Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Mountains (Part 2)


Here's Part 2 of my short story, The Mountains.

...The mountains watched the man and his animal approach from a great distance but they were not troubled. Others had come this way before and those men had not tarried long. They had camped near the base of the mountains and spent a few days hammering with picks at rocky outcrops, peering closely at the samples they’d retrieved. Most moved on quickly, never looking back.

            There was a different stride to this newcomer though. His movement across the desert floor was steady and determined, as if he’d been here before. Yet the mountains did not recognize him. They found this puzzling. Had they missed seeing this man in the past or had he somehow managed to circumvent their watchful eye with a subterfuge unknown to them?

            When the man arrived at the foot of the mountains they searched his face for clues but found none. His appearance was no different from that of the others who had passed this way before. Lean, face tanned and heavily lined, his clothing worn and soiled. A long, untended beard of gray sprouted from his chin and masked the bone structure of his face. He was neither handsome nor ugly. Just plain. Still, there was something about him the mountains could not quite grasp. A sureness, an aura of certainty perhaps.

            Like the others the man made his camp, built a fire, ate, and finally slept when darkness came. As always, the mountains remained vigilant during the long passage of night. They felt the tiny feet of deer mice scurry across their surface and the steady gliding of rattlesnakes in search of those mice. They heard coyotes yip and howl. The hoot of a desert owl. These were the sounds the mountains were accustomed to. Not the snoring of the man encamped at their base or the occasional brays of his burro. Men like the one who dreamed below were out of place here. Alien creatures who sought only to unmask the mountains’ secrets. But there was little chance this man would unlock the key to the treasure trove the mountains kept so well hidden. Content with this thought, the mountains rested and awaited the dawn.

#

He’d spent most of the morning searching the flanks of the mountains for float, pieces of mineralized quartz that might contain gold. He found nothing of consequence except evidence that others had been here before him. Small piles of recently hammered rock, a few test pits, an old shovel with a broken handle. These findings did not dissuade him though. There were signs that good gold could be had here. Lots of signs.

He returned to camp with a few iron-stained quartz samples and crushed them into a fine powder using a cast-iron mortar and pestle. He dumped the leavings into his gold pan and carefully poured a small amount of water from his canteen into it, swirling the mixture gently to separate the lighter material. He brought the pan closer to his face. A crescent trail of tiny yellow specks clung to one side of the gold pan. Disappointment caused his shoulders to sag. Well, it’s color all right. But the showin’ ain’t as good as it could be. He set the pan aside and sat down to ponder things. Little wonder the others didn’t stick it out. This particular ore’s too sparse to make a go of it. 

Still, he was certain there was good gold to be had in these mountains. He’d have to be thorough and patient though. Keep his wits about him. He’d learned that lesson well in Arizona when the Apaches were on the loose. Always one eye on the rock in hand and one eye out for trouble. It was a tough way to prospect for gold but better than being hung from a tree and roasted alive. An involuntary shudder ran through his body. What madness drives men to do such evil to one another? He’d asked himself this question many times during the war and the hard times that followed. As yet he’d found no answer to it. In his heart and mind he believed it far better to remove oneself from mankind than to try and save it from itself. Just give me a gold pan and some grub. I’ll settle for that. Let others do unto themselves as they see fit. He gathered up his prospecting gear and headed back into the mountains. The burro watched him with doleful eyes from her tether. “Hold the fort old gal,” he called back to her. “There’s riches here and I aim to find ‘em.”

#

The mountains felt his boots shuffling across their slopes. Felt a slight sting each time he chipped away at their rocky surface. Still, it was nothing new. The others had done the same. They had been a mere nuisance just as this man was…probing and prodding their way along the mountains’ flanks. Wandering aimlessly up arroyos and washes, scooping up handfuls of sand and gravel to dry pan or taking a hammer to colorful rocks they split apart and then examined. There was a difference to this man though. He was deliberate, and worked slower and more carefully. Natural signs that the others had missed caught his eye and drove him deeper into the mountains’ labyrinth of washes, arroyos, and terraces.

             The interest the mountains held for this man grew with each passing day. He seemed more determined than most, almost obsessive in the way he went about his business. The others had left as soon as their water and food reserves were low, exchanging caution and a fierce desire to live for the will o’ the wisp they called gold. Not this man. Even as his food and water grew dangerously low he continued his search. The mountains were surprised by this. There was little food and even less water to be had under their protective wings and to tempt fate this way in the desert was unconscionable. Perhaps this man had been driven mad before his arrival. Yes, that was it. He was crazy. 
             
             The mountains smiled to themselves. They ceased their concern over the man and awaited the inevitable. After all, it was only a matter of time before this man’s madness drove him over the precipice.

#
           
He rummaged through his remaining food stocks and found little left. A can of beans, some jerky, and a tin of sardines. What worried him most, however, was the water. The precious water carried in large tins on the back of the burro. Might could last another week or so without grub in my belly, but the water…well, that’s a problem for certain. He lit his pipe and puffed a cloud of smoke into the desert morning. Good two days walk to reach drinkable water again. He sat there smoking, wondering what to do. Found good sign yesterday, a ledge holdin' real promise. He sighed. Take me the better part of a day to reach it again and fill a gunny sack with samples though.  

              For some time he weighed the decision he must make. Although it was only mid-morning the heat was already building and the desert would be a furnace by late afternoon. It’s a big risk for certain. But no risk, no reward. He shuffled his boots in the sand. At least that’s what Old Jake had taught him. He drifted back to memories of the old man. Crazy old coot, Jake was. But he knew his gold. He’d buried the old man near a stunted pine in the Bradshaws. It happened after another hard day's work teasing the yellow out of the ground. They’d been sitting around the campfire sipping hot coffee when Old Jake suddenly slumped forward. He'd collapsed without a sound, his tin cup dropping from his lifeless fingers and dumping its contents with a loud hiss into the fire. It was a good, clean death compared to those he’d witnessed in the war. Yep, simple and direct. One minute you’re settin' there swappin’ tall tales and the next minute you’re gone. No hunger, no thirst, no worries. No more anything.
          
(to be continued)

(c) Jim Rocha 2017

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com

9 comments:

  1. Well you've got me sitting on the edge now Jim. This story is getting better with the telling.
    I hope you don't end it too soon.
    Take your time buddy! Another 8 or 10 installments will be just fine.
    Wish I was out camping and prospecting as a every day lifestyle event.
    So what's stopping me? Heck if I know, but probably spoiled with too much comfort I guess.
    But still there is that calling...from the deep to the deep.

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  2. Thanks my friend. Like all things, this story has its ending as well!

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  3. J.R. AUTOBIOGRAPHY: PART 2 - METAMORPHASIS

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  4. You're one sharp dude Doug!

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    1. yes -sir
      .... without metamorphosis (sp.) = there would be no butterflies

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  5. JR, Why haven't you written a string of books like this? You are very good at it, better then most books I have read by famous authors. Maybe now that you are retired, this would be a good side line to grubstake your prospecting!
    Anyway, I'm really enjoying this. As always....THANKS!

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  6. Thanks for the good words Gary. I've actually thought about writing a book of short stories dealing with the West and Western mining.

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    1. DO IT JIM! If ya autograph it, I'll buy one! (It's got to be a paper book though)

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  7. It'd be a paperback if I do it Gary.

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