"I suggest you forget today and take yourselves and that rifle the hell out of here."
The light was weakening and so were we. The afternoon was shot. Wilting down into the descent, I looked back after a few hundred yards. They stood there still, speckling the slope, watching us. I realized it was only the black Labrador that made us different from the hunted.
Dan interrupted this reverie of the year before. "You want to gut these quail? We could eat a couple for lunch."
"I'd rather go on up to the top of that hill and see if we can spot those ducks from there."
"That's the prison land," he guffawed, remembering our scrape with the posse.
"What the hell do we care? We're just hunters. We're also under 18—what can they do? Those redtails hunt in there, don't they? Damn right they do!"
We lifted the bitch over the shoulder-high hog wire and barbed strands of the outer prison fence, then poked the Model 12 through and climbed over. The ground felt different. A huge stand of eucalyptus trees draped the spine of the tawny ridge ahead and below us. No water and no ducks yet.
"We could sit down under those eukes and wait for band-tails," Dan suggested.
Now that we had the dog, it was not uncommon to be carrying ducks, quail, snipe, band-tailed pigeons, doves and possibly a rail by the end of a good movable hunt.
We entered the towering grove. What had seemed to be a typical high windbreak revealed itself instead as a long rectangle of trees enclosing an area larger than a football field, as still and dark as the nave of a Gothic cathedral. My eyes adjusted to the gloom and focused on the damp floor between the soaring walls of sickle-shaped leaves. The ground was stabbed with rows of fiat wooden stakes, thousands of them, like bedding plants in a giant nursery. They were hand-split redwood stakes, and each was deeply branded with numbers. We were in the burial place of San Quentin's unclaimed dead. I watched for the dog's hackles to rise along with my dread, but she just sniffed about in normal reconnaissance. In collapsed adobe banks, washed-out graves appeared, revealing loose and delicate bones. Downhill we drifted, through fallen strips of bark and pods, keeping our voices soft. The oldest markers had very low numbers; others were fresh. There were no names. The grove was ancient, and haunted.