Home PageArchivesVolume no. 6Issue 3Fiction: Richard Farrell

 

Sidewinder Valley

by Richard Farrell

 

As Lockhart slipped back into his dusty work boots, the first of two white surveying trucks climbed an old mining road and crossed into the morning shadow of Kellbaker Mountain. Gold-red dust trailed the trucks, swirling from the dun hillside into the bluest sky. Lockhart tracked their movement like a hunter, shielding his eyes from the sun. His contempt for these men—tearing-ass over this fragile land like it had no history or purpose—grew with each new work crew that arrived in town.

For two hours, he’d roamed the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, looking for vireo nests and pulling up survey stakes as he went. Once again, his search for signs of the elusive bird came up empty. Near a dry wash, he checked and re-checked his notebooks and spreadsheets. The vireos should be here. For weeks, he’d rummaged through white bursage and seep willow without success as a hollow sensation spread in his chest. Last spring, he’d spotted a nest in this exact spot—dried yucca stems and fibers woven together into a basket suspended between two branches. Inside lay a clutch of three white eggs, speckled brown and no bigger than a piece of Snug’s Easter candy. But now? Not a single nest, not an egg, hatchling, or chirping bird. Only sand, heat, scrub-brush, and emptiness for as far as the eye could see.

He kept the survey trucks at his back and drove the remaining way up to Cima Flats. Though only April, heat scorched the earth. He scoured a patch of cholla and a small stand of Joshua trees. Again, not a trace of vireos, almost as if the birds could sense the coming changes and wanted nothing to do with them. Maybe they had the right idea.

At the top of the hill, Lockhart pulled two more wooden survey stakes out of the ground, snapped them over his knee, and tossed them into the bed of his truck with the others.

Massive oil-shale deposits had been discovered beneath the basin. Now men with pinstripe suits and horizontal wellbores had set their sights on Sidewinder Valley. Soon survey trucks would give way to back hoes, ancient salt pans, and dry lake beds would transform into strip malls of derricks and pneumatic drill rigs. The Mojave’s prehistoric migration routes would be broken forever by pipelines, while refinery fumes would foul the pristine desert sky. Without further evidence of the endangered birds’ return, Lockhart knew that all the data he’d gathered and organized, the countless hours he’d spent preparing his reports, wouldn’t create so much as a pause in Hopewell’s progress.

Officially, he was working under a state contract to assess the environmental impact of the proposed fracking project. Unofficially, he’d become a crusader, searching for an endangered bird which might derail the operation and protect his ancestral land.

In low gear, he descended back toward the valley floor, scanning for evidence of the vireo and stealing every stake he came across.

Near the old Zodiac Mine, the white trucks had pulled over. Two Hopewell men were assembling a tripod. They settled a large theodolite atop and began to shoot measurements. Soon they’d be setting more markers, which Lockhart would go after tomorrow. Sometimes he hoped to be caught. He’d never been an outlaw. Did a pile of purloined wooden stakes with orange pennants even constitute a crime? Surveyors used satellites and computers now. These stakes only guided them to the next spot, but maybe it slowed them down and he hoped it pissed them off. For now, his tiny but subversive acts of vandalism were worth the risk.

Frustrated, hot, and hungry, Lockhart gave up and headed for home.

§

He pulled up his driveway and Snugs sprinted toward the truck. Snugs was the miniaturized, spitting image of her mother. Both possessed a wayward beauty that Lockhart knew he didn’t deserve. Brown eyes, pouty lips, and faces that contained equal parts hope and disapproval, they were the center of his life, at least until these damn birds squeezed them into a smaller and smaller corner. He opened the door and his pigtailed daughter leaped into his lap.

“Can we fill the pool today?” she asked.

“Soon, Snugs,” he said. “Soon, baby. Where’s your momma?”

His daughter pointed just as the back door opened. Cheryl waved and, for the briefest moment, the sight of his wife allowed Lockhart to forget his troubles. The reset button on his life, Cheryl, on a good day, could make even the most miserable failures seem petty. Lately, though, the good days came fewer and further between. Together for more than a decade, he never wanted another woman. All he wanted was to work, to raise a family, and to be left alone in the solitude of this forsaken land.

He grabbed his daughter and carried her to the porch, kissing the back of her neck. She threw her arms and legs wide.

“Look, mommy,” Snugs said, as Lockhart carried her into the house. “I’m a vireo.”

Cheryl’s face went sour. A hundred times she’d begged him to keep their daughter out of this. Kids repeat things, she’d warn. What the hell could Snugs repeat? Half the reason he wanted to protect this land for was for his daughter. What kind of man lets strangers carve up his home?

Their living room was a disheveled shrine to Lockhart’s obsession. A dozen framed photographs of “Vireo bellii pusillus,” the least Bell’s vireo, adorned the walls. The tiny, gray, warbler-like bird—once down to a few hundred nesting pairs—grew no larger than a closed fist. He both loved and hated the endangered songbird. Alone, the vireos’ presence in Sidewinder Valley could stop Hopewell’s project in its tracks, if only Lockhart could find them. In the photos, the bird puffed out its powdery chest in various poses—in flight, nested, perched on cliffs, cacti, and eucalyptus braches. Bird books, note cards, and quotes from Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, and Geronimo lay scattered on every flat surface. Above his desk, Lockhart had tacked up a huge topo map dotted with colored pins—reds, blues, and yellows, each marking vireo sightings, nests, and vocalizations over the last three years. The preponderance of reds along the northwestern boundary—sightings from his first two years—was a shameful blush, a constant reminder that the birds hadn’t returned this spring, or worse, that Lockhart had failed to find them.

“Your father stumbled home again last night,” Cheryl said. “Sheriff Bender called and asked if Pops has a death wish.”

“Not a single nest this morning,” Lockhart said. He didn’t want to think about the drunkard who sometimes doubled as his father. “Two hours and not a trace.”

“Maybe it’s time to move on,” Cheryl said.

“Something’s wrong,” he said. “They see me out there and I swear they’re laughing at me.”

“The birds?” she asked.

Even Cheryl was losing faith in him.

§

That evening, while Cheryl put Snugs to bed, Lockhart offloaded the day’s pile of survey stakes as the sun dropped behind the mountains. A thin stripe of orange light painted the ridgeline into an arcing coil, which darkened as the hills fell into the valley. “I’ll find them,” he told himself. “I have to.”

“When does this stop?” Cheryl asked, coming out after their daughter had fallen asleep.

“When does what stop?” Lockhart said.

The evening was cooling fast and the first stars appeared. She snatched the beer from his hand. They’d fallen in love their junior year in high school. Cheryl had been a sprinter and could beat even the fastest boys on the football team in a race. He’d been the backup quarterback for two seasons. One Friday night, late in the fourth quarter, the starter, who was now the Lieutenant Governor of Arizona, went down. They were six points behind and Lockhart got the call. He glanced at Cheryl in the stands. No one expected much, but he rolled right, threw a perfect spiral, and hit the tight end on a crossing pattern in the end zone. The crowd erupted. Cheryl ran onto the field, throwing her arms and legs around him.

She was the first and only girl he ever slept with. He used to be ashamed of that fact, but, more and more, he wore it like a badge of honor. So much was cheap and disposable in the world. A man needed things he understood—a wife, a home, a landscape.

Lockhart would drive her out to Kellbaker Mountain and climb into a sleeping bag, listening for rattlers while he unsnapped her bra. The feel of her skin electrified his entire body. His best memories always came back to two things: Cheryl and the high desert.

“We miss you,” she said. “I miss you. My god, it’s like you’ve turned into this madman that spends all his time mumbling about birds. What happened to you?”

“I’m not going to watch these men destroy my home. Our home.”

“A home needs a father,” she said. “A husband.”

“Don’t say that. I won’t let this place be taken apart.”

She shook her head. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy,” he said.

§

The next morning, Cheryl, an ER nurse, worked a day shift. He promised he wouldn’t take Snugs out, but five minutes after Cheryl left, Lockhart was slathering sunscreen on his daughter’s shoulders.

He handed Snugs the binoculars and told her to keep an eye out for trouble. Across a salt pan, flecks of copper and silica glistened, like shattered jewels dusting the mesa. Resinous creosote bush mixed with the smell of stale coffee in his cab as Lockhart circled back toward Lost Horse Creek.

“Vireos like water,” he said, “and that trickle is the closest thing to a river within a hundred miles.”

“If we find a vireo,” Snugs said, “can we fill the pool?”

“If Daddy can find some birds, we can protect this place.”

Fifteen miles to the southwest, all the land was already restricted. He needed to prove the birds were using this valley as a habitat, but he was running out of time. The Bureau of Land Management meeting was next week. Without three years of solid data, they’d never consider his petition to stop Hopewell.

Ornithologists, park rangers, and hardcore birders all had told him he was out of his mind. Migratory birds were notoriously fickle. They could fill a valley one season and not return for a decade. Lockhart had fully-documented two years worth of vireo activity, forty-seven nesting pairs the first year and fifty-two the next. Six weeks ago, he’d started the spring count with the highest hopes. Then, nothing. Not a single nesting pair. Only unconfirmed sightings, a handful of abandoned nests, and a few fragments of egg shells that may well have been rattlesnake leftovers remained. Without the birds, the whole damn valley would belong to Hopewell inside a year.

He patted his daughter’s head while she fumbled with the binoculars.

“Where are the birds, Daddy?”

“I don’t know,” Lockhart said.

Lost Horse Creek turned up empty. They zoomed down a utility road to where the Hopewell crews had erected a huge orange fence around the old Perkins’ Ranch. The orange netting stretched on for miles in three directions, a neon scar across an otherwise untrammeled patch of high desert.

The road was still open, but for how much longer?

A mile ahead, Lockhart slammed the truck to a stop. Binoculars flew from his daughter’s lap. In front of them, a “No Trespassing” sign had been tacked to a pole near a small stone bridge. Lockhart used to look after the Perkins’ dogs, and ride his bike across these very hills.

“You’re great-granddad helped build that bridge,” Lockhart said. “Back when a man’s property still mattered out here.”

Snugs leaned her head against the window and closed her eyes.

Colonel Lockhart had led an infantry regiment across North Africa under Patton. On a Sicilian beachhead, a bullet ripped through his knee, but he kept fighting for two more years, hardly missing a battle. After the war, his grandfather went to medical school. The colonel had delivered, inoculated, and treated most of the people living in Sidewinder Valley, the very same people who now wanted to cash in their mineral rights and move to the city. Like his grandfather, Lockhart loved the high desert, and never wanted it to change.

He hopped from the truck and his daughter followed. The heat was up and a dry breeze whipped down from the eastern ridgeline. A hundred yards away, a dust devil twirled, the ghostly dervish climbing and twisting over the road.

Lockhart told Snugs to stand back. He reached for the “No Trespassing” sign and tugged. Four screws anchored each corner. It wouldn’t budge. He tried shaking the pole loose, but it was posted too deep. Sweat dripped off his forehead.

“What are you doing, Daddy?” Snugs asked.

He went back to the truck for a screwdriver. Unable to reach the top screws, he managed to unseat the bottom two. He handed the hot screws to Snugs, and then yanked again on the sign.

One of the remaining screws popped out, but the fourth held firm. Lopsided, the sign reminded him of his daughter’s teeth. They would wiggle for weeks, clinging to her gums at impossible angles. Lockhart would joke about getting pliers or tying strings to the offending bicuspid, sending Snugs off in shrieking mock terror. He yanked on the sign again to no avail, and then picked up a medium size rock.

Until three years ago, the word fracking meant nothing to Lockhart. Now mineral rights and pipeline checks were all anyone talked about. Until three years ago, he didn’t know the first thing about the least Bell’s vireo. Now he could go toe-to-toe with any birder in the state, but he was fighting a battle no one wanted him to fight. The town council, the ranchers, even people who’d lived in Sidewinder Valley since before Lockhart was born—no one wanted to stop Hopewell.

“Daddy,” Snugs said. “Someone’s coming.”

Wheels crunched gravel, but he didn’t turn. He focused on the sign, pounding the rock against it, until the metal had turned almost a hundred and eighty degrees. A diesel engine chugged. A skid in loose gravel. A slammed door.

“Hey, mister, get the hell away from that sign.”

Lockhart squeezed the rock tighter and took another swing. The metal clanged.

“Did you hear me?” A tall, skinny man approached. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, with a bright red Hopewell logo on the breast pocket of his khaki shirt. The man’s face was flushed, and a finger streak of grease smudged his forehead. Behind him, another man in an identical khaki shirt stepped toward Snugs.

“What are you doing?” the skinny man asked. “Stop hitting that sign.”

Lockhart smiled and lifted the rock above his shoulder.

“Samantha Marie,” Lockhart said calmly, “if that man so much as lays a finger on you, you kick him in the shin as hard as you can.”

He smashed the rock against the metal, the fourth screw popped loose, and the sign fell.

What happened next was less clear. The skinny man either went to retrieve the sign or went to knock the stone from Lockhart’s hand. It was impossible to know what the man’s intent was, but it was threatening enough. At that exact moment, Lockhart glimpsed the other man reaching for Snugs. Instinctually, Lockhart threw his elbow into the skinny man’s face. The impact—at first thrilling, then immediately sickening—shocked through him as bone met bone. The skinny man let out a cry and fell. Blood, possibly a tooth, fell into the sand. Snugs cried out. The second man raced toward his colleague, who’d covered his face with his hands.

Lockhart dropped the stone, picked up the “No Trespassing” sign, and walked toward his daughter.

§

It was noon when they reached his father’s house. Snugs had been crying the whole way, and Lockhart carried his daughter inside, where his old man snored, a hairy back rising and falling. Pop’s threadbare boxers and beer gut hanging off the couch were like a poster for the interrupted evolution of man. Lockhart placed Snugs on the bathroom floor and soaked a washcloth. He draped the wet towel over his daughter’s face, and then went back and slammed the front door, hoping the noise would pry his father awake, but to no avail. He flipped on the TV for his daughter.

Blood ran down his elbow and stained his shirt. Lockhart assumed that the blood belonged to the surveyor, but when he cleaned his arm, he discovered a gash. Pink flesh and whitish tissue floated beneath torn skin. It probably needed stitches. One minute he was smashing the sign and the next belting a stranger in the mouth. How had it happened so fast? He wrapped a towel around his elbow and poured himself a cup of coffee.

Strewn across his father’s kitchen were last night’s casualties—an empty pint of vodka, beer cans, wine bottles, grass, and what appeared to be the residue of cocaine or Ajax in a plastic bowl carelessly tossed in the sink. Once Pops got the all-clear from his oncologist, Lockhart’s father became hell bent on self-destruction before the cancer had a chance to return. Lockhart almost admired the inverted logic. His father might poison himself to death inside of a year, but he’d go out on his own terms.

Through the kitchen window, he watched a pair of crows alight on a wooden fence post. Crows were an invasive species, city birds, ill-equipped for the heat and sparseness of the Mojave, but they’d come and thrived. With iridescent black feathers and incessant appetites, a handful of crows could chase out a whole population of vireo in a season. Maybe they were to blame. Lockhart hated their arrogance. He rapped on the window, but the two death-black birds only stared. His elbow throbbed.

Behind him, his father belched and cracked open a beer.

“You still sulking?” Pops asked.

“You left the back gate open again,” Lockhart said. “If you’re going to get wasted and sleep till noon, you might consider locking up before you start.”

“You sound like your fucking mother,” Pops said. Lockhart’s mother had been dead for five years, but his father spoke of her like she was still in the other room.

“I smacked a guy,” Lockhart said. “A Hopewell surveyor. Out past the old Perkins’ Ranch. I might’ve busted his nose.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Pops said. “Have you lost your mind?”

Lockhart grabbed his father’s beer.

“You inherited the Colonel’s temper, that’s for damn sure,” Pops said. “Just not his politics.” The dishtowel was soaked red with blood. “You need to have that elbow looked at.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing anymore,” Lockhart said.

His father shrugged. Advice never came easy from Pops. It was one of many roles he couldn’t get right.

“You’ve always done your own thing,” he said, words that were as close to a compliment as Pops was willing to go.

§

Snugs fell asleep in the car. She hadn’t said a word all day and Lockhart worried about her, but he also needed the silence, in part to determine what the hell he would say to Cheryl. Cheryl had grown weary of his cause, but until recently, had still agreed with his principles. Busting a guy’s nose, however, was not something she’d tolerate.

It was almost dark when he turned down his street and spotted a green and white sheriff’s car idling by his house. For a moment, Lockhart considered turning around and making a run for it. Instead, he pulled slowly forward.

“Evening, Tom,” Sheriff Bender said from his cruiser. Bill Bender had been a cop for as Lockhart could remember. “I heard you had a dustup at the old Perkins’ place.”

They shook hands through the open window. Bender held his grip with force.

“Here’s the good news,” Bender said. “Despite the fact you sent him to the ER, that fella isn’t going to press charges. But you stay out of their way. No driving past trespassing signs. You can count birdies all you want, but no more harassing those men. They got a job to do, just like I do.”

For a moment, Lockhart was relieved. He’d been contemplating lawyers and jail time for the better part of the day, but his relief passed quickly, first into confusion and then immediately into anger. Something was wrong. He should already be in cuffs.

“Sheriff, those are county roads,” Lockhart said. “Did you post those signs out there? Did you authorize those roads to be closed?”

“Now hold on a damn minute,” Bender said. “You’re catching a break here, mister. That’s a felony we’re talking about. I’ve known your family a long time, but don’t expect me to start choosing sides. The only side I choose is the law.”

Lockhart knew he was lying.

“I’m asking you again,” he said. “Did you post those signs?”

Bender slipped on his hat and opened his door. Hopewell had no business posting signs, closing roads, erecting fences. They probably had no right to even be out there surveying the land yet. Otherwise, he’d be sitting in the town jail worrying about bail money. Bender stepped from his cruiser, but Lockhart held his ground. He told Snugs to get inside. More than anything, he wanted to head back up into the flats. He knew what he was looking for now, and it was no longer just a goddamned bird.

Bender told him to step away from his truck.

“Am I under arrest?” he asked. “Are you pressing charges? If not, Bill, this conversation is over.”

The expression on Bender’s face turned from charm to ire to outright hostility. For a second, Lockhart thought he might get shot, but his sense of purpose had never been clearer. He was half-tempted to order the sheriff off his property, but before he could speak, Cheryl’s car turned up their driveway.

§

By morning, Cheryl had packed bags for her and Snugs. Overnight, someone had slashed Lockhart’s tires and thrown a brick through their front window. You didn’t need a detective to realize Bender had provided those Hopewell men with Lockhart’s address. The whole thing was spiraling away from him. He vacuumed up shards of glass as Cheryl dragged two suitcases through their living room.

“I won’t live like this,” she said.

“This is no longer about birds,” he said.

“My god, listen to yourself.”

His work would be easier without them here. What he had to do now, what was coming, couldn’t be helped. Everything else, even his family, was a distraction. He thought of his grandfather limping through battles.

“They’re applying chemicals,” he said to Cheryl. “I wasn’t sure until yesterday. I should be in jail. The birds didn’t come back because Hopewell is spraying out there. When I prove that, I win.”

“You win?” Cheryl said. “This isn’t high school. They’re not applying chemicals. The goddamn birds just didn’t come back. You never could accept failure. I love you, but I can’t live like this.”

Cheryl dragged the suitcases out the front door and Snugs followed. His daughter waved and asked him to fill the pool.

§

Lockhart grabbed the bolt cutter, a pair of work gloves, three yards of chain, and his grandfather’s Remington, along with a box of ammunition and two gallons of water. For the next six hours in the blazing heat, he ripped up fence posts and tore down barbed wired. With a singular fury, he pulled up survey stakes by the dozens.

He drove back to the Perkins’ ranch, past the now empty sign post, and found the spot where the orange fencing formed a corner. There, he hooked the chain to his tow hitch and attached the other end to the fencepost. The truck kicked over and he accelerated. Section upon section of fencing flopped and dragged behind him, flinging dust and orange mesh into the air, like a giant dragon in a Chinese New Year parade. The feeling was exhilarating.

By the time he turned back toward town, the bed of his pickup overflowed with debris, wooden stakes, poles, and bales of orange fence. He still had one more stop.

Wide awake for the first time in his life, Lockhart drove to the outskirts of town, where Hopewell rented a small lot for their temporary operations center. He made sure he was alone before he loaded the rifle and took aim at a survey truck parked behind a locked gate. He hadn’t fired a gun since high school, but the stock felt familiar when pressed into his shoulder. He lined the sight, squeezed, and a deafening pop echoed up the valley. A smudge of dust shot up. He waited before he aimed again, and then put the next shot through the driver’s door. The third splintered the windscreen. By the time he finished, his ammunition was out and the Hopewell trucks were all but ruined.

He waited awhile, but no one came past. The last bits of natural light leached out of the valley. If cornered or trapped, he wondered what he would do. His grandfather had killed Germans in the war. What did that feel like, to take a man’s life? In the west, the Providence Mountains darkened.

Five or ten minutes passed before he felt sure no one was coming. Then, he hopped over a fence and approached the shot-up trucks. Steam hissed from a radiator and gasoline pooled on the road. The air smelled of heated metal, oil, and transgression. Inside the first truck, he found surveyor’s kits in the back seat. He snapped tripods like dry twigs and tossed them aside. Then, he lifted the first of three heavy theodolites above his head. His shoulders strained each time, but he smashed the machines, one after another, onto concrete. Delicate lenses and laser sights shattered. Glass crystals sparkled.

He scattered papers, kicked over storage bins, dumped garbage, and searched for half an hour, but discovered no stockpile of chemicals, no cache of fifty-gallon drums filled with DDT. He found no evidence of anything illicit. If Hopewell were poisoning birds, the chemicals must be elsewhere. He vowed to keep looking, and climbed back over the fence.

Exhausted but safely home, he offloaded his truck. The empty swimming pool was stacked three feet deep with contraband. He poured five gallons of gasoline into the pool and ignited the whole mess.

§

In his dream, water rushed down Kellbaker Mountain, roaring into the valley floor. The flood washed away homes, buildings, roads, even terrain, scrubbing the whole valley back to its pre-Cambrian past, back to smoothest limestone and dolomite, with layers of exposed ocean sediments. Mountain peaks were shaved to plateaus, tablelands polished into undifferentiated strata.

Then, as quickly as it came, the water began to recede. Alkaloid salts glistened as the flood seeped into porous stone. Not a tree, cactus, or shrub dotted the landscape. Deep silence filled the valley.

He stood on the very spot that one day would become his backyard. Somehow, he knew where mountains would grow, where a magma caldera would form into Cima Flats, which would stretch and fill with Joshua trees, yucca, sage, and creosote bush. He knew where boulders would emerge, how they’d grow and recede, battered by wind, chafed by time, and how volcanoes would flare, ash falling, where wind and water would scour and shape. He knew exactly which plants would encroach, where wildlife would overrun the valley floor. Grow. Burn. Die. Be reborn. An endless cycle of seasons.

The land was intimately vulnerable to all that was coming.

Across a huge plate of granite, a pair of gray eyes peered from high up on a rock face. He could see the eyes clearly, though not what they were attached to, whether animal or human. The eyes stared across the rocks for a long time, hours or days or centuries, until he finally turned away. The empty valley lay perfectly still. He began to walk across the great expanse of desert.

§

“You fucked up,” Pops told him. “Hire a good lawyer and just bite down on your pride.”

They stood by the back door, surveying the damage. Flames nearly devoured the roof. Stucco blistered and the back door was singed and blackened.

“What got ahold of you?” his father asked. Pops was loyal if not comforting, and what Lockhart needed most was an ally.

Debris in the pool still smoldered. Lockhart sprayed the embers with water. The charred pool hissed, as if filled with serpents. All he wanted was Cheryl and Snugs back. He’d turn himself in, if only they’d agree to come back.

“You’re a wanted man,” his father said.

“They’re not playing by the rules,” Lockhart said.

“Since when did that ever make a damn bit of difference?”

§

A week later, heavier-than-normal security patrolled the BLM meeting. With his binoculars, Lockhart watched from some distance as Cheryl arrived. Pops had delivered his message. She had to be there for any of this to make sense. Sheriff Bender went directly to her and escorted her inside, and then returned to his cruiser in the BLM parking lot. Three Hopewell private security crews and a half-dozen deputies patrolled the grounds. The show of force was more than Lockhart expected.

Carefully, he hitched the canvas duffel bag on his back, and slipped down an alley behind the building. A security car passed. He snuck through a culvert, guiding the bag ahead of him. It was a tight squeeze, and the smell was foul, but he popped out on the other side. He stroked the duffel bag with his hand before lifting it onto his back, trying not to jostle its contents.

The meeting site was secure, but Lockhart punched in a screen window and then lowered his bag inside, making sure it landed softly. Then, he hopped over. He’d climbed into a storage closet, with brooms and mops, but luck favored him. The door opened into an empty hall. Murmurs from the meeting were just audible. Maybe permits were being granted. Maybe the whole damn thing was already over. Hopewell would receive full and unrestricted access to most of the valley. He couldn’t stop them now, but he wasn’t going down without a fight.

Voices rose and laughter warbled. He worried that the meeting was breaking up. Peeking out from behind a heavy curtain, he saw that a few dozen people remained seated.

Hopewell execs were preparing a statement. Cheryl sat near the back, along with Pops and other locals. He lowered the bag to the floor, relieved that Snugs hadn’t come.

Slowly, carefully, he reached his hand inside the duffel and unclasped the lever. His entire body tensed until it gave. With the bag tucked behind the curtain, he attached a wire around his ankle, unzipped the top, and parted the curtain.

There was a gasp when he appeared. Two deputies drew their guns. He raised his palms and stepped slowly on stage. The wire burned against his ankle. It spooled out across the stage and back to the bag. He had exactly twenty paces before the wire ran out. At nineteen, he stopped. Bender appeared in the doorway, gun drawn.

“You all know who I am,” Lockhart said. A few people crouched in their seats. The feeling of power was incredible. “I don’t want this operation to continue. My attempts to prevent it have already come at a cost.”

“Stop right where you are,” Bender shouted. Bender, in firing position, pointed the black, hollow of his pistol right at Lockhart’s chest. He wondered if Bender could see the wire.

“These men,” Lockhart said, waving his hand at the Hopewell execs in the front row, “they don’t care about our homes. They don’t care about the desert or the people who helped build this valley. I never intended to pick this fight. I never wanted anything more than to raise my family out here, watch the sunset, and teach my daughter about the land.”

Bender approached, the gun aimed squarely at Lockhart’s heart. It reminded him of high school, the fourth quarter, the starting quarterback on the ground and Lockhart warming up. Once again, he found Cheryl’s eyes in the crowd.

“I failed to find those damn birds,” he said, almost laughing. “But when these boys start drilling and running pipelines through our valley, there won’t be any going back.”

Cheryl’s head was in her hands. He wanted to make eye contact with her.

Again, Bender threatened to fire if Lockhart didn’t stop. The wire cut into his ankle. One small twitch would do it.

He took another step, tensed his leg, and side-kicked with all his might. He felt a pop. Then Bender’s gun lowered and exploded. At first, the two events seemed to both fail. The people in the auditorium cowered. Lockhart didn’t feel the bullet penetrate his leg, not at first. He was still waiting for the bag to let go. He tried to kick again, but fell straight back. Then pain came, a piercing fire that shot up from his thigh and set his spine ablaze. Two deputies rushed him on stage. They pinned him to the floor. Then, a loud cry rose from the crowd.

The first bird fluttered free from the bag and flashed over his face. Then another, and another, until a swarm of darting black and gray birds filled the auditorium. Wings rustled and birds chirped. Lockhart began to feel dizzy. A cold, numb sensation spread from his leg up his spine, but above him, the birds circled and scattered, like something from a horror movie, even more perfect than he could’ve imagined. He heard cries from the audience, shouting, and saw wings flashing overhead. Cheryl appeared, then his father, then Bender bent low and reaching for his hands. Before he passed out, the entire room filled with birds.

§

From his cell, Lockhart watched the first loads of heavy drilling equipment arrive on flatbeds. He imagined the chorus of airbrakes screeching as trucks slowed on their descent into Sidewinder Valley. That day, he was being transferred to the state prison in Calipriata, two hours east. Cheryl brought Snugs to say goodbye.

The room was gray and dimly lit with a table and a few metal chairs. Cheryl wore jeans and a sweatshirt. Snugs was still in her pajamas.

“Was it worth it?” Cheryl asked, wiping a tear from her eye while Snugs played with a toy.

“I have this recurring dream,” he said, “ever since you left. A flood fills the whole valley. Everything is gone.”

“You’re lucky,” she said. “Your sentence is a gift, considering the original indictment included charges of domestic terrorism.”

A video from the BLM meeting surfaced—an unarmed man shot for releasing a cage full of songbirds. They weren’t, of course, vireos, but Lockhart had made his point. This was not the kind of publicity Hopewell or the sheriff needed. Lockhart would do time, but not more than a year.

“In my dream, I know that no matter what happens, everything will be okay.”

“I asked you a question,” Cheryl said. “Was it worth it? All of this. What we have to go through now.”

Lockhart looked at his daughter.

“Will you wait for me?” he asked.

“Don’t ask that question,” Cheryl said. “Not now. Put your head down and get through this.”

A guard knocked and entered. Cheryl stood and hugged him before the guard placed Lockhart in cuffs and began to escort him out. When he turned, Cheryl had bent to tie Snugs’ shoelaces.

Lockhart had wanted to tell her the last part of his dream, but hesitated. Maybe he should hold on to it awhile, but he believed in his vision. It was certain and strong, strong enough, perhaps, to keep him going, for in his dream, he walked across that empty valley floor, navigating a vast gulch of featureless stone, but at the end, he sensed that Cheryl and Snugs would always be there, in Sidewinder Valley, awaiting his return.
 

Farrell Author's PhotoRichard Farrell is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is an Associate Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine and the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. His work, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared or is forthcoming in Contrary, Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and others. He lives with his family in San Diego, CA.

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