Saturday, January 28, 2017

Blanca Mountain



Tetch, an Enron executive, bought Blanca Mountain a three years before scandal ruined the company. The ranch encompassing the mountain was acquired from a previous owner, Williams. Blanca Mountain is a few miles from Colorado’s border with New Mexico, an isolated summit on the southern flank of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, a great white brow of rock and snow standing apart from the main range. Title to the tract was rooted in a 17th century Spanish land grant. It was rumored that once there had been a silver mine in one of the steep ravines under the peak but that area of the mountain was prone to avalanches and land-slides and no trace of the workings had ever been found.

Williams, the mountain’s previous owner, was an oil and gas lawyer in Denver and he had acquired the ranch and peak through some remote relatives, a branch of his family with Spanish last names that had died out in the sixties. Williams retired to the ranch and, after a dispute with some local cowboys, refused to renew contracts affording grazing rights to the local people who owned beef that ranged the valleys to the east and south of the big mountain. One afternoon, when he was hunting on a plateau jutting out of Blanca Mountain’s slopes, someone took a long-range shot at him. The bullet starred the windshield of his jeep. Three days later, someone shot a half-dozen slugs through an outbuilding on his ranch and wounded one of Williams’ quarter-horses. Williams filed a police report with the County Sheriff, a burly Latin man with a big, grey beard. The Sheriff didn’t seem particularly interested in solving these crimes and Williams withdrew from his ranch cupped in a picturesque hollow under the mountain to his townhome in Denver. He never returned to Blanca Mountain or Blanca Vista ranch and, after a few years sold the peak and surrounding lands to Tetch. Tetch, in turn, put the land into a trust held by a limited liability corporation nominally managed by his wife. During the crisis at Enron, Tetch lost his job and, much of his fortune, but was able to maintain his interest in the peak and Blanca Vista Ranch. For half the year, Tetch lived in Houston in Afton Oaks, not too far from George W. Bush’s house; he spent his Summers and most of the Fall in Colorado at the Blanca Vista Ranch.

Tetch had begun his career as a salesman and he liked to please people. He renegotiated grazing contracts with the local ranchers and, even, established a several weekends when mountain climbers were allowed to use a jeep trail on his ranch to access the lower talus slopes west of Blanca’s rounded and snow-capped peak. At the base of the talus field, a little creek flowed under the boulders and, then, cut a gorge downward descending through aspen and pinon pine forests to the high chaparral terraces where the local ranchers grazed their cattle. Although Tetch was uninterested in mountain climbing, he sometimes led the caravan of jeeps and landrovers up the ragged, old trail to the base of the boulder field, a place where an experienced hiker could ascend to the summit by walking briskly for two hours. Tetch charged one-hundred dollars per mountaineer and made the people hiking to the peak sign a waiver. This paperwork concluded Tetch shook hands with the adventurers, wished them well, and, then, descended the switchbacks to his ranch-house. On the ascent, there were a few scrambles over loose stones at the upper elevations and, often, the rocks were slick with lichens so that once a climber, broke his ankle and had to be carried down from heights by those with whom he was hiking. As Tetch perceived the situation, the principal danger was weather and not the summit itself – in fact, a complicated arrangement of peaks arranged in a four-leaf clover array. From his ranch house, he had seen storms suddenly appear from the west, claw across the top of the mountain, stabbing hard at the rock with pitchforks of lightning. In the Spring and Fall, Tetch clouds might appear from nowhere, envelope the peak, and, then, suddenly flee away to the east, leaving the high country covered in white glistening snow. It was these conditions that comprised the main danger on the mountain heights, although there was also a thousand-foot escarpment dropping down from the western-most summit to towering sand-dunes that the prevailing winds had piled against that mountain – at the point where the federal National Monument land protecting the sand dunes began, Tetch’s land ended, a boundary zigzagging through a bad lands of pinnacles and eroded hanging valleys comprising the western edge of his land.

Above Tetch’s ranch house, there was a pulpit-shaped outcropping of pink granite. It was any easy climb to the top of the big, knuckle-shaped formation and Tetch thought that he would build a small observatory there. He acquired a 6-inch Questar and asked a local contractor to provide an estimate for a concrete slab and a dome to protect his telescope. As they were surveying the site, the contractor said that he had to pee and, so, as Tetch averted his eyes, the man urinated against a smooth wall of rock.

"Look at this," the contractor said. He stooped to peer at the stone slab that his urine had moistened.

"What is it?" Tetch asked.

"Pictograph," the contractor said.

Tetch looked at the wet stone and saw that someone had pecked a faint outline of a stick figure into the rock. The figure had a round head and seemed to be wearing a crescent crown.

"This is an archaeological site," the contractor said. "Paiute or something."

"You’re kidding me," Tetch replied.

"It’s protected, you could never pull a permit on this... but...well...I suppose, we could make the evidence go away," the contractor said. He grinned at Tetch.

"I don’t know," Tetch said.

"You maybe built your house on some sacred ground or a burial place or something," the contractor said. "Bad voodoo."

"Just what I need," Tetch said.

Tetch decided not to build the observatory. There was trouble in Houston and he didn’t want to attract undue attention to his estate. He even considered closing the peak to climbers, but thought that this might create a backlash – the mountain was a "fourteener", that is, higher that 14,000 feet, and there were climbers who collected those summits like butterflies.

In fact, it was an unauthorized climber, someone trespassing on his land, that discovered the shaggy corpse caught in a small ice-field under the westernmost-lobe of the summit. Someone had ascended the peak from a base-camp hidden among the dunes under the escarpment. Above the pinnacles of the bad lands, a maze of rock crumbling into grottos and castellated dikes, the ascent was technical. Tetch looked at the You-Tube video documenting the climb, a feat accomplished by pounding spikes into the escarpment and, then, inching upward on long nylon ropes. At the top of the big wall, there were several notches where great rock falls had punched holes in escarpment. In one of those notches, the steep channel gouged in the stone wall concealed a little snow-field, a house-high scab of glacier clinging to the north side of the big rock groove – the glacier hung like a bat, upside-down, in a place where direct sunlight only reached the snow for a few minutes a day. At the base of the snowfield, where boulders were embedded in the ice like chips of chocolate in a cookie, there was a scum of fur, matted hair haloing a yellow crescent of bone, and a brown limb angling out of the snow. The person who had secretly, and illegally, climbed the mountain posted a few minutes of cell-phone video showing the corpse from various angles and making the claim that the dead thing looked like a "sasquatch." Indeed, the You-Tube video, images that had been posted and re-posted a half-dozen times, were labeled "Colorado Yeti" and, several long shots clearly showed that the snowfield was hidden in a deep crevasse on Blanca Mountain.

The Navajo Indians named Blanca Mountain, "the white dove" or, even, sometimes, the "white god". To them, the mountain marked the very edge of the world that they had known before the White men came to the West. A voice commenting on the fragmentary corpse extruding from the ice field said that the Navajo believed the mountain was sacred, particularly because it stood apart from other peaks in the range and was topographically prominent, rising more seven-thousand feet above the dunes caught against that flank of the peak. "The Navajo have always said that there were strange men living on the mountain, messengers from the gods," and added that this shattered corpse, caught in the grip of the hidden glacier, was evidence that these beliefs were based on the truth.

Tetch was concerned that the You-Tube video would call undue attention to the mountain, and, by association, to his ownership of the peak. In particular, he was afraid that creditors of the defunct Enron Corporation might consider his 60,000 acre ranch an asset, perhaps, subject to collection although, of course, technically the property was held by his wife’s trust and foundation. He contacted his attorneys on retainer and asked them to take action to have the You-Tube images removed from the web. You-Tube ignored these requests. So Tetch decided to have the video images analyzed so that they could be proclaimed fraudulent.

The world is full of experts and such people, Tetch knew, had their uses. He contacted the department of Zoology at the college in Boulder. Because it was summer session, most of the professors were off-duty but he was able to speak to a retired teacher, a professor emeritus specializing in primates. On the telephone, the man sounded old and his hearing was poor – several times, he asked Tetch to repeat himself. Tetch said that he would pay a retainer in the sum $2500 and additional hourly fees at $150 an hour if the old man, Professor Gladwell, would analyze some images and, then, render him a report. The old teacher said that he was game for the assignment. Tetch referred him to the You-Tube videos of alleged Sasquatch half-extruded from the snowfield. "I need you to look as closely as you can and see if you can identify the animal in the footage," Tetch said. Gladwell agreed and Tetch sent him a check. Gladwell told Tetch to wait for a week and, then, call him at home on the weekend.

A year earlier, a couple climbers had told Tetch’s ranch foreman that they had seen some unauthorized mountaineers far away, across a col between two of the peaks. The climbers had paid their fees at the ranch gate and, since no other cars were parked there ahead of them, they had assumed that they were alone on the mountain. The climbers told the foreman that the others were far away and seemed to be wearing fur coats and that, when they halloed to them, the unauthorized people vanished into a boulder field, fleeing as it to avoid pursuit. The foreman checked his clipboard and verified that there were no other people authorized access to the mountain, but there was nothing more that he could do – the sun was setting. Before the two climbers departed, they told the foreman that they had experienced an eerie sense of being watched, particularly as they had ascended a talus-couloir near the top of the peak and that, while coming down the mountain, they had heard a weird shriek, almost like a baby crying.

Tetch remembered this account and wondered about it and he thought to himself that the mountain soaring overhead had now become his albatross, that it was yoked around his throat, and that the rumor of strange creatures living on its heights would draw unwanted attention to his investment in the ranch and his other investments as well. So far as he knew, none of the people living at the crossroads eleven miles from his ranch, a scatter of trailer houses and dilapidated frame shacks in a grove of parched trees, knew that he had once been employed by Enron – indeed, those people had no way of knowing that he lived half of the year in Houston. He was cordial to them and they were polite in return and he went to the village only every couple of weeks, when it had become insufferably dull on the slope of Blanca Mountain, and his wife was lonely and depressed and needed to see someone other than himself and the foreman and the two sullen cowboys who spent their days mostly riding ATVs along the fence-line or poisoning prairie dogs. There was a small supermarket, a hardware store, two bars and a gas station – a couple churches hung back from the Main Street as if ashamed by it and, on a stony ridge, a half-mile away, beyond a water-course that was clogged with sand and sage-brush, a nursing home with big windows that glinted at sunrise brooded over the empty high desert and the dusty grove of wind-tormented elms and willows marking the village. The people in the town didn’t seem exactly human to Tetch and he knew only one of them by name, the veterinarian that he hired to manage his small herd of Angus beef, the border collies, and the horses that his cowboys used when the ATVs were being serviced or when the country that they were riding was so broken that the vehicles could not cross it. Tetch’s wife sometimes had her hair done by a woman who operated a salon in a small quonset hut that smelled of barley and insecticide. Tetch asked his wife to make an inquiry of the beautician as to whether anyone in town had heard of strange hominid creatures living on Blanca Mountain. Tetch’s wife said that he was crazy and obsessed, but she asked, nonetheless, and was told that someone casting a line into one of the lakes on the mountain high above the tree-line had once seen something slinking through a ravine and had encountered some heaps of guts from eviscerated fish on the flat stones by the icy, shallow lake. But that was when fish and wildlife had stocked the mountain lakes with steelheads and cutthroats, and, therefore, a recollection of a time when the peak was open to all and so that must have been fifty years ago or more. There was a slight reproach in the beautician’s voice. Tetch made a similar inquiry of the veterinarian. "Do you know the Spanish name of the mountain?" the vet asked. "Blanca," Tetch said. "No, the other Spanish name?" the vet replied. Tetch shook his head. "Hombre peludo," the vet replied. "What is that?" "Hairy Man," the vet said.

Tetch couldn’t sleep. He thought of the cold, barren heights of the mountain that somehow he improbably owned. What if there were creatures up there? What if they were about to be discovered by the world? A wholly unknown species of hominid. He recalled the hullabaloo when the skulls and femurs of hobbit-men were discovered in Bali or some island in the south Pacific. What if that hullabaloo came to him, here in his peaceful ranch, and directed the harsh scrutiny of the media onto his affairs? He saw a gorilla’s bestial face roaring at him like a lion. He awoke clawing at his sheets. His wife grunted: "What is the matter?"

He told her.

"It’s your imagination," she said. "You’re too gullible."

"You don’t run high-finance, investment banking, hedge-funds without being willing to believe in the impossible," Tetch told her.

On the weekend, Tetch called the zoology professor’s house. A woman answered. She said that her Professor Gladwell was stricken with shingles and that he had taken to his bed and was not doing well.

"Can I talk to him?"

"Not at this time," the old woman said. "He will call you when he gets better."

Tetch asked his foreman to scout around and see if there were other people expert in the lore of the mountain and its animals. The foreman said that he knew an old prospector who had rambled around the mountain for more than fifty years and that he would bring the old fellow to Tetch’s ranch-house.

The prospector lived on the high windswept saddle between Blanca Mountain and the Sangre de Cristo peaks to the north. His cabin was hidden behind a pyramidal mound of rubble extracted from an old silver mine on the ridge, a spiky peak of spoil that glinted with fools’ gold crystal and that sheltered his home. Some collapsed headframes squatted like tarantulas on the barren hills. It had rained recently and the foreman was concerned that the seven mile jeep-track uphill from the gravel county road would be impassable, but Tetch was adamant that he try to retrieve the prospector, pay him for his time, and bring him to the ranch compound. The trail was passable until the steep incline the last quarter-mile, a a series of switchbacks requiring three-point turns and partly washed-out. The prospector’s two labradors ran out to meet the foreman, their tails snapping happily back and forth.

It was warm in the sun behind the mountain of spoil and the old man was stripped under his coveralls, his chest bare and covered with white hair, puttering around in the pile of stone in which he sometimes found ore-bearing boulders. The prospector said that he was happy to ride up to Tetch’s house in the foreman’s four-wheel drive pickup and had been meaning to stop by, in any event, to welcome the new fellow to the neighborhood. He put on a yellowing tee-shirt under his coveralls and they walked down the winding trail to the pickup.

At Tetch’s house, they sat in the sun-room under a bright, paint-splashed painting made by Andy Warhol, a silk-screened image of a Bengal tiger that the Houston zoo had auctioned twenty years earlier at a fund-raiser. Tetch’s wife brought them cans of beer on teak-wood tray.

The prospector said that he spent a dozen years or more exploring Blanca Mountain and that he had often camped on its slopes or by the little lakes in cirques where the snow-melt ponded.

"I know there’s an old Spanish silver mine, workings up in the big hollow ravine under the middle summit," the prospector said. "You can see an old Spanish high-road cutting right along the hilltop. At least, I can see it, an old camino – you gotta have the eye to pick it out, but I can tell you, it’s up here. The Spanish workings are usually very high – up on burro trails. They followed the nuggets right up to the source."

"Did you find the mine?" Tetch asked.

"I was there once, but couldn’t find my way back. No, the ravine is subject to avalanche in the winter and landslides when it rains and every time I go up there, the whole place has been rearranged. I keep thinking one of the slides will show something, but it hasn’t happened, not for forty years."

"How often have you gone up there?"

The old prospector shook his head. "Who knows? How many times can you count? It’s an easy mountain, not hard at all. A big old girl that you can climb and come down between breakfast and noon. Really just a knoll."

"There’s an immense escarpment on the west side," Tetch said.

"Yeah, you’re right, over there it does get a tad hilly," the prospector said.

Tetch asked him if he had ever seen any strange animals on the mountain.

"Nah," the prospector said. "Pronghorned antelope, deer, marmosets up in the rock fields. Some hawks, an eagle maybe. Shit-loads of mosquitos by the lakes at the wrong time of the year."

"Nothing more?"

"What do you mean?" The prospector said. "Kids climbing, whole families sometimes, I don’t know."

Tetch led the prospector into his study and turned on the computer to show him the You-Tube video. The prospector squinted at the screen, a couple times shielding his eyes as if the light from the monitor was painful to him.

"What do you make of that?" Tetch asked him about the tangle of fur and bone in the ice.

"A little black bear," the prospector said. "Ain’t nothin’ but a little black bear, got killed in an ice-fall maybe."

Tetch thanked the prospector and paid him for his time and the foreman took the man back across the saddle between the ranges to his cabin.

A few days later, the old professor called Tetch. He apologized for being under the weather. "Those shingles," the professor-emeritus said. "Ever had ‘em?" "No," Tetch said, "I can’t say that I have." "It’s bad, the old zoology professor said. "Real bad." He told Tetch that he was doing better and that he wanted to speak with him in person. "If you allow it," the old professor said, "I will drive down the coming weekend. What is it? Five hours?" "I don’t know," Tetch said. He gave Professor Gladwell instructions as to how to reach the ranch gate. "I will have my foreman meet you there," Tetch told him.

The foreman said that he knew another man who had spent his whole life on Blanca Mountain, a hermit who lived in an Airstream trailer tugged up to the end of one of the old logging roads. "Is he on my land?" Tetch asked. "Sure," the foreman said. "But he’s got squatter’s rights, adverse possession."

"No one ever tried to run him off?’ Tetch asked. "He don’t bother no one," the foreman said. "You wouldn’t even know he was up there, it’s a nasty little canyon like an ice-box. None of the hikers ever even seen him."

"Bring him here," Tetch said.

To reach the hermit, the foreman had to drive to the village and, then, north on the county-line road to a dirt path marked by a sign painted with some Spanish words. A half-mile up the trail, there were small wagons parked in a coulee, a goat-herders encampment. Where the dirt lane climbed out of the coulee, the foreman could see a low ridge, some flame-shaped pines marking a tiny graveyard above a sandy draw, and, beyond, three rough-hewn crosses on the hilltop. A penitente meeting house built like a long windowless chicken coop stood below the hill with the crosses and a couple of old men with yellow whiskers were sitting on fruit-crates in front of the church. The hermanos watched the foreman suspiciously as he navigated the wash-outs and outcroppings of rock on the uphill way past their meeting house. Two miles farther up the mountain in broken land, incised with narrow gulches, the foreman came to Tetch’s fenceline, needing repair he noted, and, then, the steep path climbing to the hermit’s canyon. From this slope the mountain overhead was invisible. Above him, there was a chaos of low, broken cliffs, stony pits, and, then, great, wind-polished heights bare and brown as the flesh of a naked woman.

The hermit came out of his Airstream, cradling a rifle in his arms. He lifted the rifle and sighted and the foreman saw that he intended to frighten him away so he stood stock still, both hands upraised. As expected the hermit lifted the gun and fired almost straight up into the air.

"You got a warrant?" the hermit shouted to him.

"Nope," the foreman said.

"You got a summons or subpoena or something?" the hermit shouted.

"Nope," the foreman said.

Tacked to a tree above the Airstream there was a grey satellite dish. The foreman knew that the hermit used the satellite dish to access stations that broadcast bible studies and prophecies and programs about the revelations contained within scripture. A wolf-like grey dog with arthritic hips limped down the trail, wagging its tail. The foreman saw that the hermit had made signs quoting scripture from the Book of Revelations and posted the placards on the trees growing through the rock-fall rubble around his trailer.

The foreman explained his mission. The hermit seemed almost grateful for company, although he sputtered protests at the imposition. He entered the Airstream and put away his long gun and, then, went with the foreman to Tetch’s ranch-house.

Tetch’s wife brought a vase of sun-tea to the little courtyard inside the ranch-house. Tetch sat with the hermit at a wrought-iron table. The tiles underfoot were expensive, made in old Mexico, and the color aged leather. In several of the tiles, there were paw-prints. In a niche in one of the walls, there was a Santo, a carved wood image of St. Michael brandishing a sword and the scales of justice.

Tetch asked the hermit if he had seen figures like human beings on the mountain heights. The hermit said that angels came to visit him but that no one could possibly mistake them for mere human beings – they were great and terrible figures of light. He said that bandits sometimes roamed the gulches and wild country where the mountain shed its boulders and had ripped open the hills when it sprouted up in this place. The bandits were responsible for all sorts of devilment – they played vicious pranks and ripped down bible verses posted in the sacred groves of trees and made his dog bark at midnight. Some of the gangs of bandits were Mexicans and they hid cartel drug money in the rock-fields. Their cousins operated the meeting house for the Penitente brotherhood and, the hermit said, that they also sold marijuana and heroin out of the church.

"They use the mountain to dump corpses," the hermit told Tetch. "I come upon bones all the time."

Tetch opened his lap-top and showed the hermit pictures of the alleged Sasquatch oozing from the ice.

"That’s what I mean," Tetch said. "You can see clear as day – that’s some Mexican gangbanger that they executed up in the hills and shoved into the snow."

Tetch shrugged.

"There’s crimes,’ the hermit said. "There’s crimes and you know it. Crimes hidden up on this mountain."

Tetch agreed with him and they walked through the living room, a cool place with Navajo rugs under the furniture and Spanish Mission-style chairs surrounding the whitewashed masonry of the big, black hearth, and they paused for a moment by the floor-to-ceiling windows, the venetian blinds drawn open at this time of day, that looked down hill, across the great basin: the winding driveway to the house flanked by newly planted trees leading away into the distance and the little isolated pines showing the places on the vast slope where water seeped near the surface.

"You think you own all this?" the hermit asked.

"I’m its steward," Tetch said.

"You can’t own this," the hermit said.

On the wall, there was a museum-quality Baselitz painting, a dense impasto of paint applied like jam to the canvas. The image showed a working man in empty space, the figure dressed like a janitor, painted upside-down.

"You got that picture hung wrong," the hermit said. Tetch replied that he would see to it.

A few days later, Professor Emeritus Gladwell arrived at the gate on the ranch road. It was still early in the morning, dew glistening brightly in the grass and the mountain bathed in a rare radiance, wispy strands of cloud like a wreath around the summits. Tetch said that he was surprised that Dr. Gladwell had arrived so early in the day.

"I set out before 4 am," Gladwell said. "I wanted to be through Denver, at least, before the traffic got too gnarly."

"What’s your drive time?’ Tetch asked.

"Five-and-a-half from my driveway to your gate," Gladwell told him. Tetch showed the old man to the toilet near the front door. Gladwell declined an offer of tea or coffee. "I am swimming in coffee," Gladwell said. "I got a couple thermoses in my pickup. Never leave home without it."

Gladwell was a tall, skinny man, with an exuberant grey thatch of hair. Tetcn noticed that he had scars on the back of his hands and nose and forehead where skin cancer lesions had been removed. He wore round glasses slid down on his nose and he peered over the bright lenses of his spectacles when he looked at Tetch. The coffee and the highway, particularly the last sixty miles of two-lane black top sweeping westward between the thrones of great mountains, had wound him up as tight as could be and he spoke in rapid bursts of words, stuttering a little, the graft-sites on his forehead pale against his otherwise raw, red complexion, a tremor just faintly perceptible in his fingers and hands. Tetch thought the front of the old man’s temple was marked as if an accommodating surgeon had removed horns that had suddenly sprouted from the old professor’s brow and he amused himself imagining those knuckle-like and keratinous protuberances.

"You’ve got something here," Professor Gladwell said. "You’ve got something here indeed."

"What is it?"

Professor Gladwell opened his valise and spread on the table screen-shots taken from the You-tube video.

"I’ve run them through some software that enhances detail, improves the resolution. So we can see better –" the old man said.

Tetch looked at the creature entrapped in the snow. The powerful opposing forces seemed to have been at work on the corpse and it was stretched and twisted and pulled like taffy. At higher resolution, the beast seemed less substantial, more like a furry scum embedded at various depths in the shimmer of white ice. The creature seem to be all surface, nothing but a film of pelt rotated like a ballerina en pointe.

"Let me orient you," Professor Gladwell said. "Here (he pointed) we’re looking at a wrist or hand. From the side, you see."

"I see," Tetch said.

"Pentadactyly – five fingers – and opposable thumb – that’s primate anatomy," Gladwell told him.

Tetch squinted at the picture but couldn’t make it out. Gladwell took a mechanical pencil from his pocket and outlined on a print of the screen-shot, the fingers and the shadow in the ice that he took to be the thumb.

"Here," Gladwell said, sliding another picture across the table, " collarbone – that’s the white blade-shaped thing – here in the pelvic girdle. That’s a characteristic of a great ape."

Tetch saw a ridge of yellowish bone extruding beneath a blackened open mouth. In the open mouth, there was something white posted like a sign.

"I can see a tooth," Tetch said.

"Yes, I think that’s a tooth, although compromised, there are black flecks on it – probably wear."

Gladwell stacked up the screen-shots, nearly aligning their sides and bottoms.

"I know what it is," Gladwell told Tetch. "It’s not really a cryptid because I can make an ID."

"What is your ID?"

"Something akin to a Gigantopithecus blacki – by the scale, I would say, a female or immature specimen. We know fully mature males stood about eight feet tall and this isn’t on that order of size but — "

"So it’s a Sasquatch?"

"That’s what some people might call it." Gladwell said. He made a disapproving sound and grinned at Tetch. "I call it a revolution, a total revolution, in primate science."

"So now what?"

Gladwell was stuttering with excitement: "We’re not ready to publish. Not yet. You have to mount an expedition to get the thing out of the ice and conserved. I’m too old to make the climb but you need to get a team that will keep their mouths shut and that will know how to conserve the specimen. I can advise on that – Then, we study it up close, we write up our findings, and we pub-pub-publish – This will change the whole paradigm. This is a ...a ...a para... para... "

"Dime," Tetch said.

"Thank you, a paradigm-changer."

"I’ll have to get someone up on top to yank the monster out of the ice," Tetch said.

A sense of gloomy foreboding grasped him and, for a moment, he felt as crushed and twisted and tugged as the dead beast in the icefield. He couldn’t breathe exactly right and felt like he had just emerged from being under water for a long time. He blinked his eyes to clear his head and saw Gladwell’s scarred face and head billowing toward him like a balloon, a little tremulous, and seemingly untethered from his body.

"This will make us famous," Professor Emeritus Gladwell said.

"I don’t want to be famous," Tetch replied.

"We will need confidentiality agreements," Gladwell said. "I don’t want anyone to beat us to the punch."

"Do you think they are living up there?"

"Almost certainly," Gladwell said.

When Professor Gladwell left it was mid-afternoon and the sun had traversed the sky and was, now, to the west of the mountain. The peak’s long shadow extended down across the vast, grassy slope leading to the ranch-gate in the furrowed country at the base of the mountain. Tetch had drawn a half-dozen agreements on a legal pad and had them signed, his wife looking on silently as a witness. Gladwell agreed that the creature’s physical remains were Tetch’s property and that he would not publish or disclose anything about the animal without Tetch’s express written consent – "that consent not to be unreasonably withheld." They shook hands and Tetch sat on the swing on his porch, watching Gladwell’s pickup ease its way down the washboard corrugating the gravel road – the pickup towed behind it a yellow-gold comet of dust.

Later, Tetch called his son in San Jose. Jeremy was a venture capitalist involved in high-tech start-ups in Silicon Valley. But on weekends, he sometimes climbed in the Sierra Nevada and had once made an ascent of El Capitan at Yosemite. Jeremy had summited Mount Rainier and Kilimanjaro and Tetch knew that he was in training for Everest. In part, Tetch had purchased the ranch and Blanca Mountain in the hope that Jeremy would spend summers climbing on the peak with his wife and two boys. In fact, Jeremy had not been to the ranch. He and his wife were separated, although not yet divorced, and she had custody of the Tetch’s two grandsons.

Jeremy was intrigued by Tetch’s story and said that he would fly out with a couple friends and reconnoiter the mountain top.

"I need you to get this thing out of the ice," Tetch told him.

With one of his business partners, the owner of a medical device company, and his new girlfriend, Jeremy flew by chartered jet to the airport at Taos. Tetch drove down and met them. Jeremy’s girlfriend, Sorinne, was a Norwegian personal trainer. She was relentlessly cheerful and optimistic. Jeremy and Coogan, the medical device manufacturer, mostly ignored her and spent the ride up the ranch talking business with Tetch. Jeremy suggested a few Silicon Valley investments that interested Tetch and he said that he might commit some funds but had to do his "due diligence" first.

At dinner, Jeremy asked Tetch about the local weather conditions. Tetch looked on the computer and saw that it would be clear in the morning with a chance of thunderstorms later in the day, although most probably to the east of the mountain. Jeremy said that they would climb to the notch on the peak’s west escarpment, then abseil down into the stone chute to the snowfield. Tetch had acquired black polyvinyl body-bag from the local veterinarian in town that Jeremy rolled tightly and put in his back pack.

Tetch drove the three climbers up to the boulder field before dawn. His jeep huffed and puffed, coughing heavily on the steep inclines over the dew-wet stones clogging the trail and, when Tetch looked in his rear view mirror, he saw in the red-tail-light glow, little slides of rock and gravel spurting out and down the hill. In the grey light, the boulder field was grim and vast, like a huge cemetery with the gravestones pressed so close together that they were touching, embracing, leaning against one another. The boulders were grey and the alpine meadows above them were shrouded in dense, wet fog and there was no color anywhere in the landscape except the racing stripe on the Norwegian girl’s spandex jumpsuit and the red silk scarf jauntily tied around her throat. Hidden birds made strange and uncanny cries and Tetch dreaded the long descent down the steep jeep track, slipping and sliding on the loose rocks.

The climbers picked their way through the boulder field and, then, ascended a bare knob of rock toward the meadows. They moved silently and the only sound was the breathing. Soon enough they were lost in the mist and Tetch drove back to the ranchhouse.

The climbers reached the peak in a couple hours. By that time, the sun had burned through the mist and the mountain was alive with the sound of melt-water trickling and gushing through tiny, twisting ravines like capillaries. The last four-hundred yards was a scramble through loose gravel and the Norwegian girl twisted her ankle. She reached the peak but said that it would be best for her to sit on the bare slabs of rock overlooking the stony prominences spreading out around them like a four-leaf clover. The view was magnificent – the mountain stood in proud isolation with slopes dropping seven-thousand feet to the raw and empty prairie.

Jeremy found the summit register, a metal tube that had fallen on its side by the cairn marking the true peak. Some Tibetan prayer flags were tangled up in the cairn. The tube that should have contained the summit register was empty. Jeremy tore a piece of paper from the moleskin in his chest pocket and each of them signed the note, dated it, and, then, slid the paper into the aluminum tube. "No summit register," Jeremy had written by way of explanation on the sheet of paper.

It took them a while to locate the vertical groove dropping down to the ice field hidden in the deep shadows of the angular stone chute. As Jeremy was mooring his rappel line to a rock, Coogan said that a thunder storm was approach.

"A thunder-bummer," Coogan said.

Jeremy saw a black and green congestion in the sky, ugly with outlier wall clouds hanging in tatters from the main cell. The storm growled at them from the distance.

"We need to get below the tree-line," the Norwegian girl said.

"It’s coming too fast," Jeremy said.

Thunder sounded, a deep, resonant roar. Coogan counted, but by fifteen there was another blast. Jeremy thought that he saw a tongue of lightning in the cloud steering straight for the peak.

"We should spread out," Jeremy said. "That way if one of us is hit, the others will be able to help."

The first damp mists, stinging with sleet whipped across the mountain top. Coogan saw Jeremy scramble toward the west and the gouge in the mountain where he had been setting his ropes. The Norwegian girl’s blonde hair suddenly stood on end, pulled up away from her shoulders. She squatted in a barrel-shaped depression the rock. Lightning flashed and the thunder crash came at the same time, a blinding roar. Then, the wind screamed across the peak and its four corners were lit by ball lightning like torches, then, the torches vanished as well, and the mountain blazed in all directions with lightning strikes.

The storm lasted for a eight or nine minutes. Then, the sky cleared. Coogan saw the Norwegian girl lying on her belly in a rock slit. She was crying but unhurt. Jeremy had vanished. They looked for him for an hour without any success. There was no trace of him except the rope looped around the boulder in and nylon rope harness for the abseil down into the vertical trench on the side of the mountain.

"We have to get off this peak before it gets dark," Coogan said. The descent was difficult because several smaller thunderstorms plagued them and the stones were slick and the Norwegian girl, who was crying inconsolably, was limping slowly because of the injury to her ankle.

A rescue team from Boulder was helicoptered to the mountain and climbers scoured the summit for several days without finding Jeremy’s body. Tetch was afraid that his wife would commit suicide and, so, he had her sedated and flown back to a private hospital in Houston. He stayed alone in the ranchhouse for another couple weeks, always expecting that Jeremy would appear, disheveled and, perhaps, a little bloody, his whiskers grown to a soft, red beard around his lips, the way that he looked in the cell-phone videos taken at the base of Mount Kilmanjaro after his adventure there. But the ranch-house was silent and no one came to him and, so, Tetch drove to the airport in Denver and flew back home to Houston.

The next year, Tetch went to his ranch alone. His wife stayed in Houston. One afternoon, a woman with an unfamiliar voice called him. The woman sounded distraught and elderly, perhaps, a little confused. She said that she had been trying to reach him for several weeks. The old woman said that her husband, an eminent retired primate specialist, had died during the winter. It was unexpected, a sudden and massive heart attack.

Another year passed. A TV show on the Discovery Channel called Fact or Faked: the Paranormal Files took an interest in the You-tube footage of the Sasquatch pinned in the snow-field. The show’s producers used state of the art imaging to analyze the footage. A computer-enhanced close-up of the creature’s mouth revealed that a white speck, thought to be a tooth, was in fact a tag – there were letters on the tag that said Made in China. Additional research revealed that the images showing Blanca Peak were unrelated to pictures purporting to show the creature, actually just a gorilla costume and some cow bones planted in a snow-drift. The footage showing the ascent and top of the mountain, but without the close-ups of the dead Sasquatch in the ice, had been posted a few years earlier on a mountaineering site devoted to Colorado "Fourteeners." The hoaxer (or hoaxers), persons never identified, simply digitally inserted the half–dozen shots of the gorilla costume in the snow into the video record of the ascent.




West Wall



Schoeck’s wife, Tiara, met him at the airport in Denver. At first, she didn’t recognize him. Schoeck was in a wheelchair and the tip of his nose was black. Bristly whiskers covered his face and throat and he looked like an old man, shivering a little and draped in clothing that was far too large for him. When he rose from the wheelchair, Schoeck winced with pain and staggered. His left foot was wrapped in surgical gauze and there were bulbous dressings on the tips of three middle fingers on his right hand. Tiara glared at him. Schoeck’s face was vacant and exhausted, his yellowish skin wind-burned around his eyes, and he seemed disoriented, not yet ready to recognize Tiara where she stood among the ticketed passengers at the jetway, her gate pass clutched in her fingers.

The flight was thirty hours by air from Kathmandu to Denver via Dubai and Chicago – more than forty hours traveling all told and Schoeck’s joints felt fused, wrapped in tight ligatures of scar tissue. He sat back down in his wheelchair, clutching the pack containing his medication in his lap.

Tiara took several deep breaths. Her eyes were burning and she brushed at them. Then, she smiled blandly in Schoeck’s direction, waiting for him to notice her, but not advancing to where he had been set in his wheelchair to the side of the jet-way by the steward. Schoeck tilted his head to acknowledge that he saw her, twisted his withered blackish lips into a smile, and, then, visibly gathering all his strength, tried to stand once more. His body was top-heavy, uneven, asymmetrical. Tiara embraced him forcing him back into the wheelchair.

They went to the baggage claim. She pushed the wheelchair. In the baggage claim, the gear from the expedition was set next to the moving carrousel. Schoeck insisted on standing and, as he hobbled back and forth from the carrousel, helping her collect the big, brightly colored bags, his strength seemed to improve and he was steadier on his feet. He had shrunken and some of the big packs spinning by on the conveyor seemed to be larger than he was. Tiara had parked the car in short-term lot, close to where the moving walkways disgorged people from the terminals into mazes of underground passageways leading to the various lots. The weather was cool and clear and Schoeck waited in the car for Tiara to hike back to the baggage claim for the rest of the expedition gear. It took her several trips, although she used a cart to transport the equipment, and, of course, when she was apart from him, she cursed Schoeck and the Himalayas and the corpses lying in the snow at 8000 meters and Mount Everest itself. But she was careful to show no sign of her anger to the revenant, the wounded man resting in the Landrover like a frail wraith.

Schoeck slept most of the way to Telluride. The mountains were draped in clouds and the deep stony valleys were wet. Schoeck growled sometimes in his sleep and cried-out.

Things had not gone well on Everest. A windstorm trapped Schoeck’s party just below the Second Step on the southeast ridge above 8400 meters. The climbers bivouacked in a unprepossessing and gusty couloir. The snow-filled ravine was decorated by two corpses, one of them bedded face-down next to three discarded oxygen bottles, the other leaning against a boulder with his mummified chin pointing upward to the step and the summit. The corpses were clad in bright yellow and orange jackets and their boots were both neon blue. No one in Schoeck’s party knew the names of the dead men. No matter how intense the gale, the vortices of snow in the couloir did not cover the corpses or disguise them in any way – probably, the men had died of exhaustion in places where the intensity of the wind was less and this accounted for the bodies persisting unconcealed notwithstanding the snow whirling in the air.

Schoeck and his comrades remained in the ravine for three days, huddled in their orange tents, fabric ballooning with sudden gusts of wind. In the Death Zone, 8000 calories of food intake are required daily simply to support metabolisms stressed by the high altitude – the most that Schoeck and his fellow climbers could consume per day was 1500 calories. As a result, their bodies were devouring themselves, eating muscle mass to keep heart and lungs operating. One of the men had a retinal hemorrhage in his left eye and frost bite was worrying their toes and fingers.

Unable to go up or down, Schoeck’s party waited out the storm. When they crept out of their tents, the brightly colored corpses seemed to beckon and wave to them. On the morning of the third day, the wind shifted a little and snow sifted down from the limestone ledges, dry as powder, and, then, there was a third corpse exposed, a climber in striped gear colored like a tropical fish squatting at the head of the coulee. The climbers said that it was strange that they had not seen the third dead body before this moment. But altitude sickness clouded their minds and the progression of light and darkness was confused – some nights seeming to last for several days and others passing in the wink of an eye.

On the fourth day, a respite in the gale allowed them to stumble up the ravine, past the brightly dressed corpse. The position of the climber seemed to have changed, as if the body had rolled down the snowy bank to sprawl across the center of the ravine.

"We ought to move him," someone suggested.

"He’s Chinese," one of the other climbers said.

They shrugged and walked past the dead man, ascending from the couloir along a ragged, yellowish ledge that led up to the small terrace below the Second Step. A decade before a Chinese expedition had installed a fifty-foot aluminum ladder bolted to rock and pitched against the top of the Step. The sliver of ladder was vibrating like a tuning fork in the wind, the whole jagged cliff exposed to the hurricane.

"It can’t be climbed," Schoeck said. They prayed for a half-hour to the god of the mountain. The wind howled, shrieking over the rock faces tottering overhead.

"We have to get down," one of the Sherpas said.

They slid back down the coulee. The third dead man now lay on his belly as if he were doing a breast-stroke in the deep snow.

At a lower elevation, below 6000 meters, Schoeck’s party met some climbers ascending the Rongbuk glacier. These climbers said that a Chinese mountaineer was lost near the summit and presumed dead.

Schoeck said: "We maybe saw him."

"He was dead?"

Schoeck didn’t answer. He looked up at the peak with the jet stream blowing a plume of snow like an acetylene torch at the summit.

"I think so," Schoeck said.

He slept for half a week in his bed in Telluride. Then, he sat on his deck looking up at the wall of mountains and the silvery cascades falling from them. His wife brought him noxious-tasting protein malts, the sort of thing best consumed through a gastric feeding tube. He tried a little walking, first in town, and, then, above Telluride in the alpine meadows fresh with columbine. His wife said that he was depressed and that he should seek professional assistance. She asked him whether he wanted to sample her Zoloft but Schoeck said no, that he was simply exhausted, and, that, soon enough, he would recover.

As the mountains darkened in the evening, he thought about their deadly heights. He drank Captain Morgan rum before going to bed, hoping that nightmares would not afflict him.

Walking in the meadows wasn’t sufficiently strenuous. When the amputations on his feet healed, he began to jog a little. He ran cautiously, as if afraid that he would slip and fall. After a month, Schoeck’s partner at the rock-climbing school came to visit him and said that he should come back to work.

"I don’t know if I can climb any more," Schoeck said.

On the weekend, Schoeck went with his partner to the Ilium boulders and they worked-out on the big rocks. There were other climbers among the trees, groups of them surrounding the rocks and spotting for the people ascending the boulders. The brightly colored crash pads spread below the big fists of the rocks reminded Schoeck of the lost climbers on Everest and he looked away from them. Schoeck placed himself inside a hollow at the base of one of the boulders, a place that required that he navigate an overhang to reach the top of the rock. He sat for awhile with his buttocks in the pine needles, the big rock as serene as a grazing cow – a cave-like coolness came from within the hollow in the stone. Schoeck reached out and seized the jagged edge of the overhang, pulling himself upward off the ground. "Spot me," Schoeck said to his partner who was chalking his own fingers and palms. To his surprise, the muscle-memory returned and his upper body strength was sufficient for him to raise his weight up around the bend in the stone. Some the pine needles adhered to the back of his trousers. He hauled himself over the out-thrust edge of rock, then, climbed quickly to the pinnacle about twenty feet above.

"I still can’t feel anything in the tips of my fingers," Schoeck said.

He slid down the back of the rock.

Schoeck worked a few other problems in the boulder-field. He told his partner that it felt good to be climbing again and that, perhaps, he would try something more challenging before the end of the month.

"I need to get you back to work," his partner said.

Schoeck’s father was a ski-instructor and for years had worked at the resorts near Taos. There had been a divorce when Schoeck was in High School and he was estranged from his father. The old man had cancer and Schoeck had planned his climb on Mount Everest so that he could be out of the country when his father died. But the old man rallied and was still alive when Schoeck returned from the Himalayas. The old man’s girlfriend sent him a message on Facebook that the old man was doing poorly, had entered hospice care in Alamosa, and that it would be a good thing for Schoeck to visit him before the end came.

To the east of Alamosa, rising over the San Miguel valley, there is a big mountain. After his parents divorced, Schoeck had lived for a year with his grandmother in Alamosa. During that time, he had climbed the west wall of the mountain looming over the valley. The mountain was privately owned and, apparently, the center of controversy between local ranchers and the man who held title to the peak. Schoeck recalled that he had climbed the big escarpment on the west face of the mountain with a couple of high school buddies. On the summit, they had sat for an hour drinking schnaps and, then, descended the mountain more than half-drunk. Schoeck recalled the feeling of power and strength that he had felt as they climbed down off the summit, watching for cowboys or men on jeeps or ATVs who might detain them for trespassing. They slid and dived and jogged downhill, effortlessly slipping over the cliffs, and, it seemed, that nothing was beyond their abilities. A figure on horseback approached them as they hiked out of an arroyo, but they were fast and elusive and the cowboy wasn’t able to catch them. At the base of the peak, among the forests and the narrow, stony defiles, they reached a logging road that seemed unfamiliar to them – their route down from the mountain was different from the way upward and they were lost in the foothills. It took them much longer to locate their jeep, parked in a little box canyon and hidden among the aspens, then, it required for them to ascend the great stone wall and reach the mountain’s top and they didn’t reach the main highway until late at night. But the day had been a success, not the least, their escape from the cowboy, and they vowed to return to the mountain. But, of course, they did not come back.

Schoeck told his partner that he was going to do some solo climbing, nothing complicated or tricky, a small wall that you could summit in a half-day. He said that he was planning to visit his father in the hospice in Alamosa and, then, the next day would climb the western escarpment of Mount Blanca.

"Be careful, dude," his partner told him.

"It’s an easy climb," Schoeck said.

Schoeck didn’t recognize his father in the old man crumpled-up in the wheelchair at the nursing home. There was no trace of the brash, hard man that Schoeck had known when he was younger. Schoeck’s father had faded – his eyes were no longer blue but some indeterminate slate color and his voice had lost its edge, fogged with phlegm into a whisper. Schoeck sat beside him for an hour and talked about mountains that they both had loved. Leaving, he shook his father’s hand and tried to hug him, but the old man pulled away.

There was a Country Inn on the edge of town. Schoeck checked into a room with a mural of the Maroon Bells on the wall. The room smelled of disinfectant and sun tan lotion. He laid out his gear on the second double-bed in the room, testing the knots and checking his carabiners. It was a new rope and Schoeck let it glide smooth as silk between his fingers, inspecting for defects.

He watched TV but wasn’t tired. When he tried to sleep, he kept visualizing the bivouac beneath the Second Step on Everest and was unable to rest. After two-o’clock in the morning, Schoeck gathered up his gear, coiled the rope in its vinyl bag and counted out the hardware – pitons, ‘biners, ascenders and descenders. He went to his jeep and drove to the municipal park, a grove of cottonwood trees caught in a loop of the river. The water smelled icy in the darkness, like the high mountains, and it skidded down hill through a shallow stony trough. The white water was phosphorescent in the darkness and the sound of the cascade was soothing to Schoeck – the last police patrol for kids making out in the park had passed-by an hour earlier, and the little lane between the picnic tables and the fire-pits was deserted. Schoeck always slept better in his jeep. It reminded him of the old days, before he was married, when he lived out of his pick-up truck.

A couple hours before dawn, Schoeck drove out to the mountains. He found a jeep trail on the back side of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, a ragged, dismal track that led over some high desert to a shallow canyon. The canyon was a watercourse dry most of the year and it could be navigated uphill, zigzagging around rock falls to a small, muddy lagoon where the stream trickling off the big mountain ended. There was another trail leading upward from the lagoon and it was steep, but passable to about 10,800 feet. At that point, Schoeck encountered a fence with no-trespassing signs at intervals. He wiggled between a couple strands in the barb wire and climbed a game trail switchbacking up to a dark, tilted boulder field. Although the sun had risen, it was dark on the west side of the mountain and cold, an immense ominous shadow spreading out behind Schoeck so that the darkness almost touched the skirts of the pale white sands in the National Monument.

Schoeck walked between boulders, following instructions from an internet site that he had printed. The landmarks described on the map correlated to real places – he found the cairn and, then, the dead tree protruding like a lance from a boulder and, at last, he reached the talus field beneath the big wall. The fallen rocks were small, ankle-twisters, and he scrambled upward carefully. The path became steeper and, then, he was climbing up chilly, moist slabs of tilted rock. Imperceptibly, the incline increased and, after an hour, Schoeck found that he was mostly vertical, moving from hold to hold on a rock pitch that was accommodating – hand and toe-holds where he expected them, and, sometimes, ladder like ripples in the stone.

After ninety minutes, Schoeck startled a cliff-dwelling bird and recoiled as its wings clipped across his face. He lost his grip momentarily and slid a little on the pitch. He looked down and saw that he was almost a thousand feet above the talus slope and too high to continue free soloing. He slipped into a crevasse a few feet away, anchored himself, and, then, removed his rope and gear from his pack. Then, he climbed upward, self-belaying with two-point anchors. The ascent was now much slower, and more technical, Schoeck climbing up to lead from the high-point, and, then, descending to remove the pitons below. The rock remained generous, pocked with hand-holds and foot grips, and he thought that he could have free-soloed without much difficulty or fear, but, of course, he was alone and there was no point in demonstrating his courage, and his up and down motion over the cliff face afforded a kind of familiarity to the big rock wall.

The sunlight skimmed over the cathedral-like height overhead and it was warm on the rock, the mountain seeming to breathe slightly with convection currents rising from the stone. Sometimes, he encountered dark vents in the mountain and could smell its wet innards, a muddy, almost fecal odor from inside the rock. It was all fine and effortless and he seemed to be swimming in the air.

Then, a shadow fell over him. He looked over his shoulder and saw that a fat, greasy-looking thunderhead was rolling over the sand dunes. Schoeck was about six-hundred feet below the escarpment’s rim and he thought that, perhaps, he should abandon his roped climbing and hurry up to the mountain’s summit. But that would be dangerous, potentially lethal, if the storm smashed onto the cliff while he was exposed. So he chalked his fingers again, and continued his way up and down the cliff.

A splash of water landed on his face. Then, another cold raindrop lit up the back of his neck. He looked for a place to anchor himself and saw vee-shaped gouge in the cliff face, a narrow trough that ended on a terrace. The terrace was corniced over the pitch and there seemed to be some trash on its edge.

A spray of water blinded him for a moment and, so, Schoeck swiftly made the traverse over the ledge extruding from the cliff like half-shattered limestone balcony.

The trash on the edge of the terrace was a corpse. The body was cocooned in a striped climbing suit. One of corpse’s Cordura boots was knocked off and the man’s foot wrapped in a woolen sock was exposed. Somehow, the man’s aviator-style glasses had remained on his head, but birds had dislodged them so that the dark lenses were perpendicular to his face. The climber’s couloir harness was tangled on a stalagmite-shaped bulge of stone and the corpse’s right arm, disarticulated at the shoulder hung down, pointing into the abyss.

Schoeck rubbed at his eyes and watched as water showered down, bathing the corpse so that it’s dangling arm wavered in the air, made animate by the impact of the cascade sliding down the groove in the cliff. Hurriedly, Schoeck anchored himself, tapping a couple of pitons into the wet rock. Somewhere the wind moaned, but on the cliff-face it was still, water striking down from the heights in vertical blasts.

"Dude," Schoeck said, "I thought we left you on Everest."

The corpse made a hole in the landscape. Water dowsed the dead body and wet its withered lips.

"You’re not supposed to be here," Schoeck told the dead man.

He felt foolish talking to a corpse and the words echoed back to him: "You’re not supposed to be here."

Schoeck huddled against the cliff-face. Soon enough, he was soaked. He thought that he should cut the corpse loose and send it in free-fall down the pitch. The body was a couple yards from him and the intervening ledge looked questionable, intricate with fissures and facets of stone tilting sharply down into empty air and, so, there was nothing that he could do. He rotated his body away from the dead man in the striped suit and looked across the face the great wall, glacier-gouged with embedded columns of rock at intervals at stately intervals, the air buzzing with falling rain.

The storm passed in 45 minutes and, after the rain, the air felt dryer and less charged with energy.

Schoeck looked up and saw the rock reaching upward like an open hand to the precipice two-hundred yards above. The channels in the rock were still alive with snake-like motion, swift surges of water twisting and corkscrewing downward. Thunder sounded in a remote precinct of the mountain.

"See you later," Schoeck said to the dead body.

He began to descend the wet and slippery cliff face. The sun appeared overhead and dried the stone and, as he climbed downward, he seemed to be held in the mountain’s embrace.

When he reached his jeep, it was warm but his hands were shaking. He sat for a few minutes until the trembling subsided. The inside of his jeep smelled of crushed juniper berries and a heavy, sweat odor like wet dog.

In Telluride, Schoeck’s partner asked him about the climb.

"I didn’t make the top," Schoeck said. "I got caught in a thunderstorm."

"Bummer," Schoeck’s partner said.

Schoeck didn’t see any reason to mention the dead man hanging in his girdle of couloir harness on the cliff.

"No," Schoeck said. "It was a good climb."





Costilla is a dry county, but you can buy booze in Alamosa and, so, there is a saloon and package liquor place at Mosca just over the county line. Joe Serna sat outside on the patio talking to McArnheim, the photographer from Santa Fe. The name of the bar was Blanca View and the mountain rose in lonely majesty above the rolling, sage-dotted chaparral. Some steel-blue clouds were draped over the summit and fresh-fallen snow, glistening like quicksilver under the storm clouds, powdered the upper slopes. From this vantage, the peak seemed immense and, yet, somehow incomplete – the throne of a god that had gone missing.

Some bikers sat a picnic table a few yards away drinking pitchers of beer and gossiping with the waitress. Joe’s steel crutches were crossed, leaning against the wall of the saloon. The photographer wore khaki slacks and a tight shirt that seemed styled for the golf course and he had a big leather bag, like a purse, slung over his shoulder. The man seemed out of place at the saloon and vaguely needy, as if he were seeking some kind of assistance from the locals, and, so, Joe had approached him, swinging like an awry pendulum between his two silver crutches, struck up a conversation, and, then, offered to sell the photographer from Santa Fe some weed and percocet. The photographer winced slightly and declined the offer. However, he said that he would buy Joe a beer if he were so inclined. Joe was so inclined. One beer turned into a couple. The photographer introduced himself with a last name that sounded like Mac-something. Joe didn’t hear the word exactly and, so, he just called the Santa Fe cameraman "Mac."

After their third beer, Mac asked Joe if there were a Penitente morada somewhere up on Blanca Mountain.

"Oh yes, there surely is," Joe Serna said.

The photographer said that he was making a study of the Penitente moradas in the Sangre de Cristo mountains and that he would like to see the building and take some pictures.

"They get pretty touchy about that," Joe said.

"I know – that’s why I’m looking for someone to make introductions for me," the photographer said.

"They don’t like people treating them like freaks or something," Joe said.

"It’s not my intent," Mac replied. He asked Joe if he were a member of the brotherhood.

"I been initiated," Joe said. "Those old guys control all the good jobs. You want to work, you need to be a member."

Joe said that the leaders of the brotherhood were uncles to a guy in Trinidad who owned a dry-walling business. The Trinidad business had contracts as far west as Telluride and northeast to Pueblo.

"I worked a Hollywood movie star’s summer house, a chalet up in Telluride," Joe said. "I was living in Alamosa, then, and to get up there, we had to go over four mountain passes coming and the same four passes going."

"That’s sounds difficult," Mac said.

"You spend a lot of time sleeping in the pickup truck," Joe Serna said. "We’d leave at four in the morning and not get up there till eight and, then, you don’t get back home until ten at night. And if it were snowing or something – "

He paused and winked at Mac.

"But I ain’t been working recently," Joe Serna said.

Joe told Mac that he had been riding his motorcycle to see his fiancee in Walsenberg when a pronghorn jumped out of the ditch in front of him. He missed the antelope but the cycle crashed hard, flinging Joe down into a deep irrigation ditch.

"I wasn’t wearing a helmet or anything," Joe said. "And when I come to, I was all bloody and feverish and I can’t move my legs. The motorcycle’s kind of hid in some brush and I’m at the bottom of this ditch and I figure no one is coming, no one at all is coming for poor Joe Serna. So I try to creep around a bit, but it don’t work, my legs are numb and paralyzed. It’s October and chilly at night and I pretty much figure that I ain’t going nowhere and that this is the end of old Joe Serna."

"What happened?" Mac asked.

"I got cold and sleepy and nothing could get me warm. Then, a big black angel came. The angel was sitting over me, like a guard, and the angel kept talking to me in my mother’s voice. She said – Jose Serna, you got to pray, you got to pray hard. But I said: I’m not much for praying. And I’m too sleepy, I’m too tired to put my mind to it. Then, a rancher come scrambling down the side of the ditch and I seen him looking at me like I was road-kill or something. I asked him – where did my angel go? And he says: that was no angel, that was a big old turkey buzzard. Then, there was an ambulance and they took me away to Pueblo first and, then, Colorado Springs and you can see how it turned out."

"Maybe, they can heal you up at the Morada -- they do healing up there don’t they?" Mac asked.

"Sure," Joe replied. "But first you got to do penance, you got to march a dozen miles or so carrying a cross on your shoulders wearing a crown of thrones and, you can see, my legs are all fucked-up and I can’t do nothing like that."

Mac nodded.

"But my cousin," Joe Serna said. "He made me a retablo. You know what a retablo is?"

"Yes," Mac said.

"He took some pieces of tin and made a brass frame too and like a shell over the picture and he painted me there in the ditch with the black angel at my side and, then, up at the top the Lady sitting on a cloud. That’s how I was saved."

"I’d like to see that retablo," Mac said.

"It’s up at the Morada."

"Is it far away?" Mac said.

"Way off the county highway on the west slope of Blanca," Joe Serna pointed at the mountain. "That’s a big old mountain. So it’s a good, long drive."

"I’d like to see the retablo, maybe take some pictures with you and the picture," Mac said.

"I’ll tell you what," Joe Serna said. "You buy me a bottle of Captain Morgan and a case of beer and I’ll take you up to the Morada so you can take some pictures there."

"I can take pictures?"

"There won’t be nobody up there," Joe said. "Ain’t but a dozen or so Hermanos."

"Do you have a car here?" Mac asked.

"I pretty much hitchhiked," Joe said.

"It’s a deal," Mac said.

Joe took up his crutches and hoisted himself into a standing position. Then, he went into the saloon to use the toilet. Mac crossed over into the package store and bought a case of Coors and a 1.75 liter bottle of Captain Morgan. He met Joe Serna in the parking lot. A pack of bikers roared up to the tavern and the engines of their motorcycles roared like thunder.

Joe Serna complimented Mac on his F-150 Lariat Crew Cab pickup. "Nice rig," he said.

Before they put the beer in the back of the truck, Joe opened a can and set it in the cupholder between the seats.

"Is that gonna be okay?" Mac asked.

"It’ll be okay," Joe Serna said.



The mountain changed aspect as they rounded the curves in the foothills. Sometimes, the flank of the peak rose like a ramp, an immense smooth grassland where white-faced cows were grazing that tilted upward as if it were an ascent to heaven. From high above, pinon forests stretched down to caress the bare swelling slope, the woods like black fingers spread wide. After another curve, the mountain slopes showed dark canyons and the road bounced over little streams that had their origin in the heights, meek now and braided as they rolled across the plain, and, beyond scarves of mist, the throat of the mountain rose between cone-shaped pinnacles of pale stone.

At an intersection, a flashing red light was suspended over the cross-roads and there was a truck stop and taqueria on the broader road running arrow-straight across the high, barren plains. Joe Serna pointed and they drove north along the eastern slope of the white mountain. He rolled his window down and leaned out to spit and, then, he threw a beer can into the big pickup’s slipstream and Mac saw it scooting along side the road, dancing over the loose gravel, until it spun sideways and dropped into the ditch. At the county-line road, Serna told Mac to turn and, now, his car was aimed at the mountain, from this angle dark with shadow, a chaos of gulches and canyons overhead where the high slabs of rock dragged huge, broken talus slopes behind them.

The narrrow two-lane black top swerved to avoid an ancient cottonwood tree standing alone on stony knoll. Mac saw a low, sleek-looking car parked in the short grass in the shade of the cottonwood. A winding dirt track ran uphill toward the mountain. Joe Serna told Mac to pull up beside the car. A man with short legs and very broad shoulders was leaning against the tree smoking a cigarette. Mac saw that the hood of the car had been painted by airbrush, a velvety image of an Aztec eagle warrior embracing a big-breasted Indian maiden. Joe Serna got out of Mac’s truck, leaving his crutches in the back seat. He supported himself, sliding along the side of the truck toward the man under the tree. The man looked concerned that Joe would lunge toward the low-rider and, then, use it’s polished flanks as a support and, so, he stepped away from the cottonwood and walked up to where Joe was leaning against the side of the pick-up. Joe fist-bumped the big man with the cigarette. He gestured that Mac should get out as well.

"This is Sparky," Joe said. Sparky narrowed his eyes and squinted at Mac and, then, blew a cloud of smoke his way.

"Do you like his car?" Joe asked.

"It’s marvelous," Mac said. On the car’s trunk, Jesus clad in white pointed to a crater in his chest where his sacred heart was visible.

"Is there anyone up at the Morada?" Joe asked.

"I brought my grandpa here," Sparky said. "I ain’t gonna wreck my car on that half-assed road. Juan run him up there on his dirtbike. I’m just waiting for him come on down."

"Do you think anyone will mind if I bring my buddy up to look at the place?"

"Not inside," the big man said.

"No not even in the oratorio, just the outside," Joe Serna said.

"I don’t know, dude," Sparky shook his head.

"He’s my buddy," Joe said. "I can vouch for him."

Sparky turned to Mac and said: "It’s nothing personal. But we had problems with vandals, people breaking in, stealing things – kids huffing gas and paint."

"I can vouch for him," Joe repeated.

"I don’t know, dude," Sparky said. He pushed off from the cottonwood tree, walked to his car, and very carefully opened the trunk. Sparky stooped and lifted from the truck a gun wrapped in chamois rags. He spread the rags apart to reveal a sawed-off shotgun, two short barrels and a battered-looking stock.

"You don’t need to use that," Joe said.

"No, it’s just this," Sparky said. "You got evil spirits lurking around here. I can feel them, dude. You gotta scare ‘em off."

"I don’t feel anything," Joe said.

Mac stepped back. He was careful to keep his eyes from getting entangled in Sparky’s gaze.

"I don’t like shooting this son-of-a-bitch," Sparky said. "It kicks and cuts my trigger finger."

"Then, don’t shoot the son-of-a-bitch," Joe said.

"No, it’s got to be done," Sparky replied. He lifted the gun, inspected it for a moment and, then, pointed the barrels over Mac’s right shoulder. At the last instant, he tilted the barrels skyward and pulled the trigger. Fire flashed and the sound staggered them and, then, Sparky switched the gun to his other hand so that Joe Serna could see that the web between his thumb and index finger was cut and blood was running down his wrist.

"Jesus, man," Joe said.

"You go on up there," Sparky told him. "But you remind your buddy that we got traditions around here."

Joe Serna gestured to Mac and they went to the truck, started the engine, and slipped off the asphalt road onto the wheel-tracks gouged in the side of the hill. The truck bounced and thudded forward until they had climbed over the ridge. In a hollow below the ridge, a couple of ancient pick-up trucks with campers on them were drawn up around a fire-pit and some thorns had been cut and stacked together to make a small enclosure where a goat with heavy curled horns was resting on his belly. A little acequia paved with field stones ran between some apricot trees and the wheel prints on the hill followed the canal up to a terrace dotted with pinon and chollo. The morada was across an arroyo standing amidst purplish flowers of wild alfalfa plants. The meeting house was a little longer than a freight car, built from featureless brown adobe, with vigas polished smooth by sand-laden wind extruding from the wall just a little above the height of man’s head. Part of the building’s roof was made from battered tin and, at one end of the structure, a fragile-looking framework of lathe supported a small zinc-colored gable – a bell might once have hung in that little steeple but there was nothing under that pitched roof now. In the center of the adobe wall, Mac saw a white-washed wooden door. Next to the door, a couple of fruit crates were set as benches.

Mac parked the truck on the hillside and they walked toward the building. He could see on the dome of hill above the morada, a single rough-hewn cross. Three smaller crosses made from wood still rough with bark leaned against the adobe wall. Flame-shaped evergreens encircled a tiny campo santo where the graves were unmarked except for heaps of gravel overgrown with wild roses. Joe’s steel crutches left knuckle-sized depressions in the dust.

Joe Serna led Mac to an old plank spanning the dusty arroyo. A lizard was sunning itself on the plank. Joe crossed and beckoned to Mac. The lizard, dark as an obsidian flint, skittered down the ravine. He pitched his crutches across the ravine, metal on metal sounding loud in the hushed late afternoon. Then, Joe dropped down and moved on his knees across the wooden plank, hunching up and, then, extending himself like an inch-worm. When he had crossed the arroyo, he groped for the crutches stood up and beckoned to Mac.

"I don’t know," Mac said.

"Too many quarter-pounders?" Joe asked.

Mac shrugged and ventured onto the plank. It swayed and bent under him but did not crack.

Standing near the morada, Mac could smell fire and wax burning. Joe Serna dragged himself to the white-washed door and pushed it open. Then, he vanished inside. After a couple minutes, he emerged, blinking in the sunlight.

"There’s an old guy inside."

"Sparky’s grandpa?" Mac asked.

"I guess so," Joe Serna said.

"Are we disturbing him?"

"I don’t think so," Joe said. "He’s doing some repairs in the meeting house part of the morada."

"Can you show me the retablo?" Mac asked.

"I don’t think it’s a good idea right now," Joe said.

"What’s in there?"

"I can’t show you right now, but, later," Joe said. "Stick with me and, later, I can get you inside."

"What do they have in there?"

Joe shrugged: "Old santos, you know, wood statues of skinny old guys with staring eyes, some of them got horsehair on their heads. Jesus with his side cut open and his knees all wounded to the bone, you can see the bone of his knee-cap, and the whip-marks have cut him open to his ribs too. Death."


"It’s a monster wearing rags, a skeleton-woman, and she’s holding a bow and arrow in her bony hands," Joe Serna said. "She sits on a wagon like a throne and the wagon’s got these square wheels – the wheels ain’t round, my friend, no they are square wheels on axles made of wood."

"I’ve heard of images like that," Mac said. "They’re masterpieces of folk art. Very, very valuable."

"It’s Death with her bow and arrow ready to pick you out and shoot an arrow right through your heart," Joe Serna said. "Thing like that would scare the shit out of you when you were little, five or six, and seeing the carving in the dark, in the candlelight."

"I can imagine," Mac said.

"Do you know why Death rides a cart with square wheels?" Joe asked.

"No, I don’t," Mac replied.

"Those old dudes, on Holy Friday, they come up here and drag that wooden thing out here, set it up on this hill, and, then, they take fish-hooks and gouge them into their shoulders and they use those fish-hooks on rope to drag that Death around this hill. It ain’t that easy with the square wheels on the cart."

"Is that true?"

"It’s what I been told," Joe Serna said.

Mac’s face contorted and he kicked the ground. "I left my camera in the pick-up," Mac said. "I guess that shot-gun and all got me nervous."

"Got me nervous too," Joe Serna said. "That Sparky is a crazy dude."

A motorbike buzzed somewhere above them. Then, they saw a kid come down the slope, gravel skipping out from under his wheels.

"Listen, we gotta get going," Joe said. "Too many people around here right now."

"Okay," Mac said. "But I want to get some pictures."

"Listen, you keep in touch with me," Joe said. "You stay in touch and I’ll get you all the photos you want. I’ll get you inside, into the Oratorio at least."

"Someone should tell them that those santos are worth a fortune," Mac said. "They need to be protected."

"The hermanos think that God protects them," Joe Serna said. "But they’re ignorant people. Not like you and me."

"I don’t know," Mac said.

"We can work together," Joe Serna said. "I’ll get you inside. All the pictures you want."

The dirt bike skidded to a stop a little uphill from the campo santo and the dark-eyed rider looked at them quizzically.

"They’re just goat-herders," Joe said. "You saw where they’re camping with their goats. They’re nothing but goat-herds."






Joe Serna said that he was down in New Mexico at San Cristobal visiting his padrino when the thieves broke into the morada. Joe’s girlfriend, Lupe, had a car that worked, although it was slow and, sometimes, leaked smoke on the mountain passes. She drove him to San Cristobal and, then, Taos because Joe Serna told her that there was a man who owed him money there. In the back of her old car, Joe loaded a big styrofoam cooler with its lid duct-taped shut. He said his cousin had shot a deer and had given Joe some venison on dry-ice for his padrino. Joe said that he would give Lupe a hundred dollars for gas money. "Where are you gonna get the money?" Lupe asked Joe. "It’s my settlement," Joe said. "On my motorcycle crash. The lawyer told me that the money is here."

Lupe said that she thought Joe Serna’s lawyer was in Pueblo. "No, I got a different lawyer," Joe told her.

After seeing the old man in San Cristobal, Lupe and Joe went to Taos. The old man must not have wanted the venison because Joe still had the cooler in the car. Lupe waited at a Denny’s, while Joe transacted some business. Then, they went to Chimayo where Joe and Lupe traded her car for a low-mileage pick-up truck.

A couple days later, Joe appeared in Mosca driving the new pick-up truck. It was shiny and the upholstery smelled stiff and fragrant, like a new car. People said that Joe Serna must have hired a very good lawyer to get him enough money from the motorcycle crash settlement to buy the truck.

Several times in the preceding years, vandals had set fire to isolated moradas in the mountains. Several meeting houses had been destroyed in the Chama River Valley and the vandals defaced the soot-stained adobe walls with spray-painted obscenities and blurry red pentagrams. Some of the older hermanos said that the vandals were not human, but, rather, fallen angels or devils sent to oppress the faithful. On Blanca Mountain, the evil ones had been content with burglary and there had been no fire. The white-washed door to the morada was splintered apart by a pry-bar and several of the Santos had been beheaded. The mutilated wooden sculptures sprawled on the packed-dirt floor, heads rolled up against the bare clay walls of the building. An old figure of San Miguel, the size of a six-year old child, was missing. The wooden figure carried a sword with a real steel blade, sharp enough to cut flesh, and the angel’s scales of justice were made of brass. San Miguel had shoulder-length black hair, carved to represent the long mane of an Indian warrior and his great wings, shaped like those of a dragon-fly were inset with shards to broken glass to make them iridescent. The figure was jointed so that it could disassembled. The missing Santo was very beautiful and the hermanos grieved San Miguel’s absence but they also said that the theft of the old carved figure was a small price to pay for the salvation of the rest of the morada and its sacred images. It could have been worse and, in fact, at the bar in Mosca, some of the old men whispered that San Miguel, the defender of the poor and the angel of justice, had come to life when their meeting house was invaded. The angel, they said, had stepped forth from his pedestal and, swinging his sword, had driven away the evil-doers. Then, perhaps, he had beat his great wings together to make a tempest over the morada and risen high into the sky, ascending until he was above the peak of Blanca Mountain, the great white throne from which he could survey all the kingdoms of the earth. Other members of the brotherhood who were less superstitious said that San Miguel had, indeed, been the sacrifice that saved the morada – smitten with the wooden angel’s beauty, the thief had been content to take that figure and had left the rest of the holy images, more or less intact, or, at least, in a condition in which they could be repaired.

Joe Serna learned about the burglary at the morada from Sparky. Sparky came to his house to admire Joe’s new pickup. Joe gave Sparky a beer and they sat on his porch looking toward the big, white crest of the mountain.

Sparky told Joe that someone had broken into the meeting house and desecrated some of the Santos and that the old wooden sculpture of San Miguel was missing.

"What is the name of that man...that photographer that you brought up to the morada?" Sparky asked.

Joe said that he couldn’t recall.

"Do you think he had something to do with it?" Joe asked.

"What do you think?"

"I know you can’t trust outsiders, you can’t trust people who aren’t from around here," Joe said.

"So why did you show him the way to the morada?" Sparky asked.

"I didn’t think he would do us no harm."

"Well, you were wrong," Sparky said. "Look what’s happened."

He asked Joe Serna again for the man’s name. Joe got up and, dragging himself between the props of his crutches, searched among some papers atop a chest-of-drawers. He found Mac’s business card.

"You call him," Sparky said. "Get him down here so that we can investigate this thing."

"I’ll do that right away," Joe said.

"No," Sparky replied. "I want you to call him now."

"Suit yourself," Joe said.

He dialed the phone. Then, when Mac answered, Joe said that he had permission from the Brotherhood’s elders to show him the inside of the morada.

"We want to take an inventory for insurance purposes," Joe said. "People have told us that we need to insure some of our old stuff, the antiques."

Joe paused.

"So we’ll let you take pictures inside, so long as you give us copies of those pictures for insurance."

Mac wasn’t available for six weeks. He told Joe that for a month and a half, he was booked solid taking wedding pictures.

Joe said that he should come to the cottonwood tree near the tire-path that led up uphill to the morada. Joe wrote down a date and a time.

"I’ll be there with my buddy, Sparky," Joe Serna said.

He put down his phone.

"What are you gonna do?" Joe asked.

"I just want to talk to the man," Sparky said. "He’s disrespected this community."

"Okay," Joe said.

A couple weeks later, Joe Serna scored some very high-grade heroin from a movie-industry executive who was spending the summer in Taos. The heroin was so powerful that Joe overdosed. He was found in the front seat of his shiny new pick-up truck at the edge of a Walmart parking lot in Chimayo. An ambulance was called and he was rushed to the hospital but could not be revived.

The old hermanos who found their morada desecrated were certain that the assault was diabolical. In the dirt around the door leading into the meeting house, they found strange circular imprints, knuckle-sized craters that the old men said were the hoof marks of a mob of diminutive demons.





The wind rushed down from the mountain and sleet in its teeth slapped at Sparky’s old Buick. Most of the leaves on the cottonwood tree had fallen and been swept into the next county. A few of them still trembled overhead.

Sparky’s cousin, Hector, drank from a silver can of malt-liquor half-hidden in a paper-sack.

Hector said: "I don’t think he’s gonna come."

Sparky whistled between his teeth.

"He’s late, that’s for sure," Sparky said. The sky was overcast and most of the mountain was hidden in banks of grey, foaming fog.

"I hope he don’t come," Hector said.

"Maybe, he won’t come," Sparky said.

The car shuddered a little with the impact of the wind. The immense plain was brown and barren, everything dead, it seemed, as far as the eye cold see. A storm was coming and the white-faced cattle had sought refuge in the hidden hollows, the little dry gulches and draws wrinkling the land.

Sparky’s cell-phone rang. He answered and, then, cursed. The white guy from Santa Fe had gone to the Blanca View bar. He was asking about Joe Serna. The white guy said that he was supposed to meet a man somewhere out on the county roads but couldn’t remember the exact location.

"Did you tell him that Joey died?" Sparky asked.

The bartender said: "Didn’t think it was any of his business."

"Damn right," Sparky replied.

Sparky said that the bartender should buy the man a couple drinks and that he would pay the tab when he reached Mosca. "Keep him there for me," Sparky said.

Sparky started the car and they drove across the foothills to Mosca. On the height of land overlooking the town, a windswept treeless ridge, sleet was sticking to the highway and making it slick. It was warmer below, some the shrubs and hedges in the little town still green.

Eight or nine pickup trucks were drawn up to the belly of the bar like piglets suckling a sow. The light was fading and the neon beer signs in the long narrow windows of the tavern glowed against the gloomy late-afternoon. The patio beside the bar with its ramadas was locked shut and the wind had overturned some of the plastic chairs. A beer can skittered across the flagstones beneath the picnic tables.

The Blanca View was warm inside, a juke-box flaring like a bonfire in one corner of the tavern. Men were huddled at the bar. Mac sat alone at a round table. His leather camera case was on the center of the table and he was drinking beer from a tall glass.

Sparky went to his table and shook Mac’s hand. He apologized for the confusion. Hector stood in the background, nervously shuffling his feet. Sparky handed Hector some cash and told him to get them all some more drinks.

Sparky sat down across from Mac. He cleared his throat and said: "Mister, this doesn’t have to be unpleasant. But you gotta tell me. What happened to the San Miguel?"

Mac blinked at him: "I don’t know what you mean."

Sparky told him about the vandalism at the Morada and, then, said: "I’m gonna ask you one more time nicely."

Mac said that he didn’t know anything about the missing Santo.

"You were telling Joey that those old things were worth lots of money," Sparky said. "He let you in the place didn’t he? And you took that San Miguel away for a museum or something."

"I didn’t do anything of the kind."

"Yes, you did. You thieved that saint out of the old meeting house and sold it for profit."

"Listen," Mac said. "You don’t know me. You don’t know me at all. I’m trying to help you people. I’m trying to document a dying folkway."

Hector brought the beers to the table.

"Dying?’ Sparky said. "Do I look like I’m dying? Hector, do you see me dying?"

Hector shook his head.

"You don’t understand."

"Hector, this man just said I’m gonna die," Sparky shouted. He stood up, knocking his chair over.

Mac remained seating: "Just calm down. Calm down. I didn’t take your statue."

"I bet you ain’t even no Catholic," Sparky said.

"I didn’t take that statue," Mac said.

"Well, let’s go outside so that we can discuss it," Sparky said.

"I’m not leaving this tavern," Mac replied.

"Then, I’m gonna take you outside with me," Sparky said.

He reached across the table and seized Mac by the lapel of his shirt. Then, he yanked him to his feet. Mac put up his forearm and knocked Sparky’s arm away. Then, he turned away toward the bar. Sparky clubbed Mac across the back of his neck with his fist. Mac staggered forward and fell against a couple of cowboys sitting on bar stools and flirting with the fat barmaid.

The cowboys spun around: "What the fuck?" one of them said.

Mac tried to get up, but Sparky kicked him hard in the ribs. He rolled over on his back. Sparky lunged and lifted his boot to stomp on his belly. But one of the cowboys hit Sparky in the side of the head with his bottle of beer.

Hector charged the cowboy who had hit Sparky, caught him around the mid-section and drove him against the wooden bar-rail. The other cowboy swung his mug at Hector but missed.

The fat barmaid screamed that she was going to call the cops.

Mac got to his feet a little unsteadily, staggered to the table, and picked up his camera case. He started toward the door. Sparky, who was wrestling on the floor with the cowboy, broke free and lunged toward Mac. The cowboy caught him below the knees and tackled him so that Sparky fell heavily. The barmaid had her cell-phone tight against the side of her head.

Mac got outside and ran to his truck. He backed-up recklessly, ground the gears when he put the vehicle in drive, and, then, sped out of town. On the height of land above Mosca, his wheels caught in the sleet and the pick-up fishtailed so much that he almost crashed into the ditch. Mac slowed down. You could see most of the world from the barren saddle overlooking town. The naked, wind-swept ridge rose crookedly toward the big mountain and was lost in swirling fog above him. Below, the upthrust of the mountain had hollowed out a vast circular moat around the peak, puddled with frozen marshes and crumpled badlands – far away, Mac could see two police cars approaching. The wind tore up the sound of their sirens and cast it away, but he could see the spinning red lights climbing the slope to the ridge, three or four miles away. The sheriff and the Mosca cop had been working an accident scene on another icy stretch of highway and, so, they still had some distance to come. Mac looked in his rear view mirror and saw below, at the edge of town, a couple of trucks’ headlights veering out onto the main highway.

Mac increased his speed to the limit. The squad car and sheriff’s Bronco, blazing with light, shot past him a mile down the hill. Mac pulled to the side of the road to let the two police vehicles pass. He had a throbbing headache.

It was twilight, dense clouds overhead threatening snow.



Sparky had a couple warrants out for his arrest, one in Golden, Colorado, the other down in Santa Fe. His wife had just had another baby and he didn’t want to go to jail. He had a good job supervising a small crew of dry-wallers and an excellent reputation both as a car-mechanic and in the contracting business. He was pretty sure that the owner of the bar and the fat bar-maid wouldn’t name him to the authorities. But, nonetheless, he thought it would be best to get out of town for a day or so.

Sparky gave Hector a hundred-and-fifty dollars to pay to the bar owner for damage. He drove his old Buick over the high saddle above Mosca. On the other side of the ridge, he met two police vehicles with their sirens wailing and lights flashing as they hurried toward town. He slowed to below the speed limit, pulled to the shoulder to let the cops pass, and, then, drove out to the cottonwood tree marking the path to the Morada. The beams of his headlights showed the wheel-tracks in the cold, wet grass and the slick of mud leading to the knoll above the goat-herd’s encampment. Sparky took the fork in the road down into the hollow and parked his Buick next to one of the rust-bucket campers. He took a tire-iron from his car and hiked up to the Morada. With tire-iron, he smashed off the padlock on the door to the Morada and went inside.

After a half-hour, Sparky thought he heard a sound. He stood in the door to the meeting house and looked down to the road. It seemed to him that some headlights were approaching, bumping up the rough track. He decided it would be best if he climbed higher up the mountain to avoid being caught.

Sparky jogged along a path that the brothers had made to a bluff above the Morada. The air was wet and cold, invigorating to breathe at first, but, then, heavy with moisture. He came to the Golgotha overlooking the meeting house – two maderos leaned against a rain-slick boulder and he almost twisted his ankle in one of post-holes dug into the crest of the hill. From this height, he could see down to the county road and, indeed, it appeared to him that several vehicles were laboriously climbing the narrow dirt track to the Morada.

Behind the Calvario, a shallow rocky gorge, whispering with a water rippling over stones, angled upward. Sparky climbed down into the gorge and, then, made his way over the boulders upward. The stream-bed zigzagged like a snake and, at each turn, he felt himself enveloped by the mountain and protected by its heights. At last, the creek bed ended in a sheer rock-fall, but Sparky could scramble up from gorge where one of its side-walls had collapsed. He emerged onto a steeply inclined and slippery terrace. Sparky was surprised that wet snow was slapping against the rocks and pelting his face. A twisting path led over the hillside toward a rock rampart with trees at its base. Sparky thought he could shelter under the trees. The trail seemed to have been made by a deer or elk and it wandered upward skirting the trees, now heavily laden with wet snow. The stuff was ankle-deep around his feet.

Sparky had the sense that someone was following him. The trees made strange creaking sounds under the weight of snow and, sometimes, in the depths of the forest, he heard a popping noise, almost like gunshots. This was unnerving and so he plunged, forward following the tree-line up into a swirling cloud. It was hard to see but shadows surrounded him and they seemed to move and gesture in his direction. He moved slowly because the hillside was fractured into slick planes of tilted stone. Although he was soaked to the bone, Sparky was surprised that he wasn’t cold at all. Perhaps, it was adrenalin that kept him warm.

The grove of trees ended at an impassable talus field and, so, Sparky went among them. Wet snow clumped in his hair and numbed his ears. At the edge of the woods, the ground dropped sharply and it was impossible to climb against that slope – although he tried to take a few steps uphill, he simply skidded and slid down the trough in the side of the mountain. Unable to ascend, he squatted in the snow and tobogganed down the slope on his buttocks. The grade decreased and he was able to walk. The way was perilous – threads of water were flowing downward under the covering of snow and the trough was dense with ground mist.

The ground underfoot vanished. Sparky toppled down the face of a steep embankment. This part of the slope was comprised of pebbly soil and the hillside had collapsed down into a narrow channel. Sparky rolled down the embankment, falling about twenty-five feet, and, then, slammed into a shelf-like obstruction. He crumpled with the impact and, bent double, rolled into a tight dark hollow. Cupped in the notch in the earth, it was silent and he was sheltered from the clots of wet snow falling through the air.

At first, Sparky thought that he was hurt and that the eerie silence was an artifact of his injury, the calm of shock preceding pain that would kill him. He clutched at himself and huddled in the little niche in the hillside. But there was no pain and, gradually, he discovered that he was lying under a timber cross-member embedded in the gravel. Behind him, a narrow, half-collapsed tunnel tilted downward into the mountain. It was wet in the tunnel and water was dripping down from the ceiling and big jagged rocks fallen from overhead partially blocked the passage. Sparky was not inclined to explore the shaft and he remained at the head of the tunnel, under the heavy cross-timber.

The storm was too intense for him to leave shelter. He clutched his arms around his ribs and rocked back and forth against the cold. Now that he was no longer running up the mountainside, he began to shiver.

The night was long and, several times, he almost fell asleep but, then, leaped to his feet, stepped out onto the gravel porch of the tunnel and shouted into the darkness that he was not sleepy and not exhausted and not cold. He sang some hymns that he recalled from his childhood. The mountain echoed and, sometimes, Sparky thought that there were other voices joined in his song. Once, when he had fallen back into the tunnel and was resting against the stone – he heard a high-pitched howling very close to where he was hiding. – A coyote, he thought.

At the first light, Sparky saw that the snow had stopped falling. A grey, watery light spread over the landscape, not even venturing to tap at the places where deep and immense shadow clung to the cliffs and gorges. Sparky couldn’t feel the tips of his fingers or any part of his feet and he knew that he had to retreat down the mountain to save himself from freezing. The snow was almost knee-deep and it fought against him so that he fell several times, and, then, when he brushed his face and forehead, he saw that his hand came away red with blood.

A quarter mile downhill from the tunnel, he emerged from the narrow slit in the mountain and stood on a great white expanse of slope tilting gently downward. Dark clouds were still patrolling the distant reaches of the plain. A trail of huge footprints preceded him – vast indentations in the snow each about a half-yard long. Sparky thought the footprints had been made to guide him and he followed them downhill, putting his own small feet inside each big mark impressed in the snow. This made the way downward easier so that he made good progress.

After an hour, he came to the asphalt county highway, a black track running through fallen snow that was no more than an inch deep. A shepherd in a pickup stopped for him.

The bar-owner at Mosca didn’t press charges for the brawl and Mac had left town without making a complaint. Sparky wasn’t arrested. The tips of several of his fingers turned black and his feet were badly frozen. Ultimately, he had to be hospitalized and lost two of his toes. But that was the end of it.