He should never have taken that shortcut.
Dan Baker winced as his new Mercedes S500 sedan bounced down the dirt road, heading deeper into the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. Around them, the landscape was increasingly desolate: distant red mesas to the east, flat desert stretching away in the west. They had passed a village half an hour earlier- dusty houses, a church and a small school, huddled against a cliff- but since then, they'd seen nothing at all, not even a fence. Just empty red desert. They hadn't seen another car for an hour. Now it was noon, the sun glaring down at them. Baker, a forty-year old building contractor in Phoenix, was beginning to feel uneasy. Especially since his wife, an architect, was one of those artistic people who wasn't practical about things like gas and water. His tank was half-empty. And the car was starting to run hot.
"Liz," he said, "are you sure this is the way?"
Sitting beside him, his wife was bent over the map, tracing the route with his finger. "It has to be," she said. "The guide-book said four miles beyond the Corazon Canyon turnoff."
"But we passed Corazon Canyon twenty minutes ago. We must have missed it."
"How could we miss the trading post?" she said.
"I don't know." Baker stared at the road ahead. "But there's nothing out here. Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, we can get great Navajo rugs in Sedona. They sell al kinds of rugs in Sedona."
"Sedona," she sniffed, "is not authentic."
"Of coarse it's authentic, honey. A rug is a rug."
"Okay." He sighed. "A weaving."
"And no, it's not the same," she said. "Those Sedona stores carry tourist junk- they're acrylic, not wool. I want the weavings that they sell on the reservation. And supposedly the trading post has an old Sandpainting weaving from the twenties, by Hosteen Klah. And I want it."
"Okay Liz." Personally, Baker didn't see why they needed another Navajo rug-weaving- anyway. They already had two dozen. She had them all over the house. And packed away in closets, too.
They drove on in silence. The road ahead shimmered in the heat so it looked like a silver lake. And there were mirages, houses or people rising up on the road, but always when you came closer, there was nothing there.
Dan Baker sighed again. "We must've passed it."
"Let's go a few more miles," his wife said.
"How many more?"
"I don't know. A few more."
"How many, Liz? Let's decide how far we'll go with this thing.
"Ten more minutes," she said.
"Okay," he said, "ten minutes."
He was looking at his gas gauge when Liz threw her hand to her mouth and said, "Dan!" Baker turned back to the road just in time to see a shape flash by-a man, in brown, at the side of the road- and hear a loud thump from the side of the car.
"Oh my God!" she said. "We hit him!"
"We hit that guy."
"No, we didn't. We hit a pothole."
In the rearview mirror, Baker could see the man still standing at the side of the road. A figure in brown, rapidly disappearing in the dust cloud behind the car as they drove away.
"We couldn't have hit him," Baker said. "He's still standing."
"Dan. We hit him. I saw it."
"I don't think so, honey."
Baker looked again in the rearview mirror. But now he saw nothing except the cloud of dust behind the car.
"We better go back," she said.
Baker was pretty sure that his wife was wrong and that they hadn't hit the man on the road. But if they had hit him, and if he was even slightly injured- just a head cut, a scratch- then it was going to mean a very long delay in their trip. They'd never get to Phoenix by nightfall. Anybody out here was undoubtedly a Navajo; they'd have to take him to a hospital, or at least to the nearest big town, which was Gallup, and that was out of their way-
"I thought you wanted to go back,: she said.
"Then let's go back."
"I just don't want any problems, Liz."
"Dan. I don't believe this."
He sighed, and slowed the car. "Okay, I'm turning. I'm turning."
And he turned around, being careful not to get stuck in the red sand at the side of the road, and headed back the way they had come.
Baker pulled over, and jumped out into the dust cloud of his own car. He gasped as he felt the blast of heat on his face and body. It must be 120 degrees out here, he thought.
As the dust cleared, he saw the man lying down at the side of the road, trying to raise himself up on his elbow. The guy was shaky, about seventy, balding and bearded. His skin was pale; he didn't look Navajo. His brown clothes were fashioned into long robes. Maybe he's a priest, Baker thought.
"Are you all right?" Baker said as he helped the man to sit up on the dirt road.
The old man coughed. "Yeah. I'm all right."
"Do you want to stand up?" he said. He was relieved not to see any blood.
"In a minute."
Baker looked around. "Where's your car?" he said.
The man coughed again. Head hanging limply, he stared at the dirt road.
"Dan, I think he's hurt," his wife said.
"Yeah," Baker said. The old guy certainly seemed to be confused. Baker looked around again: there was nothing but flat desert in all directions, stretching away into shimmering haze.
No car. Nothing.
"How'd he get out here?" Baker said.
"Come on," Liz said, "we have to take him to the hospital."
Baker put his hands on under the man's armpits and helped the old guy to his feet. The man's clothes were heavy, made of a material like felt, but he wasn't sweating in the heat. In fact, his body felt cool, almost cold.
The old guy leaned heavily on Baker as they crossed the road. Liz opened the back door. The old man said, "I can walk. I can talk."
"Okay. Fine." Baker eased him into the back seat.
The man lay down on the leather, curling into a fetal position. Underneath his robes, he was wearing ordinary clothes: jeans, a checked shirt, Nikes. He closed the door, and Liz got back in the front seat. Baker hesitated, remaining outside in the heat. How was it possible the old guy was out here all alone? Wearing all those clothes and not sweating?
It was as if he had just stepped out of a car.
So maybe he's been driving, Baker thought. Maybe he's fallen asleep. Maybe his car had gone off the road and he's had an accident. Maybe there was someone else still trapped in the car.
He heard the old guy muttering, "Left it, heft it. Go back now, get it now, and how."
Baker crossed the road to have a look. He stepped over a very large pothole, considered showing it to his wife, then decided not to.
Off the road, he didn't see any tire tracks, but he saw clearly the old man's footprints in the sand. The footprints ran back from the road into the desert. Thirty yards away, Baker saw the rim of an arroyo, a ravine cut into the landscape. The footprints seemed to come from there.
So he followed the footsteps back to the arroyo, stood at the edge, and looked down into it. There was no car. He saw nothing but a snake, slithering away from him among the rocks. He shivered.
Something white caught his eye, glinting in the sunlight a few feet down the slope. Baker scrambled down for a better look. It was a piece of white ceramic about an inch square. It looked like an electrical insulator. Baker picked it up, and was surprised to find it was cool to the touch. Maybe it was one of those new materials that didn't absorb heat.
Looking closely at the ceramic, he saw the letters ITC stamped on one edge. And there was a kind of button, recessed in the side. He wondered what would happen in he pushed the button. Standing in the heat, with big boulders all around him, he pushed it.
He pushed it again. Again nothing.
Baker climbed out of the ravine and went back to the car. The old guy was sleeping, snoring loudly. Liz was looking at the maps. "Nearest big town is Gallup."
Baker started the engine. "Gallup it it."
Back on the main highway, they made better time, heading south to Gallup. The old guy was still sleeping. Liz looked and him and said, "Dan . . ."
"You see his hands?"
"What about them?"
Baker looked away from the road, glanced quickly into the back seat. The old guy's fingertips were red to the second knuckle. "So, he's sunburned."
"Just on the tips? Why not the whole hand?"
"His fingers weren't like that before," she said. "They weren't red when we picked him up."
"Honey, you probably just didn't notice them."
"I did notice, because he had a manicure. And I thought it was interesting that some old guy in the desert would have a manicure.
"Uh-huh." Baker glanced at his watch. He wondered how long they would have to stay at the hospital in Gallup. Hours, probably.
The road continued straight ahead.