arl bends over and lifts each of Spot’s legs through the loops of his mobility harness, pushing the dog’s shaggy, black fur out of the way as the clips click into place. Spot turns toward the door and wags his tail.
“Dad, you still do this every day by yourself?” Martin asks.
Earl zips up his cracked leather jacket and replies, “Why shouldn’t I?”
“Well for one, you can’t see.” Earl turns away from Martin to face the door, then slides his gold wedding band off his finger into a ceramic bowl adorned with soaring Steller’s jays. “And second, there are cliffs just a few steps off the trail. It seems a little...steep,” Martin says, emphasizing the steep.
“Nah,” Earl grunts, waving his hand, “I’ve got my trusty boy to guide me.” Earl reaches his hand out to pet Spot’s head, but misses several times before making the connection. The blurry outline of his son stands before him. Earl can’t make out faces anymore, but he can still see motion amid the fog of blending colors. He wishes Martin would move more. The damn boy is always standing still. Never in a rush to do anything in life.
“How do you know if weather’s moving in?” Martin asks.
Earl reaches for the door handle, “I can feel it.” The vapid stench of Martin’s hair gel hits Earl’s nostrils. What kind of man does his hair like that? Earl thankfully can’t see the crusty hair spikes Martin forms on the top of his head anymore, but when the boy hugs him, they stab him in the neck, like pieces of hay sticking from a bale.
“What’re you feeling now?”
“Blue skies. Stop worrying.”
“Dad, I see storm clouds coming over the mountains.”
Earl opens the front door, “Then we better hurry.” A chorus of song birds welcome them outside. Spot takes the lead, pulling Earl down the steps of the front porch and onto the trail.
The skies overhead are bright blue, but a sharp wind blows into Earl’s face, whipping up yellow clouds of ponderosa spores he can no longer see, but can still smell. Essence of butterscotch lingers in the air, hugging his soul. A buzzing bumblebee fighting through the wind zooms past his ear. The hard-working creature is eager to harvest as much pollen from the wildflower bloom as it can. Summer’s here, but it won’t last long. Life’s easy in summer. Anything can survive. Only the strong survive winter.
Earl clutches Spot’s leash as the dog guides him up the trail. The sound of Martin’s gasps for air fade behind him with each step. Earl turns back down the trail and shakes his head in the direction of his only son. Despite his best efforts, he’s raised a weak boy. A stain on the good Baumann name.
“Slow down!” Martin calls. “It’s…Not…Safe to go…That fast,” he hollars between breaths.
Earl stops, biting his bottom lip as the clumsy thuds of Martin’s boots ricochet off the trees. When the round outline of Martin approaches, Earl faces him and says, “I helped Grandad build this trail, you know.”
“I think...you’ve mentioned that...once or twice.”
“I’ve lived here my whole life. Know it like the back of my hand,” Earl declares, holding his sun-spotted hand out for Martin to see.
“What’s your point?”
“Enough of the safety brigade.”
Earl turns back up the trail and the wind picks up as they march further up the mountain. Earl knows his son is right about the storm. He can feel it in the air. The sun is still warm in direct light, but the breeze is frigid. Like virgin hands on the handle of a spade, a little toughening up will be good for the boy. He sure as hell isn’t learning that in Denver with his flamboyant friends.
As they climb a series of switchbacks, the temperature drops and thunder echoes off the mountains. The birds are no longer chirping, nor are the bees buzzing. The forest is quiet.
“Dad…” Martin says, panting, “We should…Turn back. Rain.”
Earl bites his bottom lip again. “One of the things I admire about Spot is that he only knows how to go forward. You could learn something from him. We’ll make it back fine, even if we get a little wet.”
“Dad, that’s enough!” Martin shouts. Earl can see a blur of arms flailing in the direction of his son’s voice. “This shit has to stop! You’ve lost your marbles!”
“Have I?” Earl asks.
“Yes!” Martin exclaims, holding his arms out wide. “You can’t live up here in the middle of nowhere forever! You need help.”
“I’ve talked with Micheal. Please try to keep an open mind when I say this, but we think it’d be a good idea to move you into a home near us where you’d have some help. We found—”
“You’re the one that needs help, you spineless prick!” Earl interrupts, jabbing his pointed finger in the direction of Martin.
Martin swats his hand away. “This is what I’m talking about… This isn’t you!”
Earl can hear a waver in Martin’s voice. The grown boy is about to cry because he called him a name. Pathetic. But that swat of the hand. Maybe there is a little Baumann fire burning deep within him, waiting to be stoked.
“This is me,” Earl declares, driving his pointed finger into Martin’s sternum, “I’ve just come close enough to death to speak my mind.” Martin pushes his arm away again. Now Earl’s making progress with the boy. The corner of his mouth curls up.
Earl signals for Spot to resume walking up the trail. They skirt along the edge of a cliff, revealing several layers of snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance. The storm’s first raindrop falls on Earl’s nose as he turns his head toward the views he once cherished, but can no longer see except in his mind’s eye.
Earl makes a point of walking close to the cliff edge. The salmon doesn’t fret about dying after spawning, nor does the bear worry about growing old. You can’t go through life fearing death. That’s something his boy has never understood, but there’s still time to teach him.
Martin breaks the silence. “I don’t want you to die up here and have nobody there to help,” he says, placing his hand on Earl’s shoulder.
“Sure, that’s what it’s about,” Earl replies, shoving Martin away with his forearm.
Martin steps back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What’ll happen to the land?” Earl asks incredulously, cranking his head sideways. “All fifty thousand acres that’s been in the family for generations?”
There’s a pause. Thunder rumbles in the sky as clouds envelop the sun.
“Well?” Earl asks again.
“Well...we’d probably sell it.”
“There it is!” Earl shouts.
“What you’re really after. You’d do anything to spend a buck you didn’t earn.”
“Dad, stop...I know you don’t mean it—”
“Let me tell you, you’re not a Baumann! You’ve never worked a day in your life and you’ll never own a fleck of dirt on this land or another cent from my bank account!” Earl rams Martin’s chest with the palm of his hand.
“Stop!” Martin yells. Earl can hear the hatred in Martin’s voice. A suffering the spoiled boy has no right to claim. Then he feels Martin’s hands impact his shoulders.
For a brief moment, Earl is proud of Martin. His boy has never been a man because he’s never stood for something. He has no backbone. No spine. After 35 years, Earl had concluded that his boy would never become a man. Maybe there was still hope Martin would make something of the advantaged life Earl had given him.
Earl’s contemplation is interrupted when he realizes he’s stumbling backward, his heels skidding across the dirt trail trying to regain traction. He attempts to plant his left foot, but there’s nothing there to catch it. As Earl falls backward over the cliff, he feels Spot’s leash go taut. Then his other foot leaves the ground, suspending him in the air. He can’t see the valley bottom, but he knows the cliff here drops several hundred feet into a scree field.
Earl catches one last blurry glimpse of Martin above his toes, but it’s Spot he’s thinking of. He jolts his hand open when he feels the leash tug on Spot, hoping he’s not too late. For a moment, he maintains a sense of up and down, but as his body tumbles through the air, it starts to feel like he’s floating in space. His head crashes into something hard and his consciousness fades. There’s a moment of freefall, air wishing past his ears. Then nothing.
Spot jumps up and bites Martin’s arm as he drives his hands into his father’s shoulders. Then time slows down. The accident happens slow enough to feel like a horror movie, but too quick to intervene. His father stumbles back and rolls over the edge of the cliff. Spot gets yanked toward the cliff by his leash and yelps, but just as the dog’s about to slide over the edge, the leash goes slack and Spot digs his claws deep enough into the dirt to pull himself back up.
There’s a moment of piercing silence, followed by a series of thuds. Spot barks at Martin, pouncing back and forth at his legs. Martin stares in the direction his father fell, swatting and kicking aimlessly at the dog.
Then Spot changes tactics and begins pacing back and forth along the cliff edge. Martin runs his hands through his hair, the gelled spikes crunching and snapping between his clammy fingers.
Bang! Lightning strikes.
“Oh god! Oh fuck. Oh FUCK!” Martin yells, crouching into a ball.
Two hours later it’s pouring rain when a police officer from the search and rescue team enters the cabin. Spot still has his harness on and is laying by the shoe rack, whining.
“The good news is we were able to recover the body,” the officer says, removing his cowboy hat and taking a seat at the kitchen table across from Martin.
“Good,” Martin says, wrapping his hands around a mug of tea. “I’ve been telling him he shouldn’t be doing that hike anymore. He was nearly blind, you know?”
“Earl and I go way back,” the officer says. “He wasn’t one for growing old.”
Martin nods in agreement.
“Now, can you tell me what happened so I can write an official report and be done with it?”
“Not much to be said,” Martin lies, staring into the depths of his mug. “We were hiking up the trail. I tried to get him to turn back because of the weather. He got mad and kept going. Left me in the dust,” Martin says through a forced chuckle, flirting his gaze up to make brief eye contact with the officer. “Anyway, I came around the corner and the dog was barking. There was a lightning strike, maybe it scared the dog and he pulled them over. Or maybe he took a wrong step. All I know is I saw him falling back and the rest is a blur.”
Martin takes a deep breath. He didn’t shove his father hard. Not hard enough to make him stumble back like that. Earl was probably trying to teach him one final lesson and accidentally tripped. His father was always teaching people lessons.
“Uh huh…” the officer says, scribbling on his notepad. “I assume you’ll be in charge of the property now?”
“That’s what he told me.” Martin says, sipping his tea. Lightning strikes nearby, filling the room with white light and shaking the building. Spot runs over to them and hides under the table.
“What about the dog?”
“You don’t want to keep him up here with you?”
“No, I think we’ll sell the land. Micheal and I are city folk. Besides, that dog bit me today.” Martin pulls his sleeve down, revealing bruised bite marks and fresh scabs.
“Dogs can get that way isolated up here,” the officer says. “Should I have animal control take it?”
Martin nods, “I think that’s best.”
“Your father’s body?”
“Leave it here for now. We need to get a hold of his will. I want to follow it to the T. But if I had to guess, I’d say he’d want to be buried up here.”
“He and the land had quite the bond, didn’t they… Almost a marriage.”
“He would’ve lived here until the mountains took him one way or another.”