She woke in a wrong place. Coming out of an elusive dream, she decided on walking into the next settlement on a tenuous route.
Jojo on a mission. First, she must go through this odd little place.
Her mind played tricks. The trail seemed changed from when she’d slept. Where she’d crawled up a rocky notch, beside a scrubby pinion-pine, the one living tree on an otherwise near-barren cliff-side of scraggly-proud junipers.
Rocks and bushes had changed colors from grays and greens to purples and blues. It must be the dreams. Am I living inside an illusion? Going insane?
She was sure this quaint-looking village hadn’t been there when she’d collapsed in exhaustion the night before. But she also didn’t know why she was bad. He hadn’t told her yet. She just knew, somehow, she was at fault. Maybe all would be explained when she found a destination.
In one hand, she held her talisman: pieces of yellow straw, bound in a red ribbon. She tied the thread around her neck. Jojo always took it off while she slept because it scratched her chest. In the other hand, she held a list of travel codes. Her messages of sorts. Markings that would tell her the way to go on. It explained the many piled rocks, those colorful road cairns she came to — some high up on a hillside — others easier to see, lying near the gravel edges of the rough pathway she mindlessly followed.
Large rocks bore markings that had scrawls for all to see. Others were written in thick brownish ink that looked like blood. And those were harder to decipher. She didn’t care. Just followed the cairns, a lonely path. Jojo had no sense of real time — the sky: blue or black.
On a hillside in the distance, she could see where old train tracks once led. The empty hills were beautiful: brown and decorated with sagebrush, gray lizards and burnished blue rocks. An old wood and steel trestle glistened bright as gold in morning’s slanted sunshine. First to the village, then to the rail-bed, a track that would lead to a bigger town — her destination? Jojo didn’t know. Her mind did not work right.
As time passed, Jojo felt a surge of hope. She was almost sure she was there. A walking-man cairn of purple/red/green lay just ahead. She would check the code, be sure of the next move. Maybe head off in a northerly direction?
On the underside of the cairn’s flat head, a message was scribbled in black ink. Clearly, it noted to continue her path on this rutted track. A wagon road if she’d ever seen one; full of sharp, big rocks between narrow ruts. A lone Ponderosa pine stood burning in desert sun—its afternoon rays cast a long dark shadow. She could rest in its shade from the hot orb. Jojo would prepare herself to meet any townsfolk as she passed on through this tiny farmstead. She would ask food and water, although she had little to pay them with but a rusty smile.
I will try to say kind things.
As she approached the township, the first building structures glimmered in the sun. They made a strange configuration of old, sun-varnished wood. A few were tall and narrow, others fat or square and low. They seemed to have no purpose — not barns nor homes or even animal pens.
Jojo was mystified. Barbed wire fences lay here. And over there.
She saw awful creatures.
As she crept by, they eyed her. Eerily. Five were huge, like black hairy dogs with big glowering yellow eyes. Others were piggish. A hybrid cross of some wild-wooly hog with reddish-brown. Sheep?
These ones. Too hideous for a tired brain to accept. She’d never seen anything like them.
Was that so bad? Dogs and farm animals—not so scary?
Slogging past nonsensical buildings, yards with strange cacti flora and even stranger fauna, she watched golden-colored chickens pecking at dirt as her path abruptly ended. The town appeared fenced off, no walking cairn in sight to show the way. Jojo struggled, mentally confused, finally sliding herself through the widest wooden fence slat. A tall cross-bar was chucked aside to climb through.
Jojo tried to ponder what lay ahead, feeling fearful.
This village was an odd sight to her, but she knew she would look even stranger the way she was dressed. What was left of her blue nightgown was in short tatters, ripped and hanging just below her hips. Below this, the baggy cutoff jeans she wore showed scabby knees. Her legs were sore, fresh blood.
She glanced down. Chest scratches oozed.
As Jojo walked into the settlement, she saw people watching, staring from afar. None made a motion. She heard a door slam shut. Then, just ahead, someone shouted. A man with a cane appeared in front and came toward her, a smile rising on a jowly, pockmarked face.
“You’re lost,” he said. “Shouldn’t be here.” His voice became high, abrasive.
Jojo walked closer to the man’s graying, clapboard-house. She would meet him and speak. Moving closer, she saw he was bald, except for a long hank of gray hair hanging behind a round head. His dirty appearance hit in waves: sweat-stained blue coveralls. Big boots. A red cane of wood. Repulsive odor. A grimy, wrinkled neck suggested his age.
These were the first words anyone had spoken since starting the trek. Days ago? Weeks? October? She couldn’t remember when or where it started.
Is this place a different world?
Somehow, she’d been transported like Dorothy of Oz? Or faltering down some damned clumsy rabbit hole? A Wonderland? Her single lingering memory was of an odd young man: Tall, with dark, shaggy hair, glowing red eyes. A hallucination?
She shook her head, remembering she was Jojo. A bad woman.
“Where’s here, old man?” she cried out. Be nice. “Could I please have a mug of water, I’m dying of thirst in heat.” Jojo tried a sweet smile, hard to form with her mouth so dry. She licked dust on front teeth.
“I’m jus’ headed through this place to that railroad right-a-way, a trail somewhere. Don’ mean you no bother sir, I’ll be on my way quick if you’ll help.”
“You are truly some sight, you smutty little heathen. You should be shamed. What’s that blood on your neck, them scabs on those knees? Wait …!” He spat a blob of something brown and sticky to a wooden walk. “I’ll find you a drink.”
Without waiting, the man turned and lurched back down the walkway, tapping his cane on the boards, as if both crippled and blind. His shadow vanished.
Angry without reason, Jojo wanted to kick his cane into oblivion. With glee, to watch him fall in the dust. Hack his stupid pony-tail off. Maybe he’d crinkle up and die. Stupid twit.
An impulsive thought. Get outta’ Oz, girl!
Thirst was a demanding handicap. Looking down the roadway, she became sure of several things at once. There were no street-light poles or electrical wiring. No telephone lines. No motorized traffic. Nothing but dusty, dried and tacky buildings. Was this a Mojave ghost town?
Jojo jumped when a door creaked open on a building beside her. This noise was reality — no chance of her fleeting imagination. A woman with an absurd flowered hat, one with a black lace veil, appeared. She wore a long, white dress. Stood poised with bare feet. The hag held out a dripping glass of pale, yellowish-looking water.
“Drink this and be on your way, Dearie,” the woman muttered.
Jojo saw a glimpse of several white teeth and what looked like black holes in between. Needs some help, she does.
“Can you show me the easiest way to the next village,” Jojo asked, slurping the smelly water. “Could you tell the name of this place? So, I’ll never come again … even by accident.” She placed the empty glass on the ground.
“Pity,” the old woman said. “Your wounds. You’re so pretty, even with that sun-bleached hair. No proper clothing. This place is called Lonesome. Almost nobody lives here in the boondocks. Other towns are there.” She pointed back, toward the way Jojo had come. “And then you go east, towards a rising sun. Hurry girl, go now.”
Jojo found the next cairn near sunset on a sandy pathway intersecting three trails. She couldn’t believe it. That horrid little town. It was a maze, everything backward. They grew bushes and things, foul-smelling vegetables. They owned stuff she’d never seen. Other people she saw glared as she strode by. One poked up a mid-finger.
On the path, nobody helped. One male, a rough voice heard through a glass-less window, dared call her a slattern. What’s that? Guess it’s who I am.
“Bunch of religious fruits,” She muttered, tired, hungry, still thirsty. The noxious water was no help. She tasted it in her throat. Jojo needed to find a safe place to sleep. A walking cairn figure pointed right, east, down the rail track — away from the damned village. Written codes told her to go north again. It was confusing.
Jojo found a thorny bramble bush, checked for any sign of poisonous spiders or venomous rattlers, and crawled in. She remembered to take the talisman off her neck. It burned her skin raw and hadn’t helped.
She found a coin in her shorts pocket, sure it had not been there earlier. It was too dark to read the script. She’d look in the morning.
A series of tattered dreams overtook her confused mind. She drew her body into purple shadows and uneasy sleep.
“Maybe things will be better in the morning; I’ll find the man,” she mumbled in darkness. Jojo slid into black. She did not see the furry canine as it slouched against a pine tree while she slept.
Waking to sunshine, fresh, morning dew felt cool and refreshing on a parched body. A strange figure waved and said good morning. Perhaps it was the man with a dark mane of hair and wild eyes? This guy wore a straw western hat, checkered blue and white shirt, with denim pants and hiking boots.
“Sorry ’bout the confusion at the signpost yesterday,” he drawled. “But you made it through that terrible town, I couldn’t help you.”
Jojo yawned. “I dreamed about you last night, you came as a wolf.”
“That’s because I am one,” he said, smiling wide. “See these long teeth?” He tapped one.
“Who are you? Where are we? Who am I? Why do I think I’m Jojo?”
“We’re near Cache Junction now,” he said. “It’ll start coming to you in a day or so. I don’t wanna repeat, we gotta get going.” He grinned, looking her body over. “Our destination’s Cariboo. Beyond Hope.”
The wolfish cowboy winked. “You look great for a skinny, thing. Good to see ya.”
He reached into a pocket and pulled out a squashed bag, dark and mushy. Tossed it to her. “Trail mix, nuts. It’ll keep you going.”
The man handed an aluminum flask. “Cool water. Drink girl, you look kinda thirsty.”
The water tasted delicious.
“We’ll hike up this hill, in a mile or two there’s a road. When we get to a highway, we’ll hitch a ride to a turnoff near an Indigenous Native healing place. It’s locally known as Spirit Canyon.”
That’s where they headed. Not knowing what else to do, she followed in silence. He would fix her up and explain when they got to camp at a lake. Jojo automatically watched for stone cairns as they trudged. He’d said she didn’t have to check directions, it was safe to chuck her amulet. “It did its job for you.”
A small grocery stood at a highway junction. “Don’t we have a car somewhere?” she asked, he shopped for basic grub.
He mumbled, “Later.”
With a cloth sack full of bacon, bread, baked beans, and a few veggies she’d insisted upon, they hit the road going west. She noticed a sign indicating a town named Keremeos existed, several miles off, but in another direction. Jojo thought of going that way. But she followed along with him, toward a deep-pink desert sunset.
Jojo remained drawn to this stranger. Am I still in some sort of dream-haze?
The third car that passed picked them up. It was a short, five-minute drive.
In ten minutes, Jojo found herself breathless as they trudged upward through an empty landscape. This time, following an obscure cattle trail, hiking a steep, rocky incline. She followed mindlessly through a scenic valley above a small, very muddy, spotted lake. They tramped cross-country, through purple sage with no visible path ahead — just a few stunted cottonwoods and green-gray creosote brush. In fifteen minutes, she needed to rest.
“Jojo feels dizzy,” she said. He offered a drink of water.
“This is good,” he commented. Few words so far on the hike.
Sitting on a purple boulder with ancient Native pictographs, looking down at a unique basin, she asked his name again. “Sam,” he said. Nothing further.
A minute later, with a smile, he opened up. “I’ve been close by and watching. But I want your opinion on what you saw in that farm and village. Who’d you meet and speak with?”
Sam seemed friendly enough. Jojo didn’t think to question. They talked as he led the way down to the lake’s muddy rim.
“They were a bunch of stinky weirdoes,” she said. “They had wild-looking black dogs. Other creepy animals. One woman gave me a glass of brackish water. It smelled awful, but I drank the stuff anyway.”
Jojo took a breath. The going was easier. “They told me to go — right then — I headed toward the sunset. Somehow, I lost track of time. It took me a while to get away from their homestead. I was befuddled.”
“Did you give ’em a silver dollar, the coin I put in your back pocket to pay them?”
“How’d you do that, Sam?”
“Just stuck it in your pants when you squeezed through that fence. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but if they searched you, or asked money for a drink or something, I wanted you to have that coin. They were probably distracted by your straw medallion. It’s useless, but signifies you’re something different. They wouldn’t dare hurt ya, you’d nothin’ of value for ’em to rob.”
Locally it was called Spotted Lake. Spots yes. Mud yes. Lake no, just large white bubbles with shallow waters of green and blue. She saw pastel shades reflecting valley shadows and a sapphire sky.
The stranger went to work. “This sacred muck’ll heal you up right soon,” Sam said, plastering her torn knees with a grayish-red goo. “It takes away pain, too,” he added, putting a small splotch on her neck where she had a narrow, oozing cut.
They set up a basic camp in the brush, behind several gigantic boulders, out of sight from the trail and a pair of log shacks squatting on a nearby hummock.
Dusk, then darkness came. Jojo asked about her injuries and how she’d arrived there. “As I said, it’ll all come clear, probably in the morning,” Sam replied, wandering off, she assumed to pee. Her vague thoughts of who she was intruded.
“Would you look at that big moon rising. It looks just like a half wedge of orange cheese,” he yelled from a distance. “It makes me want howl. Say hello out there to this revered little valley.”
Over a small campfire, bacon was smoking on rocks heated by flames. The cans of beans bubbled smoothly. They shared a bag of raw carrots.
This is crazy, Jojo thought. Here I am in the middle of nowhere, with what I think is a kind stranger. Somehow, I feel at home!
She was having these troubled thoughts as they settled in for the night. Creepy dogs and snakes and old people.
He’d gathered dry branches, leaves and, with a few boughs from a nearby evergreen, he made a small, cocoon-style bed.
“You need a rest.”
Jojo’s tarnished lips broke into a fickle grin. “Agreed.”
Before bed, he’d re-packed her bare knees with healing mud, covered her exposed legs with his flannel shirt for warmth. As mud crumbled, she snuggled with Sam’s knees poked into hers. It would be all right.
She could see the Big Dipper overhead as Sam settled down close to her. His chest close against her as they nestled together. Crickets chirped in time with croaking frogs. His arm slid across her shoulder.
Uh oh! But it seemed okay. Sam seemed odd but cordial.
Jojo dreamed. At her throat, a pair of sensuous lips nuzzled at the scabby wound. Fingers probed the cut, gently brushing away dried mud flakes.
She awoke. The stranger called Sam had twisted her upper body to half face him. She heard a gasp of breath, then felt Sam’s tongue as he lapped. Ecstasy. Was this so bad?
Her midnight trauma evaded reason. A coyote sang. Was Sam a wolf?
Jojo scrunched over, juggling her legs over Sam’s for comfort and warmth. She slept. Another day, another world to contend.
Her hand found his arm. He snored. Peace at Spotted Lake.
A life on the road for over 10 years, discovering colourful characters, seemed the impetus for writing short stories. Hill covers several genres of literary fiction: rural fantasy, romance and Sci-Fi. He has several complete novels in revision. Retired from a small business, dealing with other writers in print and copy, he took on telling fictional stories. In the past, he was the publisher of a small community newspaper, winning awards from both the British Columbia Newspaper Association and Canada's National Association for writers, winning Best Editorial. He continues writing and learning these days on a popular writer site, Scribophile, and Spillwords Press.