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by Clive Matson

Originally published in Sounding East

"Mayday, it's Mayday!" mutters Tony to himself, and a crisis is the last thing he wants. His watch reads three o'clock and he looks at the mesa again, a mile away. There are cactus spires all along the skyline but nothing moving. His father is not there. No blue jacket, no tan shirt, no tiny figure in brown pants scrambling up the rocks. Tony watches through the binoculars for fifteen minutes. No George.

Everything starts speeding up. Tony scrambles around the heaps of rock at the diggings, picking up a water bottle, the first-aid kit, his wool cap and down vest. Anything for warmth. His father may be hurt so badly it would be crazy to take him out of the desert this late in the day. Better to bed down between sheltering boulders and keep him warm until morning. Bring the dropcloth. That would work as a small blanket. Tony stuffs his blue daypack almost to bursting.  

"What the hell," Tony grouses, "did the old man do?" They are sixty miles from help. Two mountain-wise coots and something went wrong. By the time Tony was nine his father had taught him about the desert, but after that he almost stopped talking. And no more trips. Tony carries a picture from those early days: his father with a wry grin on his face, leaning against a Willie's. The jeep was stuck in sand halfway up the hubcaps. And now, twenty years later, Tony invited his father back to the desert. For Tony this is a caring gesture, but look. George hardly broke his silence in two whole days, and now something has happened. He did not make it to the mesa.  

Tony bangs the dust out of his gloves and pulls them on. He takes one final glance around the prospect. Upslope from the dirt piles and boulders a fluorescent pink marker flutters from a mesquite bush. Behind it, in the background, rocky peaks cascade all the way to the horizon. Tony turns away from that glorious view and looks back at the mesa. Its dark mass looms above a stack of granite hills, and there is nothing moving. "Okay, Dad, I'm coming after you." 

George took off on his own at one-thirty. The plan was for him to wave his jacket from the flat-topped mountain in an hour. Tony had looked him in the eye and said, "If we miss each other at two-thirty, let's try again at three." The mesa might be more than an hour away, and the old man is not so fast. "Fifty-eight," George had bragged last night, in the middle of a long silence, scrunching his eyes and tipping his bald head back, "and strong as a horse." But he wasn't. And if they didn't make contact at three o'clock? "I'm coming after you," Tony had said.

Tony heads out. He clambers up a granite boulder carved by ancient floods into hollows and bumps. He surveys the slope ahead. Nothing. His blood pounds and his belly is sinking. If it's a sprained ankle, okay, provided he finds George before dark and they make it to camp. A broken leg or worse and they are in trouble. Though he could make a litter out of cardon ribs. Tie a dozen sticks together from one of those dead cactus spires and he would have a platform to put his father on. He could drag him out, all the way back to the truck. Okay, but how to bind the sticks? The nylon cord is back at camp, an hour the other side of the prospect. Maybe he could pull some fibers out of a live cardon. Or use the straps from his daypack. He could even rip up his shirt. Still the truck would be two days away and the going slow. He would have to carry their water. They could both die.

Up a small ridge, down the crest, into a wash and there in the sand are his father's bootprints. "I'll trail you!" Tony says, and he is Davy Crockett, eyes squinting and arms akimbo. He scans the whitish-gray sand. He can do this. He is in shape and he knows how to breathe. Big breaths in motion, not stopping, and his legs sing power. Power. Sing power even as they tire, more air pumps in more power and keep breathing. Keep moving. His boots crunch in the fine gravel.  

He must be catching up. "Mayday, Mayday!" Bring the fellow out to his old stomping grounds and then have to rescue him. What a reversal. Tony will have to show what kind of a man he has become, and do that under pressure. He may have to exhaust himself, perhaps dangerously. He feels a tug along the backs of his legs: hamstrings. He slows a little. For now, find the footprints. Tony rounds the next cardon, this one with thirty-foot arms reaching into the sky, but there are no fresh marks in the ground. Then, by a low, prickly cholla cactus, he sees a heel indentation and a toe-hole dug deep, squirting sand over the soleprint. George on the move.

Another punched-in heel followed by a trail of footprints, one after another and looking strong. What could have happened? The terrain is not difficult. And the mesa looms close ahead. Is his father playing a trick on him? The guy is so hard to talk to. Tony had hoped he could make contact here in the desert, but no. For an hour last night his father had stirred the campfire, muttering to himself, his big wrinkly face glinting dark red. He tinkered with his pack, he fiddled with his sleeping bag, he grumbled when Tony spoke to him. Only when Tony said he looked strong had George responded. "Strong as a horse" and less talkative.

Inconceivable that he's playing a joke. Their lives are in the balance. And George never joked around. A couple of guys at school used to talk about their fathers' pranks. News to Tony. One boy had woken up in the middle of the night with his three pet rabbits out of their cage and in bed with him, chewing on his pajamas. He had laughed and screamed and finally got them back in their cages. His father was watching TV. "They told me you were lonely. They wanted to get in bed with you." The boy had cried and they had wrestled a while. Then his dad had tucked him back in and made him a cup of hot chocolate. They had dealt with each other. Tony wouldn't know how.

And Tony would give anything to be back at the prospect. He could be digging out an aquamarine, making a find and sharing it with his father. The next section of vein could be rich. Levered up, it might show rust-red clay, outlines of quartz and feldspar crystals in a pocket as big as his hand. Tony would brush with his old whisk broom and scrape with a knife. A clear, sparkling blue beryl would stare through the muck. He is due for a fine crystal. Overdue. But there has been almost nothing, only a few small pieces. The vein may turn out barren after all.

His father had hung around for the morning while Tony dug. Then George got antsy. He took off for the mesa. And now Tony trails him, mesquite rustling as he pushes through, watching the ground for his tracks. Cholla cactus! Look out. Those yard-high clusters of spine balls will split apart and stick on the surrounding bushes. The live cactus is bluish green and unmistakable, but the old spine balls weather, turn brown and blend in with the brush. Hard to spot. You could jam your knee into one. They are six inches across. His father pointed out the danger twenty years ago, when Tony was a boy. They were a week in this desert and his Dad was so smart-looking, his face leathery against the sky. He could read the plants and the rocks and the weather and animal tracks. Tony had adored his father.

But Tony does not like these bootprints. They are too competent. The prints march out of a shallow canyon, widely spaced and heading straight for the mesa. And brown lava, a broad rocky cap on the mesa, is not far away. Tony cannot imagine why his father was not on the summit by two-thirty. Let alone by three o'clock. He must have gone on, thinks Tony, without waiting for a signal from me. Tony shouts up the mountain, "You asshole, old man! Are you worth all this? Do you know what this is like?" But Tony hears his voice echoing. What if his father heard those words? And what if he can't? He could be down, unconscious, with a broken ankle or gashed shin. Or worse. And yelling is no way to start the long trek out. Two days to the truck, rationing water, doling out aspirin and pulling his father through the brush on a bunch of cactus ribs.

"Okay old man, I'm on my way. Hang on." Tony booms the words up the slope. But with his next strides he mutters, "I want to be home. Sleeping. Or soaking in the tub. Anything but this." Suddenly he is striding up the lava cap of the mesa. The tall cardon thin out and small agave thrive, everywhere, yard-long sprays of broad, stiff, spine-edged leaves in clumps. And the bootprints disappear. Disappear! Tony studies the ground: dark chocolatey rocks, from pebbles to fist-sized to skull-sized, all jumbled together and no smooth surfaces. No sand. No bootprints and no chance of prints. Tony kicks a rock and goes on. 

He had kicked a rock twenty years before, for sure. He and his father had been at an old mine in the mountains and Tony had been walking up the trail playing soccer with stones. One was the size of his eight-year-old fist. Smoky gray and drab. "That's not a pretty rock," he had said aloud and kicked it. But his father had picked it up, turned it in the light, and shown him the six sides. They were dull, it was not a fine crystal, but it had an elegant shape. Quartz. Two inches long with a point on the end. Held at an angle you could see the light glinting through it, a clear, steely gray. That was the beginning of Tony's passion. That crystal changed how Tony looked at rocks.

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