I wish I still had the map my uncle made for me. Even done in his shaky hand as he approached death his work was beautiful. Or at least to my eyes. Maybe no one else would agree. But I saw something more than just roads and arroyos and hills in the contours of those lines scrawled in red ink across the white hospital stationary. Something vivid and startling. Life was impressed into them. Like petroglyphs on the rock of a canyon wall.

This story is excerpted from Al Sim’s The Good Dead (Underground Voices, 2017) and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Good Dead: A Novel, by Al Sim

In a remote backcountry near the Mexican border, Andreas Delmorales, young and disadvantaged, uncovers a terrible crime. Instead of the prompt justice he anticipates, bringing this tragedy to the attention of the law leads to Andreas becoming a pawn in the political schemes of a corrupt and ambitious lawman. The Good Dead follows Andreas into prison and out again, in pursuit of the man who committed the crime he was convicted of, then after the lawman who framed him. When events overwhelm his careful preparations for revenge, he must escape powerful forces operating on both sides of the law. Fleeing with him are Esperanza Armijo, the niece of the man who framed Andreas, and Matthew Walker, a refugee from the collapse of the American middle class. Three lives driven by loss onto paths that converge in the borderlands. When fate throws them together what they have already lost becomes irrelevant. What they could lose next is all that matter.

Learn more now.

But that map is long gone. And so is the day when I held it in my hand as I bumped across the dirt roads in the backcountry. I have a strong memory of being bent over that map after stopping where a road split off from the one I was on. I had lost my place in my uncle’s depiction of the terrain and wanted to reorient myself before I continued on.

That was when I heard a motor approaching from over a rise up ahead. I had been following a fresh set of tire tracks. So I already knew someone else was out there. Whoever went before me would have to come out again and in the backcountry there are never many ways you can go. The way out is often to retrace your way in. So I half-expected to encounter whoever made those fresh tracks.

But when I heard that other vehicle I became wary. And I couldn’t say why. This was back in the days before it was easy to get yourself killed out along the border by stumbling into the wrong people. Back then you just kept to yourself and kept moving and no one felt the need to eliminate all witnesses.

My apprehension grew stronger when a truck appeared traveling fast. But high speed driving is common on those back roads. Men delight in doing stupid things like bouncing over dirt ruts battering their trucks into pieces. So the speed didn’t trouble me.

What did was the man at the wheel. A big young Anglo sitting tall behind the glass in a 1950s-vintage turquoise-colored Ford pickup. Wide bony face. Big hands. Pale brown hair parted low on his left. Large pale blue eyes. Pink skin a little sunburnt. His pale blue eyes flickered over at me and back to the road again. Like a big lizard.

And then he was gone. All that was left of him was the sound of his truck banging away behind me down the only road in and out. I listened to him go and tried to decide what it was that I knew about that Anglo. Something in his being so clean-scrubbed and upright. And so very bone-chillingly White.

Then it came to me. As I watched his dust cloud blow away across those empty scrublands. Even just that glance as he raced past was enough to tell. That dude was full-bore Mormon. Completely stamped out in the mold of Brigham Young. He could not have looked more LDS if he wore his magical underwear on his head.

 

I had no trouble finding the canyon. My father’s grave was another matter.

My uncle’s map showed a path along the streambed. But the bottom of the canyon was choked with debris. The only path was 20 or 30 feet up the side of the canyon were it wound over and around and among the many boulders and outcroppings. Narrow and rough and slow. Probably cut by javelina and deer pushing in there to forage. Maybe widened a little by the occasional hunter following after them.

Why everything was so different from what my uncle’s map depicted became apparent when I stood up on the rim and saw the track of a boulder that had tumbled a hundred yards down the streambed crushing small trees and gouging up the earth. A flood had torn through there.

Everything was different now.

The sole cottonwood of any size, my uncle’s primary landmark, had become part of the debris that filled the streambed. The old giant must have withered and died before the roaring waters knocked it over. I could see a huge gray trunk down among the boulders and shattered branches jammed where the flood had pushed them.

From the fallen cottonwood I determined the general vicinity of where my father’s grave should be. But there was no pile of rocks to mark his remains. A high bank of yellowish earth and rounded stones that my uncle noted on his map as standing above the grave was nowhere to be seen. When the flood came it took all that away.

When I saw that bank was gone I gave up on finding the grave. After a few minutes of looking around at the place where I believed my father had once been interred I began picking my way down the streambed. Eventually I expected to find this route too challenging and climb back up to that narrow path along the canyon wall. But for now I wanted something different.

When I reached the downed cottonwood I took my time among the logs and boulders. And pictured that old giant standing upright spreading its branches and leaves over my father and uncle. Wondering what those two brothers talked about to distract themselves while they sat in the big tree’s welcome shade. How scared they must have been. Hiding from the law out here in the middle of nowhere.

It was among those logs and boulders where the old cottonwood had broken apart that I found the bones. A long one that I guessed must be a leg bone. Along with four ribs and three vertebrae. When I realized what I was looking at I began searching for a skull. If I had found a human skull then I would have assumed those were my father’s bones laying tossed around among the boulders. Looking very much to the glancing eye like broken tree limbs.

But if a skull was there it eluded me.

 

A woman said my father and his brother beat her and raped her and stole all her money. It did not matter that she had no witnesses. And only a few minor injuries that could have been self-inflicted. Or that she could not say for certain how much money she had lost and her purse was still stuffed with cash. Or that my father and my uncle had been working with five other men when she said they attacked her and defiled her.

Of course none of that mattered. How could it when she was rich and white and they were poor and brown? The money owned the law so the law did what the money ordered. Following a hurried assessment of their options my father and my uncle decided to disappear while they hoped and prayed this woman’s lies would fall apart. Back at that time in Doña Pero just to be caught could be fatal. Bad things often happened to a man between his capture and his trial. If justice was ever served she was often served too late.

But out in that canyon where they went to hide a bad thing found them anyway. A rattlesnake bit my father while he was sleeping. Although it wasn’t the snake bite that killed him. It was because my father got spooked. And because of that he gave up. He stopped eating and drinking and in two days he was dead. My uncle spent a few hours staring at his brother’s dead body in disbelief. Then he buried the corpse as best he could with his bare hands. Mostly he just piled on rocks so the coyotes would have to work to dig him up. Then he went into town and to the sheriff’s office and turned himself in.

But while he was out hiding with my father the crazy rich Anglo woman had decided it was three Indians who attacked her. So the police didn’t want my uncle anymore. He told them what had happened to my father and they said in a few days, when they weren’t busy chasing phantasmagorical Indians, they would call him and he could show them were my father was buried. At which time they would deal with the body. If the coyotes hadn’t dealt with it first. In which case they would deal with whatever was left.

 

At first I thought the footprints were mine. That I had already crossed this portion of the canyon during my failed search for my father’s grave. But then I saw they were too big. And that the soles of the shoes didn’t match the ones I was wearing.

Whoever made them crossed the streambed and came back again. They led down from the path that skirted along the wall of the canyon up above the tumult left below by the havoc-wreaking flood. Then they returned back up to the path and presumably out of the canyon.

While I examined them I kept remembering my brief encounter with the tall young Anglo who drove that old turquoise Ford. It played in my mind like a film loop. He had to be the one who made these footprints. Given that I had only seen one fresh set of tire tracks out on the road.

So what the hell was he doing here? It seemed he had a destination. He went somewhere and then he came back. And drove away like a demon was chasing him. Now all that speed seemed suspicious.

My scrutiny of the Anglo’s actions was short-lived. Not because I had so little to scrutinize. I could have obsessively pushed those scant facts around in my head for several hours. Instead what wiped away my thoughts of the Mormon was a powerful feeling that my life was about to be transformed. Into something entirely unanticipated. And wholly unwanted. For an instant I saw with paralyzing clarity how my life was about to unfold. That I would not, as I had begun the day believing, soon arrive in California. Or pursue the half-naked women I had hoped to find there. I saw that all I had hoped my future would hold was about to vanish. Like a mirage. As I entered a desperate world full of hard men and harder living.

And what did I do when this feeling came to me? And in the moments after when it was gone but the memory of it remained fresh? Did I beat it out of there as fast as my young feet would carry me? As sound reason and just caution would dictate?

Oh no. Of course not. How much of a story would I have to tell then?

What I did was follow those footprints back among the shadows thrown by the looming boulders. Like a puppet worked by God with no will of my own. All control over my actions ceded to the call of a higher power. Perhaps it was my own will to follow that path. And the power of my will was so great at that moment that it seemed to come from beyond me. As if I was both the puppet and the master. But that was not how it felt. My experience was that I had no choice whether I would walk the path that opened before me. The path had opened and taken control.

All of the will and power seemed to reside in the path itself.

 

My uncle was a patient man. But he waited impatiently to hear from the sheriff’s office. The days came and went and they never called. So finally my uncle called them. And spoke to someone who was useless. Then he went over there and talked to someone else who maybe could do something.

But still nothing happened.

So when a few months had passed with no action from the law my uncle decided to retrieve my father’s remains on his own. He wanted my father reburied at our local church, in consecrated ground. But when he mentioned his plan to the parish priest the reverend father would not have it. He said the law must be involved. So my uncle returned again to the sheriff’s office. And again they did nothing.

After more than a year of sporadically confronting the inaction and apathy of the law my uncle saw there was no sense in persisting. He had a wife and three kids of his own and with my father’s death now me and my mother and my little sister all to care for. He could not spare the time it took to beg indifferent officials to act when it was abundantly clear they would not. So reluctantly, with a heavy heart, he stopped trying.

It was almost another year before he returned to my father’s grave. He went without the law or anyone else to accompany him. My sister and I were too little and my mother refused. She was terribly disturbed by the thought of her dead husband’s grave all by itself out in the middle of some lost canyon in the lonely desert. She had nightmares about it. Every month or so she would wake up in the middle of the night screaming his name and crying out about the Devil.

So off my uncle went all by himself. He found the canyon and my father’s grave with no difficulty. He was relieved to see that the coyotes hadn’t dug his brother up. And this time, without the law chasing after him, he found the little canyon pretty and peaceful. My uncle told us later that it wasn’t until he stood there beside that rude grave in the quiet of that isolated and desolate place that he finally surrendered ever bringing his brother home. Once he was back there it seemed that was where his brother belonged. And that to disturb his resting place would be the real sin. So my uncle piled on some more stones and put some wildflowers on top and made a cross with two branches he tied together with his bandana.

When I was about ten we saw a grave like that on TV. In an old black-and-white western.

My uncle began to cry.

 

Finding that kid scared the hell out of me. I screamed and jumped back.

Which did nothing to disturb him. The boy remained exactly as he was. Sitting with his back against the flat side of a boulder. For a second I wondered if he was dead. Then saw that he was breathing. While I stood there watching him breathe sweat coated my skin. Even that hot dry desert air could not suck up all the perspiration pouring off of me.

“You scared me,” I said.

No response.

“What are you doing back here?”

Nothing. I took a moment or two to do some breathing of my own.

“Are you all right?”

He blinked. But that was all I got.

Now the wicking sweat left me chilled. I shivered for a few seconds before it passed. And welcomed the return of the baking heat. To shiver in the heat of the desert is an unnatural and disturbing experience. It makes death seem much too close.

When the chill left me my head cleared. And I saw the boy more clearly too. Details of his appearance that had escaped my notice. That he was Anglo or maybe part Anglo and part Spanish. Blond hair but with color to his skin. No more than ten years old. Wide set brown eyes that stared ahead and seemed to see nothing. I looked where they were pointed and there was just another boulder. Not unlike the one he was leaning against. And nothing remarkable on it or about it.

I offered him some water. A moment later I offered again. The second time he frowned. I held the water in front of his face. He frowned at the water. Then looked up at me. At first his eyes did not seem to register my presence. Then I saw when he pulled me into focus.

He reached out and took the water. He looked at it before he drank. Then he sighed and drank some more.

That was fine for now. For now that was great. No rush.

Then he looked up at me.

“Will you make him stop?” the boy said.

 

  

Al SimThirty-one of Al Sim’s short stories have been accepted for publication by journals including Terrain.org, The Greensboro Review, The Literary Review, Fourteen Hills, and Blackbird. The editors at Glimmer Train published “Soledad” and “Get the Can”; gave the latter their Very Short Fiction Award; made him a finalist in three of their competitions; and gave him honorable mention in a fourth. Al Sim has been nominated for a Pushcart by the editors at Press 53. They also published his collection Stories in the Old Style. And he has been a finalist for a Fiction Fellowship from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, and was a finalist for the SFWP Literary Awards from the Santa Fe Writers Project. A collection of stories called The Desert at Night was a finalist for the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. The Good Dead is his first published novel.

Read Al Sim’s story “The Holiday Dress,” appearing in Issue 19 of Terrain.org.

Header photo of saguaro and Tucson valley by samuriah, courtesy Pixabay.

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