“…he had placed himself in some new cold country of the heart
from which he would never return.”
— Robert Stone, Damascus Gate
“Failure Is Not Defeat Unless You Stop Trying To Succeed.”
The faded sign was posted outside a boarded-up church that he had driven past a couple minutes ago at such a fast clip that he only noticed it out of the corner of his eye. Even so, he couldn’t get it out of his head, though it was as banal as anything his father might have said after one too many beers. A sentiment that offered encouragement despite the odds against it. Two or three times he even caught himself saying it aloud, as if to ensure that it didn’t slip from his thoughts, and it was during one of these recitations that a jackrabbit darted across the road. Though he might have swerved to avoid hitting it, he continued straight ahead and struck it with the back left wheel of his pickup truck.
At once he pulled over to the side of the road, switched off the engine, and got out to look at the rabbit. It appeared dead, but just to make sure he jabbed it with the side of his boot. It didn’t budge. Grinning, he gathered it up in his arms and walked back to his truck. After laying it across some newspapers on the passenger seat, he turned on the engine, released the emergency brake, and roared down the narrow dirt road. He was only a couple miles from home, and now he wanted to get there as quickly as possible. Despite the light drizzle that had begun to fall, he pressed his foot down on the accelerator. Briefly he even glanced in the side mirror, as if the presence of someone there would be added incentive for him not to slow down.
“Look what I’ve got,” he called out to his wife, after he had stormed into the kitchen with the dead jackrabbit. The screen door slammed behind him, loosening the faded blue handle.
“Quiet,” she said, pressing a finger to her lips. “You’ll wake Hughie.”
“It’s a jackrabbit,” he whispered as he set it down on the breakfast counter.
“Where did you find it?”
“I ran over it on my way home.”
“You didn’t get hurt, did you?”
Vigorously he shook his head as he pulled a carving knife out of a block of wood. He turned the rabbit on its back, then, abruptly, plunged the knife into its belly and worked the blade down toward its hind legs. The knife was very sharp and moved easily through the soft, fine fur. His wife stood behind him, watching intently, her eyes as pale as soap bubbles. Blood trickled down the side of the counter onto the floor, appearing almost black on the dark linoleum. Adroitly he removed a testicle, then worked loose the liver. For a moment he held it up to the ceiling light, examining its minute veins and spots. Then he took out the heart, as quickly as if he were removing a coin from his pocket. Soon he had taken apart the whole rabbit and laid its entrails across a sheet of butcher paper on the counter.
“What do you see?” his wife asked impatiently.
He didn’t answer her but continued to stare at the small dissected parts, straining to discover some pattern that would indicate what the future had in store for them and their baby.
“I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean, you’re not sure?”
He sighed, bending over the glistening entrails. “All I’m coming up with is that we’re going to have to leave here,” he said cautiously. “Not right away, but eventually.”
“Because we must if we’re ever going to find any satisfaction in our lives.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I,” he admitted. Recalling the faded sign he had seen outside the church, he added, “As long as we keep moving, we can’t be defeated, I guess. It’s when we stop and accept where we’re at that we’re lost.”
His head snapped back as if someone sitting beside him had slapped him across the face, and Hugh Burnham spun around. But no one else was in the Land Rover. Only his old high-school glove sat on the passenger seat, wrapped around a grass-stained baseball. He groaned, gritting his teeth. He must have started to doze off again. Twisting his neck in a slow circle, he slid a John Lee Hooker tape into the cassette player and began to sing “Boom Boom” with the Delta blues singer. He hoped that might wake him up, but at the end of the song he still felt drowsy. Not wanting to risk dozing off again, he pulled over to the side of the road, turned off the engine, climbed out of the vehicle, and stretched his arms above his head. He even did some deep knee bends, groaning with every repetition, then walked around for a couple of minutes.
He gazed down the two-lane highway, stared until the veins in his eyes began to throb. Not surprisingly, not another vehicle was in sight. Not a bus, not a truck, not a motorcycle, not even a plane in the sky. He felt, as he had felt so many times before, as if he were the only person left in Briar Crest Valley.
“Anyone here?” he blurted out suddenly, in a voice almost as loud as his singing. “Anyone, anywhere?”
He listened intently, but all he heard was his breath whistling through his teeth.
“I know someone’s here. I know it as sure as I know anything.”
Slowly he started back to the Land Rover, scolding himself for falling asleep at the wheel. He could have been seriously injured, stranded on the road for hours before anyone came by to help him. It wouldn’t happen again, he promised himself, not this morning anyway. He was confident of that, as confident as he could be of anything when he was behind the wheel.
He continued up the road, driving straight into the blazing morning sun. Another blues song blared from the cassette deck, making him imagine for a moment that he was in Mississippi, but when he looked around all he saw was sagebrush and sand. He was thousands of miles from the Delta, in the high desert country of Brower County.
Once more he accompanied the gravel-voiced singer, then paused when one of the lyrics reminded him of the vivid dream he had last night. It was quite familiar; he had had it at least half a dozen times since starting this job. Always it began with him making his way down a long, rattling ladder, one rung at a time, into a tunnel beneath a busy downtown street, until he came to a flat metal platform. It was so dark down there that he couldn’t even see one of his thumbs held right in front of his face. He had to snap it against his jaw to make sure it was there. But he could hear what sounded like footsteps a few feet behind him and, instinctively, headed in that direction, despite the increasingly stagnant air. He proceeded along a grated walkway for several minutes, yet the footsteps still sounded as if they were the same distance ahead of him. Frustrated, he wondered if the steps were actually his own and stopped to listen, but they persisted as sharply as ever. He was sure someone was ahead of him and continued down the walkway. He even called out a couple of times, but there was no response. He was amazed that he continued on, but he did. Gradually, as he grew more comfortable in the darkness, he picked up the pace, determined to catch whoever was in front of him. He could hear his heart pulsing in his ears, feel his elbows brushing sharply against his sides. The walkway was very slick, but he continued to move faster, until he was running as hard as he ever had in his life. He closed his eyes, knowing he couldn’t see anything in the smothering darkness, and ran frantically, as if someone were pursuing him. He grew faint trying to maintain the pace, and then, suddenly, he stumbled and lost his balance, fell down on his left side and spilled across the slimy floor. As he started to get up, he saw two bright red eyes glaring at him in the darkness. They were so bright he was tempted to look away, but instead he glared back at them, trying to make out other footsteps. The eyes were as still as shirt buttons, which made him stare harder, to force them to show some life. But they didn’t budge. “Who are you?” he demanded angrily. A long moment passed; then the eyes grew larger, the shirt buttons blossoming into toy balloons, and he had to look away because his own eyes had started to water. When he looked back, he discovered, to his horror, that he was looking straight into the eyes of a sewer rat the size of a mountain lion, and, as always happened then, he awoke shivering in sweat.
Smiling, he looked up from the empty highway into the fierce red sun, sure that it was not half as fierce as the eyes of the rat he saw in his dreams. Then he dropped his gaze, pressed his foot down on the accelerator pedal, and roared toward the sun as if it were his only destination.
Burnham had been driving for close to an hour and still hadn’t seen another vehicle on the highway, but as he went around a slight bend, he noticed a moss-brown mustang grazing in some grass beside a small pond. Softly he beeped his horn, and the horse looked up and shook its glossy mane. Then, on an impulse, Burnham swung off the road and headed toward the mustang, still beeping his horn. Startled, the horse surged across the pond, its soaked legs shimmering in the sunlight, and Burnham roared after it, bouncing across a stretch of teeth-chattering rocks. Finally he felt awake, his heart clamoring against his ribs, and he screamed loudly, excitedly.
“Come on, let’s race!” he hollered, swerving around the stump of a pine tree. “You against me.”
Its huge neck extended, its hooves pounding, the mustang charged across the rough terrain, with the Land Rover in close pursuit. Burnham was confident that he would overtake it in another minute or so, but instead he stayed back, relishing the chase. Over more rocks and cones they charged, around boulders the size of tractors, past gopher holes and dry riverbeds. All the while he blasted away on his horn as if stuck in the middle of rush-hour traffic, swearing louder than ever.
In another moment the mustang approached a narrow but deep ravine. Without a flicker of hesitation it leaped across as if borne on wings, skidded a little in the loose dirt, then continued on, springing over two small bushes. Burnham slammed on his brakes, his left front tire halting a few inches from the edge of the ravine. “God Almighty!” he shrieked. He pressed his hand down on the horn one more time, then slumped back and watched the mustang race across the flat, dry plain. Briefly he touched the brim of his faded baseball cap, acknowledging the grace and strength of the animal, and then he put the Land Rover into reverse and headed back to the highway.
The first house Burnham was scheduled to visit that morning was the Fullerton place, half a mile outside the abandoned mining town of Cougar Springs. He had been there once before, soon after arriving in Brower County. An avocado farmer and his wife and three small children resided in the plain, brown, two-story house, and though they had agreed to evacuate their home like nearly everyone else in Briar Crest Valley, they still hadn’t left. Of course, if they refused, they would be arrested and escorted off the premises with only a minimum of their belongings. He was coming today to remind them of their agreement and to make it clear that they really had little choice in the matter. One way or another, their house would be vacant by the end of next week.
That was the assignment Burnham had been given by Innis and Associates, a security consulting firm based in Lawford, Utah. He had been with them for nearly eight years, after being recruited by a retired colonel during his last hitch in U.S. Army Intelligence. The firm had been founded by a mineral engineer. Its motto was “Your Safety Is Our Concern,” and it had contracts throughout the country and around the globe. Many of the people employed by the firm were analysts and engineers, responsible for designing particular solutions for clients, but most of its employees were known as “conductors” because their job was to implement these programs. Burnham was a senior conductor, charged with supervising crews ranging from two to seven depending on the magnitude of the project. He had reached as high a level of authority as he could so long as he remained a conductor, but he didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk all day analyzing problems, so he was content with his position in the firm.
A short, wiry man with strong, blunt hands, Burnham still had the same build as when he’d played shortstop in high school, but not the range or speed. He still threw hard, though, almost as hard as he had as a relief pitcher. He was forty-two years old, but he looked considerably older when he caught a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror. His receding chestnut-brown hair was pale, his complexion even paler—except for his left arm, which was dark as a walnut from always sticking out the driver’s window. His long face appeared longer than ever, and his eyes were ringed with shadows. Not enough sleep, he reckoned, and too damn much black coffee, but that would change once he’d finished his work here and returned home, where he could get some decent food and a few solid hours of sleep.
“Good morning, sir,” Burnham said as he approached Mr. Fullerton, who was sharpening the blades of a pair of garden shears.
“Morning, but I don’t know what’s so damn good about it.”
Nodding, Burnham ignored the hostile remark, removed his baseball cap, and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “I gather you know why I’m here.”
He slipped the hat back on his head. “I just want to remind you that you’ll have to be off these premises by nine o’clock sharp Saturday morning.”
“I am well aware of the deadline,” Fullerton said sternly, without looking at Burnham. “And as I told you before, my family and I will be gone by then.”
Burnham smiled. “I’m glad to hear that.”
“Maybe you’re glad, mister, but I sure as hell ain’t. This is our home we’re being forced to leave, not some damn tent. Sure, we’re getting fair value for our property, I can’t deny that. Maybe more than it’s really worth. But this is not something we wanted to happen. This is our home. This is where we planned to spend the rest of our days.”
“I don’t think you do. I don’t want this dam. No one I know around here wants it except those damn commissioners.”
The dam under construction on the Windermere River was scheduled to be completed by the end of the month, and then close to a hundred square miles of Briar Crest Valley would be under water. The commissioners of Brower County had approved the construction in order to bring cheap hydroelectric power to their constituents, and they had contracted Innis and Associates to help relocate people who lived in the part of the valley that would be flooded. Burnham and his four crew members had been driving up and down the valley for the past three weeks, making sure everyone in the vicinity had left or was getting ready to leave. Few if any of the residents really wanted to leave their homes, and they made that abundantly clear. Most were bitter like Fullerton but resigned to the relocation, but every now and then someone was adamant: he would not leave. Usually the conductors solicited a local preacher to convince the person he had no choice in the matter, or some relative or friend from outside the county. But if these measures were not sufficient, Burnham was quite prepared to employ more forceful methods, including truncheons and handcuffs.
The last person Burnham had to visit that day was Elston Grint, who lived alone in a sparse stone cabin beside a brook barely a yard wide. A faded “No Trespassing” sign was posted on the collapsing wooden fence that enclosed the front yard. Behind the fence were stacks of bald tires, shovels and rakes, a dishwasher, a cord of firewood, a Chevrolet Impala on blocks, parts of several lawnmowers, sprinklers and ladders, and rows and rows of empty orange crates. Burnham had never been there before, but from the reports of his crew members he understood that Grint was a cantankerous old codger who had no intention of leaving his home. Next to the “No Trespassing” sign hung a rusted cowbell that Burnham clanged several times until Grint appeared on the front porch, in a sleeveless flannel shirt and paint-spattered jeans. He wore shower sandals, though it didn’t look as if he had taken a shower in some time. Poised on his left shoulder was the handle of a coal shovel.
“Who the hell are you, mister?” he growled at Burnham, who remained on the other side of the fence.
“I represent the county.”
“You the law, are you?”
Burnham didn’t respond but instead sized up the grizzled homeowner, whose knobby fingers agitatedly drummed against the sweat-stained handle.
“I don’t see no badge on you.”
“The commissioners of Brower County have hired the firm I work for to remind you that you have to vacate these premises by nine o’clock Saturday morning.”
“You’re no lawman. All you are is a messenger boy. Telling me what I already know.”
“If that’s so, then I expect you to be out of here Saturday.”
Grint’s lean face tightened into a menacing frown. “You do, do you?”
“I most certainly do.”
“And if I’m not?”
“Then you’ll be removed from the premises.”
“You think you can do that? You think you can just go and force a person off his own property?”
“I know I can.”
“I’d like to see you try.”
“I don’t want to have to resort to force, Mr. Grint, but if that’s what it takes, I’m quite prepared to do so.”
“You prick!” Grint shouted, lifting the handle from his shoulder. “You goddamn prick! You lay a hand on me, I can guarantee you that you’re going to get some bones broken. A damn lot of them.”
Squeezing his hands into his armpits, Burnham glared at Grint, then turned and walked back to the Land Rover, dismissing the angry man’s rants as those of a child whose toys had been taken from him. An empty Pepsi can bounced against the back window as Burnham pulled away, but he didn’t bother to stop. He would be back here in a few days and would deal with the man then—slap his bony wrists in cuffs and haul him away in the back of the Rover. For his own sake, Grint had better not try anything then, or he would find himself in a world of hurt. Burnham doubted if he would have much trouble with him, though; Grint was almost certainly more bark than bite. On other assignments for the firm Burnham had encountered serious challenges from guys who were twice his size and strong as mules, but with the aid of a stun gun and a club he had always managed to bring them under control.
So far the most difficult part of this assignment hadn’t been dealing with ornery people like Grint; it had been what occurred the other day near a farming community in the south fork of the valley. A dozen or so townspeople, under his supervision, had been hired to dig up the coffins of a small Lutheran cemetery on the edge of town, which would be under water by the end of next week. It was demanding physical work—Burnham’s back that night felt as if it had been stepped on by an elephant—but even more demanding was the sight of all those black coffins stacked beside one another. Burnham felt odd, uneasy, out of sorts looking at them, aware that he had disturbed what should have been left in peace. He imagined that the coffins contained the souls of his own relatives. He wasn’t a religious person, hadn’t set foot inside a house of worship since his father died; he figured that if all his prayers for his father hadn’t been deemed fit to answer, then there wasn’t much reason to pray any longer. But looking at those coffins he felt he should say a prayer out of respect, and silently he recited an “Our Father” before he left the excavated cemetery.
My novel, Some New Cold Country of the Heart, concerns, among other themes, whether character determines fate. It is divided into four parts. The initial part introduces a group of security contractors, known as “conductors,” who have been hired to ensure that a valley is evacuated before it is flooded. The main protagonist, Hugh Burnham, is in charge of this assignment. The next section focuses on a pilot who believes that the conductors have left behind someone in the valley to die and wants to be compensated for his silence. Together these two parts serve as an introduction to the sort of demanding work that these conductors are required to perform and to the kind of tension that accompanies their missions.
I have watched the French film “Wages of Fear” numerous times, and in the final two parts of the novel I have tried to present a story that also focuses on the stress men endure as they make their way across unfamiliar country. Specifically, in the third part, the conductors are sent overseas to a remote place in Central Asia where they have been hired to deliver needed medical supplies in extremely desolate and dangerous terrain. In the final section, after he wakes in a hospital, Burnham is informed that he is the only survivor of his command. At this juncture an element of mystery is introduced into this story of endurance. Stunned, the commander feels compelled to find out what happened to his men and the medical supplies, and as a result of his investigation, his true character is revealed.
T. R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. A collection of his stories, A Time of Times, was published last spring.
Embark, Issue 12, April 2020