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The Humpbacked Bird

ISSUE:  Summer 1975

THE shadow of the vulture drifted across the rocky hill in front of them, and the two men stopped and looked up. Schafer raised his hand to block the midday glare of the sun and squinted to find the bird that belonged to the shadow.

“Alone,” Tom said of the vulture. He took off his wide-brimmed hat and, with a bandana taken from the pocket of his red shirt, he wiped his face clean of sweat. “From the way he’s soaring, he hasn’t found anything yet.”

Schafer trained the binoculars on the bird, picking out the featherless, pink head and the way, unlike a hawk, the vulture’s wings tilted upward as it spiraled on the high currents of air. “Could sure as hell see the boy from up there.”

“Not if the boy’s under cover where he should be. Everything alive had better be in the shade.”

It had not rained in that part of the country in six months. Across the wide stretch of desert, they could see the dark clusters of rocks in the Christmas Mountains and the many gullies where the land had been washed. At noon the mountains and the gullies were without the definition of shadow, treeless, and baked dry.

“That’s the trouble with searching,” Tom went on. “You have nowhere to start.”

Schafer let his pack slide down into the hooks of his elbows, glad to ease the rubbing of the straps on his shoulders. “If I were that kid,” he said, “I’d try to head for the river.”

Tom tied the bandana around his forehead and settled the hat back onto his head. He was a lean man with dusty red hair, and he looked as though he had been born to that dry, desolate country of West Texas. His features were stark, like yucca thorns, and he seemed to have the nervous quickness that animals require for survival.

Schafer looked at Tom with a certain envy. Having drifted south from Colorado, Schafer was not used to the heat or to the rugged country of the Sierra del Carmen. Tom seemed hard to him, but Schafer often thought it was that he was so soft himself. He envied Tom his indifference.

They watched the vulture ride high up, and when it was nearly out of sight over the crest of the hill ahead of them, Tom started up again toward the ridge. For half an hour Schafer labored to find a rhythm to his stride that would make it easier. But he kept thinking of the boy. Except for the Rio Grande fifteen miles away, there was no water. The alkaline stream beds were crusted white, and the whole country was bleached out and scorched by the heat.

They had never met Joel. At the ranch where they worked, Tom had been ordered out onto the search because he knew the country better than anyone else. Tom had argued that it was impossible to go in and find someone unless you knew him. “You can track a deer,” Tom had said, “but not a stranger.”

“Trying is better than sitting and waiting,” Schafer had countered. “Think of him out there.”

“Then you come with me.”

Schafer had volunteered, though he did not know very much about the desert. All he knew was that the boy’s parents had been exploring the old wax camp roads when the boy had suddenly told them to stop the car. There had been some sort of fight, and Joel had opened the door and run. He was fifteen.

“And we’re asked to believe that?” Tom had said when he had heard the story.

“What difference does it make what we’re told?” Schafer had asked. “All we have to do is find him.”

“If he wants to come out, he’ll come out.”

“He’s lost,” Schafer had said almost angry at Tom.

Tom had shaken his head. “You have to learn to take care of yourself,” Tom had said. “I had to learn, too. But I guess I don’t have much choice about going.”

Now before them was the wild Sierra del Carmen and the Deadhorse Mountains, a land so barren that only a few stands of juniper and piñon were hardy enough to color the side of one high mountain. A jagged ridge of rock broke the white-hot skyline in the distance ahead of them, and they both understood that the land did not stop there. Beyond the first canyon below them was the ridge, and beyond that, another canyon and a continuation of the scarred, serrated hills which seemed endless.

Schafer had come slowly across the arid region, moving a little farther south each year, as though he found it necessary to sink to the bottom of the map. For a while he had worked as a mechanic in Sanderson, where Alene had grown up. Knowing no one, his life was putting in hours at the shop and frequenting the billiard hall or a movie. It had been, really, no different in any other town or city from Colorado on down. Farmington, Albuquerque, Alamogordo, El Paso. After a few months he had felt burned out, not from the dry heat, but from a feeling that he was doing nothing. He wanted to change that.

Once in a while in Sanderson he would see Alene next door. Though he guessed she was between twenty and twenty-five, she seemed to him older. Her hair was streaked, but dull and uncared for, and she walked with the slow, uneven stride of an old person. Once or twice he had tried to speak to her, but each time, for some incalculable reason, he felt himself turn shy, withdrawn, as though he were afraid of her. From her going and coming, he figured she must have worked in town, but when he looked for her at lunch or after work, he seldom saw her on the street. It was just at home that he saw her, next door where she lived with her parents. By saying hello over the fence, he could make her smile, but he noticed too that the smile never reached her eyes.

One evening, looking out from the window of his basement apartment where he was cooking supper, he saw her in the window across the way. She seemed to be studying him, though she gave no sign. And from that day on, he left the curtains open day and night so that she could see everything he did. He was too shy to go to her, and he began to dream that some night she would knock on his door and ask. Like many men who had nothing, it was easy to make his whole life hinge upon a woman he had never met.

In the spring, one night after a movie they crossed paths coming up the aisle. “Are you walking home?” he asked.

She smiled briefly and nodded, and he went along with her on the sidewalk. She was not as attractive as he had imagined, and yet he barely noticed the ungainly way she moved or the sallow skin of her arms in the street light.

“There’s the train,” she said.

He heard nothing except the crickets.

“You can feel it in the ground,” she said.

In a moment the whistle of the train sounded behind the hill, and the beam of the engine’s light funneled down through the darkness outside of town. He never noticed the slight shake of the ground until the train was almost even with them.

At the juncture of their sidewalks, when he was making up words in his mind to say good night, she kept walking toward his basement apartment, just as though he had asked her. She waited for him at the door.

“I didn’t expect you to visit,” he said, holding the door for her. “I haven’t cleaned up.”

He stood back and let her pass, following her into the room. The dank smell of his dirty, oily clothes had collected in the shut-up space, and he stood for a moment by the door while she moved through the room in the dark.

“Don’t turn on the lights,” she said, turning back suddenly.

Then she went on across the room to the windows. “We don’t need the curtains open anymore either,” she said, pulling them across and closing the room away from the street lamps outside. She turned toward him and smiled.

There was a brazenness about her in that moment, born more from her apparent resolution to carry the act through to the end than from any real feeling. To him she looked nervous as she took a couple of steps toward him. “Well?”

He looked at her full for the first time, waiting. “Are you sure?” he asked.


Schafer felt the heat and the dampness rise to his face. He cared too much to refuse, and yet he knew right away she was pretending. So he let her begin.

“People have looked away from me all my life just as though I were invisible,” she said. “But you’re not looking away.”

“I want to see you.”

“I’m afraid to let you.”

Then, feigning boldness of his own, he went to her. Most of his experience had been lonely encounters with women to whom nothing mattered, and he was awkward in trying to caress Alene softly. But in that room with the curtains drawn, she did not see his imperfections, nor he hers. With sighs and touches, the helpless, self-consciousness they each hated in themselves dissipated, and they undressed and walked to the unmade bed.

It was over in what seemed like an instant, coupling briefly and then ebbing. The silence gathered between them once again. He edged away from her and hid his face in the warm spot of her neck where he held his breath. He expected her to cry then, but she lay looking up at the ceiling for a long time, her left arm draped over him without pressure, her right hand rubbing her stomach and thighs, as though proving to herself that what had happened had been true.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

“No, I’d better go.”

She started to get up, but he held her down gently.

“Please,” she said. She got up and moved across the room on bare feet to gather her clothes.

“Are you all right?”


“I’d rather have you stay.”

She did not answer, but instead began dressing, as though she had been through that ritual of going home a hundred times.

“Are you angry? You. . . .”

“I’m not angry,” she said quietly. “I’ll be back another time.”

He looked at her across the dark room. He had not known then the depth of her moods and silences, though later he would learn about them. He had the feeling that she was more afraid than he was, and that she knew by leaving she could avoid all questions.

Schafer called the boy’s name twice and then waited.

“Joel! Joel!”

The sound died out in the hot, motionless air without an echo. Heat waves rising from the ground blurred the rocky hillside in front of them, and Schafer felt his shirt sticking to his skin.

“It won’t do any good to call,” Tom said.

“What do you think we should do?”

Tom looked carefully down the empty draw toward the river. The canyon ran north and south and was strewn on both sides with heavy boulders which had fallen from the rim and had rolled part of the way down. “There’s a lot of hiding room here,” he said. “A lot of shade. If we have to do anything, I guess we should each take a side of the canyon and head up toward the mountain.”

“You don’t think we should head down?” Schafer asked, looking south where the canyon walls bent and closed off the way to the river.

“I don’t think he would know there was a river here,” Tom?> said coldly. “We can camp on the mountain where it’s cool, and maybe he’ll be able to see a fire and come to us.”

Schafer took a swallow from his canteen, washed his mouth, and spat out the warm water onto the ground. The boy had already spent one night out in that wasteland, and Schafer hoped he would not have to go through another.

“I’ll flip you for sides,” Tom said, drawing a half from his jeans pocket. He spun the coin high into the air.


Tom caught the half and slapped it over on his wrist. “Always call tails,” he said before he looked at the coin. He smiled and lifted his hand. “Tails. I’ll take this side. You go across.”

Schafer shrugged his shoulders. “I knew it beforehand,” he said, gathering up his pack. He stood for a moment on the west rim looking at the distance he had to climb. He had to go down into the canyon, across the sand river, and then out again to the east rim.

“Are you up to it?” Tom asked.

“I’ll make it.” Schafer studied Tom’s bony face. “Let’s take it slowly for the boy’s sake.”

“We aren’t going to find him,” Tom said, “take it slow or not. We just have to finish up what we started.”

An hour later, as he looked out from the east rim, the Sierra del Carmen sifted toward orange and red in the afternoon light. Schafer scanned the area with the binoculars, crossing gullies and hills and draws slowly. He picked up nothing. The lifeless, inert land bulged in the circle of his wide-angle glasses, and he wondered what had made Joel pick this place to run away.

He lowered the binoculars and turned around. The sun had edged outward, as though traveling a line rather than an ellipse, and the west rim was iced in shadow. Tom was merely a red swath of shirt, recognizable only by color and movement against the backdrop of the Christmas Mountains as he hiked the ridge. He ought to have been down below the rim in the rocks, S chafer thought, where he could look into the caves and crevices. It would take longer and it would be tougher to move, but they weren’t out there to make it easy on themselves.

When he had caught his breath, Schafer moved off the rim, still calling the boy’s name even though the sound did not carry. In the dead heat of the afternoon, he crawled through the narrow passages between the rocks, shouting to Joel until with the repetition, the name began to sound unreal to him. His voice cracked, and he felt as though he were mouthing a child’s meaningless song. “Joel, Joel, Jol, Jal, Jo-el.” He began to lose the sense of where he was.

Headed toward the point of the triangle where the canyon closed into the side of the mountain, he could have been in any state, in any country. He was working harder than he had ever worked in his life and was getting nowhere. Neither an answer from Joel, nor a sign. But he could not stop. He checked across the canyon again for Tom.

Several minutes before, Tom had been far ahead of him in an open spot on the rim near a high rock formation. Now at first glance, Schafer did not see him. Schafer climbed to the top of a rock and brought up the glasses.

He moved the circle of the glasses along the west rim, passing the rock formation and then coming back to it, thinking that Tom had simply been cut off from view. The formation looked like a huge humpbacked bird, the angle of two separate rocks forming wings upraised and a lump of limestone on its back pinning the bird to the ground. Schafer stared, imagining the bird’s span of centuries, hearing the night sounds, feeling the pull of winds and the wash of rain. The weight of limestone had held it there like a prisoner’s chain.

The red shirt did not emerge. Schafer waited a few minutes and rested. Then he thought that perhaps Tom had found the boy. He tried to call across, but the new sound of Tom’s name evaporated as soon as it left his lips. A kind of panic began to fill him. Tom had found the boy, and Schafer wasn’t able to do anything, wasn’t able to help. It was too steep to climb down at that point, and instead, he climbed back out to the east rim. He started running.

The pack bounced crazily on his back, throwing him off stride, and in a few minutes he stopped, realizing he was making no progress. Across the canyon the humpbacked bird had now changed form, and the wings of the bird had now become the ears of some wolf like animal. Two great black holes made the pockets for eyes which seemed to stare out at him. Then from behind those eyes, he saw Tom starting to climb back up to the west rim.

Alene had been happy when they were ready to move down to the trailer on the ranch. In the few months they’d known each other, she had changed noticeably. Though she could never make herself truly pretty, the brighter dresses she wore and the curled hair and make-up gave her the appearance of being new. Her parents were pleased, and their original suspicion of Schafer when he’d asked to marry her had altered into a warm feeling of gratitude.

“She hasn’t ever had the kind of attention that a woman needs,” her father told Schafer one night on the porch.

“Well, she’ll get it now,” Schafer assured him. “I hope she’ll do as well on the ranch as she’s done here.”

Alene had come out onto the porch. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“It’ll be hot and dry and fewer people,” he told her. “I don’t know whether I can take it myself.”

She smiled. “I’d rather be around fewer people.”

Schafer was as worried about himself as he was about her. It was as though he had come to the border now and had exhausted all other options. But he had a great deal of hope. Alene had made the difference to him, had made him see that he could hang on if he really wanted to, and he was determined that this job would be for a long time.

And Alene had done well. Schafer made the effort to compliment her often, whether on her cooking or her appearance or her lovemaking, and she responded with a willingness to try to break from her old habits even more profoundly. She was more talkative, seemingly more open. Yet he still did not understand her moods.

Sometimes she seemed to escape into some dream, as though she interrupted what she was doing, becoming more lonely when she was with him than when she was alone. He did not expect to know everything about her, and yet he wanted her to feel that he cared to know if she would tell him.

Several months after they had settled into the trailer, he caught her in a mood. He had cleared away the supper dishes while she was sitting over a cup of coffee, and he turned to find her far away.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She broke the dream and turned to him with a smile.

“What were you thinking then, just now, with your eyes open?”

“Remembering,” she said.


She got up from the table. “All the things that you don’t know about me.”

“I want to know them,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter if I don’t.”

“Don’t even imagine.” She went over to the sink and stood looking out the window into the yard, where at night a fluorescent light made the hard ground seem like an empty ball field. “I hate vultures,” she said. “They barely even eat.”

“What are you talking about?” He conjured up the image of the huge black birds that stalked the yard during the day and scavenged at the ranch dump. He looked out his separate window from the sofa. “There aren’t any vultures out at night.”

“You don’t see them.”

Beside the trailer in the men’s bunkhouse, a clatter caught their attention and a door banged hard. Tom Bailey came out and started across the yard toward the barns on the other side.

“Did you know Tom is from Sanderson?” she asked.

“No.” He watched Tom stop in the center of the yard and light a cigarette.

“He was older than I was, but in school he was quite a football player.”

“That must have been a while ago,” Schafer said. “He doesn’t look now as though he ever did much except work with cattle.”

“He was a kind person,” she said almost wistfully. She looked back toward the sofa, not seeing Schafer directly, but staring at some point distant which only she could see. He did not like those silences of hers for they gave him no-where to go. Finally she asked, “Do you think I’m afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“I don’t know.” She paused a moment to think. “Afraid of things generally.”

“You mean like vultures?”

She didn’t answer, but looked out into the yard. “It’s only that I’ve always felt until now that there was nothing I could lose.”

“What can you lose now?”


He did not understand that then, but he knew the kind of desperation that was in her voice. It was that emptiness that lonely people sensed when they had no one to whom they could turn for help. He stood up and smiled and went over to her at the sink. “You aren’t going to lose me,” he said. “I just wish I could give you some comfort.”

Her face was pale as she looked at him. “I wish comfort would do some good.”

He started to hold her, but her body tensed, and she moved away from him. He thought back to that later, after she had disappeared.

Schafer watched Tom’s red shirt move back up through the maze of rocks to the rim. The terrain from that point began its slow rise into the mountain, and now the only obstacles were the small gullies that formed the beginning of the canyon. Schafer followed Tom in the glasses, watching the other man’s cursory search. But he was still looking,Schafer thought.

Tom walked very slowly, stopping at each boulder and training his binoculars along the hillside. They were fairly close to each other now as the canyon narrowed, and Schafer could see Tom’s face through his own glasses. He seemed as hard and as intense as ever, but his movements seemed changed, more deliberate. He took his time now, as though he were tired.

Schafer was disappointed. They had come nearly the whole length of the canyon and now there was no place left to look. The rocks were smaller, not offering either hiding or shade, and it was pointless even to call the boy’s name. He moved ahead more rapidly, anxious to meet Tom and to get the fire started on the mountain. Schafer waited at the head of the canyon.

“What’d you find?” Tom asked when he came up.

“Nothing at all.”

“Just as I said from the beginning.”

Schafer was sitting down, his pack beside him, looking out at the roseate hills in the distance. Though the ground still radiated warmth, the heat had gone out of the sun, which was far out and flattening against the line of hills to the west. From where he sat, the humpbacked bird looked like two crimson spires, flanked by black robes where the rim of the canyon was buried in shadows. “What about you?” Schafer asked.

“No sign.” Tom breathed heavily and took out a hip flask from his pack. “What did you think?”

“I thought you might have found something behind that rock.”

“I was taking a crap,” Tom said smiling. “I didn’t want the boy to see me.” He took a shot from the flask and lowered it slowly. “I think the boy’s parents were lying.”

“What do you mean lying?”

“I don’t think there’s a soul out here except us. Those people are probably crazier than the boy to begin with. There never was a boy named Joel, much less one that ran away.” He stopped suddenly, “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You found him, didn’t you?”


“He’s dead and you found him,” Schafer said.

“If he were found dead,” Tom said, “it would have been by the vultures.”

Schafer had forgotten the birds. In the open country you knew when something was dead or dying. Tom was right about that. “Why do you think the parents would lie?”

“Maybe they weren’t lying,” Tom said. He untied the bandana from around his forehead and wiped the dirt from under his eyes. His face seemed darkened after the long day in the sun, and the bandana had made a line across his forehead.

He sat down and let his pack rest against the slope of the hill. “I remember being lost in the hills outside of Sanderson. I was about ten and I was out hunting with my father. He told me to go out and circle around a knoll that he pointed to about a mile away. I thought he was going to watch me, you know, like we were splitting up to chase game to each other. I remember turning back all the time to see whether I could still see him, but even when he had gone I wasn’t real scared because I knew he was going to meet me. It wasn’t too long until dark, but I figured he knew what he was doing.” Tom paused a moment and looked at Schafer. “So I got way the hell over to that knoll, and the whole country was right at my feet, and I’d done what he’d told me. There were a lot of little gullies like the small ones shooting into this canyon right here. But I didn’t see my father. I circled around a little, staying around the knoll waiting for him. Then I started getting scared because it was darker then and the snakes would be coming out. So I went back and climbed the knoll and tried to find him. I shouted for him just like you went about shouting for Joel this afternoon. But my father didn’t answer either. Finally I got all turned around so that everything looked the same to me, and I panicked and started crying. I wanted him to come and find me, but he didn’t. He’d taken off. He must have sent me out there and then just turned around and headed back to the car, because nobody ever saw him again. The sheriff found me the next day, wandering around the tail-end gullies just as I was about to come out onto a dirt road, I knew enough even then to head downhill.”

The two men sat a long moment in silence, watching the land change with the ending of the sun. A pair of whitetails made their way over the ridge to their right and picked their way gingerly down the rocky slope toward the river. Tom made no move, and it was Schafer who finally stood up.

He looked back up the barren mountainside where a steep-sloping hill was buttressed by a stand of junipers. “You don’t think he would have gone up into the trees?”


“Well, let’s give him a last chance with that fire.”

Tom stood up and brushed the dust from his jeans. “We’d better move anyway,” he said, taking a last swig from the flask. “The snakes are coming out, and I could use some supper.”

The fire swelled against the darkness, and Schafer leaned forward to warm his face. The desert air had cooled rapidly with the darkness and the altitude and the slight breeze that came then off the mountain. Schafer buttoned his jacket all the way up and looked across the fire at Tom, who was finishing the last of his dinner.

Tom’s lean features scarcely moved as he ate, and he stared into the fire as though something were sinking in. For a long time he sat without stirring, and then he suddenly shifted.

“What did you hear?” Schafer asked.

Tom’s face changed, the veneer giving way to a quick movement of his eyes. He put down his unfinished portion and stood up. “Things are starting to move out there,” he said. “The whole land changes.”

In the distance a coyote’s call went up, an insistent cry that seemed to make Tom wary. It was true, Schafer thought. In the daytime the heat stopped everything, and the animals sought the cool shelter of sand, rock, or yucca. But at night they emerged from that common sleep to prey and be preyed upon, moving through the blackness which protected them.

“Where do you think he is now?” Schafer asked.

Tom pushed back his hat. “He’s probably in a nice warm bed.”

That thought settled with Schafer. He would have preferred to be in bed himself, and he imagined the boy speaking to his mother from beneath a quilt, just as he remembered that from his own boyhood. In the next room his father was always coughing and spitting and the light that had just been turned off flashed in his eyes. “And keep quiet in there,” his father always called out. Schafer had never made any noise.

“Still thinking about Alene?” Tom asked.

“No, I try not to.” Schafer looked up, drawn back into the circle of the light with the mention of Alene’s name. He kicked a piece of wood in the fire and watched the sparks shoot up in curving patterns into the dark overhead. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I didn’t know her well enough.”

Tom leaned down and scraped the uneaten food off his plate into the fire. “I didn’t think you’d have stayed around so long,” Tom said. “I mean, you’ve been used to moving.”

“Leaving gets to be too easy,” Schafer answered. “And then, you know, if I left she wouldn’t know where to come back.”

“What do you mean, she left you?” Alene’s mother had asked.

“Has she been here?”

“I don’t think she’d come to us,” her father said. “We haven’t ever been close.”

“Have you been arguing so soon?” her mother put in.

“There was no argument.” Schafer had stood on the porch in silence. The west-moving freight was coming in across the curve of the hill, and he watched the white steam rise into the air. Alene would have been able to feel that train, he had thought. The lumbering power of the freight cars seemed to seep through him as it slowed, draining him. The couples cracked and the high-pitched strain of metal wheels on the track penetrated his brain.

He had stayed up the whole night before, staring at the row of brightly-colored dresses that Alene had collected in the closet. He had thought in that first night that she would simply turn around and come back. He would have said nothing against her and asked nothing, because he needed her. But now he could not understand what had happened.

He tried to think of some explanation to give her parents, but nothing came to him. Nothing had gone wrong, and he could think of nothing he had done. All he could think of were good times. He had felt he had finally found his place, and with her he had felt more comfortable than he had ever been in his life.

“Tell us what happened,” her mother said.

“I don’t know what happened.” He had watched the train gathering speed again without stopping, slowing only for the town and then building its momentum on the downhill.

“She’s always been like that,” her father said. “Always moody and quiet. Ever since junior high school. You could never tell what she was thinking or what she was going to do next.”

“The worst of it,” Schafer said, “is that I wasn’t able to keep her from being what she had always been.”

“She isn’t coming back,” Tom said softly.

“How do you know?”

Schafer looked up at Tom who had drifted into a serious mood. His eyes were quiet and steady now, as though he had come to some conclusion. “I knew her in Sanderson. Every kid in a small town knows every other kid. She was a real nice girl. You know, quiet.”

“I know how she was,” Schafer said, feeling the heat rising to his face.

Tom spoke softly. “You just said you didn’t know her well enough.”

“I don’t want to know any more from you.”

Schafer started to get up, afraid suddenly of Tom.

“Sit down,” Tom said, kneeling himself. He was quiet for a moment, fixing Schafer with a firm look. “Listen to me. Nobody likes what happens in this world. But you can’t keep from facing up to things.”

“I don’t want to face up,” Schafer said, his anger starting.

“Neither did I.”

Coyotes’ calls broke the concentration, and Tom turned in the direction of the sound. “You know what those coyotes are doing?” he asked. “They’re ripping up that boy.”

“You’re lying.”

“I wasn’t going to tell you,” Tom said. “I wasn’t going to tell anyone and just let the people suffer. That’s what my parents did to me.” He let his breath out in a long sigh. “But I can’t say he’s lost now. He’s been found all right, though I didn’t want to find him.”

“There weren’t any vultures,” Schafer said.

“Vultures see, they don’t smell. I tried to cover the boy with rocks in that cave, but the coyotes have found him anyway.”

Schafer looked out wildly into the darkness.

“He’d been bitten by rattlers,” Tom went on. “Six, seven times in the face. He must have gone into that cave under those big rocks and gone to sleep.”

Schafer could hear the yapping and howling, and he stood up and moved a little way from the fire. In the dark he could just make out the spires of the humpbacked bird across the canyon. He had never really cared about the boy, he thought. It was all pretending. Or was it pretending?

He let things settle in his mind. Something had broken lose inside him, the way one of those big rocks washed out of the rim and rolled. “So what is it about Alene?” he asked finally.

Tom spoke in an even, unhurried way, his voice coming from behind Schafer. “When she was fourteen there were a bunch of older boys in Sanderson,” he said. “We picked out the shiest, quietest girl we could think of and drove her outside of town into that hill country. I was drawn in with them at first, thinking it was just fun, but when I saw how afraid Alene was, how she didn’t even scream when the train came by and the people’s faces were pressed against the window.” He paused a moment. “I couldn’t do it then,” he went on. “And I couldn’t now.”


“At the ranch before she left she came to me,” Tom said in a whisper. “Maybe she didn’t really want to and something made her. I don’t know. She didn’t seem to have any purpose, you know? But who knows? Who knows what made that boy run away either.”

Schafer half heard. It seemed to him that Tom’s voice came from a distance, across some gulf where the voice should not have carried. For Schafer was riding that hump-backed bird, climbing high into the darkness beyond the fire. He stared out a long time, and then he looked back at Tom who was sitting, bent forward, with his face in his hands.


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