A trick of the mind — or a test. A mysterious desert encounter results in conclusions to ponder.
Lost! Second day on the job, and he was lost. Steering the white pickup onto yet another branch of a seemingly endless gravel road, Buddy Mack felt his anxiety rising. He had grown up in this country and thought he knew his way around. But since he had been away, scores of new roads had appeared. With a surge in oil prices, development — including road building — had been at a breakneck pace. The truck’s GPS system refused to work and his cell phone remained devoid of service bars. He glanced at the outside temperature and time displays on the dash. The time display was broken and dark, but the temperature seemed correct. It felt all of one-hundred-one degrees outside. He glanced at his watch and felt another pang of despair. Ten till one. This was his big chance, and he was blowing it.
The landscape itself was nothing but a maze of wide draws and low hills of broken grey limestone interspersed with hummocky dunes of orange Permian Basin sand, all whipped by a relentless, hot wind. Topping a rise, he started down into yet another wide draw. A few side roads led to a variety of scattered pump jacks and oil collection tanks, their condition uniformly deteriorating. Slowing, he read a rusting sign that warned of poisonous gas and another that listed oil lease information. Not his company’s lease. Taking a deep breath, Buddy kept driving on, both hands gripping the wheel.
In the distance, he could see what looked like a person walking along the road. He looked at the outside temperature display again, up to one-hundred-two. Too hot for a casual walk in the desert. Buddy slowed as he approached the figure he could now see was using a walking stick. Pulling alongside, he stopped the truck and glanced at his watch: straight up one o’clock.
The man turned and looked as Buddy lowered the passenger-side window. He was old, very old, and had straight, shoulder-length white hair that shimmered in the sunlight. His clothes appeared to have never been introduced to a washing machine and hung loose on his thin frame. His face was like leather. Pecan-brown skin and high cheekbones led Buddy to believe the man was Native American, perhaps Apache.
“Hi there,” Buddy called out the open window. “Can I give you a ride? It’s awfully hot out here.”
The old man nodded, and Buddy reached across the seat to help push the door open. Handing the walking stick inside, the old man gingerly climbed up into the truck and pulled the door shut. The truck was immediately permeated with a peculiar aroma, at once smoky and herbal, like sage, but not quite. Not sure why, he felt suddenly embarrassed. His expectation was an odor of rancid sweat. “Have you been walking for long?” Buddy asked.
“A while,” came the short answer.
“Where you headed?”
The old man lifted his head and pointed forward with his chin. “That way.”
“Good, you’re in luck. I’m headed that way, too,” Buddy replied. Wherever “that way” was. Being lost, it really didn’t matter, but he didn’t share that bit of information. Applying pressure to the gas pedal, they started down the road.
“My name’s Buddy. Buddy Mack. What’s yours?”
The old man didn’t speak for several seconds, and then said simply, “Cloud.”
Buddy thought maybe the old fellow had forgotten the question and bent low to peer up through the windshield. “Nah, I don’t see any clouds. Sure could use some though.”
“No. Cloud is my name,” the old man clarified in a flat tone.
“Oh. Sorry,” Buddy glanced at him sheepishly. “Do you have family in these parts, Mr. Cloud?” he asked, trying to make friendly conversation.
“Brother,” the old man replied, not wasting words on details.
“Brothers are good. I have a brother over in Silver City. Don’t get to see him much. What’s your brother’s name? Maybe I know him.”
“Another good name,” Buddy said, nodding his head while beginning to wonder if picking up the old guy had been such a good idea. “No, I don’t think I’ve met him. I’m pretty sure I would remember a name like that. Although, I just moved back to this area and there’s lots of folks I don’t know. See, I got this new job with an oil company,” he explained, desperately hoping he would still have it at the end of the day. Glancing out his side window, he was surprised to see a thunderhead building, its shadow converging on the road ahead.
“You have a family?” the old man asked abruptly.
“Sort of. I met this great woman. She’s become my best friend and she’s agreed to marry me. She has two children. Her husband was killed in an accident in a coal mine up north in Colorado. He was trying to make a better life for them,” he added, searching for some kind of reaction. Receiving none, he continued on. “They’re great kids. The boy, Hunter, he’s nine and the girl, Brooke, she’s seven.” He slowed and swerved the truck to maneuver through a spot made rough by water trucks the last time it had rained. “We want to get married and buy a home in Carlsbad. It’s a laid-back town, but still a pretty good town for kids. And, close to the Guadalupe Mountains.”
The old man said nothing, but Buddy could tell he was processing the information.
“The young ones have good names. They are of the earth and life.”
Buddy wasn’t sure how to respond. “I never thought about it that way, but you’re right. They both like the outdoors, too — camping, fishing and hiking.”
“That is good.” The old man nodded. “Many children in this time do nothing or are drawn to do bad things.”
Steering around another series of potholes, Buddy pondered what he meant by “in this time.” Abruptly, Buddy changed the subject. “Are you retired?”
“Retired?” asked the old man, his stoic expression turning to a puzzled frown. “What is that?”
“You know — you don’t get up and go to a job or work anymore. You get money from the government.” Buddy smiled.
“Hum,” the old man grunted. Again he took a few moments before responding. “No. Not retired. I still have much work to do.”
“Wow!” Buddy exclaimed, obviously impressed. “What kind of work do you do?”
“Witch,” the old man flatly stated with absolute seriousness.
Buddy resumed nodding, his whole body rocking up and down. “Like spells and magic stuff?” he asked, unable to think of anything else reasonably intelligent to say.
“No magic.” The old man looked straight ahead. “Healer. Help people.”
“I get it,” Buddy said in an obviously relieved tone, hoping that he indeed understood. “Like a doctor — a medicine man?”
Expressionless, the old man nodded in agreement.
“Say, are you hungry?” Buddy blurted out, desperately wanting to change the subject. “I’ve got some cold sodas and water. How about some potato chips?” Buddy asked, reaching around the seat and into a small cooler in the back for a soda and an open bag of ranch-flavored chips. The old man accepted the offerings and studied the can of cola like he’d never seen one before. “Just pull that little metal tab slowly.”
The old man carefully opened the can, watching caramel-colored bubbles ooze from the opening, and then took a sip. He looked at the can thoughtfully and took several healthy gulps. He looked at Buddy and said, “Good.”
A stretch of washboard road caused the truck to bounce as Buddy slowed to a crawl.
“Get out here,” the old man suddenly stated.
“Are you sure?” Buddy asked, bringing the truck to a stop. Looking around, it looked to him like one of the loneliest spots he had seen in a long time. “Why here?” He couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary or different than the rest of the landscape.
“My people lived there.” Again, the old man pointed with his chin toward an unusually green depression, grown thick with mesquite with a low ridge rising behind it.
“Like the Apache?”
“No, very long time before the Apache people.”
“Long time?” Buddy was confused. “Like how long time?”
“Maybe ten thousand of your years.”
“My years? Really?”
“Yes, that is so.”
“Ten thousand years is a very long time.” Buddy was captivated by the old man’s words and point of view.
“Time flows like water in a river. It is part of a bigger design. A single year or many thousand are much the same. The sun rises and the sun sets, day after day, year after year. Animals and plants do not count time. They only live in the time they are given, and then they die, returning to the earth from which they were born — perhaps to be reborn again.”
More than a little perplexed, Buddy pondered the old man’s words. They made sense, but there was strange, spiritual quality to them like he was listening to some kind of holy man instead of a self-proclaimed witch.
“Must go now. Need to study and think. Still have much work to do.”
“Okay, but how about taking a soda or bottle of water with you?”
Buddy retrieved another cold can of cola and handed it to him. “You want to take a couple more with you?”
A brief shake of the head was his negative reply.
“You love new family?” the old man unexpectedly asked, looking squarely at him.
Taken aback, Buddy stammered then looked directly into his eyes. “Yes. Why yes, I love them very much.” For the first time he became keenly aware of the old man’s eyes. At first glance, they had appeared a deep mahogany brown. But straight on, he was intrigued to observe that they were in reality a fascinating, cobalt-indigo blue like the gemstone lapis lazuli. He even thought he could see flashes of gold in them like the inclusions of pyrite in lapis. They were the most beautiful, arresting eyes he had ever seen. Feeling embarrassed, he returned to the moment.
“That is what a warrior should do,” Cloud flatly stated, as if it were a matter of fact. “Love his family and fight for them, as you are doing with your tasks today. In days gone by, it was foraging for food and finding shelter. Your time is more complicated. Not all men have desire to provide for their family, only what makes them feel good. That is not the way. It leads to ruin for all.”
Can of cola in hand, the old man opened the door and slid out of the truck. Buddy handed him the walking stick and watched as he closed the door, turned and stepped into the desert.
“You take care now, Mr. Cloud,” Buddy called through the open window.
The old man halted a few steps away and turned back toward the truck. Holding up the can of cola, he nodded at Buddy. “You pass. Love life and family.” He paused and then pointed with the can. “Go same way, but turn toward the high mountains at next road.”
Buddy watched as the strange old man continued walking toward the mesquite thicket, shaking his head trying to fully understand his words.
Moving the truck slowly forward, he glanced back over his shoulder and slammed on the brakes. The old man was gone.
Jumping out of the truck, Buddy scanned the place where he had been. Nothing. Maybe he didn’t want to be seen. The increasing heat was the immediate concern; Buddy hoped Mr. Cloud hadn’t passed out or fallen. Walking out, he quickly picked up the man’s tracks in the sandy soil. Approaching the mesquite thicket he stopped. Impossibly, the tracks ended.
Walking in a wide circle, he searched in vain for any sign of Mr. Cloud. Completely baffled, he returned to the truck. Focused on the old man’s words, he moved forward. Buddy figured he might as well follow his directions since the current search for a way out of the maze of roads was definitely not working out very well.
Driving up out of the draw, he noticed the shadow of the thunderhead still cast a merciful shade across the top of the hill in front of him. Picking up speed, he made for it. As he neared the top, the distant Guadalupe Mountains came into view far to the southwest. In the next draw, a road split off to the left toward them and then started uphill again. He took it.
At the top of the hill, Buddy crushed the brakes. Stopped, he jumped out of the truck and looked in amazement at the wide landscape stretching in front of him. He instantly knew exactly where he was and could see where he needed to be. Looking around, he discovered that inexplicably, there was not a trace of a cloud to be seen. That seemed strange, as the temperature also felt several degrees cooler. In an extraordinary day, what were one or two more things out of the ordinary?
Climbing back into the truck, he shook his head. Funny, he didn’t remember shutting it off. Turning the key, the engine faithfully roared to life. Buddy glanced at the temperature display and was struck by two things. The temperature read eighty-eight degrees. And the time display had blinked to life; it now read ten o’clock. If it was working, he could set it to the correct time and be on his way. Glancing at the Seiko wrist watch his fiancé had given him for his birthday, Buddy shivered, as if hit by a winter wind. It also read ten o’clock.
But it had to be after one in the afternoon.
Buddy was suddenly overcome by a wave of emotion he couldn’t describe. He felt as if the old man had somehow given him back three hours of his life so he could complete the tasks in front of him, while releasing him from the maze he had been trapped in. Starting off toward a cluster of pump jacks and tanks, Buddy Mack reflected on the old man’s words about time being part of a larger design. He would never understand what had just happened, but he would be forever grateful that Mr. Cloud had judged him fit to pass.
Raising a plume of dust on the desert road below, the white pickup moved steadily toward its destination under the watchful turquoise sky.