Fiction

BRIGHT ANGEL

CHARLES BONNER December 1 1948
Fiction

BRIGHT ANGEL

CHARLES BONNER December 1 1948

BRIGHT ANGEL

Fiction

CHARLES BONNER

He had not valued a conscience highly until he met the bright angel. She offered him one. The price tag on it was only ten thousand dollars

HE GOT off the train at Williams, Arizona, and instead of boarding the tourist special for the Grand Canyon he hired a car, which was expensive but he did not mind expense when it was in the interest of good judgment. Having got safely from the painted women of Manhattan to the Painted Desert of Arizona by keeping strictly to himself and his compartment on the Chief, it was not like him to risk the stake in the last few miles. When he had holed up at El Tovar for a few days, it would be time enough to stick out his neck and see if he had thrown Jake Bolo off his tail.

At the desk of the Hotel El Tovar he gave the name of Edward Porter, in which the reservation had been made, and received his key. A bellboy, quicker than one of Jake’s hat-check girls, took it from him. He stood indecisively for a moment, a tall man in a tan all-weather coat a little too warm for the season. Under the snap brim of his brown felt, alert dark eyes cased the room not in the furtive way he felt, but in the casual way that ten years on the cash-register side of the night-club 1. business had taught him.

He made a move to follow the bellboy, weighted finder his new cowhide suitcase, freshly marked with the initials “E. P.”—that had been a smart idea—when something extraordinary occurred. It marked the lapse of a second in Bart’s character, a mere off-guard instant.

He wasn’t even consciously listening to the conversation between the two middle-aged women, but a new, arresting collection of sounds—“Bright

Angel Canyon”-.....struck his ear just as the girl swam

into his vision. He saw nothing of her except the sunburst of hair. “Bright Angel.”

He turned away with some violence. He had no business letting anything occupy his entire mind. Except one thing. “What the hell are you gaping at?” he snapped at the bellboy.

When the boy had opened the door and set down his bag, Bart said, “Never mind the bathroom, never mind the closet, never mind the blinds.”

“Most people like the view,” the kid said.

Bart took a crumpled dollar bill out of his pants pocket, changed his mind, substituted a half dollar, slapped it into the boy’s hand. Large tips excited suspicion. “Send up a waiter,” he said.

WHEN HE was alone he closed the blinds even tighter against the flash Arizona sun, drew the curtains as far as they would go, switched on the desk lamp, stood in the centre of the room and for two minutes listened. Not until then did he take off his coat and throw it on the bed.

Removing from his pocket a fat Manila envelope, he glanced at the

contents, unlocked the suitcase, put the envelope inside, took it out, returned it to his pocket. There was a rap on the door and he admitted the waiter. He did not glance at the menu.

“Ham and eggs, over lightly. Buttered toast. No coffee.”

“Something from the bar, sir?”

“No.”

When the waiter had left, he went to the desk, picked up a brightly jacketed booklet. He leafed it, skimming a phrase here and there from the first few pages. “The Grand Canyon of Arizona, a titanic gash in the face of the earth, 217 miles long, 8 to 20 miles wide and more than a mile deep—” “The Grand Canyon is one of the wonders of the world—” “The Grand Canyon is the most instructive exposition of geology—”

Up until this moment in the life of Bart Gage the canyon hadn’t meant much more to him than a remote spot in the United States. He was aware that it was considered a kind of marvel; but it hadn’t been that which had attracted him, nor the fact that it was a mile deep. The straight tight mouth curved into a half smile. “Though it should be a big enough hide-out,” he thought.

The ham and eggs came and he ate them. Then he sat down at the desk to write the letter to Jake Bolo. He made it short:

Dear Jake:

I have the complete records with me. It will be easy for you to get them back. I’ll tell you how. Just wire the ten grand you owe me to Mona Cassini, c[o Western Union, IA)S Angeles. You're smart enough to see that any move to mess up this deal will only tangle your own feet.

I figure you should have this letter in 72 hours. I'll give you 96 from now. He looked at his watch. That is, one p.m., October 14th.

Bart.

He addressed an envelope, sealed it and put it in another envelope with a second note:

Dear Sis:

Just drop the enclosed in the mail, and in three days ask Western Union for a large draft addressed to you, as explained in my letter of last week. Then call me here, name of Edward Porter. Don't get excited. This is strictly on the up and up. Remember, if anyone asks for me, I'm still in New York. No one will ask.

Love,

Bart.

He stuck an air mail on the outside and called the bellboy. While he waited, he bounced the envelope

on his hand. He put on another air mail. When the boy had taken the letter, he locked the door, undressed and went to bed. In five minutes he was asleep. It had been a strenuous week.

TWO DAYS and a half later, El Tovar’s guest, Edward Porter, appeared again in the lobby. The hotel population was highly transient and apparently no one had noticed his absence from circulation except the waiter who brought his meals, the maid who tried unsuccessfully to make up his room and the desk clerk who tried several times to rent it.

He stepped out onto the terrace and walked to the rim of the canyon, briefly noting there were many stars in the sky. But he had seen as many in the sky above Broadway. He liked them better or Broadway; they seemed friendlier. A group of people were listening to a man who was telling them something in an impressive voice. It seemed to have to do with rocks. Bart moved away. Another group were clustered about a telescope. He found himself standing at a little turn in the low parapet which marked the edge of the promenade. The lights of the hotel were blotted out.

Ten grand. He could do a lot with that. He could start his own little place; he had following enough to make it a go. Or he could take a real vacation; he had never had a vacation, real or otherwise. He could see all the sights his customers talked about— Bermuda, London, Paris, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon. Bart laughed as the joke caught up on him and he Lifted his eyes. For the first time in his life he looked on something he did not understand.

There was no light directly in the “titanic gash” which lay before him, but the afterglow of the sunset had made the whole plateau around it rosy and the canyon sat in the centre like a lake of lavender air. Or no. As Bart leaned over the parapet and gazed down the sheet-layered sides, rust and pink and mauve and purple in the twilight, whirling dizzily toward bottomless depths of blue and black, he had the feeling that he was turned upside down and that he was gazing at a cloudy night sky with here and there a star. But most of all there was the silence, the most tremendous silence he had ever heard. For it was like that; the silence came up out of that mile-deep pit like a huge sigh. Like a loud hush.

He stood back from the parapet, trembling a little, frightened a little. Very frankly he yearned for Forty-Eighth Street near Broadway and the familiar surroundings of Jake Bolo’s night club. You knew where you were.

“It gets you, doesn’t it?”

He reacted as he had been trained to do, but not conspicuously. An unseen pressure of the biceps of his right arm assured him the fat envelope was in his inside breast pocket; an identical pressure of his left arm told him the little gun rested in its sling. All this was accomplished in a tenth of a second while he followed the voice.

It was the girl. The sunburst of hair. Bright Angel. He was amazed at himself. Veteran of ten thousand professional encounters with the most attractive women in New

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York—the debutantes, t he actresses, the models and the women who were frankly out for what they could get— his balance should not be threatened so easily.

Here, he decided, was where he watched his footwork. He laughed a little inside himself. He was getting nervy. She had been at. the hotel when he arrived, hadn’t she? Jake wasn’t as good as that. Or was he? There were such things as airplanes.

“It’s just a ditch,” he said. “A little bigger than most, that’s all.”

She looked at him without speaking and he got the impression that her eyes were like the patches of violet on the opposite rim.

“You’ll find it more than that,” she said quietly. She leaned over the parapet wall.

HE HAD the feeling she was more than looking into the twilit gorge; she was breathing it in, absorbing it in some way he did not understand.

“It seems to awaken in you a sixth sense,” she said.

That was it and instinctively he mistrusted it. He had been trained to mistrust everything you could not see, hear, feed, smell or taste. That was a restaurant man’s training — from the steam table to the noisiest, drunk. If he hadn’t been schooled that way, he might not now be on the point of soaking away a neat ten grand.

“I’m only a city boy,” he said, turning toward the hotel.

“New York?”

He respected the voice. It was quiet, yet alert. And the face was wonderful. “How did you know?”

“New York has labels, like every other place—clothes, accent, air. I visited there once-—for a week.”

“You were in my town for a week— and left? That’s a hot one. People don’t do that.”

“It didn’t supply the answers.”

“Do you find them anywhere?”

She nodded toward the chasm. “Yes, eventually.”

“How long have you been here?”

“A week.” She turned and gave him a slow look. “You’ll see. I was running away from something. It didn’t work.” He said with a short, unexpected burst of defensiveness, “I’m not running away from anything!” And immediately regretted it. But there was something persuasive in her voice, or in the air or the night or the canyon. “Good night,” she said.

He took two steps and took them back. He didn’t know what had got into him. For the first time he noticed she was wearing black jodhpurs and a white cotton blouse, deeply plunged at the neck. Her legs were marvelous, like wands, yet strong. People wore anything in a place like this. It was part of the freedom of the west he had heard about and never exactly believed. The tall thin man approaching them wore levis, cowboy boots and a blue silk riding shirt. And he must be over sixty with his scholarly face and white hair shot through with the heavy amber bars of his spectacles.

PROFESSOR HUNTOON,” the girl whispered. “A famous geologist, by his account, and a crashing bore.” “Good evening, Miss Paxton,” the thin man said. “Have you come to the same conclusion as the man in the joke?”

“What was that, Professor Huntoon?”

“He leaned over the parapet, got his first good view of the canyon and said, ‘Hra, something must have happened here.’ ”

Bart and the girl laughed politely. “Professor Huntoon,” she said, “this is Mr. Porter. Mr. Edward Porter.” Professor Huntoon looked at him opaquely, through thick lenses. “How do you do, Mr. Porter?”

Bart nodded, but did not speak. That was quite a jolt, her knowing his name, even his assumed name, before he was ready to give it. He did not like that.

“Your first visit to the big cut, Mr. Porter?” the professor was enquiring.

“Yes,” Bart said inattentively. “It’s nice. It’s wonderful, of course.”

The professor smiled tolerantly. “A little more than that to the geologist, I fancy. We’re among those few lucky fellows who don’t have to die to go to heaven. The canyon is our happy hunting ground.” He moved to the parapet and looked down. “The Grand Canyon is the most instructive exposition of geology in the world, particularly as many of its features can be understood by persons not familiar with the science.”

“I’m afraid he’s off,” the girl whispered. “He’ll lecture you blind.” The professor droned on happily: “At this edge there are huge, steplike cliffs descending into one of the most interesting and picturesque alcoves of the south wall, the valley of Garden Creek.”

Bart was not listening closely. He was watching the girl. Bright Angel. He wondered what her real name was. No\y, something more than her beauty absorbed his attention. She was staring hard at the professor and on her face was a mixed expression of astonishment and admiration.

“I’ll be darned,” she murmured under cover of his outpouring. “Very smart.”

“What was that?” Bart said.

“Over there,” the professor was say-

ing, “on the opposite side of the canyon, making a recess extending ten miles back from the river, is Bright Angel Creek—”

The girl was examining Bart’s face as though to know how far to trust him. “Nothing,” she said.

“But we’ll learn more about that tomorrow on the trip to Phantom Ranch,” the professor said. “Are you going, Miss Paxton?” His eyes included Bart in the enquiry.

“If you’ll promise to tell us more about the rocks,” she said smoothly.

Bart shot her a glance of admiration. He wondered what her game was.

Huntoon bowed and moved on. The girl stared after him. Something nagged at the back of Bart’s head. Something about Huntoon. And yet he could depend on his faultless memory. He was positive he had never seen the man before in his life.

“He certainly has the facts down cold,” he said.

“You noticed that?” she said, and made a quick switch. “Are you going on the saddle trip to Phantom tomorrow?”

“No,” Bart said. “I won’t be going. How did you know my name?”

“The hotel register.”

“Do people do that sort of thing?”

“My sort of people—especially when there’s an attractive and mysterious stranger about.”

Bart absorbed it for a moment. “Isn’t everyone a stranger here?” he asked. “There’s nothing mysterious about me. Good night.”

He left her standing there, a marvel? ously straight and slender figure in the black jodhpurs.

As he passed the desk, the clerk said, “Are you taking the saddle trip tomorrow, Mr. Porter?”

Bart stopped. There was no reason why he shouldn’t. It would be two days before he could possibly hear

from his sister. And the contents of the Manila envelope would be just as safe at the bottom of the canyon as on the rim. Safer probably.

“Yes, put me down.”

AS THE Phantom party assembled jrV the next morning, Bart recognized, besides the girl and Huntoon, several people he had glimpsed through his compartment door on the train out. He had done his act well: they did not recognize him. But he was entirely too preoccupied for social matters because he found himself for the first time in his life on the back of a horse.

“Just sit easy,” the stringy, blond guide counseled. “Remember the pony knows a lot more about it than you.” “That’s all right,” Bart grinned. “I was born in a saddle.”

“I can see,” the guide said. “Just

sit him. Don’t try to ride him and he’ll

carry you there safe enough.”

Bart followed the advice, and he soon found it good, as they wound down the narrow, zigzag trail.

Bright Angel rode ahead of him. Professor Huntoon came next behind and every once in a while he would close up and give off about the geological wonders which surrounded them. He made Bart a little nervous the way he nosed liis horse in the rear of Bart’s animal.

But it was a great day. Bart wished he knew something about poetry, so he could say what was in his heart. He was poor with words. Anyway, the Manila envelope rested reassuringly under the red cowboy shirt he had bought with the denim levis that morning. The little gun was slung in its place in his left armpit.

THE professor’s voice came from behind, as if he were making a speech. “Below this imposing limestone cliff, you notice everywhere in the canyon a long slope of greenish color, of the shales of the Tonto group. These are about eight hundred feet thick.”

The girl turned her head with an annoyed look. “We’ll come to all that, professor.”

“Of course, my dear. You must forgive an old fanatic.”

“And 1 wouldn’t ride so close to Mr. Porter,” she added with some sharpness. “The trail gets pretty narrow here.”

The professor laughed. “I’m afraid sometimes I let my enthusiasm carry me away.”

Bart was thankful that Huntoon dropped out of earshot. “I could do without that old gasbag,” he said to Bright Angel.

“If he’s only that.”

“What do you mean?”

After a moment, she laughed. “I was forgetting my personal new deal— not to go around distrusting everybody. That’s what the canyon teaches you.” “Does it?” He dodged the girl’s backward, searching glance.

IT WAS not until they had gone on after resting at Indian Gardens, a small Eden in the bowels of the earth, that the thing happened. The professor had ridden up again, just at the point where the river made a big S-turn. Bright Angel, the trail, was beneath their feet. Bright Angel, the girl, was thirty feet ahead.

“You will note on the opposite side of the gorge,” the professor said, “some red shales with cliffs of dark rocks above and below. These are the rocks of the Unkar group, remnants of the old land surface that rose as an island from the waters that deposited the Tonto sediments aroun^i it—”

“I’d be obliged if you would deposit your nag—” Bart began. But at. that moment his pony reared violently and shied sharply toward the precipice edge. It was a ticklish half minute, but from instinct and a natural coolness, he managed to check the animal. He looked around sharply. The professor had fallen back several feet, his face behind the thick glasses showing every evidence of alarm.

“Dear me,” he said, “what could have caused that? Could it have been a bit of falling stone? The process of erosion—”

“1 don’t, think so,” Bright Angel cut in. She had turned back and Bart noticed the long look she threw at the professor. “These animals are trained.” Bart decided his front quickly. “I guess I kicked Hiho Silver in the ribs,” he said. “I guess I thought I was a cowboy.” He moved nearer the girl. He had always worked on the principle that sometimes it was smart to play a

hunch. “I think,” hesaid in a low voice, “that someone tried to kill me. But don’t look now.”

Her question was prompt, cool and reasonable, her face expressionless. “Is there any reason someone should try?” “Yes,” he said, and flattened his lips. She waited a moment, studying him. “Your friend, the professor, is a phony,” she said, “if that will help.” She rode on.

He touched the envelope beneath his shirt.

EVERYONE went swimming in the pool as soon as they reached the ranch at a widening of the gorge. At the bottom of the earth. But Bart was a prisoner of the bulge under his shirt. He sat alone on the rustic bench outside of his rustic cabin, a mile deep from the rim of the canyon, and he wondered what he was doing there. Could anyone pick a better hide-out? He gave a short sardonic laugh. It was about as hidden as the Grand Central Station. Safe? It was about as safe as Tombs Prison.

The last sliver of sun disappeared behind the rim. Twilight descended. The sound of Altar Falls beat on his nerves like an extra pulse. A swarm of coal-black butterflies swooped around the corner of the cabin. He had been told about them, but that did not make them any nicer; they were like miniature ghosts. He shivered. A shadow loomed.

He jumped up when he saw the shadow, clapped his hand to his gun. Hearing the soft laugh, he dropped it.

“You’re jittery,” she said, and sat down on the bench. “Why weren’t you in swimming?”

He skipped the second one. “It doesn’t help to have you come stalking about—like a phantom.”

“More likely your conscience,” she said. She reached out her hand for a butterfly, a caressing motion. “I love this place,” the butterfly escaped, “though I didn’t the first time.”

“It gives me the creeps.”

He did not look at her. “What do you know about this this professor?” “Only that he’s a fake. You know all the scholarly stuff on the canyon he’s been spouting? He cribbed it—out of a book. Word for word. A book called ‘The Story of the Grand Canyon— How It Was Made.’ I got suspicious and checked up on a copy.”

Bart nodded. “That was it. There was a copy in my room. I wondered what made his patter sound so familiar.” The girl grabbed at another butterfly. “Can you guess why he put on the act?” “I can guess.”

He outwaited her.

“Of course, if you don’t want to tell me.”

He made up his mind. “I’ll take a chance. It’s simply that Jake Bolo is smarter than I thought. He’s planted this phony on my tail.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You’d think anyone would he safe who’d escaped this far.” “You can never escape.”

He looked at her quickly. “You talk as if—”

“As if I knew,” she finished quietly. “1 do. You see I did something and I found out I couldn’t get away with it.” “I’d just as soon not hear.”

“Oh, 1 didn’t rob a bank. I just did something I didn’t believe in. Well—I got myself engaged to the wrong man. He had a lot of money. And I had to come here, to this very spot, to find out I couldn’t do it. You’ve heard about ‘the ends of the earth’? Well, this is it. Both endsexactly as the Indians have it with their sipapu. Everything catches up with you here.” She did not speak with bitterness. She spoke with the relief of one who had come to final grips with life.

HE WAS silent for a long time. Then here he was telling this girl he didn’t know at all things about himself, things about his life, about the pretty lousy beginning, the tenement, the struggle to get through grammar school, about teaching himself by reading and listening to people talk.

“Don’t get the idea I’m feeling sorry for myself,” he said.

“I’m not getting any ideas,” she said in the kind of way that made him want to tell more.

About being a bus boy in a restaurant, and then a waiter, and rising to be manager of Jake Bolo’s place. That was quite a rise, but he should have known better. About the promise of a cut in the profits. He should have known that Jake would double-cross a sap like him. He figured Jake owed him ten thousand over two years. But he had something of value in his shirt.

He took the envelope out and handed it to the girl, just to show. The secret records of Jake Bolo’s business over two years. They showed that Jake had cheated the Government on income tax in a very lovely way. Well, if Jake wanted the records back, he could pay him his cut. It was as simple as that. He had a sister in Los Angeles who was helping him get it.

“So you see it wasn’t exactly dishonest,” he concluded.

After a moment she said, “Except that the records should go to the Government.”

“Where would I come in?”

“You’ll have to decide that for yourself.”

“You seem sure of me, don’t you?” Irritably, he rose from the bench and walked up and down before the cabin with his hands deep in his pockets. He could feel the gun under his arm. Its weight caused him no discomfort. What had got into him for a moment? He stopped in front of her.

“You don’t think I’d be such a sap as that, do you?”

“I had hoped you would.”

It was then, standing there facing her, making a beautiful target against the big slab, that the shot missed him. It made a funny sound through that strange, still night. First the ping of the bullet against the stone side of the gorge not two feet above his head. Then the echo of the explosion bounding from wall to wall, like a series of hollow, staccato laughs. Very little laughs way down the canyon and then a bigger silence than ever. Bart broke his trance and ran around the corner of the cabin. But by the time he got in the clear, with his gun ready, all he could see was a pair of heels disappearing behind the central lodge. The blond guide came out with several others and Bart explained that he had taken a pot at a black butterfly as big as a bat. The guide looked at him indulgently.

“It gets people in different ways,” he said.

When he returned to the girl, she handed him the envelope.

“I’m wacky,” he laughed. “To think I forgot that.”

“Didn’t that bullet change your mind?” she asked.

“At least you can tell the ranch people about the professor.”

“I’ve got nothing on him. Maybe he needled my horse. Maybe he took a pot at me. I don’t know. Anyway, if the professor is pinched, where do I come off?”

The girl got up, said good night and was gone in the shadows.

BART slept in his clothes, his gun by his side, the door securely locked. Nothing, however, disturbed his .sleep. The next morning at breakfast he

avoided both the professor and the girl. When the party was preparing for the ride back to the rim. he took a place among the tourists from the train. He got one glimpse of the professor near the head of the party and, from his pale face and nervous movements, Bart judged that the phony scholar could not get away from his beloved “titanic gash” fast enough. Bart spoke to no one all the way up.

Back at El Tovar he found no message from his sister. Either Jake Bolo was awaiting the result of the professor’s activities or there hadn’t been time enough for the money to come through. He didn’t know and he didn’t care. He was a sap.

In his room, even before he changed his clothes, he sat down and addressed a letter to the United States Treasury Department, Washington, D. C. Then he unbuttoned his shirt, took out the fat envelope, broke the flap and removed the contents. And for a long time he simply stared at it. It consisted of a couple of pages of a twoweeks-old Los Angeles Times, carefully folded to the exact size of the missing ledger pages.

Finally, he managed a low cool whistle of admiration. He didn’t know how the professor had managed it, hut the old man was one smart potato. He began to laugh. He laughed until the tears came.

THE canyon was flooded with setting sun when he stepped out onto the terrace. He had never seen it so fine. Still, silent, with colors changing as if they were notes on some big church organ, it seemed to be filled with millions of small hushed echoes, one for each of its years. Pretty soon the girl stood beside him, just as he had expected. He was getting on to things in this place.

“What about the professor?” she asked. “You’ll be careful?”

“He’s disappeared,” he said with a rueful smile, “wit’ de poils. But they’ll catch up on him. As you said, you can never escape.” He displayed the empty envelope addressed to the Treasury Department. “That’s what I was going to do. Would you believe it? Me?”

“I believe it,” she said.

He waved a hand with a brief awkward gesture toward the canyon. He struggled with words. “Well,” he said, “it’s a tough job to do a small thing in the face of such a big thing. Too tough for me.”

She smiled, hut it wasn’t mocking. “Shakespeare couldn’t have done better by that canyon.” She held out the stiff, folded ledger sheets. “I thought these would be safer in my kit for the trip up,” she explained. “It was a cinch to make the shift with a piece of newspaper I found in your cabin while you were off gunning for the professor.” “You did that for me?” he asked incredulously. Slowly he took the sheets from her hand, slowly he put them in the envelope, raised the flap to his lips and sealed it. “Thanks,” he said. “Thanks a million. By the way,

I don’t even know your name—in case we should ever meet. I always thought of you as—” He hesitated and the color came into his cheeks. But what the hell, this had been all crazy, anyway. “I always thought of you as Bright Angel.”

“We can exchange our correct names later,” she said, “on the train to Los Angeles.”

“How the devil did you know that?” She smiled confidently. “Didn’t I say you could never escape?”

He creased his forehead at the envelope in his hand. “I wonder,” he said, the thought occurring for the first time, “if I did that entirely on account of the canyon.” jç