A half-century after its original publication, Edward Abbey’s classic 1962 novel, Fire on the Mountain, still retains its beauty, power, and relevance. Now with a new introduction by New York Times bestseller Douglas Brinkley (The Wilderness Warrior, Walter Cronkite), this extraordinary tale by the legendary icon of the environmentalism movement and author of The Monkey Wrench Gang proudly celebrates rugged American individualism, as it tells the story of one tough old loner’s stand against the combined, well-armed forces of government that are determined to clear him from his land.
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Brightest New Mexico. In the vivid light each rock and tree and cloud and mountain existed with a kind of force and clarity that seemed not natural but supernatural. Yet it also felt as familiar as home, the country of dreams, the land I had known from the beginning.
We were riding north from El Paso in my grandfather's pickup truck, bound for the village of Baker and the old man's ranch. This was in early June: the glare of the desert sun, glancing off the steel hood of the truck, stung my eyes with such intensity that I had to close them now and then for relief. And I could almost feel the fierce dry heat, like that of an oven, drawing the moisture from my body; I thought with longing of the cool water bag that hung from the hood latch over the grille in front, inaccessible. I wished that Grandfather would stop for a minute and give us time for a drink, but I was too proud and foolish to ask him; twelve years old, I thought it important to appear tougher than I really was.
When my eyes stopped aching I could open them again, raise my head and watch the highway and fence and telephone line, all geometrically straight and parallel, rolling forever toward us. Heat waves shimmered over the asphalt, giving the road far ahead a transparent, liquid look, an illusion which receded before us as fast as we approached.
Staring ahead, I saw a vulture rise from the flattened carcass of a rabbit on the pavement and hover nearby while we passed over his lunch. Beyond the black bird with his white-trimmed wings soared the western sky, the immense and violet sky flowing over alkali flats and dunes of sand and gypsum toward the mountains that stood like chains of islands, like a convoy of purple ships, along the horizon.
Those mountains — they seemed at once both close by and impossibly remote, an easy walk away and yet beyond the limits of the imagination. Between us lay the clear and empty wilderness of scattered mesquite trees and creosote shrubs and streambeds where water ran as seldom as the rain came down. Each summer for three years I had come to New Mexico; each time I gazed upon the moon-dead landscape and asked myself: what is out there? And each time I concluded: something is out there — maybe everything. To me the desert looked like a form of Paradise. And it always will.
The shadow of the vulture flashed by on the right.
Grandfather put his big freckled hand on my knee. "See the jack rabbit, Billy?"
"Yes sir. That's number ten. Ten dead jack rabbits on the road since we left El Paso."
"Well, that means we're almost home. They average about one dead rabbit every five miles. This year. Now ten years ago you could drive all the way from Baker to El Paso and see maybe one rabbit."
The old man, crouching under the roof of the cab, squinted through his spectacles at the road unpeeling ahead, like a seam on the world. Seventy years old, he drove at seventy miles an hour. In that flat and empty land such a speed seemed leisurely. He crouched because the roof of the truck was too low. The truck, almost new, had a cab wide enough to accommodate four men but not high enough for one. Part of the trouble was Grandfather's hat, which was one foot tall, but he could not take it off because that would be immodest. So he spread himself laterally as much as he could, putting his left elbow and shoulder out the window and his right arm across the top of the seat. The steering wheel he controlled with the tip of his left forefinger.
"A rabbit is a kind of rat, Grandfather."
"I've heard about that. And we haven't looked at the whole thing, either. This system benefits the vulture, as we noticed a minute ago. It helps preserve the balance of nature. Over-all efficiency, I call it. We also have efficient overalls. Did you bring yours?" "Yes sir." I looked out the rear window to make sure my suitcase was still in the bed of the truck. It was there, my leather companion all the way from Pittsburgh.
"You'll need them," the old man said. "We got work to do tomorrow. You and me and Lee, we're going up on the mountain tomorrow, gonna look for a horse and a lion. How does that sound?"
"That sounds wonderful, Grandfather. Lee's coming too?"
"He said he'd come."
A glow of pleasure spread through my nerves. I hadn't seen Lee Mackie for nine months — the nine months I'd spent imprisoned in school back East — and I missed him. I could never imagine a finer man than Lee; when I thought of him I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be Lee Mackie II.
"Will we see him today? Is he out at the ranch now?" As I looked at Grandfather, waiting for his answer, I hooked my arm around the gallon jug at my side, our gift for Lee, which we had selected that morning in the market place of Juarez. There was another jug beside it, Grandfather's gift for himself. And on my feet were brand-new boots with built-up heels and toes sharp enough to kick holes in door panels, the first genuine cowboy boots I had ever possessed.
"He said he'd try to get out there sometime tonight. Your Lee's a busy man these days, Billy. He's got himself a wife now, and a broker's license, and a real estate office, and a big fat automobile with four headlights and six taillights and three hundred and fifty horsepower. He's got big ambitions. You won't recognize him anymore, Billy."
I paused to consider this information. "I don't care," I said. "Lee can handle anything. Besides — I knew he was going to get married. He warned me last year about that. We talked it over and I said it would be all right this time."
The old man smiled. "Just so it don't happen again, is that the idea?"
"Well, you won't see so much of him this year. But he's promised to come out to the ranch as often as he can anyway, so don't feel discouraged." And he gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Stick with me, Billy. We're in for a lively summer. I'm gonna need you, boy."
I took a deep breath, swelling with pride and resolution. "I'm ready for anything, Grandfather. Trouble or anything." I opened the dashboard compartment and peeked inside: half-concealed beneath papers, matches, snakebite kits and tools was the old revolver in its leather case.
"But you keep your eager little paws off that gun. If I ever need it I don't want to have to go a-searching for it under your pillow. You hear me, Billy?"
"Yes, sir." I felt a flush of embarrassment on my cheeks. The summer before I had borrowed the revolver, without telling the old man, and kept it on my bed at night.
"Don't you worry about it," he said. "We'll have some target practice tomorrow. I guess you're old enough now to start learning how to handle a gun."
"Sure I am, Grandfather." I thought about that, staring ahead at the endless highway. We straddled another dead jack rabbit. "Grandfather, did you ever shoot anybody?"
The old man paused before replying. "Not yet," he said.
"Did Lee ever shoot anybody?"
"Well — you ask him. He was in the war. Ask him sometime, he'll tell you all about it. I think he got some kind of a medal. You'll have to prod him a little. Not much."
"A medal for shooting people?"
"Well, it was the war. Absolutely legal. Tell me what you did in school last year."
"Nothing, Grandfather. I graduated. Next year I'm going away to school. They're sending me to a prep school."
"You think you'll like that?"
"Dad's always telling me what a lot of money it will cost so I guess I'd better like it. He wants me to be an engineer. Mom wants me to be a doctor."
"What do you want to be?"
"I don't know, Grandfather. I'd like to stay here with you and Lee. I think I'd like to breed horses."
"Maybe you should have been a horse."
"I'm kidding you, Billy." He played with the new straw hat on my head. "How does the hat feel?"
"All right, only it's kind of stiff."
"We'll break it in." After a moment he said: "You be patient with your folks, Billy. They want to do all they can for you."
"Why, how many parents do you think would let their boy travel all the way across the country by himself to spend the summer with a crazy old man? Did you ever think about that?"
"Yes. I know. I only wish — they wouldn't be so nervous about it. They get so nervous about everything."
"That's what you call an occupational disease. There's no cure for it. Watch the cows and the hens, they get the same way. It's all part of nature's infernal plan."
"All part of what, sir?"
"Nature's eternal plan. Look at that!"
A road runner broke from the brush and streaked across the highway before us, beak and neck and tail stretched out above invisibly racing legs. Once across, the bird vanished into the scenery, leaving behind a trace of smoke.
"Now there's an interesting case for you," Grandfather began. "The road runner — the cuckoo of the desert. Now he could fly across the road if he really wanted to. Be a lot safer. But he won't do it. Too doggone stubborn. He'd rather risk his neck than give up his rights. What can you do with a bird like that?"
"Maybe the jack rabbits are the same way, Grandfather."
"No, the jack rabbits operate on a different principle — they don't take chances, they commit suicide. They jump right into your headlights, eyes wide open. No pride, no dignity and no brains. The road runner takes a sporting gamble but he knows what he's doing and never gets hit. He's a solitary bird, he has to think for himself. The rabbit doesn't have that problem."
Something changed in the appearance of things to the north. Where the highway merged with horizon there now rose up, quite suddenly, a water tower labeled B and a string of blue smoke, a cluster of bright green cottonwood trees and the square shapes of houses and store buildings. We passed an automobile graveyard and an abandoned gas station ("Save 2¢"), a scatter of tarpaper shacks, a hard new motel, supermarket and cafe, and slowing down rapidly, entered the village of Baker. Grandfather's ranch lay twenty miles due west, near the foot of the mountains; we were almost home.
The old man parked the truck in front of Hayduke's place, a combination general store, post office, and bus stop. When he turned the motor off the silence was startling; the only sound I could hear at first was the rattle and groan of a jukebox in the bar next door. A little weary, we climbed out of the truck and stood in the fierce glare of the sun. I reached for the water bag on the front of the truck.
"How about some soda pop?" the old man said. I nodded. "Come on in the store."
We walked into the cool gloom of the interior, where I had to pause to allow my eyes to readjust themselves.
"Fix the boy up with a bottle of pop," I heard my Grandfather say.
"Yes sir, Mr. Vogelin!" And the sprightly figure of the storekeeper took shape in the darkness before me, a bottle opener in his hand.
"Howdy, Billy. Glad to see you back. You just open that cooler over there and help yourself. No charge."
"Thank you," I mumbled.
"Any mail for me?" Grandfather asked.
"You got a couple more of them Government letters back here somewheres," Hayduke said, ducking into the little fourth-class post office walled into one corner of the store. "Yes sir, Mr. Vogelin, I seen them this morning. Somewhere back here ... hold on a minute ... yes sir, here they are. That's the one from the Corps of Engineers and this here one's from the District Court. How's everything going, Mr. Vogelin?" I found the cooler and opened myself a bottle of root beer, took a deep drink and looked around for the toilet. A long drive, from El Paso to Baker. "You know as much about that as I do," I heard Grandfather say as I walked to the door I needed. "And here's a dime for the soda pop."
"That's twelve cents now, Mr. Vogelin, unless you're leaving the bottle here."
"We'll take the bottle with us, Hayduke."
Grandfather was waiting for me outside in the heat, the pop bottle in his hand, when I came out. "Here you are, Billy." The letters stuck out of his shirt pocket, unopened. "Come on next door and we'll have a beer."
As we started to walk away the Greyhound bus came in, bound for Albuquerque from El Paso, and stopped for a moment in front of the store, where the driver blew his horn and threw a bundle of newspapers onto Hayduke's porch. No passengers got on, none got off; the bus roared onward into the north, Alamogordo next stop, thirty miles away. I gripped my bottle firmly and tightened the hat on my head as we stepped into the vast and shady vacancy of the Wagon Wheel Bar. Men had died in this place.
A little withered cowboy squatted on top of one of the bar stools, watching us enter, blinking as we let in a blast of fresh air and sunshine.
"Close that door, John," he said to my grandfather. "Now look at them flies. What's it like out there? Still hot?"
"Go out and see for yourself," my grandfather said. He ordered a can of beer from the Mexican behind the bar.
"I go out when the sun goes down," the little cowboy said, hunkered on top of the stool. Like an Indian, he'd never learned properly how to sit on a chair. "Hello, Billyboy," he said to me, "what're you adoin' in this corner of Hell? Why ain't you in school where you belong?"
"It's June," my Grandfather said. "Vacation time. Billy's come to spend another summer with us at the Box V. If you ever went outside in the daylight, Bundy, you'd learn to tell the difference between winter and summer."
"Winter," the little cowboy said, peering thoughtfully up at the ceiling. "Summer. Oh, I remember what they're like, John. I seen 'em both one time."
"Well, have another look," Grandfather said; "they need you out there."
The Wagon Wheel was a good bar. I'd always liked it — roomy, gloomy and quiet, always cool even on the hottest days of July and August. Best of all I liked the mural on the windowless east wall, a great primitive picture twenty feet long and ten feet high showing Thieves' Mountain against an immaculate blue sky and three ragged black buzzards circling above a horseman in the heart of the White Sands. The horse trudged over the dunes with hanging head and closed eyes. The rider sat slumped in the saddle, a dark stain of blood on his shirt, the shaft of an arrow sticking out of his back, and a rifle hanging loosely from his limp left arm. The artist had given the painting a title: "Desert Doom, or Forty Miles From Hope."
I drank my root beer and studied the picture, while Grandfather carried on a sullen talk with the little cowboy.
"I hear you declared war on the United States Government, John," the cowboy said.
"No, they declared war on me."
"Maybe the Government needs more help." The little man paused and said: "Whose side is Lee on?"
"I think he's on my side."
"Well, maybe the Government will need more help. I think maybe I oughta volunteer, lend 'em a hand. When the summer's over, I mean, and it ain't so god-awful hot outside. You think I should join the Army, the Navy, the Marines or the Air Corpse, John?"
"Bundy, you're giving me a headache." The old man finished his can of beer and turned to me. "Let's go, Billy."
Grandfather and I stepped outside into the scalding brilliance of the afternoon. The heat was like the blast of a furnace, but the dry air sucked the sweat from my body and gave me at least the illusion of comfort. We made for our truck, with its Box V brand painted on the door panel, and climbed in. After a stop at the new supermarket on the edge of town, where the old man bought some flour and beans, we drove south to the turnoff and headed west over the twenty miles of hard-riding dirt road that led to the ranch.
The landscape before me was much the same as that in the mural on the wall of the Wagon Wheel Bar. To the west rose the broken tooth of Thieves' Mountain, the peak ten thousand feet above sea level, adorned with a feather of cloud. North were the San Andres Mountains, with the white dunes of gypsum flowing for fifty miles along the base of the range, and to the south were the Organ Mountains, tapering off into the dimness and emptiness of the borderland and Old Mexico. Even the buzzards were present, two of them, hovering high in the blue, meditating on space, but the savage eyes missing nothing that stirred in the desert below — belly, beak and claws taut with hunger and desire. Next turn around, I thought, if we get the choice, I too want to be a long-winged, evil-minded predatory bird.
We came to the boundary and then to the gateway of my grandfather's little kingdom. He stopped the truck, I got out, slid back the drawbar of the gate and swung it open. Above my head, hanging from the cross-pole of the gate frame, a weather-silvered board inscribed with the Box V brand creaked on its iron rings. The old man drove the pickup through, I closed and latched the gate, and climbed back to my seat.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fire On The Mountain"
Copyright © 1990 Clarke Abbey.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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