Ross Juarez ran down the gully. Walls of earth and stone sheered high on either side, close enough to touch.
Something flickered at the edge of sight. He jammed his heel into the dirt to stop himself, scanning warily. Stone. Dust. A hardy sprig of tarweed fluttering in the breeze. Maybe that had been it.
A black claw slashed at his eyes, its serrated edges glinting with oily poison. He threw himself backward. A segmented leg emerged from a shadowy fissure; then a large, black-furred tarantula squeezed out and landed with a thump, sending up a puff of dust. Its mandibles, as long as the blades of Ross’s knives, clicked together at knee height as the spider lunged at him.
Ross snatched up a loose piece of granite. No point wasting one of his precious daggers. The throw hit the tarantula in its furry abdomen. It curled up, chittering angrily.
He edged past, then picked up speed until the gully curved ahead, out of sight. When he reached the rocky outcropping, gravel and dry weeds crunched under his feet.
Crystal chimes rang sweetly.
Now, that was scary.
The gully dead-ended about thirty feet ahead in a grove of singing trees. Razor-edged leaves, faceted branches, and translucent seedpods sparkled in the sun, turning the parched earth into a kaleidoscope of colored light. Exposed roots glistened like veins of jasper and smoky quartz. Behind the trees, an ancient concrete wall towered above the top of the gully.
His first impulse was to run. But he reminded himself that the trees’ farthest range was twenty feet, so he was safe. Which way now? He could climb out of the gully, but then he’d be visible to pursuit from above.
Sweat trickled into his eyes. As long as he kept moving, he could forget how hot and thirsty and tired and scared he was, but once he stopped, all he could think of was water. He couldn’t help reaching for his canteen and shaking it, though he knew he didn’t have a drop left. He had to get out of this bone-dry arroyo.
He took a cautious step, listening for the chime that usually preceded a barrage of crystal shards from the exploding seedpods. There was no wind, but the glassy leaves struck together, ringing out a threat. He was still safely out of range, but not by much.
Another step past the outcropping revealed a rock fall that had shattered a brilliant purple tree. The others in the grove were colored by the fur of the animals they had killed and rooted in: yellow brown for coyotes, dark brown for raccoons, gray for javelinas, white for bighorn sheep. But those that grew from humans usually took their color from the dyes in clothing. He wondered who had died to create that purple tree.
One of the boulders lay beside a hole in the cement—an open pipe. It might be big enough to wriggle through, if he took off his backpack and was willing to risk it.
He wasn’t willing. He hadn’t seen the bounty hunter since the day before, when he’d taken refuge in the maze of arroyos. It ought to be safe to retrace his steps; if the tarantula went for him again, he’d use a knife.
The concrete wall stretched for miles in both directions. But once he got around it, extracted water from a fishhook cactus, and snared a rabbit or quail for dinner . . . then what? He’d lost most of his supplies, and you couldn’t make a shotgun and prospector’s tools out of tumbleweeds. The obvious answer: he had to hit the nearest town and sell something.
For once, he had a genuinely valuable find.
Ross adjusted his backpack. He wasn’t sure he wanted to give up the prize before he’d figured out its secrets. And as precious as it was, what if the potential buyer decided to steal it instead?
A shadow fell across the weeds at the lip of the gully. Ross dropped to the ground as a shot rang out.
He rolled, reached for his boot knife, and threw it.
A hit. But not good enough to take the guy out, if he could yell like that. Ross scanned frantically. He had no cover, unless he risked venturing into the trees’ range to reach the boulder or the pipe.
He took another knife from his belt. The hilt slipped in his hand—his palm was slick with blood. He glanced down. His shirt was soaked all along the right side. He hadn’t felt the bullet, and it didn’t hurt. Yet. He scrubbed his hand and the hilt against his jeans, then pressed his forearm tight against his side to try to stop the bleeding.
All Ross saw above the gully’s edge was brilliant blue sky, but the man yelled, “Let’s make a deal.”
“Go to hell!” Ross’s voice cracked. Now he felt the burning pain, and a stab every time he inhaled. He peeled his shirt from his side. The bullet had left a furrow along his ribs—not fatal, just bloody.
He hoped the bounty hunter was starting to feel whatever damage he’d managed to do with his knife. As he squinted up into the blinding light, the shadow of a hawk fell across his face and was gone.
The bounty hunter shouted, “Listen—”
“No!” Ross yelled. Then he reconsidered. Every minute they spent talking was a minute he could figure out how to escape. “What do you want?”
“I thought I could take you in less than a day.”
“So?” If he ran back, the man would follow and shoot him from above. Ross’s knives didn’t have a twentieth of the range of the rifle.
“That was six days ago. I respect that.”
I bet. Ross pressed his arm tighter against the wound, which just made it hurt more.
“I respect it enough to offer you a deal.”
About the Authors: Rachel Manija Brown is the author of the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. She lives in Southern California. Sherwood Smith is the author of many fantasy novels for teenagers and adults, including Crown Duel and the Mythopoeic Award finalist The Spy Princess.