Welcome to The Book of Bones, a weekly adventure story. If you’re just joining the story, click here for Chapter 1.
Bones slowed from a jog to a walk as the rocky hills came into view. The orange ball of the late afternoon sun hung low on the western horizon. Colored the same dirty, reddish-brown as the rest of the landscape, the hills cast long shadows across the cactus-dotted landscape. It would have made a nice painting if he was into that sort of thing.
Having nothing better to do, Bones had gone for a run with this dark spot on the horizon as his target. The hills had looked taller from a distance and he had hoped maybe they would offer some decent climbing, but up close they weren’t all that impressive. It was only the flat lie of the surrounding land that lent this place the illusion of height.
When he reached the base of the closest hill, he stopped and took a swig of water. Tepid as it was, it was still refreshing in this dry climate. He probably should have brought more than a liter but he hadn’t planned on running this far. Not for the first time he wondered how the hell he was going to kill time out here in this empty patch of dirt.
He took a moment to walk along the base of the hills, examining them with casual disinterest. Though none of them were more than eighty feet tall, the edges were steep. Wind and perhaps a little bit of rain had scoured their surfaces clean, leaving bare stone with only the occasional clump of weeds stubbornly clinging to it surface like patches of beard missed during a hurried shave.
He soon came upon a heap of tumbled down rock. A quick inspection told him that changes in temperature had caused the rocky hills above to crack and large portions to shear off. Here the face was almost perpendicular in spots.
“Looks like a good place for a free climb.” He took another swallow of water, capped the bottle, and stowed it in the shade under some loose rocks. He would want the rest of it for his trek back to town.
He took a minute to choose his way up. What he was about to do was foolish, he knew. Free climbing was dangerous and to do it without a partner even more so. But, Bones was reckless even at the best of times. Boredom tended to turn it up a notch or three.
When he was finally satisfied that he had selected a route that was sufficiently challenging but unlikely to kill him, he began his ascent. It felt good to work muscles that had gone largely unused since he’d begun his cross-country drive. He wasn’t one for sitting around for very long, and his body seemed to be chastising him for a couple of sedentary days. Twinges of pain danced across his back and shoulders as he made his way upward. Higher and higher he climbed, his fingers and the toes of his shoes picking out every crack and crevice. Spiderlike, he clambered up the first fifty feet before he hit a dead end. That was all right; it only added to the challenge.
He backtracked a few feet, mentally plotted a new route, and moved to his left until he could resume his ascent. He was almost at the top when things got ugly.
At that moment, one toehold and one handhold chose to give way simultaneously. He cursed as he felt himself slipping down the hill. He held on tight with one hand, his fingers digging into the split rock. His shoulder wrenched and hot pain burned along the length of his arm. If he had torn his rotator cuff he was going to be pissed.
“Look on the bright side,” he grumbled. “At least no one’s around to see you dangling here like a…”
The roar of an engine and the crunch of tires on rocky ground made a liar of him. He steadied himself, finding new hand and footholds, and looked back to see who was coming. A battered Jeep drew a dusty line across the parched earth as it approached. Figuring he didn’t have any friends in this neck of the woods, and knowing this was public land, and therefore he couldn’t be trespassing on anyone’s private property, he turned and resumed his climb.
The rumble of the Jeep grew louder, bringing with it the twang of country music. Bones closed his eyes and winced.
“Don’t be a redneck. Please don’t be a redneck.”
Down below, the Jeep scraped to a halt, the music dying as the engine choked into silence. A door slammed shut.
“What are you doing up there?” The voice was male and slightly high-pitched, with a light touch of accent on the o’s that was typical of so many New Mexicans.
“Performance art,” Bones called down without looking. “I accept tips. Just put them under a rock so they don’t blow away.”
“You need to come down from there.” The speaker sounded uncertain.
“It’s cool. I’ve done this before. Now, why don’t you leave me alone before you make me fall?” Bones was about ten feet short of the summit. Here, the rock face angle outward a few degrees, making for a challenging finish.
“I’m a sheriff’s deputy and I’m telling you to come down from there right now.”
Bones finally looked down. The man was a thickset Latino dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a checked shirt. His left hand rested on an automatic pistol holstered on his hip.
“If you really are a deputy, that means you’re not a Fed and this is BLM land.”
The deputy grunted a mirthless laugh. “That will probably hold up in court,” he admitted. “Of course, you might sit in jail for a long time before you come to trial. We’re really slow with paperwork.”
Bones took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m climbing a freaking hill on public land. Why do you care?”
“It’s for your own safety.”
“In that case, it’s probably better if I climb these last few feet to the top instead of coming all the way back down. I’ll chill out up here and you can send a chopper to pick me up.”
The deputy ignored that. “I could just shoot you, but you don’t want that, do you? I’ve already called the sheriff,” he added.
That sealed it. It was all a big pile of crap but Bones didn’t need the hassle. Who the hell knew what small town justice looked like around here? “All right. I’m coming down.”
He took his sweet time, not because he feared falling, but because he wanted to make the deputy, if that’s really what the guy was, wait as long as possible. When he finally reached the ground, he took a moment to brush himself off and wipe his bloody fingertips on the sandy ground before turning around.
At about five-eight, the deputy stood nearly a foot shorter than Bones, and he took an involuntary step backward as the big Cherokee approached him.
“How did you get here?” the deputy asked.
“Aliens dropped me off in their spaceship.”
He flinched at that, probably not accustomed to being spoken to in this way. He squeezed the grip of his pistol and then released it. “You got a car around here or motorcycle or something?”
Bones shook his head.
The deputy waited but he got no more of a response. Bones had plenty of time to kill until his truck was ready, and spending it making this idiot miserable was at least better entertainment than staring at the walls of his motel room. Let the man stew in his own juices for a while. He could do this all day.
“Tell you what,” the deputy finally said. “Leave now and we’ll forget this ever happened. I’ll tell the sheriff you cooperated. Like I said, it’s just about safety.”
Bones looked up at the sky, pretending to consider the deputy’s words. Finally, he nodded once. “Whatever, dude.” He retrieved his water bottle, took a drink, mostly to make the deputy wait a little longer, and headed back toward town.
As he strode past the Jeep, he noticed for the first time someone sitting in the passenger seat. It was Matthew, wannabe author and Mari’s boyfriend. He inclined his head and pointed at Matthew to let him know he’d been spotted.
“Now that,” he said to himself as he turned away, “is interesting.”