“Hmph,” grunted the long-haired taxi driver when he heard the address. “You must be visiting. You look like a nice girl. Not like one of them dirty hippies.”
“Hippies? There are hippies there? I thought they were just in the Sixties or something.”
“They’re still here. Bunch’a Sixties refugees. Didn’t nobody tell you Happy Valley Ranch was a commune?”
“Uh . . . no.” Her heart sank as she contemplated her fate. How could her father not have warned her that he lived on a “commune?” For that matter, how could her father be living on a commune? She tried to envision it, her conservative English father living on a commune with hippies. She failed. It was impossible. She hoped she would have enough money left to return to town if he wasn’t there, if this was all a mistake.
The taxi roamed up the cypress-lined highway and turned off into the misty green hills. They seemed to go on forever, just rolling hills, lush green spring grass, and grazing cattle, appearing one by one, like ghosts in the mist. Eventually they reached a sign saying “Happy Valley Road,” and the taxi turned to follow it. A mile or two later, the paved road ended, and was replaced by rough gravel. At the same time, the open fields ended, and the road entered the forest. The car pulled off the road. “This is where I stop,” said the driver. “Those bumps would ruin my suspension. You can walk the rest of the way. Happy Valley Ranch is only a couple miles up the road. That’ll be fifteen dollars.”
With a sigh, Sarah pulled out the twenty and gave it to him. He gave her her change and left her standing by the side of the road. She felt as though her last friend was leaving her as the car disappeared around a bend. She felt lost and alone as she turned and began walking up the road, toward the deep, dark, ominous woods.
The fog rolled in right behind her, completely blocking out the remaining sunlight with its gray gloom. There was no traffic, no sound whatsoever except the rustle of the wind in the trees and the crunch of her shoes on the gravel. The road got steeper as she climbed the hill, and the air cooler. Her legs ached. Then, just as she was about to give up and turn back, the road leveled out abruptly and began to descend. A gunshot echoed ominously through the woods. After another long while she reached a fork in the road. The taxi driver hadn’t warned her about that possibility. She stopped and stared, looking for clues in the thickening gloom.
There were wheel ruts going both ways, and footprints, both barefoot and shod, still showed in the dust. There were other prints too, some she recognized as horses, and others she didn’t recognize at all. There was no sign; nothing to indicate that one road was more used than the other. In fact, it appeared that, if anything, the road she had come up was the one most lightly traveled of the three.
She selected a route, pulled her last apple from the bag, and began to walk. In time, the woods opened up and cleared fields and orchards appeared, one wraithlike tree at a time. She must be getting close. Perhaps this was the outer edge of the commune. She must have walked more than a mile by now. It was here, when her feet were so sore that she thought she couldn’t walk another step, that she first saw another human, floating like a ghostly apparition far ahead. When he reached her he stopped and stared. The lop-eared black puppy trotting at his side stopped too, and sat down patiently, wagging his tail against the dusty road.
He was tall, with deep blue eyes, his sun-streaked wavy brown hair chopped off roughly around his shoulders. A strong jaw made him look older than he probably was. A two-inch growth of thin beard clung to his chin, and a half-dozen apparently random objects dangled from leather strings around his neck. For a shirt, he wore a sleeveless leather vest, open in front, showing his smooth, muscular chest. His blue jeans had been cut off at the knee and allowed to fray. Dust coated his bare feet, which were tanned brown like the rest of him. He carried a rifle over his shoulder and a small canvas bag in his free hand. He stared suspiciously at Sarah.
“You must be lost.” The soft mellow voice startled her, and she looked up at him. “Whither goest?”