Washed by a Wave of Wind
M. Shayne Bell, editor
Glenn L. Anderson
[p.221]Before the turn of the century, mustang herds ran wild on the mesas near Dead Horse Point, which provided a natural corral for enterprising cowboys. Once driven onto the promontory, horses could escape only by passing through a narrow neck of land which the wranglers controlled by fencing. After roping and breaking the most marketable mustangs, cowboys shipped the horses back east for sale, leaving unwanted culls or “broomtails” behind to find their own way off the mesa.
The Point gets its name from one such incident. According to legend, cowboys left behind a band of broom tails that stayed on the promontory. Although the corral gate was left open, the horses failed to make their way back to the open range. Remaining on the Point, they died of thirst within sight of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below. To this day, the reason for their apparent entrapment remains a mystery.
– Del MacCrae, “The Story of Dead Horse Point,” Tour Southern Utah
Something rustled, and Shannon Call spun in the darkness. Behind her the moon shone on empty desert. Just rocks and pinon pine and scattered cactus. No sign of the apparition tonight.
Not yet anyway.
Shannon sat still and hugged her arms. She couldn’t decide whether it was exhilaration or just a case of the creeps that had raised the gooseflesh there. Probably some of both. What did it matter anyway?
She turned back toward the drop-off. Two thousand feet below, [p.222]moonlight sparkled silently on the switchbacks of the Colorado River. A cool wind washed a fragrance of sage up out of the chasm and across her face, where the tears had not yet begun to dry on her cheeks. She’d been thinking about Ronny tonight, as she had every night for the past two weeks. Her trips to the state park had become a sort of ritual pilgrimage. But in spite of her persistence, Shannon still had not yet begun to make sense out of the relationship she had fled from. Even so her nightly trips to Dead Horse Point had not been wasted. She found she could sit and gaze out over the spacious canyon, and just for an hour or so she could feel free.
She stood and stretched some of the stiffness out of her legs. Then she headed back along the narrow asphalt trail toward her aging Toyota Tercel. Even in the open air of the desert, she began to feel trapped again, stuck in limbo between the pain of the present and the terrible uncertainties of the future. She was married, but not really. Her man lived with her, but was never there. He was in and out of her house, in and out of work, in and out of jail.
And where was she? Where was Shannon? Not sure about that one. Actually, she mused bleakly, for the past six years she had never thought much past her husband and where things stood with him.
Another rustle, and Shannon glanced out across the flat again. Something dark skittered and disappeared at the base of a twisted juniper. A fox, perhaps
She continued around the deep shadows of an empty pavilion until she spied her car, looking lonely and deserted. Earlier in the season other vehicles might have shared the parking lot. But by this late in October, even weekend sightseers were scant, and campers seemed on the verge of extinction.
She turned onto a gravel footpath. Ronny’s voice ran on in her head as she walked. She was the only one he really loved. Couldn’t she see that? It was all over with Julie. Sure it was. But before that it had been all over with Chari, and before that, with Nanette. So why was his undershirt full of Julie’s perfume again? Oh, that was her imagination, wasn’t it? She could still hear him, railing. She was paranoid. Neurotic. Sick. And so damn controlling. Why couldn’t she stop clinging? No wonder he drank. No wonder he couldn’t handle staying around for more than a couple of weeks at a time. Couldn’t she see that it was all her?
Then he’d be burned out again, and back at her door. It was over [p.223]with Julie now. Really over, for good this time. Besides, he hadn’t wanted Julie. Shannon should have known that all along. Women flocked after Ronny, and what had he ever done to bring it on? Anyway, this time it was finished. All of it. The women, the booze, the cocaine. Even the gambling. No more. He was coming home, now. He had been so foolish, he had taken her for granted. He loved her so much. He just needed her to keep working her night job to tide them over till he could find decent employment, and then they would move out of their trailer. Maybe leave Ogden altogether. Find some place better, some place she deserved.
Shannon paused halfway to her car at a water spigot with a drinking fountain on top. Touching the handle, she could feel her fingers tremble slightly against the metal. She ran some water into her mouth, across her cheek and over her eyes. They burned.
Oh yes, Ronny had known what she wanted to hear. She had wanted it so very badly she had ached for it. And that, precisely, was why she had to get away. Because her want was so big there was no getting out from under it. Ronny had his women and his nose candy and his Jose Cuervo; Shannon had Ronny. The addiction was swallowing up her life, and before long there would be nothing left of it. So, not for the first time, she had run.
She allowed the water to wash across her forehead, and she shook her hair back from her face. California would have been better. Or somewhere back east. But Moab offered Uncle Howard’s winter home, and he and Maxine wouldn’t be back to take up residence till after Thanksgiving. Rent was cheap, and math tutors were scarce in town. So here she was, living a day at a time, hoping Ronny wouldn’t catch up to her too soon. Praying that he would just stay away for a while.
Because there was still that part of her that was drawn to him so powerfully. And if he showed up on her doorstep again—here, now—what would she do? Just how in heaven’s name would she handle that?
Shannon skimmed the water away and opened her eyes. The breath stuck in her throat.
The stallion stood before her, so much closer this time, scarcely ten feet away. The same silver Appaloosa she had seen twice before. The one with the long corkscrew scar on its flank.
Shannon stood frozen, a single droplet creeping slowly down her cheek. Her heart was a jackhammer. The mustang studied her with eyes [p.224]that were bottomlessly dark. Its mane and tail swam in the moonlight like banners of slow·motion seaweed. Both gaunt and majestic, it took a cautious step forward. Then back again.
For a single magic instant, alongside the thrill and the terror, Shannon seemed to feel something else. A beckoning, a kinship. Reflexively, she extended her hand.
The horse whirled away. Shannon sucked in a scream and fell backward. In a single motion, as fluid as ground fog, the animal fled, galloping a wide circle along the lip of the canyon. Shannon scrabbled to her feet to watch and gasped again. There in the distance, just barely perceptible, were more mustangs. Six, ten, a dozen or more. All running together, leaping and flying, cascading like a river of lost souls over the uneven terrain.
Then they were gone.
Shannon stood staring after them, sucking wind and feeling the skin prickle in waves across her ribs. She had never been so frightened in all of her life, and yet never so high. It was a moment of pure, exhilarating wonder.
He wouldn’t believe it when she told him. He would come unglued. Ronny would come absolutely un—
She stood staring blindly into the darkness then, trying not to think, trying not to feel. Finally though, something inside her seemed to buckle and collapse, and she started to cry. She tried running for her car but didn’t make it. Instead she dropped onto the asphalt and held her hair in her fists and sat in the dark and wept.
Porter’s Desert Souvenirs sat amid a jumble of sandstone tablets and old wagon wheels. A column of rusty mine cars stood mustered near the shop’s front door, some filled with coal, others with hunks of colored rock.
Shannon sat in a back room of the building, near some stairs that led to the apartment above the store, tutoring Trish Talbot. Their tabletop was a single slab of fossil-pocked shale.
“It’s out on the edge of the canyon. Dad first saw it from the bottom with his binoculars.” Trish let her pencil doodle a rubbing at the edge of her math paper, where a trilobite made a bump under the page. “He says there’s big bones there, and that means big bucks. But first he has to get a permit ’cause it’s on state park land. Out by Dead Horse Point.”
[p.225]“What?” Shannon asked and blinked. She hadn’t been paying attention, her thoughts vacillating between Ronny Call and the Appaloosa, almost as if there were some connection between the two. But Trish’s last few words had cut through the haze.
“The new fossils. The ones my dad found last weekend.”
“Oh.” Shannon glanced dully at Trish’s worksheet. Out of thirty problems only two had answers beside them. “I’m not doing you much good this afternoon, am I, Trish?” Shannon rubbed her eyes. She hadn’t slept. And now along with all of her other feelings, she felt a wave of guilt. “You could do this on your own time and save your dad some money. It’s all review.”
“And they don’t give permits to just anybody,” Trish went on, oblivious. “But if he can work a deal with the U. of U., he can dig for them on their permit. They’ll pay him really good. We might could get a new truck, and I could get at least two new outfits and maybe my own phone.”
Shannon gave her a look of mild skepticism.
“I haven’t asked him about that last part yet.” Trish looked defensive. “But I’m old enough for a phone. I cook dinner sometimes, and I can drive the truck by myself too. With the clutch and everything, if I stay in first. Dad showed me how.”
Shannon mused blankly. Her own phone. She had once asked Ronny for a second phone. Ronny had said no. He’d been jobless. Shannon had been teaching full time and tutoring part time, making all the money. And Ronny had said no. Even now, Shannon still didn’t own her own telephone.
Trish doodled down to a second bump. A flowery crinoid began to appear. “Jenny Burton has a phone.”
Shannon wasn’t thinking about telephones anymore. Her thoughts had returned to the Appaloosa. She studied her pupil’s face for a time. “Trish,” she ventured finally, “do you believe in ghosts?”
Trish looked up, her own expression blank for a moment. Then her eyes brightened. “Yeah. I thought I saw one once, and it scared the crap out of me. But it was just my white sweatshirt hanging on a shovel handle by the back window. Do you?”
Shannon nodded. “I think I saw one.”
Trish’s eyes brightened some more. “Cool! When?”
“Last night. Out on the Point. It … “ Shannon hesitated for just a moment. Not because of the outlandishness of what she was about to [p.226]say. There was total acceptance in Trish’s ten-year-old gaze. But Shannon’s guilt was still there. She wasn’t being paid to tell ghost stories. Then again, she wasn’t getting much teaching done in her current frame of mind anyway.
Fine. She would deduct the time.
“It was a horse,” she said.
Trish’s face slackened. There was no skepticism. Just total and immediate absorption. “Nu-uhhh.”
Shannon nodded. “I think there are others. A whole herd.” And she related everything.
Trish listened hungrily, leaning over her math book and chewing on a fingernail. “They’re the broomtails!” she finally exclaimed. In Moab, it seemed, the legend of Dead Horse Point was common knowledge.
“They might be,” Shannon answered.
“Sure they are. And they’re still trying to find their way off the Point, huh?”
Shannon smiled. “I see you have this all figured out already.”
“Sure.” Trish had run out of fingernail. She started on her pencil eraser. “My grandma read me this story once in Reader’s Digest about this old man who was hit by a train at this crossroads place. For years and years after that, people would go by late at night and see this spooky light. It was supposed to be the old man’s ghost, holding a lantern and trying to keep his own accident from happening.”
Shannon’s smile dimmed a bit. She had heard similar stories herself.
“And when the train didn’t run anymore,” Trish went on, “they pulled up the tracks and built a mini-mall. And the lights stopped.”
“Because with the train gone, there was nothing holding the old man at the crossroads,” Shannon finished. The pair stared at each other for a moment, reflecting.
“Right,” Trish affirmed. With an air of finality, she spit out a little pink eraser chunk. “So what do you think’s keeping the broomtails on the Point?”
Children were marvelous, Shannon mused. At this point an adult would be trying to determine why Shannon had seen something that wasn’t there. But Trish was trying to figure out why the ghosts had hung around long enough for Shannon to see them.
“I don’t know,” she said.
The two sat in contemplation for a few moments more. Then Trish’s eyes focused, intense with excitement.
[p.227]“I want to see one. Take me out there!”
Shannon laughed. “Your dad would like that. I’m supposed to be helping you catch up on your math and instead I take you out in the middle of the night on a ghost hunt.”
“He wouldn’t mind! He’d probably want to come along. Please!”
Shannon straightened in her seat. “I think not,” she said, even though, knowing Porter as little as she did, she suspected Trish might be right. “Besides, we’ve wasted a half an hour here already. Time to get to work.”
Trish groaned, and Shannon finally agreed to let her finish the last half of the worksheet on her own time if she kept quiet about the ghost story. Trish agreed without hesitation.
“Not a word then.” Shannon pointed her finger. “Your dad would think I’m crazy, and nobody wants a crazy person tutoring their kids.”
Trish’s expression grew serious. “He wouldn’t think that. He likes you. He wants to take you out, but he says you think he’s just a dumb rock hound.”
“I don’t think that, Trish.”
“Then why won’t you go out with him? He asked you, I heard him.”
Shannon sat staring at the girl, searching for some neutral response, hoping all the while that her face was staying nondescript.
Because I’m married, Trish. But don’t ask about the man I’m married to, or why I’m here without him. Those are the kinds of details we don’t fully divulge, even to family and friends, let alone pupils and their parents.
“You think he’s ugly?” Trish’s face was expectant. “I told him to get a haircut and shave his beard. My grandma thinks his beard is gross.”
“I think his beard is just fine,” Shannon answered, and she was telling the truth. While Porter Talbot was not precisely striking, he was not far from it.
“Then why don’t you come with us tomorrow? Out to take pictures of the bones. Dad would like you to come. He said I could ask you.”
“I don’t think so, Trish,” Shannon began, but she couldn’t really think of a good reason why not. After all, where would Ronny be? Out with Julie or Chari or Nanette or some other nameless Barbie look-alike? And Shannon couldn’t even let go long enough to spend an afternoon with a little girl and her dad. What did she have keeping her at home anyway? A half-hour’s worth of papers to grade. If that.
[p.228]Her look must have betrayed some vulnerability. “Make you a deal,” Trish ventured. “You come, and I’ll do two extra worksheets. By tomorrow morning. Promise.” And she followed up the proposition with her most charming smile.
Porter Talbot hunkered down at the canyon rim, which zigzagged to form an outcropping some forty feet away. He motioned to where a layer of stone had fallen off. Trish and Shannon sat beside him on a rock, fanning an occasional gnat.
“That’s where the section fell from. When I found the first bone fragments at the bottom, I was sure they came from the middle somewhere.” Porter gestured halfway down the canyon wall, which dropped spectacularly before him. “No way to get at them. But then I got scanning with the binocs, and here it was. Right at the top. About as pretty as it gets.”
Shannon squinted, trying to see what he was talking about. “Am I looking in the right place?”
“Probably.” He motioned her over. “Come here, you have to know what to look for.”
Even looking into the sunlight, Shannon could see the pale amber of Porter’s eyes, which shone lighter than the deep tan the desert had baked into his face. His beard was trimmed short. It was the same tawny gray color as his hair, which the breeze stroked back and forth across his forehead.
Shannon felt an unexpected swell of attraction. She had been wrong, she decided. Perhaps Porter Talbot was striking after all.
“See?” He pointed, tracing shapes on the cliff face. “Those darker forms above the main fault, where the new stone’s exposed.” She scooted closer so that her eyes could follow his finger. His fragrance was rich and male, a fragrance of sweat and lingering aftershave and sunbaked denim. She found herself resisting it, edging back a bit.
“I see it, Dad!” Trish’s voice piped up just behind Shannon’s head, making her jump a little. “It goes up and then bends, like an elbow!” And then Shannon saw it too. The shape was not much darker, but it was there. And next to it what had appeared at first to be striations in the rock now stood out clearly as a set of ribs. Continuing on, similar shapes formed a pattern that streaked and dotted the stone for several yards.
Porter mopped the back of his neck. “Some kind of big vertebrate. [p.229]Could be camptosaurus, allosaurus. Maybe ceratosaurus. Could be more of them. Where you find one, you tend to find a whole graveyard.”
Shannon drew back from him a bit more. “You can tell what kind they are?”
“It’s the period,” Porter explained. “A Morrison fold runs through this side of the canyon. Upper Jurassic.” He looked at her as if to assess her understanding. She found the terms vaguely familiar. “Shoptalk,” he shrugged and gave an easy smile. “Let’s get some pictures for the university boys and see if this is worth anything to them.” He chuckled knowingly.
From behind them came a growling whinny and a sound of hooves fidgeting in the dirt. Shannon turned. They had left Porter’s trailer at the park entrance and had ridden in along the edge of the mesa, surveying for other sites. Now their horses stood tethered in the shade of three separate trees. One of the animals, a black mare with a white spot on her nose, shuffled nervously.
“What’s wrong with Maggie?”
“She doesn’t much like it out here, Trish.” Porter rose to his feet. “Don’t know what the devil it is. Was like this the last time I brought her, but not so bad.”
He stepped over to calm the mare, and Shannon felt a light shiver run along her arms. She let her eyes scan the landscape. The animals were tethered about a hundred yards outside the narrow neck that separated Dead Horse Point from the desert beyond. The place where Shannon’s ghost-horse had first appeared was less than a half-mile away. She turned to look behind her, half expecting to see something again. There was nothing.
“Hey, easy, babe. Easy, girl.” Porter was cooing to Maggie. He slung the strap of his Canon around his neck, still trying to settle her as he rummaged through his saddlebag. Nearby Trish stood beside the young Palomino they called Shortribs, unloading several cans of pop. Shannon eyed the horse. It also seemed skittish but less so. Only Doc, the thick-boned Morgan Shannon had ridden in on, seemed unaffected. He stood by sleepily and twitched an ear. Shannon scanned the desert again.
“Trish, honey, didn’t I send you for some film?” Porter shuffled to keep up with Maggie as she edged and circled, straining at her reins. “Where is it?” He tugged back against the horse, armpit deep in the saddlebag.
[p.230]“It’s in there,” Trish called back thickly over a bag of Doritos she held in her teeth. Her arms were full of Pepsi. “I put it in this morning.”
Shannon trotted over to help with Trish’s load. On her way, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the movement that made everything go crazy. It might have been a big lizard or a small ground squirrel. Whatever it was, it darted through the sand between Maggie’s legs.
A whinny broke from the mare’s throat like a scream. Porter flung himself backward, fighting to free his arm from the saddlebag. Maggie reared wildly. With a crack like a gunshot, the branch she was tethered to broke and flew, clubbing Porter in the head. He swore, dropping and rolling to get out of the way.
“Dad!” Trish screamed, and all of the pop cans tumbled.
Porter cried out, jerking in an outstretched hand just as a hoof dropped hard to meet it. He rolled again. A ragged mesquite stump snagged his shirt and tore it wide. Wheeling in the opposite direction, Maggie galloped off at full speed, trailing a dusty jet stream. In moments she was out of sight.
Trish hobbled over on one foot. Her load of Pepsi had dropped on the other. Shannon followed. They reached Porter as he rose on an elbow. Trish dropped to her knees and hugged his head, ready to cry.
“Are you okay?” Shannon knelt beside him. She could see no blood. “That looked awful.” Her heart was racing, partly out of concern for Porter, and partly, she realized, because of past experience. If this had been Ronny, he would be screaming after the horse, maybe threatening to kill it, lashing out at anyone within earshot for no good reason at all. Yet Porter looked unharmed—and for the most part unruffled—except for his tattered shirt and his left hand, which he held stiffly above the ground.
“Hell yeah, I’m okay,” he grunted through his daughter’s hug. “My own fault. I should’ve given up on the film and let Maggie calm down.” He gave one of Trish’s arms a pat and eased it away so he could look around. His camera lay on the ground near where the horse had bolted. “I’ll heal, but that thing costs money. Go grab it for me, Trisher. Let’s see how bad it is.”
She ran for the camera. Porter gave a grunt and a sigh and rolled onto his seat, propping his back against a mound of sandstone. Shannon was still looking at his hand.
“Can I see that? It looks broken.”
Porter smiled weakly. “You a part-time nurse, too?”
[p.231]Shannon took the hand gently. It was badly scraped, and there was color under the skin. “I’ve handled my share of broken bones. Playground first aid, you know. Can’t move that at all, can you?”
Porter’s fingers trembled and his body tensed. “You got that right. Which’s gonna make it pretty damn hard to shoot those pictures. Which I need today if I’m gonna get them developed by the time I head for Salt Lake on Monday.”
She turned the hand, studying it. “You’re lucky. It doesn’t look crushed. You must have pulled it out of the way just in time.”
“Teaches math, nurses wounds.” Porter teased a crumpled weed from his hair. “You’re a woman of many talents, Ms. Call. Can I ask you something?”
She glanced at him. “Mmm-hmm.” In his weary smile she found a mixture of appreciation and unconcealed attraction. His torn shirt gaped. The skin there was as tanned as his face, his chest and belly sculpted with muscle. They were covered with the same tawny hair that colored his beard.
“Do you wear tinted contact lenses, or did your eyes get that deep and blue all by themselves?”
Shannon felt herself blush. “I don’t wear contacts,” she said, smiling back in spite of herself. She explored Porter’s knuckles just a bit more firmly to change the subject. It worked. He winced.
“You ought to have this x-rayed,” she responded, still smiling. “We need to get you back to the emergency room at the hospital.”
A shadow fell onto Porter’s shirt, and Shannon turned. Trish had returned with the camera. Her face was stricken. Porter winced again.
“She totaled?” he asked.
Trish shook her head. “No. It looks okay.” But as she dangled the camera toward her dad, she looked again as if she were going to burst into tears.
He took it from her. “Then why—”
Out of Trish’s overall pocket she drew two small boxes with Kodak labels. “I thought I put them in the bags, Dad. I really did.” Her voice broke.
Porter stared dully at the film. After a moment of total silence, he burst out laughing. Trish’s expression began to soften as his laughter trailed off. Finally breathing heavily, he held out his good hand and Trish put the boxes in his palm. He stared at them.
[p.232]“I wanted Fuji,” he said.
They all burst out laughing then, Porter propped on a rock, Trish collapsed over his legs, and Shannon still holding his broken hand. They laughed till tears rolled down their faces. And for Shannon there was something about that moment that was very nearly as magical as the appearance of the ghost-horse the night before.
In the end it was Shannon who took the pictures. Porter showed her how to focus the lens, operate the zoom, and use the meter, and then he coached her as she framed the shots. His confidence in her seemed complete and matter-of-fact. His patience was astounding considering his hand, which was beginning to swell darkly.
And yet, aside from this, there was something more. In the half hour that he called directions to her as she picked her way across the rocks with his camera, Shannon felt the oddest feeling, and she wasn’t sure she was comfortable with it. Always with Ronny there was a clear distinction. He was a man, she was a woman. But here she and Porter were just people, working together. No, more. Friends.
By the time they were finished, Shannon decided she liked that. She liked that very much.
Before long they had arrived back at the trailer to find Maggie, grazing patiently and awaiting their return. There Porter asked Shannon out again. Something inside her screamed back in anger and sadness when once again she felt compelled to decline.
Shannon was home by 5:30. Exhausted she fell asleep on the couch while she waited for some leftover Ragu and noodles to heat through in the microwave.
As she slept she dreamed.
The desert lay cool and moonlit before her, and she flew over it on the back of the silver Appaloosa, which glided with hoofbeats as soft as mist. They led the ghost herd as they fled the Point, straining toward the slender neck of land that separated them from the freedom of the open range.
Yet as she rode Shannon’s anticipation began to ebb, replaced by an awful dread. Something lurked there, in the dark, just past the narrow passage. Something enormous and terrible, waiting to fall upon her.
The Appaloosa charged ahead, and though the terror throbbing beneath her ribs grew thicker with each passing second, Shannon held on. She tightened her jaw and held back the screams until she was [p.233]certain the terror alone would kill her, but she held on anyway, fighting the urge to let go, to leap off, to flee with all of her strength in the other direction.
Then against the deep purple blackness of the midnight sky, something blacker reared to fall upon her.
Shannon jerked awake, smacking her shin on her aunt’s glass-top coffee table. The phone was ringing.
She fumbled for it with one hand and rubbed at her leg with the other. She found the receiver, lifted it to her ear, and cleared her throat, still trying to shake off the lingering fright of the dream.
“Hello,” she gargled, and when the deep male voice on the other end spoke, she saw that she had the receiver turned the wrong way. She juggled it around. Porter, she thought sleepily.
“Hello,” she said once more. She was about to ask how the injured hand was coming along but was cut short.
“Hi, babe. Been missing you.” The voice on the other end of the line purred. It was like warm water to cold bones, almost impossible to resist. Shannon was instantly wide awake.
“Ronny,” she whispered.
Her heart began tripping, partly in alarm, partly as that old longing for him abruptly kicked in. Oh, it kicked in hard. She had forgotten how real that part of her was. The feeling was instantly heady, almost intoxicating.
“You didn’t have to leave,” the voice went on, “but I know why you did. I don’t blame you, really, babe. But I told you, it’d all be different. And it is, honest to God, I just been sitting home worried sick about you. I thought maybe you’d tried to call, but I wasn’t here ‘cause I’m working two shifts.”
Because she could think of no other response, Shannon asked, “Where?”
“With Barry, out at the wrecking yard. As long as I want it, but that’s just temporary. Got some other things cooking. Big things. Good ones, for you and me.”
Good things for you and me. Such an old story. And yet it was in Ronny to do it. She knew it was in him, and that was what was so hard, wasn’t it? Knowing it was there and hoping this time it was really coming out, for good.
The old feelings were caving in on top of her. Soon she’d be in over her head. She fought them.
[p.234]“How’s Julie?” she asked. Her voice broke.
“Hey, babe, don’t do that to me. I told you it was over, and it is. I don’t have the slightest idea how she is. I don’t care. She’s out of my life, I haven’t seen her for … “ He hesitated for the briefest instant. “I don’t know. I can’t even remember. Come on, babe. Give me a break. I need you, I can’t do it without you, you know that.”
Shannon closed her eyes. She wanted out.
But she wanted him.
“How did you find me, Ronny?”
“Max told me you’d gone south. Tina said you had these relatives in Moab. I got their number from information.”
Shannon sighed. Tina. She probably gave him more than just the number. Shannon had suspected for some time that her brother’s wife had developed a thing for Ronny too. Max still didn’t know. In reality Shannon wasn’t sure how much there was to know. Maybe nothing. Maybe she was being unfair to both of them. How could she tell?
His voice purred in her ear again. “Shannon, you still there, hon? I called for you yesterday before I left, but I couldn’t get any answer.”
Adrenaline sent a jolt into Shannon’s chest. “What do you mean, before you left?” Suddenly she was trying to catch her breath.
“I’m at that Maverick here, just inside town—”
“I don’t want to see you, Ronny.” Shannon’s words flooded out, driven by panic. The receiver in her hand was slick with cool sweat.
“Oh, come on, babe. I came all this way, I have to see you. Just to talk, that’s all.”
She struggled to calm herself. “Not tonight. Really. I can’t.”
“Look, just give me the address. I can get it from the phone book anyway. I just want to see you, I have to see you tonight. You don’t know how I’ve missed you. I’ve been crazy without you, baby.”
“No, Ronny, please.”
“Honey, you don’t know how hard it is. I’m clean two weeks now, but I need you by me or I can’t make it. You’re my life. You know that. You have to know that.”
She was slipping away. She could feel it. The guilt, the loneliness, the fear, the longing, they were like chloroform. They were pulling her under. She couldn’t shake them off. “Ronny look, I … I just need to be alone right now.” Her thoughts felt jumbled. The words didn’t want to line up. “Maybe, later. Okay? Maybe tomorrow. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
[p.235]“What do you mean, tomorrow? Where am I supposed to stay tonight, in my car?” An edge of anger seemed to creep into his voice and slip away again. “It cost me everything I had just to drive down here. I only did it for you, why else would I be here?”
Maybe he was right. Even after everything they’d been through, what kind of a person would she be if she wouldn’t even see him for a few minutes? Would that even be fair?
She was losing it. She had to go.
“And now you won’t even talk to me? You wouldn’t do that to me, babe, I know you wouldn’t. You can’t just close the door on me after all I’ve done for you. I’ve given up everything for you—”
She let the phone clatter onto the hook switch. It took a bounce, and she slid it back on with a shaking hand.
He would be arriving soon. There was no stopping him. She couldn’t allow herself to be home when he came. Or any place nearby where he might find her. Not tonight.
She ran for a jacket and checked both doors to be sure the house was locked. Then she got in her car and drove. Taking back roads to make sure he wouldn’t pass her on the way, she headed out of town, toward the turnoff to Dead Horse Point.
Shannon was scarcely two miles from the state park entrance when nightfall overtook the desert. A sky full of thunderclouds cast a pale luminescence at the ground. Wind tugged at the sage lining the road.
As her Toyota plowed through the dust clouds raised by the gathering storm, Shannon’s thoughts roiled. What the hell was the matter with her, anyway? She had run nearly five hundred miles to keep Ronny from finding her, and now she was running again. Why didn’t she just end it? Why didn’t she just go find a lawyer and fill out a few papers and be done? There were no children to fight over, and he could have everything else, including the trailer. Why couldn’t she just stand her ground and tell him it was over and then move on?
That was one part of her talking. Another part was still in touch with all those feelings that had flooded back when she’d heard his voice again on the phone. It was the same part that worried over him and wanted to take care of him and give him some place safer to sleep than his car. Yes, she was attracted to him, but there was so much more. He [p.236]had been right on at least one count, hadn’t he? She was sick. She wished it weren’t so, but here she was.
Something capered into her headlights, like a goblin. Shannon gave a little cry, her foot jumping to the brake. Then she saw it was only a tumbleweed. It somersaulted twice and disappeared.
Her heart pulsed in her throat. She tried to calm herself, but the fear ran much deeper than the momentary start she’d received. The fear was at the base of her sickness, she knew that. The fear of letting go of him, of what it would mean to be unmarried and unloved and forever unable to feel his warmth beside her in her bed. The fear of what he would do if she abandoned him, of how angry he might get and how out of control he might get. What would he do to her? Or to himself? Could she bear the monstrous guilt of leaving him alone to fend for himself with no money and no home and a monkey on his back? What if he overdosed in a fit of desperation? Or killed himself outright, what then?
Yes, the fear was always there, waiting, and tonight she battled to keep it at arm’s length. It would do no good to engage it, as she had so many times before. The future held hundreds of dark eventualities waiting to be explored. It was just like the dream, wasn’t it? Somewhere up ahead, beyond the limits of her vision, all of her worst anticipations merged and reared, dark and terrible and unknown. Ronny behind her and the future before her, and she was held immobile in between. And there was really no way for her to get past that. Perhaps there never would be. The more she thought about it, she knew, the deeper into despair she would descend. She knew because she had done it before, time and again. So tonight, she just drove. She just drove and tried not to think and scanned out the windshield, watching.
She knew what she wanted. With increasing desperation she wanted to see the Appaloosa again. She could still feel that vague beckoning, as she had the night before.
Within minutes the parking lot appeared in her headlights. She sidled her car up to the familiar water spigot and shut off her engine. She knew how to call the stallion. It was the water that had lured the horse so close. Even in death it was still trying to survive, just like the old man and his train.
Shannon turned the spring-loaded handle and opened the valve. Beneath it a tiny pool began to form. After twenty seconds or so, she shut off the water and waited.
The storm was closer now. Lightning scattered splashes of blue light [p.237]against the backs of the clouds crowding the horizon. The wind came in tepid gusts, sending tiny waves across the puddle. Shannon found a smooth spot and sat, brushing a handful of pointy gravel out from under her seat. Then she waited some more.
Five minutes. Ten.
Shannon reached up and turned the valve again. This time she didn’t let go. The water came in a steady stream.
Gradually the air grew cooler, filled with the damp herbal smell of rain on dry grass and dusty bark. The first echoes of thunder lumbered over the wind. Shannon peered at her watch. Fifteen minutes had passed from the time she first drew water from the spigot. She watched the stream now as it fell and broke, fell and broke in the pulsing wind. The sound was pounding, rhythmic, like trundling hooves.
She glanced past the stream.
The entire herd stood staring, spread along a nearby shelf of stone like faded statues. Shannon tensed and caught her breath. The Appaloosa stood out front, mane waving in lazy oblivion to the now blustering wind. It was perhaps twenty feet away.
Shannon let go of the valve, and it snapped shut. She rose slowly, her chest again heaving with a thrill of fear and wonder. The animals were other-worldly, beautiful. A flash of lightning lit the desert, seeming to erase them momentarily before the darkness painted them back onto the landscape again.
Shannon straightened fully to her feet. Against her careful movement the lead stallion stood his ground, studying her with his bottomless stare. Then he turned and trotted a few paces into the desert before turning back and eyeing her again. Several others in the herd echoed the Appaloosa’s movement. Yes, she thought with growing excitement. They want me to follow.
As if they heard her thoughts, the horses fled en masse. In a single motion like a river of pale silk, they swept out across the sand and flowed along the shoulder of the road.
Shannon scrambled to her car and ground the starter, revving it to life. She bumped over a pothole, spun the wheel, narrowly missed the spigot and gave the herd chase. Only then did it occur to her where they were going.
The horses were racing toward the narrow neck leading to the open range. Shannon followed at top speed. They were about to show her what had held them captive for over a hundred years.
[p.238]Shannon overtook the ghost herd just as they veered away from the road and headed off toward the canyon’s edge. She swung the Toyota onto the shoulder and skidded in the dirt. As she threw the door open to follow the horses, the first big drops of rain began popping onto the roof of her car.
A blast of thunder crackled from the sky. Shannon ran, the wind now tearing at her clothes and her hair. She leaped down from a small rise, raced across a pebbled wash and climbed up a stand of rock that looked like a tipped stack of giant dinner plates. Barely visible in the distance, still galloping full tilt, were the horses. They were looping back toward the road, where the asphalt cut a narrow path across the neck of land that led off the Point.
The animals were making a run for freedom.
Water seemed to fall in a blanket from the sky. Lightning came in bursts, searing the desert with white light. Behind the curtains of rain, the horses flickered in and out of being in time with the lightning.
The lead stallion reached the asphalt. Abruptly he reared.
Just as suddenly all of the other mustangs changed direction. They were coming back now, not in a flowing mass as they had begun but in broken frenzy, spreading out in every direction at once. And close behind them something was charging across to give chase.
Shannon’s eyes widened, her heart slamming jets of terror from beneath her ribs and up into her throat. She would have turned to flee if her legs had any movement left in them, but they had suddenly turned as fluid and insubstantial as the rain.
She had been wrong. Earlier that day she had attributed Maggie’s skittishness to the lingering presence of the ghost-herd. But now she saw that an entirely different apparition haunted that end of the mesa. It stood two, maybe three times taller than the frantic steeds trying to get out of its path. And as it grew closer, looming through the gray veil that the rain had drawn before it, Shannon realized with a mixture of awe and utter disbelief what this beast must be. Merciful heaven, she thought, and almost laughed in spite of the fear that welled in her chest. This couldn’t be. This was crazy.
And yet on it came. It loped after the horses on the elephantine legs of some impossible hybrid ostrich, its eyes mad with primitive hunger. It was a phantom risen from Porter’s Jurassic graveyard.
The thing darted after the nearest ghost horse, dipping low. The [p.239]mustang’s hooves stuttered, almost dumping the animal over before it could swerve to avoid the monster’s jaws. Other horses leaped and milled in mad confusion. With terrifying quickness the beast doubled back in mid-lunge, snapping at another animal. This one fell. Shannon’s own scream covered the shriek of the fallen horse as the monster pivoted and dove, all teeth and raking claws. Then the scene evaporated with the darkness in a flash of white light.
The thunder was simultaneous with the lightning, an explosion so loud it knocked Shannon backward. Her buttocks made a wet plop on the rock, and she sat staring out into empty darkness again. Rain pounded around her. The wind whipped it in her face. She rubbed a mat of soaking hair away from her eyes and scanned the desert. All of the apparitions were gone. She was alone.
Shannon sat panting, blowing rivulets away from her lips. She finally rose on stiff legs only when the rain began to ease up and the cold had seeped deep into her bones. Still numb with amazement, she waded through the wash and ascended the shoulder back up to her car.
The vehicle looked wrong sitting at the side of the road. A dented Toyota didn’t belong in a place where ghost-dinosaurs chased ghost-horses across a haunted mesa. No, that prop just didn’t fit this part of the movie. What did the ad say? Oh-oh-oh, what a feeling. They had no idea.
This night had been insane, unreal. And as Shannon climbed soaking wet and shaking behind the wheel of her car, her thoughts still seemed to be flowing in kind. In the depths of her mind, she could feel it. A plan was already beginning to form there, one that would rescue the ghost-horses and lead them to freedom.
Shannon awoke the next morning about 9:00, naked under the padded warmth of her aunt’s electric blanket. When she opened her eyes to the sunny bedroom, decorated in mauve ruffles and floral wallpaper, she felt the same odd disorientation she had felt the night before while staring at her car. The room felt mundane and otherworldly compared to the phantasms still chasing through her head. From downstairs came the sound once again that had originally awakened her. Someone was knocking at the door.
She tensed at once.
Upon returning the night before, she had noted with relief that Ronny had not been camped out in her driveway. As was typical he had [p.240]managed to find a bed some place else. She had taken the phone off the hook to avoid another call, but she had known even then that she would not be able to avoid him for long.
She stepped over the wet clothes still piled on a throw rug beside the bed and crept to the window. Furtively parting the curtain, she peered down at the driveway and felt a wave of glorious pleasure and relief. Porter Talbot stood beside his truck and waved sheepishly in her direction.
With care Shannon slid the pane open, squinting against the sunlight. “Hi,” she said a little dreamily. Then she remembered she hadn’t a stitch on and hugged herself close and low against the sill.
“Sorry to get you up,” Porter called. “I tried phoning, but your line was busy. Wondered if I could talk to you a minute.” He smiled up at her.
She smiled back. “Sure. I’ll come down, wait a second.”
“Better get something on first,” Porter said. He gave her a little-boy grin. On another face she might have found it either irritating or embarrassing. On his she found it somehow charming.
Shannon closed the window, threw on a robe, and spied a mirror on her way out. Her hair was a clump. She gave it a few quick brush strokes, saw it would take at least a half-hour to do anything with, and swore. She saw too that her nose was running, courtesy of her midnight field trip. She grabbed some tissue and headed downstairs, trying to rearrange what hair she could with her fingers.
“How are you?” she asked, opening the door to Porter. She drew the robe closer around herself. “I look terrible this morning.”
He smiled in at her matter-of-factly. “Wildflower’s still pretty,” he said, “even when it’s waiting for the sun to open its petals. Do you have just a second?”
Shannon felt herself blushing again and didn’t care. It felt so good to have this man standing on her doorstep instead of the one she had anticipated only a few moments before. She glanced past Porter into the street. A part of her almost wished that Ronny would arrive. Right here while she was standing with nothing on but her bathrobe, talking with one of the handsomest men she had met in recent memory. That wouldn’t quite be poetic justice, but it would be close.
Shannon drew the robe a little tighter. “Come in,” she invited. “What’s going on?”
“Well, I have to leave for Salt Lake this afternoon, and I just got a wrench thrown in the works.” Porter stepped inside. “I don’t know if you [p.241]can help me or not, but Trish’s grandma was going to stay home with her while I was gone, and she got a call this morning from her sister. They had some quilts accepted in a show in Utah County, so she has to go up there to get them hung. I could postpone my trip, but I hate to put these guys off. University money evaporates like gin at an Irish funeral.”
With growing delight Shannon saw where this was leading. It was just what she needed: a place to disappear to for a day or so. In the meantime maybe Ronny would just fade back to Ogden for a while.
“I should be back by Wednesday night,” Porter went on. “I can pay you some for your trouble.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of that,” she said. “Actually it would work out really well for me too, as long as you don’t mind me bringing in a couple of other tutoring appointments.”
“Not a bit.” Porter smiled appreciatively. I owe you one, Shannon. I’ll leave a number where you can reach me if need be.” Looking relieved he brushed some hair back from his forehead with a cast-covered hand.
“How’s that doing?”
Porter examined it. “Better.” He nodded back out toward the driveway. “Had some trouble shifting in the truck. I got a friend changing the U-joint in my little Mercury automatic so I can drive it.” He eyed her. “You doing okay? Sounds like you might be coming down with something.”
Shannon dabbed at her nose. No kidding, she thought. It’s what I get for chasing ghosts in the rain. With the thought she realized that the intensity of the previous night’s experience had begun to fade. The memories had started to feel out of place with her immediate surroundings instead of the other way around. She looked into Porter’s face and saw an unexpected measure of concern.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “Just a cold.” And as she looked at him, she marveled. How could she be feeling so comfortable, standing here talking to this man in her bathrobe, wiping her nose and looking like a hurricane victim?
“You probably picked it up from Trish,” Porter suggested. “She’s had the sniffles ever since she jumped into the canal to save Tony Whitefeather’s guinea pig.”
Shannon felt a giggle forming and raised her eyebrows in delight. That sounded like Trish. Within minutes, Porter had finished the whole story, and Shannon’s laughter had moved him on to another. From there [p.242]they both seemed to lose track of time. They talked into the late morning, Porter sitting on the arm of Aunt Maxine’s big couch and Shannon curled on the cushion. Porter talked about his own childhood adventures, Shannon about summers on her grandfather’s Arizona horse ranch. Before long she was talking about where life had led her from there, and within just a few minutes, she arrived without warning at her reason for being in Moab.
She felt a rush of panic. For a moment she considered dodging the issue but realized things would be even more awkward if she did. The grim truth was, she now saw, that her marriage to Ronny was a reality there was no running away from. Even here, for a few moments, five hundred miles away from home in her aunt’s living room.
“We’re separated,” she said. She ran her fingers along the piping of the couch cushion. She didn’t want to look at Porter’s face. “We have been, off and on, for three years or so.” Odd, she thought. Separated. In all this time she had never phrased it that way, even to herself.
Tightening inside she glanced up at Porter. She expected to see shock on his face. Perhaps a degree of betrayal. Maybe even disdain or revulsion. She saw in fact none of these. Instead he just nodded with a kind of detached sadness.
“I hear you,” he said. “Trish’s mother was like that. Never could decide what she wanted. We weren’t living together either the night I got the call from the UHP. She died in a rollover coming back from a party in Green River. Some guy was driving.” With that the pain in his face seemed to become more immediate. “Never knew whether there was something between them, or if she’d just caught a ride. With Rita that was always hard to get a handle on.”
“I’m sorry,” Shannon offered. She felt a sudden urge to gather this man into her arms and hold him, to soothe his pain in a way she had never been able to for herself.
“Yeah, it was bad.” Porter cleared his throat. “Seems like Trish has come out of it okay, but she’s shoved a lot of things down deep. I suppose they’ll have to come out some day.” Porter’s eyes studied Shannon’s with a mixture of compassion and appreciation. “You know how it is, I guess.”
“Ronny and I have no children,” she answered. “But, yes, I think I know how it is.”
Porter wiped his sleeve away from his watch. “Oh, hey, I need to go,” he said apologetically. “I’ve kept you forever.”
[p.243]“No, it’s been good,” Shannon said, and she meant it. She wished they could visit into the afternoon. There was suddenly a whole world of things she felt like she wanted to talk about.
“Make yourself at home at the house,” Porter said as he stepped to the door. “There’s an elk roast in the freezer and melons in the fridge. Take the horses out if you like. Trish can show you some trails.”
Shannon regathered her robe and followed him. “We’ll have fun together. I’ll be over a little past noon.”
“Wish I was going to be there,” Porter said, and the sincerity in his voice was tempered with just enough flirtiness to keep things comfortable.
Shannon smiled at him. “We’ll have to get together and visit again.”
“That we will,” Porter answered. “See you on Wednesday.” He turned out into the sunlight toward his truck. Shannon sat back on the couch and watched him through the front window. She didn’t think he could see her until he gave her a wave as he pulled away. She waved back and watched until the truck was out of sight.
On the chance Ronny might still show up, Shannon took no time leaving the house. On the way to Talbot’s, she passed by City Market for a few groceries and then stopped at the library for a couple of novels to pass the time.
In the hush of the book stacks, the plan that had begun to form out on the Point the night before presented itself to Shannon again. She realized abruptly that everything had been set in place. If she were actually going to do something, she would have to do it tonight, wouldn’t she?
She laughed to herself. It was outlandish. Too absurd even to think about.
Perhaps too dangerous as well.
But as she put her car in gear and headed for Porter’s Desert Souvenirs, she found herself thinking about it, all the same.
“Please take me out to see them. Please.”
Trish was an old master at begging. Shannon could see that from the start.
“Trish, I have a responsibility here. To take care of you, not to go running around the desert after dark.”
[p.244]“But it’s okay. My dad told me to take you out on the horses while you were here.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“He said we could take a night ride. He did. Just if we don’t go too far.”
“Trish. The Point’s more than twenty miles away.”
“So, we take the trailer, and we’re never more than a mile or so from the truck. No problem.”
“The horses are skittish out there.”
“Trish, … “ Shannon let out a long breath. The interchange was taxing. But the real trouble was, she was fighting her own urge to return to the Point as hard as she was fighting Trish.
“Please.” The little girl scrunched her whole body with exertion. “I’ll do seven extra sets. I’ll finish the whole chapter. By the weekend I promise. That will put me ahead of schedule!”
“Trish, I don’t know. It might be dangerous.” Shannon knew immediately this would only add fuel to the fire, but the words were already coming. “There’s something else out there.”
Trish’s face became the picture of delicious excitement. She leaned across the dinner table.
Oh, this was going to sound so bizarre. Even to Trish.
Looking ravenous the ten-year-old leaned closer. “Tell me. What?”
Shannon nibbled at her lip. “I found out what kept the horses on the Point.” She took a breath. “What still keeps them there. It’s another ghost. Another kind of animal.”
“Nu-uhhhhhh!” Trish’s grin vanished.
Shannon felt her own face go stiff. The statement had sounded more than bizarre. It had sounded ridiculous. “Actually, it looks like a prehistoric animal,” she went on. Oh, boy. Oh boy, it was sounding really bad, and it was about to get worse.
“I think it must be some kind of dinosaur.”
Shannon winced. “I know it sounds crazy, but I saw it. Chasing the horses. Right about where your dad found that big fossil bed out there.”
The intensity on Trish’s face blossomed into a broad smile. “That’s not crazy! It’s awesome! When did you see it?”
Shannon stared at her for a second or two, nonplused. Then [p.245]beginning slowly and gathering speed, she described the experience of the night before. Before she was even finished, Trish was sprinting downstairs into the shop.
“Let’s get the field book! My dad’s got a field book!”
She returned with an encyclopedic volume bearing drawings and color plates. Together they leafed through to the section labeled Jurassic.
“This is the part where the big mean ones start. The meat-eaters.” Trish pushed the book at Shannon, leafing pages one by one. “What kind was it?”
Shannon eyed the tome doubtfully. Identifying bones was one thing. But looking up a ghost in a fossil field book was like searching for the Flying Dutchman in a merchant marine directory.
“Trish, I don’t think … ”
Then she saw the picture and got very quiet. “Oh my Heaven,” she whispered. “That’s it.”
The illustration showed a massive two-legged reptile. It had leaped onto the back of a larger but less fortunate creature, which looked to be in its death throes. Two similar predators were approaching from the background like wolves in a pack.
Trish beamed. “It’s an allosaurus! Cool!”
Shannon stared. Somehow, seeing it there made it official. Official and unsettlingly real.
“So why do you think it’s been hanging around all these skillions of years? Huh?”
Shannon was still gazing at the picture. “You got me. Maybe it’s just trying to find something to eat.”
Trish tipped her head. “Yeah. The food ran out, and it starved. So now it’s trying to eat the horses, huh?” Then a look of skepticism stole over her face. “But why are the horses so afraid of it?”
“Wouldn’t you be afraid if it were trying to eat you?”
“But that’s different. I mean, they’re already dead. What’ve they got to lose?”
Shannon set the book on the table. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe nothing. Maybe they just think they have something to lose.”
“Well, it can’t hurt us. Ghosts can’t hurt you, my dad said. You can’t even feel a ghost because when you try to touch it your hand goes right through like smoke and that’s how you can tell it’s a ghost.”
Deep in thought, Shannon was only half listening.
[p.246]“So,” Trish went on, “there’s no reason we can’t go out and see them, is there?” She turned. “I’ll go hook up the trailer. I know how. I’ll just need a little help.”
Shannon’s eyes focused as Trish reached the doorway.
“You wait just a minute, young lady.” Her voice was even firmer than she had intended. Trish stopped, her shoulders drooping, just short of admitting total defeat.
“Come on,” she begged. “We gotta go out there.”
Shannon just sat and looked at her. Why did she feel such an intense compulsion to do precisely what Trish was asking?
The image from the dream seemed to drift from the back of her mind, and for a moment Shannon was flying through the night once more, riding the Appaloosa to freedom.
They stared at each other.
Slowly Shannon closed the field book. “I think if we go, we should do more than just look at the horses.” Even though she had begun to feel her heart pulsing at the base of her throat, she allowed a smile to steal across her face. “I think we should try to help them. Don’t you?”
There was an unearthly stillness outside the window after Shannon docked Porter’s truck in the parking lot. A sound of tires munching gravel, a final stutter of exhaust in the muffler, and then nothing. No wind, no crickets. The silence on the Point seemed complete.
“Is this where we see them?” Trish’s voice was mostly breath.
“Yes,” Shannon answered. “Stay here.” She opened the door and peered into the night before making her way to the horse trailer.
She’d been having second thoughts ever since they’d hit the turnoff. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Not at all. Her mind kept asking what Porter would say about all this. Or aside from that, what her own mother would say. Yes, weird as it was, that thought had seemed most persistent. Given the necessity, how could she explain this to her mother?
Actually, Mom, it’s not that complicated. See, Trish is going to lure a big herd of ghost-horses to freedom, while I act as a decoy for a prehistoric monster.
That much had been more than enough, and her brain had gone to work immediately to change the subject. So much for the explanation. Good thing Mom was in Flagstaff.
[p.247]Shannon swung open the trailer. Doc stood placidly inside, already saddled. She stepped inside and grasped his reins. In spite of her misgivings, here she was. And after all of the effort she and Trish had exerted to get here, she would feel too foolish turning back now. She guided the horse out onto the pavement.
A whisper erupted at Shannon’s elbow. She jumped. Doc blinked.
“You see anything yet?” Trish asked in a low voice.
“Trish, I asked you to stay in the truck.”
“I’ll stay close by, I promise. Let me get the water thing ready.”
Trotting around the trailer, Trish hopped into the bed of the pick-up and came out with a twenty-gallon washtub. She lugged it toward the nearby spigot while Shannon checked the cinch on Doc’s saddle.
“Fill it about halfway,” Shannon said. “Any more will be too heavy. Then you’re back in the truck.” She had considered the child’s safety already and decided she should be okay as long as she spent most of her time in Porter’s pickup.
Shannon slipped Doc’s bridle over his halter. The horse’s safety was another issue. In many spots the mesa was like a natural obstacle course. Yet if she kept her distance from the allosaurus and chose her route carefully, the risks should be minimal. At just past full, the moon would give them enough light to see, and the Morgan would be sure-footed enough to handle himself.
Shannon thought about the picture in the field book. How safe would she be herself?
Ghosts can’t hurt you, my dad said. You can’t even feel a ghost because when you try to touch it your hand goes right through like smoke and that’s how you can tell it’s a ghost.
She let Trish’s assertion run through her head as she recalled the fierceness and speed with which the beast had attacked the fallen mustang. Porter’s declaration might be reassuring to Trish, but in Shannon’s view his expert opinion ended with paleontology. Who knew what the rules were here? If indeed there were rules. And what if this thing weren’t a ghost at all? What if it were some other sort of paranormal boogey-creature that nobody had ever heard of before, let alone labeled?
Such comforting thoughts.
She felt a tug on a belt loop. “It’s full,” Trish said.
“Okay,” Shannon answered. Her mouth had grown dry. “Let’s load it in.”
[p.248]Together they hefted the tub and staggered with it, finally banging it onto the bed of the empty trailer. Puffing, they stood side by side, scanning the dark desert.
“Now what do we do?” Trish whispered.
“We leave the doors open and wait.” Shannon gave her shoulder a pat. “Me out here, you in the truck. Go on.” She walked over and took Doc by the reins. For the first time he seemed a bit edgy.
Perhaps they would see nothing. That had occurred to Shannon from the start, and it was the most disturbing risk of all, wasn’t it? The risk of discovering that Shannon’s apparitions existed only in her mind. Might she be just a little sicker than she thought? Could this whole thing with Ronny be pushing her over the edge? What if the horses appeared again in all their supernatural splendor and Shannon was the only one who could see them?
At her side, as if in reply, there was a tiny strangled sound. Trish’s fist locked onto Shannon’s arm like a clamp, her eyes swelling like dark silver dollars.
“Oh, crap,” Trish managed, and pointed. “It’s them.”
Shannon hurled a gaze out across the mesa.
Three pale shapes emerged over a rise, shadowless in the moonlight. Others spilled over the top after them. Half-galloping, half-flying, they streamed through the desert toward the open blacktop of the parking lot.
Something made a low rumble in Doc’s throat. The horse snorted once and took a step backward. Shannon gave Trish a shaky nudge toward the truck.
“Hurry,” Shannon said. “Start up the engine before they get here.” Trish clung to Shannon’s arm like a bug transfixed by some king-sized light. Shannon shoved harder. “Go on,” she urged. “Stay on the road, keep it in first, and make sure they’re behind you all the way. And don’t go too fast! Scoot!”
Trish turned and ran. Shannon grabbed Doc’s reins and slung herself into the saddle. Behind her Porter’s GMC roared to life and ground into gear. She patted Doc on the neck. “Let’s go, boy,” she whispered and gave a kick with her heels. The Morgan lowered his head, humped his back, and raced out onto the mesa.
Threading a path across the broken landscape, Shannon flew. Beside, on her right, the ghost-horses shot past like a torrent of fog, [p.249]rushing toward the departing water tub. Doc veered, giving them a wide berth. Shannon guided him out around the lip of the canyon. Then she turned him north and whipped him with her reins. Leaving the pickup far behind, the Morgan thundered forward, weaving through rocks and trees and finally breaking back out onto the road.
A jolt of panic sent a lump into Shannon’s throat.
Before her, distant but closing fast, the narrow neck sat bathed in moonlight. The déjà vu was undeniable. This was the same scene that Shannon had looked upon before, riding the Appaloosa in her dream.
She felt her limbs go watery. In that instant, weak with fear, she felt an almost irresistible urge to turn back. But she couldn’t turn back. She wouldn’t, not now. Instead she sank into the saddle and clenched her teeth and kicked at Doc’s flanks with all of her might.
That was when, from just beyond the passage, a behemoth shadow lurched from the darkness and spread cavernous jaws.
Doc pulled up and reared. Shannon tipped, grappled, and managed to hang on. A terrified squeal erupted from the horse’s throat. The animal wheeled around, regained its footing, and sped off the roadway into the desert. Shannon hurled a quick glance back over her shoulder. With a thrill of terror she realized her plan was working. The shadow was coming. The beast was after them.
Shannon felt Doc take to the air. She snapped her head to the front and let her body move with him. Beneath them a gully slipped past in a blur. The horse came down smoothly on the other side. He cut left between two junipers and out onto a clearing of sage. There was a splintering crash immediately behind.
The junipers! Shannon’s thoughts reeled in confusion and fear. That sound was the trees! It plowed right through them! How on earth could it be so close?
She turned again to look. Panic slammed the breath from her lungs.
The allosaurus tore through the darkness with unbelievable speed. Its legs pistoned like enormous pile-drivers, and in two quick lopes the thing was towering at Shannon’s side. She could hear the thud of its footfalls, see the sinews ripple in its neck as it turned its undulating head toward her face. White breath jetted from its nostrils into the cold night air. The thing curled back scaled lips to show its teeth.
This was no nebulous phantasm. This was a living, breathing monster.
[p.250]Merciful heaven, Shannon’s mind screamed, is this real? How in heaven’s name could this be real?
Recoiling its head, the beast lunged and snapped.
Shannon screamed out loud. She toppled from the saddle. The ground bounced savagely against her side, pounding the breath from her lungs. Doc’s hoofbeats retreated into the night. Shannon rolled, fighting to breathe. Her heartbeat roared in her ears. She looked up.
The allosaurus took just one more leap after the fleeing horse. Then it dug an enormous claw into the earth and pivoted, its tail sweeping in counterbalance. For a moment it stood poised, scanning the darkness, sucking huge draughts of air. Shannon froze, but the beast spotted her anyway.
Doc was gone. But she would be easy prey.
Still fighting for breath, Shannon scrambled to her feet and ran. Behind her the allosaurus let out a hissing snort. She could hear it coming. To the side a cluster of rocks jutted skyward. A crevice split them down the middle. She slipped inside as her breath returned, and her lungs responded with a wavering scream.
A foreleg swept into the crevice, groping. Claws rasped against stone. Shannon fell forward and into open air on the formation’s far side. She tried to get up but her legs buckled in fatigue and fear. Her strength was gone.
Above her a dark shape blotted out the moon. The allosaurus had rounded the rocks. It crouched above her now, its tail slithering, dry and heavy. The beast peered down with tiny, glinting eyes and tipped its head like a bird. Then it bared its teeth for the last time. Shannon opened her own mouth to scream again. Nothing came out but a shuddering moan.
The monster fell upon her.
Like a gust of wind from some primordial bog, something rank and humid hit her squarely. Shannon grunted with the weight of it, then gasped to feel it pass through her chest and disappear. She lay coughing, trying to expel whatever it was from her lungs. Then she found there was really nothing there to expel.
Panting, she rolled onto her side. After a while she stood.
The desert was quiet again. The allosaurus had disappeared, just as it had in the burst of lightning the night before. Still shaking, Shannon made her way to the other side of the formation and scanned the desert to make sure.
[p.251]The monster was nowhere to be seen. What was more it had left no signs behind to indicate its presence at all. No claw prints scarred the clearing. No shattered trees littered the gully.
Astonished, Shannon breathed something that almost sounded like laughter from her lungs. Everything had been an illusion. It was all a trick of the haunt. In the end Trish had been right. The beast that had seemed to shake the earth in its deadly pursuit had been as impalpable as smoke. In spite of Shannon’s terror, the monster had possessed no power to hurt her at all.
She stood blinking numbly at the horizon, trying to grasp the full meaning of what her mind was telling her.
“Shannon! Shannon!” A small voice warbled faraway behind her. Shannon shook herself out of the daze and found enough strength in her legs to climb to the top of a stony mound. Thirty yards away Trish had parked her father’s truck and was standing in the headlights. Doc stood beside her. Shannon called back, waving her arms. They felt very heavy.
“Shannon, look!” Trish cried. She motioned away to the north. “They made it! Do you see them? They made it, they got away! They’re free!”
Despite her exhaustion Shannon felt a rush of jubilation. She looked into the darkness, past the Point’s neck, far out into the open range. Barely visible, like a ripple of moonlight on flowing water, the ghost-herd ran free. Shannon felt tears brim in her eyes. No wonder she had felt so compelled to help them escape. Somehow a part of her seemed to have been freed along with them.
She waved just once after the silver Appaloosa. Then she began her weary trek back to where Trish waited on the road.
Two days later, scant hours after Shannon had returned from her stay with Trish, Ronny Call appeared on her doorstep. When she spied a clock later, Shannon found that their conversation had lasted nearly thirty-five minutes. She was surprised that he had stayed so long without being asked inside.
Ronny had done most of the talking. Shannon had mostly listened, the bulk of her responses confined to a single word.
Ronny’s demeanor had shifted, slowly at first but with increasing speed, from promising and conciliatory to plaintive to desperately [p.252]abusive. Finally, ranting threats and obscenities, he had stomped to his car and squealed away.
Shannon had closed the door, walked up to the bedroom, lain on her aunt’s comforter, and cried. Her pain was dark and bitter. It was a pain so vast, she feared, that in venting itself it might tear its way out and leave a wound too enormous to heal. She found instead that as the tears began to thin, they left an aftertaste of unexpected sweetness and relief.
After a while Shannon opened her eyes. Her world was still intact. Aunt Helen’s florid walls stood quietly around her, painted in autumn sunlight. Shannon lay stiIl in a broad amber shaft, feeling the warmth on her arm and her face. She watched the shadows of the curtains play on the closet doors and thought about ghosts. From there her thoughts drifted back and forth, and finally a wave of euphoric happiness washed over her. She realized that for the first time in years, she had been thinking about where she would go and what she would do instead of where Ronny’s life would take her.
Shannon allowed her mind to wander until it began straying too far into the future, then called it back. She had no idea what the upcoming days and weeks would bring. She had already resolved to not concern herself with those until they arrived. She had made that decision yesterday morning, when she had called the State Bar Association for a legal referral.
After a while she looked at the clock. School would let out in an hour, and her tutoring appointments would begin. If she left now she would have just enough time to go downtown and back. There was a sidewalk sale at the shop on Second South and Main. She had noticed it the previous afternoon on her way out of the attorney’s office. She had enough to buy a new blouse. If she was going to dinner with the Talbots tonight to celebrate Porter’s contract with the university, she would want to look nice for the occasion.