One-Hill Prairie

Robert Adams broke down after making his first billion. He broke down again after fifty billion. And again after one hundred billion. His nervous system seemed negatively attuned to fiscal milestones.

As he recovered for the third time, Robert called his staff to him.

“I can’t go on like this,” he said. “A hundred billion is enough, at least for now. I’ve got to get away from this business before I go permanently nuts. Find me a piece of land. One hundred miles on a side. That’s ten thousand square miles. Buy it, clear everybody off it, and fence it in. I need to be alone.”

“Robert,” said his chief assistant, “why not just develop a social life of some sort? You haven’t scheduled one minute of recreation time in a decade. Find a resort you like. Buy it. Spend some time with people you aren’t doing business with.”

“I’m sick of people.”

“You’re sick of manipulating corporate executives and battling fund managers. I’m talking about going out on a date. You’re a brilliant, interesting man. Share that with someone.”

“I’m uncomfortable with small talk. I’d rather have the ten thousand square miles of empty landscape, thank you.”

Once he was up and around again, his staff outfitted him with a pack and supplies and transported him by helicopter to one of the gates to his new empire. He walked through it and down a dirt track into a sea of prairie grass. The gate closed behind him.

There were clouds overhead in a big sky. Robert took off his hat and craned his neck, taking it all in. The clouds ran in streaks, as if spilled over the blue. Wind in the grass caused a whisper that teased Robert with meaning. After years of board rooms, conference rooms, and tiled executive bathrooms, Robert stood in the biggest room of all, the room without walls, God’s room. He took a breath, and another, and started walking. The grass was burred but he wore leather trousers.

It took days for the noise and clutter in his head to dissipate. The clouds merged, thickened, and spread veils of rain over the prairie. Robert walked on, dry in his slicker. The grasses gleamed, wet and heavy. Horned larks and song sparrows chirped and fed, ignoring Robert and the rain. A rainbow materialized, glowed bright on the horizon, and faded away.

Robert found a notebook of instructions in his pack. He learned how to pitch his one-man tent, how to cook a biscuit, how to care for the blisters on his feet. He used a list of coordinates in the book and a tiny GPS device to find water.

Emotions surged through him at random. Anger, fear, grief with tears and sobs, all followed by long periods of quiet. He came to himself once, sitting on the ground, without knowing how long he had been there. He spent time outside himself, up with the hawks and eagles.

He moved north and west. The sun burned him and he had to cover himself until he healed. He sweat and stank for the first time in years. He began to notice the sounds of life in the high grasses around him, began to see snakes and ground squirrels and rodents. Vultures tipped back and forth, patrolling the sky. Rising one morning, he found a pronghorn, unmoving and watchful, close enough to see its nostrils flare and take his scent.

On a hot day with the sun overhead, he noticed a hump on the horizon. As he walked toward it, it resolved into a small hill, rising from the plain. A thread of smoke rose into the sky from its far side. Robert frowned.

He climbed the hill. From its modest height, the plains spread out in a rippling tapestry of earth colors around him. Cloud shadows moved over the land, seeming to Robert like gray warnings of some dark time to come. Down the slope at his feet he saw a rude earthen hut sunk into the side of the hill.

He hiked down and stood at its door, which stood open. Inside sat a man. He was bearded, with hair to his shoulders and plain, patched clothes. A plate of stew steamed on a deal table in front of him.

“What are you doing here?” Robert said. His voice sounded strange to him. Rough and unused.

“I’m about to eat,” the man said. “Care to join me?”

“You’ll have to leave,” Robert said.

The man didn’t move.

Robert found his gun and pulled it out.

“I can make you leave,” he said. “Or shoot you where you sit.”

“You can,” the man said, “and if you don’t, I might do the same to you.”

Robert looked down at his gun and knew that he wasn’t going to shoot anyone.

“I own all this,” he said, gesturing behind him.

“Good for you.”

“One call from me and a helicopter will fly in. My men will load you onto it.”

“You asked me what I’m doing here,” the man said. “Obviously, I live here. What are you doing here?”

Robert started to answer but then stopped to think about it.

“I’m here,” he said, “because I’ve spent my life lying and cheating and bullying people, mentally and physically, and I finally got sick of it. If I’m alone, I can’t hurt anyone but myself.”

“I’m here,” the man said, “because all my life I got lied to and cheated and bullied, mentally and physically, and I finally got sick of it, too.”

“Me being me,” Robert said, “and you being you, I guess I could make you leave without using a gun or a helicopter.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You let people take advantage of you.”

“I never said that. Folks lied to me and cheated and bullied me, but my honesty and perseverance and general cussedness got me through every one of their tricks. I never had trouble handling folks like you. Like I said, I just got sick of it.”

He pointed to the empty chair across from him. Robert took off his pack and sat down.

“This stew looks good,” he said. “How do you manage to live alone out here?”

The man laughed.

“I’m far from alone,” he said. “I didn’t come out here to get away from folks. I came out here to get away from folks like you. I visit with others all the time. Why do you think I’m living on this hill? It’s easy for everyone to see, once they’re in the neighborhood.”

Robert took a good look at the fellow. He seemed relaxed but lively behind all the hair on his face.

“Imaginary visitors?” Robert said. “Hallucinations?”

The man shook his head.

“Just because you bought some land and strung a fence around it don’t mean it’s empty. You’ll see that when the buffalo decide to move or the small ranchers around your spread feel like stretching. All sorts of hermits and travelers live on the prairie, as well as mixed Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa groups passing through.”

“I had all those cleaned out,” Robert said.

“You think you did,” the man said, laughing again. “Eat up. Out here, a fence don’t mean anything.”

Later, as they sat outside, looking out over the land to the west, the man said, “I’ll compromise with you.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“I’ll give you this place and I’ll move over to the other side of the hill. We don’t need to talk or visit or anything else. However, if you need help, you can always come over and ask for it.”

“I can’t take your home,” Robert said, “even if it is just a hole in the ground. How will you live?”

“How long have you been out here?” the man said.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t called for a supplies drop yet. I still have food.”

“I’ve seen four winters on this hill. I hunt, I trade, I know which roots and berries I can eat and which I can’t. I’ll dig out a new place over there in no time. I’m Sam, by the way.”

When night fell, Robert was alone again.

Over the weeks that followed, he walked the land around the hill during the daylight hours and slept when it got dark. He followed no routine. His thoughts spread out like a river overflowing its banks, flooding without boundaries, shallow but covering a lot of land, without current but in quiet motion. Opaque but not mysterious. Healing thoughts, like a river silting barren ground.

He met a variety of rough types and natives moving through, who stopped at the hut expecting to spend a little time with Sam. At first, Robert sent them over the hill. Then he began inviting them in for a meal and some conversation.

He called in a delivery of supplies and when the bundle was dropped from the air and he had gone through it, he filled several bags and climbed over to Sam’s new campsite.

“Will you take some supplies from me, Sam?”

“With pleasure,” Sam said, accepting the bags and opening one to poke around inside it.

“It occurred to me,” Robert said, “that this is the weather side of the hill. You can’t live in a hole over here when winter comes.”

“I seriously doubt that you’ll be here when winter comes,” Sam said. “I’ll take my old place back.”

“Why won’t I be here?” Robert said, bristling.

“Because you’re a man on a mission. You just haven’t decided what it is yet.”

The days were long and hot. One evening, with half the sky purple and the rest showing the first stars, as Robert sat in front of his hut, Sam walked out of the dusk.

“Can I give you some dinner?” Robert said.

“Eating together out here means making promises to each other,” Sam said. “I never told you that.”

“You can ask me for anything,” Robert said.

He fancied himself uncomfortable around others, except when negotiating, but he didn’t feel uncomfortable with Sam. Something in him responded to Sam’s frank gaze, his uncompromising stillness. Robert met Sam once, out in the grass, and asked him where he was headed. Sam told him without pretension that he was rarely headed anywhere, because he was usually already there. It could have sounded silly, but when Sam said it, it made sense.

“What about you?” Sam said to him over the meal at sunset. “Where are you headed?”

“I’ve been thinking about turning my money around and sending it back to do some good.”

“If you go as hard as when you made it, you’ll end up back here.”

“I’m hoping to take some of here with me,” Robert said.