Sunset caught us on the worst washboard road I’d ever encountered, the truck juddering in kidney-busting, sideways lurches and the sun a hot poker jabbing us in the eyes. Our instructions were vague at best but that was the least of our concerns; most troublesome was the fact that two biligaana were searching Navajo lands for a small house encircled with a fence and two red cars in the yard, and so far we’d only stirred up rez dogs and the distrust of the local populace, none of whom offered assistance, directions or empathy for one of their own in distress. Nevertheless we pushed on, knowing only that if we came to a church we’d gone too far, and the sun touching the rim of the world a sudden eclipse before slipping away leaving traces of fire like portents in the western sky.
About that time or shortly thereafter our parents phoned the state highway patrol to ask if any wrecks were reported on the road from Albuquerque to Cuba. As Lori would later giggle, “You guys are in sooo much trouble,” proving that no matter how old we get we are always sons and daughters and subject to recriminations.
Since Reece’s cell phone was dead—something of a joke between us brothers as he’d lauded the fact of its inclusion during the long miles of our hike through the stone forest of Ceja Pelon Mesa and the badlands surrounding the escarpment, until it was needed, that is, at which time it became evident that it was as dead as the petrified wood we walked on—we had no way of knowing this. All we really knew was that the hike had taken a toll, lasted too long, that we were now trying to find a house that seemed impossible to find, and that we were very tired, very hungry and very thirsty.
The sun’s abrupt absence allowed our eyes to adjust to the terrain. The road ascended a short rise topped by the silhouette of a metal building that could only be the church. Between the church and the last house we’d visited was a lone narrow lane cutting southward through stunted sagebrush toward a house bordered by a wire fence. Two red cars were parked in a yard cropped short by a white horse and patrolled by a black cat. No sign of fangs.
“That’s gotta be it,” I said.
Nobody was home. We sat there weighing our options as light faded. A Navajo man had asked us to notify his wife that he’d run out of gas, saying only that he was with a young man who was subject to seizures and therefore couldn’t accompany us. No name or address, not that an address would have done much good for none of the houses were marked by any identifier other than by the variety and number of rusted hulks littering the premises. I wrote a note and slipped it into the door but there was no guarantee anybody would see it in the dark.
The far ridge of Ceja Pelon glowed in dusk’s ethereal afterlight, a luminance rising from the land itself. Not a bird sang nor flew through the gathering darkness, not a mammal scurrying nor a breath of air. In the distance the twin headlights of a vehicle glinted on the paved road from Cuba to points westward, its passage soundless as if only imagined. The front windows of the house were open and we could see the faint outlines of an old couch and chair, the corner of a table. The yard consisted of packed dirt with scattered clumps of native grass the horse fed on. It utterly ignored us as had a Navajo man riding a bike much too small for his frame and a woman out jogging. Here we were on foreign soil and knew ourselves as outsiders, and also knew that we were intently watched even in the vast empty spaces between hogans and homes.
The engine ticked as it cooled.
“What now?” Reece asked.
The eternal moral quandary. What, indeed, was the limit of our responsibility? We had done all that the man had asked and more; I had even offered to stay with the crippled vehicle while my brother drove the man to his house. But I could easily imagine the wife coming home, opening the door and the note fluttering away without her notice, and the man and his ward alone on the high desert as the moon silvered the sage and the temperature plummeted. At 6800 feet elevation, in mid-September, heat escapes like so much gas, and already there was a crispness to the air.
Our options, as I explained, were all bad. We could return to the man, notify him of the empty house and offer to drive to Cuba for fuel, a roundtrip of about 40 miles, most of which were on rutted roads. We could wait longer, though by now our stomachs were threatening mutiny and restaurants in Cuba closed early, nor would there be another place to eat for 90 miles. And if we waited, how long should we wait? I tried putting myself in his shoes to weigh how resourceful or persistent I would want him to be if our roles were reversed but the exercise generated more questions than answers. Neither of us were comfortable leaving but staying was counterproductive to our own needs.
There was a chance another vehicle would come along and rescue him. The idea was plausible but far from reassuring.
“Why is it,” I asked, “that we rarely have easy decisions? Why does everything have to be so damned difficult?”
Reece merely grunted. And so for a while we waited while dusk deepened and the fiery clouds burned to ash, and then we left. Just past the church was a narrow path leading to the paved highway, which we took to save time and wear and tear on the truck. There wasn’t much to say though we both felt torn. By the time we reached the main road the mesa was in shadow and the first stars peering out.