"The Mountains" (Part 1)
Most of you don't know that I've done a lot of writing over the years, including short stories and poetry. Yep, you heard right. Some of my war poetry and nearly a dozen of my short stories have been published in small-circulation literary magazines. At one time I was also the executive director of the San Diego, California Vietnam Veterans Artists and Writers Coalition. Anyway, this series of posts contains a recent short story broken up into segments that I think you might find interesting. Also, the font size has been reduced to prevent the posts from being too long. So get your specs out!
The mountains were old. They sat upon the desert basin of the Mojave like serrated spires where only the hardiest of creatures survived. The first people in this region were indigenous tribes who disappeared long ago and whose presence had been buried under the sands of time. Those people had respected the mountains and considered them holy. But the early people were gone. Only the mountains remained.
Since those days the mountains had been left alone. During the summer they radiated the blinding heat given off by the desert floor. In the winter their highest peaks were dusted with a light mantle of snow. The spring and fall were kinder to the mountains, but that was of no consequence. The altered volcanic rock that formed their spine was impervious to nature, save for minor shifting and fracturing.
Eons ago when the mountains were new, heat and pressure forced mineralized solutions into a network of veins rich in precious metals. Gold mostly, but also small amounts of copper and silver. These metallic veins now formed the lifeblood of the mountains. Except for occasional thrusts to the surface the veins lay hidden…covered by sand, rock, and gravel or buried deep within the mountains themselves. The mountains knew nothing of the riches they contained. They were unaware of their own potential for exploitation and could not conceive they could be anything but what they were. After all, they had dominated the desert plain far longer than any man-made empire, kingdom, or government had been in existence. Where man counted his time in hours and days, the mountains measured theirs in eons and millennia. They were ancient and so was the gold they contained.
There was an order to the mountains and the desert surrounding them. An ordered existence played out by every desert creature, every rock, and even the tiniest grain of sand. Unlike man’s world, there was no chaos or attempt to change what was. The mountains lived by strict natural laws, not the frail man-made rules that so often failed their creators. It had been this way since the beginning and, as far as the mountains knew, it would be this way always.
So the mountains watched in silence as the first men since the early ones appeared in the desert. Men with fierce dreams and desires. Bearded, sunburnt men with coffee and salt pork and guns and gold pans strapped to the backs of braying pack animals. Some of these men scanned the mountains with a practiced eye. They were adept at finding metals, especially gold. For most, it was the search for gold that drove them. Mining it was incidental.
The mountains knew none of this. Nor did they care one iota about these newcomers, some of whom would die from heat stroke, dehydration, falls, snake bites, or from being buried alive in the very holes they dug. The presence of these men was nothing to the mountains. In truth, they were insignificant in relation to the vast desert they had trespassed. The mountains belonged. The newcomers didn’t. It was as simple as that.
He’d dreamt of home that night. The lush green of corn fields filling his head, cows lowing in the pasture, his mother bustling around the wood stove with a cast-iron pan filled with biscuits. The aroma of sizzling bacon filled his nostrils and his plate at the kitchen table was piled high with fried eggs fresh from the coop. He’d eaten his fill. That was mighty fine, Mama. Thank you. When she turned to smile at him he was jolted awake by the burro whose brays echoed across the desert floor. He sat up feeling angry and unfulfilled. “Shut your mouth!” he cursed, tossing a rock at the animal who simply stared back at him in silent protest. He reached into his haversack for a strip of jerky. He washed the dried meat down with cold coffee from the night before and gathered up his bedroll. “Damn desert,” was all he could find to say.
The jagged mountains caught and held his eye. They looked sterile and foreboding even at this distance. Rough looking they are…those mountains. Like the teeth of a saw. He stared at the mountains for a while, his thoughts travelling back home again. Many years had passed since he was last there. Too many in fact. He’d left home at 17 to join the army and fight for southern rights. He’d fought for three and half years. Second Manassas and Sharpsburg, but not Gettysburg. He missed that ball because he lay deathly ill shaking with the fever in a Richmond hospital. Just as well, he thought. Too many fine boys died in Pennsylvania. Not to mention the Wilderness and Cold Harbor. After that there were the trenches at Petersburg, filled with rats and human offal. What he hated most at Petersburg though were the sharpshooters. They killed anyone or anything giving the slightest exposure. In his mind they weren’t soldiers but murderers, plain and simple.
After Appomattox he’d returned home. Mama and the rest of the family were glad to have him back but things just weren’t the same. He took to strong drink and fighting. The nightmares came and went, leaving him feeling anxious and wasted. He had no direction in his life, no focus, and his mother prayed each and every day that God would save him from himself. Eventually he grew too restless to remain at home and headed west. An old timer had taken him under his wing, teaching him how to prospect and mine for gold in the mountains and deserts of Arizona. It was then and only then that he felt he had something of his own, something he truly loved and cared for. Strangely enough it wasn’t so much the getting of the gold either. It was the searching for it that drove him. That, and not being beholding to any man.
He gathered up his gear and loaded the burro. “Time to move out.” The animal’s ears twitched at the gentler tone in his voice but her dark eyes remained vacant. “We’re headed to those mountains yonder.” He took a long pull of water from his canteen and stepped forward into the desert. “Come on now, let’s git.” Just as she had done countless times before, the burro waited patiently until he’d gone a few paces before falling in behind him. Overhead a hawk fluttered its wings, searching the desert floor for prey.
Wish I could take to the air like that, he thought. Be a might easier to reach them mountains. There had been mountains back home, but they were soft shouldered and cloaked in emerald green in the summertime. Creeks and streams rushing with clear, cool water drifted down slopes covered in thick forests of pine, chestnut oak, and ash. It was a soft and gentle landscape. Not harsh and unyielding like this one. Still, he’d spent enough time in arid terrain to know the desert held a beauty of its own, only displaying it to those whose eyes were capable of truly seeing. He turned to look back at the burro following him. Contrary she is, but better company than most men in this world. He smiled at the thought and pressed on.
(to be continued)
(c) Jim Rocha 2017
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