"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding watercolor, metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Three legs

The first gust of wind peppered the wall of the tent with sand as Greg Caldwell struggled to get the last pole in place.
Bouncing over a gravel road for 25 miles, he’d raced the blue-gray storm to Chaco Canyon, wondering if he’d make it.
“Taking about running away,” he thought. “I can’t get away from being in a hurry, even here.” Twenty minutes ago, he’d jolted to a stop in the almost-deserted campground, flung open the tail gate and rushed to unpack his gear.
Now the curtain of rain obscured Fajada Butte a quarter mile away, and the storm growled as it moved across the draw toward Greg. He secured the last tent stake as another gust of wind sent a tumbleweed flying past his head.
“No time for coffee or soup tonight,” he muttered to himself. He knew it would be dark by the time the storm passed.
The wind was constant now, carrying a few hard drops of rain. He tossed in his sleeping bag, a flashlight, his canteen and crackers. Then he turned to lock the car before ducking in the tent.
That’s when he noticed the cat, cowering under a nearby picnic table. It watched him warily, and Greg saw an old flea collar on it. The tabby’s fur was dirty and matted. Ribs showed through the fur.
“Hi, cat,” Greg said. “What happened to you? Someone dump you, or run off and forget you? “
The cat’s ears perked up as Greg spoke, its eyes watching him. It opened its mouth to meow, but a gust of wind obscured the sound.
“Well, you’re welcome in my tent, but I’ll bet you’re too wild to take the invitation. Gotta be careful if you’re gonna survive coyotes and people, don’t you? Hungry? Tell you what, cat. I know all about being alone, dumped  and hungry. If you won’t come in, just hang around, and I’ll find some food for you. I need someone to talk to, and --”
The wind-driven rain hit hard, almost pushing Greg to the ground. He ran to the tent, but by the time he got inside and zipped it shut, he was soaked and shivering. Early spring rain at Chaco was barely above freezing in an air already cold from the snow-capped San Juan Mountains 90 miles north.  
Wishing he’d had time for a fire and coffee, he took off the wet clothes, unrolled the sleeping back and crawled in as he listened to the deluge of rain on the wind-battered canvas. He watched for leaks but didn’t’ see any. Then he closed his eyes, thinking about the 20 hours he’d been on the road, fleeing to this refuge in the high desert because of its ghosts and spirits.
Tomorrow he’d go to the hidden kiva he’d found last time...and then he slept.
When he awoke, it was dark and quiet, but he could hear something dripping outside. He’d quit wearing a watch, but it seemed like early morning. After fumbling around to find the flashlight, he put on his shoes and still damp coat before unzipping the flap. As he crawled outside, cold air slapped him, but he looked up and gasped at the stars
“It’s been too long, when you forget what the desert does to the stars.” In the east there was a twinge of gray, so dawn was coming. He walked over to the dark form of  bush to urinate. Something jumped as the stream hit the ground, and he jumped too. He flicked on the flashlight and aimed it at the scurrying sound.
“Dammit, cat,” he started laughing. “Who’s scared the most?” That’s when he noticed the cat didn’t seem to run normally. It had moved about 20 feet away, back under the picnic table. Then Greg saw why...it only had three legs...part of one hind leg was gone.
“Man, you are a survivor, aren’t you? Beating coyotes and hunger too. Where do you find water out here?" This time he heard the cat’s plaintive meow. “Yeah, I guess I’m a cripple too,” he said, thinking about the mess he was running from in Oklahoma.
He walked over to the car, fumbled for his keys and opened the tail gate. In the food box, he saw a can of tuna fish. After he opened it, he walked slowly toward the table--there was enough light now to see the cat watching him, tensed, ready to run.
“OK, fellow, take it easy. How ‘bout some breakfast?” The cat backed away, so Greg stopped, put the can down on the ground and tossed a morsel toward the cat, which flinched but didn’t run. His ears were forward and Greg could see him sniffing the air.
“All right, fellow. Come and get it when you want,” he said, backing off. “Me, I’ve gotta have some coffee." He pulled the camp stove and ice box out of the car and turned toward the table. The cat already had its nose buried in the can.
“Cripple,” he thought. "Like me."

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