Ethel's movements hurt more than ever as she licked the last drop from the upturned canteen. Her right leg was still propped on the rock it had been on all night, and every shift in her body hinged on the spike of pain that emanated from her broken ankle. The second night in the southwest desert had been longer than the first, but she'd managed a few fits of sleep. Now she was out of water, a dreaded moment she had tried not to think about before.
She was stiff from sitting with her back against the undercut bedrock of the dry creek bed. She'd propped herself up with her little backpack and cozied up with her Carhartt jacket through the night. She still had food and cigarettes in the bag, and she had a craving for tobacco right then, but she was reluctant to smoke without water to wash it down.
Ah, screw it, she thought, pulling out a cig with her lips. I'm hurting either way. Might as well have one less pain for a second.
At least the smoking distracted her from the aching stiffness enough that she started moving a little easier. She crawled out from under the rock to look around. It was still shady where she was, in the guts of the canyon. The sun was probably beating through the windows of her broken car up above.
I wonder when anyone will notice I'm missing? she thought, gazing into the prickly wilderness that loomed in every direction. The cliff walls pressed in on her like a collapsing room, and she broke into sobs with her butt in the gravel and her forehead resting on a knee, next to the cigarette that burned between her fingers. It was more like a surrender of self-pity than a breakdown. Finally raising her chin, she inhaled and let go of the futile wishes she might make. She was where she was, and that was a fact. She didn't survive so many years on the ranch by denying hard realities. The tears were already drying on her cheeks when she took another drag, staring down the canyon, then looking up the main riverbed she had entered the day before.
If I go deeper in the canyon I might have a better chance of finding a pool of water, or even a spring, she thought. But if I go upcanyon, I might find a way back out to the road. Either way, I should make some progress before the sun catches up.
She went back under the rock to collect her things. A shock of fire went up her leg and reminded her how slow the going was going to be.
Shit, downhill will be easier, she thought.
Down it was, as ever. The creek bed was jumbled with enough boulders that she was able to use the rocks as crutches by hobbling from one to the other, occasionally resting when she had to. There were damp pockets of gravel in some of the more recessed areas. That gave her hope. A couple times she stopped to dig down with her hands, hoping to cup something worth drinking.
The thirst she felt wasn't so much an immediate craving as it was an anticipation of the thirst to come. She didn't notice that the dreaded heat of the sun never quite materialized as clouds filled the sky. She was simply grateful for the shade on a waterless day as she moved from rock to rock.
Eventually the creek bed funneled to the edge of a cliff where it vanished and continued below. Ethel couldn't see exactly where or how it continued as she approached the water-slicked brink, but she was already scouting her options before she reached a vantage point. The parched, rocky hillsides rose steeply to the tiered cliff bands above that framed the sky in a jagged V. She contemplated the fact that the great walls of Zion National Park were not far off, and she shuddered at what the Grand Canyon must've looked like to explorers.
I never thought of seeing the Grand Canyon before, she thought. I always looked at the postcards and thought, "Yup, there's a grand canyon."
Hal used to pester her to go see more of the country, but she always had a reason to stay on the ranch. Something always seemed too important to put off. "That's why you're good for me, Eettie," he said whenever she shot down his latest half-brained idea for a vacation. That's why you were good for me, Hally, she thought. I wish you had put up more of a fight on some of those.
Yes! She'd reached the edge of the drop and found what she wanted to see – a pool of standing water below that was maybe 12 feet across. The next problem was how to reach it. No way down looked easy. She sat on the polished, water grooved sandstone to think it over, but she wasn't worried. She was actually in a celebratory mood. She snacked on a banana while she looked around, dangling her legs over the 20-foot drop.
Not too bad, ol' girl. You're a survivor when the going gets tough, she congratulated herself. She saw a jumble of boulders on the right side that looked promising. The spaces between the rocks were choked with brush and cacti, but she imagined the rocks like a giant staircase that she could pick her way down, albeit very slowly. The left side of the wash was at a bend, which meant the water had scoured the hillside into steep walls, which was why the pool of water was deep enough to have lasted so long in such a dry place.
The descent was more violent than imagined. The thorny brush ripped at her clothes, and twice she had to drop painfully onto a boulder as she slid on her butt for most of the way.
"FUCK!" she yelped on the second drop, crumpling to the ground. Then she realized she'd made it and most of the pain was forgotten. She crawled over the wet sand to the filthy pool and drank heartily.
It's sediment and dead leaves, so what, she told herself. There's no cow manure in this drainage.
She found another nook in the bedrock – one thing you can find reliably around here, she thought – and nestled in. She filled her canteen and set it aside to let the particulates settle to the bottom. Her thumb flicked the lighter, trying to light the rewarding cigarette, but a gusty wind made it difficult to get a steady flame.
The sudden flash and thunder clap made her forget all about smoking as the cigarette fell from her lips in surprise. An aquarium must have been smashed in the sky, because water dumped from above almost as soon as the lightning crashed, and Ethel watched the dry river bed fill with water that creeped steadily toward the soles of her boots as she huddled under the rock.
I prayed for water, and when it rains, it pours, she thought. It was all she could do not to curse God. She'd done that once when she was young and indignant about a favorite uncle she lost in the war. She'd regretted it instantly then, and never wanted to feel that hollowness again. At least she was dry for now. There is always something to be thankful for, she mused.
The storm lasted almost until dark and cleared up just in time for the sun to set the clouds ablaze as they scuttled east. The hum of crickets returned to the desert stillness that Ethel was coming to know so well, and she felt another tiny pang of hope in the peaceful evening.
An apple and a candy bar were left in the bag. She ate the candy bar, reasoning it would be better to eat before it melted in tomorrow's heat.
There is something beautiful here, she thought as the stars appeared from behind the clouds. Dying here might be OK. She shivered and pulled her jacket tight.
Deputy Charles Wenson was on his usual weekly patrol when he saw the Oldsmobile parked on the side of the road with its hood up. He was used to such matters, which accounted for the bulk of his job. It was mostly boring work, but he felt lucky to patrol such beautiful country. He pulled in behind the car and got his orange sticker ready to mark it as an abandoned vehicle.
Stepping into the early morning air, he savored the fresh, cool smell of sage after the previous evening storm. He pasted the sticker on the driver-side window, and noticed that there were several items left in the car, even something that looked like an urn. Usually cars that had been left so long were destined to be towed to a scrap yard and had the license plates removed. It looked like the owner intended to return for this one, however.
How long does it take to get an engine part, though? Chuck mused.
He wrote down the vehicle information in his logbook and took another gander but didn't look too hard. Nothing seemed particularly out of place, and after the gully-washer, there sure as hell weren't any tracks. He returned to his cruiser and plopped his round, heavy frame back into the driver seat and moved on, knowing he would likely see the car again next week.