The Trading Post

“Damn it…damn, damn, damn!”

Paula Manning braked her car in the middle of the dirt road, pounded on the steering wheel, and let out a frustrated shriek. The parked car, and the scream, disturbed no one. Outside, empty desert stretched to every horizon.

How the hell did I get myself lost?

She picked up her rumpled road map and spread it over the steering wheel. Where was Sunshine City? Route 25 south from Albuquerque, Route 380 east to Picacho. “Then southeast ten miles,” Palmer Finch, the Attorney General, had said, drawing in the unmarked road on her map. And Paula knew that meant exactly ten miles. Not 9.7, not 10.2. Ten. “I’ll be in Roswell that morning and meet you there at one o’clock.” Not 12:55, not 1:08. One. Now her watch read 1:12, her odometer showed fifteen miles past Picacho, and the map put her on a large blank space somewhere between Roswell and a Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation.

Paula stepped out of the car, and the full heat of the day fell on her. White sun shimmered on the car roof and glared on the grill. In her navy blue suit, she was stifling, and her cream silk blouse had wilted with perspiration and glued itself to her skin. Even her lipstick had gone thick and gooey like melting wax. She scanned the horizon, feeling a sudden strange aversion to going on. Probably the first sign she did come to would read Road Ends—1500 Feet. Only it really would end, wham!, cut off flat in the middle of the desert. Then six months from now some grizzled prospector would find her bleached bones, sprawled in the dust, briefcase in hand, struggling toward her goal.

Damn!

She got back in the car and started the ignition. Immediately, the temperature indicator rose and pointed ominously at the big red H. She drove, praying, as two more miles passed without a sign. Just last night, life had reached a new peak, or so it had felt at the spectacular  party thrown by her friends Greg and Sandy to celebrate their new cliff-edge dream house. This was the atmosphere she was meant to breathe, a starry night, a champagne buffet beside the pool, and the architect, Alan Ryder, easily the most gorgeous, sexy, intelligent and exciting man she had ever met. From the moment they were introduced, she had worked hard to make an impression. She only hoped she hadn’t gone overboard with her analysis of the search and seizure laws. Toward the end, he had seemed a little, well, bored.

Now, a mere fourteen hours later, she was disoriented in the desert with a balky car and a promotion on the line. If she didn’t find Sunshine City soon, she could kiss her career goodbye. Then her eye caught a shape ahead, and she urged the car toward it, a crude wooden sign. Trading Post, l Mile, it read. All right, at least that’s something, she thought, accelerating. The car began to hiss. No, Paula begged, no, don’t. She slowed to a crawl. The hissing grew. Please, please, please. Up ahead a tiny shack appeared. Please! The hissing burst into a whistle and steam sizzled from under the hood. Help! She hit the accelerator and aimed for the shack. At the last minute, the car lost power, swerved off the road, and skidded toward the trading post in a cloud of dust. She only had time to see a hapless figure dive below the shack’s counter before hurling herself out the door and onto the ground. She threw her arms over her head in anticipation of the explosion.

“Holy moly,” said an awed voice above her. “You one crazy driver, lady.”

Slowly, Paula picked herself up. Her beautiful navy blue suit was smothered in dust, her nylons were in shreds, one high heel was broken, and sand crunched between her teeth. Before her stood a most singular Indian. He was short, muscular, rock-jawed and hawk-nosed, about fifty years old. His eyes were bronze-brown and two glossy black braids hung down from a full war headdress of the most splendid plumage she had ever seen. He wore a short-sleeved khaki safari suit, water buffalo sandals, and a diamond-studded Swiss digital watch.

“I don’t believe this,” Paula murmured.

She pressed a hand to her temple, commanding her head to clear. Beyond the Indian, her car had come to rest beside the shack, a small wooden booth open in front like a roadside fruit stand and shaded by a green-and-white striped awning. A red leather bar stool was planted in the dirt before the counter on which sat an ornate assayer’s scale and a pile of polished turquoise stones. A hand-painted sign above the booth read: THE TRADING POST, PROPRIETOR: RED CLOUD.

“Three guesses,” said Paula. “You’re Red Cloud.”

“Greetings.” The Indian offered his hand. “You want smoke peace pipe?”

She rolled her eyes, ignoring the proffered handshake. “No, thanks. Listen, Red Cloud, I’m in desperate need of water. My car’s overheated, and I was supposed to be someplace called Sunshine City over twenty minutes ago.” Beckoning him along, she hobbled to her car and impatiently flipped up the hood. The radiator was spitting steam like an angry tea kettle and, “Ouch!” she yelled, pulling her fingers back from the radiator cap. Ignoring her broken shoe, she marched to the trunk, opened it, pulled a rag from under the spare tire, and stomped back to the hood.

“No!” Red Cloud shouted.

At the first twist, the cap shot off in her hand and the radiator blew. She had barely time to scream before a football tackle hurled her to the ground. Behind her, boiling water shot out of the car like a geyser. Paula and Red Cloud lay motionless until the water stopped. Then the Indian helped her to her feet.

“What happened?” she asked shakily.

“Radiator boil over,” Red Cloud replied. Cautiously, he approached the car and peered under the hood. “Still plenty water when she blew. Might be thermostat.”

“I lost power just before I stopped,” Paula explained.

“H’mm, engine seized up.”

“Do you have any water I can put in?”

Red Cloud nodded. “You better wait though. You put cold water in now, she just steam away. Also maybe damage engine block.”

“But I have to get to…oh, damn!” Paula struggled not to lose control. “Okay, how long do you think it will take to cool down?”

“One-half hour.” The Indian regarded her sympathetically. “You look like you could use drink.” He led her to the bar stool, stepped inside his booth, reached beneath the counter, and pulled out a frosty can. He pushed in the pop top with a whoosh. “I hope you like Coors.”

“I don’t believe this,” said Paula.

Red Cloud opened another beer. “You mind I join you? Cheers!”

She lifted her beer and drank, and the amber liquid ran down her parched throat like a waterfall. She pressed the ice-cold can to her forehead and sighed.

“Better?”

“Better,” she conceded with a grin. Then she looked at her car and chagrin returned. “So what do I do now?”

“Well, I got water for car, awning for shade, plenty cold beer.” Red Cloud pointed to the scale on the counter between them. “But as long as you stuck, you want trade?”

“Trade what?” Curiously, Paula appraised the weathered booth. Except for Red Cloud, the scale, the pile of turquoise, and the cooler that was presumably below the counter, the trading post was bare. Then she stiffened. She had a gold necklace, earrings, her watch, a hundred dollars in her purse. She was alone in the desert with a broken-down car and no way to call for help…

Red Cloud shook his head. “You safe. This post legit. I give you three deals.” He poked among the turquoise. The stones were beautiful, varying in size and shape, but all polished as smooth as robins’ eggs. He selected two and pushed the scale forward. “This you,” he said, holding up one turquoise in his right hand. “This second party.” He held up the other stone. “You tell me something you want, something you willing trade, someone who welcome exchange.”

“I…How can I trade with someone who isn’t here? And what are you doing out here anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be on the reservation?”

The Indian drew himself up proudly. His black eyes shone. “I come from long line traders, my father, his father before him, many generations back. Our trades honorable,” he eyed Paula scornfully, “not worthless treaty paper, poison firewater, twenty-four dollars’ beads.”

Paula bit her lip.

“You tell me what you want,” Red Cloud repeated, “tell me what you give, tell me who make trade. If deal is fair, stones will tell.”

Paula glanced at her watch. The situation was absurd, of course, though the Indian seemed sincere. Probably best to humor him, keep him talking until she could leave. “Okay, how about getting me one of those old-fashioned roll-top desks? You know, the kind with the neat cubbyholes and…”

Red Cloud shook his head. “I no department store. You want desk, you earn money, you buy. I deal intangibles only.”

“Intangibles?”

Red Cloud held up a finger. “I give you example. Two months ago, near Phoenix, woman your age. She have little girl who hyperactive. Cause many problems with playmates and at school. Also, this same woman’s mother very ill. Want to see granddaughter before she die. But child almost uncontrollable and grandmother too weak handle visit. So this mother arrange trade, transfer child’s extra energy to old woman.” Red Cloud nodded, well satisfied. “Work out beautifully.”

Paula gave a condescending smile. “Nice story, but you honestly don’t expect me to believe that, do you? People are always wishing they had a kid’s energy. Maybe just seeing the playful little girl inspired the old lady with get-up-and-go.”

“Of course, I advise this mother cut down on child’s soft drinks, too. Too much sugar aggravate hyperactivity.”

“Good grief. Dr. Spock of the Desert.”

“Hmpf,” snorted Red Cloud, measuring Paula up and down. “You know so much. How old you?”

“Thirty-three.”

“You got brave? Any papoose?”

“No, not that it’s any of your—”

“Hmpf! Too thin.”

“What?”

“Too thin. You think warrior want crawl in sleeping bag with bundle little dry sticks like you? One good squeeze, you crunch into kindling.”

“Now, just one minute—”

“And how come you wear that crazy suit?” He pointed disparagingly. “All straight up and down like man, blouse buttoned to chin. Why you no wear something pretty, flowery skirt or low-cut dress?”

“To a business meeting with Palmer Finch? You have to be kidding.” Paula swigged on her beer.

“How you know this Palmer Finch no like see skin?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Palmer wouldn’t think of such a thing.”

“H’mm,” said Red Cloud. “Him gay, huh?”

She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “I don’t believe this. Anyway, you’re a fine one to tell me how to dress. What on earth are you doing in that safari suit? Shouldn’t you be in deerskin?”

“Deerskin? In this heat? You crazy.” Red Cloud leaned over the counter and held out his lapel. “Polyester double knit. Super light. Fabric breathes.”

Paula sighed and gazed around. Sometimes, the desert could be stunning. In spring, especially, the colors bloomed as if on fire. But this particular stretch was all sunbaked yellow and brown, and the air was so dry there was almost nothing to breathe. Sunshine City, where are you?

“You want trade?” Red Cloud asked.

“Okay, sure, let’s trade, let’s deal, my suit’s ruined, my career’s sinking fast, what do I have to lose?” Paula threw up her hands. “Trade, trade…Okay, I have it.” She nodded. “A transfer of misplaced affection. I, Paula Manning, do hereby present for trade one Gerald Pemberton. I bequeath him to Juana Fernandez, free and clear, though what she sees in him is beyond me.”

“Whoa,” said Red Cloud. He raised the two pieces of turquoise. “This you, this Juana.” He placed both stones on the scale. For a moment, the trays quivered, suspended. Then Paula’s side tipped down. The Indian shook his head. “Trade not fair. This Gerald no bargain, huh?”

“No bargain? Gerald Pemberton is the most obnoxious, conceited, self-confident, good-looking, and untalented lawyer I’ve ever met. He’s been after me to go out with him for months, and he can’t get it through his thick skull that no means no. And poor Juana’s gaga about him. So let her have him.”

Red Cloud said nothing. He pursed his lips, waiting.

“Okay, okay,” said Paula. “How about this: I give up Gerald, I give him to Juana, but only for a certain amount of time, say two months. That’ll give her a chance to have her fun, go out on some fancy dates, get to know him, and then decide for herself he’s exactly the jerk he appears to be. After all, Juana’s only twenty-one, she’s our file clerk, she’s probably a bit overawed by Gerald’s smooth talk and his style…” She rambled on, softening her case, allowing space for compromise—an important courtroom tactic—when suddenly she noticed the two scales balancing perfectly, her stone no longer weighing down. “Wait a minute, how did you do that?”

“Two months,” Red Cloud repeated approvingly.

“For Juana,” Paula hastened to say, “but then I don’t want Gerald back. I’m giving him up permanently, right?”

The scales remained even. “Right.” Red Cloud held out his hand. “Trade?”

“Trade.” Paula shook on it. Then she added sarcastically, “Do we smoke the peace pipe now?”

“Peace pipe? Oh no, that just rhetorical greeting. Like kemosabe accent, for tourists. Okay, you got two more trades. What you want?”

“What do I want? A Jaguar XKE would be nice. I know, I know,” she waved, “intangibles only. Wait, I have it. My parents, who live near San Francisco, have been pounded with rain all this past month. Maybe you’ve seen it on the news. There’s already been serious flooding and more to come if the weather doesn’t let up. Whereas here in New Mexico,” she gestured around her, “we can always use a good drenching. So how about we transfer some of that extra precipitation…Well, why ever not?” she demanded, as Red Cloud again shook his head.

The Indian sighed. “You white people all alike. You think you can tell sun to rise and set, order wind to blow, rain to fall. No. This post for personal trades only. What you want? And what you give?”

Chastened, Paula contemplated the scales. “Give me some suggestions, Red Cloud. What do other people trade?”

“Boobs.”

“What?”

“Boobs. Nine out of ten women want bigger boobs. You could use couple more inches yourself.”

“Why, you—”

“Trouble is,” Red Cloud continued sagely, “very hard for flat woman find big woman willing trade. No matter how big, most women never give up inch. You think about it.”

Paula did, and a smile crept on her face.

“How tall you?” Red Cloud asked.

“Five foot seven.”

“Height make good trade. You want be taller? Shorter? Always someone willing trade height. Last month, near El Paso—”

“Wait a minute, I thought you said you were in Phoenix.”

“That two months ago. Last month, El Paso. I move around. Anyway, this El Paso man six foot six, him hate be so tall. He know short man, five foot three. They trade six inches. Both parties very happy.”

“Now that I don’t believe,” said Paula. “If people went around swapping three inches here and five inches there, you’d have the AMA, the CIA, the KGB, UPI, and heaven knows who else on the case. Besides, isn’t height, or boobs for that matter, tangible?”

Red Cloud shrugged. “I allow some gray areas. You want another beer while you think?”

“I may as well.”

She nursed her second Coors in silence. Okay, suppose you really could trade something like height or eye color or physical dimensions. What would she trade? Not her height. That was perfect. And not her figure either, because despite Red Cloud’s outdated opinions on women’s silhouettes, Paula knew she was enviably thin and looked damn good in just about anything. Good skin, good teeth, good hair, too. In fact, she could think of only two physical flaws. One, that she was slightly far-sighted and needed glasses for reading. But far from being a handicap, her designer glasses made her look so sophisticated and intelligent she usually wore them in court just to impress the judge and jury. The second flaw was a mole on her left shoulder, but she couldn’t think of anyone who would be willing to accept a mole. Anyway, a little thing like that really didn’t affect her self-image, did it?

“Maybe you trade a quality?” Red Cloud offered.

“Such as?”

“You too aggressive, you know someone shy, you trade. You too talkative, your friend tongue-tied, fair swap.”

“H’mm.” Alan Ryder came to mind. Had her discussion of search and seizure been too opinionated? Had he been bored? He did seem to avoid her the rest of the evening. “Maybe I could stand to be a little more, well, humorous. You know, fun-loving. Not a practical joker or one of those idiots who put lamp shades on their heads at parties. Just more…spontaneous. You understand?”

“Sound good to me. Who you swap with?”

“Rick McPherson.” Paula nodded eagerly. “He’s an assistant to the budget director and a joker to the extent that he gets on your nerves. I’ve heard he may lose his job because he doesn’t even take that seriously. So Rick should buckle down, and I should ease up. I don’t know why I can’t do it myself, except that I’ve always felt in competition with my older brother. He’s a lawyer, too, a real super-achiever, and the main reason I left California was to get out of his shadow and carve my own niche—” She stopped. “Why am I telling you this?”

Red Cloud looked up innocently. He had been rummaging in his pile of turquoise. Now he presented two new stones. “This you, this Rick,” he intoned. “You get better sense of humor, Rick get serious about his job.” Ceremoniously, he placed the stones on the scale. They balanced. The Indian held out his hand. “Trade?”

“Trade.” Paula shook. Then she checked her watch. “Look, Red Cloud, it’s five to two. Do you think it would be safe to put that water in now?”

Red Cloud produced a gallon plastic jug from under the counter and stepped out from his booth. Even in the blazing heat, his khaki safari suit looked crisp and neat. He and Paula walked to her car, and he tentatively felt the radiator hose. “Hose cool. Okay for water.”

“Great!” Paula rubbed her hands. She watched him pour the water into the radiator and twist the cap in place.

“You want make third trade?”

“No, but I do want to use your booth again.”

“Help yourself.”

She hurried back to the trading post, set her purse on the counter, and pulled out her cosmetics and a small travel mirror. “I’m already an hour late,” she said, touching up her lipstick. “I may as well take two minutes to try to look presentable when I arrive. Listen, you wouldn’t happen to have a trade that would get me out of this jam, would you?”

“What exactly you want?”

“I want you to turn back time, make it five to one instead of five to two, and make Sunshine City appear one mile ahead.”

“What you give for swap?”

Paula brushed powder on her cheeks. “Forget the swap. It’ll do a lot of people a lot of good if I get there on time. Sunshine City is a real estate scam that’s taken in dozens of elderly people. They’ve invested their money thinking they’re going to get a wonderful retirement home, and they may get nothing but a plot of desert dust.”

“So what difference it make you no arrive? You don’t come, Mr. Finch give case to someone else, they look after old people.”

“Aha,” Paula said, fluffing out her hair, confidence returning as she viewed her image in the mirror. She turned and jabbed a finger at Red Cloud. “But I am far and away the best person to handle this case. I’ll fight for those old peoples’ rights like nobody else would. I won’t let any shady character cheat them out of their life savings, and I’m ready to go after the zoning board members who gave out the permits and the judge who upheld them, too.” She clenched her fist and her eyes gleamed fire. “You watch me, Red Cloud, I’m going to break this case wide open.”

The Indian said nothing. He picked two stones. “This you, this old people.” He placed the turquoises on the scale, and Paula’s stone hit the counter with a thud. Red Cloud eyed her impassively. “You not telling everything.”

“What do you mean, I’m not telling everything?” she fumed, repacking her purse.

“Look at your stone. If this such good deal for old people, how come your stone weigh heavier? What in it for you?”

“Well, of course my stone weighs heavier. Just look at them. It’s a bigger stone.”

She gestured in irritation, and Red Cloud shrugged. He lifted the two pieces of turquoise. “You want be little stone, this you,” he agreed, replacing both on the scale. The little stone clanged to the bottom.

Paula’s mouth opened. “I don’t believe this,” she said slowly.

“Now I ask again, what in it for you?”

Hypnotized, Paula stared at the smooth blue stones. “A promotion,” she said and watched the little stone, her stone, lift a quarter inch. “A big promotion,” she said, speaking directly to the scales, and again her turquoise rose as the other came down. “A big promotion, lots of exposure, probably my name in all the papers and the evening news.” The stone rose. Paula stared at it, mesmerized. “It’s my big break, a giant leap in my career, the first step to Congress or the Senate.”

The stones balanced.

“You not really interested in helping old people,” Red Cloud concluded. “You interested in helping yourself.”

Paula’s answer was a whisper. “Yes.”

“That the trade then. You give up promotion, you get case.” The Indian held out his hand.

For another long moment Paula stared at the scales. “No, it’s not fair! I deserve that promotion. I won’t—” Her turquoise began to sink, and tears of frustration sprang to her eyes.

“All right!” she shouted. “All right, damn it, you win! Let’s get this over with.” She thrust out her hand. Red Cloud waited until the scales leveled, then he clasped Paula’s hand and they shook. He guided her to her car and opened the door.

Safe behind the wheel, reason quickly returned, and Paula squared her shoulders. “Okay, Red Cloud, this has been some little game. A unique and diverting way to spend a half hour. If I’m ever stranded again, I’ll look you up.” She shook open the road map. “By the way, I don’t suppose you have any idea where Sunshine City is?”

“One mile straight ahead.”

“What?”

“One mile straight ahead.”

“Why the hell didn’t you tell me that before?”

“You no ask.”

“Well, of all the idiotic—” She jammed the key into the ignition and the car roared up.

“Wait,” Red Cloud commanded. “You forget something.” He pointed to his diamond-studded watch. “Your time wrong, see?” He held out his wrist. The numbers shone: 12:55. He plucked an eagle feather from his headdress and offered Paula the quill. “You better change hour.”

Paula grabbed the feather. “This is crazy, you know that?” she demanded, poking the reset button on her watch with the quill. “I’ll just roll up an hour late, show Palmer my watch, and claim I fell into a time warp, right?”

Red Cloud shrugged.

“You’re a bigger con artist than those real estate crooks I’m going to put away,” she raged, “and I’ll tell you what I think of your deals, too. They stink! I made three trades and I don’t see where I’ve come out ahead on any of them. In fact, all I’ve done is give things up. Gerald Pemberton, though he’s sure no loss, and some of my own caution in exchange for Rick McPherson’s seat-of-the-pants technique, and my whole future career just to get one lousy case.” She slammed her fist on the dashboard.

“I think,” said Red Cloud, “you stop consider, you not do too bad. You get water for car, directions to Sunshine City, not to mention two free Coors. As for trades, you wait. They maybe better than you guess.”

“Yeah, right.” Paula flipped a business card out the window into his hands. “Call me when you get arrested for trading without a license. I’ll see they go easy on you.”

She rammed down the accelerator and sped off, covering the Indian in dust. The nerve of that man! One mile straight ahead and he couldn’t spit out the information? Already she could see the desolation of Sunshine City coming into view before her: a huge, half-excavated tract with a few trailers and construction equipment lying idle. Her watch, reset, said exactly one o’clock as she roared up the entrance road and saw Palmer Finch and two other men standing beside a car. They stopped talking as she braked and jumped out.

“Palmer, I’m sorry, I—”

“Paula, are you all right?” Palmer Finch came hurriedly to meet her, and she followed his glance to her dusty blue suit and shredded hose.

“Palmer, I apologize, I had car trouble. My engine seized up and I lost control.”

“Are you hurt?” He held out a steadying hand as she limped on her broken high heel.

“No, but…” Paula shut her mouth. She had just glimpsed Palmer Finch’s watch.

The A.G. laughed. “The way you came tearing up the road, we thought you might be trying out for the Indy 500. I hope you don’t always drive like that?”

“Well, no, I—”

“Good. Paula, this is Bill Peters from Santa Fe Contracting and his partner Fred Henderson. They were to be the builders for Sunshine City, and it looks as if they’ve been duped as well. Gentlemen, one of New Mexico’s best and brightest young lawyers, Paula Manning. Now,” he continued, as handshakes were exchanged, “since we’re all here on time, I suggest we get to work.”

At eleven o’clock that evening, back in her own apartment, Paula finally had the time to be thoroughly perplexed. The afternoon had been exhausting, traipsing over the abandoned construction site, getting a crash course on materials costs and geographical feasibility studies. Then the drive to a garage in Roswell to replace her car’s faulty thermostat, followed by the long haul back to Santa Fe.

How did it happen?

Because not only Palmer’s watch but the watches of the two construction men, the clock in the auto garage, the digital display outside the Roswell bank, and the time announcements on her car radio all agreed with her reset hour. As did the clock on her living room wall now. Then her watch must have been wrong to begin, how embarrassing! And that Red Cloud, what a sham! But never mind. The important thing was that having arrived on time, she had proceeded to live up to Palmer’s flattering introduction. The Sunshine City case was hers.

The next two weeks were nonstop, so hectic Paula hardly noticed something missing from her daily routine: Gerald Pemberton sashaying by to chat on coffee break, Gerald Pemberton employing the most juvenile delaying tactics at the elevator so he could wait to ride down in her car, Gerald Pemberton turning up at the water cooler, the cafeteria, her favorite restaurant, and everywhere else she went. In fact, the first time she looked up from her desk to wonder where Gerald was, she saw him leaning over the file cabinet, whispering in Juana Fernandez’s ear, and Juana blushing furiously. Well, I’ll be damned, she thought.

That Saturday, Greg and Sandy invited her to a dinner party at their new home. “Alan Ryder’s coming,” Sandy teased. “Interested?” Except that when Paula finally contrived to get him alone by the pool, they got into a heated argument over contractual liability clauses. And the worse it got, the less she seemed able to let go. Until suddenly, inexplicably, she pushed him into the deep end of the pool. Falling, he grabbed her arm, and they both came up sputtering to the laughter and hooting and clapping of their friends.

“Well, well,” said Alan, as the two of them dogpaddled ridiculously, wet hair dripping in Paula’s face, “so you do have a funny bone after all.” And swimming to her, he caught her around the waist, lifted a damp lock from her nose, and kissed her until her toes tingled.

Five days later, Gerald Pemberton was promoted to the coveted position of Assistant Attorney General. Paula’s colleagues flocked to sympathize.

“I can’t believe it,” said Mike Estevez. “Gerald may have seniority, but everyone knows the promotion should have gone to you.”

“Gerald will be unbearable!” Laura Tate moaned. “Has Finch gone utterly mad?”

Paula did not wait. “Someone tell Palmer I’ve had to leave,” she commanded, grabbing her purse. “Tell him a toothache. Tell him anything.” She ran to the parking lot and jumped in her car. Route 25 through Albuquerque, Route 380 to Picacho, the unmarked road southeast. I’m coming, Red Cloud, do you hear me? I’m coming. Then the half-dug tract of Sunshine City rose before her, exactly ten miles down the road.

Paula took a deep breath. All right, there must be some mistake, a missed turn. She swung the car around and drove back more slowly, searching the desert to right and left for any sign of the Indian’s shack. In ten miles she arrived again at Picacho. Impossible. Once again she turned the car, and this time she spun to Sunshine City and then beyond. But in another ten miles she reached Route 13, the highway to Roswell. Look, Paula commanded, reaching for the eagle feather Red Cloud had given her to reset her watch. For the past three weeks it had lain forgotten on the dashboard under her business travel log. Now she held it high and headed north again, offering it to the horizon, like a token of entry to his realm. She passed Sunshine City for the third time, then drove a mile or two more without counting. Slowly, all the spirit drained out of her. The car coasted to a stop, and Paula stepped out, eagle feather in hand.

Around her the desert was as hot and dry as a whisper, silent, remote. The cactus and scrub were pale olive, the earth a dusty brown. Far on the horizon were the mountains and buttes and over all the glass-blue sky.

“Red Cloud!” Paula screamed. “Red Cloud!” The words evaporated into the air. She gazed around the barren landscape and tears filled her eyes. “Red Cloud, come back,” she whispered. “I didn’t believe, I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me? Oh, the stupid trades I made…getting rid of Gerald, being frivolous, making a meeting on time. You gave me three chances and I blew them.” She wiped at her eyes. “And you were right, Red Cloud, my trades have turned out well. Gerald is off my back, I have a date with Alan tomorrow, and even if getting to Sunshine City on time cost me my promotion, maybe it’s to make me stop and think of a better way to achieve what I want than by climbing over everyone’s back. But I would have traded differently, if only I had known.” The tears came again. “I might have thought of a way to feed the hungry or at least traded some eyesight so I’d really need my glasses and someone else could see. I would have done something…Red Cloud! Red Cloud! Come back! I am not a bad person! Red Cloud!”

The desert was empty. The words faded. Wet-cheeked, Paula bent her head to the feather in her hand and made a silent vow. Then she stuck the quill in the dirt, walked to her car and drove away. The eagle feather remained, standing, alone.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1987)

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