indian had led them? He fell asleep listening to the horses shifting about in their hobbles, and dreamed of Eliza, instead of the mud and confusion of the Bois de Belleau. The cold was fierce, and he woke up sometime before sunrise with a stiff neck and a hacking cough that wouldn’t go away, however hard he tried to suppress it.
All that day he was in pain. He felt cold right down to his bones, and the sun was high overhead before he stopped shivering. He was unused to riding. The muscles in his back and legs felt sore, but more serious was the pain in his chest. Something about the motion of the horse seemed to aggravate it, and he began to wonder if Calhoun was right. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to keep up after all.
High in the mountains they came upon an abandoned silver mine. The shaft had caved in, leaving a set of iron rails disappearing into a pile of rocks, like a conjurer’s illusion. By this stoppered mouth a crude
stone arrastra stood by a pile of tailings. Someone had camped there the previous night. Amid the ashes of a fire were lizard bones. Lobo knelt down beside them. Calhoun prodded them with the toe of his boot.
“Well, Frankie, that puts paid to your theory that our boy had food up here. Can’t have been much of a meal, that chuckwalla. You ever eat one of them things?”
Lobo said he never did. His people were from the river. Only desert people ate lizards. They followed the mining track until it emerged at the head of an escarpment overlooking a vast empty basin that stretched away at least thirty miles, before the next range rose up to block its way. He’d never been in that country before, and was awed, as he often was in the desert, by the sheer absence of human markers, of any kind of recognizable scale. He didn’t doubt it now. This was the silent space, the land of Garcés’s missing days. The sun was setting, turning the whole expanse red, darkening to a sinister black at the base of its only feature, a cinder cone that rose up out of the flat gravel like a pimple. Calhoun took out a pair of field glasses and spent several long minutes scanning the scene.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said at length. “There he is.”
They passed the binoculars from hand to hand. There wasn’t a hint of moisture in the air. Visibility was perfect. Deighton took a while to pick it out, a little wisp of dust in the emptiness, a flicker of blue casting a long shadow. It seemed impossible. How far away was it? Ten, maybe fifteen miles? A running man wearing a blue shirt. On his shoulders a bundle of some kind. A child? It was impossible to say.