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57

THE SLOPE WAS STEEP, but he could hand himself down from tree trunk to tree trunk, most of the time managing to stay on his feet. As the sun rose higher, off to his left, the chill in the air grew less, but he didnt mind the chill, really; the exercise of walking down the mountain kept him warm.

His head ached, and other parts of him hurt, while different parts stung. There was an intermittent buzzing in his ears, and from time to time his eyes lost their focus and he had to cling to a tree until he could see clearly again. But it wasnt so bad, and when he came across the road it got even better.

The road was one lane, dirt, not much more than a pair of rutted grooves angling diagonally across his downward path. It descended leftward, so he followed it, because it was easier to walk on a real road, and he had no clear destination in mind. It was just important, it seemed to him, to walk down from the mountain.

It was just as well there were no mirrors or streams or other ways to see himself along the way, because his appearance had not been improved by recent events. His red-check flannel shirt was redder than before, with dried blood, and sported two irregular long gashes up the back. His tailored blue jeans were ripped here and there, splotched with grass stains, and with the left hip pocket half torn off, to dangle like a warning flag. His dark leather cowboy boots were so mud-stained you could no longer see the pictures of cactus plants on their sides. His hair was a tangled snarl, his face and hands streaked with dirt and dried blood, and his eyes had a strange look, like a fish tank overdue for cleaning.

He walked for a while down the small dirt road, and then it met a slightly larger road, two-lane blacktop, that angled down to the right. Blacktop was better than dirt, so he took it.

The first house he passed had been abandoned a long time ago. Half the roof was collapsed in, and much of the front porch had sagged completely away from the house. He stopped to look at it, slumped there, shadowed by the trees, then decided that wouldnt be a good place to stop, so he kept walking.

After a while, a pickup truck passed him, going the same direction he was; it came down from up behind him, and kept going. He watched it go and thought it would be nice to ride in the pickup truck instead of walking, but he didnt wave or shout or do anything but just kept on as before.

The next vehicle he met was coming up the mountain toward him. It was some sort of police car, with a red dome light on the roof. The dome light was switched off and the car drove uphill at normal speed. It seemed the car would just go on by, like the pickup truck, but then it stopped when it was opposite him and the drivers window lowered.

Beneath the opening window was a picture of a silver badge painted on the door, with SHERIFF in large letters superimposed on it, plus other things in smaller letters. The driver of the car was a rawboned man of forty or fifty or sixty, wearing a brown uniform and a darker brown necktie and the kind of broad-brimmed hat the Parks Department people wear. He looked out and called, You okay?

Just fine. He kept walking, slowly, and smiled at the sheriff.

Hold on there a second.

He stopped, and the sheriff backed off the road, put his blinker lights on but not the dome light, and got out of the car. He had a handgun in a holster on a separate belt that he adjusted before he walked across the road and said, in a friendly manner, You staying around here?

Down that way. He gestured at the road ahead.

You look as though you been in an accident.

Do I?

Yes, you do. The sheriff studied him, particularly his eyes. Have you been in an accident?

Well, I dont think so.

You dont think so. The sheriff took a minute to study his boots and his shirt. Then he looked him in the eye again. I dont think I recognize your face, he said. We dont get a lot of visitors up in here. Would you mind telling me your name?

I dont mind, he said.

The sheriff waited. Then he looked a little irritated, as though somebody were pulling his leg. You dont mind? I asked you what your name is.

Well, he said, I dont think I know that just right now.

You dont know your name?

Not this minute, no. Do you think I should?

Most people find it a help. Would you have your wallet on you?

Surprised, he said, I dont know.

Would you like to take a look? A lot of folk keep it in their right hip pocket.

All right. He patted his right hip pocket. Theres something in there.

Why dont we take a look at it?

All right. His fingers stinging, he tugged it out of the pocket and held it open in two hands so he could look down at it. It doesnt seem like I can read it.

Would you like me to read it for you?

Oh, thank you, he said, and smiled, and handed the thing to the sheriff.

The sheriff dipped his head, and his eyes disappeared behind the brim of his hat as he looked at the wallet.

Is it all right? Does it tell you what my name is?

Oh, yes. When the sheriffs head lifted, he was smiling.

What does it say?

It says, the sheriff told him, your name is fifty thousand dollars.


| The Road to Ruin | c