by Guy Walker
I guess it wouldn’t have been long before he’d be found eventually. You can’t just wander off into the designated frontier, and never be seen again. I imagine this guy Rocco hoped to only be found by the right people, the people who would pity him and give him food…and somehow always elude the authorities who came out here every week on horseback looking for him. We just don’t live in that kind of frontier anymore. There’s no more wilderness that will sustain a man, at least not one that will nourish him the ways we now need to be nourished. There’s no more wilderness, no more mutated strata of stars and spectacle, no more cathedrals of ferns and bright tendrils. There is, at best, a pathway, winding its way through the long shadowy peaks, and you can ooo and aww at the highlighted things, the way runny-nosed children do while bobbing along a slow ride at an amusement park.
But this guy, you’d almost think, wanted to be caught. Sympathetic hikers left him whatever trail mix and instant-cook chili they had remaining on their return to the parking lot, and he just piled the enormous heap of the plastic packaging into a small mountain by the river. Rumor had it, he would join couples having a romantic night alone in the natural hot springs, and would always be naked, and made everyone uncomfortable. Anyways, he was probably going to be found eventually, but he sure didn’t make it any easier for himself.
Eloise finished packing the tent as the sun finally rose over the ridge of the mountain. Everything was in order. Breakfast was eaten, and the last of the coffee was poured, and Ernest was washing the dishes in the clear miniature waterfall that flowed from the edge of the hot springs. Pastures of moss melted like dessert over large stones, the whole coruscating arena of lichens and songbirds and wildflowers hummed under the weight of another morning. Four mountain goats walked delicately along the steep slope of the mountain, sending discarded shards of rock in small cascades down towards the stream.
They’d been out here three nights, and another two hiking out, but would hike back the entire thing in one day. It was their first camping trip together, and they both felt as good as they had in a long time. They must’ve had sex three times a day…in the tent, and on the beds of moss, and on the large flat stones circling the hot tub. And for both of them, it felt like what people mean when they say they made love instead. The man thought about this, and thought about how cheap words become, especially the older we get. What a shame, he thought. Even the most brilliant things go all lukewarm whenever we try to tell them to others. Even when we tell them to ourselves. He washed the last of the silverware, and piled them all together. She watched him stand up from the edge of the pool, his face entering the sunlight from its lower bed of shade, and she knew confidently for the first time that she could love him.
When they started hiking, they hiked briskly, wanting to get back before nightfall. They must have covered ten or eleven miles in a few short hours, chatting aimlessly and excitedly along the way. They had seen many people on their way out, but hadn’t seen anyone else during their days at the hot springs, and hadn’t seen anyone all morning while hiking back. “I guess that Rocco guy must’ve moved on. Gone to the city, or another lake or river…or maybe he died,” he said. “Don’t say that,” Eloise said. “That’s not nice.”
Just then he saw through the trees ahead of them a group of horses crowded together. He thought they were just riders enjoying themselves, but as the leaves cleared saw that they were all sheriffs, waiting near the pile of trash that Rocco had made. They were standing around the river’s edge, the horses’ necks depressed, drinking from the slow current passing through the long green reeds. Little tadpoles with legs sprouting miraculously swam haphazardly amongst the tangles of algae and rotting debris. The sheriffs all had bulletproof vests, and their full globular necks swelled like hams from out the tops of the vests. A few of the men had perfectly shaved heads, and although they all wore cowboy hats, the bald sides of their heads gleamed like a glossy porno against the sun. Two of the sheriffs were women, real thick and masculine like, overcompensating for some deserted manliness they lost forever ago. They’d seen Magnificent Seven too many times, convinced a cowboy hat and some long ruffled leather gloves that puffed out like bellbottoms out passed their forearms made them Teddy Roosevelt. As if they were purposefully reenacting this cinematic nostalgia in their own company, like those flamboyant cads who do those Civil War reenactments for children and their goading parents. They spoke amongst themselves, not yet seeing Ernest and Eloise.
“Yeah so we got these kumquat trees in the backyard that I planted six or seven years ago,” one of the sheriffs said to another.
“A what tree?” another asked.
“A kumquat tree.”
“That’s gross. What’s a kumquat tree?”
“Well, exactly. My wife hates the sound of the word kumquat. Says it makes her all squeamish, like the sound of the word ‘dangle’ or ‘panties’ or ‘discharge’ or something. She makes me refer to it as the ‘pom-pom tree’. So I got a bunch of jars of pom-pom marmalade for you and the family if you want any.”
“God no. Thanks, but that stuff gives me the runs.”
“Hogan, how you know it gives you the runs if you didn’t even know what a kumquat was?” a third sheriff remarked.
“Hey you guys,” the man named Hogan said suddenly, seeing Eloise and the man on the other side of the river. “We got a coupla…coupla people.”
“Where ya’ll from!” the leader of the group asked. He had a thick dark mustache, gold-rimmed aviators that dug into his fat temples, and a mouth full of chewing tobacco. He spat into the clear water, and the loogie of tobacco spit swirled and spread out and disappeared.
“Ojai. Couple hours down south, if you know it,” she said.
“Yeah we know it…Not much out here is there?”
“What do you mean?”
“Not many people. Rocks mostly. You come all the way out here for rocks? Ya’ll have great rocks down in Ojai, seen ‘em when I was a kid.”
“Uh, no not many people I guess. You’re the first ones we seen all day. We saw your horse shit on our way out, but it was old shit.”
“Yeah, that was our horses’ shit.”
“No animals allowed on these trails, except ours. So it musta been our shit,” Hogan repeated.
“Thought it was from recreational riding, people just enjoying themselves, you know, but I guess you come out here every week huh?” Eloise replied.
“Yeah, we the only horses that ever come on this trail…Hey boy, you speak?” the leader said, pointing at the Ernest. The other deputies looked up from their reins or from each other, and all stared at the man.
“Yeah I speak, what’s the matter?”
“You see a cat in a purple robe, maybe asking around for food?”
“A cat in a purple robe?” Eloise asked.
“I’m talkin’ to him,” he said, raising his voice to almost a yell.
“You say a cat in a purple robe?” the man named Ernest asked.
“No offense officer, but are you talking about?”
“I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. There’s a guy who’s been roaming around here for some time, stirring up trouble, bothering hikers, pulling out his willy in the hot tubs, makin’ all sorts a folk uncomfortable.”
“Ohh, a guy. A man. Sorry, you had me confused there for a second.”
“Well, have you?
“No, we haven’t seen a cat in a purple robe,” Ernest said, annoyed now.
“We haven’t seen a cat in any colored robe,” Eloise added with a tinge of sarcasm.
“Ya’ll being cheeky with me now?” the leader asked.
“No mister, just trying to get along with you,” Eloise replied.
“Okay well, you better get a move on. We got ourselves a great shark hunt out here. Can’t be too careful. You two have a great day.”
They reached the other side, hiked up the hill just a little further, looking for a rock or something to lay their packs on, and rest, and drink the last of their water before the next big climb until it came down into the tall grass pastures a couple miles ahead, where the river slowed and swelled into these deep and magnificent turquoise pools. They had already planned on stopping there before, while passing it in the other direction, on their way out. They made a point of it, citing that it was a quarter mile or so off the path, and so they could get naked comfortably, and wash themselves and make lunch and have sex again under one of those huge willows that shaded the grassy embankment and hung broadly over the pool.
The man’s lower back ached even more than his shoulders, but he knew he couldn’t complain more than once, or else he would draw attention to it…or rather draw attention to his tendency to complain, especially because she had never made a mention of her own discomfort. She remained so positive and upbeat, he thought, even through the most strenuous climbs. She often made stops by herself, just to admire desert flowers, or to watch the way an insect crawled up the long slender stem of a plant. He wished he did things like that more, for himself, without any of the usual pretense with which he typically did things. Because at home, where he lived in this old cabin amongst the oak trees and the eucalyptus trees, he spent a lot of time in his garden, reading and writing and gardening, and sometimes feeding four adolescent foxes; but he wasn’t sure that these private courtesies made him happier in any meaningful way. He wished they did. Who knows, maybe they did somewhat. And he watched her carry out these moments that she made for herself, and knew they were full and resplendent in their delivery. He watched her long golden legs in front of him, climbing the hill with an ease he never noticed before. Goddamnit I’m hungry, he complained to himself. Food will be so good, because she’s making it. I feel so much better when I eat her food. I need to take better care of myself, he thought for the thousandth time. I’ll cook for myself more when I get home. I’ll cook vegetables and fish, and stop eating cookies and light beer every time I’m alone. I’ll tend to the garden more, stop smoking, take the time to make myself a cup of tea in the evening. I’ll take the time to just enjoy the tea in the garden as the evening rolls into night, and do nothing else but think, because I haven’t just sat there and thought about nothing in as long as I can remember.
As he watched her long legs walk in front of him, he thought about the time he lived in Norway, many years ago, on this remote archipelago way up north…and during the summer months when the sun never went down, he fished for cod with a friend or friends, from the rocks on the edge of the ocean. And they would cook it and eat it right there. Or at low tide, they collected blue shells from the base of one of the smaller nearby bridges. Or they would hike up to one of the small cabins that belonged next to one of their many mountain lakes, and catch trout, and gather boletes and chanterelles, and stay up all night telling each other stories of old love affairs. And he thought that it was sad that he never did those things anymore, that the days he would really remember were mostly behind him. He thought that maybe this trip would change things, that he would come out of it more restored, more in love with the terminable days that collapsed like rubble behind him. But the daily mania was so compelling, and the preserved tediums piled in front of him, convinced of their own worth.
They stopped on a knoll of crumbling rock…a shrub with bright yellow flowers shaped like little teacups sprouted from the wreckage, and a honeybee moved from one flower to the next, crawling around inside, covering himself in pollen, completely unarmed against the plant pheromones. They set their packs down, and she prepared a cup of tea from his heavy thermos.
He looked back to see again where the sheriffs had interrogated them by the river, where Rocco’s camp of trash and turds he had collected over the past few months were. Dried-up clumps of leaves and grasses hung like bird nests onto the branches of the trees six feet above the existing flow of the river. They were gray and old, from many years ago, but still proved that the river used to gush through there at least six feet higher than it was flowing now. And he imagined how much of the terrain that would have covered. He imagined how many more foxes and bobcats and songbirds would have come through, how much more florescent the greens would have been through those parts, how the soaked chimeras and cannibalisms that covered themselves in turquoise and gold would behave themselves, how the stelliferous nightmares swirled overhead in invisible hues. He remembered those last three nights the two of them spent, wrapped in each others arms as they watched the maple and willow leaves shiver against the light of the nearly full moon. Coyotes howled in their capsules of eternity…a skunk wobbled through the rocky shallows, his tail waving high like a surrenderer’s flag…the bur-sage and mallow and lupin yawning heavily amongst each other in their groups. Night after night, after every successive season and year, the flowers went on as before, glittering against the tan and otherwise banal sceneries with their thimbles full of dyed tinctures. Maybe it’ll be like that again someday, he thought, when the hills are replenished with greens and wild colors, and never ruined again. Damn. He wiped the sweat from under his hat and then sipped the tea from the tin cup that Eloise had poured for him.
Right then, Rocco popped his head up like a meerkat out of the overgrown thicket of chaparral.
“Oh fuck!” Eloise gasped, seeing him first.
His hair was a thickly matted dirty blonde, and his face was smeared with ash and already leathered by the sun, but his eyes were healthy and lucid, and he could have been good looking if he was good at looking after himself. He wore that purple robe without blame, buttoned neatly down beginning at his navel, like he was Hugh Hefner’s starving duplicate, clad in this absurd velvet gown in the high desert. He waved gently with one hand, as if he too had heard all the rumors about him—all the schizophrenic breaks and screaming, all the willy waving, all the spontaneous crying in the night, all the stealing of food and supplies and women’s underwear when they left for day-hikes. Because, he probably knew those stories were based on all the whispered gossip that traveled through countless ears of hikers over the course of those several months he’d been there. It was an uncoordinated game of telephone, one hiker to the next, expanding and elaborating an already ridiculous tabloid of conversation. It was as if he had heard those rumors too, and wanted to resolve all of them and calm everyone’s nerves with one complete smile.
“Hi guys. You don’t have any leftover food you don’t want to carry back with you, do you?”
He spoke in a higher voice than Ernest expected, purposefully meek, but genuine still. The sheriffs were no more than fifty meters away, walking in a single-file cavalry procession. Eight white cowboy hats bobbing along obediently; eight horsetails cinched tight above the asshole, plumb in their very noble and attentive posture, their huge vascular and sinewed legs heaving forward flawlessly. You could see them all in the same picture frame: eight sheriffs on horseback, walking along the riverbank, about to disappear behind the dense canopy; and then Rocco, a hungry fugitive, carelessly outsmarting the authorities for another time. He was mostly innocent of course, hunted out of boredom, the sheriffs’ despondent gallantry shoving along as before.
“No, we don’t have any. Sorry,” Ernest said.
“No worries, thank you guys,” he said sweetly.
Eloise rustled through the top of her backpack, and pulled out a canvas bag full of several foods and snacks. “You can have this. It’s got lots of goodies.”
“Thank you,” he smiled shy and excited.
Eloise tossed the bag over the many coastal sage scrub and poison oak and creosote, and he caught it with both hands, thanked them again and ducked out of sight again.
“Oh my god,” she said more to herself than to Ernest. “I had something in that bag I was going to give you.”
“What was it?”
“I need that bag. Wait!” she then yelled across the thick shrubbery.
He popped up again. The velveteen robe shimmered against the sunlight. The last sheriff in the line of horses turned around at her exclamation. He first looked at Eloise, who stood there with huge and horrified eyes, and then to Rocco, who saw Eloise staring terrified in the direction of the sheriffs. Rocco then glanced in the direction of the sheriff, his casual insouciance barely acknowledging him.
“Hey Meatball! Hogan! Lance! You guys!” the last sheriff yelled. “There he is!” He gleamed, pointing eagerly in Rocco’s direction.
The other sheriffs’ necks bulged with blood like enormous cocks. They all turned around in unison, and tugged on their reins to the right, pulling their horses’ necks erratically. Rocco ducked behind and under the line of creosote, and disappeared into the thicket. The sheriffs all left the delicate order of the trail, and started galloping their miniature stampede through the grasses and into the shallow riverbed like they had always wanted to, like it was their cinematic fantasy to finally be able to do this, amongst some doughty dream that never existed in reality. This is what it was all about. This galloping climax is the ephemeral flurry of why they hoisted themselves up on horseback day after day in the first place. Ernest could see the top of Rocco’s head darting through the gaps in the shrubbery as the sheriffs closed in almost immediately. Eloise gasped, and screamed one desperate No! as the last sheriff (who was now the first sheriff) grabbed the collar of Rocco’s robe with one hand and yanked back the reins with the other. The horse skidded to a stop, and the sheriff rolled off the horse with all his weight, collapsing onto the poor transient, the two of them just a heap of bodies on the edge of the riverbank. The other sheriffs arrived in a second, surrounding the mass of wrestling tumble beneath them, like some profane order of fraternity. Rocco tried to escape, pushing the sheriff’s lips and nose up with the bottom of his palm. The sheriff punched him in the face, breaking his nose, sending it into a gurgling spring of blood. Rocco miraculously stayed conscious, and kicked the sheriff in the testicles, and tried to scramble away on all fours between two of the horses, frightening one, it frantically rearing on its hind legs, throwing off the fattest sheriff. The horse landed back down with one hoof on Rocco’s head, crushing it against a rock in the riverbed, killing him instantly.
Eloise screamed, the masticated gore of the man’s head and hair crushed into the pomaded uniform of the purple robe. Bits of bone speckled against the glossy colorful nebulae of the crimsons and violets that crowded together in their puddle. “Git outa here!” one of the sheriffs yelled to the man and woman; and then he heaved himself off the horse awkwardly, swinging a pudgy leg around in order to inspect the crushed head of the stranger they just killed. Ernest and Eloise didn’t move, speechless at what just took place in front of them. One of the female sheriffs started walking up the trail on her horse towards them. “Come on Eloise. Let’s go, or she’s going to stomp on our heads too.” “But they just killed him!” she cried. He grabbed her arm and pulled it up the trail. “That horse is on steroids. And she probably is too. Come on.” They turned away, walking up the rest of the hill to where it crested amongst the scraggly rubble of an already deteriorating mountain. They looked back as they walked up, and the lady had stopped but was watching them to make sure they fully left the scene. Eloise cried as the body of Rocco lay there completely limp, and the sheriffs stood around staring down at him, not yet sure what to do.
They stood at the top of the hill, and watched two of the sheriffs lift the dead body of the man, flipping him over onto his back, as another sheriff gathered the reins of a few of the horses to tie them securely to a tree.
“What are we supposed to do,” Eloise asked. And the man didn’t say anything. He stood there, staring down on one side of the mountain at the turquoise pools a thousand feet below. A red tailed hawk soared by without a sound, without flapping its wings. All that sky beneath him, searching for an isolated tremble amongst the many exits and entrances of where gofers thatched in the vast expanse around him. And Ernest turned and looked on the other side, where the man lay dead. He didn’t say anything. The hawk landed in front of them, on a dead scrub bush that had once grown from a crack in a rock jutting out from the furthest edge of the cliff. It looked down at the scene that had just taken place. It waited there for a minute, and then looked down at the mountain beneath him, and then out across the enormous valley sprawled out. One of its eyes was a bright rusty brown, with a large pupil, staring attentively and without blinking. The other was blind, covered over as a milky pearl. He stared at the couple for a few moments with its good eye, and then spread its wings again and flew away. “Come on,” the man said, “There’s nothing we’re supposed to do.”
“What do you mean,” she said. “Our phones are dead, but at least we can make an official complaint or something.”
“Yeah, I suppose. May as well.”
But he knew it wouldn’t matter. He knew, just as I know, and just as you know, that man will do everything he can to leave us nothing. He was probably going to be found eventually, but it didn’t matter. They’ll take everything they can, and then disappear at last.