Tuesday, November 11, 2008

MONKEY’S PAW

Full moon. Dark sky with light wispy clouds over the moon’s face of craters. Tinguely Querer was driving in the middle of the high plains. She heard yaps of coyotes and yowls of something feline. A dark, feral shadow lurked along the edge of the blacktop county road, with gravel shoulder. Was it a chupacabra? Tinguely shivered. Would the chupacabra smell her clammy, perfumed sweat, chase her down, feed on her blood, and to swallow her soul?

The cattle guard rattled as she drove over it to enter a dark, shambling ranch. She hoped it was the Freestoner Ranch. She had been looking for it and wanted to approach Mr. Freestoner to sign him up for an oil and gas lease.

podcast: http://www.beyondutopia.net/podcasts/monkeyspaw.mp3

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“Monkey’s Paw or Death Ruby?” asked the man wearing a faded red bandanna, narrow boot-cut Wrangler jeans, a jean jacket, and rodeo belt buckle. He looked like the kind of cowboy you’d never see in a cowboy movie. He was too weather-beaten. His eyes were vaguely feral. His nose was all the way wild, totally coyote.

“If given the choice, and you HAD to make a choice, which would you go with?” he asked. “Monkey’s Paw or Death Ruby?”

“What are they anyway?” asked Tinguely. She had driven 7 hours, non-stop from central Oklahoma, and was in no mood for cryptic, Yoda-like pronouncements from a retro cowboy washed up on the beach-sands of time.

“And, imagine you can’t say no. You can’t refuse to choose.”

“Mr. Freestoner, I have the documents ready for you to execute. You’ll be glad you did this.” She wanted to get it over with. Drive to Amarillo. Get a room at a comfortable discount version of upscale hotels. The idea of lying on a soft mattress at a Hyatt Place or a Marriott Courtyard seemed more important than anything else at this point.

“Ma’am, Mr. Freestoner’s been dead for 10 years.”

“What?” Tinguely was not amused. “How did I miss that? I checked the records myself. I never make mistakes like this.”

“I’d say this was a pretty big one,” said the cowboy unsympathetically. “So. Ma’am. What would you do? Which would you choose?”

“Sir. I think I’d choose the one that would get me away from this place as quickly as possible.” He looked crestfallen. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be rude. I’m just really tired. And, this means I’m going to have to go back and recheck records, reissue leases and drafts.”

“The Monkey’s Paw grants you three wishes, but each one comes with horrific price. You’ll pay. Yes, missy, you’ll pay. But, the Death Ruby’s no bargain. The Death Ruby will make you fabulously wealthy. But, all who touch it, except for the owner, die.”

“That’s easy,” said Tinguely, still annoyed. “I’d go with the Death Ruby. Good secret weapon. I’d be rich. Good way to get rid of the competition. ”

“For having such a sweet face, you sure have some mean thoughts,” said the cowboy.

“You haven’t heard the half of them,” said Tinguely. “Got any coffee around here? It was a long drive, and, to tell the truth, I’m in a bad mood.”

“You don’t say,” said the cowboy. “See you at the bunkhouse.”

“By the way, I’m not sure I quite buy it that the owner of a Death Ruby stays healthy. I would think that everyone would eventually be killed by the thing. Some people more quickly than others.”

“Think what you want,” said the cowboy. “I wouldn’t want to tangle with you, though.”

******************************************

"Sign up Freestoner. Then, keep going. See if you can get information. We've got a chance to lease Morrell's granddaughter's interest. I'd like to find the location, drill a new well, and test the formations. It will be good for all of us if it works out," said Dad.

"What makes you so sure?" asked Tinguely. Why not leave well enough alone? Something was wrong with the story she had been told. Something was behind the scenes, between the lines.

Tinguely pulled up to the rock and mortar ranchhouse. The clock on her dashboard said 4:40 pm. She took her keys out of the ignition of the Blazer she was driving. The keys felt cold and metallic in her hand.

She walked under a stunted sycamore tree. The ranch house and office were on the edge of a wash, or, as the locals called it, an arroyo. That meant there were a few trees.

Acquiescing to the cowboy’s insistence that she take a look around the ranch, Tinguely attempted to mind her manners. It was not easy.

Cattle shuffled slowly, mesmerized by the wind turbines spinning round and round, silently, slowly, both positive and negative, in direct response to the currents of cold air flowing down from the north in North America's most prominent wind corridor.

“If you’ll pour me a cup of coffee, I’ll work on it while you show me around,” said Tiinguely. She fully expected coffee the consistency of tar and the pH of battery acid. She was pleasantly surprised that it was fresh, tasted like espresso shots with hot water – café Americano.

She was in the middle of a ghost ranch. No one had the courage to admit what it was, but Tinguely Querer knew immediately.

At first, she wondered if the cowboy she was talking to was a phantom. She realized, after he drank boiled “cowboy coffee” with the grounds at the bottom of the mug, unrolled a yellowed newspaper from 1955, then started talking about how people had started buying up all the water rights to the Ogallala Aquifer, that there was really no way of knowing. His language hinted at transporting people from Mexico. He could be an apparition from the past. He could be from right here, right now. He could be a strange living outlier rafted in on a glacier of time. He could be the bones of a memory to be held by someone sometime in the future. Who could know?

“Have to admit, it’s nice to have company for a change,” said the cowboy. “Oh and by the way, my name’s Chance.”

“I’ll bet people called you “Lucky” when you were a kid,” said Tinguely. She realized she needed to sound folksy. Sometimes being down to earth came easily to her. Sometimes, though, it didn’t. At ths times, she seemed stand-offish or detached – something like a process server, paid for putting her emotions in a bucket by the door.

“Nope. I never was,” he said. “That was the cat. Now he was lucky.”

Tinguely smiled. If she could, she’d put her emotions, not in a box or a bucket, but in an air-sick bag. There was something warm about the breeze, although the air was chilly.


*************************************

“Dad, if you’re going to buy anyone’s mineral rights, or buy the surface so you can lease it out to wind turbine companies, you’re going to have to chum the waters.”

“Throw bloody, cut-up fish into the waters? Draw the sharks?” asked Dad, incredulously. “Why would we want to attract the sharks?”

“Because after they’ve fed, they’ll lead us to the live fish,” said Tinguely.

“Why would we want live fish?”

“Dad,” said Tinguely, suddenly exasperated. “I’m speaking metaphorically.”

“I wouldn’t if I were you.”

“What? Speak metaphorically?”

“Right. Don’t underestimate the ranchers and their families. You’re not giving them any credit for intelligence. More than one city slicker has found this out, much to their dismay. You’re about as city slicker as they come, Tinguely.”

“Dad I don’t know who or what it is that you see when you look at me and talk to me, but I’m telling you, it’s not at all the way I perceive myself. Give me some credit, Dad.”

“Do the people who chum the waters ever get bitten by the sharks they’re trying to trick?”

“No. Never,” said Tinguely, straightfaced. “When you baited a trap, did you ever catch anything you didn’t want?”

“Absolutely.” Dad paused. “I learned a lot from that.”

“Gotta go. The cowboy said he has some apple cobbler for dessert.”

“Thought you were going to spend the night in Amarillo.”

“The air is fresh and clear. Amazing.”

Clicked “end call” on her BlackBerry.

*******************************************************

Cattle silhouetted against the setting sun. The clouds were spectacular. An antique windmill used to bring water from the aquifer to the surface rattled and creaked in the wind.

Cattle moved together. They seemed to move toward the water. Then they moved en masse in another direction. They seemed to be moving away from the rays of orange-pink light shooting across the horizon.

Tinguely watched them, fell into a reverie. Then blinked. The cattle. Were they moving? Were they retreating? Tinguely could swear they were shuffling slowly, softly – backwards.

Blink.

A look down at the coffee cup. A quick rundown of what she had eaten. Mushrooms? No. Brownies? No. “Herbal” tea? No.


**************************************

There was something about the earth-colored farmhouse and the bright white wind turbines set along the fence line in the direction of prevailing breezes that gave Tinguely pause. A face flickered at one of the windows. Wisps of clouds cast spectres (or shadows) on the smooth prairie cover. Cattle grunted to each other. When the grass waved in the breeze, the clouds seemed to edge backwards, against the direction of the wind.

Tinguely braced herself. There was something here. It was making her uneasy.

The property was located in the shadow of the old XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle north and west of Amarillo. From 1885 to 1912, the ranch encompassed more than 3 million acres. There were around 300 windmills. 150,000 head of cattle grazed on the XIT Ranch lands. They were tended to by hundred of cowboys.

Ordinarily, Tinguely would not be anywhere near this part of the Panhandle, but supposedly a deep well had been drilled here during one of the booms, and the drill cuttings streamed oil, with strong odor of gas. The operator, Karlton Morrell, who had also owned a large part of the former XIT Ranch, had run out of money. The well cost a lot more than he had bargained for. But, it would pay off. He just needed to raise money. So, while he set out to raise money to continue drilling and to complete the well, Morrell had done his best to suppress the information. He had hoped to sell his remaining interest in the ranch and to then do the completion.

The poor guy never had the chance. His shiny black Ford pickup was found in a ravine. He was nowhere to be seen. In fact, he was never anywhere to be seen from that day on. He disappeared. Dead, most likely, said Dad. "Quite a shame. Morrell was a good guy. I always liked him."

The sky was the blue of childhood storybooks. The prairie switchgrass was the straw-gold of memory. The roof was the slate gray of long-forgotten dreams.

**************************************

“Say, Chance, what is it like living in a ranch house that was abandoned a hundred years ago?” asked Tinguely. It was dark. It would be a dangerous drive back to Amarillo, due to mule deer and coyotes. Road hazards.

“Nothing I’d recommend for someone like you,” he said.

“I can handle myself. I’ve done a lot of fieldwork. Had to. Geology degree,” said Tinguely. There was something about this wizened old cowboy that got under her skin.

“That’s why I would not recommend it. If you’ve ever done anything you wish you hadn’t in your life, you’re not going to have an easy time of it around here, once the moon’s up and the wind carries the voices.”

“What voices?”

“Coyote.”

“That’s nothing.”

“And the whispers. The whispers that come up from inside of you and swirl around your inner ear.”

“Okay, that’s enough for me for tonight.” Tinguely stood up. “Thanks, Chance. I’m heading back to Amarillo.”

“Yup. You are,” he said.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It’s where you started out, after all. You don’t have much choice in the matter, as far as I can tell.”

“Well, maybe. You’re right. It’s where I had my first job.” She noticed he had a smooth wooden box in his hand. He stood up and made a motion to give her the box.

“Well, Miss Tinguely, please take this with you. It’s a present from the ranch.”

“Wow. It’s beautiful. An antique cigar box?” The gift was so unexpected that Tinguely was taken by surprise. She was touched. The soft sentiment was quickly replaced by suspicion.

“What’s inside? A Monkey’s Paw? A Death Ruby?”

“Heck hek hek.” Chance’s cackle was not exactly a laugh. “Just a souvenir cigar box from old XIT Ranch. Thought you might like it.”

Tinguely accepted it and opened the lid gingerly, half-expected a bat to fly out. The box was empty. Inside, the wood was burned with the XIT brand.

“Thanks, Chance. You’re a nice guy. This was very generous of you.”

“Heck hek hek,” he laughed again. “Here’s a thermos of that coffee you liked so much. Watch out for the mule deer.”

She got back to the vehicle. The time: 11:45 am. Tingely checked her watch. Time: 10:45 pm. In the space of her vehicle, time had run backward. She looked at the second counter. Time was, indeed, going in reverse.

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