Arizona State Police Lieutenant Nick Henry killed the headlights and climbed out of his pickup truck. Looking into the flat ahead, he saw just what he anticipated, darkness. He pulled the large, heavy-weight flashlight from his belt, slid the switch forward and traced a beam of light across the curiously barren space. Not a blade of grass, not a twig of greasewood or sagebrush, not even a weed grew in the alkaline dust. Square blocks of tuffa stone outlined a building foundation and six rooms. A deep, dark hole in the far southeast corner warned of an ancient cellar.
Henry grunted, a sound of expectations met, as he reached into the bed of the pickup and hefted out a heavy backpack.
“I gotta’ be crazy,” he muttered aloud, not for the first time that day.
He slung the pack over one shoulder and walked to the larger pair of the six barren dirt squares, set in the center of the large rectangle outlined by stones. Along the north side ran a wall ranging from two to four feet high and almost two feet wide. Nick set the pack against this wall. He played the flashlight over the dry, alkaline dust, but could see nothing but wind-worn shoe- and boot-tracks. These he dismissed with a shrug.
Four trips to the bed of the pickup ended with a good-sized stack of firewood piled against the wall near his backpack. Nick hunkered down, out of the light breeze, and built a fire, a good, cheery one that chased off the chill that set in here after dark at 5,700 feet above sea level in late October. It was more than enough for just the night. He couldn’t see any stars, and he worried some over the report he’d heard about scattered snow showers.
“God knows why I’m stayin’ that long,” he muttered, as if someone could hear him. He shrugged. If it came to snow, he’d climb in the cab of the pickup and head for Tonopah, twenty-seven miles to the north. He’d find a motel there.
It didn’t take him long a get can of stew to heating up on a warped grill. Warm enough in his wool felt western hat and sheepskin coat, flannel-lined blue-jeans, and with thick wool socks under his boots, he sat on a folding director’s chair and stared at the fire as he waited for the stew to heat up.
Nick didn’t drink when he was alone, but he’d brought along a flask of bourbon anyway. He’d read that Virgil favored whiskey. Back in 1905, they didn’t make much distinction between bourbon, scotch and rye. Nick suspected Virgil would have preferred something sorta’ like bourbon, being from Illinois, as Scotch and Irish whiskey were foreign drinks in those days, and rye, well, rye wasn’t anything anyone drank much of these days. Jack Daniels then, was probably pretty much what Jack Daniels was today. Virgil probably would never know the difference.
After he’d cleaned up from his simple supper, Nick felt warm enough to shrug out of his coat. He spread out the sleeping bag he’d brought along, and the self-inflating pad, such as it was. He scowled at it.
“Virgil, old man, what are you doin’ to me? I’ll never sleep on this thing.”
He imagined a chuckle. You’re soft, boy. Why, in my day…
“Yeah, in your day, you rode for forty miles, then bedded down on your saddle blanket with a serape as your bedroll. You slept for four hours, then rode for another thirty miles the next day. You lived on jack rabbits and cactus.”
Again the chuckle. Somethin’ like that. Only I usually carried a couple of wool blankets and a canvas poncho. Serapes get too heavy. Can use the poncho as a shelter in the summer.
Nick just grunted, knowing he’d get corrected. These imaginary conversations with his great, great, great, grand dad always went this way. They’d start out give and take, like that of most people, then evolve into a lecture, with the old man coming out knowing far more than the snot-nosed little brat that sat at his feet. Why would any self-respecting man let his imagination humiliate him in that way?
“You gonna’ scold me all night, old man?” Nick grumbled.
You’re a smart-ass and you got it comin’. You’re not the only one who wants me around these days, otherwise neither of us would be stuck at the edge of nowhere. I got better things to do, and I’d rather be about the business of doing ‘em.
Nick laughed. “Like what, Grandpa? You’re dead.”
Another soft chuckle. It sounded right in Nick’s ear. He could have sworn the man sat on a soap box right next to him. He forced himself to stare into the flames instead of glancing over his shoulder.
“Listen, Boy. There’s only one thing worth coming back to this world for, and it sure as hell ain’t talking to some worthless whelp that happens to look like me.”
Virgil’s voice hung in the air, deep, with only a hint of gravel, not like Nick had imagined. Crazy, that. Why would his mind suddenly play tricks like that in mid-stream, go from a voice like his own to one he’d never heard before?
“Now get that whiskey out and listen up. I have important things to say, and I want you to pay attention. When I’m done, I expect there to be a lot of questions, and we don’t have all night.”
“You’re not as young as you used to be. You need your rest. You have a long drive back to Willcox tomorrow, and you’ll have to get started early. It’s gonna’ start snowin’ and the snow’s gonna’ be deep.”
Nick snorted in derision. “I can take care of myself, old man.”
“You better. Both of us are gonna’ be dependin’ on you.”