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John Holt decorative flourish Stock Tank Delusions

Damn hot. Late April. Low nineties. I’d been wandering around the red sand flat a thousand feet below the South Rim of the canyon during the morning, then struggled back up the trail in the growing heat. Heading down the trail at dawn, every shade of red, yellow, orange and blue I could imagine flashed across thin reefs of clouds, the light running hot then fading as it moved along the clouds. At the edge of the plateau I looked down hundreds of feet, down through the next serious cut in the rock that spans millions of years of linear time, down into a dry wash of scrub and jumbled boulders. I watched as dark purple shadows slid across the ground and finally vanished beneath the climbing sun.

Eventually I turned back and started the short, steep climb to my camp. The sun wasn’t cutting me any breaks as I walked the last few hundred yards to a stock tank where I’d parked my old Suburban beneath some pines. My feet threw up puffs of grey- and ochre-colored dust. I kicked a few desiccated pine cones ahead of me. This place was only a few hours away from the tourist madness of Bright Angel Lodge, yet no one ever came here. Too far away. No guided pack trips. No curio shops. No restaurants. And the big tour buses from LA and Vegas would high-center before they lurched too far into this isolated country. The two-track leading in soon degenerates into a free-form exercise in dodge-the-rocks, watch out for the jack rabbits. The stock tank where I set up camp was full of cool, clean water that was replenished by the efforts of an old, rusting windmill. A luxury in this parched land. All the water I would ever need and no cattle. Never had seen one in all the times I’d been here. Not an Angus or a Hereford or, sadly, a long-horn. Loved those Spanish-blooded beasts. At the tank I reached down and pulled a cooler from the water and fished around for a can of Pabst buried in the ice. I took a long pull of the beer and then another before looking around.

The sky was light blue burning to white-silver as the sun hammered away. Nothing moved. No wind. No sound. I was alone. The intense light of midday turned the small pines a dusty green and the soil simmered, waves of radiating heat making spectral images of the landscape. Well above a small rise a pair of vultures circled, enormous dihedral wings curled slightly to take advantage of the thermals. The birds rose higher and higher, slicing the sky. Black ghosts against the sharp horizon. I looked away from them and down at my sweat-soaked shirt. My jeans and tennis shoes were covered with the colorful dust from down below.

A fantastic place. The kind of land into which I could disappear forever.

I didn’t work anymore. I’d Jim Beamed my way out of a good job with a small daily up north in Montana, but money wasn’t an issue. Every time I considered this financial blessing, Blood, Sweat and Tears’ cover of “God Bless the Child” ran through my head. David Clayton Thomas’ deep, rich voice singing about rich relations and such. Yeah they gave me money to stay lost, way out of sight. I’d blown a “career,” and was considered an embarrassment to my clan. Get lost, sport. Stay out of sight. Every month enough family cash found its way into my account to allow me to wander the high, dry country of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and the Kaibab Plateau here in Arizona. I still wrote a story every so often for one of the fly-fishing magazines, but that was because I was born a writer, and even if I didn’t write I was always looking at things the way we do. Like an X-ray technician on acid. Always seeing things most others didn’t, like that blue light flickering across the tops of the trees and shooting electric connections to a pile of crazy rocks on that rise where the vultures flew. And on and on.

No job. Not too many worries. I’d given up on being a productive member of society a bunch of mistakes ago. Enjoyed the hell out of the people I met on the road. Like the guy at the Exxon yesterday who poured in forty gallons of Premium Plus for about six hundred dollars. Took so long we killed off a pack of smokes and a six pack in the process. He was a Cubs fan and liked to fish so it was easy time. Then I drove on down an empty, sunset highway like I’d never been here before and wasn’t really here now. A crazy life, but then all of it seemed a little nuts when I covered the cops up in Shelby. The constant wind driving all of us over the edge. Ranchers found just driving their Massey Fergusons in endless circles out in wheat fields the size of New Hampshire, or people betting who could eat the most pickled pigs feet in five minutes at The Mint Bar. And I was supposed to write about this. Yeah, whiskey has its moments, but there were a few too many up that way. I finally couldn’t take it anymore and the managing editor couldn’t either. That was a few years back.

Over on the ridge the vultures were gliding low across the rise, banking sharply and coming in lower over a spot near a lone juniper. I finished my beer, secured another and went off to see what the big deal was.

What seemed a hundred yards was more like half a mile. The clarity of the natural situation here had tricked me, but I got there. The birds rose up at my approach, the air moving across their feathers sounding like gentle wind slipping through the trees. At first I couldn’t see anything because of the intense light. Then I spotted the body not far from the juniper. I’d seen a few corpses doing the police reporting deal, so this one wasn’t something new. And whoever this person once had been, had been here for some time. The dry climate, the heat, the wind and, no doubt, scavengers had cleaned things up. Mainly bones and some ragged, torn clothes. Jeans, shirt, tennis shoes, and a bunch of beer cans scattered around. Schmidt’s. Used to drink Schmidt’s, but that was a few years back. Bitter tasting after a couple of cans. Some brown hair still clung to the skull. Beneath one hand was a book. The cover was bleached and when I pulled it from beneath the bones the pages crumbled. I could barely make out the title: Blood Sport. A little-known classic by Robert F. Jones. I’d had a few drinks with the guy once in Casper and he was all right. A little crazy, a touch surly and a hell of a storyteller. We got along for those few hours at least. Never seen him since. Whoever this body had once been … well, hell, he could have been me. Dying out on the high flats of the southwest full of cheap beer and Bob Jones. I could see it. There’d most likely be a pint of Beam in there somewhere, though, if I was involved.

I thought about reporting the body to the police when I returned to town somewhere, but decided not to. Dead is dead, and I didn’t want to interrupt the important course of my life by dealing with the authorities.

I turned away and started back to the stock tank. Half-way there an image of the dead man, perfectly formed but without substance, liquid clear, zipped through me like his body went through mine in an instant with the slightest ripple of feeling, like a very mild shock. Odd, I thought, and aimed for the cooler.

I set a cold beer on a low, weathered wooden shed that protected the water output for the tank, took off my clothes and stepped over the edge of the galvanized aluminum tank, managing to catch my foot on the edge and splash head-first into water that was maybe sixty degrees. Damn near stopped my heart. I stood up in a chaotic spray and let the sun dry me as I worked on the Pabst. Naked to the world.

Then the vultures blasted in at tree top level. They dipped towards me. I ducked and could feel the rush of hot air across their two-toned black wings as they roared overhead. The pair dipped down lower, maybe six feet above the ground, before soaring up the rise where the body lay. I reached over the edge for another beer. When I turned back they were gone.

The afternoon was hotter now, the air dead still. Cooking. Lifeless.

I wondered what I’d be doing tomorrow.

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John Holt is the author of fourteen published books, including Arctic Aurora – Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories (Countrysport Press, 2004), Coyote Nowhere – In Search of America’s Last Frontier (Lyons Press, 2004) and Hunted: A Novel (Lyons Press, 2003). He has written for numerous national and regional publications, and is a columnist for Big Sky Journal. He lives in Livingston, Montana with his son and daughter.