The Page of Wands
The Nevada sun bit into Jim Negrey like a rattlesnake. It was noon. He shuffled forward, fighting gravity and exhaustion, his will keeping him upright and moving. His mouth was full of the rusty taste of old fear; his stomach had given up complaining about the absence of food days ago. His hands wrapped around the leather reins, using them to lead Promise ever forward. They were a lifeline, helping him to keep standing, keep walking.
Promise was in bad shape. A hard tumble down one of the dunes in the 40-Mile Desert was forcing her to keep weight off her left hind leg. She was staggering along as best she could, just like Jim. He hadn’t ridden her since the fall yesterday, but he knew that if he didn’t try to get up on her and get moving, they were both as good as buzzard food soon. At their present pace, they still had a good three or four days of traveling through this wasteland before they would reach Virginia City and the mythical job with the railroad.
Right now, he didn’t care that he had no money in his pockets. He didn’t care that he only had a few tepid swallows of water left in his canteen or that if he managed to make it to Virginia City he might be recognized from a wanted poster and sent back to Albright for a proper hanging. Right now, all he was worried about was saving his horse, the brown mustang that had been his companion since he was a child.
Promise snorted dust out of her dark nostrils. She shook her head and slowed.
“Come on, girl,” he croaked through a throat that felt like it was filled with broken shale. “Just a little ways longer. Come on.”
The mare reluctantly heeded Jim’s insistent tugging on the reins and lurched forward again. Jim rubbed her neck.
“Good girl, Promise. Good girl.”
The horse’s eyes were wide with crazy fear, but she listened to Jim’s voice and trusted in it.
“I’ll get us out of here, girl. I swear I will.” But he knew that was a lie. He was as frightened as Promise. He was fifteen years old and he was going to die out here, thousands of miles from his home and family.
They continued on, heading west, always west. Jim knew far ahead of them lay the Carson River, but it might as well be on the moon. They were following the ruts of old wagon train paths, years old. If they had more water and some shelter, they might make it, but they didn’t. The brackish salt ponds they passed spoke to the infernal nature of this place. For days now, they had stumbled over the bleached bones of horses, and worse. Other lost souls, consigned to the waste of the 40-Mile.
During the seemingly endless walk, Jim had found artifacts, partially eaten by the sand and clay—the cracked porcelain face of a little girl’s doll. It made him think of Lottie. She’d be seven now. A broken pocket watch held a sun-faded photograph of a stern-looking man dressed in a Union uniform. It reminded him of Pa. Jim wondered if some unfortunate wandering this path in the future would find a token of his and Promise’s passing, the only record of his exodus through this godforsaken land, the only proof that he had ever existed at all.
He fished the eye out of his trouser pocket and examined it in the unforgiving sunlight. It was a perfect orb of milky glass. Inlaid in the orb was a dark circle and, within it, a perfect ring of frosted jade. At the center of the jade ring was an oval of night. When the light struck the jade at just the right angle, tiny unreadable characters could be seen engraved in the stone. It was his father’s eye, and it was the reason for the beginning and the end of his journey. He put it back in a handkerchief and stuffed it in his pocket, filled with an angry desire to deny it to the desert. He pressed onward and Promise reluctantly followed.
He had long ago lost track of concepts like time. Days were starting to bleed into one another as the buzzing in his head, like angry hornets, grew stronger and more insistent with each passing step. But he knew the sun was more before him now than behind him. He stopped again. When had he stopped to look at the eye? Minutes ago, years? The wagon trails, fossilized and twisting through the baked landscape, had brought him to a crossroads in the wasteland. Two rutted paths crossed near a pile of skulls. Most of the skulls belonged to cattle and coyotes, but the number that belonged to animals of the two-legged variety unnerved Jim. Atop the pile was a piece of slate, a child’s broken and discarded chalkboard, faded by sand, salt and sun. On it, in red paint, written in a crude, looping scrawl were the words: Golgotha: 18 mi. Redemption: 32 mi. Salvation: 50 mi.
During Jim’s few furtive days in Panacea, after crossing over from Utah, he had been surprised by the number of Mormons in Nevada and how much influence they had already accumulated in this young state. There were numerous small towns and outposts dotting the landscape with the most peculiar religious names, marking the Mormon emigration west. He had never heard of any of these towns, but if there were people there would be fresh water and shelter from the sun.
“See, Promise, only eighteen more miles to go and we’re home free, girl.” He pulled the reins, and they were off again. He didn’t much care for staying in a place named Golgotha, but he was more than willing to visit a spell.
The trail continued, the distance measured by the increasing ache in Jim’s dried-out muscles, the growing hum in his head that was obscuring thought. The sun was retreating behind distant, shadowy hills. The relief from the sun was a fleeting victory. Already a chill was settling over his red, swollen skin as the desert’s temperature began to plunge. Promise shivered too and snorted in discomfort. There was only so much farther she could go without rest. He knew it would be better to travel at night and take advantage of the reprieve from the sun, but he was simply too tired and too cold to go on, and he feared wandering off the wagon trail in the darkness and becoming lost.
He was looking for a place to hole up for the night when Promise suddenly gave a violent whinny and reared up on her hind legs. Jim, still holding the reins, felt himself jerked violently off the ground. Promise’s injured hind leg gave way and both boy and horse tumbled down a rocky shelf off to the left of the rutted path. There was confusion, and falling and then a sudden, brutal stop. Jim was prone with his back against Promise’s flank. After a few feeble attempts to rise, the horse whimpered and stopped trying.
Jim stood, beating the dust off his clothes. Other than a wicked burn on his wrist where the leather reins had torn away the skin, he was unharmed. The small gully they were in had walls of crumbling clay and was sparsely dotted with sickly sage plants. Jim knelt near Promise’s head and stroked the shaking mare.
“It’s okay, girl. We both need a rest. You just close your eyes, now. I’ve got you. You’re safe with me.”
A coyote howled in the distance, and his brethren picked up the cry. The sky was darkening from indigo to black. Jim fumbled in his saddlebags and removed Pa’s pistol, the one he had used in the war. He checked the cylinder of the .44 Colt and snapped the breech closed, satisfied that it was ready to fire.
“Don’t worry, girl; ain’t nobody gitting you tonight. I promised you I’d get us out of here, and I’m going to keep my word. A man ain’t no good for nothing if he don’t keep his word.”
Jim slid the coarse army blanket and bedroll off the saddle. He draped the blanket over Promise as best he could, and wrapped himself in the thin beddi