There are things that live in the desert, beautiful things . . . dead things.
Way off in the distance, an old, oxidized pickup truck barreled down the mining road kicking-up huge clouds of dust. By all rights, the truck shouldn't have been able to run, but that was just a small sample of the power the dark man held. In the back of the truck, several crazed and drunk men whooped with laughter as they bounced and bumped into each other firing their rifles into the air. The dark man pushed the pedal to the metal, his smile like a filet knife, his eyes like pools of threat and hatred. The truck fish-tailed back and forth through the soft sand making the men in the back laugh all the louder, but mostly you could hear their gunfire.
Death was coming, and he was bringing his friends.
In the vast, empty stretches of Nevada desert you could still find people. You wouldn't know they were there unless you stumbled upon some of the old mining towns scattered about, but there were folks out there, living, waiting, walled in by barren, snow-clad mountains that appeared gray and forbidding, shadeless, like heaps of ashes dumped from the blazing sky. There were no trees, no vegetation, other than the endless sagebrush and greasewood. Everywhere was dust, and everything was gray with it. Just to walk outside was as if you were plowing through great deeps of powdery alkali dust that rose in thick clouds and floated across the plain like smoke from a burning house. The people, those that were left, were coated with this dust like millers; so were their animals, their cars and houses, they were buried in it, and everything held that same gray monotonous color.
When John Tucker drove off that day the sky was a deep turquoise, the sun, a sharp, blood-red stone set within. He was smiling when he left home, eager to stop by Josie Pokes' place to pick up a one-month-old puppy. The dog was just a mutt, a perfect birthday present for Jack.
"This one loves to go exploring," Josie told him wiping the sweat from her forehead. "The other pups stay with the mother, but this one wants to sniff everything. You better keep an eye on him."
"Will do, Josie, and thanks again," John said, then climbed into his truck cradling the brown and white pup. As soon as he set it on the seat the dog started walking around sniffing the new territory. "You're gonna be a handful," John chuckled.
"Good luck to you, John, and mind the signs," Josie yelled after him. "Things could get ugly, real fast 'round here if'n he comes."
This was why he wanted to leave. This was why he knew he had to just pack up and get the hell out. "Yeah, I know, but I'm not afraid of him. He took my Jenny, he'll play hell trying to get Jack."
"Mind what I say," she warned. "It's a shame that boy of yours can't speak, but it'll be a whole lot worse if'n he lost you too."
"He used to read out loud with his mom, but then, when we lost her, he just stopped talking."
Josie softened, cracked a crooked smile. "He'll talk again when he's got something to say," she added, patting his arm. "You just be careful."
"I will, and you do the same."
Jack Tucker lay on his belly in the harsh desert sun, his mop of blond hair hanging across his face and hiding the red tint of sunburn on his cheeks. With a furrowed brow he stared-down a horn-toad thinking how much happier the lizard would be someplace else. As he stared, the reptile became more and more distinct, and then it gained an aura. The backdrop of the desert blurred and became fuzzy. Jake replaced that background with an image he had memorized from an old, dog-eared National Geographic. The picture was of a beautiful rain forest filled with all kinds of green things. Once he had the thought in place, the lizard began to fade. Jack's eyes darkened until they seemed to refuse light, and then he blinked, and the horn-toad disappeared.
He heard his Dad's truck pull into the graveled driveway. "Jack?" his dad called. "Jack?"
Jack jumped up and slapped the dust off his pants and shirt. He hoped his dad wouldn't sense that he'd been using his gift. He'd been warned more than once. Quickly he looked around for the lizard, but it was gone. He prayed it would be happy in its new home.
His Dad called out, "I've got something for you, boy. Come and take a look."
As Jack came around the corner of the house his gaze met his father's, and then fell upon the pup. He rushed to his dad and grabbed the puppy.
"Be careful," John said smiling, "you'll squish him if you hold him too tight."
Jack crushed the puppy to his chest and the dog's tail wagged like a switch.
"Happy Birthday, son."
Jack gently set the pup down, and then hugged his dad around the waist, hugged him hard. He couldn't speak but sometimes actions spoke louder than words. It was all the thanks John needed.
It was getting late and the sun, as orange as a dragon's egg, cracked upon the western peaks and spilled a crimson yolk. Against this fiery back-light, the mountains wore king's gold for a while, then gradually took off their shining crowns and drew royal-blue nightclothes up their slopes. Jack and John watched the sunset for a bit, and then went inside to eat.
"You better get ready for bed, son," John told him later.
Jack and the pup scampered down the hall. They crawled into bed together and fell fast asleep dreaming of horn-toads and chasing rabbits.
Jack dreamt he was running for his life through clusters of black trees with craggy limbs clawing at the gloom. As the dark night beat toward him, it circled upon broad wings out of the sky above his head like an owl swooping down upon its prey. There was a rank stench to the air then, a sickly sweet under-smell that permeated the claustrophobic closed-coffin darkness of the night.
As he ran, he began to see familiar ground. Josie's house was in front of him and the lights shone bright through the windows. She was there, Jack saw her moving around, but for some reason she was entirely naked. He could see her sagging breasts and more, but was too scared to look away. He pounded on the window and she came over to it. As the window lifted, Jack saw blood running down her chest and arms as if a bucket of it had just been dumped on her. He stepped back, terrified and unnerved. The window lifted and Josie bent down and thrust her head out. Only she didn't have a head. Jack saw the bloody stump of a neck where a head should have been, but wasn't. It looked as if someone had ripped it off.
He turned and ran.
Then he was at his house, and he suddenly realized his pup was gone. From around the corner he heard a whimpering, and when he looked, the pup was crawling on its belly toward him, mewling. It was flattened in the middle like a pancake. Jack tried to pick it up but the dog just flopped around on the ground howling. There were impressions of a truck tire pressed into the dog's back. Jack screamed for his dad, but no sound came out. When he could take no more, he fell from the dream into his room. The look in his eyes was agony.
There were angry voices outside.
"Get off my land!" John yelled.
"But me and the boys just wanted to pay you a friendly visit John, that's all," said the black man.
Jack stepped through the front door to see what was happening. There was an old, black man arguing with his dad while four other men encircled him holding rifles.
Jack saw a handgun stuck into the back of his Dad's pants; it was barely covered by his shirt. Then the black man's eyes fixed on Jack, and it felt as if his breath had been taken away.
"Well, lookie here," the man said. "If'n it ain't little ol' Jackie-boy. How you been Jack? Your Momma says hi."
The black man's face resembled dried mud, baked and parched, webbed with cracks, but his eyes sparkled like black jewels in the sun, a snake's eyes. Jack knew this man from before, when his Momma was snatched away, and Jack's life was cracked and broken and his voice was ripped from him like a severed head. Jack knew this was the magic man. Not a magic like his, but a magic of the worst kind. This man was bad, wicked . . . evil.
"The boy ain't talking. Not to you, or anybody else since last time you came through here," John said bitterly.
"Why don't we just let Jackie-boy make up his own mind 'bout that," the man said shrewdly. Then he swayed his arms, clenched and unclenched his fingers, and Jack's pup lay in the crook of his arm. "So whadduya say Jack-o? You want your dog back?"
Jack worked his mouth up and down, but only a blubbering moan came out.
"Leave the boy be," John yelled. "Your fight's with me!"
Finally Jack stammered, "Mmm . . . mm . . . ma . . . Momma. Wha, wha, where's my . . . my. . . my Momma?"
"Well, lookie there, the boy can speak," the man said smiling wickedly. "Oh she's fine, Jackie-boy, just fine. Why don't you come and see for yourself? Come with me and see your Momma. I know she just misses you to death."
John stepped in front of his son. "You ain't taking nobody nowhere." He reached behind his back for the gun, but it wasn't there.
"John, John, John . . . ," the man said shaking his head sadly. "You looking for this?" In the black man's hand was John's revolver. "You shoulda known better than that, John. That's not how things work 'round here." He threw the gun into the deep dust. "Now I'm gonna have to get serious. Boys . . . I think it's time for a come-to-Jesus-moment."
Smiling, the men approached John. The biggest one hit him with the butt of his rifle and John collapsed to his knees. Then they all started laughing and kicking him until he curled himself up into a ball in the sand.
Jack saw blood on his Dad's face. "Stop!" he screamed. "Leave him alone."
The men hesitated.
It was then that the pup whined and wiggled in the black man's arms, then tried to bite him. He looked at the dog angrily, then squeezed it so tight, the pup yelped. "Come along then Jack, I ain't got all day. And neither does your dog." He reached his hand out.
Jack knew just touching that hand would be like trailing his fingers through pus. Sweat dripped like spiders down his spine. "Fir . . . first . . . I want the tru . . . truth."
"The truth?" he asked laughing. "Sorry boy, but my tongue's not made for it."
"Tell me!" he yelled.
"Alright, alright . . . yes, your Momma's dead," he said. "But not until she gave me everything she had."
Jack stared the man down, feeling his gift rise within him. He thought about that green forest where he had sent the lizard.
The smile left the black man's face. "Whoo-hoo, what do we have here? I can feel your stuff, Jack. Give it to me, boy, it's what I came for."
The more Jack stared, the louder the black man whooped. He was like a phony preacher yelling out to his congregation, a slimy snake withering out of its old dead skin.
Jack pictured the green forest again, and the whole scene began to shimmer.
"Give it to me Jackie! Give it all to me."
"No, Jack, stop!" His father yelled. "Don't give him your gift. That's what he's after. He'll use it against you."
All Jack had to do was blink his eyes and the man would be gone.
There was a gunshot, and Jack snapped back.
The black man had a puzzled look on his face as blood began to seep through the front of his shirt. He dropped the dog. Two more shots rang out, and the man fell to his knees, spitting blood, and then fell over. Jack blinked . . . and the man was gone.
The boy looked at his dad in wonder. While everyone had been distracted, John had crawled to the gun and pulled it from the sand. Slowly he now struggled to his feet. The four men who had beat him earlier peered at each other as if coming out of a dream, then slowly wandered off.
Jack ran to his Dad and hugged him.
"It's all right now, son," John said patting his boy on the back. "It's over."
The pup dashed to Jack's feet, and he bent to pick him up. Gently cradling him, Jack let the dog lick at his face.
"That's some brave dog you got there," his Dad said.
"His name's Dusty," Jack said proudly. "But he's not as brave as you."
"You did pretty good yourself," John said proudly. "Where did you send him?"
Jack looked over at the blood stained sand. "Inside a volcano. Where no one will ever find him."
Somehow he felt stronger than he had ever felt before. His eyes glazed over as he remembered a picture of a grass covered hillside with tall trees surrounding it. Hugging his dad to him, he focused on the picture. Then he blinked his eyes.