Months passed and Kepa had still seen no sign of the zatia. He had resigned himself to his routine of tending the camp. The only reprieve was when Dominique stopped by with supplies. The two of them had struck up a genuine friendship. To be honest, Dominique was the first iparraldetar that Kepa had really gotten to know. For how small the Basque Country was, he had never really made much of an effort to get to know the other parts. He vowed to himself to visit the baserri that Dominique was from when he got back home.
If he got back home, he corrected himself. Without the zatia, there was no way to return home, and he was starting to seriously doubt if they would ever find it. He couldn’t imagine that he and Maite had been sent here without reason, but he couldn’t see the purpose in him living this hellish life, alone in the mountains.
One day, when he had finished his daily chores and was a bit more restless than normal, he wandered into the nearby aspens. The smooth tall trees seemed to reach to the heavens, and the sun sparkled through the gently swaying leaves, dappling the ground with a tapestry of moving shadow. It took him a moment to notice the strange markings on the trees. He looked at the nearest tree a bit closer. Bai! They were carvings, left by previous herders who had passed this way. The closest tree had a carving of an elegant church, outlined in crude knife cuts that, together, conveyed a beauty that Kepa wouldn’t have thought possible. He circled the tree, only to find another carving, this one of the torso of a naked woman. Underneath was a simple inscription: “Pedro hemen zegoen” — “Pedro was here.” Kepa examined the other trees. Many had similar markings while some had notes left behind for other herders. One inscription, written in Spanish, said “If this life is what those damn oldtimers told me, my balls are carnations.” Kepa just shook his head and suppressed a resentful chuckle. He knew exactly how that man had felt.
Before he went back to the camp, Kepa pulled out his own knife. Finding a blank canvas, so to speak, he carved his own inscription. “Kepa hearts Maite.” He smiled, but then realized that, if they did find the zatia, this, along with everything he had done, would disappear with the pop of the time bubble. He shook his head and wandered back to the camp.
It wasn’t long before evening came and Santi came with it, his dog by his side. The ever laconic Santi simply nodded as he sat down near the fire and Kepa handed him a bowl of stew. Kepa didn’t say anything, but inwardly sighed, wishing for some meaningful human interaction. But, as had happened so many nights before, Santi finished his meal in silence and then handed the bowl to Kepa to wash as he prepared to sleep.
Santi was rolling out his bedroll in the dying light of the fire while Kepa gathered his own bowl to wash in the morning when they heard the clip-clop of horses. Santi moved toward the wagon and grabbed his shotgun while Kepa stood next to him, waiting to see who their visitors were. In the months Kepa had been in the hills with Santi, this was the first time they had gotten any visitors so late at night and Kepa was more than a little scared.
Three figures rode up, their features obscured by the shadows. That the moon was waxing crescent meant that there was little light. The horses stopped as they got to the edge of the camp.
“Nor da?” barked Santi, his gun raised slightly, not pointing at the men directly, but clearly showing that Santi wasn’t messing around. “Who’s there?”
The man on the lead horse, who seemed to sit up a bit straighter than the others, his large shoulders visible in the darkness, just chuckled. “Calm down, you damn Basquo. We’re just friends, hoping to get a brief respite from a long day of riding.”
Kepa shivered as he recognized that voice. It belonged to Donny McCown.
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