Welcome to “Tales”, a collection of essays and short stories from our writers.
Our latest “Tale” is submitted by Chinle Miller from a chapter in her new novel, Desert Rats.
Andy pulled up on Jake’s dripping muzzle, then gently kneed the burro in the chest, quickly stepping aside as the little scruffy animal turned and humped his back as if to kick. Shooing Jake away, Andy surreptitiously looked over his shoulder, then quickly stirred the big bowl of pancake batter before anyone noticed that it now had a thick scum of green drool.
“Dang jackass,” Andy said under his breath. When he’d signed on with this outfit, he’d agreed to always keep a polite demeanor, no matter how provoked or frustrated he might become. He’d gotten pretty adept at cussing under his breath, and fortunately the couple of times he’d let rip nobody had been near enough to hear him. He couldn’t believe it, but he’d actually had to put in writing that he wouldn’t cuss or lose his temper around clients.
It rankled him that he couldn’t just be himself-after all, he was a top-notch horse wrangler, even if he’d had to lie a little to get on with this ritzy outfit (he was really 17, not 18), and horse wranglers had to cuss, that was part of the requirements of the job, especially when burros were involved.
But Gentle Adventures, his new employer, had lied to him too, saying his primary job would be to “ensure the safety and comfort of the clients and animals.” They didn’t mention the dishwashing, the endless packing, the nursemaiding of confident but clueless tourists, that stupid jackass Jake, the endless mindless questions (“is that a burro or a donkey?”), and worst of all, hopelessly trying to cook “gourmet food” over an unpredictable smoky fire.
The pay was good enough, and he loved being out in the high country for the summer, so here he was, on his fifth trip of the season already and hanging tough, shoot, even half enjoying himself (except for the cooking).
Noticing that the batter now had a greenish tint, he rummaged through his cook outfit until he found a can of Kuner’s blueberries and dumped them into the bowl. He then threw the can at Jake, who looked like he might come back in for a second helping.
The Gentle Adventure clients (“Adventures gentle on the earth, gentle on the knees, and gentle on the spirit”) began gathering around the serving table, an old mossy board balanced between two tree stumps. It was a pretty breakfast place, this alpine meadow surrounded by tall jagged granite spires and sprinkled with blue-and-white columbine.
Andy served up the pancakes, now a rather art-deco greenish-blue. Several large cans of fruit juice, pre-chilled in the nearby creek, sat attracting bottle flies, a few which had crawled in through where he’d opened the cans and were now drowning, anonymous, unseen. Pancakes, juice, and bottle flies-gentle food for gentle souls.
Today’s plan was to get through breakfast, make sack lunches for the bunch, then saddle up and take everyone up to Blue Lakes. He’d then wait at the lower lake with the horses while the group hiked to the upper lake and beyond. Some of them were talking about going up towards Sneffels, but he’d tried to discourage them. It was monsoon season, and these mountains had a high iron content and were famous for their lightning displays.
Andy liked this particular trip-he wasn’t responsible for anybody, just the horses, and the group left him alone all day. They had originally requested a drop camp, where the horses, equipment, and food were provided, without a wrangler. But the insurance company wouldn’t cooperate, so Andy was included with the package. This group was a bunch of lunatics, Andy thought, wandering around all day on foot when they could be riding or fishing.
He just couldn’t figure these people, and he soon gave up trying. Nobody would say much to him, other than vague pleasantries. They were all from Durango, a couple of oldsters around 40 or so, one kid, and the rest probably in their early 20’s. Some kind of school group.
Andy had brought a couple of books and was now really getting into Moby Dick-he was on page 244. He was enjoying sitting in the meadow all day reading while the horses munched the meadow grass.”Breakfast is served, ladies and gentlemen,” Andy said, bowing.”Gourmet pancakes with wild blueberries, fresh picked.” “Yeah, pancakes a la burrito,” said Mindy, the kid in the group, throwing Andy a knowing look. Mindy was the 11-year-old daughter of Roger, one of the group leaders. She was small for her age with dark hair and the air of one who was used to taking care of herself.
Every day the group would ride up close to timberline, then split up into pairs and disappear into the trees, and nobody would show up again until late afternoon, when Andy would then guide them horseback down to the base camp. And when they got back, none of the regular talk about wildflowers and hiking and how pretty it was, just a few cryptic comments around the dinner fire like,”Might’ve been, maybe not,” or “Made my hair stand on end”-things like that. And they always talked real low, as if they were afraid of being overheard. Made Andy downright uneasy, and after a day or two of this he started looking over his shoulder.
But last night he’d had a near breakthrough. Mindy had offered to help do the dishes, which he’d gladly accepted. After awhile he asked her flat out,“Whattya guys do up there all day? Hike and stuff?”
“I can’t tell you,” she replied, cryptically.
“Why not?” he asked.”We’re just hiking around and stuff, that’s all. Why is that such a big deal?”
“It’s not. Isn’t that what I asked you if you were doing in the first place?”
“Yeah, but you asked in a suspicious way.”
He sighed and changed the subject. Since Mindy was the only one who’d really talk to him, he didn’t want to put her off.
“Say, Mindy, you ever seen the ocean?” he asked, over the dish-drying.
“Of course. Went to Disneyland once and saw it there,” she replied.
“No, I mean the real ocean,” he persisted.
“Yeah, it’s in California, by Disneyland, like I said,” she answered testily.
“Oh. Ever seen a whale?” he asked.
“No.” “What’re you guys doing up there?” he tried again.
“It’s a secret. But I’ll give you a hint, we’re hunting for something.” She looked serious, but he could tell she was watching him to see if he believed her or not. He didn’t.
“How the H-E-double hockeysticks do you expect to hunt with no firearms?” he asked.”Or are you all carrying fold-up Uzi machine guns or something? You expect me to believe you? Unless maybe you’re hunting mushrooms or something like that, is that it?”
Mindy just smiled that enigmatic smile that kids have before they realize how serious life really is, then she finished drying the pans and went and climbed a big nearby rock.
This morning she was back, watching him saddle the horses.
“Can I hang out with you today? I’m tired of hunting.”
“Sure,” Andy replied,“But ask your dad.”
Horses finally saddled, the group left the base camp, leaving the pack horses hobbled, free to munch grass till everyone returned. Jake was engaged in his favorite pastime of eating mules-ears-no need to hobble the little burro, as he always hung around camp, hoping for a handout.
Three miles later they reached the lower lake, and the others trudged off on foot as Andy unsaddled and hobbled the saddle horses, then took off their bridles so they could graze. The horses happily spread out in the meadow with a hip-hop-gait, munching the longstem grasses and swatting at deerflies with their long tails.
“Now what?” asked Mindy.
“Whattya do all day here while everybody’s up there hunting?”
“Well, I watch the weather, for one, but I’ve been reading this book called Moby Dick. My sister read it for her English class and told me I have to read it.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about this boat captain named Ahab. He’s trying to catch this big whale that ate his leg. He’s after revenge. He’s insane. But the whale had the right if anybody did, cause Ahab was stickin’ it full of harpoons.”
“Revenge on a whale? And it’s ship captain, not boat captain. My dad’s insane, too.” Mindy noted.
“Yeah, Ahab’s obsessed with catching this whale. Every time he meets another whaling boat, he asks, ‘Ship ahoy! Hast seen the white whale?‘”
“He sounds like my dad,” Mindy said drolly.“Obsessive. Always thinking about the white whale, the Holy Grail, except his Holy Grail is a Holy Griz.”
“A griz? Holy smokes, are you guys looking for grizzly bears? Is that what you’re hunting?”Andy got real quiet for awhile, then said,“Good luck. Haven’t been any around here for years.”
“There’ve been a number of purported sightings throughout the San Juans,” Mindy replied in textbook fashion,“but none substantiated. Anyway, this Moby Dork guy, does he ever find the whale?”
“Dunno. I’m only on page 244. Hey. Let’s sit down and I’ll read it out loud to you. A little literary culture never hurt anyone.”
They sat down on a big granite rock, fallen eons ago or maybe yesterday from the high crags above them. Andy started reading.
Towards evening of that day, the Pequod was torn of her canvas, and bare-poled was left to fight a Typhoon which had struck her directly ahead.
“The Pequod is Ahab’s boat,” Andy explained.
“What’s a whistle pig?” Mindy interrupted.
“What? It’s a marmot. Related to the varmit. They’re all over up here. Live on gorp.” Andy answered.
He continued reading.
When darkness came on, sky and sea roared and split with the thunder, and blazed with the lightning, that showed the disabled masts fluttering here and there.
“Did you know that a skinned bear looks just like a human?” Mindy interrupted again.
“Gross,” Andy replied, putting the book down.“Look, you’re not hearing a word of this. Why’s your dad obsessed with finding a griz?”
“My grandfather saw one up here about ten years ago, but the last one was supposed to have been shot in the 1970s. My grandpa’s the one who told me that thing about skinned bears. Now my dad thinks if there are any still around, he can argue for their restoration. He’s a biologist. He likes the griz.”
“Why such a big secret?” Andy asked again.“Lots of people don’t want him to find anything. They’re scared griz will eat the tourists and livestock if they decide griz is here, even though the griz here haven’t bothered anybody yet. It’s easier to just be quiet about it until he can prove it. My dad says that if we don’t have griz, we don’t have real wilderness.”
“You guys like drama,” noted Andy, subconsciously checking the sky. Miles away, down towards Log Hill, clouds billowed into afternoon rainstorms in the far distance, far above deep canyons that drained the massive San Juans. Here, nearby in the meadow, he did a horse-count-all accounted for.
“Hey, so how do you like horse-packing?” Andy asked.
“It’s fun-beats freeze-dried stroganoff and having to carry everything yourself. Dad got a grant this year and decided we could afford it this time. You guys were the only outfit with an opening-guess the bird-watcher crowd stayed home this year, huh? Gentle adventures, my butt! Dad didn’t want to use you guys cause he figured you’d be too fussy. But let’s read the ending. I wanna know if Ahab the Arab catches the white whale,” Mindy demanded.
“One of those instant gratification types, huh? OK. I’ve been wondering myself.” Andy flipped to the back of the massive book, page 521.
And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last-an orphan. Finis.
“Is that Ahab talking? Geez, what if Dad finds a griz and I’m orphaned?” Mindy looked concerned.
“No, looks like Ahab goes down with the ship-the white whale gets him. But I wouldn’t worry too much about being orphaned-there ain’t no griz out here, and that’s a fact, Jack,” Andy grinned.“Say, Mindy, what if there were a big griz right up on that rim over there, watching you. Would you be scared?”
“Nope,” she answered.
“Have you ever seen a bear, even a black bear?” Andy asked, stretching out on the rock.
“Well, we sorta saw one last summer over in the Weimenuche-I say sorta cause it was dark and it was trying to get into our food stash. I never actually saw it, but my dad said it was a yearling black bear.”
“Were you scared?”
Silence, then Andy said in a low voice,“Look Mindy, I have to tell you something, but don’t think I’m weird, OK?”
“Too late,” she replied.
“No, seriously, listen, last night I had the weirdest dream-one of the strangest dreams I’ve ever had, it was so real. I dreamt about a white grizzly bear-it was looking down at me while I slept. And look, I didn’t even know you guys were out here looking for grizzlies. Weird, huh?”
“It’s from reading about the white whale. Maybe it was an albino. But what did the griz do?”
“Nothing-I woke up before it could do anything in my dream. Scared the holy you-know-what outta me,” he answered.
Now they both lay stretched out on the rock, thinking about white whales and white grizzes and the definition of insanity and obsession and if it rained how in the heck was Andy supposed to cook dinner over a fire and things like that. After awhile, a tight breeze picked up, and Andy sat up and looked around as if he’d just woken up from a daze.
“Holy cowpies, I mean holy smokes!” he exclaimed, then stood, pulling Mindy up by the hand.“Look, we’ve forgotten to keep an eye on the weather. Look what’s coming in!”
Above them, half blocking the top of Sneffels, black misty clouds rolled in, followed by even blacker shrouds boiling up over the ridges.
“Can’t see anything coming in these damn mountains,” he moaned,“until it’s right on you. Damn, I mean dang. We need to get some shelter-head for the thick trees. The horses will have to fend for themselves. This looks like it could be hot!”
They hurried into the dark timber, tall Doug-fir, then hunched down on a small rock as the storm rolled in. Black clouds swirled around the tops of the trees, getting darker and darker. Bolts of lightning soon began pounding the high peaks above them, followed by ground-shaking thunder. Soon a light rain set in, chilly and damp, then just as quickly passed on, leaving gray fingers of mist laced through the forest.
Suddenly, right behind them, something crashed around in the deep underbrush. Both Andy and Mindy turned just as a large dark something began smashing toward them in the dim light.
“Ohmygod, it’s a griz!” yelled Mindy, jumping from the rock.“Climb! Climb!” she screamed.
Andy quickly boosted her up to where she could pull herself frantically into the branches of the nearest tree. As he tried to follow her, his boots slipped on the wet bark, and he crashed down, catching his knee on a small stub on the way. He moaned, partly from the pain but mostly from fear, just as the creature stopped and snorted, bending directly over where he lay in a heap. Terrified, afraid to move-a hot breath on his neck made his hackles stand up. Above him, Mindy began to laugh hysterically.
Suddenly something clicked in Andy’s mind. He knew that horses were terrified of bears, yet just ahead in the meadow he could see them calmly back to their grazing in the wet grass after the storm. Now he slowly turned his head and looked up-it was Jake.
“You stupid damn sumsabitch jackass,” he yelled at the top of his lungs, then followed that with a string of blasphemies that had been festering in his subconscious for days. Mindy clung above him in awe.
High above them both, on the rim, amidst hard blue granite and soft green tundra, stood a sentient, intelligent creature, listening and watching. She was a very rare color, blending into the high snowfield behind her, large for her young years, with just a touch of cinnamon color on her eartips. Above her massive shoulders a small hump stored fat for the next long winter.
As the wind began to shift, she turned and carefully, slowly, made her way across a nearby snow-filled cirque.
Far below, quakies danced in the last remnants of the storm-danced in a breeze laden with the music of water tumbling over distant rocks, a breeze laden with the sound of a young girl laughing.
Chinle Miller is a lifelong desert rat who divides her time between Utah and Colorado.