Things are bad for Clay Miller and George Hitchens.
For starters, they’re on the run from a posse out for blood. Then, as they ride through the Utah desert, the two come across the crumpled body of a young boy on the brink of death. The boy can’t speak, but it's clear he’s frightened of something nearby. When asked what’s got him so scared, the terrified boy writes three letters in the dirt ...
By nightfall, Clay and George are tied up in jail. They can’t move. They can’t speak. They can do nothing but listen to the boy, outside, screaming for his life.
Yes, things are bad for Clay and George.
And they’re only going to get worse.
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Read An Excerpt From Walk the Sky
They had been on the run for nearly a week when they found the dead boy.
It was George who spotted him. Clay had to squint and raise a hand to shadow the sun before he could make out the boy—only a faint form up on the hill beneath the shade of a dying tree that was maybe four hundred yards away.
“What do you think?” George asked.
Clay gave it a moment’s thought. “I think we could certainly rest for a bit.”
They had crossed over the Colorado border a day or two before, were now trudging through the Utah desert. They hadn’t seen any men or women since then. They hadn’t encountered any white or Indian towns or settlements. Their supplies were in a very sorry state, and it had been days since either of them had had a proper meal.
As they rode up the hill, Clay glanced back toward the eastern horizon. “Do you think we still have a day on them?”
George grunted. “Only if we’re lucky.”
Now less than thirty yards away from the boy, the horses became spooked. Both men had to tighten their reins and circle back toward the tree and the boy. When it became clear the horses wouldn’t advance any farther, the men dismounted and tied the horses to a tree.
They started toward the boy, but after several paces George stopped and held out a hand.
“Do you hear that?”
Clay cocked an ear. “Hear what?”
“Flies. Doesn’t sound like too many.”
“What are you thinking?”
“The boy hasn’t been dead very long.”
They continued on. Clay expected an ungodly stench—the boy’s decayed body or at least his loosened bowels—but all he could smell was the acrid desert air.
The closer they got to the boy, the slower they walked.
“Can it be?” George whispered.
“I think he’s alive.”
Clay squinted down at the boy. They had just reached the shade of the tree but the sun was still high in the sky, blasting down its unforgiving glare. Besides that, George had ten years on Clay—Clay who had just turned forty earlier this year—and the younger man’s eyesight was much better. But still, now that he looked, he saw that yes, the boy’s chest was rising slowly, almost imperceptibly, but it was enough to confirm that he was in fact alive.
George extended his boot and nudged the boy’s leg.
The boy did not respond.
George nudged the boy’s leg again, this time with more force.
The boy began to stir. His eyes drifted open and he looked up at Clay and George as if in a dream before his eyes drifted shut … and then suddenly they opened again and he bolted upright.
“Easy now,” George said, holding out his hands, “we’re not gonna hurt you.”
That, Clay knew, might be hard for the boy to believe considering both men no doubt looked like outlaws: unshaven faces, tired eyes, Winchesters strapped over their shoulders.
“It’s true,” Clay said, trying to bring as much comfort into his voice as he could. “We were just passing by and saw you. We thought … we thought you were dead.”
He said it good-naturedly, a smile on his face, but at the word the boy stiffened. He glanced out toward the desert, past the trees toward the mountains, then back at them. His entire body had begun to tremble.
“What now?” George whispered.
Clay said, “Offer him some water.”
“We don’t have much left.”
“I think right now he needs it more than us.”
George walked back to the horses, retrieved his canteen, and returned to the tree’s shade. He shifted the canteen back and forth as he unscrewed the cap, letting Clay hear just how little water was left. He knelt, slowly, and extended the canteen to the boy.
The boy didn’t move. He just sat there, staring back at George with fear in his eyes.
“Go ahead,” George said. “Take a sip.”
The boy’s gaze shifted to Clay, then back to George, before he slowly reached out and took the canteen. He placed it to his lips, taking first a sip, then a hungrier swallow.
“Slow down,” George said.
The boy’s Adam apple bobbed up and down.
“That’s enough,” George said, reaching for the canteen, but the boy wouldn’t let go. He tried to pull away. George grabbed hold of the strap and yanked it from the boy. What little water was left in the canteen splattered the ground.
“Shit,” George said as he stood up.
Clay stepped forward and leaned toward the boy. “What’s your name?”
The boy just stared back at him.
“Your name,” Clay said. “What do people call you?”
Clay tried a different approach. “Where did you come from?”
George said, “I don’t think he’s right in the head.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just look at his face. I think … I think he was born dumb.”
The hesitation in George’s voice was slight, but it was enough for Clay to catch and to understand.
He studied his friend for a moment—George who was now looking off in the distance—before turning back to the boy.
“My name is Clay. This is George. Those are our names, what people call us. What do people call you?”
The boy kept staring back at him.
“Something doesn’t feel right,” George said.
“What do you mean?”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. Just where exactly did he come from?”
“He certainly didn’t drop out of the sky. He had to come from somewhere close.”
“But why is he by himself?”
“Maybe he’s run away.”
“Maybe”—George hesitated again—“maybe somebody abandoned him.”
There was a brief silence. Around them, cicadas trilled.
“Whatever the case may be,” Clay said finally, “the fact that he’s here right now means there must be a town nearby.”
At this the boy stiffened again.
Clay leaned down even closer to the boy. “What? What is it?”
The boy, of course, said nothing.
“Town,” Clay said, and when he saw the flinch in the boy’s face, he asked, “Is there a town nearby?”
The boy made no reaction at first. Then, slowly, he nodded.
George stepped forward. “Where is it? How far?”
The boy pointed off toward the mountains.
“All right,” George said, turning to Clay. “Let’s take him back.”
The boy cried out, making a sound that might have been a distant relative to the word no. It was clear to Clay then that the boy may not be deaf, but he was certainly mute.
“Why not?” Clay asked.
The boy just stared back at him, trembling.
“You don’t want us to take you back into town?”
The boy shook his head.
“Why not?” Clay repeated, thinking that the question was useless, the boy was going to ignore him again.
But the boy leaned forward. He reached out and placed a finger in the dirt. He moved it around until he’d written three crude letters. A misspelling, yes, but the meaning of the word was clear enough: