The Stone Hawk by Gwen Moffat

The Stone Hawk by Gwen Moffat

In a remote corner of Utah, in a canyon running down to the Colorado River, a few people have put down roots: a couple of ranchers, one or two homesteaders, a retired scientist, and others of dubious occupations. The children range from five-year-old Debbie and her nine siblings, to Sarah the scientist’s girl, Shawn with the unbalanced mother, and Birdie of shady parentage. The children are home-schooled and they help out with chores, but there are ponies to ride. Although as far as the little ones are concerned, they ride only in parties because beyond Salvation Canyon the world is a vast wilderness: a maze of convoluted stone where even grown-ups get lost to die slowly under the terrible sun.

There’s a legend of a gold prospector who stumbled on a cave painted with hand prints. He died too, but not before he’d told another man who went looking and never returned. For parents, his vanishing is an object lesson. But for the children, the Cave of Hands is a magnet. There is a way to it through the Maze, but known only to the initiated; the children may be taken there when they’re old enough. It’s a rite of passage, and a closely guarded secret. Tourists are discouraged in Salvation Canyon.

Miss Pink is no tourist, but a well-heeled writer of Gothic novels with a commanding presence, and a taste in murder. Lured by images of the harsh beauty of Utah’s red rock country, she rents a cabin in Salvation for a month’s holiday. On arrival she becomes swiftly acquainted not only with its people, but with its dangers. And yet, for all her steady pragmatism, her careful calculation of risks, her wariness of rattlesnakes and scorpions, she is subject to the insatiable curiosity of a child. After Birdie, the six-year-old waif, escapes from home to go searching for her Indian roots in the Maze, it’s Miss Pink who tries to retrace the child’s route, only to discover the difficulty of distinguishing
stone markers in a chaos of stone where one misplaced cairn could mean death.

Birdie is found unharmed by snakes or heat, but the irony is that despite everyone – that is, the adults – having learned how to survive in this alien environment and who have imprinted on their children awareness of all the hazards outside, they have overlooked the most pernicious danger of all. For Birdie goes exploring once too often, and suddenly the residents of Salvation Canyon are forced to face the fact that the danger is not out there, but here, within.

It’s the children who resolve matters: who deal correctly with simple happy Alex, the suspected child molester, bringing him in from his refuge in Limbo Canyon where he’d fled when the cops arrived after Birdie was found. Miss Pink is no more than a passenger as they escort Alex home, and the action ends as the last pieces of the jigsaw are
dropped into place by the enchanting Debbie…

This is a drama played out by children who believe in magic, children as amoral as animals and yet highly principled in their own world. It falls to Debbie to interpret that world to Miss Pink, who had observed and investigated, had even, despite the arrival of bumbling cops from the big city, uncovered most of the truth of the violent deaths – but who had missed the crucial key. And now, faced with Debbie’s conviction that a pinnacle could move, she would be in denial but for the fact that Miss Pink knows the desert and is well aware that people dying under the noonday sun may hallucinate. Only small children believe in magic – but is it possible that older children might take advantage of that belief?

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