I was a sentinel above the cab, posted for lookout, but my eyes had dried in the wind, squinting now, and for miles I did not see a single living thing other than birds. The birds were still here. Flickers in low swoops with wings wide and banded white. Blue jays and scrub jays loud even over the engine and tires. All the little brown birds, nameless and pointless, right along the road. Doves a pale cream gray, quail running along the road then flaring. An occasional raptor, sign that perhaps other things, or small things at least, lived out in the dry grass. The leftovers. I would kill dove and quail, and after they were gone, I would kill field mice and the little brown birds.
The pickup slowed and we turned down a gulley and onto a beach of large smooth stones. We halted, and there was no dust. The creek low, no more than a foot of water, but fairly wide, at least ten yards. The stones a brightness of color under the water, blues and deep liver red, a break from the yellow grass, brown dirt and bark, green needles, pale blue sky. Richer colors. Glint of fool's gold along the shallow edges, in the sand.
We knelt in the stones, sniffing at the water first, distrusting what might lie dead upstream, but then we drank, cold and clear and heavy. The colder it was, the heavier it became, pressed in close to the stones, running low toward the center of the earth like mercury. Inside each of us now, a downward pull. I was purging the taste of Bartlett and lemon.
Each of us a kind of magnet. I believed that. Each of us feeling some kind of tug. No action inconsequential. Each step taken another step toward an end. I'd known that ever since I'd had memory.
We remounted and drove the pickup through, climbing the bank on the other side, cab and bed twisting, and I was clinging to a small ridge over a side window, feeling the pull backward. Thinking of horses, of a time when we would have crossed on horses, leaning forward in our saddles, low over a mane, and I was bitter I hadn't seen that time. The modern world, all of it, an aberration. Given a TV instead of a horse, a terrible cheat.
The road narrow and low along a hillside, traversing. Stands of trees we passed through then exposed again to the sun. Feel of the air, thinner in the cool sections, fattening up in the light. The day moving on and I was getting baked. Rifle pinned under a leg, but no sign of deer anywhere. Rock and grass and low brush.
The chaparral a kind of blight on the land, thick and unending where no doubt there once had been trees. The bucks lay low in the brush during the day, kept out of sight. Dry brown stalks everywhere, perfect cover for antlers.
The view shortened, the road traveling from pocket to pocket, valleys opening up and closing, but finally we began the long gradual climb along linked ridges that would lead toward the ranch. Views out to other ridges, other mountains in the distance, a sense of the world and possibility expanding.
The road curled along rises and then cut more deeply into the side of steeper ground. The land falling away to my right, the road narrowing from one lane to less than that, small rocks popping under the tires, and my father slowed, pulled instinctively away from the fall, the tires on the left side on higher ground, the pickup tilting down toward the bottom of a long deep canyon. Slowing to five miles an hour, picking through rocks and bumps.
Up ahead, a slump, land that had caved away and left the road broken. My father slowed and came to a stop fifty feet away. No room to turn around. We might have to back out. I looked at where we had come from, and the track was steep and narrow. Easier ground was far away.
My father stepped out, Tom after him. My grandfather, on the low side, stayed put. Well, my father said. That doesn't look good.
I was feeling vertigo, so I jumped down on the uphill side, holding my rifle. Loose rocks at my feet, sheared and flinty and fresh, a dark gray, no lichen, unearthed recently, fallen from the long scarred hillside above. No vegetation, only ruin. We were driving in scree, traversing a slope of talus, and this had been my nightmare, exactly, for years, driving along the side of a steep mountain with the rock coming down, the momentum of that, unstoppable, though in the dream it was closer to being sand, finer grained, and I was in a school bus rather than a pickup. Still too close to the dream becoming real. I felt what I felt in the dream, that we would be swept away, swept downward to our deaths in the canyon below.
Excerpted from Goat Mountain by David Vann. Copyright © 2013 by David Vann. Excerpted by permission of Harper. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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