The Last of Something
– Fiction by Deac Etherington –
As seen in issue 14 of Dreamers Magazine and Honorable Mention in the 2023 Sense of Place & Home Contest.
Purchase issue 14 in digital or print here.
Graves in the desert are not deep. They are expedient. As he worked a dust-devil danced along the top of the canyon and passed through the little cathedral of stone open to the sky. The gust grabbing the blanket he had wrapped around the girl, uncovering some of her yellow hair. He tucked the blanket back in place, thinking how small she seemed. Because she was. No more than ten years old. Maybe twelve. He kept digging. The sound of the shovel reverberating off the rocks as if inside a sepulcher. When he was done he dropped to his knees and smoothed the ground with his hands like you would before spreading out a sleeping bag. The moonlight frosting the edges of boulders against black sky. His name was Monk Monroe and he had just turned twenty. This was his first funeral.
It had been his partner’s idea – hiring on for quick cash to guide a group to a drop house outside Meander, Arizona. They worked a cow-calf ranch on the border so they knew the terrain better than anyone. His partner, a friend since high school named Lloyd Foote, had always straddled both sides of the law. And Monk needed the money to buy an old travel-trailer he found for sale in Arivaca. He would use it on the PRCA circuit once he qualified for his card up in Tucson. Ranching was a living. Becoming a bull-riding champion was his dream.
They rendezvoused with the group in a box canyon north of Nogales, Sonora. There were over twenty people gathered around the broken windmill at the entrance. Scattered among the rocks were blacked-out water gallons and back packs and empty sleeves of bread. Most everyone was dressed for a walk through the parking lot at Walmart. Not the desert. They looked up at Monk and Lloyd with furrowed brows and something like hope in their eyes though it was hard to tell about hope after what they had already been through. Monk noticed the little girl in the white blouse standing off to the side. Blue butterfly barrettes in her hair. He assumed she had family with her. He should have known better. He turned to his partner.
“They say there would be this many?”
“Well this is a lot of people, Lloyd.”
Won’t be so bad once we’re moving.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this.”
Lloyd’s eyes flashed in the dusky light.
“Listen, son. We’re in it now. So get your head straight. And remember – this is a win for everyone. They get the American Dream. You get your rodeo trailer. Okay?”
“Doesn’t feel like anyone is winning out here.”
Lloyd faced the group.
Monk and Lloyd turned their horses. The others rose from the rocks. They started walking. Soon the moon came up over the Santa Rita Mountains. Glowed through cuts in cloud like drifting celestial wounds bleeding out a silvery wash across the desert. They stayed low, moving north through the arroyos and washes. And the night deepened.
“How far, you think?” asked Lloyd.
“We’re maybe halfway.”
“Then we need to pick up the pace.”
“Why? They’re already struggling.”
“Could be old.”
“I’ll get behind them, anyway. See if we can speed things up a bit.”
Lloyd yanked the bridle and circled back. Monk felt the group surge.
They smelled the pasture before they saw it. Fertilizer vaguely like mothballs in the fresh-furrowed ground over which a layer of humid air shimmered. Their destination was the adobe barn at the edge of the pasture. The roof had long since collapsed and the walls were melting back into the ground in a leisurely way. This was where they were supposed to hand over the group. The drop house was on the other side of the pasture in a cluster of mesquite trees. As they came up on the jagged silhouette of the barn Monk could see the glint of vehicles near the house in the distance. It was almost over.
Then it wasn’t.
“Wait,” he said. “Where’s that kid?”
“That little girl in the white blouse.”
“How would I know?”
Monk studied his old friend’s face.
“You’ve been in the rear.”
“If she fell behind, you’d
“Maybe. It’s dark out.”
“But you’d have said something, right?”
“Listen. Our job is to get this group from the canyon to the adobe barn. Their job is to keep up. Simple. We hired on as guides. Not baby sitters.”
“I’m going back.”
“Someone needs to look for her.”
“They’re expecting us up ahead.”
“I don’t care. This was a mistake.”
There was a silence. The bad kind.
“Suite yourself, amigo.”
Lloyd spurred his horse toward the crumbling barn. The group straggled behind. The moon slipped behind cloud and Monk found himself moving into the darkest part of night. He went back the way they had come, occasionally spotting things the others had dropped. A wrapper. Bandanna. Baseball cap. But no sign of the girl. He squinted into the gloom, reluctant to call out, but certain she would not have strayed very far from the washes. Panic stirred in his chest like a caught wind.
Eventually he reached the box canyon. Coyotes milling around the base of the broken windmill, eyes drifting in the dark. Monk slid off the horse and the coyotes skulked away. Then he saw the girl. Face in glassy-eyed profile on cold concrete. She had doubled-back to where they had started.
“Hey, kid. You okay?”
Monk knelt down. The edges of her white blouse tufting in the breeze. He didn’t see the snake until he reached for her neck to take a pulse and the snake coiled. Tail buzzing between her shirt and the cement. Monk saw it was a Mohave rattler. One of the most lethal in those foothills. In one smooth motion he grabbed the tail and flung the Mohave into the dark. There was the slap of snake-flesh hitting rock. Tail still buzzing. Then the buzzing getting softer as the Mohave moved away. He eased the girl onto her back. The tip of her tongue was purple. Eyes rheumy. He saw the bite punctures on her face below her cheek. A single drop of blood beading there. Like a decoration.
“By God,” he said to nothing in particular.
He unstrapped the camp shovel and blanket from his pommel. She was heavier than he expected. This was maybe because of the blanket and the shovel and maybe because of something else. He picked her up and started walking. At one point her hand slipped out of the folds. Jostled, like it was waving. Monk clenched his jaw and kept going and tried not to think about her hand or anything else. He was heading to a spot near the canyon where the rocks formed an amphitheater the size of a small room. Boulders piled on top of boulders in impossible ways through some random accident of prehistoric geophysics. A cathedral of stone open to the sky.
Monk lowered the blanket into the grave. Neatened the edges. He felt the faint stirrings of breeze that meant the sky would pale soon. But the person who stepped out of this night would bear little resemblance to the person who had entered it. He was no longer dreaming about bull riding or anything else. The desert, he knew, kept its secrets. So would Lloyd. But that was no comfort. He was a lone soul in a post apocalyptic dawn laboring with the last of something and quietly terrified of sunrise.
About the Author – Deac Etherington
Deac Etherington was a finalist for the 2017 Arcturus Award for Fiction, Chicago
Review of Books; finalist in the 2018 and 2019 fiction contest at the San
Francisco Writer’s Conference; winner of the 2018 Flash Fiction Contest for Light
and Dark Magazine; winner of the 2018 Fiction Contest for Prime Number
Magazine; winner of the 2019 Hemingway Shorts Contest sponsored by the
Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park; winner of the 2020 Fiction Contest
for The Briar Cliff Review. His work has also appeared in Projected Letters
Magazine and The Baltimore Review and he has been twice nominated for the
Pushcart Prize. He holds degrees from Connecticut College and Wesleyan
University and lives in southern Arizona where you can drive all the way to the
Sea of Cortez when you want to change the view. He is currently at work on a novel. Find him on Facebook.
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