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THE HARLIE

by J. F. Prussing

The Motherstone

(a novel)

Book Two of ‘The Harlie’ Series


THE MOTHERSTONE

(a novel)

Book Two of ‘The Harlie’ Series

by J. F. Prussing


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter 1 - A Ship Without an Anchor
Chapter 2 - The Firefly
Chapter 3 - Rocky Roads
Chapter 4 - Slumbering Stones
Chapter 5 - Boys with Beards
Chapter 6 - Blood Brothers and Blisters
Chapter 7 - The ‘Combobulator’
Chapter 8 - The Red Hand
Chapter 9 - Rats and Bats...and other things
Chapter 10 - The Other Side of Twilight
Chapter 11 - The Motherstone


Chapter One

A Ship Without An Anchor

ONE BY ONE, Homer skinner shook their ghoulish hands and, in the obligatory manner prescribed for such auspicious occasions, said his final farewells to the spirits of the night. He wished them well, as well as a healthy and hardy good night. “And good riddance,” he added as they slowly walked away.

They left as they had came, some alone, others together, shaking their heads and wagging their beard, as spirits often do. They demanded a good yarn, and they got one! even though they’d heard it many times before and already knew the outcome. It always ended the same way, of course – in doom and destruction, the way all good stories should end. Happy endings are for those who can’t be happy. And that’s why the way they liked it, these spirits of the night. That’s why they came.

When he thought he was alone once more, Homer looked up beyond the shadowy green treetops to the distant peaks of the Silver Mountains rising out of the ground like marbled pyramids under a mild Egyptian sky. Among these many natural wonders stood one in particular, a lone and lofty giant distinguished from all the others by a towering head that formed the summit of Mount Wainwright. Bathed in the moonlight and crowned with a thousand stars it stood before the old man like a tombstone, just as it did forty years ago in all its beckoning gloom.

Conceived in those unseen and sequestered dormitories of the underworld where all natural wonders have their true origin, and birthed by forces that had been building up since the Flood, Mount Wainwright catastrophically came into being. And there it stood: a monolithic monster with a cratered head and smoking brow; a giant solitaire, distinct among all other natural formations in the region, what one ambitious writer and physician once described as: ‘the afterbirth of hell’. If the legends surrounding the mysterious mountain were true, it could also be a miner’s paradise… as well as his worst nightmare; depending, of course on who and what you actually believe.

‘It’s a volcano actually… and one that’s still very much alive!’ Or so claimed the experts, including a British geologist (Henry Barnes, I believe is name was) who’d recently explored the mountainous terrain, taking copious notes along the way before returning with the fateful and volatile news, along with the factual data to back up his assertions, that the volcano was indeed on the verge of yet another eruption! He was never taken seriously, of course; foreigners, especially the British, seldom are. Not even the steady stream of vaporous white smoke that could be seen quite clearly on any given day spewing forth from the lofty crater was not enough to convince them otherwise. Hell! The mountain always looked like it was getting ready to ‘pop its cork!’ as the locals would put it in the vernacular of the time. It never did, of course; not so far as anyone could remember anyway, which was as far back as, as… well, as far back as anyone could remember. And that’s a hell of a long time, by gum! But perhaps not that long; for indeed, many of those early settlers who’d only recently escaped the tyrannical injustices of their former homelands, their histories actually began when they first set foot on the fertile frontier; and for those that would follow, like so many of the rest of us who live and are wrapped up in our own ego-centric little worlds, history begins the day we are born, and not a moment sooner.

Crowned with its cratered head and shrouded in clouded darkness, Mount Wainwright could easily have been mistaken for two separate hills joined together at the hip by a single parabolic curve dipping in the center and rising on either side like the sagging span of some great suspension bridge. It was a portentous sight to behold, especially in the jagged shadows of the night while sleeping under a moonlit sky. It humbled the old man, making him feel small and insignificant by comparison, just it would any rational being of sound judgment and good moral character. It was as if... as if he stood before the Rock of Gibraltar, gazing up at the Pillars of Hercules from the mild Mediterranean; and beyond that, in all her icy gloom, the mighty Atlantic, beckoning with the voices of a ten thousand dead sailors. And there was Homer, like a shipwrecked Ulysses, knocking on the old granite door, just like he did forty years ago, with an aching tooth and a hungry heart. It was Monday night, and he could still hear the Parson’s sermon ringing in his ears from the night before:

'And in my vision, when he broke the sixth seal, there was a violent earthquake and the sun went black as course as sackcloth; the moon turned red as blood all over, and the stars fell to the earth like figs dropping from a fig tree when a high wind shakes it; the sky disappeared like a scroll rolling up and all the mountains and islands were shaken from their places. Then all the earthly rulers, the governors and the commanders, the rich people and the men of influence, the whole population, slaves and citizens, took to the mountains to hide in caves and among the rocks. They said to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us away from the One who sits on the throne and from the anger of the Lamb. For the Great Day of His anger has come, and who can survive it?'

“Fall mountain...just don't fall on me,” sighed Homer Skinner in the shadow of the infamous mountain, as the fire slowly began to burn itself out. He was feeling old, as old and tread upon as battle-scarred hills of Jerusalem. “Ouch,” he said, as the tooth began to ache once more.

Meanwhile, the Harlie stirred restlessly under his blanket next to the aching old man. He was cold, lonely and tired, but still very much alive and awake. He reached for his wife who wasn’t there. He could hear Homer talking to himself, softly, as he would do sometimes when something, or someone, was troubling him. It worried Elmo. He had heard this kind of talk before; once, when he’d fallen asleep on the Skinner’s couch, only to be awoken late at night by Homer pacing the floor above him in his own bedroom. He remembered going upstairs to see what was the matter. But the old man was asleep by then; at least, that’s what it looked like. But was he really asleep? Elmo wondered then, as he did now. Maybe he was only dreaming. Maybe he was just getting old. “No,” thought the Harlie out loud, “it’s just that nasty old tooth again.”

Old age did not sit well with Homer Skinner. Everything seemed to hurt him; not only the tooth. His muscles ached and his joints cracked; at times, he felt as though he was no more than one man-sized arthritic nerve withering on the vine of life and dying, minute by minute, year after years. His memory faded and the days went by much too quickly, just like everyone said they would. And it just ain’t fair! he would often argue, mostly with himself. ‘It would make a helluva lot more sense’, he once told the Harlie, ‘if time slowed down as you got older, instead of speeding up. It’s only natural. After all, everything else slows down – Don’t it? Clocks winds down and wells run dry, slowly. Why should time act any differently? Things break more easily; and they just don’t heal as quickly as they used to: the head, the heart, the hands, the legs, especially! And don’t forget the… well, on second thought, just forget about that. You’re too young; and besides, you’ll find out for yourself soon enough’. And he let it go at that.

He was thinking of death, naturally, as all men do from time to time, young and old; but he was also tanking about life. And he was thinking about them from a different perspectives. Lately, death seemed to him as nothing more than taking a long trip, something he should’ve been preparing all along; like it could happen to him any day now. And, in a strange and ‘Gee, I’m sure glad that’s over with!’ sort of way, it was something he was almost looking forward to it – almost, but not quite. He knew he still had a few more good years left in him, painful as they undoubtedly would be, and he planned to make the most of them. Life was a burden at his age; but it was one worth living, and bearing, even with a tooth ache that never went away. It was more of an annoyance than anything else by now, an inconvenience he’d learned to live with over the years; like a woman, he once reckoned, who knew more about him than he cared to admit. But, of course, he never told his wife that. And besides, better a bad sensation than none at all; and that goes for wives, too. Pain can be like that sometimes, in its own beneficial and benevolent way. It can also be quite therapeutic. Just like… like a woman.

But there were times, like these for instance, when the tooth hurt so bad he could hardly stand it. Like hell! he sometimes imagined. And it was at just such times when Homer thought he would surely take it, and the pain, to his grave; and even there, in fiery furnace of hell, it would ache for all eternity, perhaps, tormenting him in ways that would make Lucifer laugh and Torquemada blush. He’d yank it out himself if he could; if he had the nerve, that is. But, of course, that would surely kill him and, like I said before, he wasn’t quite ready for that. Not just yet. Surgery, perhaps? It would take more than a doctor to perform the oral operation needed to remove the source of his suffering. Maybe what he really needed was a little spiritual healing – a miracle, perhaps! Or better yet, a miracle man. Maybe the spirits could help; they know about these things, he often thought to himself; and they knew how it felt. But by then, even they were gone. But where did they go? Well, back to the mountain, of course, where they belong; to sleep, perhaps, for another fifty, or a hundred, years. Homer would just have to wait, and pray. And so, that’s exactly what he did. It was the one thing he could do; the only thing that still didn’t hurt.

Homer Skinner never considered himself a religious man (if going to church on a regular basis is what qualifies one as being religious) but he still prayed, almost every night in fact, finding a certain comfort, a quietude there he could find no where else, not even in church. It was during these ‘special times’ as he liked to call them when he thought, or at least imagined, he was closest to God. Not so much in the physical sense, where the proximity two object have in relation to one another is the principal concern; but rather in the spiritual sense, where it is the closeness that counts, not defined by space, time, or distance, but by likeness; as when someone says of a portrait of George Washington: ‘Of all the paintings we have of the great general, this one is by far the closest’. But how could anyone know which painting captures the true, the real Washington the best? Unless, of course, they had met, or at least have seen, the great man in person? I think you get the picture; or maybe…you don’t. It was something his wife often wondered about as well, a good Christian woman who’d once considered becoming a nun in the Order of the Poor Clares, as she observed the old man kneeling at his bedside talking in low whispers, almost as if he was carrying on a private conversation and holding God’s omniscient ear in his beaded hands. She was careful never to disturb him, of course; disappointed, perhaps, that he never invited her to join him. But even these late night confessionals could not stop the toothache, or prevent him from getting up, sooner or later, and pacing circles on the bedroom floor as she lay downstairs on the sofa praying for the soul of her tormented husband, as well as her own.

Homer never could accept the fact that prayer, any kind of prayer, was in vain. He just couldn’t believe it; not even in his old age when a lifetime of doubt and frustration sometimes made it difficult to believe that it made any difference. He knew of some folks, good and decent citizens all, who simply couldn’t, or wouldn’t, believe in God. He was suspicious of these individuals, and rightfully so. They always seemed just a little bit too confident, too sure of themselves, he often wondered – as if, considering at what was at stake, anyone could be that sure of themselves – and looked upon them with a kind of bewildering pity. He simply couldn’t understand how anyone could live that way (he knew he couldn’t) and was glad he wasn’t one of them. He never understood them, or the demagogic diatribes they would often employ in heated debate over things they claimed not to believe in anyway. It just didn’t make sense. And they spoke in such condescension tones, patronizing everyone it seemed, the way intellectuals and autocrats often do, as if they possess privileged information, some secret knowledge denied the rest of us who are either too stupid or too lazy to understand. As if all matters spiritual in nature could be so easily dismissed or debunked with sheer reason and logic, science providing them with all the tools and wherewithal necessary to do so. It was as if that by creating a telescope large and powerful enough to peer into every unknown nook and cranny of the Universe, they could, as the Soviets would attempt to do some centuries later, disprove the existence of God by the mere process of elimination. If it ain’t there… well, it simply don’t exist, they will falsely conclude, and with all the hubris and pride reserved for the king of hell, who, although they may not know it at the time, is their true god. Their proof, their own unholy grail, if you will, is based on, well, nothing. But how do you prove a negative? That’s like apologizing for… for nothing! And how do you defend a non-belief, a nothing, anyway? A Homer had no idea. So why even try? Although he often disagreed with these ‘sorry secular souls’ as a bishop once christened them without the benediction of the holy sacrament, and tried to avoid them as much as possible, the old man did admire their tenacity and was, a time or two perhaps, impressed by the confidence they displayed in what can only be defined as their own ‘disbelief’, which they would undoubtedly take to their unconsecrated graves, along with…well, nothing Moreover, he wondered at their unique and stubborn insistence in making others believe in all their ‘nothingness’ as well, while vehemently attacking, and with a viciousness that would make Satan himself blush, anyone who might try to prove them wrong; which, of course, is what they are really afraid of.

They called themselves atheists; and they always looked like they were angry at someone, or everyone, he once observed; and for no good reason! it would also appear. They were the kind of folks that just couldn’t be happy; unless, of course, they’re making everyone else around them, in their own dull and godless world, just as unhappy as they were, or more! Misery enjoys company, I suppose. And in a land of gloom and doom where the ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is one of the primary goals granted by to us by the God and man (Think about it: a right to be happy – Imagine that!) what the hell does that have to say about people bent on being so miserable? Is say a lot, I should think.

It flummoxed the old man to no end, just as it would anyone else dwelling on the metaphysical and infinite subject of God. Of course, Humanity was against the atheist, and so was History. And they were out-numbered, too. Maybe that’s what makes them so angry and bitter, Homer sadly came to realize over the years, and so miserable to boot. It was the same with those that called themselves Humanists, who were really no more than self-indulgent Pantheists with a superiority complex. Instead of worshiping the sun and moon, the trees, or whatever animal they choose to apotheosize, they simply deify themselves and worship one another as if man can master his own Maker. Like their Muslim brothers they condemn all other religions, especially Christians and Jews whom they blame or bringing civilization back into the ‘Dark ages’ when, in fact, it was Christianity that rescued religion (including their own, although they will never admit) from the Dark ages, and Judaism that preserved it. It happened when the real barbarians stormed the gates, not only in Mediterranean but the rest Europe and beyond. And it was not until Constantine nailed the crucifix to his mast and sailed into history when the Middle Ages emerged and the Renaissance began. And who was it that plowed the fields for the new age of reason and enlightenment to take root, grow, and flower? Was it the theists of the time with enough gods to fill the Coliseum? Was it the Mongols and their conquering hoards galloping all the way to the Pyrenees? Was it the barbarians from the North who put the vandal in vandalism? Or was it Mohammed and his followers who are still in the Dark ages today and would have the rest of the world join them... or have their heads cut off. No! It was a handful of Christian monks who brought us out of those Dark ages by preserving all that was good in the world in their tiny little cells; and which they will probably have to do again someday when new barbarians storm the gates like they did a thousand years ago, threatening not only art, science, reason and religion, but civilization as a whole, along with the politics seeks to protect it. It could very well be argued, and often is, that Christianity is the only religion in which true Democracy not flourishes, but survives! The barbarians will disagree, of course, just as they always have; and they will do so this time not with swords and axes (we could only be so lucky) but with paper and ink, propaganda, complacency, and computers. These are the secularists. The humanists. The environmentalists. The progressives. The new barbarians. Look! They’re at the gate right now. And they’ve learned their lesson well. Let us pray there are a few good Christians still around to stop them.

Real faith takes real effort, he’d always maintained…or, at least it should. And through it all, the tooth still ached. But unlike the atheist who only believes in himself, Homer believed in something bigger and better, something he could actually be a part of (albeit a very small and insignificant part, as he saw it; but a part never-the-less) even when it seemed impossible. ‘Eloi! Eloi! Sabachthani!” And maybe, that’s what faith is really all about, he finally came to realize – although he might have had some help along the way – under the moon and stars that night. It’s not about ourselves at all! he wisely reckoned. If it were, then our faith, along with all our good works, however great or small, would amount to nothing and be just as dead, and useless, as corpses rotting in the grave and riddled with worms, which, whether we like it or not, is where we’re all headed for anyway. Homer believed not only because he wanted to believe; but because he had to. It was just that simple. Anything else or anything less, simply wouldn’t do. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, we are born in a world where both the believer and the non-believer can, and must, coexist, side by side, in relative peace and prosperity, if we are to survive at all. It’s a mutually beneficial and bold experiment, and one the skeptics, our own founding fathers among them, said would only last about fifty years at best. And lest we forget, it was Thomas Jefferson himself, who once confided in his congressional cohorts regarding the exclusion of slaves in his precious but still flawed document: ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. It is also interesting to note that the author of the Declaration of Independence, who many still consider a Deist, when asked to come up with a National Seal for the fledgling democracy, chose Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt as his final design. Not exactly something a Deist would dream up, one would think I’m sure even old Ben Franklin, who had his own doubts about the new Republic, would concur. Their pessimism was justified, of course; especially in hindsight of the great empires that rose and fell before them, Republics and Democracies among them; but they were wrong, of course. And thank God they were… Or don’t, for that matter.

At one time in his life Homer may’ve been mistaken for a Deist, or an Agnostic, which, in his own limited understanding of such things, were actually two words for the same thing; like vulture and buzzard, of instance. Both are scavengers, of course, that feed on the same dead meat, thinking or knowing little or nothing of that which keeps them aloft… until gravity kicks in, along with the other laws of aerodynamics, and pulls them down to earth. The Humanist and the Hedonist fare no better. Both live in a world where pleasure reigns and every man’s a king! That is until their teeth fall out and their hair turns gray and Death creeps in to grimly, and sometimes painfully, remind them of their Humanity, as well as that mere mortal fact that gods not only get old… they actually die! The only difference is that Homer didn’t have to be reminded. And he always believed in someone or something. He just didn’t know who, or what, that was. At times it made him feel lost and lonely, like a ship without an anchor, or a plow without a mule. And that’s when the toothache seemed to bother him the most. There was a time when, like so many others around him, he believed only in himself; and if that made him a god, or a demigod, well, so be it. But that kind of thinking only left him lonely and bitter, and sometime angry, especially when things didn’t go quite the way he wanted. It’s no wonder the gods are always battling with one another and betting against us, he imagined. No matter how self-centered and egotistical he became, Charity, it seems, had always crept in and reared its altruistic and sometimes ugly head. Selfishness was not in the old man’s bones, or any other aspect of his make-up. He was just not that kind of man. In many ways, he knew his journey had only just begun; and he was getting old. But he would continue, as the Good Book says: ‘to seek the face of God’, as most serious Christians certainly do. Unfortunately, many of them seek it in the eleventh hour, only to end up before the White Throne at half-past ten. Homer prayed he would not be one of them.

A kind of bewildering pity was the only sympathy Homer could ever offer the true ‘non-believer’. He called to mind the words of a black pastor he’d meet in Shadytown one night: “It’s a sucker’s bet...a raw deal!” But still, the secularist and the cleric manage to get along, and survive, somehow, without killing each other, even in the land of E-pluribus Unum, which is built on the unique proposition that all men are created equal, even those who would deny their own Creator and the source of their own dissension. There is, however, one major difference between the believer and the non-believer. The religious man can exist and live quite comfortably in a secular world, just as the early Christians once did in pre-Constantine Rome or Plato’s Greece among such decadent deities as Bacchus and Aphrodite (when they weren’t being burned at the stake or thrown to the lions) or the ancient Israelites before Baal, and be relatively content, even happy! in his odd and Orthodox ways; he will certainly thrive in his own rich environment, as history has proven, producing not only a superior culture and better government but go on to create some of the finest art, music and literature the world has ever known. The true atheist, on the other hand, merely survives, in this world or any other, content, like any other animal, with his own meaningless existence; he will surely suffocate in the next. Perhaps the real problem with atheists is that they are not only dull and boring, and dangerous when put in positions of power, but they are too easily satisfied. And if Darwin turns out to be correct, which would surprise the old heretic as much as anyone, at least in regard to Natural Selection or ‘survival of the fittest’ which is perhaps the only thing they do actually pray for and something Nietzsche and his bastard offspring, Adolf Hitler, would certainly have no problem with, then they are doomed. Christians always want more. They need it. They demand it. It’s the nature of the species.

Another problem Homer had with Atheism was, in his own weighty words: ‘one a hell of a load!’ And he was right. It was a heavy burden. Atheism is hard! It takes faith, real effort, and some serious thought to believe in… well, nothing. Life’s not so easy; and neither is dying. It’s often complicated; and that includes the afterlife as well. But wait, you may be saying to yourself: it’s easy to believe in nothing. Any idiot can do that; and many do, I suppose. And yet, it is something they are so (pardon the pun) hell-bent on pursuing, almost to a point of fanaticism. And what’s more disturbing, and sometimes even comical, is the adamancy Atheists often employ in defending their own faith, or lack thereof, and the offense they take over something they themselves know not to exist. The logic is torturous, to say the least, and actually quite revealing. Atheism is basically, and psychologically, unsound.

Perhaps atheists are just plain lazy then, he thought. Not so much in the physical sense (although they can be that, too) but rather, intellectually. It is almost as if they have no real curiosity, or interest, in anything outside their own immediate and finite world which, even with all their computers, telescopes, gizmos and gadgets they couldn’t begin to understand, explain, or even appreciate. So why bother? What the atheist fails to realize, besides the simple fact that you cannot get something out of nothing is the pure, unambiguous, unadulterated, unabridged, and universal Truth that God will not be ignored. Nor will He be mocked or measured. God does not change. But most of all, if the Bible teaches us anything: God cannot, and will not, be impressed. Just ask Job.

It always seemed, to Homer at least, that the true Atheist, if he exists at all, is perhaps motivated not only by his own egocentricities (which, by the way, he will deny all day on an autographed stack of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species) but by some deep psychological need to justify his own non-belief, which in and of itself makes about as much sense as ‘spontaneous generation’ or the infinity of space. Or perhaps he is driven by something a little more sinister, more human, like his own self interests. Maybe he just wants to make a name for himself by writing a paper, or a book! Invent the better mouse trap, or come up with a cure for the common cold, so he can sit around the Bunsen burner with his altruistic friends and socialists brethren, congratulating one another on just how brilliant they are which, if nothing else, only goes to prove there is no God, simply because…well, because if there were a God, then he, she, or it (Hey, at least these loons are politically correct) certainly wouldn’t need such brilliant men and women like themselves to solve these monumental mysteries of mankind and prove that He doesn’t exist. Naturally, or supernaturally, I suppose, this is exactly what Satan would have them believe; and in doing so, they will play right into the devil’s hot hand. He would have them reject all absolutes, including his own, if that will bring them one step closer to the gates of Hell. Let them deny him; as long as they deny God as well. They will become the ultimate authority, the movers and shakers of the Universe. ‘Ye shall be like gods…’ They’ll sell their souls for a lifetime of glory and steal the crown from the king of Hell. But even this is fleeting. Besides, it was there for the taking all along.

Real scientists, not unlike real men and women, want and need real answers; not just theories and falsifiable proof. And they’ll go anywhere to find them; to the ends of the earth, even outside of their own finite Universe if that’s what it takes. Atheists, on the other hand, are afraid of all that. It would take too much effort, too much time; besides, they have more important things to do, you know, like genetic and social engineering, aborting innocent babies, stem cell research, and saving mankind in general, along with the whales and the sea-turtles, while trying to convince the rest of us uneducated dolts in their own patronizing and magnanimous way just how smart they are and, moreover, how intellectually superior they are for knowing it. Never mind the fact that they have no idea where that intelligence came from, what it is or how it got there, and are just too lazy to find out, or even ask. And as for God… well, in the immortal words of the G.K. Chesterton: ‘If it weren’t for God… there would be no Atheists.’

Atheists would also argue, and quite forcefully Homer suspiciously thought, that theirs is not a religion at all. And they would be wrong about that, too! If pantheism is the worship of nature, then atheism is the worship of science; something Mister Darwin would surely have no problem with. As opposed to other major religions, however, atheism has very little to offer. Nothing! if you take them at their sanctimonious word and follow them to their logical and predictable end. Judaism (often referred to as the religion of the past, which, by the way is not necessarily a bad thing) at least has four thousand years of edification and some pretty interesting characters; Islam, the religion of the present, if you believe in the Arab Spring, has its seventy-two virgins, provided you kill enough infidels along the way to earn the Jihadist reward. And Christianity, which might be considered the faith of the future since it seems to have the best recruiting record and the most converts, has the Cross with its infinite possibilities and glorious implications, along with the greatest music, art and literature the world has ever known. It also happens to be the only one that offers Salivation, something we don’t even deserve.

Of the four, atheism seemed to be the least tolerant, which may disqualify it from being a bona fide religion from the start, at least from a political perspective. Yet it seems to meets all the criteria necessary to be considered a true religion as recognized by its faithful few. It is liberal to the core, of course, with socialism its chief aim and outcome; although for political expediency it all comes under the auspices of such modern titles as environmentalism, feminism, gay rights, animal rights, etc... Science, naturally, is the Holy Grail of atheism which will one day triumph by discovering all the answers, along with Big-foot and the missing link. With contempt for mankind in general and a collectively sustained guilty conscience, these self-anointed secular humanists claim to be no better, or worse, off than a single-celled protozoan at the bottom of a Petri-dish, insisting we are all equal, despite our humanity, while never-the-less acquiescing to their socialist brethren that some protozoan are more equal than others. Not only are atheists arrogant, egotistical, condescending, and lazy – they’re snobs, too; and quite hypocritical about it. Now that’s religion for you. That’s Orthodoxy! Just as pantheism is the worship of nature, atheism is the worship of science; and the two have about as much to offer.

And then there are the Evolutionists. Homer actually knew very little about them, except for fact that they were always going on about this fellow named Charles Darwin and some critters he’d found on some god-forsaken island. The problem with Mister Darwin’s theory of course, other than just being a theory, is simply this: The fittest doesn’t always survive. Consider the dinosaur or the wooly mammoth, or Nietzsche for that matter. What’s not supposed to kill us doesn’t necessarily make us stronger. Sometimes, it actually does kill us; just like bad jokes, bad whiskey, jealous women – and politicians! Natural selection is not that selective; it may not even be natural. There are no fossil records, at least none that anthropologists can agree on with any amount of certitude, of a missing link or any other mutant freak of Nature in any of the species; at least not enough to validate the revolutionary claim at the core of the naturalists’ belief. It simply doesn’t exist, despite numerous attempts to either find or manufacture such a hybrid by those who would follow in the faulty footsteps of their fool-hearty master: a globe-trotting biologist whose legacy in life is to be remembered, and perhaps even loved, as ‘…the man who murdered God.’

If nothing else, and if science is of any use here, we are not evolving at all, but devolving, as proven by Darwin’s own empirical data which clearly suggests an increase number of mutations, where there should actually be, if the survival of the fittest and laws of natural selection apply, a decrease. That is precisely why we have so many separate and uniquely distinct individual species, and so few, if any, we can combine in any biological way, and none of which can actually reproduce. In other words: there are no such things as monkey-men or mermaids (except perhaps in our own egotistical imagination) no matter how inviting, intriguing, or logical they may sound or appear. We are no more likely to come across one of these fantastic creatures any more than we are would ever come face to face with, say, a griffin, a sphinx, the fabled faun or fated unicorn, furry fish, or even the elusive elephant-bird for that matter; at least not genetically, and definitely not by natural selection. But we do have an abundance of species. Diversity, and not necessity, is perhaps the real mother of invention after all, and proof positive of God’s creative power. But the scientist and the theologian sometimes make for strange bedfellows. Philosophy and micro-biology don’t always mix; and neither does anthropology and metaphysics for that matter. They’re insoluble, I suppose, like oil and water, or religion and politics. Let’s just all agree, if we can agree on nothing else, that we’re mutually doomed to extinction, no matter what we are, or where we come from, and equally in need of Salvation.

Not all roads lead to Heaven; some go straight to hell. And even if they did, there’s no guarantee we’ll ever get there. Almost all of the major religions agree! If you were to ask Mohammed (peace and blessings be upon him) ‘How do I get to Heaven?’ the prophet would most likely laugh, tell you how merciful Allah is, and then proceed to cut your head off. The Hindu, on the other hand, might simply direct you to a nearest caterpillar, or cow, or whatever reincarnated being is closest to that heavenly state of Nirvana. Buddha, who would think such a question in bad taste, will merely smile and say something like: ‘Heaven is a state of mind, my child’. The Jewish Rabbi, if he’s an honest one, will probably tear his shirt in two and point you to Leviticus or Deuteronomy, and then try to sell you a new suit. As for the Atheist and the Pantheist… well, they’re really just opposite sides of the same counterfeit coin, and will most likely agree that if such places as Heaven and hell exist at all, we are living in them right now; and they will be equally wrong, of course.

Perhaps Christianity is our best bet after all, the old man concluded. It’s the only religion, that he was aware of, that recognizes we are all sinners and offers any real hope of Salvation. And all it asks for in return is faith, which is fortified thru grace and obedience. It doesn’t get much simpler than. The Jews have the Law; Islam has the prophet; Buddha, Vishnu and Confucius have their ambiguities; and atheism is simply too heavy a load to carry. ‘For my yoke is easy and my burden is light…’ And He does all the work! In fact, on our own, we can do nothing. And even if we could, then Christianity is a hoax, a myth, a lie, or perhaps something worse; and Christ died for nothing. That’s the difference between Christianity and all other religions in a nutshell: On the one hand, man reaches up to God and gets… well, we don’t really know. On the other hand, God reaches down to man, and gives him, if we take Him at His excellent word – Everything! Including Himself.

In the end, Homer realized that the life he was leading would eventually kill him, and everyone else around him; just like it did Cornelius G. Wainwright III. And that was just not part of the plan. But the question that still pained him was – Whose plan? And the mere fact that he could even ask such the question convinced him, not too long ago, that that there must be someone, or something, higher than himself that wanted him to know that. Otherwise, why would put it in his head to ask it in the first place? He didn’t know who or what that was until one night when he found out at a church called the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown.

It happened one night during a celebration in Old Port Fierce known as ‘Fat Moon Friday’. And it happened on a night such as this, the old man further recollected while gazing into the dying campfire.

The preacher’s name was the Wright, Willie B. Wright. He was known by many others, such as: the shepherd of Shadytown’, the deacon of Avenue ‘D’, or supreme chef and grand master of ceremonies. Some even called him the ‘Miracle-Maker’, a title which, although well-deserved and accurately applied, was one he never relished. He preferred to be called just plain ‘Willie’.

Homer could still hear him preaching in that uniquely familiar and dynamic voice of his: ‘Don’t be like them non-believers, now chil’runs. Don’t be puttin’ on them ol’ chains,’ he rightly warned his congregation of black sheep. He’d worn those same chains himself at one time in his wild and adventurous youth, figuratively speaking of course; for Willie, either through providence, perseverance, or just plain dumb luck, had always been a free man.

Willie said what he meant, and meant what he said. He knew what he was talking about. ‘You see, brudders and sisters,’ he gesticulated one fateful Friday night from the rostrum of the Temple, ‘when the non-believer loses, he loses everythin’. And even if he wins, you see, he wins nothin’. He only gets what he believes in, what he deserves, which is nothin’. Amen? Now, look’ye here, chil’runs,” he continued in that same glorious vein, ‘At least with God you knows what you is gettin’. You see, brudders and sisters, with the Lord you at least gets a fifty/fifty chance. And considerin’ what’s at stake, thems some pretty good odds. Amen?’ Either Jesus is who he say he is… Or he ain’t. Tain’t no other choice. Take yo’ pick! It’s just that simple. Now, I don’t know ‘bout you, but as for me…” concluded Willie B. Wright at Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ that night Homer remembered so well, “Well, I’s bettin’ on the Lord.” And he meant every word of it.

Of course, Willie was wise enough to know that he couldn’t save all the sheep that had lost their way in the little city by the bay. There would always be a few ‘stragglers’ that simply refused to believe; and there really wasn’t anything he could do for them, except maybe pray. ‘Fights all yo’ battles on yo’ knees…’ he would advise his flock, always leading by example, ‘and you wins every time!’ On other occasions he would employ one of his many colorful metaphors to get his point across, or borrow them when necessary; such as the time he came across one particular lost sheep that, although professing belief in Holy Trinity of Gad, along with all the angels and saints that ministered to Them, he absolutely refused to believe in Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, devils, demons, or any other credits or titles bestowed throughout the ages upon the Prince of darkness and all the powers and principalities associated with that old serpent. Naturally, this came as quite as shock not only to Willie, but all in attendance that evening who’d heard the bleating blasphemies of this one black sheep who only doubled his damnation by insisting, from his own personal point-of-view, that there was no such thing as Hell, either! He had even produced an un-canonized copy of Saint Peter’s Gospel, wherein it is stated, or at least implied by way of an awkward conversation that was supposed to have taken place between the Great Fisherman and the Risen Lord Himself somewhere in Paradise, to back up his contentious claim. Homer was there that night. And Willie’s response to the black sheep had remained with him these years as a harsh reminded to those who are inclined to such dark and dangerous thoughts. It sounded something like this: ‘You may nots believe in Hell and the devil, right now,’ reminded the prudent pastor of Avenue ‘D’. But you’s will… when you gets there!’ he assured the little lost lamb who, in time and with a little soft persuasion from Willie’s crooked staff, would finally come to see the error of his ways and, indeed, heed the advice of the Evangelist who reminds us all in his own precautionary way: ‘And whens you dines with the devil… it’s always best use a long spoon. Amen?’

Obviously, the pastor of Avenue ‘D’ had done a bit of gambling himself from time to time, and it showed. Rumor had it that Willie was once a sailor – a cook! in fact; a profession he took very seriously, as evidenced by his barbecue pit and the great pains he took in preparing his famous ribs every Wednesday and Saturday night right after the service at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’. But that was all in the past, and all he retained from his nautical experiences was an old navy blue sailor’s cap he wore flatly on top of his balding head. ‘Make way!’ he would shout over the heads of his flock in a voice that boomed like thunder so that all with ears could hear, “All sheets to the wind, and don’t look back… We’s Jerusalem Bound!’ And that’s exactly where he was taking them.

Homer liked what he heard. And he liked Willie B. Wright. He was a gifted orator with a unique style of preaching the truth, which included, among other things, stories, acrobatics, and occasional fireworks. He went by many titles; but to put them all in their proper context, and the order in which they appeared on the small wooden sign conspicuously placed right outside the little church in Shadytown, he was, and always would be: ‘The most Reverend Willie B. Wright, Pastor, Grand Master of Ceremonies, Chief Chef and cook of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown. As previously hinted upon, he wore a navy blue pea-cap, the kind older gentlemen still wear with flattened top and button down visor, plain black trousers, and a small white apron draped about his expansive frame, not unlike those worn by that secret society of Free Masons and gracing the waists of not a few of our famous forefathers, but without the mystery and ceremony attached to such secular symbols, and for more practical purposes. The apron, which Willie removed before each and every sermon, not only in observance to the reverence of the occasion but as a simple matter of protocol and a sign that he was ready to speak, was forever stained with his own special brand of barbecue sauce, the same sauce he would so generously apply to slabs of his famous barbecue ribs with the tip of his spatula, which he would serve to the faithful (and not so faithful) three times a week at the Miracle Temple and Barbeque Pit of Avenue ‘D’.

He sometimes referred to as ‘The ‘Miracle-Maker’ of Avenue ‘D’. And to many, that’s exactly what he was, whether he approved of the title or not. Others, however, might disagree, considering him just a little too unorthodox for their own traditional and tempered tastes, with all due respect of course, reserving such metaphysical appellations for those who truly deserved them, such as saints and other divinely ordained dignitaries. And then there were those, although they were actually very few in number and seldom seen in church, who suggested it was downright blasphemy, especially in regards to the theatrics Willie would often employ during his services, which the more charismatic of his flock found not only entertaining but healing, both physically and spiritually. But it was these same ‘theatrics’, although he always disliked the term, that had made Willie a legend in his own time. To many others, including the old man from Creekwood Green, he was nothing less than a true living saint, destined for canonization, and fit to stand on Judgment Day before the White Throne of the Almighty, stained apron and all, right alongside of Saint Martin De Pores, another famous black evangelist, albeit of the Catholic faith; one with a broom, and the other with a spatula, in hand. Naturally, they will both be smiling on that grand and glorious day.

When he’d first met Willie, Homer was still a relatively young man, and so was the so-called ‘Miracle-Maker’. He remembered because it happened not long after he’d returned from Wainwright’s mountain, which, ironically enough, was precisely then when his tooth first began to ache. He recalled Willie as being a rather large man, particularly about the waist, with a flattened nose and curly dark hair, which, as it just so happens to great men bearing great responsibilities, had turned prematurely gray over the years, jutting out from beneath his pea-cap like so many tiny silver springs. And with no other distinguishing peculiarities, other than an infectious smile and a warm and generous heart, that’s exactly how Homer remembered the Miracle-Maker of Avenue ‘D’ that night.

Any questions regarding Willie’s past, which was often the source of much speculation, especially among those who made it their business to question everyone’s past, precluding their own of course, would remain unanswered. He would simply ignore them, or perhaps dismiss them with a wave of his big brown hand. His sins, legion though they were at one time, had all been forgiven, if not forgotten; at least as far as he was concerned, which was what really mattered anyway. How God would judge him…well, that was another matter altogether. But let’s just say that Willie had decided a long time ago to leave salvation, and eternity, up to God, and where it rightfully belonged. The Miracle-Maker had no plans of outliving his own Maker anyway; he already had enough to do. Of course, that’s not to say Willie didn’t have his doubts now and then. We all do, even the greatest among us. Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani? Willie just knew, somehow, that the hope of Heaven would surely win out over the fear of hell. He was betting on it. But some sins are easier to forgive than others, he confided in the deputy on one of those dark and lonely nights of the flesh, and just as hard to forget. Willie always knew that sooner or later one of those sins would eventually come back to bite him. And it was actually closer to him than he thought.

Willie was a big man, in every sense of the word, enigmatic and gregarious, a still a young man at the time. He was also a cautious individual who protected his flock as well as his own anonymity, as fiercely as he did his secret recipe for his famous barbecued sauce, and for good reason. He was the type of man who could feel at home just about anywhere; although no one knew for sure exactly where the he came from. At times he would use that anonymity to his own advantage, either to disarm, persuade, or neutralize a disagreement or a potential argument that might’ve otherwise ended in violence, bloodshed, or worse. It was just one of his many mitigating talents, which, in the profession he chosen to follow so obediently, was always a great asset.

To look at this magnanimous and multifaceted man of the cloth one would have to wonder, more than just a little, of his actual origins; not only in regard to his physical appearance, which was clearly African in all natural and noble aspects, but more particularly in view of the man as a whole; and indeed, there was alot of man to view here. There was a worldliness about him, a certain air of earthly experience, as though he’d seen more than most (which, in fact, he had) but seldom spoke of it. It was even more of a wonder that no portrait, at least none that I’m aware of, of the holy man of Avenue ‘D’ was ever put to canvass. Nor was it likely that any brush would answer such a challenge; for to do so would merely detract from, rather than add to, Willie’s true identity. And isn’t it also a blessed wonder, and perhaps the greatest mystery of all time, that that no one could ever put a familiar face on Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as well? Unless, of course, we preclude the sacred shroud of Turin which, although authenticated by religious authorities who have the most at stake, has yet to be fully scrutinized the way science demands before coming to such a definitive conclusion. Perhaps we’ll never know; which is just as well, and in keeping with God’s Holy Mystery. Besides, why should He have to prove anything… to anyone? Sacredness has its own ambiguities. And well it should! There are some things, just like people I suppose, that simply defy definition and description. We make of them what we will, and shouldn’t be too surprised if and when the face of God turns out to be something quite different from what we might’ve otherwise expected. It may even (God forbid!) resemble that of the nosey neighbor next door who we never got to know and were always so suspicious of; or, that of the ugly old woman keeling next to us in church, warts and all. But it could also look like the face we see every day in the mirror. For the face belongs to us all. It comes in all shapes and sizes, and colors too. It’s who we are. Willie was merely a living and breathing example of all that. It was in his soul, written all over his face, put there by the same omnipotent finger that penned the twin tablets of Sinai; and perhaps just as breakable, as Moses himself found out.

Of all the esteemed titles bestowed upon him, and deservingly so I might add, the one Willie preferred, and always liked best, was that of ‘Supreme Chef and Cook’ of his beloved Miracle Temple. It was one he had every right to be proud of; for it just so happened that Willie served the best tasting barbecued ribs in Old Port Fierce, or anywhere else for that matter; maybe in the whole hungry world! Homer could taste the righteous ribs even now, with meat so sweet and succulent, so tender in fact, it would fall right off the bone and melt in your mouth. They were grilled slowly over an open fire in Willie’s equally famous barbecue pit, basting in his own special barbeque sauce, done to a turn and served up sizzling hot on the plate along with slices of freshly baked bread, and maybe even some fried cat-fish on the side. It was a communion fit for a king but better served to the poor, and gratefully accepted, not unlike the Holy Eucharist itself, with all its life-sustaining effects. And there was never a charge; except of course for whatever donation was left on the empty plate after such a soul-satisfying meal. The size of the gift didn’t mattered – all things being equal in the ledgers and eyes of the Lord – and there was always something left on the plate, enough at least to provide for the general upkeep and maintenance of the premises including a painted pew here or there, a few floorboards, a new roof; or perhaps a selected side of beef, grade ‘A’ prime rib! that would eventually find its way back into Willie’s famous barbecue pit. It was a perpetual cycle of sharing, caring, and giving; not unlike that of famous fishes and the loaves that fed the five thousand that day at Bethsaida.

Willie was a showman; and he was a good one. Along with his famous oratories, which would sometimes go on well into the night, three to four hours long for those keeping time, his services also included, among other things: sermons, homilies, doxologies, benedictions, novenas, confessions, testimonials, baptisms, wakes, weddings, fireworks, acrobatics and, of course, a miracle or two thrown in ‘… just to stir the pot’, as Willie would often explain in his own culinary fashion. As for the entertaining aspect of his performance…well, let’s just say, it came with the price of admission, which was actually nothing; and it came just as natural to Pastor Willie B. Wright, along with a plateful of ribs and some special barbecue sauce. It always came with a smile. Sometimes it even came with a miracle; what some folks, especially those who didn’t know any better, liked to called magic. And what if it was magic? That didn’t necessarily make it bad, or evil, as some had scornfully suggested; it only made it, well – entertaining! And what’s wrong with that? Didn’t Jesus often entertain his faithful, and not so faithful, followers with miraculous feats of un-natural wonder? He not only healed and inspired – He awed! And not only that, he ordered his own disciples, who had enough problems just catching fish, to perform similar, if not even greater, miracles then these! To top it all off didn’t the Prince of Peace offer them His own sacred flesh to eat and His own Blessed Blood to drink on at least one solemn occasion? And for the ultimate finale, He raises himself from the dead! Don’t tell me God’s isn’t a showman. And never say He ain’t funny, either. He is! And if you don’t believe it, just go take a good long look at your neighbor, or yourself for that matter. And whatever you do, don’t tell me Jesus is a pacifist, a prophet, a vegetarian, or anything else for that matter that you can’t back up with fact. He is who He said He is. If he is anything else, He’s either a liar or a lunatic, or something worse, and deserves only our scorn. And if you don’t believe that, go to church some day and find out for yourself. Or just go to hell.

Homer did go back to the church, eventually; and he did find out. He went not only for the entertainment, but for everything else that went along with it, including the ribs. He went back because he wanted to go back; he had to go back. And whenever he was feeling glum about the mouth, uninspired, spleenful, melancholy, mean, or just plain hungry, Homer Skinner went back to little church by the bay. Sometimes, he went back just for the ribs; and I guess you couldn’t blame him. But most of the time, he would go back just to see and hear the Reverend Willie B. Wright, the one they called the ‘Miracle-Maker’, perform his own special magic and preach from the pulpit of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ in a place called Shadytown. One time, when the moon was full and bright, on what was appropriately called a ‘Fat Moon Friday Night’ in old downtown Port Fierce, he even saw the face of God. Or, at least he thought he did. And it was black.

In the final analysis, if such things can be analyzed at all, Homer Skinner realized that he had a long way to go, spiritually speaking, and he was only just beginning. There were still many unanswered questions. He knew some of those questions would never be answered, at least not on this side of the grave, but assumed many would be answered in time; which is probably the best way, if not the only way, for some questions to be answered. Another thing Homer came to realize that the night he knelt and prayed that night at the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’, maybe for the first time in his life, was simply this: He was a sinner, just like everyone else. And that was the first step. Forgiveness of sin would come later, perhaps; but that’s what Willie said when he echoed the words of the Psalmist that same night: ‘And He will remove your transgressions as far as the East is from the West’. It was something Homer never forgot. How could he? As far as the east is from the West! ‘Why, you can’t gets much farther than that!’ Willie went on to explain. “You see bruddas and sistas…” he proselytized in that peculiar accent often associated with gentlemen from the South, “When God speaks through the prophet, in this case the Psalmist, He know ‘zackly what he talkin’ ‘bout. Amen? Now look’ye here, chil’runs,” he went on to explain “ If a man go to walkin’ east, out yonder past Old Port Fierce, and he keep on walkin’; well then, he gonna walk straight into the ocean. Now that be impossible, you might say; and you be right ‘bout that, too, I ‘spose; but ain’t nothin’s impossible for God. Amen? And if that same man keep on a’walkin’ he ‘ventually winds up on the other side of the woild; which ain’t nec’ssarily a bad thing… ‘specially if he winds up in Jordan, or ol’ Jerusalem! Amen? And he may not stop there! Might just keep on a’walkin’ all the way ‘round the woild! And come back right where he starts from… right ‘chere in Old Port Fierce! on Avenue ‘D’. Backs inside this ol’ Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit, which also ain’t nec’ssarily a bad thing, either; considrin’ all the other places he could winds up, which ain’t so good… if you know what I’s sayin’. But the point is this: You see, chil’runs; no matter where he go, and no matter how far or how fast he walks, that same in’vidual always be going in the same direction – East! Ain’t no time he be going West. Ain’t no way. Ain’t no how. It simply can’t be done! ‘Course, if that same in’vidual go North, up yonder ‘round the North Pole, you see; well then, at some point, way up yonder on the top of the woild, I ‘spose, he ‘ventually be goin’ South. And why’s that, you say? Well, it like this brudders and sistas,’ Willie extrapolated in all perfect reason and flawless logic, “North and South always come together, ‘ven’tually; just like these ‘chere United States. Can’t never be broken apart. Just like bein’ married, I ‘spose. And that there’s a good thing. Amen? But East and West is different. They never meet. Never do come together. Just like King David say: And He will remove yo’ sins as far as the East is from the West. In other woids, brudders and sistas… He remove them forever! Amen”

And all God’s children said: AMEN!!!!!

What Willie failed mentioned in his sermon that particular night (although I’m sure he would have if, in fact, he knew a little bit more about geophysics and history in general) was yet another revelation of Biblical proportion that bears further scrutiny. And it is this: At the time the Psalmist put down those words, ‘And he will remove your transgressions as far as the east is from the West’, we would have to assume, by his own language, that he knew, indeed and in fact, that the earth was round. Otherwise, he simply could not have made such a bold statement to begin with. But where did he get this knowledge? knowledge that, as far as I can tell, wasn’t even available to those who lived thousands of years later, during the days of Christopher Columbus, in fact; and knowledge that certainly would have been deemed nothing less than heretical at that time, and punished in the usual manner, which wouldn’t necessarily preclude burning at the stake or having one’s tongue cut out for uttering such blasphemies. But the Psalmist knew better, of course; just as God knows: that the earth is round, and that East and West will never, ever, meet; which, of course, is precisely why He choose to put the words in the palmist’s mouth to begin with, even thought he probably had no idea what-so-ever what the shape of the earth actually was at the time. How could he? He’s not God. Amen?

And so, Homer Skinner walked away from the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit that night a wiser and more grateful man, and perhaps even a holier one. He wasn’t sure if he was saved which, he sadly supposed, probably meant he wasn’t. Not yet anyway. But as Willie himself often proselytized: ‘Hope do spring eternal?’ There was still many things he didn’t know. But he knew one thing by then, and that was this: Without God, the world just didn’t make any sense. And without Jesus, God didn’t make any sense. It was a good start, he reckoned.

As for Homer’s more immediate and personal problem, the tooth that is; well, even the Reverend Willie B. Wright couldn’t stop it from aching. He’d never actually told Homer he could. And no matter how much he tried, no matter how many miracles he performed, no matter how many prayers and penances were said, and no matter how many ribs Homer gobbled down on that ‘Fat Moon Friday night’ on Avenue ‘D’ inside the little white church by the bay, the determined cook simply couldn’t pull that one stubborn, god-awful, aching tooth, figuratively speaking of course, out of Homer’s head. He didn’t think anyone could. But at least Willie had tried, which was more than anyone else would, or could, do for the young deputy with the aching tooth at the time. And for that he was eternally grateful. And if nothing else, the young black pastor had at least opened the deputy’s eyes to something he’d known all along, but was only he too blind to see at the time. It was the simple and unarguable fact that we are all sinners; there are no exceptions. And that we all fall short of glory of God, which, according to Willie at least, was the true definition of sin. Now, exactly how one goes about getting that glory back is for another chapter, and perhaps another book. We shall see.


Chapter Two

The Firefly

THE NIGHT WAS COLD and black as ink, as a chilling wind crept down from the mountains, chasing away even the moon and stars. The spirits of the night were gone by then, all except for one lone dark spirit that had suddenly and somehow turned itself into a tiny winged creature that was presently circling around the campfire like a lord of the flies. It had joined the other flying insects of the night, distinguished only by a bright green tail that glowed singularly on and off at equal intervals and with varying degrees of intensity. The old man took it as an omen, a sure sign of good luck to come, and actually welcomed the little firefly, wondering at how brave and innocent it suddenly appeared, heroically hovering over the tapering flames of the campfire. He then glanced down at the Harlie who appeared to have fallen asleep by under a warm woolen blanket. He was wrong on both counts.

With nothing else to do and little time do it, the little green creature thought that it might stay around, for a while at least, and keep the old man company. But it was getting late and the spirit knew it would have to return to the mountain before sunup or face the consequence of being organically turned into wood, just as the other spirits of the night had predicted and forewarned. There were no exceptions; not even for older and darker spirits of the night such as this particular one that just so happened to possess the enviable and awesome power of turning itself into a little green firefly, or any other physical manifestation it so desired. Besides, it was the least he could for the old man after all he’d been through, now that all the other spirits had gone away and deserted him.

Generally speaking, spirits of the night are harmless and seldom involve themselves in the affairs of men, or any other mortal creatures of the flesh. Not unlike ourselves, they prefer to be with their own kind and company. It’s only natural, I suppose; or, in the case of the spirits of the night – supernatural. But spirits like this little green firefly are different. They really do enjoy the company of mere mortals, especially humans; sometimes, they are even envious of them. And they don’t like being alone, either. They’re always looking someone, anyone, to torment or annoy; and this old man was as good as any. And he looked so lonely that night, sitting there like a bone on a stone, half awake and half dreaming, with that silly aching tooth of his. If only he’d stayed home that night, pacing circles on his bedroom floor of in the peace and quietude of his own little house in Creekwood Green, instead of chasing after gold and goblins, and fireflies.

By then, the other spirits of the night had gone back to where they came from: deep down in the belly of the mountain; snoring, perhaps, in their beds of stone. It was their home, of course, where they belonged; their haven and their sanctuary, a place to hang their hats, along with their picks, shovels and axes. The sun would soon be coming up, so they had all wisely decided to leave before it was too late, taking no chances and taking the moon and the stars with them, just for luck, as they’ve always done just before the break of dawn. They were waiting for Homer to come and join them in their golden slumbers. Sooner or later, they knew he would. They also knew what the old man was going through; they have been there themselves. They felt his pain and shared his lonely frustrations, with teeth of their own that still ached from time to time; even in their graves. It was a simple and painful reminder of the mortality they’d once shared with the rest of Humanity, if only for a while, on the greener side of the grave. But their time had passed. Their bones and beards had long since turned to dust, along with the rest of their corporal remains. They were stardust now; illusions, ghosts, shade of the past, phantoms, mere shadows of their former fleshy selves. Only their spirits remained. And now they were all gone, too. Except, perhaps, for the one…

“What about the gold?’ spoke the firefly, glowing like a green spark spat from a red hot flame.

“Huh?” stirred Homer, not knowing at first where the tiny voice was coming from.

“You know… the gold.”

“Oh, that,” Homer responded, as if subconsciously answering a question produced by his own tired imagination, the same one he’d been asking himself for the last forty years. So it really didn’t come as a surprise. He stared deeper into the open flame. “What about it?” he asked himself, or so he imagined.

“Where is it?” questioned the voice,

Homer: “Right where I left it.”

Are you sure?”

“Don’t worry, it’s still there,” reassured the old man. “I was there – Remenber?”

“You never know...” suggested the small but powerful voice.

Homer paused. For he knew just then that the voice was not his own. It didn’t come from him, this time. But he was tired; and he really wanted to go to bed. Still, he felt compelled to confront the faceless voice. “Whadaya want?” he whispered.

The voice answered: “the same thing you want.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for,” Homer flatly stated; although he knew there was more to it than that. “That’s why we came.”

“But is that what you really want?” repeated the firefly with glowing anticipation.

By then the old man eyes had shifted from the fire to the four men sleeping on the ground. They were snoring, of course, the way cowboys do on the trail, loudly and without knowing it. It was a comforting sound. “I don’t know…” resigned Homer, answering the voice as honestly as he possible could. “I just don’t know.”

“And what about the Harlie?”

The question hit a little closer to home. Still, Homer imagined that it might only be the beans talking; a little too much tobacco and whiskey, perhaps, and lack of sleep. It happens, now and then. And when it does there not much you can do about it. “You mean Elmo?” he replied, although it really wasn’t necessary.

The firefly then asked, “What does he want?”

Again, the old man responded, “I don’t know.” He thought about it for a moment. “Maybe he just came along for the ride. He’s like that, you know; most young men are. Sometimes do things they’re not sure of. Can’t be helped, I ‘spose. Was once like that myself.” He paused. “But then again, he might be here just because I asked him to. Ever think about that? He knows I ain’t as young as I used to be. Probably only wants to help. That’s Elmo! He’s a good boy.”

“Good as gold,” agreed the firefly, beating his transparent wings in the darkness.

“Well, if you want to put it that way…”

“I do.”

Having come to the firm but bewildering conclusion that the voice was indeed not his own, but was, in fact, that of the firefly circling over the fire that had somehow manifested itself by enunciating thoughts only he himself might’ve recognize, Homer closed his eyes and tried to go to sleep, as difficult as that may’ve been to accomplish under the circumstances.

The firefly would have nothing to do with it. “It’s all about you – Isn’t it?”

Homer opened his eyes. “Me?”

The firefly hissed, “Yessssssssss.”

“That’s not true,” stated the old man, as if he had just been insulted. He was actually becoming a little upset by then; annoyed might be a better word.

“It’s always about you,” the voice suggested.

“Well, at one time, yes… maybe,” he finally admitted, “but not anymore! Not here. Not now. It’s about Elmo, if you really want to know.”

“I already do,” said the firefly.

“Then damn it! Why’d you ask?”

“I just wanted to hear you say it. That’s all.”

Homer adjusted his position. He was clearly very upset by now. He glanced over at Colonel Horn who was still perched on his mossy log. Was he listening? Homer suspected he was. But with Red-Beard it was hard to tell. His eyes appeared open, as they always had. Only now, they appeared more open than usual, and certainly more open than they should’ve been this time at night, and with a long road still ahead of them. “Rusty!” he shouted in a loud whisper, as if seeking advice on a personal matter the colonel knew nothing about.

There was no answer. No response. Red-Beard just sat there like a bump on a stump, eyes wide opened, and fast asleep.

“He’ll be alright,” said Homer after moment of quiet hesitation. “And so will Nadine and the boy,” he added without really knowing why. “Leave me now, spirit. I’m sleepy, and I have a busy day tomorrow. Go away! Please.”

“Tomorrow may be too late,” suggested the firefly. “Why don’t you just send him home?”

“Who? Elmo?”

“For his own good…”

“It’s too late for that,” muttered the old man, as if he’d anticipated the request and had already made up his mind on the matter of the Harlie. “Who are you, anyway?” he finally asked his annoying host, afraid, almost, of the answer he might get.

But there was no answer. Not for moment, anyway.

The silence was almost deafening. It was the most disquieting and disturbing sound Homer could imagine. “Go away!” he implored the solitaire spirit of the night, “I’m tired, I say. And I have a lot to think about. Now, go away. Please!”

“Where should I go?” challenged the little green spirit of the night.

“How the hell should I know? Go to the devil, for all I care! Just let me be. Won’t you? I’m sleepy now, and I want to go to bed. The fire will be out soon anyway. And I’m so…”

The firefly interrupted, “The fire will never go out, old man. It’s been burning forever. Ever since… well, ever since I can remember. And you started it! You didn’t?”

“I was talking about the campfire,” said Homer, growing very irritated by then. He knew very well where the discussion was headed. He’d heard it all before; and he wanted no part of it. Besides, he really was getting very tired, and wished the firefly would just fly away, or at least put out his tail and stop pestering him.

But the firefly persisted, “Desire! That’s what I’m talking about, old man; you know – the fire! And I know what I’m talking about; after all, I’m a firefly – Ain’t I? Look at me!” And with that, the tiny insect ignited the phosphorous chemicals stored up in its etymological abdomen which, like the head of a Lucifer match striking a stone, burst suddenly into a ball of liquid green fire that glowed eerily and endlessly in the night, suspended in the air and leaving a meandering trail of green light behind it wherever it went. “Sure, we all have it. See? I’m burning up with it. I’m bursting with it! I’m…gorged with it. And you have it, too, old man. What do you think has kept you alive all these years?”

Homer tried not to listen, plugging his ears with his own soiled fingers and pretending not to hear.

The firefly continued, “It protects us. It cleanses us. We live and die in it. We’d bathe in it, if we could. Fire! It’s what makes the world go round. Where would any of us be without desire? It’s what separates us from the elements, and all other species.

“Us?” stirred the old man.

This time it was the insect that pretended not to hear. Rusty knows what I’m talking about,” it softly suggested, shinning a small green lantern on the transcendental colonel who, at that very same moment turned his bearded head slightly towards the campfire, as if agreeing with the insect through some telepathic means neither party fully comprehend. “We are born with it. Fire! We couldn’t put it out if we tried. Not that many haven’t, of course. But where did it get them? Not very far I should think. It’s in our blood. And look! It’s green – just like me!” it beamed with yet another bust of energy that shot from its tail like a force to be reckoned with.

“What are you talking about?” cried Homer, even though he knew he shouldn’t have.

“Greed... that’s what I’m talking about,” sparked the firefly. “Envy. Jealousy. It’s all the same to me.

“The fire?” questioned Homer, shrugging his eyebrows.

“Now you got it, Prometheus!”

“Wasn’t he a thief?” reminded the old man, vaguely recalling the story of a Greek titan who became famous for stealing fire from the gods as a gift for man.

“Whatever it takes, old man. We do what we have to…”

First ‘Us’ and now ‘We’, thought Homer, beginning to wonder if he was indeed dealing with more than one spirit, and if it wasn’t human after all.

As if reading the old man’s mind, the spirit of the night answered, “I got one too, you know.”

“A toothache?”

“It hurts!” screamed the insect, in a voice that pierced the night.

“Like sin,” the old man had to agree.

“That’s what it feels like.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Homer lied.

“We all sin,” replied the firefly, in righteous indignation, “…sometimes.”

Homer: “‘I ‘spose that makes it right.”

Firefly: “Doesn’t make it wrong.”

Homer: “That’s a matter of opinion.”

Firefly: “I have a lot of them.”

Homer: “Opinions?”

Firefly: “No. Lies.”

“You’re talkin’ crazy… just like the colonel,” said Homer, tossing a long suspicious glance in the direction of the wide-eyed wonder sitting on a log in the near distance. “Now, go away!”

“Is that what you want?”

“Yes. Er...No! That is to say, I don’t know… I think,” admitted Homer in his own ambivalent and bubbling way, wishing he could make up his mind once and for all and be done with it. Maybe the green spirit was only trying to help him do just that, thought the lonely frustrated old man; although he couldn’t see how, or why.

“It’s yours,” spoke the firefly, suddenly changing the subject to something closer to the heart of the matter, and the real reason for his presence that night. “You saw it first.”

Homer sat up. It was as if he were struck by a bolt of lightning that came out of nowhere. He didn’t know what to say. So he did what he always did at times like these, what he did best. He lied. “The gold…” he falsely acknowledged.

“No!” burned the firefly, intensely.

Homer didn’t expect such a forceful or fiery response; but he was ready for it anyway. “You tell me then,” he burned just as brightly.

“You know...” reminded the insect, in that queer and coy tone of voice that is sometimes associated with that of a wanton woman.

The old man whispered. “The stone...”

“Now we’re getting’ somewhere,” it gleamed.

Homer hesitated. “I…”

“You’re not the only one who knows.”

“Red-Beard!” said the old man, thinking out loud and realizing by now that the spirit was right: he wasn’t the only one who knew about the black stone. “So, it’s not just the gold then. It’s the stone he’s after,” spoke Homer to no one in particular while glancing over his shoulder to the man asleep on the log, or so it seemed. He knew that by now. He’d already suspected as much, but could never quite convince himself that it might be true. And there was just no way to put his suspicions to the test. He simply didn’t have any proof. Accusing, or even questioning, someone in such a high-ranking position as Colonel Rusty Horn was not to be taken lightly. It had gotten some men, particularly in the heat and fog of war, court-martialed, if not put before a firing squad.

“Look at him over there,” said the firefly, pointing its fiery green tail in the direction of the bearded man sitting on the log so peacefully next to sleepy ol’ Jove. “He’s not like the others, you know. See how he just sits there with one eye open, always open. Red-Beard doesn’t sleep; nor does dream. He is like the man on the moon. Look at those craters! He’s scarred all over with them. He sees all, even in his sleep. The good doctor made him that way. His heart is made of…”

“Yes! Yes!” cried Homer, “I know all about his operation. How he was wounded on the battle and stitched back together. And he is mad, just like they say. Hell! Everyone knows that…even that idiot, Webb, who would suck out the colonel’s brains and do a gig in his skull, if you gave him half a chance and a bottle of booze. They’re both nuttier than one of Mrs. Skinner’s fruit cakes…and just as disagreeable,” Homer muttered to himself, “once you’ve had enough of them.” And he’d already had a belly-full. “One’s more dangerous than the other. Damn them both to hell and be gone!” he cursed out loud.

“As if hell would have them,” answered the firefly, quite correctly. “But that’s not for us to decide. Is it? Besides, we have other things to consider right now.”

“The stone?” Homer wondered in the darkness.

“He knows what he wants; he just doesn’t know how to go about getting it. He has a plan, though. But I don’t think he knows what it is. Not yet.”

“Well, neither do I,” replied Homer, honestly enough. “…if you really want to know the truth.”

“Truth? What’s that, old man?”

Homer simply shook his head. It was a simple question, but of Biblical proportions, and one he dare not answer. It was cold outside and the fire was burning low by then, but he was still perspiring. He could feel the toothache, throbbing, worse than ever; he could feel the fever. And it hurt like, like… “Suppose something goes wrong?” he said to both himself and the firefly. “Bad things happen in dark places. Just look at what happened to poor Mister Wainwright?”

“That was different,” rejoined the firefly, forgoing his earlier inquisition.

“It was a long time ago…” Homer almost agreed.

“It’s still there,” insisted the hungry spirit of the night. “I know. I saw it. You saw it, too. Com’on, Homer. We’ll go down together. Just like old times. Just you and me! Wha’daya say?”

“I don’t know. Too dangerous! Maybe I should just go alone, like I did before.”

“You weren’t alone, old man,” insisted the fly. “You’re not that brave.”

“How would you know?”

“Because I was there… right beside you. Remember?”

Homer thought long and hard, reviving thoughts and images of the past he otherwise might’ve forgotten, or was merely too frightened to remember. “The candle...” he whispered in the darkness.

“You saw it burst into flame,” said the firefly, confidently, in what appeared as an affectionate beam of true friendship, “It was only me. I can do things like that, you know.” And then suddenly, the campfire sprang back life, just like the candle did forty years ago, sparked, it would seem, by the same unseen hand that ignited the flame forty years ago at the end of a long dark tunnel. “See?” it glowed.

But Homer was not impressed, at least not as much as he should’ve been, but more than he wanted to admit. He thought it best not to expose himself any more than he already had to this infernal firefly that seemed to know a great deal not only about himself but about the entire expedition of which he was presently beginning to have some very serious doubts about. “That’s pretty good,” he smiled in return. “Now, if could you light yourself on fire…”

Circling the flame in a more agitated flight, the firefly suddenly appeared angry. And it showed by the way it left a trail of bright green light in its meandering wake, like a burning match tracing lines in the dark. “That’s not what I’m here for,” it replied.

“Well, I still think it’s better if I go alone,” Homer insisted.

“What about the others?”

“They’ll just go home, I reckon.”

“Red-Beard, too?”

“No, I ‘spose not,” Homer sighed. “Not until he finds what he’s looking for.”

“The gold?”

The old man wasn’t so sure anymore. “I don’t know,” he said, glibly.

“He’ll never find her, you know.”

“Her?”

“You know who.”

Again, Homer lied. “No I don’t.”

The firefly glowed. “The stone… Damn it! The stone!”

A cold sweat broke across the old man’s furrowed forehead. He suddenly wished he’d never found the Motherstone, or the gold, or anything else for that matter. He wished he’d never came back. “I wasn’t looking for it. It just happened to be there. That’s all,” he apologized even though he didn’t think he should have to. “We was only lookin’ for Mister Wainwright...And I found him! Inside the cave, along with...with…”

“You will all die,” the firefly interjected.

“Some sooner than others,” sighed Homer.

“No, you fool!” laughed the spirit, pointing with its corrupted tail, “I mean up there, in the mountain.”

Homer looked up, as if he were an ant at the foot of boiling volcano, which, in a real sense, he was. He lowered his head and stared steadily, deeper, into the flames. He sensed that he was being told the truth, for a change; and he didn’t know why. He knew his own chances of survival were slim at best; and at times he really didn’t seem to care, so long as he tried. But the others… he thought, were all too young, except for maybe Hector; but he was still strong as a horse and had a few good years left in him, not to mention a pretty young wife and child. There was one that stood out in particular, however. “Elmo, too?” he had to ask.

“The Harlie,” acknowledged the evil green spirit in the affirmative, even though he knew it was a lie.

It was a knife that went straight through his sputtering heart. “No!” cried the old man, without questioning the spirit’s credibility as much as he should have on such important matters as these. It should’ve seemed at least a little odd to Homer that anyone, or anything, would have such intimate knowledge about his personal affairs. But it didn’t. Nor did it occur to him that the evil spirit might not even exist at all, and could actually be the sour by-product of the outlaw’s moonshine, a hallucinogenic cigar, the Harley beans, some bad beef jerky, perhaps, dyspepsia, or his own wild and wonderful imagination. But it wasn’t.

This spirit was real. It was different from the others who’d made their exit earlier, and without such a fuss, the ones that frequented him late at night and had him pacing circles on his own bedroom floor. Those were kindly spirits that exhibited no animosity towards him and, for all intents and spiritual purposes, wished him well in both his personal and private affairs, especially in regards to the business at hand. If these as well as other logically induced notions had entered his heavy head that night, Homer might’ve indeed been more skeptical, or at least a little cautious, of this flying menace and its loquacious utterances. And perhaps by applying a little more scrutiny to the situation, he might’ve, in fact, also learned something about the firefly’s true identity and its beguiling methods.

“It’s all your fault,” resumed the insect, circled ever closer to the flame while growing and glowing in its un-welcomed appearance and hinting to the old man anything that might suggest his guilt in the matter, if only to confuse him.

“Who me? Homer questioned, for a change.

“You found it, Homer. It’s yours old man.”

It was the first time the irritating insect had addressed to Homer by his first names. And he didn’t particularly like it; no more than he liked being called ‘old man’. Sure, he was old. But Hell! Everyone knew that; it was something his own dear old wife would remind him of nearly every day. And growing old right alongside with him, she was perfectly right to say so. But this was not his wife. And coming from such an odd and unfamiliar source, and being quite unacceptable in the way of proper etiquette and gentlemanly discourse, the words insulted more than they enlightened. Besides, they were simply mean-spirited and uncalled for, thought the old… I mean, Mister Skinner. “So it was you,” he finally acknowledged,” staring directly at the alien invader.

The evil insect merely replied. “No… It was you, Homer.”

“But I didn’t...I keep telling you!” argued the deputy, impatiently. “Besides, how was I ‘spose to know? I had nothing to do with it. No one asked me to...It wasn’t my idea. I just found it, you know, the gold...I mean the stone, that is. It wasn’t my fault! It was just…there. You may as well blame me for being born, or for having brown hair and blue eyes. Or just hang me, if you consider that a crime as well. What else could I do? I didn’t ask for it. It was just… just, there.”

“You found her,” repeated the firefly, for the second time that night referring to the object in question in more gender specific terms by substituting the pronoun ‘her’ instead of ‘it’ in the way of general description. It was, as Homer just than recalled, the way Tom Henley had once described that which otherwise might’ve been indescribable to his newly found friend and benefactor, Colonel Rusty Horn, better known as Red-Beard, as well as himself.

The use of the feminine appellation did not escape the deputy’s dusty ears. He suddenly recalled when he’d first clapped eyes on the strange black stone, shrouded as it were in myth and mystery, enshrined in a golden tabernacle, and thinking to himself at the time just how ‘beautiful’ it looked; as pretty as a princess on a pedestal, he imagined. And how lovely and lonely it appeared, how… how, precious. The desire was overwhelming, he just then suddenly remembered; not unlike the desire he was later to feel when he’d first laid eyes on his own wife sitting by the brook, her dress pulled high up over her knees, exposing the milky white flesh of her youthful thighs to the early morning sun. It was the first time he’d seen her in that light. It… she… was simply irresistible.

The two unforgettable scenes had been similarly and permanently burned into the old man’s brain; perhaps by the same iron held by the same inscrutable hand. They bore the same brand, and left the same mark. It was the mark of a woman, of course; the mark of the Motherstone. But rather than admitting to what had become by now so nakedly obvious in regard to what happened one night at the end of the long dark tunnel, Homer simply choose to do what most men do in these situations; what came most natural to him. He lied. And he did it this time in a most resourceful and imaginative way: By calling the liar’s bluff. “That’s a lie,” he answered, calmly and collectively; which, by the way, is always the best way to lie, if you really have to, of course, and have no other choice.

The firefly bristled under the iridescent shell of its metallic body, angered as it were over the deputy’s ongoing duplicity to which it was apparently immune. It then floated deliberately up through the smoke, between the sparks and flames before finally coming to rest on the old man’s sunken shoulder. It appeared like a tiny black angel by now, with transparent wings and a green glowing tail vibrating and quivering between its mechanical legs. It drew closer to the fleshly lobe and whispered into his ear, just like the spirits of the night had done a thousand times before: “Thems that want don’t get.”

The old man had heard those words before. And he had heard enough. He picked the firefly off his shoulder and, holding it firmly between his thumb and forefinger fingers, the way he would any other insect he was about to dispose of, brought right up to his nose. He studied it for a while. He squinted. It squirmed. He could see the glandular rear end of the insect pulsating from within with whatever substance it was that produced the distinctive glow of the firefly.

It made the insect angry. And no doubt you would be too, if held in the death grip of a befuddled old man who had nothing better to do than sit by the fire all night squeezing the beetle juice out of some helpless little firefly. He pressed it a little bit harder and thought he heard a tiny scream coming from the claw-like mandible the insect used for a mouth. He wanted to kill it. He applied more pressure until the wings of the insect stopped beating altogether. He wanted it dead. And just as he was about to deliver the death blow by simply crushing the last bit of life out of the helpless spirit of the night, old man simply let it go.

The Harlie was still awake. He couldn’t sleep that night. He saw it all. And what he saw disturbed him. What he’d heard troubled him even more. He tried to figure it all out. He couldn’t. What was it all about? Elmo didn’t believe in spirits, evil or otherwise; but he did believe in Homer. He loved the old man and wished for the first time that they both had stayed home after all. He wondered if it still wasn’t too late.

The sun was just coming up just then. And given the choice of being turned into wood by embracing the fatal rays of a new day’s sun or flying directly into the fire, which the firefly was instinctively drawn to anyway, the evil spirit chose the latter. And there, in the purging flames of Perdition, where it was quickly and quietly consumed by the fire, which, by the way, is the only way to kill a dark and evil spirit no matter what form it takes, it perished. There was nowhere else for it to go. All at once Homer knew what to do.

Overwhelmed by a sudden sense of tranquility, Homer relaxed, for the first time that night. He was caught up in a certain calmness that seemed to drive out the cold, along with the fear.

The sun broke over the eastern horizon, confirming his innocence and sealing his fate. The blemish had been removed. There was no more doubt. The tooth still ached (Oh well, you can’t solve all your problems in one night. Now can you?) – but otherwise, he was feeling as clean and spotless as a fleecy white lamb. So he put out the fire and went to sleep.


Chapter Three

Rocky Roads

THE FOLLOWING MORNING the party of nine departed the Great Northern Wood and traveled northwest until they were well within the foothills of the Silver Mountains. It was Wednesday, the third day of the expedition, and the going was rough. Talk of the gold diminished as the pace quickened over the hard rocky soil, the incline of the land beginning to take its toll on the weary treasure hunters.

It was unusually warm and sunny that day, even as they approached the higher elevations of the mountainous terrain; and so, the Harlie thought he would walk for a while. He soon found himself trailing the four horsemen who, along with the painted wagon, always seemed to be lagging behind their Red-Bearded leader. He was worried about Homer. The old man just didn’t seem right. He looked old, pale and tired, unsure of himself, and maybe even a little bit angry.

Elmo remembered what’d happened the night before with the firefly; but he still couldn’t decide who the old man was talking to; if he was talking to anyone at all. Maybe he was just talking to himself, he wondered. It wouldn’t be the first time it happened. The Harlie would often do the same himself, when ‘woikin’ da fields’ as his landlord would say, along with his mouthy mule. The only difference was that the mule never talked back; not to anyone else anyway.

Meanwhile, Homer Skinner rode alongside Rusty Horn who was presently straddled atop of his beloved Brahma, Jove; its milky white hump swaying lazily from one side to another in the early morning mist. He was leading the way as best as he could, occasionally pulling out his old yellow map and reading glasses, trying to recollect his bearings and where he was forty years ago. He was also thinking about last night, the firefly, and what’d transpired between them, if anything. He remembered going to sleep that night thinking everything would be all right; but the old doubts quickly returned, just as they always did, leaving him as clouded and confused as ever. The earlier innocence he’d experienced was only temporary, or so it seemed. It evaporated before him like the morning dew on the tall leaves of grass that could still be seen now and then rising up through the rocky soil or the cracks of boulders, which the animals seemed to enjoy nibbling on.

No longer was he the spotless lamb that had fallen asleep by the fire, and his fleece was not so pure and white; not that it ever really was, he finally had to admit. Perhaps it was the cigars, maybe the moonshine. He had hoped the feeling, or at least innocence, would last. But it just didn’t happen that way; it never does, of course. He was thinking less about the gold and more about the stone, just as the firefly had predicted he would. It came as little surprise; after all, that’s what he really wanted, despite all the talk of the gold. That’s what he came back for. That’s why he was there. The spirits of the night were right; they always are, of course, even the evil little green ones. And the words came back to haunt him as well: ‘Thems that want don’t get.’ To which Homer responded just as he did the night before: “Fall, mountain. Just don’t fall on me...”

“What’s that you say?” the colonel asked under a mild morning sky. He’d been riding just close enough to Homer to hear the old man’s utterances to the age old Biblical dilemma. It made little sense to him, as many of the old passages did, from Genesis to Revelation, and took it as a sign of senility.

“Oh, nothing,” said Homer, “Just thinking out loud. That’s all.”

“Let me do the thinkin’,” replied the colonel, with a little more condescension than Homer was accustomed to. “That’s what I’m here for, Remember?”

Homer shrugged off the Red-Beard’s latest patronizing remark with his usual indifference. He had more important things to consider. He was still thinking about what the evil spirit had related to him the night before; about the gold and, more importantly, about the Motherstone, which he knew by now was the principal agent driving Red-Beard’s megalomania. “And what are you thinkin’ about, Rusty?” he asked, innocently enough, as if he had nothing better to do to pass the time of day than trade pleasantries with a two headed mechanical monster he suddenly wished he’d never met.

“What do you think?” Red-Beard curiously replied.

“That’s what I was afraid of,” acknowledged Homer.

“Huh?”

“Oh, never mind,” sighed the old man, wondering if he should even go down that road, “Just askin’.”

At that point Homer Skinner thought it might be a good idea to just change the subject of the conversation for a while, and silently admonished himself to be more care in the future about bringing up such matters, especially around the colonel who possessed a keen, uncanny, and almost intuitive sense of picking up on the thoughts and meditations of others and using them, if he saw fit, to his own advantage. It was the military part of his brain at work which, for the most part, still worked perfectly; like a well-oiled machine or a state-of-the art rifle, with the same precision and with the same deadly accuracy. So, glancing down at Red-Beard’s faded blue trousers with the wide yellow stripe down the leg, and then up at the confederate gray shirt he was wearing, the old deputy decided to ask the obvious, which, as far as he knew, was yet to be asked by anyone in the immediate vicinity. “That’s quite a uniform you got there, Colonel. But the war’s over. Or haven’t you heard?”

Undeterred by the sudden inquisition, if that’s what it was meant to be, and looking straight ahead as if trying to gauge the distance between himself and some unseen enemy, Red-Beard replied in typical military rhetoric, “Nothing’s over, old man. Wars don’t end...only the battles. There’s always another one, just over the horizon.”

“And that’s where you’ll be, I ‘spose,” said Homer, although there was never any doubt in his mind.

For the duration of the war, Homer, along with others who’d shared his privileged proximity, were exempt from the hostilities, having little or no influence over the conflict one way or another. Residing at the time in what politicians often referred to as a ‘Border State’, he was precluded from participating in the heat of the battle, along with the war in general, and would’ve been rejected anyway, by either side, primarily because he was too old to fight; not to even mention the fact that his wife simply wouldn’t allow it. It was a status he would assume, and enjoy, until the end of the war; declaring himself ‘just a neutral by-stander’ in every regard, except perhaps when it came to the central issue of slavery, in which case he was forced abandon his Southern allegiance, no matter what the cost, aligning his sympathies with those of the Union cause despite his many confederate acquaintances, friends and neighbors all.

It proved to be an untenable, and sometimes embarrassing, position to be in at the time. But it was a position he never regretted, even after the war when he was harshly criticized for his abolitionist views and his sympathetic leanings, especially when it came to the Harlies, and one in particular – Elmo Cotton. But it wasn’t so much his political views that prevented those sympathies from becoming manifest at times, often at his own peril and risk– it was his age. Homer never considered himself a brave man. Like others of that period, he knew that that war was inevitable, the outcome of which was anything but certain at times. But he had always believed and maintained that the right side had won. And nothing, not the prison ships that were still anchored in New York Harbor, nor the deaths of his own friends and neighbors, not even the burning of Atlanta, would change that. It was something Jim Crow simply couldn’t understand, nor tolerate. But it seemed that the red bearded colonel saw things differently and, in his own disturbing and contradicting way, sympathized with neither side in particular, either before or after the war; regardless of his uniform, which, at one time at least, was solid Union blue. Privately, he blamed the politicians for the bloodshed; professionally, he blamed the generals, many of whom he had serious disagreements with. But he always praised the troops, as men and as soldiers, placing most of the blame, of course, on the man in the center of it all, the one with the stove-pipe hat.

“So tell me, Mister Horn, just how long you gonna keep on fightin’ this little war of yours?” the deputy wanted to know.

The colonel had been asked that question, or ones similar to it, many times before. He rarely acknowledged them and seldom addressed them. He had his reasons. But it was a mild sky and he happened to be in one of those rare melancholy moods that day, the kind that sometimes catches others off guard. He thought the conversation would do them both some good. Still, it was a feeling he was never quite comfortable with, one that always made him feel vulnerable. It was something he would usually try to avoid, like malaria, ‘the clap’, or some other venereal disease he found just as humiliating and debilitating. Introspection was simply not part of the protocol. But it was a mild day and a pleasant sky; and so, Rusty ‘Red-Beard’ Horn decided to make an exception this one time. “Nothin’s over,” he casually corrected the old man riding slightly above his shoulder. “That’s not what it’s about, old man. It never ends. That’s the best thing about it – war, that is. And even when you think it’s over, it ain’t. That’s just the end of round one.”

“Now I know you’re crazy,” Homer flatly stated without reservation, “Before, I only ‘spected it. War’s been over for ten years, Colonel. Hell! everyone knows that.”

“Not for me it ain’t,” replied Red-Beard, stubbornly.

“Is that why you still wear that confounded uniform?”

“That’s one reason. There are others.”

“Well then,” said Homer, feeling a little less threatened by the red bearded colonel than he did the day before. “Don’t you think it might be a good idea to take one of ‘em off… change them, I mean. High time, I say. I’d start with the shirt. Gray don’t look so good anymore. Besides, folks ‘round these parts don’t like to be confused. ‘Specially thems that won. And thems that lost...well, let’s just say they don’t like to be reminded too often,” cautioned the old man, and left it at that.

“Ain’t no winners or losers,” insisted the war-child, rolling from side to side on top of his four legged demigod, “only survivors.”

“You know, Horace…” began Homer, choosing his words more carefully and addressing the war-child by his Baptismal name this time. It was a name not many, not even his closest cohorts, were aware of – Horace; and even now it seemed to disturbed him, as if the sound alone triggered in him some inner conflict he’d been struggling with for quite some time. He wondered how Homer came about knowing it, although he suspected the old man knew more about him than he was letting on. “Some folks call you a traitor,” continued the deputy, cautiously. “You know, for doing what you did... and dressing like you do, I ‘spose.” He was considering the uncertain circumstances surrounding the colonel’s questionable past which hung over Red-Beard’s head like a dark, waterless cloud, and something he just couldn’t understand.

“I’ve been called worse,” said the colonel, glibly.

“Other folks say you ought to be shot,” reminded the deputy.

Red-Beard reached down and tugged on the nose of his white Brahma. “What do you say, Homer?”

It was one of the rare occasions when Red-Beard had actually addressed him on a first name basis, rather than simply ‘old man’, which Homer had come to expect. It was a name he wasn’t particularly fond of, even when his wife use it, from a purely affectionate approach, of course. It was something Homer hadn’t taken any particular notice of up until then, and something he wasn’t sure how to react to it at first, congeniality not being one of the colonel’s strong points. Perhaps it was merely Red-Beard’s answer to ‘Horace’, he guessed; one friendly gesture deserving another. The deputy shrugged. “That’s not for me to say, colonel. I wasn’t there. Too old, you know. Besides, I kind’a like to pick my own fights… and, my own enemies,” he quietly confessed. “I had no quarrel with either army, if you really want to know the truth. They was both as wrong as they was right, far as I’m concerned. And they fought the good fight. I give them the glory, if they want it, along the medals. Me, I’ll take the peace, whatever it cost.

“Peace…” responded Red-Beard, suddenly feeling that he and the old man with the map might have something in common after all, “is merely a state of mind. It’s unachievable, come to think of it, at least the way most folks would have it. Go to any country on earth. Pick one! Find the king, or whoever happened to be in charge, look him straight in the eye and ask him: What is peace? And you know what he’ll tell you, old man?”

Again, Homer shrugged.

Red-Beard nodded. “He’ll tell you just what I’m telling you, and no different. If he does, he’s a liar. Look, you want peace? Alright, I’ll give you peace: Make sure the boarders are secure and the trains run on time. Now that’s peace! Naturally, you’re going to need a well-trained, well-equipped, and well-fed army to make sure that happen. But, of course, it’ll never last. Boarders will be broken and the trains won’t always run on time; and armies always need something else to do. It can’t be helped. It’s in the Bible. Look it up! And tell me, old man, was there ever any peace in old Jerusalem? And if so, who provided it? Was it the Turk? The Christian? The Jew? The Muslim, perhaps! And by what medieval means did he accomplish such an impossible task? Was it with the sword, or the gun? Does it even matter? Peace, as you call it, is not the absence of war. It’s the result! or at least the threat, of war. Without one you can’t have the other. War and peace! Think about it, Homer. Tolstoy did! War’s necessary. And peace can only be achieved through sheer determination and will-power, and usually by some iron-fisted autocrat who understands the difference between the two.”

“Like you, I ‘spose,” questioned Homer.

“You said it, old man… Not me.”

“That’s some strong coffee, for this early in the morning,” Homer suggested. “And there may even be a kernel of truth to what you say… beg your pardon, colonel. And maybe more than this old brain can handle. I think I understand what you’re sayin’, but that don’t mean I necessarily agree with it. Peace, as you so eloquently put it, is both desirable and unattainable at the same time. Now that’s a little odd. But you’re a little odd, too, come to think of it… just like that goddamn uniform.”

“They’re my colors,” reminded Red-Beard. He’d worn them both at one time or another, just as proudly and openly, albeit separately and never sown together as they presently were spliced, the blue with the gray, coexisting side by side, as if cut from the same seamless and ideological cloth.

“I’m still not sure if I get your meaning, Colonel.”

“Well, it’s like this,” the war-child attempted to explain, with a clarity of mind and meaning that had somehow been missing from of his previous diatribe. “War’s don’t end...Well, not really. They never do! And that’s why we keep fighting them. See? Oh sure, battles are won and lost, some more gloriously than others. Victory has its own rewards. Defeat is left with only orphans. But that’s what war is all about, I suppose, killing people and breaking things, death and destruction. It doesn’t stop. Soldiers die, and are replaced easily enough. But the war, old man… goes on forever.

There were aspects of the colonel’s argument Homer could not disagree with, at least not with being honest with himself. And there was also a great deal of truth in what he was saying, particularly regarding the nature of war in general and how, and why, they are fought. But, as Homer himself was painfully aware of, mostly from personal experience: there is always a little truth in every lie, especially the good ones. “It still don’t explain the uniform,” he noted, turning his attention to the real root of the problem.

“Uniforms are like flags,” suggested Red-Beard. “They change all the time, for many reasons, and not only in color. Blue, gray, red, black or white…they’re all the same when you get right down to it. Choose one you like. If that don’t work, try another. It’s just that simple. And like I said before, it don’t really matter.”

“It matters to some,” Homer observed, feeling somewhat offended by the colonel’s off-handed remark, the ambivalence of which he interpreted not so much as indifference towards war in general, but hubris on the colonel’s part, and maybe even treason. Red-Beard was treading on a dangerous and rocky road, whether he knew it or not, but one he’d obviously traveled before. It was a place Homer would rather not be. It was confusing. Even Homer’s horse looked a little dumb-founded, turning its long equine head back from time to time, as if to say: Which way now, old man?

“Look’ye here,” challenged the colonel, turning his two-faced head to the man on the black horse beside him. “I know what I’ve done, and I know who I am. So don’t talk to me of treason, man. I could’ve had you shot at one time for even thinking about it. That’s right, I wear two colors now. And why shouldn’t I? What’s it to you, anyway? And oh, by the way,” Red-Beard continued down that same winding and rocky road that angels, and devils for that matter, fear to tread, “I notice you ain’t never worn a uniform. Where’s your flag, old man? Show me your colors! And just what the hell do you know about war anyway? You weren’t there. Were you? Where were you when the bullet hit the bone and grown men cried out for their mommas? And who are you to judge? I don’t see any stars on your chest, or medals.”

“Don’t see any on yours, either,” the deputy noticed, glancing slyly at the battle-worn blue of Red-Beard’s blouse.

“That’s ‘cause I threw ‘em all away,” replied Red-bear, as a matter of fact, and with the same indifference he’d showed earlier while ambivalently explaining his perverted position on the war, “…after they stitched me up like a Thanksgivin’ turkey.”

“War’s hell, Colonel. I know that much. And so do you… I think.”

“I didn’t see you there,” sneered Red-Beard.

“No you didn’t, Colonel. But you don’t need go to hell to know...”

“What?”

“Nothin’…You wouldn’t understand.”

But Red-Beard did understand. That was part of the problem. And he knew, or at least he suspected, what the old deputy was trying to say, albeit in his own extemporaneous way. “You ever been scared?” he asked for no apparent reason.

“Scared? No,” said Homer, not knowing for sure if Red-Beard had any idea of what he was talking about, or if it even mattered. He was thinking of what happened forty years ago, of course, at the end of the tunnel. “Petrified? Yes!” Whether or not Red-Beard knew what he was talking about, the old man just didn’t know. What he did know, however, was that he was getting close to the truth – too close, perhaps.

Rusty pressed him. “Did you bleed?” he wanted to know, questioning once more, and with the same indignation, the old man’s courage, or lack thereof, in the heat of a battle that never existed; at least, not for Homer Skinner. “Did you cry out for your momma like the others? No, I don’t think so. How could you? You weren’t there. Remember? Well, I was. I showed my colors. There were men dying, everywhere. I saw one young fellow with his belly blow open by a shotgun. Not a pretty sight, I can tell you. Another one had his legs sawed off. Many men died. Not all survived the battle. But I did. And I’m still here!” he shouted, so loudly as to alert the man on the moon of his ubiquitous presence.

Homer Skinner was not impressed; nor was he persuaded by the colonel’s unexpected apology. That’s not to say that he didn’t feel just a little bit ashamed about not having served in the military, on one side or the other. He did! But as we already know, he was just too old; and no one would take him at the time, even when both sides were losing troops by the thousands and could’ve surely used the extra hands, soft and wrinkled as they might’ve been by then. And he would’ve felt comfortable in either skin, although he’d always been impressed with the clean navy blue uniforms worn by the Northern troops, as opposed to the dirty gray rags the Confederates were often seen scouring the countryside in. There never a doubt about which side had the better resources, human or otherwise, and held the upper hand. But they were all just soldiers, he supposed; and they were only doing their job, something even Red-Beard could understand.

There were those who called Homer a coward, right to his face. But even that didn’t seem to bother him. He’d been called worse. He recognized both sides of the conflict, the blue and the gray, and assisted them in any way he could at the time; and in that sense, he was really no different than Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, the megalomaniac walking besides him at that very moment. But that was then; and he knew better now. “You can’t serve two masters,” warned the deputy, sharply. “You was an officer, Rusty. A colonel! You should know better. Think about that!”

Gently caressing the nose of the white Brahma, Red-Beard did think about it, as he had been ever since his vital operation. “I was only doing what they taught me to do,” he said with a cold, blank stare, “what they told me to do.”

“And what was that, Colonel?”

“Like I already said, kill people and break things. That’s what war’s all about. Ain’t it?”

“Does that include civilians?”

“Whatever it takes, old man.”

“Some folks call that murderer.”

“Killed me a General once,” boasted the red bearded officer.

“That makes you an assassin then.”

Red-Beard didn’t necessarily agree, and said so: “Depends on your point of view, old man.”

“And your aim, I reckon.”

The colonel almost laughed, “That, too!”

Homer sighed. “Just takin’ orders, I ‘spose.”

“We all do. Don’t be so ignorant.”

“I wasn’t necessarily talkin’ about the military, Mister Horn.”

“Neither was I.”

“Well, what the hell are you talkin’ about?”

Red-Beard looked straight ahead. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Don’t know if I want to.”

Silence.

“I thought maybe you was talkin’ about God, or something like that,” resumed Homer, suddenly wishing he hadn’t.

Red-Beard was thinking it over. He hesitated, and then appeared to smile. Or, at least, that’s what it looked like. But with all those damn whiskers, it was hard to tell, not unlike the Smiley the surveyor whose thoughts were similarly obscured, but perhaps not for the same reason. “Well… maybe in a way, I am,” he finally stated.

“Careful, Horn,” warned Homer, detecting something dark and disturbing in Red-Beard’s reasoning, something he’d been suspicious of for quite some time now. “Treason’s one thing... Blasphemin’s something entirely different. And remember, colonel,” he cautioned, “God don’t take prisoners.”

In typical defiance, the war-child replied, “Neither do I.”

Homer lowered his head. “Heaven help you then, Mister Horn,” he sighed.

Red-Beard pretended not to hear the warning, if that’s what it was. He’d heard such admonitions before, and generally ignored them. But just then, and for whatever incomprehensible reason, the cold-blooded killer leaned down and whispered something into the branded ear of his Brahma. The beast nodded, either by instinct or understanding, as if it somehow understood. “God’s a warrior,” he suddenly mused out loud, “– like me, I suppose. And come to think of it… so’s the devil! Hell, we’re all warriors when you get right down to it. Cain started it, if you really what to know. That’s when it began; a blow to the head, if I’m not mistaken. And it didn’t stop there. King David! Now there’s a warrior for you. Ulysses – not Grant, he drinks too much – is another one. Lee’s a better general. Alexander the Great! And don’t forget those Spartans; why they practically invented war. Napoleon! George Washington! I could go on and on. They started it.”

“The fire…” Homer whispered to himself, recalling a similar conversation he had only the night before, with a smaller adversary, perhaps, but just as determined, and dangerous. “So that’s what he meant.”

“And it’s up to us to finish it,” reminded Red-Beard, as if leading up to some fateful and final battle of Biblical proportions. Armageddon, perhaps, a battle he was destined to participate in, commanding an army of soldiers that weren’t even born yet. “We’ve been doing it for four thousand years,” he resumed, looking worn and weary but ready for such a glorious commission, as though he were the only one who deserved it. “Trouble is – most folks are too scared to admit it. But not me. Look around, old man. What do you see? War! It’s everywhere. And there ain’t no one can stop it. So why even try now? We’re all murders, man. Born to kill! It’s in our blood and on our hands. You couldn’t wash it off if you tried. Get used to it. Or die.”

“That what they teach you in the military school, colonel?” questioned Homer, “How to kill people?”

“Among other things,” Red-Beard responded without further elaboration on a subject he thought he knew everything there was to know about, and then some, “Things you wouldn’t understand, old man.”

“Like murder for instance?”

“It’s easy,” shrugged Red-Beard. “Once you get used to it.”

“Killin’ and murderin’ ain’t the same,” challenged the deputy, with a seriousness in his voice the colonel might’ve taken for insubordination under different circumstances.

“Well, like I said,” Red-Beard repeated, “it all depends on your point of view.”

“I reckon,” resigned the old man, beaten but not defeated. “By the way, I heard about you being wounded in the war,” he mentioned, not knowing what else to say on the subject, but feeling he should say something, anything, to get to the heart of the matter. “Said you was dead. Somethin’ about you gettin’ all shot up… and patched back together again, like you was a broken watch or something. That true, Rusty? That why they gave you all them medals?”

Red-Beard didn’t blink. “Well, let’s just say it’s more true than it ain’t, old man, and leave it at that. As for the medals… I already told you. Throw’d ‘em all away.”

“Should’a throw’d away them old army rags while you were at it,” said Homer, pointing to the faded uniform cocooning the colonel’s body like a blue and gray banner, “before someone gets the wrong idea… takes a pot-shot at you. And,” he added, having heard of the colonel’s medical record, “there might not be anyone ‘round this time to put you back together again.”

Red-Beard was not surprised; and he didn’t look as alarmed as perhaps he should have. He’d heard talk like this before. It seemed that nothing could frighten him any longer. And nothing did. Being half man and half machine, figuratively speaking, how could it? There were those who claimed that Rusty Horn had become immortal after the operation on the battlefield. And maybe they were right; his once maimed and mangled body rendered virtually indestructible by the mechanical parts that now preserved and protected it. Many proclaimed it a miracle. A triumph of the will! as well as science. And a vast improvement of Humanity in general, they noted with a strange fascination. ‘The new man!’ he was instantly ordained by those given to more secular ideology who appeared thoroughly satisfied. Others suggested it was merely the work of the devil; predicting, with a noticeable amount of gloating in their prophesy, that sooner or later the ‘New Man’ would fall, just like the old one, hard and fast, along with all the other heroic abortions manufactured by the meddling hands of mortal man, doomed for destruction and fatally destined for the dung heap of History where they no doubt belonged. Perhaps both were right. We’ll just have to wait and see.

“There won’t be a next time.” said the war-child, adamantly. And he meant every word of it. That’s not to say Red-Beard believed the war was over. Quite the contrary. He didn’t! He was merely waiting for the next battle, wherever and whenever it occurred: in the Biblical valley of Megiddo perhaps, as previously hinted upon, ushering in what would be the final confrontation predicted by the Apostle John of nearly two thousand years ago on the island of Patmos. They called it the battle of Armageddon, the war to end all wars.

“You mean you ain’t ‘skeered?” wondered the old man out loud.

Red-Beard replied, “No.”

“Then you’re a fool… or a liar.”

“No. I’m different. That’s all.”

Despite the seriousness of the subject, and weighty manner in which it was presented, Red-Beard appeared to still be in a melancholy mood. It was during these rare and inexplicable moments when he could actually become congenial, almost human it would seem, but only in a distant and bewildering sort of way only a few could comprehend. “It’s my knack,” Rusty simply stated, running his hand along the serpentine spine of the Old Jove, which suddenly appeared as a great white river, floating gently on the Nile past the pyramids and the valley of the kings.

“Knack, eh?” questioned Homer.

“That’s right, old man… Knack! Everyone’s got one.

“You mean, like a talent?”

“Somethin’ like that, I ‘spose; but it has more to do with what a man is, rather than what he does… or what he’s worth. Now, take ol’ Hector for instance, the one they call ‘The Hammer’,” Red-Beard elaborated. “He’s a carpenter by trade; and a damn good one! no doubt. His knack is for cutting wood and driving nails. It’s a worthwhile profession, hard work; and it does him justice. Married him a pretty young wife; one who’ll take can take care of him in his old age. Gave him a son, too! But we’re not all so lucky.” And here Red-Beard paused, as if to give Homer a minute or two to ponder his personal observations.

“What are you driving at, Horn” said Homer, unsure of what he was hearing.

A little surprised that he was now being addressed by his last name instead of his official military title, Red-Beard continued: “The world has changed, old man. Hector knows it; and he doesn’t like it. Problem is, he’s too damn proud, or stubborn, to admit it. Besides, there ain’t nothing he can do about it, even if he wanted to. Not even with that old hammer of his. Ain’t that easy, you know; not at his age. He’s just too damn old… like you, I ‘spose. Ain’t his fault. We all grow old. Even me…” Rusty spoke as though it was something he was actually looking forward to. “We all have to hang up our hammers someday.”

Homer wasn’t so sure about that either.

Red-Beard continued, “Take a look around! The old days are gone. And good riddance! I say. Who’s needs a hammer and nails when everything’s made of iron, or some other metal ten times stronger? That’s the future, old man. We need things that will last. Machines not men; now there’s the ticket! It’s a hard world we live in; and it’s getting harder ever day, every hour, every minute! The railroad will coming through soon, and there’s talk of paving the streets in concrete. They call it progress, among other things. Personally, I don’t give a damn what they call it. It’s coming! That’s all I know. And I’ll be here when it does. You can’t stop it. And who would want to? It’s who we are. It’s in our blood.”

The old man didn’t answer.

“All things good things are born in blood,” resumed Red-Beard, in a dreamy state of consciousness that was hovering somewhere between melancholy and madness. “It’s the first thing we taste, even before we draw our first breath. Think of it, man. Have you ever seen it? Well, I have. Delivered an Indian child once. She was an old squaw, Seminole, I believe; somewhere in the swamps of South Georgia, the Okeefanokee I think they calls it. It was summer, hot as hell, mosquitoes as big as dragonflies. We massacred half the village. Only a few woman and children were left by the time we finished; and the old chief, too. He brought me to his house, a long mud hut, about the only thing left standing that didn’t catch on fire. There was a woman inside. She was already bleeding. I heard her scream. It was a breach! The baby came out feet first.”

“Funny…” joked Homer, not meaning to be flippant about it; he was merely trying to change the subject. “But according to my wife, that’s the only way I get out of my marriage. Feet first, that is.”

If Red-Beard hadn’t been so engrossed in his own dark thoughts at the time, he might’ve even laughed at the old man’s humorous comparison which, by the way, was not said entirely in jest, as most honest men will agree. Instead, he only gazed deeper inward. “It was a boy,” he continued, almost apologetically. “He was covered in blood. I could smell it. The mother died, of course. The old chief wanted to give the baby to me. Said it belonged to me now, or some such nonsense. That’s why the mother died, he told me. Supposed to be big medicine.”

“So what did you do?” asked Homer, suddenly finding himself strangely intrigued by the gruesomeness of the event.

“I killed it,” replied the war-child, with little or no remorse; and as if he had no other choice. “What else?” And as he said it, his hand was resting on the butt of his hilted sword suggesting, perhaps, the method employed in the infanticide.

It was indeed the saddest story Homer had ever heard. Not because of what happened, as poignant and pitifully as it was, but because of who did it, and perhaps the ways and means in which it was executed. “God forgive you, Mister Horn,” were the only words he could muster at the moment.

It was something Rusty hadn’t thought about in quite some time. He was actually surprised that he’d remembered it at all. “Just one of things…” he shrugged, innocently enough, “one of those, happenstances of war. It just happened.” But like so many other things that ‘just happened’ in the colonel’s blood-stained past, it was something he would just as soon forget about. “Hector’s a good man,” continued Red-Beard, burying the baby for good this time. He’s got the knack. Got a big hammer, too! Has to… with all those damn nails. But he won’t be a’needin’ ‘em much longer, I ‘spose.”

“That’s because he too old,” suggested Homer, suddenly looking down at his own white and withered hands holding loosely on the reins, “Just like me.”

“Not necessarily,” corrected the un-repentant colonel, feeling the years bearing down him as well by then. “As long as Hector can hold his hammer, he’ll never stop hammerin’. He can’t. Why should he? He’ll hammer his brains out, if you let him. Hammer until every nail is finally driven home. And he won’t stop there. Not Hector! He’ll hammer the last nail in the last coffin for last man on the last day, I tell you.” Red-Beard then paused for a moment to see if Homer understood what he was trying to say. “And you know who’ll be inside that coffin, old man? Do you? Huh?”

“Nope,” replied Homer, questioning Red-Beard’s mental stability not for the first time, “Can’t say I do, colonel.”

“The carpenter!” grinned Red-Beard, exposing, for the first time perhaps, two perfect rows of silver-capped teeth that reminded Homer of so many small minnows swimming in a sea of red. It also reminded him of how badly his own teeth had decayed by then, and how much they still ached, one in particular. “Don’t you see?” the colonel continued, “Don’t you get it, old man? The last coffin is Hector’s! It belongs to him. He’ll make it himself, of course. And what a coffin! Made of the finest materials, good stuff! Mahogany, with mother-of-pearl inlay and ivory handles; not that anyone will need ‘em, of course. And comfortable, too! Why, I reckon even old Lester Cox couldn’t construct such a cozy coffin; a right fine bed for the carpenter. He’ll dig his own grave, of course; and put the coffin right down there himself, nice and easy as you please. Naturally, he’ll leave a small hole in the box, so’s he can reach out and nail the lid shut. And then he’ll throw away his hammer, smoke his last cigar, and crawl inside, a glass of Sangria, perhaps, and die. Simple as that.”

Whether or not in his own and maniacal and melancholy way Red-Beard was making the slightest attempt at being humorous, a trait not in character with his overall disposition, or simply trying to make fun of the venerable old gentleman with the large hammer, was difficult say. In fact, it was hard to tell exactly what was going on inside that mechanized brain of his at any given moment, the man-made synapses of which might still be in the process of re-wiring themselves post-op. Not to mention the fact that one should always be at least a little wary whenever someone of Red-Beard’s disposition engages in any kind of jocularity at all. You may laugh with the devil, and you do so at your own peril. You may even drink to his health and wish him well. But as far as sharing supper with that old red-tailed rascal, you just might want to consider what the Reverend Willie B. Wright once said regarding such devilish dining arrangements, “… and don’t forgets to bring a long spoon.”

Whatever it was, Homer wanted no part of it. Never-the-less, he was willing to listen to Red-Beard’s lunatic ranting, knowing that to do otherwise, or to simply ignore a man in such a delusional state of mind, could be extremely dangerous. “You mean to say that Mister O’Brien will bury himself alive?” he questioned the madman.

Red-Beard nodded, “the last hand, the last hammer, and the last man. Now that’s the way to go, old man. That’s orthodoxy for you! That’s what Hector is really here for, you know. That’s why he came. Not the gold. Hell! what does the carpenter want with gold anyway? You can’t plane it, saw it, hammer it, or screw it into the wall. No, this Old Hammer lived in a world of wood and stone; and that’s how he’ll die… in the past.

Homer thought otherwise. “Don’t tell the Egyptians that,” he said, recalling once seeing a picture of King Tutankhamen’s bearded burial mask, all shiny and gold, in all its youthful splendor. It reminded him of a tabernacle, a golden tabernacle, like the one he once found at the end of a long dark tunnel. But what he was really thinking about, of course, was the Motherstone.

Red-Beard was too wrapped up in his own brave new world hear much of what Homer was saying, or suggesting. “Now take Webb, for instance,” he continued without missing a mechanical beat. “Alvin’s a soldier, a private. He’s takes orders; and he good at it. Someone has to. We can’t all be officers, you know.”

“He’s also outlaw and thief,” reminded the deputy.

Red-Beard agreed. “And that ain’t all,” he had to admit.

“Oh?”

“Webb’s knack is a little more difficult to explain. I’m not even sure if I understand it myself,” the colonel sighed. “You see, Alvin just hates. He’s spiteful. He hates for hates sake. That’s his knack, if he has one. He was like that in the army. Some things never change, I ‘spose. Seems the only time he enjoys himself is when he’s making someone else just as miserable as he is. He likes it. He actually enjoys it! That’s just the way he is.

“And you admire that?”

“I didn’t say I admired it, old man; I understand it. And that don’t necessarily mean I agree with it, either,” explained Red-Beard, apologetically enough. “There’s really not much more to say about Alvin. He’s dead already, I reckon – a ghost. That’s it! A god-damn toothless old ghost; too drunk to haunt a house, and too stupid to know any better.

“Gotta ‘gree with you there, pard’ner,” Homer reluctantly acquiesced...

But Rusty Horn wouldn’t stop there. There were other knacks; and he knew them all. “Smiley the surveyor… now he’s different,” observed the red bearded psychologist, presently directing Homer’s attention to the famous mustache riding not far behind. “He does what he does; no more and no less. He sees the world through a dark and dirty lens, only magnified a thousand times. And what he don’t see, don’t exists. You follow me so far, old man?”

“Do I have a choice?” replied Homer Skinner, wearily.

Red-Beard was so enamored in his own distorted thoughts by now that he did not feel the sting of the old man’s sarcasm, which might have been a little rusty around the edges but still sharp as butcher’s blade. And so he continued. “He looks at things, writes them down and tells others what he sees. Simple! Right? And when there’s nothing more to see, nothing left to measure, no more maps to draw, and no more cipherin’ to do – you know what he’ll do then, old man?”

“No, I don’t,” growled Homer, slowing his horse to cross a small creek cascading down from the mountains, the waters of which was growing noticeably higher by then.

“When that day comes…” predicted the red bearded Nostradamus, “When all those things are gone for good. Why, then the surveyor will simply drive his last stake into the ground, claim it for himself, dig himself a hole, take his last chew of tobacco, spit, and then throw himself in that hole and die, just like the carpenter. If he’s lucky, there will still be someone around, like me for instance, to fill in that hole. And that will be the end of it. Smiley’s a practical man. That’s what I like about him. If there’s no more use for his level and rod, they’ll be no more use for Smiley. Suicide’s simple. Why wait around when the job’s done? Smiley won’t. He knows when it’s time to go.”

Homer didn’t necessarily agree; and he wanted to say so, but thought that an argument was just what Rusty Horn was looking for that day, one he knew he couldn’t win. He also couldn’t help but notice a common thread running through Red-Beard’s demented diatribe. Death. He was obsessed with it, or so it seemed; and he feared it, the way some men fear their enemies. It was the main ingredient in his half-baked logic. And he wasn’t done yet. “That’s his knack, I ‘spose,” he said, as if reading the colonels disturbed mind.

“Like I said, old man. Everyone’s got one.”

Before Homer could argue the point any further, not that he really wanted to, Red-Beard resumed his gloomy prognostications in turn. “Take young Dilworth, for instance; the one they call Little Dick. We were all like him at one time; head in the clouds and a hard-on for a heart. Thinks he can change the world. Can’t be helped; it’s only natural, I ‘spose. Was once like that myself. He’s young, a dreamer you might say; but dreams are best left to those that sleep. He knows nothing of the world. If he did, he would probably kill himself and get it over with. At one time, and under different circumstances, I might’ve made proper soldier of him. You have to get ‘em while they’re young, you know. That’s when they make the best soldiers. Sure, you can make older men fight but, unlike the young ones, you can’t make them enjoy it. They know better. And that’s the difference. The old ones know too much. Knowledge, in and of itself, can be a very dangerous thing. Lucky for him there’s someone like me around to teach him. Trouble is… there are some that just can’t be taught.”

“Like the Injun?” Homer suggested, looking over his shoulder to make sure that the others had passed safely through the rising creek.

“Boy? He’s a warrior,” Red-Bead insisted, having already pre-determined the Redman’s knack, for better or worse. “But his world is gone, destroyed, along with the buffalo and beaver. Now, he fights his wars in different worlds; worlds you and I can’t even imagine. But he’ll die there just the same. They’ll put him in a canoe, set it on fire, and send him off. His ashes will be scattered among the sea and stars, and he’ll be better off for it.”

“And Sam?” questioned Homer, “Do coloreds have knacks, too?”

Red-Beard looked just a little confused, as though he had to think about it for a minute, and then said, “Some knacks are harder to detect than others, old man. But, like I said, we all have ‘em. As for niggers, I just don’t know. Maybe just staying alive is their knack. And they’s good at it. I’ve known Sam for quite some time now. Good man, fought in the war – Did you know that? And not on the side you would think. He was with the third Alabama. Infantry, if I’m not mistaken. Does that surprise you?”

“No,” said Homer. No more than it did when Mister Lincoln freed all the slaves in the South and suspended Habeas Corpus in the North. I heard there were coloreds in the Confederate army. Mighty peculiar. They had their reasons, I ‘spose, although I can’t say…”

“Then don’t,” said Red-Beard, sternly. “But getting back to Sam… he’s not like the others. He’s of a different breed. He’s not your typical nigger. Born and breed in the swamps of Saint Augustine, lived among the Seminole, so I heard. Thought he was some kind of god. Guess they never seen a black man before. Must’ve he scared them just a little. The old chief said he was ‘Big Medicine’. The squaws agreed. Why, old Sam once told me, not in a boastful way mind you, that he had his way with twelve of them…in one night!”

“Maybe Sam’s knack is fornicatin’, Homer sheepishly suggested. “Could be it’s in his blood. Ever think about that?” A colored preacher in Old Port Fierce once told me all black men are like that. ‘Can’t be helped’, he said. Says so in the Bible... A fellow named Hamm, I think. It happened after he saw his father, old brother Noah, naked and drunk one night after the flood. That’s why he was sent away. Populated a whole damn continent, or so they say – Africa! Now that’s what I call ‘Big medicine’!”

“You said it, not me,” replied Red-Beard. “But it’s a good story; and I guess it’s a good a knack as any to have under the circumstances. It comes in mighty handy, too. But the true warriors, like Boy, don’t think about such things. And if they do, it’s for the procreative purpose of providing more warriors to swell their own noble ranks, not for the pure and natural pleasure of sexual act itself. Boy would back me up on that, if he ever comes back down to earth. It’s as old as the Americas and just as expansive. It’s oriental in character, wild, adventurous and wise, like the cold blood flowing through the veins of the first Indians that dared to cross over the Bearing Straights from the frozen tundra of the North, only to be decimated by other immigrates with ambitions of their own, who brought along their guns, Bibles, whiskey…and diseases. We all came from somewhere else, you know. And in that sense,” soliloquized Red-Beard, “we are all Americans.”

“And equally doomed to extinction,” thought Homer out loud, having witnessed first-hand the fate of the Redman ever since Manifest Destiny became the doctrine of the land, providing the white race with the excuse needed, legally as well as morally, to export their own special brand of freedom from sea to shining sea.

“We all die…” reminded the Red-Beard, “even us warriors. That’s our knack, if you really want to know. That’s what we do best.”

“And that’s it?”

“That’s war, old man. Total annihilation. The end of… well, then end of all things.”

“As far as you’re concerned.”

“That’s all that counts.”

“Some might disagree,” Homer suggested.

Red-Beard shrugged. “What’s that to me?”

Homer pondered on this for quite some time before finally concluding that death, as inevitable and inescapable as it appeared to be, especially for someone of his advancing years, might not be such a bad idea. Total annihilation? Wait! Maybe he’s got something there, Homer wondered. Perhaps the Redman was right afterall, about the eternal sleep. What’s that he said? ‘…to sleep without any dreams’. Is that what he meant by perfect peace? Not such a bad idea. And hey! even if he couldn’t dream, at least he wouldn’t have to listen to any of Red-Beards insufferable oratories. But he knew that wouldn’t happen, not yet anyway. Besides, he’d heard his kind of talk before, just the other night as a matter of fact, from the firefly. “And you…what about you, Rusty?” he finally had to ask, “What’s your knack?”

“Thought I already told you, old man,” came the response.

Homer thought he did, but couldn’t be sure until he’d heard it from the war-child’s own blood-thirsty lips. He didn’t have to wait long for the answer.

“Killing people and breaking things,” replied Red-Beard.

Homer still couldn’t get the picture of the dead infant out of his head. “That include babies?” he couldn’t help but ask.

Red-Beard’s response told the deputy all he needed to know. There was none; only a cold blank stare that bore through him like a hot branding iron, with no remorse or regret; nothing but those confounded lidless eyes, pried open perhaps by the invisible finger of some dark demon inside, the same devil that killed the priest at Saint Sebastian, thought Homer, and trampled underfoot the Host of Heaven.

The deputy wasn’t surprised. He’d suspected no less, and thought it must be something Red-Beard was taught in the army. He was right about that, at least to a certain extent. Not that killing is excusable under any and all circumstances. It isn’t. Only as a last resort, and when all reason and diplomacy have been exhausted, is it permitted; and even then, it is something to be done with fear and trembling rather than hubris, bravado, or indifference. Killing was serious business, Homer had always maintained, no matter what the circumstance. And he certainly never considered it, at least up until now, a knack. He’d heard stories about the old gun-slingers who possessed this same knack for killing without hesitation, without blinking. The ‘quick draw’, they called it. There’s an art to it, a science that requires both skill and practice to master, something a physicist might be better equipped to explain. But there was a psychological element to it as well, which made it even more deadly, and dangerous. It could be employed at will, mechanically it seems, along with all the subtleties requisite to the age old profession of gun fighting; and for those who still engaged in it, like marshals, bounty hunters, and others paid for such services on either side of the Law, that’s exactly what it was – a profession. Some could do it; others simply could not; and that’s what separated the quick and the dead. It could happen at any time, in a blink of an eye as it often does, or the beat of a heart. But however it happens, and for whatever reason, it is usually fatal.

“It’s more than that,” reminded Colonel Rusty Horn, feeling no less guilty but slightly obliged to explain himself at that point, despite the deadly stare and cold-hearted utterances of his alter ego, Red-Beard. “I have another knack,” he stated, with a sublime look in his eyes Homer hadn’t noticed before, “I see things that others don’t.”

The old deputy wanted to laugh, but didn’t. “With them eyes of yours, Colonel, I don’t doubt it,” he suggested.

Indeed, Red-Beard’s steely blue eyes, along with the black pupils within, seemed to grow only larger as they approached their final destination, the apertures dilating a fraction of a centimeter with each passing mile. And yet, there seemed to be some semblance of law and order behind those same myopic lenses, something that spoke of regiment. Like a solitary sentinel marching slowly and methodically, day after day, hour after hour, through rain and shine with shouldered rifle and gloved hands, vigilantly guarding the eternal tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the secret that lie within. And thought it all, the eyes would not blink. It was something only Rusty would understand. It was almost sacred.

“What kind of things?” asked Homer.

At that point, and for whatever reason, Red-Beard seemed to emerge once again as the dominate agent, taking command of the moment and crowding out any former affirmations of honor and duty, or allegiances to country, never mind which one. “You really want to know?” he said.

“No. But I reckon you’re going to tell me anyway,” said Homer.

“Death, old man; that’s what I see. Take a good look around!” demanded the colonel, rotating his head in almost a three hundred and sixty degree turn, as if scanning the universe for any signs of life that may have somehow escaped his flawed analysis and all-seeing eye. “It’s everywhere – Death.”

Homer felt a little uneasy witnessing such an un-natural function of the human anatomy, and thought it most peculiar. It actually spooked him a little. No, it spooked him a lot! He didn’t really want to, but asked anyway: “What do you see in me, Mister Horn? And why do you keep looking at me like that… the way you do?”

“Like what?” said the war-child, knotting his forehead until the eyebrows joined together like two red caterpillars backing into one another.

Homer stared right back and said, “Like I was about to shoot you or something.”

“Well, ain’t you?”

This time it was the deputy who refused to answer.

As he steered the Brahma along the narrow rocky road, the heavy hoofed Jove crushing the rocks with each advancing step like a great white milling stone, Red-Beard abruptly stopped the beast dead in its tracks. He paused. “You really what to know what I see in you, old man?” said the war-child, the pupils of his eyes floating in-sync and upward along the curvature of their glassy white globes like two concentrically formed black and blue patches of tar swimming on the surface of the water before coming to focus on the twin-peaked mountain looming ahead in the distance; for it was there, Red-Beard imagined in his own corrupted and dysfunctional brain, hidden somewhere in the cracks and crevices, among stalagmites and stalactites, perhaps, in the very heart of Mount Wainwright, that the answer truly lies, all the while continuing to stare, blankly, at the old man through the eerie vacancy of two empty and lifeless sockets. “Fear,” he finally stated with little or no uncertainty as the dark patches of tar descended to their original position, filling the milky white void like a total eclipse of the sun. “But that ain’t all I see,” he casually resumed, “I also see the truth...if you really must know.”

Was it Rusty talking again? Homer dared to imagine. It was becoming increasingly difficult to tell. The two seemed almost indistinguishable at times; but the dichotomy was still there, with all the ambiguities that accompany such schizophrenic behavior. It was always there, even when they seemed to agree with one another, which, if studied from a purely clinical point of view, happened more often than one might think.

Another interesting aspect of Red-Beard’s peculiar psyche was his curious habit of ending many of his statements with a qualification: ‘…if you really want to know.’ It always made Homer feel uneasy, as though everything the colonel had said prior to that was a lie, or at least to be taken with a certain amount of incredulity. It always made the old man suspicious. This time, however, it only made him laugh. “You’re crazy, Horn. And you’re a liar, too! Now there’s some truth for you… if you really want to know,” he offered.

During a rare and brief moment of introspection, Red-Beard thought that Homer might have actually, and quite accidentally, stumbled onto something he himself had been contemplating for some time. They say that if you think you’re going mad, chances are you’re not. It was flawed reasoning, of course, which only provided further credence to Red-Beard’s psychosis. “Some tell the truth even when they’re lying,” the colonel contended, as though he were an expert on such beguiling matters of the mind, along with the duplicities it sometimes, and for reasons we may never fully understand, manufactures. “Come to think of it,” he added in his own philosophical candor, “sometimes that’s the only time they ever do – tell the truth, that is.”

Homer didn’t necessarily agree; but he knew what Rusty was talking about, and it frightened him to no end. It was at that point he thought it best to say what was really on his mind and get it over with: “You’re not here for the gold… Are you, Mister Horn?”

This time it was Rusty wanted to laugh; but he didn’t. He never did find the truth very amusing, even when he was immune from it himself. Still, and for the sake of protocol, the question had to be answered. “Well...” he mused, after thinking it over for a while. “Gold is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. There are other things more valuable, I reckon, and more important.”

“Like what?”

“I’ll know it when I find her,” responded the Red-Beard, rotating his head and his beard around once again in the same owl-like manner.

“Her?”

“Just a manner of speech,” corrected Red-Beard.

“I take it then it’s not the gold.”

“Take it any way you want, old man.”

“Doesn’t matter to me, Colonel,” shrugged Homer. “Hey, I’m just a frightened old man scared of the dark. What the hell do I know?”

Was he talking about the tunnel? Red-Beard thought to himself, as the truth reared its hooded head once more, and winked. He would wait and see.

Homer and the colonel rode along silently for a while without speaking as the others, including the Harlie and his mule, made up some of the distance they’d been keeping. It was as if a thick curtain had suddenly been drawn between them, some impenetrable or invisible barrier that neither one could breach without breaking. Either that or they simply had nothing else to say to one another.

Red-Beard was the first to break the barrier, and the silence. “You weren’t so scared forty years ago,” he noted in response to the old man’s last enunciation, which he took as a sign of derision, however cleverly it was offered. “What makes you so frightened now?”

Homer knew by then that it was definitely not about the gold anymore. He stopped his horse, turned to the man beside him and said, “You, Rusty. You frighten me. Sometimes, like right now for instance, you scare the piss out of me. Hell, I don’t even know who I’m talking to anymore. Who are you? And where do you come from anyway? What are you all about?” the deputy all but demanded to know as he suddenly halted his horse in mid stride.

As if inextricably yoked together at that point, the white Brahma stopped as well, tilting its deified head back to its master in righteous indignation.

Meanwhile, Homer sat tall in his saddle on top of ol’ Blackie, staring down the man and his beast, and waiting for an answer. It was just then when the old man suddenly noticed a small but visible light gleaming in the corner Rusty Horn’s tormented eye. It was a faint light, like that of a firefly, fleeing a like prisoner from some filthy hole of a dungeon, a cold, cruel, dark and lonely place where Red-Beard was the warden and Beelzebub held the keys.

With all the courage he could muster at the time, and all the sympathies charity would allow, Homer Skinner reached out his arm and touched the gray threaded sleeve of the man that once was Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn . Owing to Humanity as a whole and a world they both once shared that was all but destroyed, the old man softly said, “It’s alright colonel. Let’s go home.”

Slowly and mechanically at first, the bearded head began to turn, painfully it seemed, as the rusty nuts and bolts loosened their iron grip and the oily blood began to flow. And then it appeared to move a little more, naturally, tilting from side to side like that of a dog looking eagerly up at its master for no particular reason, or maybe just a pat on the head. Rusty’s face went flush, as if from some deep reservoir of blood new energy had suddenly been pumped back into it. He licked his lips, as if tasting it for the first time, like a flickering flame starved for oxygen. He could feel his heart softening like some rusty armor being removed from a tired old knight, one scale at a time. Even his whiskers felt different, full and thick, like they were when, when… It seemed that something, something new and wonderful was happening. And it was! But like all wonderful things, they sometimes just don’t last. Beauty capitulates, for reasons we may not understand, to the uglier sides of our imagination. Love turns to lust and ambition gives way to greed. It’s just the nature of the human animal. It can’t be helped. It is times like these, I suppose, when many find out what they’re really made of – flesh and blood. That’s reality! But there is another reality, deeper than space and older than time, that the scientists and philosophers, most of them anyway, refused to acknowledge simply because to do so would undermine, if not blow to microscopic bits, their own precious theories, their hypothesis and postulates, flawed and finite reasoning, and all preconceived convictions, along with their prejudicial views and condescending attitudes on such matters of grave significance. Homer knew of this infinite and ultimate reality, and maybe that’s why he did what he had to do. Red-Beard didn’t know (although he may’ve come the closest he ever would to finding out that day) and he never would, which might also explain what happened next.

All at once, and despite all previous attempts at reclaiming his former humanity, Red-Beard’s face began twisting and contorting in a most amazing and unhealthy manner. It was like a hairy mask made out of real flesh, tearing at the seams and trying to split itself in two like a procreating paramecium. It was a disturbing sight to see, thought the deputy, odd and unusual, and reminded him of the time he went to visit a traveling circus, a carnival actually, in which one of the more extraordinary acts, ‘The man of a thousand faces!’ was billed as the main attraction. It seemed that the subject of the exhibition possessed the unique and uncanny ability to transform his facial features, either through sheer metaphysical concentration or manual manipulation which he took great pains in doing, into any form or fashion he desired and in countenance he wished to display to his mesmerized audience, almost to the point of tearing the flesh from his face in order to rearrange the muscles and sinews thereof to achieve the desired effect. At times, and often upon request, he would take on the appearance of well-known celebrities and politicians, as well as a vast array of other characters, famous or infamous, past or present. Other times, he would create whole new identities, in the grotesque style and spirit of Doctor Moraux, combining the species and making up colorful names for them such as Crocodile Jack, Pig-boy Crenshaw or Mule-face Mahoney. It was amusing, in that queer and disquieting sort of way freak shows are famous for; it was also quite profitable. Some found the exhibition distasteful, of course, and didn’t have the nerve, or the cash, to stomach such natural oddities; like women and children for instance who would often be seen running from the tent in screams of incredulity with bewildering looks on their faces. Others, however, found it simply fascinating; and they would come back again and again, like moths to a flame, or a dog to its vomit, to see ‘the man of a thousand faces’! And if he wasn’t available at the time… perhaps the bearded lady, or ‘Jo-Jo’ the dog-faced boy, would do.

And so it was, to a lesser degree perhaps and without the price of admission, with Rusty ‘Red-Beard’ Horn that day. All that was missing was the Carnival barker and perhaps a little applause. It was something Homer hadn’t witnessed up until then, and thought it shameful the way Red-Beard’s face kept changing, as if he had no control over it. He actually found it revolting, as even the most innocent acts can appear nauseating at times and under certain conditions; like childbirth for instance, which, if you ask any father whose been through the bloody ordeal with all it slimy gore and gaping orifices, would surely call it anything… anything! but natural; if he really honest about it, that is. The two personalities were at war once more, although Homer could never comprehend the psychology of the conflict. Beneath the wiry red threads, Colonel Rusty Horn opened his mouth as if he had something to say. He seemed to be vacillating, however, struggling with his thoughts as much as his own words. “Go back, old man,” he warned Homer in a voice the old man hadn’t heard before.

“Rusty?” questioned the man on the black horse.

Rusty: “Go back.”

Red-Beard: “It’s too late.”

Rusty: “She’ll wait.”

Sitting up in his saddle, the old man suddenly took interest. “Who, Rusty? Who will wait?”

Rusty: “Mother.”

Red-Beard: “Keep quiet, you fool.”

Rusty: “But he already knows. He was there, at Lazy Hill. Remember?”

Red-Beard: “Henley?”

Rusty: “The mountain-man.”

Red-Beard: “Doesn’t matter. He’ll never find her. He doesn’t have the map.”

At which point Homer reached into his pocket to make sure it was still there. It was. He wanted to say something at that point but dare not speak, fearing that any sudden interruption might anger one or the other.

Rusty: “Neither do we… Not yet.”

Red-Beard: “We’ll just have to wait.”

Rusty: “Let’s go home, like the old man says. Eulogy ain’t such a bad place.”

Red-Beard: “I have no home. If I don’t go, I die”

Rusty: “Me too, I reckon.”

Red-Beard: “We’ve been through all this before. There’s no other way.”

The colonel seemed genuinely disappointed after that, as if he was on the losing side of a debate that had already been won.

Rusty: “But…”

Red-Beard: “They all belong to me now.”

Rusty: “Let them...”

Red-Beard: “They will all die.”

It was a fateful statement, with an unmistakable finality about it. The words were cold, and they pierced the old man’s heart like a red hot iron. He felt faint, dizzy, and angry; the truth can sometimes do that to a body. He wanted to about face, immediately, turn ol’ Blackie around, go back home, and take Elmo with him. He’d had enough of this insanity. The others could follow the madman straight to hell for all he cared, and dinned with the devil himself. But he would be dead before he reached the bottom of the hill; he knew that by now. Red-Beard simply would not allow it to happen. He’d come too far. He had his own agenda to keep. And there nothing in this world, or any other for that matter, that could change it.

Red-Beard repeated the prophecy, “They will all die.”

Rusty: “The two men in the wagon?”

Red-Beard: “Everyone.”

Rusty: “Homer?”

Red-Beard: “The Harlie, too.”

Rusty: “How ‘bout the boy?”

Red-Beard: “He knew what he was getting himself into… just like Smiley and the nigger.”

Rusty: “Just let ‘em go.”

Red-Beard: “Can’t do that.”

Rusty: “Why not?”

Red-Beard: “I need ‘em…

Rusty: “All of them?”

Red-beard: “They all belong to me.”

Rusty: “Me too?”

Red-Beard laughed. It was something Homer thought impossible up until just then.

Rusty: “Go to hell.”

Red-Beard: “We’re almost there.”

They were calculated responses, rehearsed a thousand times before, it seems. Their aim was true and accurate, like rounds fired with determined precision. Both hit their target; and as usual, both would live to fight another day. But Red-Beard’s always had to fire off the last round. There was a method to his madness, a meaning and a purpose; this bullet had brains. It was a sound warning, only one of many. It was Rusty’s response that Homer found so fascinating. He simply said nothing. It was the shot that rang the loudest, the truest, and was maybe the even the deadliest, thought the old man who’d witnessed these kinds of exchanges, albeit with real live ammunition and not just words. It was definite, direct, and deafening, leaving Rusty Horn beaten and bloodied on the battlefield, torn to pieces but not necessarily dead, or even broken. He would merely get up, brush off blood, and stitch himself back together again just like before. This is how he survives such personal attacks. This is how he won.

There was finality in Red-Beard’s victory, along with the calm sublimity that sometimes follows such bloody conflicts. But like a man serving two masters, he was doomed to defeat. Having served on both sides in the War, he might’ve known that by now; but he was too proud. The struggle had lasted no more than half a minute and, in the end, Red-Beard proved the stronger of the two. But still he could not outright kill that part of him he feared the most; for it doing so, both would have to die, and Red-Beard certainly wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. Besides, he actually pitied his weaker alter ego and, like Alexander the Great standing over the broken and defeated body of King Darius on the Turkish plains, he just couldn’t find it in him to murder such a brave and noble adversary. But it was clear which side had won. The battle was over but the war raged on. And like the two great generals at Appomattox, Lee and Grant, one slightly taller than the other, no apologies were given, none were accepted; and no swords were surrendered.

It was the most bewildering exchange the old man had ever witnessed (And Homer had indeed witnessed some very strange and bizarre behavior in the course of many years of mortal observation) and the strangest thing he’d ever heard coming from one single orifice. What made it more disquieting, if not disturbing, was the fact that it sounded so real, so human. But, it was real. Wasn’t it? Or maybe it was just another warning, the deputy was thinking to himself as the two combatants simultaneously put away their guns, figuratively speaking of course, and, for one brief and hopeful moment, stood perfectly still in mutual surrender. A cease fire, perhaps? Homer suddenly considered turning back again. Why wouldn’t Rusty move? What was Red-Beard waiting for? What were they thinking? And what did Homer really know about either of these two baffling bedfellows? He’d known Red-Beard for only a month, and knew he was a colonel in the army. Many called him a war hero; others, a murdered. Some called him both. There was talk of a court martial at one time, but it was only talk. No charges were ever brought against him. Homer also knew that that he came from a place the outlaws called Eulogy. He’d been there once, and was wise enough to check with the sheriff about that, too; but there nothing unusual about soldiers, even officers, hanging their war-torn hats in such remote and desperate places.

Alvin Webb was another story all together, and perhaps one worth mentioning in the detail it deserves. He was a private who’d served directly under Colonel Horn at one time. He was there at the battle when Red-Beard fell and was subsequently patched back together by a ship’s mechanic, but we already know enough about that. It was said that Alvin came from a prosperous and influential family but had surrendered himself to a life of crime and debauchery at an early age, and was thus sequestered from the famous clan for reasons that do not need mentioning. He was the proverbial black sheep, the prodigal son who never came back and never repented, the prototypical outlaw; and he lived up to these nefarious titles, along with the reputation that naturally follows, beyond everyone’s expectations. He began by picking pockets, as many thieves do in their youthful apprentices, a talent he practiced even to this day out of greed or necessity; or perhaps just for spite. ‘Just to let ya’ll know I can still do it,’ he would sometimes proudly proclaim after handing back a stolen watch or wallet he had just lifted back to its rightful owner; upon which he would be typically and summarily beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by those who didn’t appreciate the outlaw’s boastful admonition, or simply didn’t have a sense of humor about these things. After that, he moved on to robbing stage coaches and banks, and had even achieved a measurable amount of notoriety by then, which, as it sometimes happens when success gets the upper hand, was when he first crawled into a bottle and never came out again..

In the end, after all was said and done, Alvin turned out to be nothing more than a common thief and outlaw; and not a very good one at that, especially after being run over by a locomotive he once tried to hold up with nothing more than a 22 gauge rifle and a bottle of red-eye whiskey. And on account of that, some folks had tacked on words like ‘coward’ and ‘fool’ to his growing resume of misdeeds and mishaps, which made drink even more. In fact, the only thing he did succeed at was being a drunk, which he naturally excelled in, with little ambition and a string of vices he either couldn’t or wouldn’t control. Red-Beard found him one day after the war sleeping in the streets of Eulogy after a local prostitute had, ironically enough, pick-pocketed all his money and left him drunk and naked. Who says ‘there ain’t no justice’? It was Red-Beard’s idea to bring him along. Rusty was against it from the start. Naturally, Red-Beard won that battle too.

One by one, the four horsemen arrived and stopped in front of the stationary Red-Beard and a bewildered old man. The Harlie, who had been walking along side the painted wagon with his mule in tow, was quick to follow and soon caught up as well.

“Something wrong?” inquired the surveyor, with an intuitive and reliable sense that something might be wrong; or, at least not quite right at the moment.

Red-Beard looked at him without a word and simply shook his head. Presently seated on top of his beloved Jove like a judge about to hand down a stiff sentence from the bench, in spite of the jury’s plea for clemency, he appeared alone and aloof. Likewise, he glanced at each of the four horsemen in turn with the same remote expression that Homer had observed earlier. He then turned his attention to the painted wagon and stared at them in a similar manner. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what any one of them was thinking at the time; but he had to find out.

The old man didn’t know what to make of the Red-Beard’s ambivalent god-like attitude, but decided there was no point in pursuing it any further; or even trying to figure it out, if that were even possible. He waited for Elmo and the wagon to catch up. It didn’t take long.

As the Harlie crossed his silent path, Red-Beard dismounted the Brahma and glanced down at him and with the same air of indifference, if not indignation, he afforded the others. It was the kind of look Elmo was familiar with, having seen it on the black and white faces of those who, through arrogance, ignorance, pride, or perhaps just for spite, regarded him in no higher esteem than they would a donkey or a pig, and maybe even a little less; for pigs and donkeys were valuable commodities at the time, and counted as such; whereas Elmo was just another Harlie bean framer; and not a very good one at that. He was expendable; and he knew it. So did Red-Beard.

Homer tied the Harlie’s mule to the back of his horse and put Elmo back in the safety and comfort of his saddle. “You comin’?” he collectively asked the others without necessarily, and perhaps intentionally, addressing Red-Beard.

They all looked to Colonel Horn for an answer; even Hector O’Brien who, up until just then, seemed to be the most independent of the six, as difficult to persuade as he was to command. It quickly became clear to everyone, including Homer… especially Homer! that Red-Beard was presently and permanently in command. He had the authority. It was clear. He was in control. He was the leader. The others would follow him anywhere, regardless of whatever the deputy said or did and no matter how many silver stars were pinned on his chest. And at that point Red-Beard seemed to speak for them all when he suddenly shouted out: “They’re all comin’ with me!”

Homer looked at each one individually to confirm what he’d long suspected. There was no further need of discussion, or debate. He could see it in their faces. It was time to move on; time to go. And as he did so, like a dog that had just been kenneled, Red-Beard quickly and quietly obeyed: “And I’m comin’ with you,” he finally acquiesced through a hardened red curtain of steel-like whiskers.

Homer nodded, even though he still wasn’t quite sure who was in charge; or who it was that actually said it: Rusty, or Red-beard.


Chapter Four

Slumbering Stones

LITTLE IN THAT PART of the Great Northern Woods had changed in the past forty years, and Homer Skinner soon found himself leading the others up along a steep narrow pathway on the southern most slope of Mount Wainwright. “It won't be long now,” he whispered to the Harlie who had fallen silently asleep in the saddle with his mule in tow. He had been up all night with Homer and the firefly; and it was finally catching up to him.

Upon awakening to the old man’s observation, Elmo decided to stretch his legs a bit by walking for a while. By then the four horsemen and two wagon riders had caught up with Homer, leaving Red-Beard and his bull following closely behind. And with him went the Harlie.

It was the first time Elmo had gotten so close to the man they called Red-Beard, and he wasn’t quite sure who had approached the other first. It just happened that way. And before long they were walking together, side by side, stride for stride, Elmo being forced to lengthen the distance between his own feeble footsteps just to keep up with those of the long-legged colonel who was accustomed to such infantry. They were separated only by the swaying white hump of Red-Beard’s Brahma that seemed to follow him instinctively, obediently, like a great white shadow.

There were a number of things the Harlie wanted to say to the man with the long red whiskers that day, but feeling somewhat awkward around men of authority, men he took to be important (or, at least, men more important than himself, which, perhaps, wasn’t saying very much) Elmo Cotton didn’t know what to say, or even where, or how, to begin saying it. So, he simply said what was on his mind at the time. “Thank you, Mister Horn, sir.”

Red-Beard didn’t stop. He kept looking forward; and he kept on moving.

And so did Elmo, his Harley head rolling gently across the back of the beast like a little brown ball on a marble white floor. And then, suddenly, he felt a cold stare bearing down on him from across the laboring mound of flesh. It was Red-Beard. His head hadn’t turned, but he was studying the Harlie with eyes that operated like those of a fish whose peripheral vision remains constant without having to adjust its armored head one degree or another. “For what?” he finally asked, without missing a single stride.

Wondering if he would’ve been better served keeping his silence, as well as his distance, Elmo Cotton hesitated before answering. But he just had to know. “For letting me come along,” he finally spoke, with a certain amount of friendliness in his voice that Red-Beard might’ve taken for weakness.

“The choice was yours,” replied the fish-eyed colonel, suddenly giving Elmo the attention he so richly deserved but was previously denied, “Remember?”

“That’s not what some of the other men say.”

Red-Beard was well aware of that. “You mean Mister Webb, the surveyor, and the Indian they call Boy?”

“They don’t want me here. Do they?”

“Well, Alvin don’t. I’m not too sure about the others.”

As they walked a little closer together, Elmo tried to understand exactly what was going on inside the head of the man next to him that towered over his own like the lofty bell tower in a church steeple. Homer had warned him long before they’d started not to get too close to the colonel. ‘Stay away from that feller,’ cautioned the old man, ‘the one they call Red-Beard. He ain’t right in the head.’ And that was about all he said on the matter, which, of course, only made the Harlie more curious than ever.

All that Elmo really knew about the man walking beside him, was that he was once in the army, as evidence by the clothes he worn; although on account of these and other ambiguities surrounding his personal aspect, it was virtually impossible to tell where those allegiances actually lie. The others, including Homer and Hector who were by far Red-Beard’s senior, at least in age, seemed to respect him; although, the Harlie was never quite sure if that same respect was not really fear in disguise. The colonel was obviously a man to be reckoned with, and not to be burdened with unessential questions or trivial comments. He certainly would not stand for gossip of any kind. And so, Elmo thought it would be best to keep his thoughts, as well as his comments, to himself; for a while anyway, or at least until he was sure what he talking about or had something important to say. But still, there was one question he really wanted to ask the colonel that day, and thinking that this may be the best, if not the only, opportunity for him to do so, simply came right out and asked: “Do you want me here, Mister Horn?”

Suddenly, both man and beast stopped, in their tracks, heel and hoof, almost as if they were of the same body and the same mind. Elmo stopped, too. What else could he do? And as he did so, the Harlie looked over the motionless white hump and saw that Red-Beard had drawn a gun out from his belt and was presently aiming in his direction. Elmo immediately wanted to duck; but he didn’t. Instead, he just froze as the shot rang out and a bullet whizzed by his ear. It was so close that he could actually feel it burn a portion of his cheek.

The bullet found its mark in the head of a rattlesnake lying dead on the ground. It seemed the venomous viper had somehow sandwiched itself between two large rocks, just above the Harlie’s head, when the two pedestrians passed within striking distance of the sniper’s nest. It had been getting ready to spring from its coiled position just before it was mortally wounded. Elmo looked down and gulped as the serpent sounded its death rattle. His question, it would seem, had just been answered. He said no more.

From there the climbing was steep and narrow, and more treacherous than it was before; even more so for the horses and oxen that weren’t as well equipped as their bipod masters in negotiating such rugged terrain. In time, all of the riders were forced to dismount and lead their ponies on foot; the painted wagon rolling laboriously over the rugged and rocky road. The stones were loose and many, but there was still some green turf to be felt underfoot, which the animals would occasional stop to graze on. On either side of the inclining path the stones turned into rocks, the rocks into boulders, the boulders into small hills, the small hills into bigger hills, and the bigger hills eventually turned into mountain. It was a long slow climb, full of capricious twists and turns, which only told Homer Skinner that he was still on the right track. He was exactly where he wanted to be.

The incline of the road on which they’d been traveling steepened at every turn, or so it seemed, increasing proportionally with their forward progress, leveling off now and then allowing for a brief momentary pause, which not only supplied Homer with some much needed and valuable time to catch his breath and collect his thoughts as well as his bearings, but also provided a spectacular panoramic view to anyone who cared to gaze back down, if for but one brief and breathless moment, on the good earth they could never have otherwise imagined from the lower elevations they had since left behind.

On just one of these small level planes, Elmo took the opportunity to glance back down at the forest they had recently exited, wondering how they, particularly the horses, had made it as far as they did without falling back down the mountain side or going around in large green circles, which, under the circumstances and considering Homer’s uncertainty as to exactly where they were at any given moment was always a good possibility. Elmo had also noted, with no small amount of trepidation and fear, that the narrow trail they’d been leaving behind had all but vanished in hindsight by then, disappearing back in the into the greenery of the Great Northern Woods, as indistinguishable from anything else in valley below, like it was never there at all.

From his lofty and lonely look-out, Elmo thought he could even make out the many bean fields of Harley far off in the distance. They appeared as so many tiny green and brown rectangles scattered here and here, a patchwork of landscape, like the square pieces of cloth one might see on some old and comfortable quilt, the patterns of which often vary in size, shape, color, and texture, depending, of course, on the skill of the creator and the function for which it is designed.

To the west of the farmlands, and closer to him in actual distance, Elmo could also make out the boundaries of Creekwood Green, both man-made and natural, not the least of which was clearly defined by a long thin line meandering off in the distance, just barely visible to the naked eye. It was, of course, none other than the crumbling but formidable walls situated on either side of the Iron Gates of Harley. Even from an obscured and dizzying distance, it appeared as old and ominous as ever, purposely delineating the two opposing communities as it had for over a hundred years, and looking no different than it did before, only smaller.

Perched on the side of a lonely mountain, a hundred miles from home (which was, perhaps, the furthest he’d ever been from his little house in Harley) Elmo Cotton could presently see exactly how and why Creekwood Green earned its colorful and celebrated name; for indeed, everything on the west side of the iron gate and stone walls was as in fact and indeed green! lush and plentiful, with a verdurous vibrancy of life about it that would rival the wondrous Hanging Gardens of Babylon in their entire trellised splendor, or perhaps the misty green gardens of Eden itself before the Fall of man. Contrast that, however, to everything on the east side of that same polarizing barrier that remained forever as brown and lifeless as the bleak and blackened waters of the Dead sea in the black of night.

Approximately twenty miles or so to the southeast of these portentous farmlands stood Old Port Fierce, seen clearly in stark contrast to the deep blue inlet and the sparking green waters surrounding the barrier islands to the east and the ocean beyond. It was the first time Elmo had actually seen the port city from such a bird’s eye view, and in all its urban sprawl. It made him feel different somehow, larger than he actually was. Everything seemed so small and so far away because… well, because they were. And Harley seemed the furthest, along with his wife and child. Elmo was exhausted and suspected the others were as well, particularly the older men of the group, and especially Homer Skinner whom he’d only recently began to pity.

It took the better part of that day to breach the expansive vegetation line that girdled the Silver Mountains of the North like a giant woman’s petticoat. There was a light grey mist all around, as though they had accidentally stumbled into a very large cumulous cloud, which, upon entering the vapory environment, ceased to be a cloud at all, having lost much, if not all, of the aspects that we normally associate with a very large cumulous cloud; in the same way, I suppose, that a forest, viewed in its totality and from a respectable distance, ceases to be a forest once you are in the thick of it. It all depends on depends on your perception, or point of view, of course.

But at least and at last they were nearing the smoky summit of the great mountain. There was talk of stopping for a well-deserved and much-needed rest by then, which was quickly dismissed by Homer himself who, for whatever restless reason, was suddenly overtaken with a sense of urgency and excitement that was manifest in his every movement by then. And if you didn’t know the old man any better by now, you might be tempted to conclude that he was presently ‘gripped’ by the same feverous addiction that had so deleteriously affected his sensibilities in a similar fashion nearly forty years ago, and with a much greater degree of affliction. The symptoms were all there, and so were the signs: the anxiety, the restlessness, the excitement, the joy and the pain. Yep! The tooth was still there. He could tell by the way it still ached.

Homer led the way, of course, followed by Red-Beard, the four horsemen, a painted wagon, and one slightly bewildered but willing Harlie. When they finally arrived at the stark stony face of Mount Wainwright, the old man halted them all with a slow but certain wave of his withering hand.

They’d traveled a long way since leaving Harley. They were weary, and so were the beasts of burden. To come as far as they already had was an accomplishment worthy of praise; but they weren’t in it for the glory, just the gold, and perhaps something else. Even the surveyor, accustomed as he was to such long and arduous adventures through rough mountainous terrain, appeared a little disheveled and slightly out of breath by then, as evidenced by the air moving vigorously in and out through the long blonde hairs of mustache. The Old Hammer drew a sigh of relief as he relieved himself against a manifold trunk an old fichus tree growing profusely out of the rocky soil like a multiple-headed of a hydra. And they weren’t even there yet.

The painted wagon rolled more slowly after that, the passenger in the back raising his hooded head now and then just to see where they were. Boy had been half-expecting to be on the mountains of the moon by then, his occidental eyes searching the bright blue heavens for a sign that he might be close. But there were clouds in the sky, indicating that he was still well within the polluted atmospheres of the earth and a long way from where he really wanted to be. “Sam?” he said to his driver, turning his red face defiantly into the sun like a corpse suddenly awakened in his hearse only to find out, much to his own regret having once tasted the blissfulness of the Paradise, that he is not really dead at all. One can only imagine how poor brother Lazarus must have felt.

“What?” replied the driver of the hearse.

“It is a good day to die,” murmured the Redman.

The Negro grunted. “Not in my wagon,” he protested. “This hear ain’t no funeral, Boy. Humph! If you wants to die, you just gonna have to wait, like everyone else. You hear? Or at least waits ‘til we gets to the top, and finds us some gold. And then you can die all you wants to. Humph! I digs the grave and bury you myself, and gives you a right proper Christian burial, not that you would ‘preciate it. Humph! I do’s the eulogizin’ too! Might even sings you a song or two…you know, likes they do in Harley. You like that now, don’t you, Boy?” he laughed.

But by then the Indian named Boy had fallen back to sleep again. The mountains of the moon would have to wait for some other time, and so would Paradise. He was already rounding Uranus, and making for the Big Dipper.

It was late in the afternoon when they came upon their first major obstacle. It was there, not too far from the smoldering crater of the mountain where the road came to a sudden and abrupt end that a tall wall of stone rose straight up before them like a mammoth tombstone halting their progress and putting them all in a temporary quandary.

They say the last bite of the apple is always the hardest to swallow. Homer knew that as well as anyone; he’d taken a bit out of this particular apple once before, and it struck in his throat now just like it did forty years ago. He looked up. Before them, lay a vertical sheet of solid stone. It was about fifty feet in height and appeared to be encircling the upper portion of the volcano’s conical peak, thus forming both the outer and inner wall of the crater within.

It was as if they’d reached some natural barrier placed there for the sole purpose of impeding their progress, or at least making it nearly impossible to proceed any further without a great deal of difficulty. They took turns examining this natural phenomenon, each in the manner prescribed by his own profession, whether or not it had anything to do with geology, geography, or any other of the natural sciences that might prove helpful in overcoming the Herculean task of scaling such a monumental wall, which hovered over them like a stone-faced Goliath before David and his army of Israelite ants. From a geological standpoint, and maybe even an anthropological one, the stone monolith stood like a monumental tombstone manufactured, perhaps, by one of those Antediluvian giants mentioned of the Bible, the biological by-product of angelic intercourse with the first humans spoken of so enigmatically in Genesis and destined to extinction, not unlike the feared and fated Neanderthal.

Running a wrinkled but steady hand over the smooth surface of the stone, the old carpenter who, being not only educated in the natural sciences of wood and stone, as well as having achieved the highest level of Free Masonry and thus considered an authority on such matters, expounded in his own professional vernacular, “It’s igneous!”

On account of the extreme smoothness and hardness of the rock, climbing it would be a major achievement, if it could be accomplished at all. There were but a few small cracks in the surface, allowing for a minimal amount of spaces and places on which to secure a good grip or a proper foothold. But they’d come too far to let anything like that stand in their way. So they didn’t.

Meanwhile, Homer had disappeared, or so it seemed, along with the ‘lucky number’ and his mule. Also missing just then was the wagon and oxen, the four other horses, along with all the gear and supplies they’d so painstakingly carried, and Red-Beard’s white Brahma as well. They were just nowhere to be seen. But faced with the monumental task ahead of them, and trying to figure how just how to tackle it, the others simply didn’t notice at the time until….

“Where’d they go?” questioned Little Dick who was the first to observe their absence and not just a little concerned.

“Probably went to find a place to pee”, suggested Smiley, not knowing where else they could’ve gone off to and accustomed to urinating outdoors himself, although never so modestly inclined. “Old men are like that, you know,” he added with little or no concern over the matter.

“Hey, when you gotta go…” agreed the Hammer who, suffering himself with the debilitating symptoms of a slightly enlarged prostate gland, could well understand and appreciate the sudden urge to ‘disappear’ from time to time, usually without a word, to attend to his private business.

“Alright, who wants to go first? How about you, boy?” said Red-Beard, turning his bearded attention towards the thin young man from Creekwood Green who by then was desperately looking for a place to relieve himself as well; although he definitely knew it wouldn’t be in someone else’s bathtub this time.

“Yeah… How ‘bout ‘cho!” echoed the outlawed private, perhaps just for spite.

“Me?” mouthed the youth, pointing a long delicate finger to his own sunken chest. As previously mentioned, Dick Dilworth had been employed solely by Mister Charles Smiley to serve him in whatever capacity the old surveyor so desired; but he was under no obligation what-so-ever to take orders from anyone else, including the evil-eyed army officer he’d been trying to avoid from the start, and especially from a toothless old drunk he would just as soon be rid of, and by any ways necessary. But being that he’d signed the contract, along with all the others, and was therefore legally obliged to assist in any way he could when called upon to perform the demanding and often dangerous work involved in such an expedition, Little Dick sheepishly acquiesced. “Alright then,” he bleated, “I’ll go.”

Despite any earlier misgivings, as well as his present apprehension, Little Dick was actually eager to prove, if only to himself, that there was more to his character than simply lugging around Smiley’s many rods and measuring devices, and that he was just as good a man as any, maybe even better! especially when it came to negotiating the more perilous vicissitudes of life that demand the strength and ignorance only youth can afford (naturally, the older ones are too tired, or too smart) and are better equipped to do so by virtue of their physiological make-up. Besides, they are usually too stupid to know any better.

But we all need a little help now and then; the young man from Creekwood Green being no exception to this Universal rule of Law that binds us so closely together, whether we like it or not, in so many interesting ways. And sometimes that help comes from the most unlikely sources. It was a lesson in teamwork that Little Dick Dilworth was quick to learn when, all at once, he was suddenly lifted up off the ground by a pair of large muscular arms covered with thick red hair and placed on a pair of equally endowed shoulders padded in that distinctive Union blue. Standing tall and erect on top of Red-Beard’s massive and obliging shoulder, and reaching up as high as he could to find the first invisible crevice, Little Dick began that slow, arduous, and often painful ascent into his own manhood, those lofty heights of masculinity where no female foot has fallen, Bacchus reigns supreme, testosterone is measured by the bucket, and semen flows as milk from a breast. It’s a place woman can only dream of in all their phallic fantasies. And he almost made it! But he was still about ten feet short of the horizontal stone surface forming the top rim of the plateau. He then tried mounting the giant’s gargantuan head. The colonel didn’t mind, of course; he didn’t even move. The others merely stood and watched with all their hopes and fears pinned on this one brave little lad who, up until then, they thought to be no more than excess baggage.

Working his long delicate fingers along the face of the stone, and clinging to the rock like a youthful fly on the wall, Little Dick finally found the crack he was looking for, the one that would provide him with that one last pull that would get him over the top. And suddenly, he found himself in that enviable and sometimes precarious position of becoming a real live man, or so he thought. To give up now would be unthinkable. They would call him a coward, and rightfully so, not unlike Sergeant Frank Finkel, the sole survivor who was said to have deserted General Armstrong Custer, his fellow troops in Company ‘C’ and the entire 7th Calvary at the battle of Little Big Horn, whose story, although never actually proven, was substantiated by at least one Sioux warrior who’d seen him ride off in the heat of the battle, along with wounded horse. It was a fate Dick simply couldn’t accept; and so he didn’t. Throwing one leg over the ledge and pulling himself up with all the might he could muster, Little Dick Dilworth peered over the precipice and could almost feel the hairs on his face grown at least a quarter of an inch longer, and that much thicker. It was a very good feeling.

Smiley was next. Likewise, he was boosted up atop Red-Beard broad-beamed frame and climbed up on his head, just like Little Dick before him. He reached for the sky and then, like a great mustachioed spider, the determined surveyor slowly made his way to the top with the help of a few roots growing out of the side of the cliff and the helping hand of his former apprentice. There he sat for a moment catching his breath, his woven whiskers moving much more vigorously than they had in a very long time; for at the altitude he were presently residing, the air was indeed very thin. Needless to say, he was more than appreciative of the young man’s assistance, perhaps for the very first time in their long, lop-sided and often tenuous relationship. He shook the boy’s hand in grateful gratitude, and might’ve even kissed those soft fuzzy cheeks, if not for the fact that it would have been considered much too un-manly; and besides, it was one of those things that just wasn’t done at the time. What Charles Smiley really wanted, however, and what he needed just then, was a good plug of tobacco, a chew, a pinch, a little something to put between his cheek and gum to calm his rattled nerves and sooth the savage soul. A slice of pie would’ve also done nicely, and indeed would’ve been equally appreciated. But alas! there was just none to be found; not a single crust or crumb. Nothing! He’d left it all behind, it seems, along with his horse, all of his surveying equipment, his rods and levels, maps and records, tools and utensils, and everything else he’d deemed absolutely indispensable; and he hadn’t even realize it yet! Dick did, however; and he couldn’t have been more pleased with himself at the time.

The others were soon to follow. One by one they were hoisted on top of Red-Beard’s massive head and shoulders and, in a similar but not so nimble fashion, followed the surveyor and his young apprentice’s limber example. And through it all Red-Beard persevered, bearing the weight of his constituents as well as their never-ending complaints, as a mother hen bears her sufferings brood. Even under the tremendous weight and strain of the large Negro, Sam, whose dimensions equaled or exceeded those of the colossal colonel himself, Red-Beard didn’t waver. He bore the burden without so much as a groan or grimace. Inch by inch, and crack by crack, they clawed their way towards the top of the towering precipice, leaving Red-Beard and Jove behind, along with Homer, the Harlie and his mule, the horses and oxen, and the little pained painted wagon, all of which were still nowhere to be seen, above or below.

“Hey, wait a minute!” cried Little Dick, wondered out loud what Red-Beard had observed earlier, “Where’s Homer?”

“And the Harlie?” lamented Sam.

“The map... Mother,” mouthed Red-Beard. He knew they were not far from their final destination, and the gold. But exactly how far, he still couldn’t say – not without the map. There were many caves and tunnels in that vicinity, along with other abandoned mines left over from the Gold Rush. Any one of them could be the right one, or the wrong one. There was just no telling. Only the old man knew for certain which one would lead them to… She’ could be anywhere, reasoned Red-Beard. Only Homer held the key, and the map. And now, he was gone. “Damn!” he cursed.

Red-Beard looked all around, up and down, this way and that, pivoting and craning his telescopic neck until it looked as though it would somehow unscrew itself from the rest of its mechanical body; and still there was no sign. They were all gone: two men, five horse horses, two oxen and a wagon; even his beloved Brahma was missing from the mix by then, which seemed to alarm Red-Beard most of all. They simply disappeared, as if they had vanished into thin air – just like that! “Oh well…” Red-Beard resigned as he sat for a moment to catch his breath at the bottom of the cliff, “they’ll show up sooner or later, I reckon.” Meanwhile, he had other matters to consider: like how he was going get up vertical wall himself for instance, and without anyone to help me.

Scavenging the immediate surroundings – something the army had taught him to do in the aftermath of a major confrontation – Red-Beard came upon a good length of sturdy rope left behind, perhaps, by some unknown prospector, which he quickly put to good use, as well as his own advantage. It took only one throw to reach the top. But it took the combined strength of all four (now horseless) men plus one rather large Negro and a sleepy-eyed Indian, to pull the big red giant up the shear stone face of the mountain that day. When at last the laborious task was accomplished, they all breathed a collective sigh of relief, praying perhaps that finding the lost gold wouldn’t prove as difficult a task.

Once on top of the mountain, or so it appeared for all practical purposes, Red-Beard quickly took command of the situation by assessing the situation and checking on his men. He was not as young as he used to be, and negotiating mountains was not in the army manual, at least not to the extent he had just been engaged in. But before he could congratulate himself, or anyone else for that matter, he quickly noticed that something wasn’t quite right. In fact, something was wrong, seriously wrong. It was something Dick had noticed as well; but that was when they were all still down there, and not up here.

Hector noticed it too, shaking his long silver head in utter and abject disbelief, and suddenly shouted “Damn it to hell!” over the whining and wheezing of six weary and distraught individuals. It was quite out of character of the Old Hammer to exhibit such emotional distress; but in truth, the otherwise passive carpenter was merely chastising himself for not realizing it earlier; it was something he wasn’t ashamed of doing now and then, even at his own expense or whenever he deemed it indispensable to do so, if only for the benefit of those who might otherwise falsely mistake his stoic silence for pride or hubris. I’m human after all, just the all the rest of you, he might as well have said, for not only realizing by then what he should’ve known all along, but for allowing it to happen in the first place. “Oh well,” shrugged the hammer, assuming his former steadfast composure, “No fool like an old fool, I reckon.” And with that, the old Celt immediately set out to solve the problem by first figuring out just what to do next to extricate himself and his comrades from a most untenable, if not downright embarrassing, situation; whoever was at fault, and however foolishly and avoidable it may have occurred.

The others, after a brief exchange of self-congratulatory accolades and solid pats on the back, were quick to pick up on Hector’s vocal observation, and were justifiably concerned. The problem, which had become quite obvious by then, was a serious one. Without the tools and equipment, not to mention the wagon and its explosive cargo, along with everything else they’d so painstakingly dragged up the side mountain that day, the expedition was doomed to failure before it actually began.

You see, for even though the aforementioned accoutrements were still somewhere ‘down there’, they, for all their expended efforts and false bravado were still… well, ‘up here!’ A rather embarrassing predicament, you might say; and one they would not soon forget, as much as they would’ve liked to at the moment. And now, with the exasperated colonel already up on top with the rest of them, the others (namely the Homer, the Harlie, the horses, the wagon, not to mention all their supplies and equipment) had no way of getting up themselves. And peering down over the edge of the cliff, Hector suddenly noticed, much to his dismay, they were nowhere in sight. To add insult to injury, as well putting into question his own sterling reputation, Hector O’Brien also despaired in the simply but distressful fact that he’d carelessly left behind, through no fault but his own, his most prized possession – his hammer.

It was a first for the old man; something he’d never done in his entire professional career. Feeling practically naked without his hammer, an instrument he had carried about his waist for at least fifty years and trusty tool of choice, the carpenter seriously began questioning his judgment that day, thinking retirement might not be such a bad idea to after all, just as his wife had recently suggested, much to his own consternation. “Must be getting old,” he privately confessed to the others, as well as himself, just then. “I really should’ve known better. It ain’t like me...” he added with a tear swelling up in those dark Latin eyes that up until then had sparked not only with the fire of Cervantes but the lilt of Irish laughter common to those of those two separate ancestries. But the hammer was not all he’d forgotten that day.

“Hey! What about horses?” questioned Webb, in a rare moment of sober observation. For once in his witless life, the toothless outlaw had a legitimate point; besides the one on the top of his head, that is.

“My wagon!” Sam cried.

“My Caribow!” cried the Redman, referring, of course, in his own vulgarized dialect to the two long-horned oxen he’d purchased specifically for the purpose of pulling the Negro’s modest but over-burdened wagon. A singular tear had suddenly formed in corner of his own occidental eye which, although undetected by any of the others, was presently streaming down the high and noble cheekbone of the Indian prince. Apparently, there was more to the relationship between man and beast here, at least in the egalitarian and natural world of the Redman, than meets the eye.

“Even if they do come back…” noted the surveyor, frantically searching for his tobacco pouch that simply wasn’t there anymore, “how the @#$%^&*!!! are we going to get those damn fools up here anyway?

“Smiley’s right,” observed the outlaw, “Hell! we barely managed to haul the colonel’s fat ass up the mountain.”

A trickled of laughter was heard over the shuffling of feet that had quickly turned into dead silence. Even Alvin had to hold his mouth, along with his tongue, for a moment. Red-Beard was not amused; and he certainly wasn’t accustomed to such talk among his men. It was tantamount to insubordination, a crime in most military minds, worthy of a whipping, a court-martial, or at least a proper dressing down. And besides, he just didn’t like it, especially coming from a smart-ass surveyor and a toothless old drunk that was once a private. “Beggin’ your pardon me, Colonel,” the outlaw quickly apologized, “but it really wasn’t that easy, you know.”

“The only one who could pardon you,” insinuated Little Dick, “…is the governor. And he ain’t here.”

“‘Scuse me, sir?”

“Ain’t no excuse for you, Alvin,” noted the surveyor with all due sincerity.

The Negro had to laugh. But the outlaw was right about one thing – No! make that two – he thought to himself: It was a stupid mistake, and the colonel did have a fat ass.

The others privately agreed; and so would Red-Beard, if he wasn’t so self-absorbed in his own megalomaniacal pride. But he was, after all, an officer; and as such he would just have to live with the consequences. He was in charge, and assumed all responsibility. The buck stopped with him, nobody else. But, as most officers know, if they know anything at all, there comes a time when a soldier had to earn his stripes, as well as his rations, and Alvin Webb was no exception; in fact, it just might do him some good, thought Red-Beard. He did owe the soldier that much, after all they’d been through together. He’d stood with the outlaw when everyone, including his own dysfunctional family, had given up on him. And likewise, but with a more reverential aspect, Alvin stood up for the colonel when everyone else said he was mad, or worse. It was one of those strange and perverted relationships, symbiotic for all intents and evil purposes, but a relationship that served them both well; one perhaps better than the other. “Well, Mister Engineer,” growled Red-Beard, thinking of how he had cajoled the others into allowing Alvin to come along in the first place, “just what do you intend to do about it?”

“Colonel?” questioned Webb.

Recalling to mind the questionable title bestowed upon the lowly thief, and in view of their current circumstances, Smiley the surveyor spoke for all the rest of them when he said, with his usual sarcastic spleen, “Well…you’re the engineer, Do something, you moron!”

Alvin flinched. “What the hell you want me to do?”

“Yeah, Alvin!” laughed Dick, scornfully. “That’s what engineers is for.”

“If that what he really be,” challenged Sam, who had always had his doubts about the toothless idiot, even though he himself was never quite sure exactly what it is an engineer was suppose to do… other than drive a train, perhaps.

Still fumbling through his pockets for his tobacco pouch, Smiley sneered, “Why don’t you start by engineerin’ us up some grub,” he said, realizing they were not only missing their cook, but all the provisions he’d brought along as well; not to mention the Harley beans he’d recently grown especially fond of.

The tension that had been hanging in the in the air since the whole sad episode began was suddenly broken by a chorus of laughter that arose like the sound of rain on a hot tin roof. It was an infectious kind of laughter, the kind most often associated with men who, in desperate situations, suddenly come to realize exactly how fragile and fleeting life is and, perhaps for the first time in their sad and sullen lives, actually have something to laugh about. In fact it was so contagious that by then even the stone-faced colonel managed to crack a smile, which lasted for only a few seconds. The only one not laughing at the time was the outlaw himself. And he was about to say something in his own miserable defense, as if he actually had one, when just then, Smiley suddenly cried out in anguish and anger: “My tobacco!” he exclaimed, after going through all his pockets and realizing the seriousness of Red-Beard’s error, as well as his addiction to the leafy narcotic. It was a habit he’d relied on, and on that only grew stronger over the years, not unlike the love he had for cakes and pastries, only stronger, and more difficult to deal with. At least with pies, he had to admit, he didn’t have to spit. “I just can’t go anywhere without a pinch or a plug. Ain’t that right Dick?!” he nervously exclaimed.

“And don’t forget the pie,” reminded the young apprentice.

Smiley cursed, “What the – !” and stamped; and followed that up with a protracted string of sons-of-bitches! damn-it-to-hells! @#$%^&*!!!!, and piling a heap of jack-asses on top of that, along every other curse, swear, and profanity he could think of at the time (he had by then a storehouse full to choose from, of course; and many more in the making) the explicative connotations of which was enough to make even the unflappable Indian blush a darker shade of red. “I had me one piece left! And I was saving it for...” he falsely argued.

“For the cannibals?” suggested the silver-haired Hammer, with suspicious lilt of laughter in those old Irish eyes.

It was a well-know and long-established fact that, along with a dire addiction to the evil tobacco weed, Mister Charles Smiley also had special weakness for pastries, particularly blueberry pies, and especially the kind Mrs. Homer Skinner would occasionally bake for him whenever he was in the general vicinity, which seemed to be more often than his profession actually called for, and despite whatever obstacles he had to overcome to be there, including three snowstorms, two floods and an tornado that once showed up on Mrs. Skinner’s doorstep that even had Homer in a panic for a while. You might even say that Charles Smiley hoarded his pasties and tobacco in much the same way a dwarf hoards his gold, and guarded it with as much pride and equal suspicion. And if you said that, you wouldn’t be very far from the truth. It was something he was sometimes ashamed of. But not today. Not now! And so, he decided it was high time to stir things up a bit, as he was want to do when put in situations like these. “Well now,” he said, with all the seriousness associated with his sober profession, “they could still be hungry, you know… the cannibals, that is.” And as he spoke, the hair on his lips moved ever so slightly, as if to evince the seriousness of the suggestion. “You just never know…You know?” he wondered out loud.

Dick stuttered. “W-What are you tryin’ to say, Mister Smiley?”

The others were also just a little curious by then.

“Yeah, just what are you gettin’ at?” said Homer, having a few reservations of his own on the feral subject of cannibals; a subject he was personally familiar with, or so he thought.

“Well… maybe it’s better that you don’t know,” said the sly old surveyor, “Wouldn’t want to you boys getting’ all worked up over nothin’.”

“Nothin’! You call that nothin’!” objected the inept engineer, having second thoughts on the matter at hand.

The Negro interjected with his usual objectivity. “You mean to say there’s still some can’bals ‘round ‘chere?”

“They’s called Ferals,” reminded Webb, correctly this time. “Some say they’s still alive.”

As if aroused by an old familiar odor, some faint reminder of his own wild musky past, spiced perhaps with the aboriginal essence of the Far East, the Indian stirred. For some time Boy had been contemplating the existence of the flesh-eating savages, who, chiefly from what he’d been told regarding their spiritual inclinations and the similarities that existed between the American Indian and their occidental cousins to the east, he may very well be related to through some transcontinental migration, if not by way of the Bearing Straights, whose icy tundra his ancient ancestors may have one time wondered, then perhaps over the vast expanse of the unknown Pacific in tiny dug-out canoes that were sea-worthy enough to land them on the volcanic shores of the Hawaiian Islands which, geographically speaking, is at least half way there. He all but welcomed the notion. “Is it true?” he spoke beneath a headdress of raven black hair.

Smiley was leaving them all in the suspense, of course; but for his own private reason, and perhaps his own amusement. “I never said that,” he smiled at the speculative Redman, “But you just did… I think.”

Red-Beard was not so speculative; and he certainly wasn’t ready to be consumed by Smiley’s savage suggestions, Indian legends, cannibalism, death, or any other superstitious pessimism that might otherwise alter his immortal goals. To the contrary, that’s what the whole expedition was all about, as far as he was concerned. Not death – but life. Eternal life! “Ah, com’on. It can’t be that far, men,” he pointed out, trying to be as optimistic as possible. “Sure it’s hard… but it ain’t that hard.” It was something else he’d learned in officer’s school: Never let the situation determine the outcome of the event, especially in battle. It was all part of leadership. It came with the rank. “We’ll just have to...”

“We’ll worry about them later, said Hector, looking a little more frustrated than usual. “Right now we got bigger fish to fry. Anyone got any ideas?”

There was no response.

And so, with no solutions on the immediate horizon, and no real battle plan, Red-Beard quickly sized up the situation and said what, to him at least, seemed rather obvious. “We’ll just have to go back down, find them, and hoist everything up, including the gear, when we do,” he soberly announced. “We’ll leave the wagon and horses behind. They won’t do us much good from here on anyway. Only slow us down.”

The private frowned. “You mean, we got to carry everything ourselves?”

“From here on!” complained Little Dick, agreeing with the toothless engineer for the first time since they’d met.

“On our backs?” said Smiley, with a touch of arthritis and a bad lumbago.

Sam shrugged, “How else?”

The Hammer sighed, “I’m getting’ too old for this.”

“It’s a good day to die,” reiterated the Indian, in his own solemn sublimity.

But the deputy was not missing; nor was the Harlie, or the horses. As it were, Homer had just remember a small path off to the side of the cliff he hoped would come in handy one day, just as it did forty years ago when he and the original search party first stumbled up it, quite accidentally, as a matter of fact. And it was still there! Elmo stayed as close as he could to the old man’s side as they wound their way up and around the back of the stone cylinder along with four ponies, a humpback bull, an over-packed mule, and a wagon load of explosives.

The path Homer had found that day was actually a small ledge, about three feet wide, that circled the circumference of the upper portion of the mountain, like the thread of a screw, all the way to the top of the mountain. It circled upward with only a few steps cut into the stone along the way, just wide enough to accommodate one man, or animal, at a time. It took some time to negotiate, of course; but by the time they had completed one full turn of the screw, three hundred and sixty degrees, Homer Skinner found himself exactly where he wanted to be, right where he was forty years ago, on top of a mountain or, as the old bluesman would one day sing: ‘I’s sittin’ on top of the world!’ He also found himself standing directly behind Red-Beard and the others who, not much to his surprise, were all still standing their debating whose fault it was, and what to do about it. All he could do is shake his head and smile. Elmo did likewise; and, of course, so did the mule.

Homer was the first to speak and, in the process, make known his presence. “You boys always have to do everything the hard way – Don’t you?” he questioned without hesitation and with no particular concern.

As if all their heads had somehow been collectively linked together with the same invisible string, which had just then suddenly been yanked by some equally invisible hand, they all were forced to turn and face the old familiar voice with mouths wide open.

As Homer and the Harlie casually walked up behind them, in tow of the forsaken animals and painted wagon, even Red-Beard looked a little puzzled, if not pleased, by then. Of course, none of them found it very amusing at the time; except for maybe the Old Hammer who, in his own magnanimous way, was the first one to congratulate the old man not only for his ingenuity and resourcefulness, but his memory as well. For he too suddenly remembered the narrow winding road that cork-screwed its way to the top of the mountain, which he should have known all along, but just didn’t. “Well done, Homer!” he said with a sly Celtic smile. “Looks like we old roosters still have something to crow about. Si, Senoir?

“Well, this does, “Homer agreed. “Oh, by the way, Hector,” he added, while pulling a long wooden handle out from under his vest, “I think this belongs to you.”

It was a hammer, of course; but no ordinary hammer. It was Hector’s hammer.

The dark eyes of the Adonis sparkled with a pride and passion that had been absent ever since Hector has lost the faithful old instrument and his favorite tool. And it was with great pleasure Mister Skinner presented Mister O’Brien with his most prized possession, one old gentleman to another, and with all the respect they had come to appreciate in one another over the years, like two old studs put out to pasture together, a little prematurely they would both come to agree, with one eye on the oats and the other on the mare.

Gracias! Gracias!” beamed the old carpenter with a certain kind of sincerity that might otherwise be lost on younger generations and rarely found in his own. Firmly grasping the handle of the familiar tool in his venerable old hand and holding it skyward in a manner Thor himself would surely approve of, Hector gave reverential thanks in his own Latin way: “Via con Dios, Senoir! And may you be in Heaven a half hour before the devil knows you’re dead,” he added in manner prescribed by his Irish ancestors. And that ain’t no blarney.

“How the –?!” questioned the confused outlaw.

Although it had gone totally undetected Charles Smiley eventually smiled as well. “Well, it looks like we’ve been following the wrong leader,” he apologized to Homer in his own humble and magnanimous way.

By then, Elmo Cotton was feeling quite proud of his old friend and benefactor, Mister Homer Skinner, in whom he exhibited a great deal of trust and respect, which was obviously shared by at least a two the four horsemen that day. It made the Harlie happy. But he was still a little worried, and just beginning to think that Red-Beard might indeed have more on his mind than just the gold, as Homer had confided in him earlier that day in private as they circumnavigated the mountain. The others, he could never quite tell what they were thinking, individually or collectively, and was afraid to ask anyway. They were all so very different, he imagined, and equally alarming in their own self-serving and, at times, self-destructive way.

“Well, it’s all downhill from here,” stated the deputy, to ease their tired frustration while secretly confiding to his Harlie partner that, indeed, “Going down is sometimes a lot harder than going up. “But don’t worry, Elmo, we’re almost there. And don’t tell that to the others. Let’s keep ‘em guessin’. It’s good for the soul,” he added, “and not only ours.”

From there the trail, or what was left of it, assumed a downward trajectory, angling steadily into the very center of the vacant volcano. By that time it was late in the afternoon and the sun, like a fireball rolling lowly across the western sky, was just beginning its dying descent. They were well into the crater by now, which, from a purely geographical standpoint, could accurately be described as nothing less than simmering soup bowl on top of the famous mountain, spanning a distance of no less than a mile from rim to rim.

And what a bowl! A super-bowl if ever there was one. What could you compare it to? From a purely geometrical point of view, the Roman Coliseum comes closest to mind with its cylindrical concrete walls and grand retractable roof upon which, although no longer visible except for the holes that once housed the towering wooden masts to which the great canvass was secured, a hundred seasoned sailors were said to have toiled aloft in the rigging, mechanically adjusting the great horizontal sheet from time to time, depending on the position of the sun, thus providing shade and comfort to the blood-thirsty spectators below. And beneath that billowing dome, where chariots plowed the blood of Christians while lions gnawed their sacred bones in their hidden caves and kennels, did Caesar, by way of those famous subterranean aqueducts, flood the stage and launch his boats in mock sea-battles to the amazement and delight of a dying civilization.

Geologically speaking, this was a bowl long in the making, if time is of any concern in such earth-altering activities, molded slowly over centuries through endless eruptions and erosions. With patience and precision it was formed and molded by the heavy hand of Nature herself which, like that of the poor potter who carefully caresses his clay as it spins around and around on a wheel, only on a much smaller scale, of course, applying just the right amount of pressure at each critical junction, until it perfectly round and symmetrical, creates beauty out of chaos and mountains out of mud; whereupon it is summarily placed in the oven and baked by the heat of a thousand suns so as to last for a million years. It’s an on-going process, of course; as all great works of art are, coinciding perhaps with yet another great natural catastrophic event that buried the poor pitiful pagans at Pompeii and Herculaneum at the same instance, preserving their corpses and mummified remains in time and perpetuity, just as they fell, as a reminder to us all of Nature’s awesome and unyielding creativeness. But nature, like all gods and goddesses, abhors a vacuum; and Mount Wainwright was no exception. But this was no empty bowl, my friend. For within this fertile crater could be also found a salad, a wide variety of vegetation, including trees of many shapes and sizes, along with a wide variety of shrub and cacti, the species of which remain a mystery even until this day, along with the ants and insects that feed on such flora. They were organically grown, of course; fed with the finest fertilizers Mother Nature could produce in that fiery part of the underworld ruled by Pluto, that has existed long before the mountains themselves rose from the sea, and cooked in the cauldrons of hell; an endless diet of lava and ash, belched up by the gods in vaporous black clouds of sulfurous smoke and vomited out in flowing rivers of red hot magma, and in generous proportions.

Homer could almost smell the gold by then. It was all coming back to him now. Yes! It was intoxicating, invigorating and rejuvenating, subtracting at least ten years off his life in the process, and in an equal amount of minutes. Everywhere he looked reminded him of somewhere he’d been before, forty years ago to be exact. It was almost as if it’d happened only yesterday. He knew where he was. He was close to it. He could feel it. He could smell it. And the closer he got to it, the more intense it became, and the better it felt. And the better it felt, the more his tooth ached. “I was here,” he softly whispered into the Harlie’s ear, so as to not to create a stampede as they rode closer to their destiny.

They made their way through overgrown brush and tall pines trees shooting straight up from the harden magma floor like great green sentinels guarding the gates of some mountain fortress, the ground suddenly sloping downward at an alarming rate with gaseous vapors escaping here and there through the cracks and fissures in the crusty pavement. The mountain was alive and well; only sleeping, perhaps, like the many slumbering stones that marked the graves of dead men that came before them. It was a place few have actually set foot on, or laid eyes on for that matter, like the mountains of the moon, perhaps, which can only be seen, and even then very briefly and dimly, through the peering lens of a telescope or a sorcerer’s crystal ball, whichever one is handy. It was dangerous place; a place to be avoided at all cost, the gold not-with-standing, were angels fear to tread and devils find their homes.

Tom Henley, a local prospector and self-described mountain-man, seemed to be the most knowledgeable of the area. He knew the geological formations of the region, including its volcanic origins, as well as the turbulent history surrounding it. He knew the mountains better than anyone, or so he proudly proclaimed. He’d mined them all at one time or another, some more successfully than others, it would seem. And with the sole exception of Mount Wainwright, he’d always found what he was looking for, whether it was gold, silver, ore, gemstones, minerals, or just some peace of mind. He never did find the lost gold mine, however, or anything else inside that unholy hill named for the doomed and desperate prospector, Cornelius G. Wainwright III. But now with the solicited help of Colonel Rusty ‘Red-Beard’ Horn, Alvin Webb, and, of course, Homer Skinner, all that would soon change.

Not unlike the crazy old colonel whose mad machinations have already been evinced, Mister Henley was a man of many resources. He’s was college educated, at West Point some say; a man letters, who, according to at least one alumnus who once claimed to have walked those same haunted halls reeking as they did of gun powder and brandy, held more degrees a thermometer. He’d warned Homer of what to expect on the mountain, as if the old man didn’t already know, and wished him well. Likewise, he admonished Rusty Horn of the dangers and vicissitudes was well, and was counting on the colonel to achieve the objective they both had in mind at the time and would benefit from, each to his own purpose; provided, of course, they were successful in the endeavor.

But Red-Beard had his own agenda, undisclosed to the mountain-man at the time of their fortuitous introduction; and he had his own mission, which he shared with no one, not even the wicked engineer he’d brought along to help fulfill it, but himself. He knew, of course, that he would eventually have to answer to Mister Henley, if everything went according to plans, and would deal with him later. He never liked the mountain-man anyway, which would only make it easier, he reckoned. Homer, on the other hand, had always admired Tom, and took him, as well as the mountain they were presently negotiating, extremely seriously. But things change in forty years, he wisely reasoned; and so do men. He proceeded with care, and cautioned the others to do the same.

Falling behind the others once again, Elmo Cotton held the mule at the end of a short rope while feeding him a carrot or two along the way. He felt genuinely sorry for the animal, and wished by now that he’d given it back to its original owner, Mister Sherman Dixon, as he once contemplated for a variety of reasons (not least of which was its stubbornness on occasion to perform even the most simple tasks nature had allotted to such a hybrid, not to even mention the poor animal’s age, seventy-five years by human comparison, as his Uncle Joe once calculated on his big brown fingers between catching flies) or simply left it at home. Perhaps a bullet through the brain would be a more merciful and justifiable end, he sometimes imagined. It was an option he hadn’t entirely ruled out, and one he came close to executing during one of their brief and baffling episodes. “Should have just left you home,” he apologized, in the usual manner of collecting his thoughts by talking to the dumb beast as he often did back in the fields of Harley. “Tain’t no place for no mule. That’s fo’ sho’… That’s for dang sho!’

“Or a Harlie...” reminded the mule, unappreciative or unaware of its own reprieve.

“A little late for that now – Don’t ya’ think?” muttered its master, addressing the mule in the same peculiar fashion. It was actually a strange habit the Harlie had picked up in the fields during the long hours he spent behind the plow. It was a little game he played with himself to pass the time of day, a cathartic way of settling disputes and avoiding arguments he might otherwise be having with friends and neighbors, or anyone else for that matter, including his wife…especially his wife. It worked more often than it didn’t; and thank God for that! Elmo often sighed.

Naturally, had any of the others been listening to such a one-sided dialogue at the time, they might’ve concluded that the poor Harlie had actually lost his mind, gone mad; or perhaps he suffering from the same debilitating disease that so inflicted the crazed colonel and manifested in a similar manner. Of course, they would’ve been completely wrong, and their diagnosis entirely false; for, as a matter of medical fact, Red-Beard’s condition could be more accurately defined as a malady not only of the mind and body, but of the spirit as well, the three being inextricable linked at times, not unlike the Holy Trinity Itself perhaps, as most mental disorders are. It was a disease, actually, an abnormality observed as such by many clergy and church officials, requiring, in its most extreme cases, exorcism; as opposed to burning at the stake, a former remedy that was currently not only out of style, but (Thank God!) out of practice. It was a condition that had also been documented and misdiagnosed by secular scholars throughout the scientific world and who were, either through training or intuition, familiar with such things, in which case exorcism was by no means precluded for the prescription, either; although, they would prefer to call it an operation, performed, in its typical application by drilling a hole in the head of the infected patient in order to release the innermost forces which, according to their own misguided diagnosis, was undoubtedly the cause of the malady in the first place. Either that, or they would simply ‘bleed’ the patient to death, such as what happened in the case of one General George Washington, himself a product of one of these ill-conceived and poorly executed remedies after returning home one frosty winter’s day with a head cold and sore throat, which the general himself insisted, against the admonitions of the good physician attending him that day, would simply ‘leave as it came’. It never left, of course; but the great man did. For you see, whereas the Harlie’s strange and, what some may consider, ‘bizarre’ behavior during such un-natural exchanges could only be traced as far back as his own imagination and no further, a phenomenon often diagnosed as a healthy and harmless response to the vicissitudes of life in general, especially those tied to a life of endless servitude and toil, such as those encounter on a daily basis by the sharecropper, Red-Beard’s schizophrenia was quite different and unique, and of a deeper and more disturbing nature. His was real, you see.

“Could always turn back,” the mule suddenly suggested, looking weary and worn, and a bit frustrated by then, not unlike its muttering master.

Elmo had already thought about that and, at one time, might’ve even considered it an option; but not any longer. It was simply out of the question He’d come too far already, “And besides” he wondered out loud, “what would they think of me back home?”

The animal answered quite succinctly, “What they already think of you,” while munching on his carrot, “not very much.”

“I was wrong,” said Elmo.

“About leaving me at home?” replied the mule.

“No! About not shootin’ you when I had the chance, you stupid jack-ass.”

The mule gulped down its carrot and whined, as if personally offended at the off-hand remark which it took for the insult it was intended to be.

“Damn you to hell!” Elmo cursed.

But in doing so, the Harlie was only cursing himself, thinking not only the woman and child he’d left behind, but of all the work he’d left her with, including twenty acres of soil that still needed plowing before the autumn frost set in. For the first time since he’d left the farm, the Harlie was seriously beginning to wonder if he hadn’t made the right decision after all. Maybe it was all a mistake, he suddenly thought, and one both he and the mule would soon come to regret. Perhaps he should’ve just stayed home, as Homer himself once tried to persuade him in a rare and quite moment of uncertainty. Harley wasn’t so bad, he imagined; and at least there he was good for something besides cooking meals for a bunch of ungrateful and malcontented misfits (never mind the fact that he was probably the biggest misfit of them all) who would probably be dead in a day or two anyway, along with Homer and himself. As usual he turned to the mule for an answer, or at least a little advice. None was supplied. “I should’a knowed,” he sighed.

By then the Harlie had slipped so far behind the others that he could barely see the rear ends of their horses, which, by the way, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you have ever walked behind a horse for any length of time, that is. He was tired and hungry; but mostly tired. And if not for the fact that his mule was hauling all the food and cooking gear, he might’ve just turned around and headed right straight back to his little shack and bean field in Harley where he came from, and where he probably belonged anyway, he wondered not for the first time. But he reckoned someone would shoot him first if he did. And he was right. But when he heard Homer call out to him: “Hey, Elmo! Hurry it up!” he suddenly remembered why he came, and why he was there. There was no turning back.

* * *

IT WAS STILL EARLY IN THE EVENING when the party of nine approached the general vicinity of the lost gold mine at the very center of the mountainous crater. The vegetation had tinned out a bit by then, and there was no water in sight. Only a few newly formed trees appeared on either side of the stony path, along with some cactus plants and ragweed, which the animals didn’t seem to mind.

There were rocks and stones everywhere, it seemed, causing the animals to lose their footing and stumble a number of times. The wagon fared no better, getting caught up in the many cracks and crevices of the various rock formations. It was at such times as these when Sam would be forced to abandon his prestigious perch on the buckboard to either push or pull the little wagon with the heavy load, depending, of course, upon which was most needed at the time, and much to discomfort and chagrin of his reticent passenger, until the wheels of the vehicle were free to roll once more.

Little Dick Dilworth cursed out loud as he more than once his horse faltered now and then on the rocky road, throwing him from the saddle. Even old sure-footed Jove occasionally slipped, its great hump lobbing from side to side like a drunken white ghost. Only with great patience, practice, and perseverance was Red-Beard able to keep everyone in line and out of harm’s way. He was especially concerned about the highly volatile cargo of dynamite he had packed away in the wagon, which he would check on it from time to time, adjusting the small wooden crates in ways that would better protect them from the elements, as well as Sam’s careless maneuverings and Boy’s obvious indifference to such highly explosive materials. Of everyone involved in the on-going expedition, he was perhaps the most knowledgeable in the newly discovered science of dynamite that was still in its early stages of development. Red-Beard did not take the explosive stuff lightly, as others in that field sometimes did either though ignorance or sheer stupidity. He was counting on its effectiveness. He examined the contents of the wagon one more time.

“Steady, Horn,” warned the Hammer, verbally admonishing the colorful colonel for the first time since they’d exchanged glances on the top of the mountain that day, “There’s enough powder there to blow us all to Kingdom Hall!”

“Or Hell…” admonished the Negro who, having once worked the sulfur mines of the old South, was not only qualified to speak on the sore subject of fire and brimstone, but claimed to have been there himself on more than one unannounced occasion, the last of which he was ceremoniously released only because a few of the higher ranking devils complained he was much too black, and thus a threat to their abysmal authority. But Sam knew better, of course, and would always maintain, quite frankly as a matter of fact, that they were merely jealous of him on account of his naturally endowed manliness, which preceded him like the prodigious trunk of an Indian elephant, or an African anaconda.

“Don’t give him any ideas,” remarked the surveyor.

No one laughed. Not even Little Dick who, being familiar with his employer’s wry sense of humor, as well as his addictive personality, was standing as far away from the explosive wagon as possible.

By then the sun was sinking like a red fireball over the rim of the mountain, turning a once pale sky into a magnificent horizontal display of pink, yellow, and blue that silhouetted everything else against it in solid black. Night was quickly creeping in. Again, Homer Skinner solemnly raised his hand halting their forward progress. There no need to go any further. He was back. They stopped at a place that looked like it hadn’t been tread upon in forty years; unless, of course, you don’t include scorpions, snakes, mole-rats, cock roaches, a variety of insects, and other vermin that had somehow managed to a survive in the dry and barren crater of a volcano.

They had finally arrived in the general vicinity of the lost gold mine; but no one, except for Homer Skinner, knew exactly where it was; and even he was quite sure. It was just as he had left it forty years ago: shut up, sealed, and invisible to all but the most discerning eye. It was purposely left that way by the original search party who had made good and proper use of Cornelius’s own explosives by blowing up the tunnel and sealing the dead man’s tomb. It was the same type of black powder used for his ill-fated excavations; and he had plenty of it. The entrance was barely visible to the naked eye anymore. It had become, over the many years of wind, rain and erosion, just another part of the mountain itself; a solid sheet of stone, as large and impenetrable as the Hadrian’s Wall and just as strategically placed. The door was closed; forever, it seemed.

“Well, we’re here,” declared the old man on the black horse.

“I don’t see anything,” Dilworth was first to observe; or rather, not to observe.

“Me neither,” spoke the outlaw.

“Well, this is it…” said Homer, softly and sadly, like a thief returning to the scene of a crime long after the statutes of limitations have expired, or a soldier combing through the battlefield long after the war was over. It was a lonesome feeling, one the old man had not expected. It felt like… like guilt.

The Hammer was the first to notice it. “Look,” he said, pointing a long silver haired finger towards a faint outline in the rocks delineating, just barely, where the original mine once stood.

“Wait,” Smiley squinted. “I see it, too… I think.”

As it were, the entrance to the tunnel, or what was left of it, appeared smaller than Homer remembered, much smaller. But so do many other things, he sadly imagined from time to time, like Christmas trees, tree-houses and backyards, along with all the other fleeting fancies of youth we take pleasure reminiscing upon now and then in ever diminishing dimensions that seem to decrease proportionally with each passing year until, through no fault of our own, they assume their true and proper proportions which, we can barely recognize and hardly appreciate, as we once did in by-gone days when Christmas trees were as tall as Redwoods, tree house were mansions in the sky, and backyards went on forever. Of course, it’s never the Christmas tree, the tree house, or the back yard that actually ever changes. It is only us; and so much more the pity.

At the base of the invisible mine there were some extremely large boulders standing solid and erect, like stone sentinels guarding the tomb of a dead king. They looked like tombstones, one might easily imagine; the headstones of giants, perhaps; the ancestor’s of those same ancient Antediluvians spoken of so mysteriously and briefly in Genesis, whose physical deformities can be directly linked, through blood and semen, to the forbidden intercourse of angels and man. Like Adam, perhaps, they were damned in the mist of Paradise, having long since fled to higher, firmer, and perhaps safer ground, if that was to be found in such lofty elevations, in justified fear of God’s righteous wrath, or the next volcanic eruption, whichever came first, with all its impending doom and gloom, and subsequent earthquakes that would surely follow. Is that were they were? Elmo wondered in solemn silence; these giants sons of God? Were they buried beneath all these slumbering stones? Or perhaps they were merely sleeping, as giants often do when the world at large ignores them. He reckoned there was only one way to find out. He prayed he never would.

Around and about these massive monuments rested a number of smaller but similar stones that appeared more like the ordinary grave-markers, the kind one might expect to find in any old churchyard or, perhaps, even in one’s own backyard, which was not an uncommon burial place for that period of time; and actually, not a bad place to be, especially when surrounded by the familiar and friendly ghost of other dearly departed; although I suppose we all have relatives we were never very friendly with, in this world or any other, and would just as soon forget, or at least avoid. Whether the stones were man-made or sculptured to look that way by the sheer power of the elements was impossible to tell, as one eventually overtakes the other, erasing over time the last visible traces of humanity, just as it does the mortal remains below. Empty or not, real or imaginary, mortal or immortal, they are only physical reminders, signs if you will, of what is yet to come.

And it was those same morbid memories that came back, like ghosts from the past, to haunt deputy just then. Not in the slumbering stones of the dead, nor the spirits that presided over that hallowed and sacred ground, but rather in their decaying flesh; the mortal remains of those who came before them, and one in particular. It was real. It was corporeal. It was hideous. And it was all too human. It was a head, of course, a shrunken head, tied to a string and suspended before him like some rotten carrot hung from a stick. Homer could still see it. It was branded into his brain like the skull and crossbones of Black-beard’s barbarous banner. It’s what crept into his in wild imagination almost every night and had pacing circles on his bedroom floor; what still, after all those years made him sick to his stomach and want to vomit. The head had a face; and the face had a name. His name was Cornelius G. Wainwright III, and the head belonged to him.

He saw it every time he looked in the mirror or lazily gazed into a quiet pool of water. But unlike the Narcissist who, upon looking into that same rippling glass sees youth and beauty, ephemeral and fleeting as they are, all Homer could ever see was death; Hermes, with his outstretched decomposing hand ready to escort him back to Hell, or whatever underworld he is currently assigned to. It was a slow and gradual process, but sooner or later the image he saw would eventually be displaced, through some metamorphosis, until all that was left in the glass was the mummified remains of the dead man’s severed head, dangling from a single black thread and grinning back at him in all its grizzly gloom. It was that hideous and horrible head, with long dark hair and a bottlebrush mustache, its nose and mouth surgically stitched together by those same savage fingers and with the same evil thread, looking right back at him with its eyes sown shut, wrinkled and deformed by man and nature, a most unholy and unforgettable sight to see, just like the spirits of the night. ‘Thems that wants don’t get,’ came the words, once again, escaping somehow through those same wickedly stitched lips.

But it couldn’t be! Could it? Cornelius was dead; and so were the Ferals that killed him. They were buried along with their merciless master, forty… forty years ago. Homer was there. He saw it all. But what then to make of the strange apparition that night after night had him pacing circles in his bedroom? Was it only a dream? A dream within a dream! which, according to the dreamy Indian at least was perhaps the ultimate reality. Or maybe it was madness, he began to wonder: madness, magnified by his own ignorance, which is probably the worst kind of madness, he sometimes imagined, simply because... well, simply because it takes a real madman not to know that he is crazy.

No! It had to be something else; something buried deep down, inside the mountain, perhaps; something besides the gold, and much more potent and powerful, like... like a mysterious dark stone, or the hideous head of the dead man. It was something Homer could never quite put out of his mind, something he certainly would never forget; but something he could never quite grasp, or put his finger on. It wasn’t exactly human… but, in its own beguiling, compelling, and almost supernatural way, it was! It was something, something Homer saw at the end of a long dark tunnel on day. It was black and beautiful; and it haunted him still, not unlike the spirits of the night, after all those long and lonely years. And it was still there! He saw in his sleep, in his dreams, even when he was wide awake at night. And he saw it often, usually in the early hours of the morning, on the other side of twilight, when things always seem darkest, just before the dawn. It didn’t really surprise him. He’d been there before. He saw it. He touched it. It was the Motherstone, of course; the black stone, the same probing and piercing black eye of Mount Wainwright he’d gazed upon inside the golden tabernacle not far from the pagan pot where poor Cornelius was stripped, boiled alive and cannibalistically consumed. But he also saw it in the middle of the day sometimes, the aging deputy just then recalled while glancing up at the blackening sky that only a moment ago was so clear and bright. Perhaps, he shuttered to think, it was looking back at him… just like the Motherstone did so many years ago at the end of a log dark tunnel.

It was a strange frightening experience each and every time it happened. At one time, he thought he might even grow used to it, just like the toothache. But he never did. The black eye of the mountain, not unlike the gold itself, only grew heavier, larger, and darker every time he thought of it. And the closer he was to it, the more real it became. It followed him day and night, like a shadow he could never quite escape from. And he never stopped thinking about it, either, especially now that it was so close at hand. He knew Red-Beard was thinking about it, too; that much was clear to him by then. They were both ambitious men and, in many ways, very much alike, which it what really frightened the old man, more than anything else he could imagine; and by then, Homer Skinner could indeed imagine a great many things, real and unreal. But what Homer didn’t know was to what extent, or by what means, the crazy colonel would pursue those ambitions. He began to wonder who would find it first; or, more importantly, who wanted it the most.

It was buried with the gold, along with everyone who might have been trapped in the tunnel at the time, Homer imagined, including the blood-thirsty ferals. They couldn’t have survived the blast. It shook the mountain to its very foundation, filling the cave, shutting the door, and sealing the fate of all those left inside at the time. Surely they were all dead by now, if not from falling rocks, then certainly from lack of oxygen which would have occurred hours if not minutes after the fatal blast. It would take nothing less than a miracle for anyone to have survived it. But miracles do happen, Homer was quick to realize; as evidenced and preformed by one Reverend Willie B. Wright of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’, in a place called Shadytown. But Willie wasn’t there. And this wasn’t Old Port Fierce. And who was he to disturb the grave of a dead man anyway? Homer began to wonder. And was the gold really worth it? Or even the strange black stone that was at the heart of the matter and the source of confounded toothache. These as well as other ambivalent thoughts crossed the deputy’s dark and doubtful mind just then, just as it did forty years ago at the end of a long dark tunnel.

The ground he was standing on was sacred soil, no matter how wicked the man who died there was, and no matter how deserving of death he might’ve been. It was savage soil, too; the spirits of the dead cannibals being no less transparent to Homer Skinner than that of their dead master. They were all there; and their bones were just as white and their ghosts just as real. And they deserved a proper burial, he further imagined; something they never received, much to his regret later on in life when such things became more personal, and sacred to him, cannibal or otherwise. Men are still men, he finally came to conclude, no matter what race, creed, or color; the grave does not discriminate. And neither does God, or the devil. And they probably deserved a stone just like everyone else, he further extrapolated; something to remember them by, despite all of their sins and savageries. It was the civilized thing to do, the Christian thing to do; and it was the right thing to do. But there were no stones for the Ferals of Mount Wainwright; no monument, and no reminder of their gruesome and sinful existence. Nothing! Not a chunk of bone or a patch of skin. Like I said, it was something that Homer had always regretted, whether they were human or not, and was hell-bound to ready to rectify, whether they deserved it or not.

He’d always believed, through faith or fear, or perhaps a little of both, that the graves of the Ferals would be uncovered someday, just like all the others, stone or no stone, to rejoice in glory or be doomed to the eternal damnation. And on that glorious and terrible day, or so the old man thought, he would rejoice (hopefully, of course) along with all the other sheep and goats of this fallen and forsaken world, white and black, Christian and cannibal, pagan and priest, walking side by side, hand in hand, and stand before the omnipotent White Throne of God, or whatever other power that might’ve hatched us all into existence, to receive our final judgment, our ultimate reward or punishment, and there and then to join the ranks of the saints and sinners alike and agree, once and for all, in one loud voice, and in one long and everlasting chorus, confessing with open minds and open mouths that we are all, in fact and indeed, exactly where we ought to be: that is, either in Heaven or in Hell, whether we like it or not, and where we were always were meant to be all along, before we were ever born. Mortal or immortal, beneath the slumbering stone of Mount Wainwright lay the bones of Caucasians and cannibals alike. Perhaps the mountain itself was their true legacy: their headstone, their marker, and their grave.

Technically speaking, the mountain still belonged to the fated mine with the bottle-brush mustache; or at least, that is, until someone, anyone, claimed it for themselves under the title of Eminent Domain which was the official, if not quite accurate, term establishing the ownership of real property at the time. It was a time-tested and legally binding statute, and one presently applied to the pending case, still in probation, surrounding the lost gold mine of Cornelius G. Wainwright III, a man still, as far as the courts were concerned, legally alive; although the mere mention of such a preposterous suggestion was usually enough to draw more than a few laughs from the bench. As far as most folks were concerned, the greedy miner with the bottlebrush mustache was as dead as Montezuma; but they were always just a little suspicious that, like the great Aztec monarch of old who was said to have risen like a Phoenix from the grave, metaphorically speaking, to exact his revenge on his European assassins by poisoning the well for generations to come with his own dead ashes, Cornelius G. Wainwright III might one day roll his own stone and come back to haunt those who took so much pleasure in his own untimely demise. But wait! There is even more evidence of this Poltergeist activity. Think of poor Lazarus and his joyous, if not reluctant, reunion with his living sisters who once cried over his grave; or, on a more sinister level, think of Rasputin as he crawled from his icy grave, riddled with Russian bullets and poisoned by the Czar’s loyal ministers. Think of an empty tomb on Easter morning for that matter! Think and pray, I say.

As for the dead man’s gold, all Homer had to do now was to find it, state it, and claim it for himself and the others; along with anything else he happened to find in the process. But from the looks of things (and where he presently stood at the moment) that might indeed be easier said than done, as is often the case in most worthwhile endeavors undertaken by those willing to take the risk, and the time, to pursue such enterprise.

Oh, and one other thing: Homer would also have to prove to the governing magistrate, beyond a reasonable doubt of course, that Mister Wainwright was indeed and in fact dead; a mere technicality, he’d always surmised, assuming that if and when he uncovered the lost mine, there would surely be something left of the deceased to make his claim legitimate, at least in the eyes of the Law, which, as we all know, can be quite unreasonably, especially when their own greedy interests are involved. Needless-to-say, Cornelius had accumulated a mountain of debt (no pun intended) at the time of his mysterious disappearance; and there was still an army of lawyers and creditors waiting in the wings who thought they might still profit from the dead man’s misfortunes, as well as his fortune, if and when the gold, if there ever was any, was recovered.

But what if the grave was empty? Homer had thought about that from time to time; but it was something he never really considered, at least up until now. Would his claim still be legal? What if the grave itself, the same one Homer so often spoke of with such fear and trepidation, was empty; as empty perhaps as Lazarus’ own dark and loathsome tomb after Our Lord had miraculously and mercifully plucked the poor devil from the jaws of Paradise (quite unfairly some would later come to imagine, and against the mummy’s own wishes perhaps) only to be dragged back down into a fallen world he might otherwise have gladly left behind, if for no other reason than to simply prove to a handful of doubting Thomas’ that He could, in fact, do such a thing. Had Mister Wainwright shared a similar fate, the shrunken and hideous head not-with-standing, as the old Galilean? Perhaps. They say that God can do anything. But if that’s the case, could He make a stone so large that even He, in all his omnipotent power, couldn’t lift? The ultimate paradox, perhaps. And did not that same beneficent Being perform His metaphysical magic in a similar fashion not once, but twice? Three times! if you include His own divine and glorious resurrection? Could, as others have often suggested not entirely in jest, Cornelius have survived after all, and be presently residing and living at large in some foreign place, a palace, perhaps! in some tropical paradise surrounded by his own purchased and persecuted pagans who, out of fear, ignorance, or mere superstition, might have dragged his mummified remains from the tomb, made for the coast, and spirited him across the sea in some man-made Kon-Tiki they had constructed for just such a quick and perilous get-away, whereupon reaching that barbarous coast consult the local witchdoctor who, in turn, performs the requisite rituals prescribed by native custom in order to bring Cornelius’ the lifeless limbs and headless body back to their original vitality? And could it be they had loaded down same that raft with enough gold to buy all the islands in that vast archipelago they so heroically set their sails for? Perhaps the same ones they were absconded from at the time of their untimely interment? Was it possible that, even now, the gentleman farmer turned miner, the one with the bottlebrush mustache, was sitting cozily and comfortably in some earthly paradise with his unrepentant heart and hoards of gold among the pagans and the palms, living the opulent lifestyle befitting such a demigod, and having a good laugh at all the fuss being made about him? Was this his final reward? Or damnation? Is this what we call Justice? We may never know. But drastic measures are sometimes called for in the spiritual evolution of recalcitrant souls; and we all must cooperate and play a part in our own small and insignificant way if we are to reap the rewards we so justly deserve on God’s Heavenly stage when at last our own mummified rags are cast into the everlasting furnace and exchanged for the velvet coats of kings. Homer was no exception.

Not for the first time, Homer Skinner cursed himself for not having fortitude and foresight to bring something, anything, out of the cave forty years ago that might’ve proved his story true and, perhaps, spared him from having to go back into the belly of the beast to do it all over again forty years after. But alas, as they say, ‘hindsight is twenty-twenty’. Fifty-fifty was more like it! For those were the exact odds Homer was giving himself of finding the lost gold, getting it out of the mine, and bringing it, the Harlie, himself, and anyone else for that matter, back home safely with their fair share. It also happened to be the same precarious odds once given to him by esteemed pastor and Grand Master Chef of the Miracle Temple and Barbecue Pit of Avenue ‘D’ in regard to his own questionable salvation. But those were the percentages Homer came to accept, and the ones he was banking on. And besides, he had the ‘Lucky Number! As for the gold, it was all or nothing. Heaven, he thought, could always wait. And so he decided to roll the dice. After that, the others could all go to hell for all he cared. And a few of them probably would, he sadly imagined; the odds were simply stacked against them. And in the case of a draw, as every gambler knows, the house always wins.

The dead man’s stone wasn’t much to look at, and was visible only to the eyes that had witnessed its hasty construction forty years ago, or perhaps someone with a vivid imagination. Homer saw it first and pointed it out to the others. “This is it,” he solemnly proclaimed, resting his sun-splotched hand on the face of an ordinary red stone standing adjacent to the sealed entrance of the lost mine, “This is his headstone.”

The stone was smooth and bare. The inscription that had once been chiseled into its pale and weather worn face had long since been erased by time and the elements. But Homer was sure he was at the right place. He bent down and, as if genuflecting on one knee, and placed his whiskered cheek right up against the stone. He then began gently tracing his wavering fingertips along a long thin horizontal line etched upon the surface until it was intersected at the center by yet another vertical line. It was the sign of the cross, in all its Christian simplicity, hastily cut into face of the stone some forty years ago as a grim, and not totally unsympathetic, memorial to the fated expedition and a fitting tombstone for the man with the bottlebrush mustache, as well the cannibal company he kept who had, out of revenge or mere necessity, most probably facilitated the morbid and metaphysical condition of their forlorn master in their own diabolical matter. And just so there would be no misunderstanding, three simple letters were placed directly below the jagged crucifix, inscribed by the hand Homer himself, which read: ‘C.G.W.’. There was no need to look any further.

 As Homer blessed himself with the sign of the cross, the others bowed their heads, not so much out of reverence for the dead, but rather out of sheer bewilderment. They knew they were close; but exactly how close, was anyone’s guess. But before they had time to debate the issue any further, the old man turned his undivided attention to a great monolithic stone resting perpendicularly up against a small mountain in the very heart of the crater. Rising straight up like the singular vertical plane of a four-sided pyramid out of the earth and rubble, the entrance to the mine was still visible to the discernable eye of the deputy who’d once gazed upon its rocky face and formidable features from a much younger, eager, and perhaps more impertinent, point of view. Angling ominously upward and outward, and in such degrees that would be instantly recognizable to your local Egyptologist or, for that matter, any stonemason of that ancient era whose ghost just might by happenstance be passing by, the pyramid stood in all its grand and miniature glory, along with all the profundities and privacies purposely incorporated into its eternal design.

“Well…” Homer finally enunciated, drawing a long and deep breath, “let’s get to work.”

 Much to their expectations, and from what they could already see, the entrance to the mine was indeed sealed shut. It had been that way for over forty years; blocked by layer upon layer of rock and rubble, along with so many boulders too numerous to count and varying in all shapes and sizes. Some of the obstructions were the size of river rock, mere pebbles, while others, like the aforementioned monolith, appeared just as huge and foreboding as the great limestone blocks that made up the tombs of the Pharaohs, the Great Pyramids themselves, and painstakingly placed into position with the same care and precision afforded to those ancient wonders.

Despite popular rumor, which sometimes occurs in such ambiguous and cold cases, the lost gold mine of Mount Wainwright had never been re-excavated as some have erroneously suggested and others falsely claimed. It had remained closed all these years, purposely and permanently, sealed shut by the hand of fate that struck it forty years ago and threw away the key.

It was just as Homer remembered it, and just as inaccessible as he and previous company had left it. It was never meant to be re-opened. Time, or so it seems, had only assisted them in that regard, protecting the Pharaohs, and the gold, in their own private and impregnable mausoleum. The great monolith, surrounded as it were with a dozen or so smaller stones, only added to its formidable fortifications. This was one stone that even grave robbers could not roll.

The entrance to the forbidden tomb appeared stark and plain, as most tombstones do, a phallic and fatal reminder of our own mortality, and untouched by human hands. Absent this particular marker were the usual melancholic inscriptions, the hieroglyphs, so to speak, the prose and poetry, along with the familiar forms and images known to adorn the slumbering stones of more civilized cemeteries, angelically portrayed in the church yards of rich and poor alike, ephemerally carved in wood, chiseled in stone or emblazed in relief on the great murals of expensive mausoleums. There were no inscriptions adorning these naturally-made monuments and, considering what pagan influences lie beneath and beyond these sobering stones, certainly no crucifixes. There were no names or dates either. But that was not surprising, as unmarked graves were not uncommon in such dreary and desolate places to which curiosity seekers were magnetically drawn and grave-robbers naturally gravitated. And despite what may or may not have happened there forty years ago, and the pagan blood that stained the unholy hill, it was still, at least in the sympathetic eyes of those who held true to the Mister Jefferson’s Declaration that all men are created equal and who still believed in the resurrection of the dead and life ever-lasting, never mind what kind of life the deities had in store for them, considered sacred soil, no less consecrated than that of bloody Gettysburg. For good or evil, these were placed angels feared to tread. And if ever the flaming swords of the Seraphim and Cherubim were to be unleashed on these holy and consecrated grounds, it would no doubt be to do battle with those invisible and inevitable forces they’ve been arresting for the last five thousand years on the threshold of Paradise, upon which, as punishment for his transgressions and, moreover, the sins of his beguiled wife, Adam’s foot was forbidden to fall for fear of eternal death and damnation.

Presented with the monumental task of re-opening the tomb, a task they were neither prepared nor equipped to tackle at the moment, their spirits faltered, as spirits sometimes do when confronted by obstacles so great as to remind them of their own mortal limitations, but only for a moment. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way. They had the will. All they had to do now was… find a way.

And where there is life there is hope, even in the hopeless heart of hopelessness, as Homer was quick to note when just then he noticed it growing right out from under his nose. It was the hope evinced by several small patches of green springing, it seemed, as all hope springs eternal from even the most barren breasts, right out of the rocky soil itself. It came in the form of solitaire strands of rag-weed and tiny wild flowers creeping up through the slumbering stones of Mount Wainwright despite all the natural forces working so slavishly against them. At first glance they appeared oddly enough out of place. But then again, thought Homer, stooping down to pluck a lone dandelion that had somehow managed to poke its fluffy white head through the suffocating soil and considering how, even in the most well-kept cemeteries, wildflowers occasionally can be found sprouting their own feral and perhaps un-welcomed heads up among the gravestones of thieves and murderers, maybe it wasn’t so odd after all, despite all apparent contradictions. But isn’t the world just one great contradiction? he often imagined. And ain’t life just one big jolly joke after all? A joke we are infinite butt of and delivered at our own mortal expense, but a joke never-the-less? It’s a Divine comedy, I suppose, and one we must all participate in, whether we like it or not; for death is the punch-line and the audience demands no less. It’s a joke we can only appreciate when we finally come to realize that the joke is on us and we laugh all the more loudly for it, along with the saints and angels. And perhaps they already were; for there he was, standing like a damn fool on the threshold of death and destruction with a toothache and a dandelion, ringing Hell’s bells on the front porch of Perdition while at the same sublime moment knocking on Heaven’s door. It was a comical sight indeed, and one that made the old man laugh out loud. And what a laugh it was! It was a delicious sound, a joyous noise. The Heavens rang with it, as Satan plugged his horny ear with wax. But still, all in all, it was still a place that, in many ways, he would rather not be.

“We’ll camp here tonight,” he said, realizing, of course, that it was much too late to begin the long and laborious task of removing all the stones necessary to begin the real work of excavating the old mine, “and get a fresh start first thing in the morning.”

All agreed, except for Red-Beard. He’d already dropped his suspenders and removed his gray flannel shirt by then, and was even now studying the rocks for signs of weakness and places where he might place his famous rounds of explosives. He was a man of reason and inexhaustible reasons, but one driven by passions and desires beyond his control; and it showed. Homer could see it. At one time he might’ve even understood it.

“Easy, Colonel,” cautioned Webb, as he’d done a hundred times before under similar but less desperate circumstances. “Remember what Tom said, ‘Don’t be hasty. Women don’t like that.”

“Shut up, you idiot!” barked the shirtless grave robber.

“Hold your horses, Horn!” cried the Hammer, with his cherished tool once more firmly ensconced in his venerable old hand, “Not so fast.” The suddenness and sharpness of the command took everyone by surprised, including Homer, but not unfavorably so. They all realized by than that Hector was only acting through experience and exercising his better judgment on such matters by restraining Red-Beard as he did, even if he was outranked and had no such authority to do so. They could all see that the colonel was acting irrationally. It was quite clear, and quite out of character with his usual demeanor, making them even more suspicious of his actions, which may’ve even been considered foolish if left un-arrested, and harmful to everyone else involved. “We’ll start tomorrow, just like Homer says,” insisted the prudent carpenter in his own persuasive and disarming way. “Let’s not be too greedy now, Colonel. Save some for the rest of us.”

The four horsemen agreed with the carpenter’s assessment, despite their earlier allegiance to Red-Beard; and likewise, so did the Indian and the Negro who appeared as though they could’ve used a little rest by then. It seemed that even Alvin Webb was beginning to question the colonel’s instincts and leadership abilities, and perhaps his judgment as well. He was just a little too anxious, it would seem; and not only for the gold. Alvin seemed to understand; and, in his own suspicious way, so did Homer.

As the sun slowly sank below the rim of the great volcano, they all took a short rest while the carpenter went about in the twilight scouting the grounds for any natural resources that might may come in handy in accomplishing that which he was beginning to think might be impossible after all; that is, reopening the old mine shaft. He soon found a small hammock of hardwood trees that somehow had managed to root themselves in the rocky volcanic soil thereabout. Like a surgeon examining his patient just hours before a critical operation, Hector sized up the lumber he’d found while the others went about the business of preparing themselves for a much needed and well-deserved rest. Meanwhile, Little Dick, as was his customary duty, saw to it that the animals were tied down for the night. But when it came to Red-Beard’s white quadruped, Old Jove, the bull simply would not budge. It would not be tied down, by anyone (except maybe its mater; and even that was questionable) as most gods refused to be restrained in any such manner, and so remained at its master’s side even as the frustrated Red-Beard cooled his smoking brow and relieved his burning ambition on one of the many nearby slumbering stone.

Once again, a campfire was lit and Elmo prepared supper for the third time since their adventure began, which consisted of a double portion of boiled beans (Elmo thought it prudent, if not necessary, that particular evening of supplying the hungry treasure hunters with a extra helping of the protein enriched Harley beans as a way of preparing them for what he suspected would be their first real day of work in regards to their specific employment) rice, and a dozen or so hard baked biscuits. There was no mention of the gold that night. There was no need for it; for they were so close to it by then that it spoke for itself; not in so many unnecessary words, of course, which would only have gotten in the way by then, but in far more suggestive tones: the soft and seductive overtures of the night, sensually aroused and eagerly anticipated, like those that overwhelm the excitable organs of the bridegroom as one by one the pedals drop to the honeymoon floor exposing the rich, ripe, red fruit that lies within, and ready to be plucked. It told them all he needed to know.

So, with a long hard day ahead of them, and no more cigars or whiskey to keep them entertained, the land-pirates decided to settle in for the night under the moon and the stars and get some shut eye. And before long, just like it happened on previous occasion, the sounds of the night made known their ubiquitous presence. It was to be heard in the lonely cry of a wolf that had suddenly sounded in the near distant, drawn perhaps by a late night’s supper and the last chance at an easy meal; the shuffling of hooves and the snorting of equine nostrils that caught scent of that vile predator, they being its natural prey. And then there were those unobtrusive, more familiar and less apprehensive sounds of the night; leather against leather, the crackling cadence of burnt embers as they disintegrated into ashes, a burp or a belch, a spit of tobacco, a gulp, a silent prayer, perhaps, the occasional toss and turn, not to mention the never-ending snoring! It was not an unpleasant sound, as one might imagine, but rather a virtual cornucopia of nocturnal noises, sounds they’d all come to know and expect, as listless babies listening to lullabies in their darkened bedrooms: a cowboys’ serenade that lulls the restlessness to sleep; a non-stop symphony that would, under any other circumstances, render sleep all but impossible to insomniacs and those of more delicate dispositions, or at least drive them under the blanket, if any were to be had. But of all these natural sounds, re-assuring in all comforting and recognizable aspects, none – none, I say! could compare to that which, although not always so welcomed, were never-the-less to be expected; like a knock on the door by some wayward relative in the middle of the night we are forced by blood to acknowledge and answer. But on a more pure and noble note, for that is precisely what it is, what else may we compare such a heroic blast? The heart-felt sounds of a wounded moose? The lamentations of a grief-stricken widow? The rainbow spout of a dying whale as puts out his last vapory jet and rolls fin-out? The death-rattle of the North American sidewinder? Or was it the sound once heard at Little Big Horn as Custer’s bugler bugled his last breath in the heat of battle along with the whooping war-cries of a doomed, dying, and still savage nation, rallying his troops for one last stand. Perhaps it is the wailing woes of all Humanity all wrapped up in one universal and collective sigh. It was a natural sound, as all sounds are, even those we ascribe to supernatural origin, the product of mere physical forces we too often have little or no control over, and not limited to any one species. But wait! There it is again. Listen… Did you hear it? It was that same loud and obnoxious noise triumphantly trumpeting forth that night with all its potential potencies; and it was coming from the general vicinity of the campfire, around which the sleepers snored in ignorant bliss, sniffing in the pure oxygenated air. It was a sound soon to be overshadowed and thus driven out by the famous flatulent fumes that were sure to follow, organically grown and gastronomically produced by (you guessed it!) that little old Harley bean. And, ohhhhhhhh! what a smell – That smell! It was… it was…. Mere words could not begin to describe the hideous stench produced by the bountiful bean at the end of its gastronomical journey; and such words, if ever at all coined, should be permanently precluded from the lexicon of man. There are things in this world, as it is in other worlds, I suppose, that should simply remain nameless; like the afterbirth of hell, or…‘that smell!’ It was just that bad. Well, I guess the only thing you could do under such odorous and un-abatable circumstances was roll over, hold your nose, and try to get some shut eye; which, of course, is exactly what all they did just then. All, that is, except for Red-Beard.

As it were, the ever-vigilant colonel had decided long ago to keep at least one eye opened at all times, even when he was asleep… especially when he slept! along with other elements of the five senses he deemed indispensable at times, including that old olfactory organ, the nose, that proved to be most reliable in many cases. Still, it was not the most valuable; for that coveted position belonged to a far more sensitive organ, one that could sense things not only in the physical world, but the metaphysical as well, and beyond. It was the eye, of course! What else? And this one never closed; and it never slept. It was something he’d learned to do in the army, perhaps, as un-natural and physically impossible as it may sound. That night would be no different. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do; but at times, it was necessary. So, with one hand on his gun and the other resting lovingly on the creamy white hump of the Brahma, Red-Beard appeared to have fallen asleep, while at the same time starring eerily and steadily at the Harlie through that one inscrutable lidless lens that never seemed to close. Elmo put out the fire and then, crawling up besides the sleepless old man, covered himself up in his blanket and tried to get some sleep. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

In their own good and leisurely time, the spirits of the night made their usual appearance (minus one little green one, that is) having followed the old prospector all the way up the smoky mountain for the last couple of days, or so it seemed, for their final encounter. They came up and greeted the old man just as they did before, one by one, shaking Homer’s hand and showering him with well-deserved praise and numerous heart-felt accolades he was not particularly used to and almost ashamed to accept: ‘Hey, Homer!’ they seemed to be shouting in congratulatory and triumphant voices. ‘Hoo-ray! Hizzah! What took you so long? Glad you made it! At’a boy! Knew you could do it, old man!’ And so forth and so on.

The old man just smiled. By then they’d all gathered around him, just like they did the night before in the Great Northern Woods; only now, they seemed have a deeper  respect and a little more sympathy for the old man they’d come to know so well. And just before he fell asleep, Homer could hear them whispering in his ear all over again, the sad and simply secret he’d come to know so well: ‘Thems that want don’t get.’ He was beginning to think that they might actually be right after all. But hey! at least there were no more pesky fireflies around.


Chapter Five

Boys with Beards

THE FOLLOWING DAY, Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn was up before the sun. It was Thursday morning and the others were still asleep. He woke up the Harlie with a patronizing kick and ordered him to make some breakfast. Elmo obeyed. What else could he do? Before long there were beans on the fire along with some chicken gizzards and a fresh pot of coffee.

Elmo Cotton didn’t particularly like being kicked by Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, Red-Beard, or anyone else for that matter. Who would? He thought he might mention it to Homer the moment the old man woke up, but decided against it. So instead, he spat on the colonel’s plate, just like he did with Little Dick’s supper the night before, and presented it with his usual unassuming smile. He would have urinated on it as well, he thought, if not for that evil eye he could still feel bearing down on him at every turn. Besides, he suddenly remembered how it felt when Dilworth did pretty much the same in own bathtub one day. It just wasn’t the sort of thing one man did to another, for any reason.

Charles Smiley was up next. He was sitting on a stone and cutting up some long wooden stakes for purposes that presently eluded the Harlie. It was Homer’s understanding, and backed up by legal precedent, that absent a last Will and Testament, no real property could remain deeded to a dead man after it had been proven that he was indeed and in fact dead. And being that there were no legal heirs to Mister Wainwright’s estate (as far as anyone knew) or any other pending litigation, including liens and other encumbrances effecting such title, which, after a period of precisely one year and a day became part and parcel of the public domain and subject to all the scrutiny thereof, which could, and would, put the whole process into probate, and, if the lawyers had anything to say about it (which they usually do, of course) gum up the whole works for at least a half a century; or, be claimed by the first person(s) to find such real property, the title of which would then transfer immediately to that person(s) upon staking and documentation of said claim, which was exactly what Homer intended to do that day. And that’s precisely what the stakes were for. Ah! If only we could rid ourselves forever of those same blood-sucking leeches we call lawyers by simply driving a wooden stake through their cold-blooded hearts, like any other vampire… One can only hope.

Unfortunately, the foremost criteria regarding the physical state of the original land owner had yet to be proven; at least to the satisfaction of those who counted the most, namely, the lawyers. It would be Homer’s job to do just that, even if it meant blowing up the entire mountain to find, once again and for all, the mortal remains of Cornelius G. Wainwright III, if that was indeed still possible. Anything else he found, including the gold, would be purely ancillary; but it would be his never-the-less.

The deceased in this case, Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III, although unofficially dead for over forty years by virtue of never having returned from his last expedition, was still very much alive, as far as the courts were concerned. And, even if he wasn’t dead, an unlikely but not improbably supposition, the fact remained (and facts, as we well know, can be very stubborn things at times) that Cornelius had no legal heirs to speak of, or at least not any willing to come forward and admit it, despite any legitimate claims they might’ve rightfully had to his real estate or personal property, which, if the truth be known, wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans (no pun intended) after the lawyers and creditors got through pilfering as much as they could from the his post mortem coffers; and who, if left to their own devices would’ve stolen his pocket-watch and purse as well, along with picking his pockets and prying the pennies from the dead man’s eyes just before the casket lid was closed, had poor Cornelius the courtesy to leave behind a proper corpse to begin with, that is. It seems that even in death, the man with the bottle-brush mustache was confounding his creditors, as well as the lawyers, which is about the kindest thing anyone has ever said about him; dead, or alive.

But that’s just what lawyers do, I suppose; and still do for that matter, eagerly and with ever increasing efficiency. One thing to be said here about lawyers, and in all candor and honesty, is some dirty little secret imparted on me one evening over a bottle of old brandy and some fine cigars by a certain law professor, a distant uncle of mine in full disclosure, who went by the esteemed and honorable title of Professor Bernard P. Gegan. He was of good old Gaelic stock, on my mother’s side of course who, like many of that same noble profession, lived in the private and prestigious community of Beacon Hill, a suburb of old New York known as Port Washington. It seemed that at the height of an heated and slightly inebriation discussion we were engaged in one particular evening on the matters concerning lawyers in particular and their contributions to society in general, he uttered, quite unintentionally and accidentally I assume, the aforementioned secret that, if ever exposed to the public at large in any particular detail, would not only strike fear into the solicitous hearts of barristers everywhere, but might also have them tarred and feathered and summarily ran out of town on so many jackasses in lieu of the proverbial ‘rail’ (railroads, in this particular case, typically being reserved for the hobos and hustlers entitled and accustomed to such modern modes of transportation; if and when they are available, that is) in the process. And that dirty little secret, once confided to me by the venerable old gentleman whom I’ve spoken of so frankly and affectionately, and that I now impart to you, my dear and gentle reader (And here I quote the words as accurately as my conscience and, considering the auspicious occasion and inebriated conditions under which they were first spoken to me by the honorable Professor Bernard P. Gegan, my memory allows) is this: “Lawyers – Humph! If you didn’t have ‘em… you wouldn’t need ‘em!”

In vino veritas! professor. In vino veritas…

What the good professor actually meant by such an outlandish, and perhaps outrageous, statement (never mind the fact that he never precluded himself as a target of the attack or that he was drunk when he said it) was simply this: that lawyers in general, like all other profitable professionals, have a certain way of creating and perpetuating a need that probably wouldn’t exist if they weren’t there to properly define it, and one that could never be fully satisfied, let alone understood, without their expertise on such important matters, which they not only obfuscate to their economical advantage but bend to their own political will…for a reasonable fee, of course. Necessity is the Mother of Invention, or so the saying goes. And it’s true! But you can bet your last Indian-head nickel (that is, if you still find one after these blood-sucking leeches get through fleecing you) that whenever the blessed birth occurs there will somehow always be a lawyer around to act as mid-wife. It seemed that these same self-manufactured arbiters of the Law always managed to get their educated noses and greedy hands into just about everything, including everyone else’s pocket and purse, they could find. But there was one thing they didn’t get, at least not in the perplexing and still-pending case of Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III… and that was gold. They didn’t get the gold! For that, these money grubbing parasites would have to dig just a little deeper into the dirt; deeper, perhaps, than their courage or better senses would allow.

And to further evince my dear uncle’s assessment on the surly subject at hand, and in a manner I’m sure he would highly approve of, I am reminded of an anecdotally incident once related to me (exactly who it was that told me, and where and when it occurred escapes me at the moment) which I never-the-less took at the time to be nothing less than the God’s honesty truth, despite the humorous appellations ascribed to the various participants. As I now recall, it came across as something like this: A certain client of a well-know and highly reputable Wall Street lawyer once entered the offices of his famous attorney and, with no particular business in mind that day, but with a great sense of urgency, politely requested an immediate audience with the man he’d come to see, namely one Mister John I. Fleesum, Esquire, III, attorney-at law, and principal partner of that particular legal establishment.

The request, or demand if you will, was aimed directly at a well-endowed woman with long blonde hair who was seated at a desk just outside the attorney’s private office. At first she appeared slightly confused, as most big-bosomed blondes do in these situations, or any others for that matter. But upon acknowledging the unexpected and somewhat surprising request, she discreetly informed the client, who went by the rather comical name of Mister Barry Zuckerman, that her immediate employer, the esteemed Mister John I. Fleesum III had indeed passed away only one week ago, and for that reason alone, as if he would need any others, was no longer with the firm. ‘I’m sorry,’ she finally said, combing her golden locks with long manicured fingernails, ‘Perhaps one of our other attorneys can assist you.”

‘Oh,’ shrugged the client, looking only a little bewildered but never-the-less offering his sincerest sympathies before making his appropriate exit, ‘…never mind.’

The following morning, Mister Barry Zuckerman re-appeared at Number 10 Wall Street and was summarily greeted, with no small measure of incredulity, by the same buxom blonde receptionist who’d first relayed the unfortunate news regarding her former employer’s untimely demise. Again, he repeated, almost verbatim, the exact same request he’d issued only the day before, only now with a heightened sense of alarm and anticipation: ‘I would like to see my attorney right this instance,’ he all but demanded to the astonishment of the startled young lady behind the desk.

‘But Mister Zuckerman,’ she answered, feeling a little embarrassed and slightly suspicious of the persistent patron who, up until then she’d taken for a man of high moral character and noble intelligence. ‘Didn’t I tell you only yesterday that Mister John J. Fleesum III, Esquire had passed away? It was in all the papers. I’m sure you must have seen it. He was run over by a wagonload of manure, poor thing. Mister Shyster, that’s one of our other partners, is working on a lawsuit right now. It was a lovely funeral by the way,’ she further apologized as the long lovely locks settled down in the blossoming cleavage of her milky white bosom, ‘I wish you could have been there. He looked so…’

As if hearing the plaintive news for the very first time, Mister Barry Zuckerman seemed not a little surprised. ‘What’s that?!’ he nervously grinned with an incredulous look on his otherwise expressionless face which, to more probing and discerning minds may have suggested he was up to something other than his stated purpose. ‘Never mind,’ he flatly spoke, making the same hurried exit for the door as he did the day before.

At that point the bewildered receptionist though she had seen the last of this pesky and forgetful little fellow; but she was wrong about that, as bubbly blondes are about most things in general. For on the very next day, low and behold, who should appear at Number 10 Wall Street but Mister Barry Zuckerman himself? in his usual state of agitated urgency, his entire countenance coming across to her by now as one long and endless lip quiver.

  But before the client could repeat his previous demands, or utter a even single word, the exasperated receptionist, who by then had given up any and all hope of satisfying the intrusive client, cried out in a loud shrill voice that surely was heard all the way down to the Battery and half way up the Hudson, ‘Don’t you understand?! I keep telling you that he is dead! Deceased! John I. Fleesum is…is gone! Finished! What more can I say, Mister Zuckerman?’ she begged, almost in tears by then. ‘He bought the farm! Kicked the bucket! Screwed the pooch! Cashed in his chips! In fact, he’s probably pushing up daisies right where he was buried. I’m quite sure you may find him there. But I’d bring a shovel if I were you. Because, like I keep telling you… he’s dead! D-E-A-D!’ she reiterated, spelling out the morbid word letter by letter in all its finite form and mortal implications; just for effect, I suppose, and obviously pleased with herself for getting it right.

And at that point something very strange, although not totally unexpected, happened. The client’s lips suddenly stopped quivering; and, as he stood hovering over the blossoming beauty, his eyes forever fixed on those virgin white breasts, a smile gradually took shape. He leaned forward and, putting his sanguine face so dangerously close to those magnificently formed melons that her cheeks actually began to blush with a rosy red glow, whispered into the apple ear of the golden-haired goddess something so deep, so profound, and pregnant with truth as most profundities are, the real reason behind his repeated visitations. ‘I know…’ he softly and shamelessly spoke with not the slightest a hint of uncertainly, ‘I just like to hear you say it.’

The busty blonde just sat there combing her hair and polishing her nails as though nothing at all had happened, at least not anything that hadn’t happened before. Needless-to-say and much to Mister Barry Zuckerman’s sad and bewildering satisfaction, she didn’t even have a clue.

As for the attorneys, and all other Pharisees of the Law for that matter… well, take the advice of a wise old fisherman: ‘Reel in your line! Shun them, I say! as brother Job once shunned his own well-meaning counselors, and with the same patience and humility of the great prophet himself; for they are a wicked and foul fish, parasites, bottom-feeders, the dregs of the deep, poisonous creatures not fit for frying who will solicitously snatch your bait, snap your pole in two, and give little in return. They are nothing more than pond scum, politicians in waiting. Cast neither line nor vote for these rascally rapscallions; for it only encourages them. Enough! Cut him loose.’ Or, as a farmer once cautioned me with own earthy brand of rural eloquence: ‘…taking up with a lawyer is like wrestling with a pig in the mud. Don’t go there, son! For sooner or later, you will get the distinct impression that they actually enjoy it’.

In the end, all that remained of Wainwright’s waning empire was a mountain of rock and a handful of useless deeds, including one to the last mine he was known to have excavated on a infamous mountain that bore his equally infamous name. And once Homer could prove that Cornelius was legally dead (a fact that he’d already established in his own mind being an actual eye-witness to the horrible event and a minor technicality he was sure to overcome once the prerequisite corpse, or whatever was left of it, was presently to the proper authorities) well, after that, all that was left for him to do was to stake out his claim by way of registered surveyor. That’s what Smiley was for. That was his job: to drive the first stake into the heart of the undead, not to mention his share of the gold, and thus comply with the Law.

Homer Skinner was the man paying for that stake. It was his money that had financed the expedition; the others, each offering their own specialized contributions to the effort, were there to supply the muscle and, in some cases, the expertise needed to unearth the hidden treasure, which was to be distributed in equal measure, whatever the final outcome, as previously agreed upon. They all, quite literally, would have a hand in the success, or failure, of the expedition. But first, as prescribed and protected by Law, the land surveyor would have to make it official by scrawling his name on a long legal document, which he was still in the process of drafting, that would legally deed the real property to its new and rightful owner, Mister Homer F. Skinner… once the bones of the dead man were recovered, that is. They all had their work cut out for them; even the Harlie, whose unsolicited services have yet to be fully explained, or appreciated, at least to the satisfaction of the others; although he did, just as the old man promised, turn out to be a darn good cook. ‘He’s our Lucky Number,’ was all Homer would say whenever the sore subject of the Harlie came up, which, unfortunately, happened more often than he thought it should have.

“Where’s my @#$%^&!*!’ing range-poles!” Smiley cussed and cried while precariously juggling an armful of sharp wooden stakes he’d just finished cutting up for the purpose staking the old man’s claim. “Where did that Dick-less Dilworth go off to now? Dick! Dick!” he barked. “Where the @#$%^&* are you!”

Dick did not respond; but Elmo, who was busy making another pot of coffee just then, did. “I saw him go off into the woods, Mister Smiley” he said, pointing to a small pine hammock the carpenter had found a day earlier.

“What the –!” wondered Smiley out loud, following the aroma of the coffee with his mustache.

As he poured the surveyor a steamy cup of freshly brewed coffee, the Harlie shrugged and said, “I think he had to pee.”

“Well, he better hurry it up then,” snarled the surveyor, angrily straining the coffee through the strands his long blonde mustache. “I ain’t got all @#$%^&*’ing day! you know. Peein’, you say – Huh?”

“Don’t reckon he went to take a bath,” added Elmo, with a hint of sarcasm in his thin voice that didn’t go entirely unnoticed by the surveyor. He was thinking, of course, back to what seemed like a hundred years ago when the same young man from Creekwood Green mistook his bathtub for a urinal, which, as he’d always maintained in righteous indignation, was at the root of all his problems.

By the time Little Dick had finished with his personal business, the others were all awake and gathering around the coffeepot like bears around a honeycomb or, to be anthropologically correct, like sailors around a still. Meanwhile Elmo prepared breakfast, which consisted of a slab of green bacon he’d just cut up with a long sharp knife he held on to like grim death, some boiled greens, and of course, a heaping, healthy serving of Harley beans, which were gobbled down in the usual manner, along with the licking and scraping of so many spoons and plates. He had even fried up some leftover chicken gizzards he’d been saving for supper that night, reckoning they would need the extra energy for the hard work that lay ahead that day. As any farmer worth his corn can tell you, which he surely will if you give him half a chance and half an ear, is this: ‘The best thing for a long day’s work is a good long breakfast’. And a famer would know, having sampled just about every kind of food there is to sample at one time or another, including: hog-jowls, pig’s feet, neck-bone, crawdads, opossum, gator, raccoon, squirrel, not to mention anything that come out of the ground, and not least of all bull testicles, otherwise known as known as ‘Rocky Mountain oysters’ in certain latitudes of the western territories, which were by far the farmer’s favorite (and his wife and daughter’s as well) being potently packed with the proteins often associated with such aphrodisiacs… and they taste good, too. Bull-balls! It’s a delicacy that should be on the menu of all cowboys and included in their daily diets; and one that surely would have made Elmo an instant hero. But, alas, there were only two available at the time (the emasculated oxen having surrendered their own beefy testicles a long time ago, and for reason they will perhaps never understand) and they belonged to none other than Red-Beard’s long-horned Brahma who was, at that very moment, mildly masticating its cud in the early morning mist while warily eyeing the knife-wielding Harlie in the same suspicious manner as its bipedal master, and looking as if he would have no part of it. The cook un-dauntingly turned his attention to the aforementioned oxen off to the side; but having undergone the delicate operation (which, by the way, when done properly and with a long sturdy piece of constricting twine, is actually quite painless) long before the cows stopped coming home, they were of little use to the Harlie in that regard. May as well castrate myself and be done with it, shrugged the beardless young cook who’d not only steered many an angry young bull in his days on the farm, but partaken in the testicular flesh of the bovine, which, when cooked just right, actually proved to be a tender and tasty dish, and quite filling! Or cut off the colonel’s red beard for that matter. But the bull would have to wait, and so would the others. He just didn’t have the balls, or the beard. Not yet anyway.

Unlike the day before, and much to his surprise, the Harlie cook was thanked for his services, along with the meal, many times over on that particular morning. By Red-Beard himself, no less! It was almost as if the others, Little Dick in particular, were trying to make up for past injustices, and particularly for the way they’d treated him so far, which made Elmo feel just a little guilty about spiting in their suppers. Even Alvin Webb had a few kind words for the Harlie that day, but not enough keep Elmo from secretly spitting on the plate one more time just before handing it over to the bigoted bastard in the usual manner.

“Good gizzards, boy,” said from man from Eulogy, gratuitously praising the young man from Harley with his trademark toothless grin. “What’s your secret?”

Elmo just spat on the ground and smiled.

Homer Skinner had noticed the exchange from a distance and shook his heavy head. Then he laughed. He was glad Elmo was with him that day, no matter what the spirits of the night, or anyone else for that matter, thought about it. He was indeed a happy man.

Meanwhile, Hector was sizing up the monolith tombstone they had encountered the day before that blocked the mouth of the tunnel. In the emerging morning light it appeared even larger and more foreboding than it did the night before. First he gently tapped the face of the stone with the long wooden shaft of his hammer. He repeated this several times and at different locations, listening intently to the sound produced with each successive stroke. With the tips of his long tapering fingers he began caressing the stone as if he were a surgeon deciding where to make the first incision. He nodded. And then, standing back and bringing the full force of his hammer down upon the tombstone monolith in the precise spot he’d been looking for and found, split the rock in two in a one single carefully calculated and perfectly executed blow. “Measure twice, cut once,” he smiled without even breaking a sweat, “Works both ways, boys!”

For a one brief and disbelieving moment, the others stopped what they were doing and stood in breathtaking awe; not only of the Hammer’s professional skill and ability, but the way he made it look so, so natural. So easy! as though it was just… well, just another day at the office; which, for Hector, of course, it was.

With little or no time to waste, they all went straight to work with Red-Beard taking the lead as he was want to do. They began first by removing some of the larger stones impeding their way to the mouth of the sealed cave. It was hard work, more difficult than anyone had first imagined. It was frustrating as well, in that each time a stone was removed or uncovered from the rocky rubble, gravity would always supply the means of filling the ensuing void with yet another stone, usually much larger than the previous obstruction itself. The smaller stones quickly gave way to larger ones, which would soon require all available hands and hooves, to extricate them. Needless to say, the animals were not exempt from pulling their share of stones. It was back breaking labor, for man and beast; and there seemed to be no end to it.

Rocks were the order of the day; iron on stone was the sound. If they weren’t smashing it to pieces with hammers, picks, and chisels, they were hauling it away, by the yard. Even the giant Negro who’d worked the sulfur mines of Ol’ Florida, where temperatures could reach well into the hundreds and bring a good man to his knees, was overwhelm by the amount of work that was be needed just to get to the tunnel, as well as the heat. “Oh, well,” he said with a sad but determined smile, sweat beading on his massive brown brow, “If ol’ John Henry can beat a goddamn steam shovel, I reckon I’s can beat out this here damn tunnel. Humph!” he grunted and growled at the mountain, as if it could be so easily intimidated, while swinging a thirty pound sledge hammer over his curly black head, “We’ll see who gives up first, you ol’ sum’bitch! We’ll see….”

Whether working in wood or stone, Mister O’Brien was a man who obviously knew what he was doing. He also knew a thing or two about physics, and mechanics, the art and science of utilizing simple machines and natural forces to his own advantage, especially when it came to removing and relocating some of the larger rocks, which, like the limestone blocks of the great pyramids, the construction of which remains a deep mystery, even today, to those who ponder such engineering marvels, would have otherwise been impossible to move. The resourceful old carpenter had even invented his own devices for leveraging such large objects which he employed from time to time when he was short of hands or long on years. One of these ingenious devices consisted of a long iron pole with a flat metal hook at one end and a long wooden handle on the other. He called it his ‘Johnson bar’, for reasons he was much too modest to disclose, and would presently make use of its mechanical advantages by rolling away the colossal tombstones blocking the entrance to the old mine with so much precision and ease that he actually made it look simple. He affectionately, and rather proudly I might add, referred to this long and limber instrument as his ‘Big’ Johnson, as opposed to, one could only imagine, that noble hammer that hung so heroically from his black leather belt, which he sometimes called his ‘Little’ Johnson. And he would put both these simple but effective machines to good and proper use many times over before the last stone was finally rolled away. “That’s what hammers are for!” he would boast in a manly manner not entirely out of character with the old man’s attitude about tools in general, “… among other things,” he smiled and was quick to add while rotating his hammer in one hand a few times, the way cowboys sometimes do with their six-shooters just to amuse themselves, before slapping it back to its proper holstered place. And with that said and done the other picked up their tools and went straight back to work.

Little by little, like a Greek statue comes to life under the patient stokes of the sculptor’s skillful hand as the unwanted stone is steadily chipped away, one piece at a time, revealing, for the very first time, image that the artist himself predicted was there all along. And in just such a manner, the tunnel slowly emerged in all its marbled mystery, presently delineated by several newly exposed timbers forming a definitive square at the mouth of the abandoned mine.

“Take it easy, men” Hector admonished the laborers, shouldering his ‘Big’ Johnson like a silver-haired Simon of Cyrene bearing the cross of the crucified. “Save some for the big stuff,” he insisted.

“Big stuff?” questioned Little Dick, his peach-fuzzed face perspiring like a leaky melon. It was difficult for him, or anyone else for that matter, to imagine anything larger than the slumbering stones they’d already removed from the sleeping giant’s grave.

The carpenter knew better, however; and he knew what he was talking about, realizing all along that the deeper they dug into the rubble, the heavier their burden would become and, if his instincts were correct, and they usually were, require something far more powerful than muscle and machines to overcome, something more… more cerebral, he imagined. Unlike Alvin Webb, the inept outlaw who so far proved to be little more than a fifth wheel, and a squeaky one at that, the Old Hammer did know a thing or two about engineering; and he knew from the start that this would be no walk in the woods. But he also knew his Bible. “God helps them you help themselves,” he reassured the others with hammer in hand and a reverent twinkle in his tired but persistent old eyes.

“Then God help us, old man,” answered Smiley in a rare display of piety, which, if not for the fifty years of obscenities that proceeded it, and another twenty sure to come, might have actually absolved the swearing surveyor of his profanity.

“The spirit is willing,” reminded the youth, ‘but the flesh…”

Going over the rubble remains of the lost gold mine like an old woman going through an attic cluttered with years of quilted memories, Homer, quite literally, didn’t know where to begin. But with little time to lose, and the sun already beating a hot path across the eastern rim of the volcanic crater, he quickly put aside all reminiscence, along with the anxieties that had so plagued him earlier, and went to straight work along with the others who already had managed to crack the skin of the sleeping giant. It was an exonerating experience, even for an old man. He felt liberated… Emancipated! He felt good. He came back after all, and was right where he wanted to be. It just felt right.

Work! It does a body wonders, thought Homer while vigorously working the dummy end of a shovel; something he hadn’t been able to do in ten years. It felt right. It felt good. No, it felt great! Blood, sweat and tears: the three main ingredients to the elusive elixir of life. There’s a pleasure in pain, as well as a benefit, we often overlook. Who needs a fountain of youth when there’s work to be done? Good old fashioned, back-breaking, knuckle-scraping, heart-pumping, hormone-secreting, sweat-producing – Work! The harder the better! There’s sacredness about work, a certain solemnity, a calm spiritual healing, akin to kneeling in the pew for hours on end in deep devotional prayer, the pleasure of which seems, in its own self-flagellant way, to cancel out whatever the pain is involved. Work! It’s a major part of the adult male psyche, not unlike laughter, without which we are no more than animals waiting to be fed and slaughtered for meat. Work is what we are. It’s who we are. Our work defines us. Don’t believe me? Find any place where men tend to congregate together for business or pleasure. Go the any barber shop, church, or any neighborhood saloon, and strike up a conversation with nobody in particular about a certain individual named Bill (and that’s all you really know about him) who is supposed to meet you at that establishment that very same day. Invariable, you will me meet with such accommodating statements as: ‘Oh! you must mean Bill… the plumber! Known him for years.’ Or: “His name is actually William... I think he’s a tailor. Good man.’ And of course, you will always hear: ‘No! You’re all wrong. Billy’s a cop! I know, he once put me in jail…that son-of-a – !’ See what I mean? Take away a man’s work, and you take away that part of him which nothing else can replace. Better to castrate the poor devil and put him in the kitchen along with cousin Gaylord and Aunt Martha, than take away his job. We are what we do, whether we like it or not; hopefully, most of us do like it. Otherwise, why would we do it at all; except maybe for the money which, as most of us already know, is perhaps the worse reason to do anything. Work! It drives off the spleen as well as the evil spirits. It cleanses. It heals. It purifies, distracting us, if only temporarily, of all the worries and woes of the world. It removes all anxiety and casts away the gloom like filth being wrung from a dirty rag. It’s good for the body and soul, and anything else that ails you. Work! What would a good man do without it? The answer would be too evil to imagine.

The cracking of stone, along with other healthy sounds that can only be attributed to adult males working and, perhaps, laughing together, made the old man forget the graves and ghosts of the past, for a while at least. He was among the living again, among men. He was working. And above all, he was alive! Who could stop him now? Nobody! Nothing would stand in his way, not even the mountain itself. “The spirits were wrong!” Homer finally admitted to himself despite his earlier misgivings, revived and rejuvenated as he was by the sounds, the sight and the smell, of grown men at work. There was just nothing else like it in Heaven or earth! “Thems that want do get!” he defiantly stated, to the encouragement of his fellow workers. But they already knew that, of course; and they kept right on working.

While manhandling his ‘Big’ Johnson as firmly and gracefully as a maestro would his baton, Hector suddenly sang out again; only this time so loudly you would’ve thought his lungs would surely burst. He attacked the mountain like the old soldier that he was, sizing it up and down and studying its defenses, carefully and decisively, looking for weak spots, the chinks in the enemy’s armor, before finally coming in for the kill. It was an education in and of itself just to watch Hector at work with a hammer in one hand and his ‘big’ Johnson in the other. It poetry in motion, a lesson in mechanics, a study in physics and geology, an engineering wonder, and an environmentalist’s nightmare all rolled into one. It was the symphony of destruction, organized chaos, and Hector O’Brien was master and maestro over it all.

The large Negro seemed particularly animated that day, his bulky brown mass moving powerfully, but with all the grace and elegance of a ball room dancer, through the rocky rubble while pounding boulders into pebbles. Striking the boulders with a forty pond sledge hammer flying high over his head, Sam looked like a black Paul Bunyan, changing the face of the mountain as the giant pioneer once cut down an entire forest and changed the course of Mississippi River.

Boy, any despite earlier concerns the other might’ve had about the Redman’s dreamy disposition, which Homer still had some misgivings about, suddenly still sprang to life as well, hooting and hollering with tomahawk in hand, attacking and cutting down the mountain with such a preternatural vengeance that you might have taken him for the reincarnated spirit of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, or the celebrated Geronimo himself, in all their heroic savagery. It was as easy as shooting buffalo on horseback, he wildly imagined, and a whole lot safer. The others all joined in with hammers, picks, and shovels, adding to slaughter and following in the old man’s destructive wake. Hector and Homer smiled at one another like two old sea-captains piloting there vessels out to sea for once last battle.

Red-Beard was impressed, and added to the cacophony with his own special variety of uniquely improvised implements and instruments of demolition. Along with the hammering and singing, they all laughed out loud, for a change, with dreams of gold soothing their newly aching teeth. Naturally, Alvin Webb cursed the mountain every inch of the way, as if he held a special grudge against the old man in the mountain himself.

After a while, the wild Redman put down his tomahawk and decided to take a more subtle and native approach to the situation. Presently, he began moving the rock and stone, or so it seemed, though some kind of metaphysical force he was somehow able to summon up at will through shear mental telepathy. Homer had heard of such things among the Indians, and had once seen a Redman who was sentenced to death bend the metal bars of his prison in a similar manner. But he always maintained it actually had more to do with the Redman’s strength and determination (and perhaps the bars’ lack thereof) than anything supernatural, death being a powerful motivator in of itself under the difficult and trying circumstances; although he could never be too sure.

Soon the Redman could be seen and heard whispering into the many cracks and crevices of the smaller monoliths still blocking the way to the tunnel, as if chanting some ancient Indian incantation into the inorganic substance that only he and the rock understand. Was this the same method of construction employed by the ancient Egyptians engineers when building the pyramids of old? Those same wonders of the ancient world that modern technologies have yet to replicate despite all their boastful advances, the stones of which are said to weigh in excess of seventy-five tons? How did they do it! And precluding any notion of extraterrestrial assistance or the providence of Devine intervention was it even possible? Perhaps it was that special brew of beer the ancient laborers drank in such generous quantities that supplied them the inspiration and energy needed to construct such monumental wonders that would outlast the Pharaohs themselves. Oh well, one guess is as good as another, I suppose.

“It’s that ol’ black magic,” insisted Sam, cautioning the others not to get too close to Boy at that point, least the Occidental spell overflow into their Caucasian bones and split them just as efficaciously, “They calls it voodoo.”

Having observed such strange and inexplicable behavior before during his many pedestrian wonderings in the Indian wilderness, the surveyor could certainly agree; but he accounted for the un-natural phenomenon as some kind of Indian trick that could only be attributed to Boy’s uncanny ability to make it appear as though the rock had moved all on its own volition when, in reality, it was he who’d actually moved, and easily explained. Some called it an illusion, a trick of the light. Whatever it was, it worked! Or at least it appeared to work. If nothing else, it made the other’s laugh with joy; and Homer Skinner, never one to look a gift horse (or Indian) in the mouth, laughed right along with them.

And what a laugh they had! There’s just nothing like the sound of grown men laughing, the laughing man laughingly imagined. Laughter! It’s a holy sound, a sacred language; a right masculine noise. It’s only human. And there’s really nothing like it! There’s something unique about the sound of the adult male laughter. There’s a quality there not found in any other sound, or laugh. It’s a good sound, found among all races and religions, and in all parts of the world. It does not mock; and it is not boastful. It seeks no applause or pleasure, but receives it all the same, and in spades! It’s harmless, and does not poke fun of anyone or anything … well, at least not intentionally; and it likes nothing better than a good sport. It hates being alone and thrives in the company of good fellowship. The more the merrier is its motto. That’s the slogan! It holds no rank, pulls no punches, and knows no protocol. It is what it is, and is always equal to itself. It is not pretentious and does not discriminate. It is often self-deprecating. It gives as good as it gets. Laughter does not judge. It smashes pride and prejudice to bits, and humbles us all in the process. Laughter never demands. It is not self-centered. It is seldom jealous, and never a bore. It radiates! It’s self-perpetuating. It feeds on itself, and then multiplies. It’s infectious and contagious; and it knows no cure. It is the cure! And who can resist it? It’s something women simply cannot understand and will never appreciate, just as no man can ever fully comprehend the scorn of a woman’s wrath. Speaking of which, it is often said, and not always in jest, that Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, a scorn that will strike the Son of Man Himself if He merely looks at another woman. But can the same proverbial adage be applied to man as well? I think not. He’s too busy laughing, of course.

Before you cast un-necessary aspersions or come to a any false conclusions regarding the author’s bias or sincerity on such a delicate matter involving the on-going battle of the sexes, and which one is more vulnerable to such outrageous outbursts consider this…Or better yet, try this simple little experiment: The next time your adventurous son (or daughter for that matter) is out on the front lawn playing stick ball, or any other play-ground activity requiring the usage of a hard high-flying projectile, and, without any trace of malice or mischievousness sends the ball careening towards your next door neighbors house at a high velocity of speed, sufficient enough to shatter their newly installed picture window, the one they’ve been saving up to install for quite some time, and at a heavy burden to their very modest budget, note your own reaction. For sooner or later (and I must confess that I’m still uncertain as to which is the better of the two, since time can sometimes, but not always, be a mitigating factor in such instances) you will, if your are of the right temperament, as well as being a fine up-standing member of the community, think it best to march right over to the aggrieved owner’s house to make the necessary reparations, monetary or otherwise, or at least offer up the sincerest of apologies on behalf of your child’s impulsive yet destructive behavior. It’s the only right thing to do; and we should expect no less. Now, if and when that dreadful time comes, I put forth a simple question which may, or may not, shed a little light on my hypothesis. And it is this: When you knock on the door and suddenly find yourself face to face with owner of that broken window presently lying about the living room floor like so many broken bits of fine china, half of which are still clinging profusely to the newly purchased and equally expensive window dressing… I dare say, when that time finally arrives and all that stands between you and the justifiably irate neighbor is a sobbing child and a few inches of mere threshold, who would you prefer that person to be, I ask – the man of the house of the house, or the woman? I rest my case.

How lonely and cold Colonel Horn appeared just then, alone and aloof, dead in the world of the living, detached from all he once knew, all longings and lovings, with his hideous head and confounded eye; that inscrutable and irretraceable thing; a lens gazing forever inward, never and outward; a one-way window to the soul, you might say. And what does he see? Nothing, perhaps; or everything! which may be even worse. There are many things hidden from even the wisest among us, and rightfully so; the finite mind is simply not equipped to comprehend the infinite, at least not in its present mortal condition. Even Jesus, in His own corporeal state of incarnation could not foresee the exact moment of the Apocalypse. It’s the price we pay for being human. And what exactly is this thing we call a ‘soul’ you may well ask. Well, don’t! Let the philosophers figure it out, if they have any. And what about Red-Bead? Perhaps he didn’t have one, either? Had the diabolical ship’s surgeon who performed the operation forgotten, either by accident or design, to put one in? Or maybe, like so many of the other anatomical parts so skillfully removed from the half dead corpse, it was something the practitioner deemed irrelevant at the time and therefore dispensable, as well as disposable, like a bad gall bladder or a diseased kidney. It would only get in his way, you know; like some kind of a fifth wheel, I suppose. Perhaps the answer to these, as well as other questions that have plagued the minds of mortal man ever since he was... well, able to ask them, were all in the eyes after all: Red-beard’s eyes; as void and vacuous as the deep dark heavens, as blue as boundless sea, and emptied as they were of all Humanity. Perhaps, there was nothing there to begin with; for if a window is forever open (or closed for that matter) can it still be considered a window in any sense of the word? Or, in the case of the anatomically-altered man, maybe it simply takes some other function, a different meaning, a higher purpose, outside that for which it was originally been designed; such as viewing images in ways mere mortals are incapable of, or perhaps un-accustomed to, in their present biological state; images too terrible to even imagine.

From a more Biblical perspective, which is always a good place from which to view such metaphysical observations, consider what happened when, through his own dissidence and disobedience, Adam’s mortal eyes were opened and he suddenly became aware of something new and different, something he couldn’t quite understand, or explain, and something he was naturally (or un-naturally, depending on your point of view) quite ashamed of – his own nakedness! It is no wonder God has put such a high premium on the human eye, as well as fig leaves. Some things are just meant to be covered up. It’s why we put pennies on the eyes of the decease, and bury them once they are the dead. Maybe it is Death itself we should be most ashamed of. Life is for the living! Perhaps that is why we gaze so longingly and lovingly into their eyes. It’s revealing. It’s natural. It’s only human. How hard it must be, thought the old man, peering curiously and cautiously through his own window of the soul that night, searching for meaning and immortality, which, on account of the circumstances and the condition his own failing heart and faltering mind, sometimes appeared as dark and distant as that of the colonel. And what does he see? What he always sees, of course: a single black eye, a stone, a miracle entombed in a tabernacle of solid gold. He sees eternity staring him darkly in the face, just like it did forty years ago at the end of a long dark tunnel. He wants it. He needs it… now more than ever! It’s the Motherstone. Red-Beard sees it too, and wants it even more. Homer knows that by now. And at that same moment, he knew they both must die.

Perhaps there are things that aren’t meant to be seen, the old man finally resigned as he falls asleep, feeling as if a great weigh had suddenly been lifted from his shoulder. At least not on this side of the glory and the grave, he further imagined; things that by shinning a light on them and by virtue of their own blackness, only become darker when viewed through the purging prism of light… like Red-Beard, for instance. Or maybe, it was just the lunar photons shinning and showering down on the colonel that particular evening, one madman to another, so to speak; or the intensity of its broadening beam, that made him appear so darkly enigmatic, so cold and distant, so… un-human. It’s a power best understood and thus explained by astronomy, or those who study the celestial movements of stars, planets, moons, and other satellites orbiting the heavens they so luminously occupy, along with the mechanics that sustain them. And if these same forces can so easily, and so predictably, turn the tides of oceans, how much easier for them to turn the finite heads and hearts of man? And in all the vast ubiquitous Universe there are still things we cannot see: like the dark side of the moon, for instance; and things we only think we see, or would like to see, on such starry, starry nights as these; a speck of light on a moonless night, flicking in some far off galaxy, a dying sun, perhaps, or the birth of a new star, to be measured and mapped by scientific method and telescopic means. It may very well be no more than the light of some distant star that doesn’t even exist any longer, the light from which, having traveled through time and space since the Earth began, is presented to us now merely as an image of what once was. But what can we make of these things; and to what end do we pursue them? Whatever we want, I suppose; and wherever it leads us: whether it’s to a baby born in manger somewhere in first-century Palestine, or oblivion. Best leave dark things in dark places… where they belong, Homer finally concluded with a clear and clean conscience, remembering well the lesson he’d learned forty years ago when he happened to stumble upon one of those deep and dark places, and one he hoped to avoid again in the very near future. It was not so much himself he was thinking about at the moment. It was Red-Beard.


Chapter Six

Blood Brothers and Blisters

IT WAS NOT THE KIND OF WORK Dick Dilworth was used to. Dragging so many rods and chains up the steep side of a mountain for a foul mouthed, tobacco spitting boss, was one thing; but taking that same mountain apart, piece by piece, was something entirely different he imagined, and not what he’d actually signed on for. It was just too much for one poor boy to handle; and it didn’t look like things would get any easier. “I’m just too tired,” he tearfully resigned, as boys with beards sometimes do in situations like these they perhaps should never have gotten involved with in the first place, “I’m too…”

For the first time since either of them could remember, Elmo Cotton had to agree with Richard Dilworth; if not verbally, then at least in spirit. They were both physically exhausted by then, and it began to show. But still, the Harlie wanted nothing to do with the little man from Creekwood Green who peed in his bathtub, and tried his best to ignore him that day; perhaps, for all the wrong reasons.

But Little Dick was right about one thing, the Harlie observed that same day: Some of the stones blocking their way were, in fact, or at least appeared to be from his own ignorant and inexperienced perspective, simply too large to move. It was a task, if achievable at all, for real men to accomplish– men with beards! he fain to imagine; which, for all or all intents and purposes, and not entirely un-welcomed at that point, would surely preclude the two beardless boys from participating in. They simply did not have what it takes, Johnsons or no Johnsons, and were only getting in the way at that point, as boys with beards often do. In other words, they didn’t have the testosterone, that vital substance that separates the boys (even if they do have beards) from the men. It’s the transitional and awkward stage of life, sometimes referred to as ‘the flowering of youth’, particularly when a young man turns an introspective eye on himself, physically as well as emotionally, only to discover, much to his dissatisfaction, that there is really not very much to look at; which, of course, makes it just that much more critical to prove himself wrong. But he is over-ruled by Mother Nature herself, who, in her own nurturing and nourishing way, not only regulates the metamorphoses in man, as well as nature, but supplies the ingredients necessary for the vital transformation to occur. And to that glorious end, consider the creepy-crawly caterpillar, in all its earthbound ugliness, attempting flight without first going through the mystical metamorphosis that takes place, out of sight and out of mind, which allows for that maiden voyage to occur by providing the loathsome creature with all the requisite parts; not least of all – its wings! Without which, it would surely wither and die. And what painstaking effort it takes to breach that crusty chrysalis from within, like a chick persistently pecking its way out of its shell. And think of what finally emerges from the cocooned closet! It is something which at first we don’t expect; a king – yes! And dressed in its royal robes: those wrinkled wings so necessary for survival, still flaked to its side like some half-baked, half-developed, mutant larva; an abortion not fit for flight, until such a time when, after only a few miraculous moments of drying out and stretching those same imperial wings to the sun, the true nature of the insect, what it was really meant to be all along, strikes and awes us in all its gossamer glory: Behold! the Monarch butterfly. Do you get the picture? Good. Now think of our two ‘boys with beards’, with all those testosterone driven hormones surging through their changeling anatomies, awkwardly, clumsily pecking away at their own homosapien shells with un-wet beaks still stiffening in the sun and boiling in their own biological blood with the same determination and just as much at stake as their entomological ancestors; and emerging, if you will, all dressed up and nowhere to go; at least, not just yet. But wait! There’s still one thing missing. That’s right – a mate! In either case, it’s indeed a sight to behold; and sometimes, it can even be quite comical to observe.

It was hard work, both Elmo and Dick privately agreed; but they would not admit it, not to anyone else anyway, and especially not to one another. They were tired and needed a rest. “Think I’ll go take me a nap,” Dick was overheard saying to no one in particular that day.

The Harlie was thinking along those same lethargic lines. And why not? He’d been up long before the others, lighting the fire and preparing their breakfast; and he still had plates to clean! And besides that, he’d been up most of the night keeping a close eye on Homer who still, at least as far as he was concerned, seemed a little out of sorts; like all the troubles in the world were suddenly bearing down him like the yoke of an old mule that instinctively knows when it has outlived its usefulness and is about to be put down, but still has a job to do and a hard and exacting master who would expect nothing less of the poor brute. “Me too,” replied the Harlie, shamelessly echoing the desires of young man from Creekwood Green.

But Hector O’Brien wouldn’t hear of it. No! He knew what separated the men from the boys; and he knew what it took to break through the cocoon, beards or no beards. In the immortal and much paraphrased words of Cornelius G. Wainwright III: ‘Tain’t no such thing as a free lunch!’ And Hector would readily agree, of course, having actually worked for the miner with the bottlebrush mustache at one time or another, albeit only to construct for him a sluicing machine, which was never put to use anyway; chiefly on account of Cornelius’ hasty and, as some would say, irrational decision to abandon the many gold rendering creeks and streams running there and about the Great Northern foothills, in favor of finding his fortune elsewhere, particularly in the higher elevations of the land, and especially in the rocky caves and crevices of his newly-purchased mountain. And so, the Old Hammer took the occasion to relieve the two youths of one job while enlisting them immediately on yet another, and one of his own choosing this time.

For some time now, the keen-eyed carpenter had observed the distance maintained between the two boys with beards, both mentally and physically, which he considered not only unhealthy, but disturbing. And so, the wise old Hammer thought it would be in everyone’s best interest, including his own, and do them both a world of good; and that was to have Elmo Cotton and Dick Dilworth work in closer proximity of one another, for a while anyway, preferably at the same task, and hopefully without killing one another in the process, which, depending on exactly what that task turned out to be, and left to their own destructive devices, could turn out be a distinct possibility. It was something about human nature the carpenter had learned in the military as sergeant-at-arms of his own beloved regiment and would employ later on in life when presented with similar circumstance. He knew from practical experience that, at least from a strategic point of view: It is the enemy which is furthest away that always presents the greatest danger. It is a battle-hardened fact that the closer you are to your adversary, the less likely he is to attack. As Caesar himself should’ve known, or at least suspected all along: Beware the enemy within. Or, as one gifted writer with a pathos pen and a flair for tragedy would one day incorporate into his own Sicilian saga: ‘Keep your friends close… but your enemies closer.’

Diplomatic solutions are not always the best, of course; but they do often work, and at times are necessary. They’ve forged alliances that have outlasted armies and empires. So, with a keen understanding of human nature and the skills required for sorting through those complicated, and often delicate, areas of the male psyche involving the sacred ego and selfish id, especially after had been so badly bruised and broken, Hector O’Brien knew exactly what to do. It all came down to matter of pride and prejudice, he reckoned, and the mutual respect we sometimes find in one another, however difficult that may be at first, when, as gazing in a mirror, we look into the eyes of our enemy, even for a distance moment, and suddenly realize that maybe, just maybe, we may have more in common with each other than we care to think; and that the only real differences we ever saw turns out to be no more than the myopic distortions brought about by years of ignorant neglect, stubborn pride, and our own inbred prejudices.

It’s no secret, among ‘real’ men at least, and axiomatically understood, that it is virtually impossible for two individuals to remain enemies or maintain hostilities for any length of time while working together for a common goal. Just as there is nothing a like shared threat to bring two warring factions racing to the peace table with an olive branch in hand and box of bullets in the other; so too is it that a mutually shared objective might achieve the same remedial results when judiciously applied in the same cohesive manner. Never mind the sources of these threats, or the agents and principals involved. It’s the objective, and not the method or means, that mattered most in such cases. This was especially true after the War, when, as providence and promise would have it, Sergeant Hector O’Brien was put in charge of reconstruction where co-operation was deemed an indispensable necessity, no matter what uniform they once worn, or which flag they flew. Soldiers were soldiers as far as Hector was concerned, if they were nothing else, and a band of brothers under any circumstances, even when they were doing what they were trained to do, what they were supposed to do, and what they were actually good at: breaking things and killing one another. Elmo and Dick would learn that too, the hard way, if Sergeant O’Brien had anything to do or say about it; even if he had to drive it into their thick adolescent skulls blow by blow, one six penny nail ant a time.

And so, the old sergeant immediately put the two civilians to work felling a few hardwood trees he’d found earlier in the hammock not too far from the campsite. He’d planned to use the rough lumber to shore up the walls of the tunnel once they were inside. It was called ‘square bracing’, a term any miner worth his hammer and chisel would be well familiar with. It worked by simply reinforcing the tunnel one section at a time with fresh timber, in much the same way the ribs of a ship are first installed to provide the vessel with its structural integrity, which the carpenter was also considerably knowledgeable of. Of course, Mister O’Brien wasn’t sure how much, if any, of the original bracing would be left; so he suspected that he’d need as much wood as he could possible find, and then some. And the boys with beards would help him in that industrious regard.

The surveyor, observing all along what was going on from a comfortable distance, and knowing what was in store for the two boys with beards, agreed wholeheartedly; and so, with no further hesitation he delivered his young apprentice into the hard but loving hands of the master, the Ol’ Hammer himself. He knew it would do them both a world of good; and so did Homer.

Much to the Harlie’s initial consternation, and over his many vocalize objections, the old deputy did exactly the same with his own young apprentice, Elmo Cotton. Homer had known Hector O’Brien for a long time and, recalling the carpenter’s instructional capabilities, particularly involving young and inexperienced men, never questioned his judgment on such enterprising and judicial matters. He knew the boys would be in good hands, of course; and even though their whiskers may not have grown an inch longer over night, they would surely grow just a little thicker that day, and eventually become the stuff men are made of. And then, perhaps, they would both learn what all boys with beards should learn before ascending to the next logical level and assuming the awesome responsibilities that not only defines who they are, but further separates them from their feminine counterparts.

And in the end, that’s what really mattered, I suppose. But you cannot measure a man solely on the length of his beard, or the lack thereof, any more than you can judge a woman by the size of her breasts, or any other aspect of their individual characteristic, physical or otherwise. Nor can you judge his worth worthiness by the mere size of his bank account or the number of children he might have sired. Many a great man, and woman, has died not only penniless, but fruitless! Sir Isaac Newton, Søren Kierkegaard, J.M. Barrie, George Frederic Handel, Mohandas Gandhi, Nikola Tesla and Mother Thereas, just to name a few. Think of our own Lord and Savior if you will, and celebrate in celibacy. Fame is an orphan; it has its own rewards, and is often sterile. Infamy, on the other hand, is a fornicator, and boasts of many children; History records them all, the good and bad, the heroes and villains, along with all the traitors and tyrants who reap the financial rewards of their own dastardly deeds, and their legends of illegitimate offspring. The world is littered with them. Maybe that’s why we have so many bastards and villains, and so few heroes. For there is more to manhood than simply sprouting a healthy crop of whiskers, as the beardless Geronimo would surely agree while scalping the hairy heads of his enemies and hanging them by the whiskers like so many bearded trophies on display.

Having never actually forgiven the young man from Creekwood Green for urinating in his bathtub, the Harlie adamantly and unapologetically refused to participate in the carpenter’s devious scheme on purely personal grounds. He just didn’t want to have anything to do with ‘Little’ Dick Dilworth, and said so in so many animated words.

Mister Dilworth likewise balked at the carpenter’s proposal, not only in opposition to the arduous task at hand (for he had indeed felled many a tall and sturdy tree in service to his present employer, reducing trunks and boughs to mere stakes and splinters for the purposes employed in the business of land surveying) but simply because he did not wish to work alongside Mister Cotton either; or any other Harlie for that matter. He felt it was beneath him; which, as one might suspect, was pretty much the way Elmo felt about Dick. Each had their specific reasons for non-compliance, and felt equally justified in their own obstinate opinions. One was just as stubborn as the other, you might say, as boys with beard can be sometimes, especially when it comes to conciliatory gestures of forgiveness, and as green as the wood on a maple sapling.

Having heard of the unfortunate incident that’d initiated the animosity which presently persisted between the two boys with beards at one time, and being known for his prudent solutions on such delicate matters, the Hammer hatched forth an idea that had been swirling around in that old gray noggin for some time now, which he was about to employ to its fullest potential. Naturally, the best way to defuse the volatile situation, or so he thought, was to get them both together in a situation they were commonly involved in; and the sooner the better, he wisely reckoned. Mister O’Brien knew from first-hand experience that work (hard work, especially) was best, and perhaps the only, real cure for such a divisive and uncompromising divorce, the results of which could, and would if left unabated, last a lifetime if not properly treated. It was a bold idea, if not so novel in its approach, and one that had already salvaged many a failed and faltering marriage. Most of the time, it worked; sometimes, it didn’t. But other times, and for reasons we won’t go into right now for the sake of the narrative, it merely exacerbated an already untenable situation, putting into further jeopardy a relationship that never should’ve existed in the first place. But it was worth a try, thought Hector; besides, he needed the wood anyway. And so, the Old Hammer shrewdly and strategically placed them both on opposite ends of a long bow saw presently straddling the poplar tree he’d cut down earlier. “Now, let’s see if you two... boys with beards,” he laughed as he slowly turned and walked away, “can cut that in half without killing one another.” The laugh was intentional; and so was his aim, as well as the sarcasm.

Like two estranged lovers suddenly thrust back together after a long and lonely separation, the boys with beards looked down at the poplar, peevishly, and then at the bow. They next looked to their masters, Homer and Smiley, who simply turned their heads and looked away. They looked everywhere they could; except, of course, to one another, which was the first lesson they had to learn.

In the meantime, Mister O’Brien had exchanged his heated hammer for a sturdy tree axe, and went right back to work at a respectable but audible distance from the two boys with beards and the poplar tree. Being in no mood to hear any squabbling about the arrangements he’d appropriated for them, the Old Hammer began singing, in a low and melodious voice, an old familiar tune he’d learned from his more musical inclined brother, Jack, which he thought might just clear the air a bit and, perhaps, put them all in a more sociable, and therefore more conciliatory, mood.

“Cedar, Oaks, and Red
Be it living wood or dead
My axe will swing, and I will sing,
Cedars, Oaks and Red

The blade cuts deep so wood will leap
Like fire from the flame.
Like blood, it flows! Like sparks it glows!
And still I take no blame.

Sister Cedar smells so sweet
More fair than Weeping Willow
Forgive me if I cut you down
And use you for my pillow.

Oh Mighty Oak you are so strong
Not like your Piney brother -
His branch is weak. His wood’s too soft
I’ll save him for another.

Hello, Ol’ Red! My oldest friend
And tallest of them all.
‘Ere you stood ‘fore I was born
But still you too must fall...

Cedars, Oaks and Red,
Be it living wood or dead
My axe will swing
For I must sing
Cedars, Oaks and Red”

By then, the animosity that had kept the two boys apart for so long slowly gave way to suspicion; which, in turn, gave way to indifference. It would not be too long, mused the old gray Hammer as he hummed and hacked away at the root of the problem, before that same suspicion gave way to respect. In time, respect would most likely give way to friendship. And from there, with many just a little luck and a gentle nudge, respect would eventually give way to fellowship. It worked before. We shall see.

“This’ll be a cinch,” shrugged Little Dick from the opposing side of a fallen poplar tree, gleefully it seems. He just then realized, not unlike his Harlie brethren, that this is exactly what they had both been waiting and for all along; and he was finally getting what he’d always wanted: a chance to prove to the young man from Harley that he was just as good a man as Elmo, and probably even better! And so, despite his previous apology, which was offered up more out of sympathy than actual repentance or any real sense of guilt or shame, or so he had since tried to convinced himself (after all, the Harlie only did what any real man would have and should have done under the circumstances), Dick was ready do just that. And so, eagerly grasping his own end of the giant bow-saw in his young and un-calloused hands, Little Dick Dilworth rose to the challenge he’d been waiting for his whole life, it seemed. “Why, it’s as easy as falling off a log,” he quipped while sneering at the man-child on the other end of the saw.

“Or peein’ in a bathtub…” reminded the Harlie, anxiously grabbing his own quivering end of the bow, determined to prove something… anything! (Although he wasn’t exactly sure what it was at the time) to the unabashed and unrepentant, Little Dickey Dilworth, the Urinator. If nothing else, it would at least give him a chance to show the young man from Creekwood Green, Mister O’Brien, and perhaps a few of the others who might be watching from a suspicious distance, just what a Harley bean farmer is made of, which, just as Homer Skinner had pointed out to them not too long ago and what Elmo always knew to be true, was a good deal more than what they might have expected, and that was the same sturdy stuff (whatever that is) as any of the rest of them where made of; his beard, or lack thereof, not-with-standing, of course. The man from Harley really had nothing else to say to the man from Creekwood Green that day. But he did have something to prove; not only to himself, but everyone. And so did Dick.

By the time the two boys were done sawing the massive hardwood timber on two, the Old Hammer had already felled, trimmed, and split two live oaks, which he was just about to trim as well. Oh well, so much for the un-tamed vitality youth, he imagined. It is still no match for wisdom that comes with experience which, like a fine vintage wine or a trusty old hammer, gets only better with age. But then again, that’s what this is all about – Isn’t it? turning the grapes into wine, and boys into men, even if that involves stomping the living daylights out of them in the process. But sometimes you just have to lead by example. And that’s exactly what Hector did, as he split the mighty oak in two.

Feeling very tired and perhaps just a little less proud of themselves by then, the two boys with beards sat down together to rest for a while on opposite ends of the same severed log. Suddenly realizing that they didn’t really hate each other as much as they both thought they did, Elmo Cotton and Little Dick Dilworth called it a draw; then they called a truce. They glanced at each other, looked away, and then looked down at the palms of their hands. Finally, they had something in common. Blisters! By now, both their hands were red and raw with them. And they hurt, too.

But the pain was quickly and, perhaps, unexplainably, replaced by yet another sensation; a sensation so pure and powerful that it all but cured the aggravating wounds on the spot, instantaneously and without anesthetics, along with some other hidden and more subtle aliments that may have festering beneath the epidural layers for quite some time. It was the beginning a brand new friendship. And being that it had just survived the battle of wills, the first real test all friendships must pass if they are to have any meaning at all, it was off to a very good start. But true friendship takes real effort and must stand the test of time. Love is not so patient, which is why, I suppose, friendships last much longer and are sometimes harder to find but easier to keep. Eros, on the other hand, whom we have all known and loved from time to time, can be a finicky friend, and often is not to be trusted.

The boys with beards realized this by now and acknowledged that friendship, in whatever infancy it existed, by splicing their own bloody and blistered hands on it and declaring that henceforth they were ‘blood brothers’ and would gladly die for one another, if indeed it were positively indispensable to do so. And as red corpuscles intermingled, forming the necessary aggregate that would bond them together for life and so bestow upon them that honorary and esteemed title, the two boys with beards became as one, and, for all intends and practical purposes, inseparable. As it turned out, they soon discovered that they actually had more in common than either one would care to admit. It was that age old problem of pride and prejudice, as the carpenter so keenly observed: there was simply too much of both. All it took was little elbow grease to loosen the stone and a gentle tap of the Ol’ Hammer to make the rock roll. The trick, as Hector O’Brien knew all along, was to make them figure that out for themselves. And eventually, they did.

As the two boys with beards got up to leave, the young man from Creekwood Green couldn’t help but notice something he might’ve noticed a long time ago, if he wasn’t so blind, or too ignorant, to see. For it was just then that Dick made out, with an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt, several visible markings lying just beneath the soiled straps of the Harlie’s overalls which had somehow fallen down during the heat of the battle. Slightly raised against Elmo’s otherwise subtle brown skin, the welts stood out as an ugly reminded of the past, which Dick was very much a part of. They were scars, of course; the kind that come at the end of a whip, the wounds of which never heal, and never really go away. He knew what they were; he knew, because he had put them there. Not personally, perhaps; but he put them there all the same; one stripe at time, in fact; and he could still hear the crack of the wipe with each discriminating blow. It was a woeful tapestry, painfully delineated by so many tickly textured lines, red, purple, and white, embossed on the bare back of the Harlie like so many meaty strips of bacon frying in a pan. They were there all along; he just never noticed them before. And he was feeling very bad about it at the moment. But it was time to move on, he reckoned. And so did Elmo.

By mid-afternoon most of the rubble left over from the original blast witnessed by Homer forty years ago had been cleared away, exposing for the first time the full height and width of the tunnel entrance, which opened before them like the yawning jaws of some sleepy dragon whose fire-breathing throat might be ignited at any moment by the accidental spark of a misguided hammer, or the sound of a burglar. The last remains of the slumbering stones were carried away by hand, many of them requiring the combined strength of all nine participants to relocate. Hector made good use of the horses by fitting them with specially made harnesses he’d improvised for just that purpose, which proved quite efficient in dragging away some of the larger and more cumbersome stones. It was back breaking work, even for Sam who’d quarried similar mines before and was no stranger to the stressful pains and labor involved in such enterprises. Much of the singing had stopped by then, along with the laughter that had previously accompanied it. But the fellowship remained, and the work continued, inch by inch, shoulder to shoulder, stone by stone. It seemed nothing could stop it.

It took the rest of afternoon and a good portion of that evening to clear away the sharper and more stubborn stones from the gaping hole, which was like pulling teeth from the dragon’s mouth, a chore Homer seemed to derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from. “Oh, if were only this easy,” he was overhead by the others more than once while extracting the large aching stones from their quarry that day.

With most of the rubble disposed of in the usual back-breaking manner, Homer decided they would rest for the night before resuming their labor. It had been a long day. Everyone, including Red-Beard, was exhausted by then. They would have to conserve their energy. Mining’s hard work; and they’d only just begun. The old man knew it would be more difficult than anyone anticipated, or even imagined; especially if the tunnel inside had indeed collapsed, as many have already suggested and what both he and Hector were both beginning to suspect. Red-Beard disagreed, however, insisting they were wrong; and that the tunnel was still very much intact. He would soon find out. And so would they.

Once again, a campfire was lit as they all settled down beneath a star studded sky. The moon was full by then, having fully waxed itself into the pock-marked and pie-shaped face of a familiar madman. They were close to the gold; so close, in fact, that they could almost smell it. A few, like Charles Smiley for instance, thought they actually taste it.

Elmo prepared a quick supper of beans and rice mixed together in hardy beef stew, which went down quickly and quietly. And it wasn’t long before the snoring began, accompanied, once more by the odious and obnoxious sound of beans trumpeting long into the night. Only this time, it wasn’t enough to keep the Harlie awake; he was simply too tired to care anymore. He covered his head, as well as his nose, under an old woolen blanket and went fast to sleep.

Meanwhile, and as usual, Red-Beard went off and perched himself on the same mossy log as he did the night before, and sat there with eyes wide open. He was gazing, or so it seemed, up at the moon, with the Brahma Jove standing sentry close by, the moonbeams bouncing off its massive white hump, which all but glowed with the same lunar energy produced by the orbiting satellite. It was as if through some sort of atmospheric osmosis, the hump itself had suddenly taken on certain aspects of the moon’s uniquely defined surface: its creamy white substance, painted here and there with patches of gray; its cold and cratered face, the soft blotchy texture, the luminosity, and, of course, the madness within that lurks behind all masks great and small. All were reflected in the one solitary white mound heaped on the back of the bovine beast that night, which, to the romantic and undiscerning eye at least, might even be described as a thing of beauty.

Homer, who’d been finding it difficult to sleep that night, despite the long hours of work he’d put in that were enough to have rendered most men unconscious by then, was likewise observing the celestial skies that night. But gazing up at that same starry sky and that same milky moon, and then back at the Red-Beard sitting on his stump with a white idol resting by his side, he saw more than madness – much more. What he saw was madness magnified. It was the only thing he could make of the strange and bewildering sight of man and beast alone in the moonlight. He didn’t know which one was crazier; and he really didn’t care, so long as they kept their distance and their lunacies to themselves. But in a strange and almost sympathetic way, he almost felt sorry for them, perhaps more so for Red-Beard simply because he was human, one of his own; or at least he was at one time, Homer reckoned in a moment of private pity, which made it all the more bewildering.

* * *

JUST AS ANTICIPATED, and properly predicted, the ‘real’ work began the following morning with a blast; or, as they say in certain mining circles where such exaggerations are not only appropriate but mandatory: the ‘BIG BOOM!’

It was Friday, and it was time to blast open the tunnel, and the tomb. In contrast to the bright blue sky that had optimistically greeted them the previous morning, full of so much sunshine and hope, a dark cumulonimbus cloud presently presided overhead, ominously shrouding the mountain in vaporous layer of fog.

“It’s time,” declared Red-Beard, unfastening the long leather straps that were holding in place a number of small wooden crates inside the wagon that held the explosives, perhaps more hastily than he should have. “Let’s get to work.”

“Easy, Colonel,” warned Hector, cautiously observing the red bearded Goliath from a respectable distance. “Let’s not blow ourselves up in the process.”

The others, particularly Sam, who’d been exposed to the volatile nature of high explosives through working in the sulfur mines for so long, were thinking along similar lines and wondering if Mister Horn’s credentials were all in order. He’d claimed to be an expert in the field of demolition; a profession he’d acquired in the army, no doubt, and one he excelled in, particularly when it came to blowing up confederate railroad track. And he still practiced it with a great deal of enthusiasm, following with equal interest all the latest developments in that new and ever-evolving field of explosives. It all began when, as a private first class, Rusty Horn was first introduced to the deadly and dangerous art. Not long after that, an army sergeant recruited his services in blowing up a few old buildings that were deemed to have outlived their usefulness, which, by the way, is how he first entered into the military service. Unfortunately, one of those buildings was not entirely empty at the time of the demolition, which Rusty may, or may not, have been aware of at the time. It was said, without any justification of proof however, that the doomed structure was, in fact, holding a substantial number of Indians who were imprisoned there at the time, for reasons undisclosed, and who had been scheduled for released the very next day; whereupon they were to be summarily dispatched to the nearest Indian reservation, which happened to be a thousand miles away in a mosquito infested swamp the alligators wouldn’t touch. A similar incident occurred during the war when, by then, Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn applied his explosive talents by blowing up a bunker full of Confederate soldiers awaiting transport. ‘Casualties of war…’ he was said to have murmured that day, even as the gray bodies, draped as they were not in the familiar stars and bars of St. Andrew, but rather, and perhaps just for spite, in Old Glory herself, were summarily stuffed in a steamer and shipped back to Alabama.

Homer Skinner was beginning to wonder by then if, in fact, Rusty Horn was not mentally unbalanced; or if he was just plain stupid. He’d ruled out the latter some time ago, of course; the army didn’t commission idiots. Alvin Webb, on the other hand; he was stupid. There’s difference. Red-Beard, Homer finally concluded after carefully considering the consequences, Red-Beard was evil.

The survey also seemed to take uneasy notice of Rusty’s cavalier attitude towards the explosive contents of the painted wagon as well. “Say, just what you tryin’ to do, Horn,” he howled in protest, “blow us all into an early grave?”

“S’matter, Charles…” Red-Beard responded, in a most unfamiliar way, beneath his fiery red whiskers, “F’raid of a little dynamite?”

It wasn’t that the surveyor, or anyone else in the excavation party for that matter, was afraid of ‘a little dynamite’. No. The truth of the matter was that only a few of them had ever heard of it before; which, come to think of it, is really something to be f’raid of. As it were, the term itself, ‘Dynamite’, was something entirely new to most folks, as it had only recently been introduced in the lexicon of man, and was still, for all intents and purposes, in its infant stages of development. Why, even Hector the Hammer, who commanded a great deal of knowledge in the arts and sciences, had only recently heard of the stuff; and making it a point to in keep abreast of all the latest innovations and inventions, he was still somewhat ignorant of explosive subject and not entirely sure of its true chemical composition; although he was quite aware of its devastating effects, having witnessed such explosions on more than one ear-splitting occasions that left as much an impression on him as it did to the old bridge it took down in the process. The main ingredient was actually a newly invented substance called Nitroglycerin; a liquid in its natural and most volatile state, but which could easily, with little effort and expertise, be solidified and molded into various shapes and sizes more suitable to its destructive purpose, depending, of course, on its application.

Red-Beard continued to unload the remainder of the highly explosives materials from the wagon by summarily tossing the small wooden crates down to his project engineer, Mister Alvin Webb, who looked just a little more nervous than usual as he juggled the volatile vessels in his skinny arms. Elmo could only look on in wondering doubt, not yet be able to comprehend or fully appreciate the seriousness of the Red-Beard’s flippant attitude towards what the others considered, ‘mighty dangerous stuff.’

“Ain’t skeert now – ‘Er’ ya?” inquired Private Alvin Webb, following the colonel’s lead like the good and loyal soldier that he was. He was actually good at taking orders, and usually did whatever he was told to, even if it that meat going against his better judgment which, of course, didn’t happen very often. From a strictly militarily point of view, he no longer was obliged to take orders, from anyone, now that both he and Red-Beard were officially retired. But on a more personal level, Alvin felt he really had no choice. The truth of the matter was that the toothless private would have acquiesced had the maniacal colonel ordered him to stand on his head and whistle Dixie, just to see if it could be done; or, perhaps, even stand at attention in front of a firing squad. Loyalty was a trait Red-Beard had always admired in a man, even in his enemies. He hated cowards and despised traitors; even though he may’ve been considered one himself by then.

In its present state, the dynamite was virtually harmless… well, relatively speaking, that is. Without the blasting caps necessary to initiate the charge and ‘light the fuse’, so-to-speak, it was practically useless. As it were, the caps that were safely tucked away in Red-Beard’s saddle bag which he’d draped over the Brahma and well out of reach of the others; but not everyone witnessing the colonel’s cavalier treatment of the volatile substance knew that. Maybe it was all a joke, and not a very good one at that, mused the Hammer, having just then remembered reading up on some new form of explosive that came shipped in the same small wooden crates and evidenced by the letters stenciled on all four sides of the containers, which read, in thick red letters that were obviously put there for a good reason: ‘D-Y-N-A-M-I-T-E’. Hector now knew what he was dealing with, at least in the most rudimental aspects, and breathed a short sigh of relief. But that is not to say he was amused at the colonel’s antics, although he did find them rather curious at the time. If Red-Beard was attempting to be humorous, he had failed miserably; and if not, he should have simply let it go. Some things should be left to the professionals. Marriage was one of them; comedy was another. Red-Beard had no business with either, the Hammer wisely observed.

And he wasn’t alone in that regard. It’s a sad and simple truth that there are some people who just can’t seem to succeed – through no fault of their own and certainly not for the lack of trying – in either of the two aforementioned endeavors; at least not to any degree of personal satisfaction, nor without making complete and utter asses of themselves in the process, especially in the awkward case of the humorless comedian we’ve all had the bewildering misfortune of crossing paths with from time to time. Now here is an individual truly worth pitying, but not for very long. And should you ever come across one of these insufferable souls – Quick! Run for your life! Take to the hills, man! And do it with haste. Lie, if you have to, and be not ashamed. Tell this drearily depressing, albeit well-intentioned, fool that your dear wife has recently passed away and that, unfortunately, you are simply too grief-stricken to fully appreciate the comedic wit and witticisms you are presently being showered with. But do it gently, if you can, and with as much melancholy as you can afford; for ambition is a noble thing, even in the hapless hands of fools like these who, despite their sincerest efforts to entertain our emotions, at least deserve our sympathy if not our attention and indulgence, and perhaps al little charity as well. Humor, as we all know, is subjective, and that takes both time and practice to develop, as most worthwhile things do. And it’s not egalitarian in nature or application. What one person finds funny, another finds bewildering, if not offensive. That’s just the way it works. Marriage, on the other hand, is not for everyone and certainly not for the ambivalent of heart. It either works or it doesn’t, which is why, I suppose, Muslims make it so easy to obtain a divorce. ‘I divorce you! I divorce you! I divorce you!’ is the usually prerequisite, or so I am told, although perhaps not in such an explanatory fashion. It’s just that simple, and actually quite funny when you think about it. It sure beats getting stoned to death, which, as I understand, is another way of doing it Humor and marriage were just two things Red-Beard was simple not suited for.

There was something he was suited for, however; and that was the one… make that two, things he excelled in: killing people and breaking things – the stuff wars are made of. It came with the uniform, and the territory; and this was where Red-Beard assumed his true and rightful position of authority. Being well-versed and educated in the awesome power of explosives and the use thereof, he began by strategically placing the tubular red sticks deep inside the cavities, or ‘rounds’ as they were appropriately called in the mining profession, which he’d formed earlier that morning with his hammer and chisel. And this he did professionally and delicately, lovingly you might say. It was almost like watching a mother putting her babies to bed, which really wasn’t that far from the truth and not a bad analogy come to think of it.

Naturally, the ambitious colonel insisted on maximum penetration; and he knew just how to achieve it. It was accomplished by strategically placing the explosive charges in precisely the right places, typically along any fault or fissure lines within the rock, where they would do the most damage. Red-Beard knew exactly what he was doing; after all, he was a professional. But since neither he nor anyone else knew exactly how much of the original tunnel had been obstructed by the initial powder blast that occurred forty years ago, efficiency and economy were also taken into consideration. No one, not even the Old Hammer, was quite sure how much blasting would be needed to access the lost gold mine. Too little, and it might not do the trick. Too much, and KABLOOEY! It would only make matters worse; and could even get them all killed.

There was little debate that day over how much dynamite to actually use. Red-Beard obviously held the upper hand in that regard. Of everyone present that day, he alone knew the most about the highly explosive material invented, by the way, by the famous German Physicist, Alfred Noble, whose own noble name would, ironically enough, one day be immortalized in the prestigious and highly sought after ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ currently awarded to those who excel in the various fields of scientific endeavor as well as the more liberal arts they’re inclined to pursue when not thinking of more creative and efficient ways of annihilating one another.

The four horsemen agreed, of course: Red-Beard was the expert, and they respected him for that, if nothing else. They’d seen him in action before. Rumor had it that once during the war he blew open a Union railroad safe without so much as scorching a single coin or burning a dollar bill. “It’s just a knack,” Rusty pointed out to them with not the slightest trace of pride, or modesty for that matter, to back up an assertion he’d always considered self-evident if not obvious, “Just doin’ my job, boys.” It ain’t bragging when you can do it, he may as well have added, and justifiably so. Homer and Hector was forced to agree with the four horsemen, albeit not without with some degree of cautious reservation. Sam and the Indian merely looked on with awe and trepidation, from a respectable distance, of course, and from behind the wagon.

It was, in fact, in the army where Red-Beard leaned most of what he knew of explosives, his ‘knack’ if you will. He was already familiar with and well-versed in with the mechanics of warfare in general, and would gladly welcome any new device – never mind what stage of development it happened to be in at the time or how much it cost, in money or lives, to deliver; so long as it did what it was suppose to – that would broaden his scope on the deadly, industrious, and often expeditions art of war. He was an expert at sabotage; he practiced it well, and with great precision. He was also a master of disguises (most leaders are, at least in the political sense) which was presently evidenced by his own misleading and beguiling attire.

Red-Beard never considered himself a traitor, as some had suspected him of being for some time and for a variety of reasons; and he never answered to any such unsubstantiated charges. What Red-Beard did, or didn’t do, during his tenure in the armed forces was his own business. That’s all anyone had to know. He was also called a hypocrite at times, which he actually accepted; for all great men are considered hypocrites to one degree or another at certain times in their industrious lives, he’d always maintained, especially times of war when conscience is sometimes, and for good reason, out-ranked by convenience. Sometimes, I suppose, it’s just easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Why, even the Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln, whom Red-Beard had always admired in a rather odd and envious way, was called a hypocrite, along with a tyrannical dictator, by not a few of his contemporaries; no less than the Founding fathers themselves, one could argue, who fostered and forged the Great Republic; Jefferson among them, who, while inscribing into the sacred document the self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal’, held onto his own disenfranchised slaves until the bitter end. But if Red-Beard was such a hypocrite, at least he was honest one; and that, he so arrogantly assumed, made all the difference. If not anything else, Rusty Horn was still a soldier. That was his real knack, of course; that’s what he did best. That’s what there for: to kill people and break thing – the stuff of war. And when you get right down to it, isn’t that what the war-child is really all about?

“Wake up, you old bastard!” Red-Beard roared at the sleepy stone giant while screwing down the terminals of his plunger that day, “Daddy’s home!”

Meanwhile, the others all scurried about the grounds like nervous ants in a deluge, searching for shelter from the forthcoming cataclysm that they knew to be imminent. Homer closed his eyes. Elmo covered his eyes and ears. And in that highly emotionally charged atmosphere, consisting chiefly of a strange and oxymoronic blend of hope, anxiety and fear, they all waited for the imminent explosion in deadly and disquieting silence. They didn’t have to wait long.

The blast itself was not unlike the sudden sound of a thunder clap out of a clear blue sky that in hung in the air like long after the initial shock waves had dissipated. Red-Beard’s explosive roar resonated throughout the Silver Mountains for a moment of two, just long enough to be heard by Tom Henley who, as previously descried, made his rural residence in another mountain not far from where the blast originated. As alluded to in previous chapters, Tom lived on an adjacent hillside that he appropriately called his ‘Home-in-a-Hill’, which was actually no more than five miles away from the source of the explosion. “Hear that, son?” said the bi-focal and bearded old prospector to his suspicious young offspring in the middle of a hammer stroke. “It’s Mother calling. That’s what she sounds like.” The boy smiled. He’d heard the sound before. It sounded just like… a woman.

It took some time to remove all the stones left over from the tremendous explosion but, when all was said and done, it was discovered that the tunnel was, in fact, still there after all. “Well, that did it,” boasted Red-Beard to anyone whose ears were not still ringing from the sound of success, and could still hear him, that is.

Homer agreed. “I guess you earned your pay today, Horn. But anymore dynamite...and the whole damn tunnel might’ve collapsed.” Much to the deputy’s relief and satisfaction, and a not a little to his surprise, the tunnel was still intact. There was speculation that it might’ve collapsed in by now, which was actually what was supposed to have happened forty years ago when it was blown to smithereens in the first place, killing whatever was inside, human or otherwise.

“I was right all along,” boasted the colonel, with not a little pride in his countenance that day, “Only the entrance was covered up. It’s just like you said, Homer.” Actually, Red-Beard was just as surprised as anyone else, but, for the morale of his recently recruited troops and perhaps a few other undisclosed reasons, was keeping his suspicions, as well as his surprise, to himself. There was always a real chance that the mine had collapsed by then, rendering the expedition a failure from the start, a condition Red-beard had no contingencies for. Admitting defeat before the battle had even begun was never a very good strategy. “Reckon y’all didn’t use enough dynamite the first time,” he intuitively surmised.

“I reckon so, colonel” whispered Homer Skinner, although he was beginning to wish he had.

Unfortunately, the exposed mouth of the tunnel was only wide enough to accommodate one man at a time, which, although not unexpected, was not what they’d planned. After some careful consideration, and a little arguing, it was finally decided that Homer should go in first, to access the damages and determine if, and when, it was safe for the others to follow. It seemed like the logical thing to do. Not only because the expedition could not have taken place without the old man, and his map, but simply because he had been there once before and was best equipped, despite his bi-focal vision and failing senses, to know his way around. Of course, there was never really any doubt as to who actually would go first. It had already been decided forty years ago.

By then, the Old Hammer had returned with a long coil of rope, which he placed on the ground in front of the ominous hole in the mountain, compliments of Horace ‘Rusty‘ Horn. There he fastened one end of the rope to a timber he’d used to shore up the entrance, and handed the other end to Homer, who took it with a nervous smile and a noticeable tremble in his wrinkled but willing and able hand.

Tying the rope line around his waist (something he actually should’ve done forty years ago, but didn’t) the old deputy thanked the carpenter with a wink and a nod, and pronounced himself up for the job. He was ready to do it; to go back inside.

“If you get in trouble, Homer, just give ‘er a good yank!” instructed the cautious carpenter whose knowledge of such things was quite apparent by then, as well as indispensable. “And we’ll pull you out quicker than... well, quicker than skunks make love,” he analogized in his own romantic way.

“Or what’s left of you…” added Smiley under his hairy breath.

The old man looked back and smiled, a little nervously perhaps; but he smiled just the same. He then looked down at the small silver star hanging loosely to his sunken chest, and gently touched it. It was the same starry symbol he’d worn forty years ago when his clothes were not so tight and his hair not so thin and gray. It was a deputy’s badge. It was his badge. The metal was tarnished by now, not unlike his wife’s best silverware, and the letters slightly faded. And being that Homer had never officially ‘turned in his badge’, as required by law to make it official, he was still, in fact, a duly authorized deputy of the Law, no matter what anyone else might say or think about it, which he was sworn to uphold, no matter how many years had passed him by. ‘It comes with the badge’, as any cop will confess. Then again, when is a lawman ever off duty? he just then thought to himself. Besides, he still had his guns, which, when you get right down to it, is the real symbol of authority after all. Everything else is just dressing.

Upon closer examination of the illustrious pentangle, Homer suddenly noticed that one of the five points on the star was ominously missing from its geographical design. It had actually broken off some years ago. He couldn’t remember exactly when, where, or even how it happened, and he never did bother to fix it; something, for reasons he’d always kept to himself, he now regretted. But still it glowed in all its legal luster; no worse off for the many years of neglect than he himself was and, perhaps, just a little bit stronger, as age sometimes has that effect on inorganic material, and maybe a little more valuable. If only the same could be said for organic kind which only decreases with time. Or maybe it was just a trick of the light, he just then imagined as the sun slipped down behind the crater of the great mountain, giving up one last ray of light that reflected softly off the jagged edge of the metal. The tooth ached more than ever. But not for very long, thought the old man with the broken badge… not for long.

Standing in the exact same spot as he did forty years ago, Homer Skinner looked a little apprehensive at first, and maybe even a little older. He checked the rope one last time and, with a shaky and transparent hand, lit a small green lantern he'd wisely brought along with him this time to guide him through the long dark tunnel he knew would be just as long, and dark, as before. Things would be different this time, he imagined, as the flame slowly flicked to life under the glass. No more candles. No more groping in the dark. No more… The old man had been burned once before, and learned his lesson well. “Tain’t no education in the third kick of a mule,” he reminded himself out loud, which the others took as a sure sign of confidence on the old man’s part. Besides, lanterns are more practical, and definitely more dependable, he further surmised – and they lasted longer, too. But just before entering the tunnel as he did so many years ago, Homer was thinking that maybe there were still some things inside, dark and dangerous things, he would rather not see too clearly. And so, he turned down the wick of the lantern just a little and, like Diogenes with his lamp who went searching the streets of old Athens for the last honest man, Homer Skinner entered once again into the long dark tunnel.

However, just before stepping back into the dark shadowy past, Homer said a prayer. Not for himself, of course – and not that he thought it would do him any good – but for those still buried inside, which reminded the old man… “Just a minute!” he suddenly said, while quickly untying the roped around his waist and trotting off in a hurried huff.

“Where’s he goin’ now”? asked Dick, a little suspiciously.

“Probably gots to pee,” replied the Harlie.

Dick laughed.

And so did Elmo. “Old men’s is like that, you know,” he reminded the young man from Creekwood Green, although he really didn’t have to.

When at last he returned, Homer was clutching something close to his sunken breast. It was a cross, the same wooded crucifix he’d stowed in his bag just before saying goodbye to his wife in front of his little house in Creekwood Green. For some strange and foreboding reason, it looked larger and heavier than it did when he’d first shuttled it out of the barn, and perhaps a little bit older. And the sacred image, so realistically constructed into the design of the relic, appeared just as life-like as I did then, much like it must have appeared to the faithful few who had witnessed the gruesome event at Calvary so many centuries ago, and just as bloody.

When at last he finally arrived at his pre-determined destination, the old man bent down, reverently, of course, and unceremoniously drove the vertical member of the crucifix home into the unconsecrated soil there about the numerous slumbering stones. And as he did so, the sun suddenly broke from behind the large dark cloud that had previously, and quite ominously it would appear, enveloped them all in a shadowy darkness of filtered sun light. All was bright once more. He looked up at the radiating orb and smiled, feeling a bit more optimistic than he did only a moment ago. How long had he waited for this moment to arrive? Was it real? Was it really happening? Or, he wondered to himself, thinking it was still not too late to change his mind: Am I still at home in bed – dreaming?

The others stood and watched in quite reverence, wondering what all the fuss was about. But even the atheist and the outlaw were moved by the overt gesture of Christian faith which they counted as good luck, if nothing else. Still, they all could not help but feel that something was happening, something… holy, perhaps, the carpenter was keen to observe.

“It’s a good day to die,” the Indian whispered out loud.

With the sun presently shinning down in all its former glory, Homer quietly genuflected, said another short prayer, and blessed himself with the Catholic sign of the cross. It was a melancholy moment, nostalgic and sad, mixed with conflicting emotions he couldn’t quite explain but wouldn’t trade for all the gold…“Amen,” he said climbing slowly back to his feet, a little wobbly in the knees perhaps, but with eager determination. He walked straight back to where he was before, picked up the rope, tied it once again around his billowing waist and said with metaphysical certitude, “I’m ready now. Let’s do it.”

While running his hand over the freshly-cut stone at the entrance to the tunnel, Homer suddenly felt a sharp pain shoot up his arm and into his brain. He had cut his hand. And it hurt, just like…a toothache! he suddenly imagined. And at that point the old man knew it was real. He wasn't dreaming. It was real. He knew where he was, and why he came. And he was exactly where he wanted to be. He put a cold finger to his lip and tasted the blood just to make sure. “Yep! It’s real alright!” he said to the others who didn’t know exactly what to make of it at the time. But that didn’t matter. Not to Homer. He'd kept his promise. He came back. He was there. Right where he was supposed to be. And he was finally ready to pull the tooth, once and for all. He was scared, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But he was there, and he was going in.

“You’s shakin',” said the Harlie, noticing that the trembling in the old man’s hands had grown even worse since he’d returned from his miniature Golgotha. "And a’bleedin', too...” he whispered.

Homer Skinner pretended not to notice and smiled as he rested his hand on Elmo’s subtle brown shoulder. There was so much he wanted to tell the Harlie just then; but that would take too long, and time was something just he didn’t have much of anymore. It would have to wait. Mostly, he just wanted to thank Elmo for being there, if nothing else. But he also wanted to tell him the truth, about many things, things he’d only recently began to think about. It seems that in the process of growing older and, perhaps, wiser, Homer had learned a great deal more about the truth than he ever would’ve imagined in the younger years when ‘the truth’ was merely an abstraction, a thought, an illusion, or whatever he wanted it to be at any particular moment to suit his immediate interests. It’s just one of the dangers of being young, I suppose, when nothing is absolute, not even death. So, instead of saying goodbye, which Homer never liked to do anyway, he left Elmo with once last word, an admonition he’d heard a hundred time before and was still not entirely sure what it meant, a bit of advice he hoped would help the Harlie along the way just in case… “Remember”, the old man whispered into Elmo's ear just before entering the cave, “Thems that want don’t get.” And he wasn’t even sure why he said it. Perhaps it was because it just sounded good, he suddenly thought to himself for the very first time.

No one else heard it. But Elmo did. And it was something he would remember for a long time to come; perhaps, for the rest of his life… just like Homer.

“Bring us back some gold!” gummed the toothless idiot.

“Be careful now, Homer,” cautioned the man behind the mustache.

“God go with you, amigo” spoke the Hammer in a rare display of reverent emotion, with just a little Latin lingo thrown in.

Sam and his sidekick Indian just stood there, wondering why they weren’t the ones going in first, considering how those of the ‘colored’ persuasion were more often than not the first to ‘go in’, especially when ‘going in’ also meant never ‘coming out’. Not that they wouldn’t have gone, of course; it’s just something they’d come to expect. To put it in its simplest, purest, most understandable and prejudicial form: They were expendable. And they knew it.

“Remember, Homer – In and out,” instructed the surveyor, gesturing the backward and forward motions with one large and calloused hand while combing his mustache with the other. “In… and out,” he repeated, in the same animated fashion for the sake of the elderly deputy who he, as well as not a few of the others, had always suspected to be hard of hearing, as well as blind as a bat without his glasses. “No time for mischief. Just in… and out!”

“And don’t get lost again,” warned Little Dick Dilworth, sincerely.

Homer thanked each and every one of them many times over, shook their hands, and said goodbye. When he got to Colonel Rusty Horn, everyone noticed that the old man’s hand was still shaking. “Do what you have to do,” was all Red-Beard had to say to him.

Meanwhile the Harlie just stood there and watched. There was really nothing left for him to say. So, he said nothing.


Chapter Seven

The ‘Combobulator’

THE FIRST THING HOMER NOTICED once inside the long dark tube was that the light from the outside had disappeared almost immediately. The second was that his lantern glowed more brightly than he’d expected; or maybe it only appeared that way in the blackness of the subterranean hell he chosen to submerge himself into. The lamp made him feel… well, safe. Not brave, only safe. “And don’t drop it, you old fool,” he warned himself, nervously jumping at sound of his own voice.

The next time he turned around to look back, all he could see was a small circle of hazy blue light at the end of the long dark tunnel, much like what a Roman citizen might’ve seen while gazing up into the oculus of the Pantheon on a mild summer’s day. He was already in further than he thought he was, further than he suddenly wanted to be. Allowing the rope to slip slowly but surely through his fumbling fingers, Homer kept on moving ahead. Already he could feel the ground sloping down before him, slightly at first but with an ever increasing angle of attack. He was beginning to feel the way he did forty years ago. He could feel it in his teeth. He knew he’d been here before.

He kept moving forward, looking back from time to time until the hazy blue light had totally disappeared, eclipsed, as it were, by a sudden change in direction he wasn’t even aware of at the time, which left him stranded in the darkness. Suddenly, the whole world seemed to have vanished, right before his eyes. All that remained was a shaky lantern and a long thin rope, both of which he held on to like grim death, even though neither one was very re-assuring at the moment. He persevered.

Reaching into one of the deep pockets sown into the many layers of his garments, he felt the crisp corner of a wrinkled piece of paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. He took it out and unfolded it once more. It was the map, right where he’d left it; but that was not what he was looking for, although he did still plan to make good use of it. He was actually trying to find his reading glasses, his spectacles; not only for the purpose for which they were properly prescribed, like reading old maps for instance, but also because he merely wanted to see if they would help him find his way around in the dark a little better. But they simply weren’t there. He tried a few more pockets with the same frustrating results. “Damn it!” he cursed out loud, “Must’ve dropped them… probably somewhere outside. Oh, well,’ he whispered to himself in the dark, “too late now. Just have to manage without them.” He then folded up the map and stuffed it back inside his pocket. Without his glasses, of course, he knew it would be useless.

Homer Skinner was alone; and he was scared. He was also beginning to think he’d made the wrong decision about coming back after all. He thought, among other things, about going back and trying to find is glasses, which he knew he would need sooner or later, but decided against it. “They would all laugh at me,” he admonished himself, “just like before… just like all the others.” And that was something he simply couldn’t bear. But thinking it over for a while, he reckoned he might not be needing them after all; or the map for that matter, having committed it to memory so many years ago. He knew it by heart. Didn’t he? After all, he’d drawn it up himself. Right? So, how could he forget? The glasses never did him much good anyway. “Never did work a damn,” he muttered to himself. He settled down, took a long dark breath and continued. He still had his lantern and rope, which was a hell of a lot more than he had the last time he was there; and even then, he’d managed to make it out, alive... well, just barely, he suddenly recalled. And he’d brought along his guns too this time, his special order forty-five caliber six-shooters with the twelve-inch barrels and ivory inlay handles, which he reached down at his side just to make sure they were there. They were. And so was his badge. “Hell!” he wondered out loud, “What more do I need?”

And so, the old man with the badge and a gun followed the main artery of the shaft down into the mountain as it twisted and turned several times along the way just as he expected. And when he came to a place where the tunnel suddenly divided in two, he thought he knew where he was. He wasn’t exactly sure how, or why; but it seemed he’d been this there before, in that very same spot in fact. More importantly, he seemed to know which way to go. He looked around, and although the two tunnels appeared almost identical, he took the on the right and proceed.

Meanwhile back outside, all eyes were fixed on the feeder-line, Homer’s only visible link to the outside world by then. As long as the rope was moving, so was the old man; or so it would seem to all concerned. It was a good sign, and one they all watched with growing interests as the rope uncoiled itself like snake awakening after a long meal. It moved slowly but steadily, unraveling one loop at a time, indicating the progress of the human probe attached to the other end. It appeared as though Red-Beard’s skills had succeeded beyond even his own expectations. Fifteen minutes had elapsed and, still, the snake was unwinding. All they could do was watch and wait. There was really nothing else they could do.

The old man never did say exactly long he’d be gone. How could he? He just didn’t know. Who knew how long it would take? And just what was it he looking for, anyway? – Besides the gold, that is, which he didn’t think he would locate on the very first attempt, and would certainly not be able to bring out all by himself; and that’s if he didn’t get lost again in the process, which was always a distinct possibility, just like he did forty years ago, especially without his glasses.“Remember,” he kept saying to himself as he ventured further into the gaping jaws of death, repeating to himself the advice of the animated surveyor, and in the same gesticulated manner: “In…and out. In…out. In…”

“He’s been gone to long,” noted the Hammer, appearing a little concerned over the length of rope that had unraveled so far. “I don’t like it.”

“Wait here,” the colonel insisted as he cautiously approached the crumbling mouth of the cave. “I’ll be right back.” And then, without a word of explanation or any further instructions, he slipped silently into the mouth of the dragon, and was swallowed up in the darkness.

A few of the horsemen were also a little concerned by then, and well they should be. They were also confused, including the Indian and the Negro, the latter of which had been counting all along on his big brown fingers exactly how many times the rope had uncoiled since the old man first entered the cave; each loop of the coil representing approximately three and a half feet. By his own rudimentary reckoning (it took him several minutes to do the math in his head) Homer was already over three hundred feet into the tunnel by then; and the rope was still unraveling. The snake was still alive.

Elmo was becoming increasingly alarmed over Homer’s long absence as well; but he tried not to let it show. He’d always been worried that he might get lost, again, and that something terrible would befall the old man; perhaps something more terrible than what’s happened to him forty years ago, the details of which were now burned into his brain more than ever. And in that sense, Red-Beard’s sudden and unexpected decision to follow him into the tunnel that day came as a welcomed, but suspicious, relief to the apprehensive Harlie.

“What’s that mug-wump up to now?” questioned the surveyor, referring to Red-Beard in a pejorative usually reserved for traitors and others counterfeits of that time.

“Don’t worry, the colonel knows what he doin’,” defended Webb.

The Hammer instructed them, “Let’s just wait and see,” he said, as calmly and reassuringly as his suspicions would allow.

With stealth and determination, Rusty Horn made his way cautiously through the long dark corridor of the cavernous tunnel. There was no light to show him the way; he didn’t even bring a candle with him. Only the feel of the rope slipping through his mechanical fingers guided him along the way. He knew what he was doing.

By then Homer Skinner had penetrated approximately hundred-yards of the tunnel, and was well into the old mineshaft itself. Things were only getting narrower, and darker. The old wooden beams holding up the roof of the tunnel appeared closer together by then, indicating that they were supporting an ever-increasing load. Naturally, the square set timbers were under a tremendous stress that deep within the mountain; some of them looking as though they might still be buckling under the strain.

At his feet Homer also noticed, for the first time, two iron rails running parallel to one another, about three feet apart, and mounted on so many worn wooden railroad ties that had had long since blended into the stony surface. The tracks had obviously been used at one time for transporting the precious mineral ore, as well as the men that mined it, in and out of the tunnel. The deputy found it strange that he didn’t remember seeing the rails before, forty years ago; perhaps they were there all along, and he simply hadn’t notice. Or maybe he did notice, and just didn’t remember. Either way, it didn’t seem to matter; unless, of course, he could make use of them somehow, even though there was no telling where they went, if anywhere at all. He tried to remember. He was unaware of so many things back then; as unaware as he was just then that he was also being followed.

Within moments upon entering the abandoned mine, Rusty Horn had caught up with Homer Skinner by simply following the lifeline, which he knew would eventually lead him to the old man, the gold, and maybe something else. He could see him just up ahead; that is to say, he could see the light from Homer’s lantern shining in the dark distance, like a beacon in the night.

Homer was standing nervously in ball of soft yellow light that radiated all around him like a golden halo. He looked confused, thought the colonel; almost worried, as though he was trying to remember something he might’ve forgotten.

“Yep… that’s him, alright,” whispered Red-Beard in the dark, careful not to let his presence be known just yet, “This is gonna be easy.” But all that would have to wait, he reminded himself, not altogether sure just yet exactly what he was looking for, or how he would actually do it. But that’s what he was there for. That’s why he came. ‘It’s a stone, I tell you… a black stone,’ at least, that’s what Tom Henley told him. He knew what he had to do, of course; but the time wasn’t right. But it was time for a little entertainment, or so Rusty Horn convinced himself jut then in a rare moment of juvenile mischievous while his alter ego, Red-Beard, was thinking more treacherous thoughts.

Sneaking up behind the old man without a sound, not even so much as a footstep, the blue and gray ghost stalked his unsuspicious prey. It was another trick he’d learned in the army, one he would play from time to time on his own subordinate troops whenever they suspected he wasn’t watching them, which actually wasn’t very often. It could happen anywhere, at anytime; and he would always catch them by surprise. Every time! It was just… well, it was just fun, thought the colonel, felling a little more human than he had in a long, long time.

Homer was looking straight ahead, like the good soldier he was, when Rusty finally caught up with him inside the long dark tunnel that day.

Leaning quietly over the old man’s slumping shoulder, Rusty whispered softly, but with just the right amount of volume, into Homer’s large hairy ear: “Yum! Yum! Eat ‘em up! Eat ‘em up! Hummmm... Gooood!” It was Rusty Horn’s best impersonation of a real aboriginal cannibal, or feral, if you will; and, from a purely theatrical standpoint, it actually wasn’t that bad, and quite authentic.

It happened so quickly, and so quietly, and without any warning (just the way Rusty had planned it) that the old man froze in position like a cat burglar who, upon hearing the familiar and distinctive ‘ker-kerch’ of a shotgun being loaded at the breach while fingering the family jewels, realizes, too late perhaps, that he is no longer alone. Instinctively, and without thinking, he dropped both his lantern and the rope to the ground. Too afraid to look and too ‘scared to run, Homer Skinner suddenly lost all control of his bowels and defecated in his trousers right there on the spot. He could feel it. He could smell it. He just couldn’t see it. It wasn’t good. And there was nothing he could do about it. He wasn’t even embarrassed.

He could hear someone, or something, breathing down his back. It was hot and heavy, like bear’s breath, or the sound his wife would make when she had the pneumonia. He could already feel the wiry whiskers brushing up against the back of his neck. Was it a bear? He thought to himself in frozen fear. And how the hell did it … No!” he suddenly realized. It was not a bear at all. It was a beard! It was human. He imagined the worst. But wait! Cannibals don’t have beards, was another thought that’d just then crossed his troubled mind; at least not the ones he came across forty years ago who, despite the cartoon caricatures he’d seen of them since then, printed in unsavory newspapers, which, by the way, were not only comical but anatomically incorrect as well, portraying the poor devils as ape-like creatures with long braded beards, sharpened white teeth and other exaggerations (well, at least the part about the teeth might be true) not worth mentioning, were actually quite hairless in all natural aspects of their native physiognomy. Something didn’t make sense; or, as they say in Harley: ‘It just don’t boil the beans’. And Homer knew it. What he also knew by then was, or at least suspected, was who might be on the other end of the beard. And he was right about that too. He didn’t have to see the beard to know what color it was either, or whose face was attached to it. It was a red beard, of course; and that meant only one thing. “Rusty?” the old man softly spoke, perhaps a little unsure of himself and still too scared to turn his head one degree or another. As he waited in the silent gloom and doom of the darkness for a response, one way or another, Homer was actually hoping he might be wrong. There are certain times when the devil you don’t know is preferable to the one that you do know. This just happened to be one of those times.

In a way that only exacerbated the situation and further humiliated the already frightened old man, the voice in the dark suddenly did something quite un-expected. It asked a question. It was a simple question; a question Homer had been asking himself ever since he first set foot inside the long dark tunnel; and one, even after all those years, he still couldn’t answer. “Any Ferals in here?” a voice suddenly sounded in the, as if from the very heart of hell. “Hummmmmmmmmm?”

Reaching for the ivory handle of his side-armed six-shooter strapped to his side, which, out of suddenness or sheer panic, he’d all but forgotten about until just then, Homer quickly turned around, thinking that maybe now was as good a time as any to get it over with. But by then Red-Beard had bent over and was picking the lamp up off the ground. It was too late. With the light shining on the old man’s pale and perspiring face, Homer was clearly and visibly upset. Quite angry, actually. And it showed. “Damn you to hell, Horn!” he cursed out loud while spitting on the ground where the prankster stood holding the lamp like some Red-Bearded Diogenes who had just found the last honest man, and so shocked by the discovery that he really didn’t know what to say, or do, next.

The light shining in his face gave Red-Beard the eerie appearance of a ghostly phantom, some messenger from the underworld, a chaperon from Hades, dispatched by Satan himself, to navigate the souls of the damned through the shadowy labyrinths of hell and into the fiery furnace like so many lost lemmings; not unlike Hermes, I suppose, the Greek god similarly assigned to those deep dark corridors of the underworld where Perdition’s flames burn in perpetuity while lonely Plato sits and ponders.

“What wrong with you anyway!” shouted the old man, gathering what was left of his wits while snatching the lamp from the devil’s red paws. “Have you finally gone insane?” he begged to know, “Or are you just plain crazy?”

“Depends on who you ask,” the devil replied, in all satanic truth and honesty.

Homer was in no mood to argue. And he certainly didn’t want to encourage or engage Red-Beard any more than he would the King of Hell himself, should the infernal fiend somehow materialize right then and there in his fiery red flannels to mentor his red bearded apprentice on the proper etiquette and finer points of devilry. “Do that again, Horn… and I’ll kill ya,” the deputy solemnly vowed with no small measure of uncertainty, his hand resting firmly on the ivory handle of his revolver.

Red-Beard merely smiled – an odd and rare occurrence under any circumstances – which only made him look more evil, and perhaps a little insane. “Wouldn’t do any good, old man,” he said, breathing in the yellow light of the lantern as though it were pure oxygen.

“Well, I ‘spose not,” agreed the deputy after thinking it over for a moment. “But it would be one less devil to worry about.

It suddenly occurred to Homer that this man, who had just scared the living crap out him, quite literally in fact, was not Red-Beard at all; it may not have even been Colonel Horace Horn, either. Both men, as far as he could tell, were incapable of such emotional displays, especially those involving any sense of humor. It simply wasn’t in their make-up, or their character. At times, the old man suspected Red-Beard wasn’t human at all, an observation shared by not a few present that day, especially considering what happened on the battlefield and how the colonel was said to have been spliced back together and fitted with all new parts, including a new iron heart, to match his iron will no doubt. And for that reason alone Homer was always suspicious of the bearded dynamo, if not downright scared; but he was also sympathetic towards the other man behind that inscrutable red mask. His name was Rusty, Rusty Horn. Rusty was a man, in the real sense of the word, who, not-with-standing Red-Beard’s stoic attitude about such playful activities which were considered non-essential, and perhaps at his own expense, had only done what any other good natured soul or soldier would have done under similar, but perhaps less dangerous, circumstances. And that was to simply have played a good old-fashioned school boy prank of ‘Gotcha!’ on a fellow human being. And it worked! From a strictly humanitarian point-of-view, to not have done so, or even to have done otherwise, would simply have been unconscionable. And besides that – it was just plain funny, as Homer himself would have surely admitted if, that is, he wasn’t so angry at the time and had not soiled himself in such an undignified and unmanly manner.

Despite its sudden impact, the means of its deliverance, and the effect it had on the old man’s delicate bowel movements, the joke was not really all that bad. And it was not, after all, the work of the devil, as Homer had initially suspected. In fact, it was all too human. The best jokes usually are, of course; that’s what makes then so funny – the human element, along with a healthy dose of reality and a few grains of truth added to the aggregate just to make it stick. What Rusty did to Homer inside the tunnel that day was no exception, and just as funny. It was spontaneous, serendipitous; it was human, and it was real. It was something Red-Beard could never have done on his own; not without compromising his perfunctory principles, which of course he would never do. Humor, in whatever form it takes, from pathos to pleasure, and however well (or not so well) it is conceived, delivered, and received, was something Red-Beard simply could not understand, let alone be a part of. To him, humor was a sickness, a social disease, like herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, or peyronie’s disease, which for anyone who may be interested, is an deformity of the male sexual organ or an erection that bends abnormally to the left (if that’s any indication of Red-Beard’s political leaning’s; psychologically speaking, of course) and to be avoided at all costs; cured if possible, and castrated if necessary. Rusty, on the other hand, still and a taste for the infectious contagion, which has a way of metastasizing no matter how much we try to suppress it.

Maybe there was a trace of Humanity left in the old colonel after all, Homer hopefully imagined, if evidenced by nothing more than a simple childish prank played for the purest of reason: the sheer fun of it. Perhaps behind that evil red mask there existed a frightened and freckled face little boy, attempting to emerge, kicking and screaming, pecking, perhaps, at the incubated shell, trying to escape, to survive, or just crying out for the attention it so naturally deserved but was so tragically denied by a mother who, if she had only known what evil seed she’d been impregnated with and what hideous fruit she would be host to, she then might have very well cut the cord long before the fatal error was illegitimately conceived and be done with it. Either that, or she simply should have ‘gotten up’ at the time, and left; as any decent self-respecting woman would’ve done in the first place. She did neither, of course; and that’s the problem. And through the myopic window of his own aborted soul that day, Homer thought he saw that same little freckled-faced boy shinning dimly in the light of the lantern, with fuzzy red cheeks and a mischievous smile, unaware of the storm clouds swirling all around him like the tempestuous skies over Armageddon, but with one small and significant silver lining.

Apparently, there was still hope for this man called Red-Beard, or so thought another lost and frightened old soul who, having fought his own share devils and demons in the past, still not quite sure who had actually won, could clearly see the conflict still going on inside the two-headed monster, whom the old suddenly took pity on. “Never mind, Rusty,” he all but apologized while crawling on the ground searching for the end of the feeder rope he’d dropped earlier in fright. “Help he find the rope – Will ya?”

Dropping to his knees, perhaps for the first time since either of them could remember, Red-Beard began searching for the feeder-line as well. “Well, what do you think,” he finally asked, holding the frayed end of the rope up to the light like a Baptist Minister man-handling a live rattlesnake before an awed and barefooted audience.

“Looks like a cave-in,” said Homer, climbing slowly to his feet and motioning to a solid wall of fallen rocks blocking the way which Red-Beard had just then noticed. “Reckon you used too much… say, what is it you call that stuff, anyway?”

“Dynamite,” replied Red-Beard, thinking along the same lines by then, already calculating how much he would need the next time, if in fact he would need it at all.

“Well whatever it is, Colonel. It worked!”

It was music to Red-Beard’s tone-deaf and tin ears. Not only that, the cave-in, whether a product of his own handiwork, or that of some other forces still at work within the active bowels of the volcano, suddenly presented him with a possible solution to a problem he’d been contemplating for quite some time, long before the expedition actually began. Upon more closely examining the fallen river of rock, the colonel discovered that, indeed, there was a cave-in, the extent of which was yet to be discovered.

Homer then instructed, “You go back and get the others, Rusty. We’ll need help. And bring back some picks and shovels, will ya? And some more of that there…”

“Dynamite?”

“Whatever.”

“And make it fast, colonel. Somethin’ funny’s goin’ on ‘round here. I don’t know what it is yet, and I don’t like it. I’ll wait right here.”

Red-Beard nodded, almost gleefully it would seem. And then, just before leaving, he began sniffing the air all about him air like a he-coon in search of a mate. He turned to the old man and asked in a voice that sounded almost human, “What’s that smell, Homer?”

“Nothing... It was an accident... Never m-mind!” he stammered. And that was all the old man would say about it.

“Must be them Harley beans – Eh, Homer?” grinned Rusty, in yet another display of his more youthful inhibitions.

Another triumph for Humanity! She takes her victories, big and small, wherever she can find them. Perhaps there was hope for Red-Beard, after all, Homer began to imagine. “I reckon,” smiled the deputy. “Now get a’goin’. And hurry it up!”

Rusty shrugged, grabbed the middle of rope and followed it right back to where he started, where he came from.

Meanwhile, Homer waited patiently in the dark with only a small green lantern and a very foul and familiar odor to keep him company. He suddenly became aware that he was also standing in a puddle of water by then. He didn’t know where it came from, or what to make of it at first; but it appeared to be moving downstream, and quickly gaining strength. He also noticed that there were an increasing number of rats in the murky brown liquid in which his feet were presently submerged. They were swimming, or so it seemed, upstream and against the current, as if in a frenzied attempt to escape from some imminent disaster. There’s was old saying among miners that rats in the tunnel are bad luck, Homer suddenly recalled.

PING!

“But they do make good target practice”, said the old man as the deadly white smoke poured out the twelve inch barrel of his special order forty-five caliber six-shooter with ivory inlay handles.

“Did you hear something?” said the Redman, who just happened to be standing closest to the mouth of the tunnel when the round suddenly went off.

Sam, who was standing close by with a coil of rope in one hand, cupped an ear with the other and, leaning precipitously forward, placed his enormous black head into the yawning jaws of the dragon. “Not no mo’ I don’t,’” the Negro was slow to respond, as the echo of the round died along with its intended victim within the dark hollow grave.

Because no one had actually seen him enter the cave, the looks on their faces as Red-Beard emerged from the tunnel that day where just as you might’ve imagine. Why, you would have thought Lazarus himself had just appeared fresh from the tomb and wrapped up like a blue and grey mummy by the stares he received just then, especially from a totally bewildered Alvin Webb, who, probably for the first time in his entire inebriated life, swore he would never take another drop; and despite those among us who may’ve made similar pledges throughout our recidivist lives, only to find ourselves giving into temptation and back-sliding down the slippery slope of the bottle, the very next day in some cases, this time the repentant outlaw actually meant it.

“Well,” spoke Lazarus in a more recognizable voice and looking a little more anxious than usual,” What are you all waiting for?”

“You,” answered Hector, having guessed what’d happened by then, and knowing what would happen next.

Just as they’d expected all along and perhaps because Homer was no longer there to say otherwise, Sam and Boy were first into the tunnel. The rest were soon to follow. Little Dick was the last to enter, leaving Elmo Cotton all alone outside for the time being. The young man from Creekwood Green paused for a moment, as if he wanted to say goodbye to the Harlie personally. He was scared, of course, but tied not to let it show. Elmo couldn’t really blame him; he would’ve been just as frightened. He was happy just to wait outside.

Dilworth did not question the Elmo’s bravery; the Harlie was only doing what he was told to do, or so he imagined. He might’ve even considered the young man from Harley his friend by then, at least the closest he would ever get to such a relationship. They were after all blood brothers. Perhaps, Elmo was thinking very much the same. Neither would ever know. Maybe things hadn’t changed much between them after all. Maybe they had. Maybe... But all that would have to wait. They simply shook hands, as boys with beards do at times like these, and said goodbye to each other.

Actually, Elmo was feeling friendly towards the man from Creekwood Green who’d once urinated in his bathtub, and might’ve even forgiven him for doing what he did to him back then. Recalling what’d happened at the poplar tree and all they’d been through the last few days, he reminded Little Dick, in the Urinator’s own cynical words no less, just before letting go of his blistered white hand that day: “It’s as easy Dick… as easy as falling off a log.”

Having long since reconciled with the man from Harley who’d once broken his leg in response to the aforementioned deed, Little Dick capitulated in the only way he knew how. He laughed. It was all he had to say. He then went inside the tunnel, and was gone.

Following their leader in single line formation like a line of hungry mice pursuing a red bearded pied piper with an assortment of picks and shovels slung over their slumping shoulders, the others entered the tunnel. Tightly fingering the safety rope, they inched their way forward through the flickering darkness with the aid of several sperm-oil lamps magnanimously supplied by the carpenter who’d made good use of their superb lighting ability and pleasant smelling odor on many a lonely night while hammering away in his darkened den. They were also known to last quite a bit longer than your ordinary waxed candles, which Hector’s young and insatiable wife would sometimes use when creeping down into the old man’s workshop late at night, looking for… what else? – A hammer.

The interior walls of the tunnel were supported by evenly spaced timbers placed in such a way as to resemble the rib cage of ship, or the skeleton of a dead whale. But these bones were made of wood and were square-set, the typical method of construction during the days of the Gold Rush. They still creaked and cracked under the tremendous stress of the mountain, as they must have at the time they were first put into place. It was an eerie feeling, but not really as dangerous as it sounded. “That’s just the wood adjusting to the new air pressure,” the carpenter explained. “It’ll settle down soon...I hope.”

“Smells kind’a funny ‘round here,” noted Smiley from the front of the line.

“It’s them Harley beans again,” reminded Little Dick Dilworth, following dangerously close behind is boss.

“Smells like Ferals to me,” suggested Alvin Webb.

“Let’s not start that again,” warned the Red-Beard.

“Hey Hector,” whispered the Indian, his moccasins splashing a path in front of him. “Is there suppose to be water inside a mine?”

Having experienced such natural phenomenon while working in the Southern sulfur mines of North Florida, the Negro answered first, “Happens sometimes, you know. But…”

Hector O’Brien appeared a little worried by then; but because it was so dark inside, no one seemed to notice. “It’s a simple matter of hydrodynamics…” he began.

But before the carpenter could finish his scientific observations, Little Dick suddenly burst out – “Rats!”

Sure enough, before anyone had realized it, a small pond of water had collectively formed around their immobilized ankles, much like it did with Homer, but with one exception. This water had teeth!

“Ouch!” Dilworth cried out in a sudden panic. “I think something just bit me.”

“Pipe down, Dick,” Smiley insisted, “You’ll only make ‘em mad.

“That’s how rats is,” agreed Webb, “They’s varmints!”

“You should know,” replied Dick.

For a change, Hector O’Brien had to agree with the foul-mouthed outlaw, even though it disturbed him to do so. “Just watch your step and be careful,” he warned the others.

“Man up!” snorted the Negro, “– and grow a pair.”

“A pair of what?” questioned the youth.

“Onions, boy! What else? Big, black onions.”

“Remember,” reminded the Hammer, “They’re just as scared as you are.”

“Goddamn rodents!” cursed the surveyor from the front of the line while thrusting the business end of his shovel into the teaming water below and cutting one of the water rats in half in the process. As the severed body floated to the top of the water, he picked it up by the tail and flung it against the wall.

THWAK! It stuck.

“Well, that’s one rat we don’t have to worry about no more,” shrugged the mustache.

“And here’s another,” said Boy, tomahawking an exceptionally large rodent with the blunt end of his weapon that just happened to swim within the Indian’s deadly range.

“Well, at least they ain’t no can’bals,” joked Sam. What he actually meant to say was ‘cannibals’. But everyone knew what he meant; and that’s what they were afraid of.

“You mean e’wals,” corrected the outlaw, still unable to pronounce the word correctly.

Recalling to mind the frightening and bewildering story of Cornelius G. Wainwright III and the man-eating cannibals that spooked him a little more perhaps more than it should have, Little Dick was quick to reply, “You mean dead e’wals – Don’t you, Mister Webb?” while attempting to imitate the outlaw’s pathetically mangled speech.

What the toothless misanthrope was referring to, albeit in his own misguided and bigoted way, were the flesh-eating slaves imported from the Islands and purchased by Mister Wainwright over forty years ago to mine the unholy, and rat-infested, hill they were presently occupying.

“Can’t rightly say, boy” replied Webb, in a more civil tongue that caught the others off their guard. And then the outlaw did something very strange; but for him, almost natural. He began sniffing the air, like he-dog in search of a bitch, for further evidence of his ‘feral’ assertion. He though he smelled something. So did the others. They were suddenly enveloped by terrible foul smelling odor which didn’t seem to bother the outlaw too much, but made the others wrench and want to vomit.

“What’s that?” asked Sam, a big brown paw covering most of his face by then.

“Don’t know,” said Webb. “Hard to tell with Smiley standing so close,” he added for spite’s sake.

The surveyor turned his head, the light from the oil lamp exposing an angry expression hidden beneath the strands of his illuminated mustache. “What do you mean by that, Webb?” he demanded to know.

“It’s them beans, I tell you!” regurgitated Dick, chocking on his own words.

“Enough with the beans already,” stamped Smiley, with the exasperation look of a tired and frustrated man who had just about enough. “And I don’t want to hear any more out of you either, Mister Webb.”

The outlaw protested. “But I’m standing downwind…”

The surveyor raised his shovel.

The dog kenneled. “Er… nothin’, Charles. Just a manner of speech.”

“Well, next time mind your manners,” warned the surveyor, angrily, his mustache wilting in the humidity of the thick, hot air, “…and your speech, too!”

By that time Homer could already hear the echoing sound of footsteps splashing steadily through the water. “Must be them,” he spoke to himself in the darkness.

As previously instructed, Elmo had remained just outside the cave, at the mouth of the tunnel, with only the ponies, the oxen, and his mule to keep him company. It was his assigned task to keep an eye on the uncoiling rope at all times and make sure nothing happened to it. It was also his job to see that the feeder-line did not become ‘discombobulated’, or tangled up in any way that would interfere with the functional purposes for which it was designed. It was called being the ‘Combobulator’, for obvious reasons, needless-to-say. It was actually a term the miners came up with (quite philologically, I might add!) for just such an important and indispensable task.

Before we go any further, and further we will certainly go, a word or two about the term itself, ‘Combobulator’. Now, I must confess right here and now that when I first came across this obscure colloquialism, which I first took as a mere bastardization of the English language, I was obviously just as flummoxed as you, my dear and gentle reader; perhaps, even more so, since I myself often find such idiomatic expressions ambiguous at best and misleading at worse; sometimes, they are downright erroneous. And make no mistake about it: I was equally doubtful that such a word even existed in the ever-expanding lexicon of man. For the record, let it be known that I have searched through every dictionary I could get my hands on (some so thick you can actually sit on them) for the meaning of the elusive word; and I have peer into every nook and cranny of Brother Noah Webster’s magnificent Ark, only to find out that, not unlike the fated unicorns who never made it into that famous ‘floating zoo’, as the Irish Rover sings, if for no other reason than simply because they all were ‘too busy playing their silly games’ when Mighty Jehovah flung open the floodgates of Heaven and reeked his righteous vengeance upon a wild and wicked world, it was nowhere to be found. I pressed on.

You see, not only did I desire to find out the precise meaning of this ambiguous noun, which had become an obsession of mine by then; but I also wanted to know of its origins as well; if, in fact, any were to be found at all. And so I examined every document I could lay my industrious hands on that might shed some light on the dogged subject; but to no avail. And to further my frustrations, I’ve even gone so far as to consulted several well-known and highly respected philologists on the wordy matter who, after a great deal of enthusiastic research, came up just as empty-handed as myself; except, perhaps, for the nominal fee which I was forced to paid them in advance for their scholarly efforts. Alas, the true definition of the word had eluded me, as I came to a complete, abrupt, total, and utter dead-end.

But perhaps, thought I, like so many other idiomatic expressions that find their way into mouths of mortal man, the etymology of this particular word lies not in the ink-stained pages of civilization, the contents of which can be altered, overwritten, or otherwise revised to such a perverted degree that they loss whatever credibility they may’ve had to begin with, but rather in the rural roots from which they sprang, the heartland of America, as muddy and mysterious as the waters of the Mississippi Delta, as high as the Appalachian Mountain range, as deep as the Grand Canyon, and as potent as a jug of moonshine whiskey, along with all backwoods subtleties surrounding them and the self-reliant folk who reside there with their pitch-forks, shotguns, Bibles and blue jeans. For it was there, one could only suppose, in the hidden hollers of the Blue Ridge Mountains where the word first appeared; conceived, birthed, and burped into the woeful and wonderful world of that noble race of self-sufficient survivors, otherwise known as ‘hillbillies’, by some toothless old granny, who, acting as both mid-wife and physician (better than any gynecologist you could find today I might add, and a whole lot cheaper too!) with carving knife in hand and smoking a corn-cob pipe no doubt, cut the cord right there on the kitchen table just as she’d done a hundred times before, thus supplying an insatiable and hero-starved world with yet another Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett; or maybe even a future Chuck Yeager, who, not unlike those other two legendary giants of old, one the celebrated champion of New Orleans, the other the undisputed ‘king of the wild frontier’ with a coon-skin cap for a crown, would one day mount his own iron clad war-horse, not to fight Redcoats or Indians, but to do battle with deadlier demons and far more formidable foes, like the sound barrier and other phantasmagorical phantoms lurking on the outer edges of the stratosphere, and beyond.

Now, as for the word in question, ‘Combobulator’ all I can say is this: It does exist. I’ve heard it myself! And as for its exact meaning – well, as far as I can tell, it is merely an antonym for its opposite and more recognizable twin – discombobulate, which, according to Mister Noah Webster, is defined as such: dis-com-bob-u-late, verb, [probably alteration of discompose] : upset, confuse. And so with no further eloquence, I presently submit to the Academy for review and approval, with a humble heart and only the best of intentions, and for inclusion into that same Universal Lexicon of Man which includes all and holds no patents, the following: com-bob-u-late, verb, to calm, straighten out, or otherwise make true and correct.

Proceeding from that definitive point, as grammar not only permits but dictates, allow me to extrapolate: Combobulator, noun, one who combobulates, as accurately applied to our very own Harlie hero, whose specific job it was to make sure (God-damn @#$%^&*’ing sure !!! in the explicative words of the surveyor) that the rope, or feeder-line, in which Elmo was solely put in charge of that day, whether he accepted the job or not, remained free and clear of any and all unnecessary twists or turns, wears and tears, snags, sags, splits, dips, rips, breaks, tangles, obstructions, encumbrances or interferences of any kind; but most of all, any discombobulations. Thus, the Combobulator!’ In short, it was the Harlie’s duly appointed task to make sure the feeder-line worked, at all times, and in all the prescribed manners for which it was intended. It wasn’t a difficult thing to do (some of the most consequential jobs in the world seldom are, such as firing a gun or assassinating a king) but it did demand total concentration, absolute attention, and a great deal of will power.

But in all actuality, and for all intents and purposes, all Elmo Cotton was required to do that day was to simply keep an careful eye on the coil of rope outside the cave as the miners progressed further and deeper into the tunnel. Naturally, his main responsibility to make any and all necessary corrections and/or adjustments in the line as it unraveled from its serpentine coil, especially in the event of any sudden snarls, tangles, or ‘discombobulations’ that might occur as the ‘snake’ slowly unwound and unraveled itself. In mining terms that made Elmo Cotton the official ‘Combobulator’, a professional title bestowed upon him by none other than the Old Hammer himself, Hector O’Brien. It was the only title the Harlie had ever held, other than bean farmer, of course, and one he could be quite proud of. He wore it well, with pride and dignity; and he took the job with all the seriousness and responsibility it demanded. He had to; there were too many lives depended on it, including Homer’s. Needless to say, Elmo did not object to the title, or the assignment, and was more than happy to do it. Naturally, he would much rather be outside, rather than inside, the long dark tunnel at the time; or any other time, for that matter.

As in the case with any mining excavation the feeder-line, or snake-rope, as it is also called in the mining profession (‘snake’ for short) was perhaps the single most important piece of equipment on the jobsite. It served not only as a safety device, but also as the only link the miners had with the outside world in case of cave-ins, black-outs; or if they simply lost their bearings once inside the mineshaft, which was known to happen more often than many would like to believe, or care to admit.

The ‘snake’ was an critical part of the mining business, and as necessary as any other tool associated with that dangerous, and sometimes lethal, profession; including hammers, chisels, pickaxes and, especially canaries, which were mercilessly used to detect the presence of methane and other poisonous gases that could kill a man just as quickly, and effectively, as any cave-in; in fact, poison gas was often more sinister simply because, in most cases at least, it is odorless as well as invisible and can suffocate a miner long before he even knew it was there, not unlike the slow steady spiraling applied by the boa constrictor as it drains the life from its victim. Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, these colorful birds could only be used once, and were sometimes discarded by the old timers who didn’t bother with such precautionary measures, trusting, instead, their own natural instincts when it came to matters of their own survival. They merely laughed at such contrivances. The ‘snake’, was not to be taken so lightly, however; it was never to be taken for granted. Mining was serious business – as serious as the stuff they were mining for; as serious gold.

As previously hinted upon, being the ‘Combobulator’ was not necessarily a difficult job, which is why the Harlie assumed it was given to him in the first place, but it did put him in a rather precarious position; a position of grave responsibility, a rare position for any Harlie to be in at the time, and one Elmo reluctantly accepted that day on top of the mountain with no small measure of trepidation or doubt. At first it was argued, quite forcefully in fact, that the combobulator’s position be given to Dick Dilworth; for a variety of reason, not least of which it was Smiley’s rope to begin with and Dick was used to handling such things. But, as we already have elucidated upon, Lil’ Dick was a day-dreamer, among other things, with a short attention span and an undeveloped libido. In short, he was simply (no pun intended) not up to the job. Or maybe the Indian named boy the best ‘man’ for the job, as Homer originally suggested (despite the name he was unfairly assigned to and his propensity of falling asleep so easily) chiefly on account of his extensive knowledge of snakes in general. Sam’s name was also mentioned in regard to the al important business of combobulating; but his previous mining experience made him indispensable. He would have to go inside.

In the end it was Red-Beard himself who, with noticeable pride and perhaps even a little affection, designated the Harlie, Elmo Cotton, as the official ‘Combobulator’. It was almost as if he wanted Elmo to remain outside, thought Homer; something that actually made the old man a little jealous at the time. Still, he wondered if the colonel had made the right decision. It was alot of responsibility for a Harlie sharecropper. Naturally, there would be no one else to blame if something went wrong; and somehow, whenever things did go wrong, Elmo always seemed to be involved one way or another. And he knew it. If did things did go wrong, than everyone else would still be inside the tunnel, either lost or dead by the time he could figure what happened. But there were something else on the Harlie’s mind that day. For some inexplicable reason, Elmo suddenly had a strange and foreboding feeling that he was being watched. It was the same worrisome feeling he'd experienced before, in the bean fields of Harley, when he thought he was alone with his mule. He didn't like it. And the feeling stayed with him all the while as he stood there watching the rope slowly uncoil a little, stop, and then uncoil just a little more, just the way it was suppose to. At least something was working right, he tried to convince himself.

Meanwhile, the lone dark cloud had re-appeared outside the cave, casting a long dark shadow over the top of the mountain, just as it did right before Homer planted his crucifix in the unconsecrated ground, spilling over into the crater that surrounded him, which only made the Harlie even more suspicious, and vulnerable. He suddenly began wishing that he were now more inside the tunnel than he was outside. Maybe he wasn’t cut out to be a Combobulator after all, he shamefully admitted. And with eight men at the one end of a rope, and a Harlie at the other, Elmo just had to wonder. Presently, all their lives depended entirely on him, Elmo Cotton, the Combobulator, the sharecropper, a bean farmer from Harley! “Ain’t that a flip!” he said to no one in particular. The irony was amusing, if nothing else, and made him laugh. Not to his surprise, the mule laughed right along with him.


Chapter Eight

The Red Hand

“OH, SHUT UP!” Elmo shouted down the animal for reading his mind as it had done a thousand times before.

To which the mule appropriately responded that day in the usual, and sometimes ornery, manner it was accustomed to; which, by the way, is the way most mules respond under such trying and demanding circumstances – with a question, of course. “What’s so funny,” it asked in all sublime sincerity.

It was an ordinary voice, unassuming, and quite imaginary; it was a voice the Harlie had grown accustomed to over the years, simply because… well, simply because the voice belonged to him. But still, it sounded so… so real, and remote; like it was, in fact, coming from someplace other than its true and natural source, which just so happened to be the Harlie’s own un-silenced and unsolicited conscious; his soul, if you will. It was Elmo voice all right; or more particularly, his thoughts, consciously or subconsciously projected into the mouth of another being, without the physical manifestations, of course; and in much the same way a good ventriloquist skillfully and successfully throws his voice into some inanimate object, usually by way of a small wooden dummy sitting on his lap, for the sake of entertaining his astonished audience. In Elmo’s case, he merely chose a more animate subject, which at the time also happened to be the most convenient; namely, his mule. Besides, it was usually the only dummy around… other than himself, of course.

Elmo balked at first. And then, with no one else around to witness the foolishness he would sometimes indulge in while plowing the bean fields of Harley, the Harlie took the bait and responded by lashing out at the poor dumb beats in the usual manner: “You! You stupid ol’ jackass. You’s what so funny! And there ain’t nothin’ funnier than a talkin’ mule,” he added just for spite.

The animal reacted accordingly: at first with a few simple nods of its long equine head, followed by that spasmodic hee-hawing sound mules are famous for, especially when they’re irritated or just being stubborn, which seems to be their natural disposition. But it didn’t stop there; for just as it did a hundred times before, the mule responded in usual manner, which typically began by asking a question:” Well, how ‘bout a Harlie Combobulator?” it suddenly responded in a way Elmo had grown quite accustomed to by now. “Now that’s pretty damn funny, too… if you ask me.”

“No one asked you,” replied the Harlie, cautiously eyeing the unraveling coil of hemp not far from his feet with intense scrutiny. “Besides, ain’t nothin’ funny about men dyin’! And that’s ‘zackly what just might happen ifin’ I don’t pay ‘tention to this here rope,” he insisted with all the authority invested in him at the time. “That’s what cabob’lators is fo’, he further remonstrated, trying to pronounce the word correctly, which he was still unsure of even though he’d heard it quite a few times by now. “And that’s me – I’s the cabob’lator. Mister Hector say so! The best damn cabob’lator there ever was! So why don’t you just minds your own sorry-ass business, Mister Mule; and I’ll minds mine. Humph!” he scowled, hoping that would be the end of it. It wasn’t, of course.

“But I was minding my own business,” argued the mule.

“Elmo replied, “Your business is pullin’ a plow…! and that’s another thing,” he added before the burdening beast could say another word in its own undeniable defense, “You should be back on the farm right now, anyway… where you belongs.”

“That makes two of us.” The mule agreed. “I’ll pull… But some other jack-as has gots to drive the damn thing, you know.”

Elmo never did like it when the mule made sense; like he was just then. And he wasn’t quite sure if, in some self-accusatory way, he’d just been insulted, “Oh, don’t worry about me,” he insisted.

“It’s not you I’m worried about,” replied the mule – the way the Harlie’s wife would sometimes admonish him in that selfish and self-serving way women often resort to when they think they are being patronize, which is usually the case with stubborn farm girls who actually know a good deal more than their condescending husbands give them credit for.

“Huh?” questioned the Harlie.

“You heard me.”

“Oh… now I gets it,” said Elmo, as if he’d just been reminded of something. “You’s talkin’ ‘bout Nadine... Ain’t you?”

The mule: “And lil’ Ralph, too.”

”Ralph!” the Harlie uttered out loud, not knowing if the sound came from him or the animal, or both. The names, wherever they came from and whoever spoke them, made him a little uncomfortable and nervous. And to add to the absurdity of the situation, he still had the overwhelming and alarming suspicion that he was being watched. He wondered if the mule felt that way, too. He was afraid to ask.

They found Homer Skinner at a place where the tunnel suddenly came to a definite and abrupt end. He looked no less confused then he did when Red-Beard first found him there earlier, only a little more exasperated by then, holding his green lantern up to the wall in a small pool of turbid water. He appeared to be looking for something; and presently it looked as though he indeed may’ve found it. There were chisel marks still visible in that portion of the mine, put there, perhaps, by human hands and for reasons that remained unclear. There were names and dates, indicated, perhaps, exactly when the inscriptions were made, and who put them there. But they were very faint and, under the poorly lighted and strained conditions, appeared almost impossible to read at the time. Apparently, they’d been put there some time ago, during the Gold Rush, perhaps, maybe even by Cornelius G. Wainwright III himself or one of his associates, or assassins. But there was little else to reveal who it was, or what hand what hand held, the hammer that made the marks in the first place, or what became of him, or them.

“Look familiar, old man?” enquired Red-Beard, studying the wall as if it were a newly discovered monument placed there after some heroic battle, the haste in which it was made clearly suggesting the outcome of the conflict, by an ancient race of warriors whose name would be forever be immortalized in stone.

Homer Skinner shook his head: First no; and then, yes. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted, not so sure of anything anymore.

“Could be a warnin’, suggested the Smiley. He’d seen markings similar to these before, either chiseled in stone or carved into the trunks of old trees, sometimes serving as benchmarks for surveyors to establish their bearings with, or just to let others know they were there. He had actually become quite good at deciphering such signs, their codes, as well as the message contained within. But these engravings were beyond his reckoning; so many lines and various patterns, intentionally placed there, artistically, intelligence without meaning, rhyme and no reason. He’d never seen anything like it. “Beats the #$%&*!! out of me,” he shrugged.

There were sweaty beads of perspiration forming on the Negro’s sloping forehead, glistening in the lamp light. Obviously, he was just as nervous as the others, despite any efforts to conceal his anxiety, and perhaps even more so since he’d been in old mines before and knew how unpredictable they could be. He was also wondering if, perhaps, they’d gone too far. “I’s been in mines befo’,” he managed to smile while dragging a checkered handkerchief across is burning brow, “But not anything like this. Matter’ fact, this here mine give me the jimmies.”

At that point, the carpenter approached the wall, holding a lamp closely to the stone parchment. The lines, or whatever they were, appeared vaguely familiar, but he could not say how. For the most part they were vertical inscriptions, placed tightly together and at varying angles. They reminded him of some sort of ancient Celtic alphabet his mother once tried to teach him as a child. It was from an old Irish history grammar book she kept in the attic. But he wasn’t sure. “Could be from some early explorers,” he suggested with an academic gleam in his eyes. “I once heard a story about a boatload of Irishmen, priests I believed they were, that were actually here long before Christopher Columbus; although his real name was Christos Columbo,” he added, knowing his Italian as well as his Latin, and knowing the difference.

“Is that so, professor?” Smiley interjected.

What the educated Hammer was alluding to, in his own precise and exacting manner, were similar marking once found in a North American cave, “…somewhere in coal mines of West Virginia,” Hector elucidated, “Probably got lost at sea, or maybe…”

“Maybe they was just drunk,” suggested Alvin Webb with a hint of self-loathing, himself a product of mixed Irish ancestry (a fact he was neither proud nor ashamed of) who were, contrary to popular rumor and belief, actually more inclined to be tee-toddler s than alcoholics. Of course, you would never have guessed it by observing the many bars and breweries that suddenly sprang up in that part of the new world once they arrived, by the boatload in most cases, from their native soil, especially after the potato famine decimated half their villages, any more than you would by observing the Irish outlaw in his typical state of inebriation, which more often than not gave him the pitiful appearance of existing in a perpetual hangover. “Ever think about that, Hector,” he suggested, with a lilt of Irish laughter.

Hector was not amused, of course; neither was he ashamed. In fact, in an odd and almost personal sort of way, the Irish outlaw had indeed stolen the Hammer’s thunder; for that is exactly how he remembered it, at least from his Gaelic grandmother’s academic point-of-view. As it were, Mrs. Katherine O’Brien was not only a saint but a scholar as well, especially on the subject of the early Catholic Church, and Saint Patrick in particular who, blessed be the bones of the saint that lie still beneath the sacred sod, was said to have driven all the snakes from Erin’s Isle at the sharp end a shillelagh when he wasn’t, of course, proselytizing and preaching to the pagans the mysteries of the Holy Trinity as demonstrated in his famous shamrock. This woman knew what she was talking about and, at least in the County of Killarney and a few surrounding townships, was considered to be as infallible as the Pope’s on such matters historical matters. “Like I said,” the Hammer continued, tracing the lines in the rock with his fingertips, “They were here before us. All of us. Maybe even before the Redman.”

Boy merely balked at Hector’s latest assumption, which, taking no immediate offense to the old gray Hammer, he was simply unwilling to accept. As far as he was concerned, and according to his own native history, however shrouded in myth and mystery and stained with blood, the Redman was here first… before anyone! And that’s just all there is to it, as far as he was concerned. The gods say so. And that’s why they’re called Native Americans, I suppose. Boy could prove it! But he just didn’t have the time; besides, he doubted that anyone would have believed him anyway.

“And you know what they found in the cave?” continued Hector for the sake of anyone present who might still be wondering what happened to the fated Irish monks and what they were really up to; besides getting drunk one night and deciding it would be a good idea to navigate their way across the Atlantic only to wind up in some God-forsaken cave where they probably died of cold and starvation if they weren’t eaten by bears, scalped by Indians, just as they were scribbling their last will and testaments, as well as their own obituaries, on the wall of a cave somewhere in West (by God!) Virginia.

“What’s that’s, carpenter,” Smiley demanded to know, with a few Irish genes coursing through his own Celtic bones, along with some fine Scotch and good old American whisky, and never one to let a good story die in the womb before it is hatched.

Hector smiled. “Why, it was a Christmas card, Charles! You see, they finally did decipher the message scrawled into the wall of the coal mine. It turns out to be, of all things, a birthday card – to God! Seems it was put there the first century A.D. And there was a date to prove it! December 25, which was the Roman winter solstice according to the Julian calendar in use at the time. There it was, carved right into the stone, as clear and binding as the tablets within the Holy Ark, signed and sealed by finger of God. And here the pious carpenter bowed his silver head and quoted the Holy Text from memory which matched, almost verbatim, that which would one day be found scribbled on a wall inside a cave by a handful of sea-faring Celtic priests somewhere in the hills and hollers of West (By God!) Virginia for future generations to ponder and perhaps pray over: “For unto Us a Child is born. Unto Us a Son is given. And the government shall be upon His shoulder. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace - Isaiah 9:6”

“And who cares if they was drunk,” apologized Webb out of respect for a dead Irish sailor who, for all he know, may’ve have been his own great-great grandfather. “They made it. Didn’t they? That’s what really matters. It may’ve been the most profound, and perhaps the truest, thing the outlaw had said yet.

In a thick Irish brogue that spoke of boiled spuds and Shepherd’s pie and went down like a pint of Guinness Stout, Charles Smiley was forced to agree with his criminal kin and countryman that day; with the usual profanities attached, of course: – “Aye, that’s right, Alvin. They did make it! Those sons of bitches…. They made it. And that’s what @#$%^&*’ing counts!”

“That true?” inquired the incredulous Negro, with no particular dog in this fight since none of his ancestors, as far as he knew, wanted to be here in the first place. And the ones that did finally arrive on the sacred shores Liberty didn’t just come in boats… they came in chains; and they weren’t drunk; although, I’m sure many wished they wished they were at the time.

The Indian named Boy was neither convinced nor impressed. He’d heard similar stories regarding the discovery of this, this ‘New World’, which to him at least was not really quite so ‘new’ having existed long before coming of man, and even less a ‘world’ since, in his own native understanding, there was no term, or references made thereof, to suggest any such place ever existed; for the ‘world’, as comprehended in the mind of the Redman, included all worlds, physical and metaphysical, ubiquitously distributed throughout the entire Universe and singularly defined as ‘one world’. But the story, as Boy suddenly recalled just then, was told from a less Evangelical point of view and minus any references to the Nativity. By his own account, the Celtic sailors in question were, in fact, Asians, Mongols of the Great Kahn dynasty perhaps who, after several failed attempts at circumnavigating the globe by way of Cape Horn (Of course, if you would have told any of these brave young mariners that the world was flat, something their more civilized cousins to the west took as Gospel fact, they merely would have laughed at you, and then cut your head for being not only an infidel, but an imbecile as well) and thus having set their Lateen sails Eastward to achieve what was then thought to be the impossible, stumbled upon in the same manner ascribed to the Irish sailors, quite accidentally, that is, the land that is currently referred to as North America. If nothing else, both tales did have a ring of truth to them, and were at least similar enough in substance to give credence to the fact that such an expedition did, at one time, actually take place; never mind the particulars or details of the adventure, which as we all know can vary from one culture to the next, much like the epic story of Gilgamesh which, by no small means and measure was said to have not only equaled and surpassed Noah’s own fantastic voyage, but was more than likely the pretext to the Biblical account of the Great Flood as well. Well, so much for originality; but then, isn’t that how all great epics begin and thus evolve? from their predecessors. No one writes solely on or strictly from experience, I suppose; not even the great Homer himself who, as evidence would surely suggest, got as much as he gave from the ancient Greeks. And in the descriptive words of the American Redman, who Boy would come to represent that day in challenging the white man’s evangelical claims of what actually happened there in a not too distant past, albeit with all due respect and good intentions, and in the stereotypical manner sometimes ascribed to the Indian’s particular and peculiar manner of speech: “Heap big crop take’um heap big buffalo dung.” And that’s about all the Indian named Boy had left to say on the matter, ‘driving home the nail’, so-to-speak, if not the tomahawk, which he knew the carpenter, if no one else, would certainly appreciate. To put it another way, or, in the white man’s more subtle vernacular and famously ‘forked’ tongue: Whether planting corn or spinning yarns… a little fertilizer goes a long, long way.

And here Red-Beard stepped in to corroborate the Evangelist’s wild romantic tale, which he’d actually known of for quite some time but, owing to a strict Protestant up-bringing which would naturally frown on such papal discourse, his widowed mother being an Anglican by birth and a faithful member of the First Presbyterian Church of New Dublin by choice right up until the day she died, and perhaps for even more personal and private reason, had never mentioned it before. “If Hector’s says it’s true…” he interjected, like judge and bailiff giving instructions to a deliberating jury, “not only can you take it to the bank… you can bet your house and horse it’s true.”

“Well, that settles that,” said Homer, with nothing else to add to the conversation.

Meanwhile, the Indian thought he saw something in the stony hieroglyphics that the others might’ve missed. He drew closer to the wall and began running his savage fingers over a number of curious markings embedded in the stone. The lines, or whatever they were, spoke to the Indian in that faraway familiar voice that only he could hear. He listened as the others watched. “Bad Medicine,” he murmured just before turning his attention to a dark red patch circumscribed on the smooth surface of the wall not far from the hieroglyphic scribbling.

Homer drew the lamp closer to the wall, exposing for all to see more clearly exactly what it was that had so ostensibly commanded the Indian’s immediate attention. Exposed as it were to the power of the light, a light that hadn’t shone there for perhaps forty years, which seemed to have a disinfecting if not rejuvenating affect upon it, the image stenciled on the surface of the stone suddenly sprang back to life in all its original familiarity. It was a hand; a red hand to be more specific, not unlike that of the Redman himself, painted right there on the smooth pale surface of the stone, as if placed there only yesterday, shining with that peculiar luster associated with freshly applied paint, sparkling as it were, and reflecting every last bit light shed upon its scarlet surface like crystallized corpuscles of blood. There was something vaguely familiar about it, something…human, but primitive; not unlike the detailed etchings of prehistoric animals found in caves all over the world, placed there, perhaps, by Neanderthal Rembrandts who decided it was far better, and a whole lot safer, to simply draw a picture of a wooly mammoth rather than chase one down and kill it with a stick; although his wife (if that’s what they called them back then) would probably have strongly disagreed with enough pre-menstrual grunts, groans, and bone throwing to make even a wooly mammoth look appealing. The five crimson digits were spread evenly across the blank slate, gracefully, like the long and elegant feathers observed, even from great distances, on the tips of eagle’s wing in flight, as if purposely and deliberately put there in that peculiar fashion. But why? And for what purpose? Was it a sign? A symbol? A warning? A greeting, perhaps! Not unlike like that of the carpenter’s divine and inspiring ‘Christmas card’?

No, thought Homer without outwardly expressing his inner anxieties at the time. He’d seen the sigh once before, although he couldn’t recall exactly where or when; and he didn’t like the looks of it, either. There was something about the color red he found most worrisome, and wary. It’s the color of war, to be sure. And if you don’t believe that, look at any flag, any proud pennant and you will surely discover a splash of red somewhere in the national tapestry, hidden perhaps, among the blues, the blacks, the whites, the oranges, yellows, greens and purples, along with all shades in between. And even if you don’t find it there, you will find it in the hands that hold the sacred cloth, stained, no doubt, with the blood of an enemy that likewise have their own flags to fly, and their own blood to spill. Or better yet, just take a good long look at our red-bearded leader, Red-Beard himself. Red! It’s the color of defiance, destruction, and death. It screams! It taunts! It enrages! It bleeds and boasts! It murders. It is unrepentant. Red is bold; and it is angry. Is it any wonder it drives bulls so mad? Red is the color of Lucifer’s tail. Red is proud. But it goes even deeper than that. Signs like that of the red hand, Homer was thinking to himself just then, had no congeniality attached to them at all, no welcomed relief, no sanctuary. Whoever put it there may as well have drawn the infamous skull and cross-bones in its place of the red hand. There was simply nothing hospitable about it. It’s not what it’s about. It was put there deliberately, for a reason, perhaps, not unlike the scarlet letter emblazoned on the benevolent breast of Hester Prynne. And just like that same scandalous letter in Mister Hawthorne’s famous novel, the red hand spoke volumes without uttering a single syllable.

Or maybe the author of this particular letter and, subsequently, the owner of the red hand itself, whoever that happened to be, simply didn’t know how to write. Perhaps, just like those old Egyptian scriveners who used symbols, hieroglyphs, instead of letters to express their monumental thoughts, the man behind the mysterious red hand communicated his ideas, however great or small, in the only way he knew how: with a knife, and his own living flesh, the substance of which was presently portrayed and exhibited for all to see in a that one simple and inscrutable red hand purposely painted and indelibly preserved on a canvass of stone. What magical methods he might have employed in the creation of such a long-lasting legacy to himself remained a mystery, much like the mummification techniques of his Middle Eastern contemporaries whose embalming skills have long since vanished like the nose of the Great Sphinx that still guards the tombs of the Pharaohs. Like the graffiti remains hastily scratched their into the walls of Antiquity, put there no doubt by grave robbers as they made their villainous way through the vaulted halls of the dead king, with a good deal of his treasures stashed away under their tunics, adding insult to injury so-to-speak, so too might have a more modern thief leave his own self-incriminating mark upon this very American rock.

“What is it?” Red-Beard suddenly demanded to know, referring to the emblematic image on the stone, and expecting a reasonable, if not logical, response.

Alvin was the first to speak up. “It’s red, colonel,” he simply observed, which was probably the first correct statement to flow out of his lying lips since they started out of the fateful expedition. Oh well, as the man said: Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

Smiley, was obviously frustrated, and maybe even a little worried by then, and, as he was beginning to have second thoughts about the success of the expedition, afforded the outlaw his famous exasperated look of contempt, followed by the usual string on profanities. “Brilliant, Mister Webb,” he said in typical sarcastic form, “– Just @#$%^&*!ing brilliant.”

And then, as though compelled to do so by some ancient, invisible, and perhaps even irresistible force beyond his power to control, the Indian named Boy put forth his own inscrutable red hand and placed it gently but directly right over the handprint on the stone. It was a perfect match. It fit like a glove. And when he removed it, Boy instinctively licked the palm of his hand, as if to analyze, in his own native way, the substance it had just come in contact with. “It’s blood,” he calmly concluded with a rather curious look in his eyes. “I’ve tasted this before.” And then he faded in to the shadow lands of his deep dark thoughts and would say no more.

Another bad omen, the others were collectively thinking to themselves at the time, and wondering if perhaps they should just pack up and leave before the owner of the red hand, or some other hellish apparition who might not take kindly to un-welcomed visitors, return. Or perhaps the warden of the underworld would simply dispatch so many red devils and demons, along with an army of imps, with pitchforks and Lucifer matches to roast them all alive as trespassers. But it was too late; they’d come too far already to be turned away by Indian superstitions, black magic, red-devils, or any other powers or principalities, natural or un-natural, that might obstruct their progress. It simply wasn’t going to happen. And so, with no further discussion and with picks and the shovels in hand, they went straight to work un-doing what Red-Beard, with the help of a little too much dynamite, perhaps, had just created in the first place. And they did it in the only way they knew how – Expeditiously.

Before long, they had not only breached the fallen curtain of stone, but excavated an opening just large enough for all to pass through (one at a time, of course) unencumbered and with relative ease of entry. As usual, Homer led the way with his little green lantern, which suddenly reminded him, a little too much perhaps, of the green firefly he had encountered earlier in the woods – the one that was destroyed by the fire.

Once they were beyond the scene of the cave-in, the tunnel assumed a sudden downward trajectory; so much so that Homer had to stop a few times to warn the others and catch his breath. But with each uncertain but un-faltering step, he assured them all that they were still headed in the right direction. “I know this place,” he whispered back to them in reassurance, examining the ever-encroaching wall of the tunnel with an ever-discerning eye.

By virtue of his rank and experience, not to mention being the duly elected leader of the group and taking full responsibility for what may, or may not, happen next, Red-Beard voiced his immediate concern, which was very much on the minds of all the others by now as well. “Is it safe, old man?” he spoke from behind.

Still visible on either side of the diminishing tunnel, was the same ‘square bracing’ construction they had observed earlier that day shoring up either side of the mine, as well as the low-hanging ceiling; although, these timbers appeared to be made out of a different type of wood altogether, darker in color and much better preserved.

“They don't build 'em like this anymore…” said Sam, slapping the nearest overhead beam with the palm of his big black hand, “Not like they used to.”

“Railroad ties,” noted the Hammer, holding a spermaceti candle up to the close dark grain of the wood which, like a doctor examining his patient before an important operation, he appeared to be studying with great interest. “Imported from the North, I reckon. Treated with creosote… Keeps ‘em from rotting, you know. Bugs don’t like it, either. They’re cheap, too!” Hector added as a matter of economical fact.

“Cheap… Humph! That figures,” thought the deputy out loud while shaking his head in little wonder. Although he was only a boy at the time, Homer had heard enough about the ‘Master of Wainwright’s Mountain’ to know how frugal, or, to put it in its more vulgar context – cheap! he actually was. “Sure sounds like Cornelius, alright. I swear, that man could squeeze the head off a penny,” he justifiably declared. “Anything to save a buck, you know. The old skin-flint...” Mister Skinner was right, of course, about Mister Wainwright, that is. He was a tightwad and a skin-flint, among other things, just like everyone said he was. Hell, everyone knew that! But little did the old miser with the bottlebrush mustache know at the time, was that the head he was squeezing was only his own.

“I’ve seen them used like this before,’ continued Hector, gently running his fingers over closely grained wood that showed hardly any sigh of age or deterioration. Having acquired a fair amount of knowledge over the years on the grainy subject of wood, the many species of trees it was cut from, along with their varying properties, the Old Hammer further articulated: “Strong stuff, these old railroad ties. Got to be! To take the weight of a locomotive. Flexible, too! They have what you call an extremely high modulus of elasticity as well,” he opined in such a professional and opinionated way, that it actually caught the others off guard for a moment.

No one said a word. Together, they collectively turned their heads and looked at the carpenter in utter amazement, as if he had just quoted Sir Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Gravity, William Shakespeare, or someone else whose words and wisdom would be equally alien to their own vulgar vernacular, and perhaps just as confusing.

“What the !@$%^&*!!!!” exclaimed the surveyor, shrugging his mustache in bewildering surprise.

What the learned gentleman from the South actually said, albeit in his own scientific and eloquent way, which apparently had caught Charles Smiley as well as all the others off-guard for the moment, was simply this: that the wood in question was, in fact, excellent building material for the type of construction employed by miners of that time and period who would often pay a high premium for the sturdy lumber, or steal it – right from under the tracks! – if they had the means to do so, and knew they could get away with it. Like I said before, mining is serious business. Just ask any railroad engineer, or his passengers for that matter, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with two iron rails and nothing to hold them together.

In fact, railroad ties, or so they were called, were used for a variety of construction projects, large and small, and were known for both strength and durability, not to mention their flexibility, which was indispensable in carrying the heavy stress loads a million tons of rock. They were, as the carpenter pointed out, typically preserved in a special oil-based chemical known as creosote, which not only conditioned the wood and kept it from decaying prematurely, as all organics eventually do, but discouraged the infestation of termites and other wood digesting insects. But since there were no railroads to be found in that rural part of the country when the earlier mines were excavated, it was also puzzling to imagine just how Cornelius came into possession of so many of the precious timbers, or where the they actually came from for that matter. It was likely that Mister Wainwright purchased the lumber from the same pirates that’d once sold him the feralized slaves that eventually proved his downfall, being that sailors in general have an uncanny and perhaps unorthodox way, or ‘knack’ if you will, of obtaining such valuable items (when and where no one else can, or so it seems) either by bantering with some other ill-gotten booty, or simply stealing them. Maybe the precious lumber was given to him by Southern loyalists, one could easily speculate, who were in the industrious habit of dismantling Union Railroads almost as quickly as they were being built, and removing the ties, which, by strange coincidence, they always seemed to have surplus of. It was possible. War has its own rewards, I suppose. You take them where, when, and if you can find them. But back the Old Hammer and his, ahem… ‘Modulus of elasticity.’

Having absolutely no idea of what the Old Hammer meant by his latest choice of words, much less his astute analytical observation regarding the railroad ties in question, Alvin Webb ignorantly agreed anyway, if for no other reason than just to impress the others. After all, he was the ‘Engineer’ – Wasn’t he? And he should know about these things – Shouldn’t he? “You’re ‘zackly right, Hector,” he stated out loud, even though he still had no idea of what he was talking about, “You can’t never have enough of that there...Uh, how’d you call it, Mister O’Brien… modest electricity?”

“Modulus of elasticity, you nitwitted troglodyte!” the surveyor corrected the outlaw, recalling just then the scientific term used in evaluating the flexibility of timber in general, along with its other organic properties, by way of its grainy aspects. He then turned to Red-Beard, who just happened to be was standing next to him holding the lamp, and sarcastically noted: “Now that’s your ‘Engineer’ talkin’.”

Red-Beard shook his head in dismay, but also in agreement.

Alvin Webb had no reply, of course; and from there on in, he spoke hardly a word.

They pressed forward in a single file through the rising stream of inky black water which was almost up to their knees by then, stopping now and then to catch their breath (for it was indeed getting very difficult to breath by then) and maybe ‘knock off’ a few more water-rats while they were at it.

At one point the tunnel suddenly opened up into a well-rounded cave, which Homer thought he recognized. He put forth his lamp and smiled, “I’m back…”


Chapter Nine

Rats and Bats… and other things

TWO HOURS HAD PASSED. It was getting late; and he was worried that it would soon be dark. “Where could they be?” Elmo Cotton wondered out loud, “What could be taking them so long?” As the sky turned a deep dark purple, he kept asking himself these same questions over and over again. And still the rope kept moving, only very subtly and more slowly by now, like a snake uncoiling itself from a long hibernation. There were no signs of discombobulation. Not yet, anyway. The Harlie was earning his pay, whatever it turned out to be. He was doing his job. At least, they were still alive, the Combobulator thought to himself. He looked to the mule for a little reassurance: a hee-haw, perhaps; or a simple nod. He received neither.

From the corner of his eye, and for no particular reason, Elmo glanced over to where Homer had been standing just before he’d entered the tunnel. To his great surprise and even greater dismay, he saw something that suddenly made his heart leap up in his throat. “Huh-Oh!” he gulped. For there in the rubble left over from Red-Beard’s thunderclap, the Harlie spied an old pair of reading glasses, or spectacles, lying uselessly beside a rock. The thin wire frame holding the lenses together was mashed and mangled; the glass within, broken, and smashed beyond any reasonable repair, or so it would seem. Elmo had seen the glasses before. They belonged to Homer. They were his ‘reading spectacles’, as the old called them. And he knew what that meant.

“Mister Homer's ‘spectables!” gasped the Harlie, gingerly picking them up by the twisted metal frame as the broken fragments of glass fell feely to the ground. “The m-map…” he muttered. It suddenly occurred him that not only did Homer’s map show the correct path through the Northern Woods and beyond but, as he just then recalled, it also delineated the passageway through the maze of tunnels within the old mine itself, of which, or so he was told, there were many. Without the map, finding the right one that would eventually lead them back to the gold would be all but virtually impossible. And without his ‘spetables’, the Harlie realized by now, the map, and whatever other valuable information it might contain, would be useless. He was right, of course; but there seemed to be very little he could do about it at the time.

Actually, Homer Skinner rarely wore his glasses; in fact, he hardly took them out of his pocket. He really only needed them for reading; things like books, newspapers… and maps, of course. He must've lost ‘em, Elmo quickly surmised; perhaps while they were digging. Or maybe he just dropped them. Naturally, the Harlie knew better than anyone, except for maybe Mrs. Skinner, just how forgetful Homer had become lately, and how badly his eyesight actually was by now, having degenerated over the years along with all his other organs. All he could do was pity the near-sighted old man with a toothache and a dream; and so he did. “Poor Homer,” he lamented, as snake-rope slowly but steadily unraveled from its nest, “You done did it again. Didn’t you?” He looked at the mule for an answer. But there was none; besides, he knew he was only looking at himself. There was only one thing left for him to do. And just then the animal shook its long equestrian head and neighed, as if to say: ‘You’ll be sorry…’

After second guessing himself many times over, a few lonely and frustrating moments of doubt, and with a mountain of guilt presently bearing down on his small shoulders (He was thinking just then that maybe it was his fault after all for not having watched the old man as carefully as he should have), Elmo Cotton finally decided to do what he had to do; which, of course, was also what Homer, Red-Beard, and the others instructed him not to do – under any circumstances! And that was to abandon the leader line, the snake-rope. But combobulator or not, he felt he really had no choice. It would take a minute; and he really wouldn’t be gone very long. He would just have go inside the mine himself, leaving the rope line unattended, and tell Homer what had happened… unless, of course, he already figured it out for himself by now, in which case – why bother? Besides, the others were bound to find him sooner or later anyway, if they hadn’t done so already. And anyone can read a damn map, he further speculated, even a moron like Alvin Webb. But what if they don’t find him! Then what? It was all getting very confusing. And what if someone decides to do something foolish? He was thinking Red-Beard, of course; and maybe a little too much, what’s that they called it… Dyn’mite? He was thinking of other things, too – worse things. But mostly, he was thinking of a tired old man, alone in the dark. And somehow, that made all the difference. Just as these and other dark thoughts crossed the Harlie’s mind, the snake came to a sudden and abrupt halt, which only made the Combobulator even more suspicious, and frightened. But he knew what he had to do.

“And what about the rope?” reminded the mule, in its own perfunctory way.

Elmo looked down at the coiled hemp lying lifelessly at his feet. It looked not unlike the poisonous sidewinder Red-Beard had shot dead a day earlier with his six-gun, without the ominous rattle. It only made his decision that much more obvious, and critical. “You mind the damn rope,” he instructed the mule, “I gots to go find Homer.”

“But I’m not the Combobulator, argued the animal in righteous indignation and, perhaps, a little bit annoyed, “You are! Remember?”

“Well, it’s ‘bout time for me to start cabobalatin’ then – Ain’t it?” said the Harlie, with one foot in and the other outside of the tunnel. “That’s what cabob’lators do, you know; fix all them damn discabobalations. And it seems to me, Mister Mule, that Homer done got his’self into some serious discbobalatin’! A whole damn mess of discabobalations, if you ask me. Humph!”

He picked up the slackened rope where it feed into the mouth of the cave and gave it a few sharp tugs. But the snake did not move. He found a small candle in the top pocket of his overalls which he lit it with an uncertain and somewhat shaky hand. And then, like the foolish young deputy before him, Elmo Cotton proceeded into the newly excavated mineshaft, the mouth of the dragon, wondering if it was the dumbest, or the bravest, thing he’d ever done in life. Both, he reckoned. But for some reason he was feeling neither dumb nor brave at the moment, just scared. Still, he pressed on. Even with his candle, it was dark inside the cave, darker than he could ever have imagined. Allowing the snake to slip loosely through his fingers, the reluctant Harlie ventured further into the long dark tube wondering if he would ever come out.

He hadn't traveled very far when suddenly, and without any advanced warning, an army of bats came screeching out of nowhere and, in only a few short seconds, seemed to be all around him. They were everywhere, it seemed; like a ubiquitous black cloud of giant locusts. They startled the poor Harlie, forcing him down to the ground as they stormed overhead like a whirlwind of beating black wings. Elmo covered his head. The squeaking and screeching seemed to go on forever. As he lay on the cold stone floor, he could feel the wings of the tiny flying mammals beating down over his head, almost as if they had collectively formed one monstrous membrane guided by a single brain. And he really didn’t know what to do about it. It was something that had never happened to him before; and it happened so quickly, so suddenly. “Should’a listened to the damn mule,” he said to himself, face to the floor. “This ain’t no place for no Combobalator,” he cried, “… or a Harlie.”

With only his bare hands and one small candle to defend himself, Elmo waved it over his cowering head trying to ward off the on-going attack. It worked; or at least it seemed to work, as the brood of vampires slowly diminished, dissipating, it would seem, back into whatever hell-hole they were hatched from.

When at last the menacing bats were go, the Harlie dragged himself to his feet and breathed a long sigh of relief. He had come across bats before; but none as aggressive, or as large, as these. Once he’d discovered about a hundred of the evil-winged creatures nesting in the rafters of his barn, which his wife, Nadine, quickly and easily (and rather fearlessly, it seemed at the time) dispatched with a few strokes of her broom while Elmo hide shamelessly under the cow. And never had he seen so many bats in one particular location at once, nor in such a frenzied state of flight. It only made him wonder all over again if he’d done the right thing after all by going in. It wouldn’t be the first time he did something…well, stupid; and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Although, up until now, at least, he could always blame it on the mule. He kept on going.

Before long, and after experiencing a brief but false sense of heroism by having driven off the demons of the dark with little more than a candle, or so he imaged, Elmo Cotton came to a place in the narrowing tunnel where the timbers holding up the mountain of rock suddenly became larger and more unevenly spaced apart. It only gave him pause to stop and think, and perhaps rest for a while before proceeding any further. And so, sitting on a small ledge of rock jutting straight out of the wall, he held out the candle in the dark and suddenly observed what the others had seen earlier that day, and what had caused so much speculation among them. It was a series of straight vertical lines scribbled into the wall of the cave at various angles that would appear, to a trained and educated eye, as ancient ruins of some kind; but, to the untrained and uneducated eye, like that of a Harlie sharecropper, would appear as nothing more than… well, a series of straight vertical lines carved into stone. They made little or no sense to Elmo, of course; and, unlike his fellow treasure hunters, he really didn’t think very much of them at the time. What did catch the keen and wondering eye of the Combobulator just then (even though there was really nothing left for him to combobulate at the time) was a hand: the same bloody red handprint Boy the Indian had found so intriguing, albeit in his own mysterious and metaphysical way; and one that had stirred up so much cultural controversy among the diverse group of entrepreneurs who, regardless of who came first, were, if not in blood then at least in spirit – All American! whether they knew it or not; as American, perhaps, as the red hand itself, whoever it belonged to.

Elmo touched it with the flaming tip of his candle. And as if stealing whatever little energy the candle could afford, the five fingered image suddenly sprang to life and appeared to glow in all its enigmatic and menacing red wonder. It reminded Elmo of Red-Beard’s own red and sun-baked hand, the one he’d come to fear. With rope and candle firmly in hand, the Harlie slowly stood up and moved on.

Continuing his uncertain journey down the sloping corridor of the mineshaft, Elmo noticed a thin layer of water forming over the surface of the stony floor, which was becoming quite slippery by then and making it difficult not to fall. He wondered where it might be coming from, but reckoned that’s just the way old mines were: dark, damp, wet, and very dangerous; generally speaking, not a very nice place to be, unless, of course, you happen to be a bat or a rat, or something even worse, in which case you would be right at home and just as comfortable, he grimly imagined. Before long, the thin layer of water had grown to a small stream that came clear up to his ankles and was flowing in the opposite direction of which he was traveling.

He was hoping to have found the others by now; but there was still no sign of them, not even a sound which, owing to the echoing effect created by the smooth stone walls of the corridor and the enveloping quietude that surrounded him, he surely would have heard something by now, even if it were just a footfall, or a flea fart for that matter. And considering how many feet there were – sixteen altogether by last count – and the vociferousness nature of the company, Elmo imagined they had perhaps found another way out of the tunnel, or they were simply dead. He was would be wrong on both counts, of course. He was even beginning to think he might be lost himself, which really didn’t surprise him at all. But before he could dwell on it for any length of time – BOOM! the hapless Harlie was suddenly knocked down, again; only this time from behind. Not by an army of low-flying lost bats, but from something far more disturbing, and a whole lot louder. It was a sound! And not just any sound, but one he’d heard before… like thunder! he suddenly imagined: that jolting clap of thunder which typically follows a bolt of lightning in the mid-night sky; or the sound he heard when Red-Beard first blew open the mouth of the tunnel. It was an extraordinarily loud sound, too! as if a tree had been snapped in two directly over the top his head; a noise that forced him right back into the ground, making him drop his candle in the process, leaving it sizzling in a pool of black slime. It was also a sound that left his ears ringing for quite some time, which was something else he was experiencing for the very first time and made him a very nervous. But he wasn’t the only one that heard the sound. It was also heard by a local mountain-man and his son that day who lived not far away in another mountain. And it sounded, as Tom Henley optimistically whispered into the orphaned ears of son that day “… just like a woman.”

And in the cold damp darkness of his own self-imposed prison, Elmo Cotton, the Combobulator, found himself in total and complete darkness; wet, frustrated, scared, and without a rope. It seems he’d dropped that, too, somewhere along the way.

It was the kind of darkness the Harlie had never experienced before. It was a total and complete darkness, infinite and boundless, conspicuous and ubiquitous blackness, timeless, it seemed. It was the kind that darkness he thought could only be imagined without the benefit of actually experiencing it. It was a darkness no light could penetrate; perhaps not even the light of Elendil. He felt as close to a blind man than he ever did before. But this was worse, much worse, he imagined; for even a blind man has other senses at his disposal, sharpened as were by his very blindness, to mitigate the unfortunate handicap. All but gravity seemed to have escaped him for the moment; and even that seemed uncertain at times in the blackness that suddenly enveloped him like, like – What?! Being sealed in a coffin and buried deep in the ground, in some lifeless and lightless tomb with ears plugged and nose stuffed would perhaps come closest to what he was experiencing just then, and something might’ve actually preferable, if not for the dreadful and fearful fact of knowing he was being buried alive in the process. It was something that came up in a conversation he had once overheard between Homer Skinner and Mister Lester Cox on that same morbid subject which, as the Creekwood Coroner went on to explain to the old man that day, was always distinct possibility, especially on those rare and awkward occasions when death, as it is sometimes virtually impossible to determine or detect for a wide variety of reasons, is never quite that certain. Naturally, Homer was getting on in years when the dark and dreadful conversation took place, and viewed by the determined undertaker, no doubt, as yet another potentially satisfied customer. Whether or not Homer agreed with Lester’s observations, or his unique sales approach, is another story, and one Elmo would never know. And in that same black void, where time and space cease to have no real meaning, the Harlie suddenly found himself in a perplexing state of suspended animation. He felt as though he were floating. He even felt a little lightheaded, dizzy, and sick. In purely scientific terms the Harlie was just then experiencing what some in the future field of Avionics would later come to describe as ‘spatial-disorientation’, a dangerous and potentially fatal disorder that affects, among other things, the equilibrium of the brain, the symptoms of which may include but not be limited to, as defined in their more common nomenclature: confusion, bewilderment, uncertainly, dread, despair, pathos, melancholy, mild dementia, and perhaps most of all: a dire and almost overwhelming sensation of… well, of discombobulation! It’s a phenomenon often associated with aviation which occurs in mostly young and inexperienced pilots who, either through carelessness or fatigue, probably both, lose all points of real reference, particularly late at night or caught in an early morning haze when the horizon is difficult, if not impossible, to discern. It is especially known to happen over the ocean and other large bodies of water, when and where sea and sky naturally and quite gradually in fact, blend into one another until they are, for all intends and practical purposes, virtually indistinguishable. Needless-to-say, this also places the unfortunate victim in the vulnerable and often melancholy state of some kind of suspended animation which, unless corrected immediately either by instruments, human reckoning, or just plain dumb luck, renders the unenviable pilot as helpless as a fetus floating blissfully, and perhaps just as ignorantly, within the cozy confines of its mother’s warm and lightless womb, not knowing or caring which way is up or down, and subject to whatever catastrophic events are sure to follow under such deleterious conditions; which, in the case of one daring young pilot named John F. Kennedy, whose famous family seems to have suffered some un-abatable curse they bore at the expense of an entire nation, came in the fatal form of a plunging crash into the icy gloom of the Long Island Sound, not far from Martha’s Vineyard, resulting not only in the young prince’s own untimely death but those of his fellow passengers, his pregnant wife and her own sibling sister, as well as the total annihilation of the doomed and destined aircraft. But, as usual, I digress.

It was not necessarily a bad feeling, the Harlie imagined as he lay prostrate in the darkness of his what he perceived to be his own doom. It was actually a quite sensation; that peaceful and easy feeling one might expect to find at the very moment of death when, as it sometimes, but not always, happens, surrendering becomes the only real option after all, and is perhaps even welcoming at that point, despite the gloom, the doom, and finality associated with the experience we call death. In fact, if not for the total blackness he was presently engulfed in, and the fear that his friends might all be dead by now, not to mention a clear and present danger that seemed all but so imminent by then, Elmo Cotton thought that he just might stay there forever in that idyllic state of non-being, regardless of the consequences. Like the opium addict who slowly wastes away in his own self-imposed exile mildly sucking his pipe and stroking his cat, or a fated frog placed in pot of water that is slowly brought a boil as the doomed creature comfortably baths to death in its own ignorance, so did the Harlie surrender himself to eternity that day; unprepared, perhaps, but with little or no reservations at that particular point. But forever is a long, long time, he quickly realized; and time, the valuable commodity it is when so much of it has already passed us by, was something he just couldn’t afford at the moment. Elmo Cotton, the Combobulator, still had a job to do.

And in the blinding mist of that deafening darkness, Elmo thought he heard the sound of human voices coming from somewhere up ahead, deep within the tunnel. He began groping in darkness for his candle, but all in vain. He just couldn’t find it. It simply wasn’t there. But he did find something – It was the rope! which his hand just happened to fall on at the time, almost accidently, or so it seemed. He picked it up. But it felt different, somehow; like a limp and lifeless fish in his hands, and just as wet. Something was wrong, he was thinking to himself just then, dead wrong. He could feel it. The rope was simply too loose, not like it was when he’d first entered the tunnel. The snake was dead, or so it seemed; but at least it was still there. But somehow, that just wasn’t enough; and it didn’t make him feel any better. Everything was still so...so discombobulated! he thought to himself with no small measure of guilt attached to his fears. For not the first time, and not the last, he was beginning to think that he’d made the wrong decision after all. “The mule was wrong,” he spoke out in the darkness. “I’s no cabob’lator. I’s just a dumb ol’ Harlie…”

Looking back and seeing no more light at the end of the tunnel, which he actually hadn’t seen since his untimely encounter with the giant bats, the Harlie was convinced more than ever that he’d taken one turn too many, or maybe not enough. He just wasn’t sure. Elmo was lost; and he knew it. As he stood alone in the darkness with a dead snake in his hand, all he could think about was Nadine and Ralph. Gold was the furthest thing from his mind at the time. He just wanted to get out alive and go home, if that was still possible; and he wanted Homer to be with him when he arrived, which was beginning to seem more and more unlikely. The others, he suddenly thought in a moment of selfishness and indifference, could all go to hell as far as he was concerned. And he meant it, too! Especially the evil looking outlaw, Alvin Webb, who he never liked to begin with. It was something he knew he would later come to regret, as he still held strong feelings towards some of the other treasure hunters, most of all the one they called the Ol’ Hammer, Hector O’Brien, who he’d not only come to love and respect, but someone he admired and thought of almost as the father he never had; almost as much as he did Homer Skinner, who he always considered the closest thing he would ever have to one, his real father having abandoned him before they even knew one another and the one person he swore he would never, ever, forgive.

And then there was Little Dick Dilworth who, despite all his faults and failures, the Harlie had actually grown quite fond; especially after what had happened at the poplar tree that day when the two became brothers, in blood at anyway, which, as any boy with a beard will surely tell you, is a much stronger and far more lasting bond that can only be broken; and even then only with great difficulty, in cases like death or marriage (or perhaps both!) which, to boys with beards in general is tantamount to pretty much the same thing anyway. And before long he was thinking kindly of all of them, in an almost familiar and family sort of way. They’d been through so much together, and in such a small amount of time, he wondered. He thought about Smiley, surveyor with the magnificent mustache, and they way he would spit tobacco when he wasn’t munching on a blueberry pie or giving someone an ‘ear waxin’’ with enough curse words to peel the paint off the side of one of Ike Armstrong’s barns. Of course, he never knew what to make of Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, the man they called Red-Beard, and reckoned he never would; although he always maintained that there was more to the man than he could ever fathom; as it is with most important men of influence, great, or not so great. He even began to feel strangely attached to Webb by then, in a pitiful and almost sympathetic sort of way, and imagined he would even miss his mindless insults some day; but not any time too soon, he was forced to admit. As for the Large Negro and the taciturn Redman, both of whom he held a separate and secret admiration for, not only because they were like him in many minority ways (admiration is more often than not that which we have for those with qualities we find most lacking in ourselves) but simply because they knew what it was like to be, well… let’s just say, different. And yet, even though he had know most of them for only a very short time, through all these longings and lovings, regrets and misgivings, suspicions and hatred, friendships and fellowships, the Harlie couldn't help feel that they were all somehow connected, in a brotherly sort of way, to one another, whether they like it or not. And he wondered if they could all be right now; and what, if anything, had happened to cause such a deafly and deadly silence, especially after that last terrible blast. Perhaps they were all dead, as he himself would soon be. He could only imagine; and pray, perhaps.

But he quickly put such thoughts out of his swirling and aching head. He couldn’t afford to die – not yet, anyway. He was too young; and he was also too scared. And besides, he just wasn’t ready. And through it all, the fateful words of the Indian echoed in his ears: ‘… it’s a good day to die’. Little did he know, or even imagine, that those were the exact words once uttered by another famous Redman, just before the battle at Little Big Horn. It was a good day to die, alright, as general George Armstrong Custer found out for himself, along with his 7th Calvary.

All Elmo really wanted to do was go home to the little farm and get back to his plow. He’d had enough adventures for one Harlie. But first he had to find his way back out of the tunnel, in the dark, and alone. He knew it wouldn’t be easy; and he needed help. And so, with nothing left to lose, nothing else to do, and not much time to do it, the Harlie did the only thing he could do: he simply opened his mouth and hollered out as loud as he possibly could: “Mister Homer! Mister Homer! Help me! Help me! Help!”

But there was no response.

And then he felt something move in his hand. It was the rope! In all his gloom and dark despair, Elmo had all but forgotten about it. The snake was alive! Maybe someone had heard him after all, he suddenly imagined, clutching the rope in his blistered hands as if it were the Holy Grail itself, or a lifeline tossed overboard to a drowning victim, which he clung to like grim death.

There! It moved again. Then suddenly, the rope began sliding swiftly though his grim grip at an ever increasing rate of speed causing a burning sensation in his hands that made him want to drop it at once. It was alarming at first, and painfully re-assuring; but it was moving fast – too fast! Something was still wrong, he thought. Bad wrong! Without knowing why, or even if he really should, Elmo tightened his grip around the feeder line, attempting to restrain it for a moment, knowing that if he didn’t, he would surely lose it. But it didn’t work. And he did lose it! And before he knew what had happened, the rope was sharply yanked and then pulled through the Harlie’s hand so quickly that it cut his open palm like knife through a raw steak. He lunged forward in the dark to grab it again and fell to the ground. But it was too late. The snake was gone.

He searched for his candle once more. It was still not there. And even if it was, it would do him no good in its present saturated condition. Although his head was reeling by then, Elmo tried to figure out what had happened; but before he could collect his sad and soggy thoughts, it happened again. BOOM! Another blast, just like it happened before; only this time it was just a little louder and a little closer, or so it seemed, than the first. Too close! he thought. Dangerously close.

As he lay motionless on the ground once more, cold and wet, Elmo could already feel the aftershock of the second blast echoing in his ears. The walls shook and rocks showered down over the his half submerged body, the smallest pieces getting caught up in his curly brown hair as they fell, the larger ones hitting the water and splashing all around him; a few had actually hit him by then, but he was too occupied at the at the time to notice, much less feel, the impact. There was mountain dust was flying all around him, which he could see; but he could feel it, like a swarm of hungry mosquitoes under the Mississippi moon. He could smell it, like death. He would taste it. It was in his in his nose and in his mouth; it was in his lungs by now, making it very difficult for him to even breathe. He coughed. Mixed in with the mountain dust and falling particles of stone were large droplets of murky water presently cascading down over his Harlie head like a cataract of stone. And it didn’t stop there. After a while, he had to keep his mouth closed just to avoid swallowing the raw volcanic material. There was just that much of it in the air. He was suffocating and drowning at the same time. And he knew it; which, of course, only made it that much worse.

It seemed as though the roof of the tunnel had suddenly collapsed and was pouring in from above like a leaky sieve. And then came the bats… Again! And this time they’d brought along with them, possibly for reinforcements, an army of equally aggressive rats armed with razor sharp teeth that also possessed the uncanny ability to swim like fish, against the current. The word ‘piranha’ comes immediately to mind when trying to describe such fast, frantic, ferocious, and furious water activity. And there were hundreds of them… Thousands! They were everywhere! It seemed. All over the place! And even though he couldn’t see them, just like the bats and flying dust, the Harlie knew they were there. He could them squeaking and scurrying through the water like so many furry and frightened salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn. They were even more frightening than the bats, he imagined; he could still feel them snipping away at his naked ankles, and toes.

Had he actually had the chance, or the inclination, to examine these furry little masticating mammals under more lighted conditions, and in the manner they so richly deserved, then perhaps Elmo would have observed that, from a strictly anatomical point of view (which was the way he viewed in animals in general anyway; except perhaps his mule, which he also viewed with a great deal of disdain and distrust for reasons we are all familiar with by now) there really was no substantial difference separating the two individual species, the rat and the bat, that is; other than perhaps a simply and efficiently design pair of wings on the latter, consisting chiefly of a fine leathery membrane, the sheerness of which, when held up to any measurable amount of light, appears almost transparent. Flying rats or swimming bats, it made no difference to Elmo. He hated them all. What the amphibious rodents lacked in flight and radar, they made up for with superior navigational skills that allowed them to move quickly and easily through the swirling currents and eddies of that vast underground aquifer with the grace and proficiency of, say, a Peruvian pearl diver as he makes his watery rounds among the coral kingdoms of the oysters. And likewise the bats more than made up for this submarine deficiency with their own navigational skills which Providence provides (It’s nice to know that God’s omniscient interests does not preclude such undesirable animals as rats, bats and other things from that Grand Scheme of His which we ourselves, in our own infectious and exterminateable ways, are so much a part of) in the form of a unique and highly developed sense of hearing science would one day discover and properly define as ‘sonar’, and which they would eventually put to good use by applying the same sound principle to the more serious, and human, business of warfare, and allowing them to locate and destroy their enemy even more efficiently.

Elmo could hide from the bats, or at least cover himself up; but the rats… they were different. There was just no escaping these menacing mammals with the saber-like mandibles. They were cannibalistic in every man-eating sense of the word since; and, as the Harlie himself was quick to learn even in his own agitated and frightened state of hysteria, their immediate diet was not necessarily restricted to the tender dark meat of their prey but included that of their own furry flesh, of which they would partake of in swift, deliberate, and satisfying bites whenever the occasion arose either by accident or design. And they were all around him! There was nowhere to run, even if he could run; and he’d already been bitten more times than he could count. It stung! like a thousand dog-bites; worse than any whip Elmo could imagine; although much of the suffering he was experiencing at the moment had somehow been mitigated by a sheer and sudden surge of pure adrenalin that somehow purged the pain, by not the fear.

Then they were gone. The ubiquitous army of rats had simply and suddenly disappeared, along with their air-force of flying bats, almost as quickly and mysteriously as they came, or so it seemed, like they were never there at all. Actually, they were all heading upstream and out of the tunnel by then, and as fast as their furry little feet and membrane wings could carry them; and for good reason! as the Harlie himself would soon find out. For a brief and fleeting moment, Elmo thought that he might do well to follow them; for as every farmer knows: animals, especially those that make their habitat in the wild, even the dumbest of species, seem to possess a natural and unique instinct when it comes to avoiding the inherent dangers they are constantly exposed to living in such hostile and predatory environments. They are also quite good at predicting the weather (if you know how to read the subtleties of the species, that is, the variations of which are far too numerous to catalogue here and now) whose prognostications have proven invaluable to both the drought stricken and flood prone farmers who came to rely on such accurate and honest forecasts as if their very lives and those of their families depended on them, which in many instances it did; never mind if that same infallible information comes in the lowly form of a ladybug lazily turning over in a matchbox whenever it is likely to rain or upon some other imminent change in the weather, or from some apathetic looking groundhog in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania whose inexplicable but reliable ability once a year to recognize its own ambivalent shadow an entire nation depends on to determine the length of its winter. Perhaps that is why, although I’m not entirely sure, so many weather vanes you see today perched high atop barnyards and farmhouses scattered throughout the countryside are so proudly adorned with that famous foul, the rooster; along with the four pointed compass indicating not only the speed but direction of the wind. Was it by accident that such a noble and practical bird was chosen for the specific and all important task which so many farm girls hold to such high esteem, particularly at supper time and especially when cooked to a southern-fried turn and served up with prodigious heaps mashed potatoes? Why not the majestic eagle? Or even Ben Franklin’s clumsy and ugly turkey that was once considered by the learned man himself to be the National Bird of this great and powerful nation of ours? But I digress. Again! There were other sounds as well, besides those of fleeing rats and bats, running water and falling stones, not to mention the explosion of dynamite still ringing in his ears that commanded the Harlies immediate attention just then; and they were human sounds. It was the sound of men: real live, breathing, sweating, cursing and swearing men, somewhere off in the near but still unseen distance. It was nothing less than a miracle. And it was music to the Harlie’s ear.

But then the sounds took on a different tone altogether. They began to sound more… more familiar. Not familiar in a good, or hopeful, sort of way, as Elmo might’ve wished for; but familiar in a more dark and desperate measures. As a matter of fact, it sounded more like fear than anything else he could imagine at the time; and by then his imagination was running wild. It was not a good sound; it was certainly not a good sign. Through the dirt and the dust, the rumbling rock, and all those falling stones, the Harlie could suddenly hear, or thought he could hear, what sounded like voices crying in the dark. But they were not the kind of voices he expected to hear, if, in fact they were the voices he was hoping and praying to hear. They weren’t even the voices of real men, he just than began to wonder. It sounded more like, like so many motherless children crying in the dark for their mommas. It was almost too shameful, too pitiful, to listen to. And they were all screaming, or so it seemed, in one continuous voice, the cacophony of which reverberated throughout the tunnel in one continuous whining sound, a long wailing moan that was only amplified by the blackness of the nursery.

The voices were indiscernible at first; and any words they attempted to enunciate made no sense at all to the Harlie’s strained and water-logged ears. It was more like uncontrolled gibberish, he thought; not unlike what he’d once heard during a Pentecostal church service back in Harley when, suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the entire congregation made up of so many electrified black and white faces, was summarily caught up in some kind of wild and feverish frenzy, speaking in tongues, rolling on the floor, and looking as though they’d just been shot through with a bolt of pure white lightening. It was all brought about, or so he was later to learn, by power of the Holy Spirit, assisted to a lesser degree perhaps by the oratory skills of a fire-breathing preacher who was man-handling several live and very poisonous snakes at the time of the Rapture. And that is exactly what it sounded like just then, Elmo imagined; only louder, and a lot more desperate. But they weren’t children, after all. What the Harlie heard that day, deep inside the mountain, in the dark, somewhere at the end of a long dark tunnel, was only the sound of men: real, grown men, with hearts and lungs; men with wives and sweethearts, with dreams and ambitions; men whose mothers have long since died and are nowhere to be found. But they screamed for them all the same; as you would, as I would, as we all would, as anyone would! under such difficult and trying circumstances when death is all around and there is nobody else around. It was merely the sound of frightened men dying in the dark. And he knew who they were by now.

It was a painful sound, difficult to bear. It was a sound Elmo would rather not be hearing right at the moment, like the collective cry of all humanity encapsulated in one long and indistinguishable note; and with a sense of urgency about it that somehow demanded an immediate response, which Elmo was in no position to provide; at least not right away. It was the kind of noise that simply could not be ignored. He listened. He had to listen. He had no choice. These were his friends, or at least some of them were; and they were all in it together, it seemed. One of the voices he recognized almost immediately. It was the voice of an old man alone and afraid of the dark. He sounded scared, very scared. And the voice became louder, and clearer, with each passing moment. It was the voice of Homer Skinner. Elmo knew it. He could hear it. And there was no doubt about it. He was calling out the names of the others: “Smiley! That you? What happened? Where’s Dick? My leg...Ohhhhhhhhh! Hector? Hector!”

Another voice answered quickly the cry; it sounded like the wiry surveyor: “He’s trapped, Homer...Webb, too! I think. I don’t know about Hector. Didn’t see him. What the @#$%^&* happened! Where are you? I’m hurt...Damn it! Where’s the colonel? Dick! Dick! Where are you boy?”

Elmo knew by then who they were. They were the men he’d been searching for all along: the same ones who went into the tunnel that day while he waited outside. They were the same men he was supposed to protect, to help, to assist and… and to combobulate, if anything went wrong; which it did, of course. “That’s what caboba’lators is for,” he reminded himself, even though he knew it was too late by then and it wouldn’t have done them any good anyway.

He was going to call out Homer’s name just then when, suddenly, another voice rose above the others. It sounded familiar; and it sounded scared. It sounded like Alvin Webb. “Colonel! Colonel!” he cried out the loudest. “Where are you? Rusty! What happened? Horace…” It stopped; but only for a second. And then: “Why! Why? Colonel! Why?” he continued in pitiful burst, “Why! Ahhhhhhhhhh!” It actually sounded like dying. And he was. The Harlie could tell by the sound of the voice.

By then Little Dick Dilworth could be heard as well: “Smiley! Charles! I don’t wanna to die! Please! Don’t! Help me, Charles…” And then his voice seemed to fade away into the darkness. “Momma…” he suddenly began to cry. “I’m sorry, momma... momma?” And then all that could be heard was sobbing.

The Negro’s voice was heard next. It was Sam. Elmo recognized it almost immediately. It was deep, dark, and distinctive, not unlike the voice of his Uncle Joe. It had the same throaty quality about it that reminded him of a bullfrog. Only this bull frog was in deep trouble. “Boy? Booooooooy!?” he shouted at the top of his powerful lungs, to a point, it seemed, they would burst at any moment.

Silence.

And then, like a dying moose that had fallen through the ice with no possible hope of escape other than a quick and merciful drowning, he croaked his last: “Boy! Boooooooy?” Where is you, Boy? Booo…” But the voice vanished as quickly as it came, as the sound of a rolling stone echoed in the dark, crushing out whatever life was left in the Negro’s body.

Elmo half expected the Indian, whom Sam had always held a special affection for, to respond accordingly; even though that affection was sometimes mistaken for envy, which occurs quite often between lovers in similarly circumstances and is equally misconstrued. He was thinking, and rightfully so, that if anyone could have escaped the dreadful nightmare, it would’ve been the silent Indian whom he’d always imagined would simply not allow himself to die; at least, not until such a time when, in his own prophetic words: ‘…it’s a good day to die’, he allowed it to happen. But again, there was no response.

Perhaps the Indian named Boy was already sleeping with his famous fathers, Geronimo and Sitting Bull among them, along with other great chiefs and warriors of a proud and predestined past whose eulogies are still sung in places with names like Wounded Knee and Little Big Horn, and whose names no tombstones could hold, for they would be too numerous to mention here. ‘It’s a good day to die,” said Elmo, echoing the words of the fallen warrior. But upon reflection, he wondered if perhaps only his body had died, as Boy so often predicted in his own irrevocable obituary; leaving, or allowing, his spirit to continue on its celestial excursion through the stars and beyond the Milky Way in a more convenient, and less cumbersome vehicle, to its final destination, in some other galaxy perhaps, reserved for such pure and noble hearts.

And then, as if to break the spiritual spell under which Elmo had suddenly, and for reasons he couldn’t quite understand, found himself, and driving the last metaphysical hope that somehow, some way, all was not lost and that everything still might turn out alright, yet another voice was heard crying in the wilderness. It was Hector. “Get out!” he ordered, in a voice that spoke with unchallenged authority. Get out, men! Quick! Hurry! Get out, damn it! Get out! But the Hammer’s exclamations went unanswered, and soon grew weak and faint, until they too could no longer be heard. And after a while, Elmo could barely hear anything at all.

He then, he though he heard a gunshot. But he couldn’t be sure; there was just too much going on in mind at the time and he was still feeling well… discombobulated. He hoped he was wrong. There was one voice conspicuously missing throughout all the calamity that day. It was the sound of Rusty Horn, the voice of Red-Beard. It simply was not there. It made the Harlie wonder; and then it made him mad.

Shortly afterwards, the rocks stopped falling and the dust settled down a bit; but the water kept right on coming, pouring in on top the Harlie’s heated head like some infernal fountain springing from the heart of hell. By then, the thundering echo from the last blast had finally settled down; and then it stopped. But the walls kept rumbling, as if they were about to collapse at any moment. Elmo wanted to get up and run, to hide, to do… something. Anything! But having lost his end of the rope by then, he really didn’t know which way to go. Or if there was anywhere left to go. And still, he was blinded by the dark.

As he lie motionless on the ground, the Harlie could still feel the water flowing all around his body; more quickly than ever it suddenly seemed, and back down into the tunnel itself where he reckoned it came from. He couldn’t see it; but he knew it was there. He thought again about the others, and even now imagined that he still might be able to help them, somehow. But every instinct in his body was telling him otherwise; and that he should just get up and run like hell, along with the rats and bats and other things who at least knew where they were going, or so it seemed. But his heart was telling him differently. He at least had to try. What if they were still alive? He could help. He could do something. After all, he was still the Combobulator. And about Homer? He couldn’t just leave him there; even if he was dead. It just wouldn’t be right. What would his poor wife say? What would anyone say? What would he say? provided, of course, he was still alive himself by then to hear it and say it. The others, he thought...well, they were all on their own, even Little Dick who’d sounded the most helpless and pitiful in all his sorrowful sobbing. As Elmo tried to summon up the courage to move forward, he could hear something up ahead in the dark distance. It was the sound water makes when it is trampled upon; and it was something he hadn’t heard up until just then.

SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH! SPLASH!

He wasn’t exactly sure what it was, what it meant, or even what to make of it. But whatever it was, it was coming his way. And fast! It was clearly the sound of footsteps. And they were falling quickly, and heavily, through the black water at an ever accelerating and most alarming rate.

Then there came another loud crash, some more rumbling, along with the rejuvenated sound of grown men crying out in the dark once more, just like it did before. Apparently, they weren’t quite as dead as Elmo thought they were, which not only gave him hope that he still might be able to find them, but all the more reason to press on ahead.

The walls shook and the stones fell just as they did before. And beneath it all, the water kept flowing, like a river of black ink. Once again there was a heavy dust in the air that was making it almost impossible for him to breathe. But there was more than just dust. There was smoke! And where’s there’s smoke there is fire, reckoned the Harlie. He could smell it; in fact, it was so thick and ubiquitous, he could almost feel it. It smelled like… like gunpowder, he thought. Lots of it! The ceiling buckled as the old railroad timbers began to creek, crack, and pop under the sudden tumultuous strain. More footsteps up ahead.

SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH! SPLASH!

“Ohhhhhhh….” More moaning in the dark.

And then some voices.

“Hector… Homer… Help me! I’m not I’m gonna make it.” It was Smiley speaking once again, only now in voice that sounded weak and defeated. “I don’t think...”

The carpenter didn’t answer anymore after that. His instrument was silent. The Hammer was dead.

“Dick!” cried the surveyor in one last blasphemous effort. Where are you, boy! Dick! @#$%^&*!!!!” Dick! Has anyone seen my Dick? Homer! Sam! Damn you Horn! Damn you to…”

Little Dick was still crying when he heard the familiar cries of his master. He choked down his sobs: “Smiley... Charles… I’m here. Over here! I don’t want to die. Where are you? I can’t see. I think… I think Hector’s dead… Alvin, too. Help me, Charles! Where are you? I don’t want to die. Help me…”

“Over here, boy,” beseeched the bloodied mustache in a soft and gentle tone, almost in a whisper. “My leg, boy... I can’t… Wait...” And here the surveyor gave out an excruciatingly loud cry, “Ahhhhhhhhhh !” as if he was attempting to pull himself up on a bruised and broken limb.

Dilworth started crying again: “Momma...momma! I don’t want to die. Momma….”

More voices… someone groaning. “Ohhhhh….” It might’ve been the Negro, Sam, or whatever was left of him. Whoever it was, thought the Harlie, he was he was no longer to articulate himself and was probably better off dead anyway.

Webb cried out: “Rusty! Where you goin’? Come back! Come back, colonel! Don’t leave me now. Not now.”

“SPLISH! SPLASH!

The walls continued to rumble and roll. The rocks fell and the stones came down, hitting the Harlie’s head with such force that he began to bleed. He had to get out. Something was wrong. Something was happening; and something… something was coming his way.

More confusion.

“Dick!”

Cacophony.

“Momma?”

“@#$%^&*!!!”

“I don’t want to die….”

“AHHHH! Ohhhhhhhh!”

SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH! SPLASH!

“Colonel! Rusty….”

BOOM!

“Where’s Sam?

“Boy! Boy!”

More moaning. More...

“What the – !”

“Please….”

“Homer?”

SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH! SPLASH!

The smoke was getting thicker. He could hardly breathe at all anymore. More water! He had to get out. More smoke. Again, footsteps! Running now. Quickly. More voices in the dark. “Help! Who’s there? Ahhhhhhhhh! Look out! Look out! Look out!”

“Colonel! Is that you?” spoke the Harlie, without even realizing what he was saying.

As if wakened from a forty-year snooze, Old Man Death stalked the stony halls of his mountain kingdom once more, roaming the corridors and shaking the walls. After all these years, the king of the mountain was awake again; and he was wearing an ugly red face. He was hungry, too. But all that would have to wait; there were trespassers in the house. He picked up a hammer lying beside the dead carpenter and swung it in the air. His name was Vengeance; he was alive and well, and he was not a happy individual.

Rocks split on his command. Caves and tunnels that had been sealed for hundreds years opened at the familiar sound of his groggy, growling voice. Stalagmites fell from the ceiling like stone-age icicles, one of them landing so close to the Harlie he felt as though he were in the very jaws of death. Stones crumbled into dust at the sound of the approach. He was headed down the hall. Ghosts and goblins of every imaginable on description cowered in fear as the mountain dwarves simply fled in fear of the imminent gloom; some, out of sheer reverence for that unholy and omnipotent entity, genuflected in his Satanic presence like fire-ants worshiping before the incendiary god of hell-fire in all his flaming majesty. The spirits of the night paid homage then quickly gave way, leaving their pick axes and shovels behind. The King of the mountain had returned. He was awake! He was mad! And who could blame him?

SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH! SPLASH!

Elmo covered his face; and even though he could not see what was coming he knew it was evil. He listened for the voices of the others and heard nothing, not even a whimper.

Tom Henley looked up and smiled between pages of Virgil he’d been reading and sips of homemade mountain wine as he relaxed with his son, Zack, in their cozy Home-in-a-Hill. He knew what going on. He knew was happening. “Mother...” he softly spoke through a small opening in his long black beard. “He found her...” He closed his book, corked his wine, and said to his son: “Wait here, Zack. I’ll be back.” And then he was gone.

Pulling himself up in dark while desperately trying to catch to breathe, Elmo felt as though he’d been buried alive and then pulled back from a solicited grave, only to find himself in yet another tomb. The others, he quickly surmised, were not so lucky. Apparently, they were just plain buried along with their unsung eulogies. The voices were gone, and so was the thunder. “Some lucky number I turned out to be,” he murmured to himself, “And not a very good Cabob’lator, either.” But most of all he was sacred, and thought that he might actually begin to cry. But the tears would just have to wait; he didn’t have time to cry. He had to get away, back outside, somehow, and fats. But it was still too dark to see, and he was more confused than ever.

Because of the spatial disorientation he was still experiencing at the time, leaving him with no practical points of reference, Elmo simply didn’t know which, if any, way to go. It was difficult just to tell which was up and what was down. He simply had no sense of direction, no bearing, no purpose, no meaning, no… There was nothing to guide him except for the sure and steady sound of running water, and those damn footsteps that were getting closer and closer it seemed. But somehow, so long as the law of Gravity still applied in its usual reliable manner, which he had no reason to believe it didn’t, that was enough. Physics, along with the hydrodynamic properties of fluids would indeed facilitate the Harlie’s escape by showing him, if nothing else, the way out. To put it more succinctly, and in terms more closely associated with a sharecropper’s limited knowledge of scientific phenomenon: water, which tends to seek its own level in almost every application, always flows down hill. There are no exceptions. And it was just then Elmo realized that, from the very beginning, the tunnel had always sloped in a downward trajectory as he progressed further and deeper into the mountain, as most mineshaft do, at least at their initial points of origin; and that all he would have to do now was follow the current upstream, along with the verminous salmon-rats, to the source of that water, which, apparently originated somewhere on higher ground; hopefully, he imagined, at the mouth of the cave. Simple. Right? But that would mean leaving the others behind, of course; or, from the Harlie’s perspective, somewhere up ahead. It really didn’t matter. And where exactly was the water coming from anyway? he wondered. And what about the footsteps!?

By then the water was knee deep, and it was still moving; he could feel it. It would eventually lead him back to the mouth of the tunnel where he started from, or so he assumed, and where he belonged. He thought about Homer and the others; but not for very long. They would just have to make it on their own, he sadly resigned; if they were still alive at all. And so, somewhere in the heart of hell, on hands and knees, cold and wet, covered in dust and dirt, hardly able to breathe, and sick to his stomach, a poor, frightened and beleaguered Harlie sharecropper began making his way out of the long dark tunnel.

As he crawled along the slick wet surface like a submerged reptile, he thought once more of turning back to help the others. It wouldn’t be the smartest thing he’d ever done; but it certainly would be the bravest. Elmo closed his eyes and, for one fleeting but monumental moment, could see himself surrounded by all those Creekmen. They were all there… even Alvin Webb, the outlaw. And they were alive! Sam and the Indian named Boy were there; and so was Smiley. Little Dick was there, too. They were sitting around a blazing campfire, or so it seemed. Homer was passing out cigars, just like before, which the silver headed Hammer accepted in the usual manner:“Gracias, Senior. Bueno! Bueno!” he beamed in typical Latin fashion. And they were all looking at the Harlie as if he had just ran the Olympic marathon in record time, leaving the entire Persian army in his dust at the Thermopile Pass.

“Good job, Elmo! Congratulations!” Homer exclaimed, like some grand old Agamemnon about to place the laurel wreath of victory on the head of the fleet-footed Achilles. “I knew you could do it, boy.” And he was beaming with fatherly pride when he said it.

“Now that’s what I call some mighty fine combobulatin’, son,” spoke the outlaw, Webb, taking a long hard swallow from his oiled skin flash and offering to the Harlie with a big toothless grin.

The Indian raised his hooded head. “Heap Big Combobulator,” he solemnly proclaimed, even thought the word still made little or no sense to him.

“Best goddamn combobulatin’ I ever saw,” the Negro whole-heartily agreed. “And I done seen me some goddamn combobulatin’.”

“That wasn’t just combobulatin…’ noted the surveyor, eager to add to the accolades in his own vulgar vernacular, “That was some @#$%^&*!!! Combobulatin’!’

Dick joined in the celebrations was well. ‘I knew you could do it all along, Elmo!” he laughed out loud. And then, taking the Harlie’s bruised and bloodied hand in his own, the young man from Creekwood Green, the same one, mind you, that peed his bathtub, had him beaten to a blister and thrown in a stone dungeon not very long ago it suddenly seemed, and shook it, the way boys with beards do when they first come to realize that, although they still have a long way to go, they are no longer boys.

“Ah shucks,” replied the Harlie with genuine modesty, not altogether sure exactly what all the fuss was about but having a pretty good idea by then. “I’s just doin’ my job. It’s was easy… as easy as…”

“I know! I know!” beamed Dick, “…as falling off a log.”

Poking the torpedoed end of a premium cigar between Elmo’s half parted lip, which the Hammer was quick to ignite with the white hot ash of his own Cuban stogie, Homer then slapped the Harlie on the back and declared him: “Elmo the giant killer!” in the same league, I suppose, with another famous giant killing bean farmer named Jack who, not unlike the resourceful Harlie himself and with no more than and a handful of the precious produce, not only slew the dreaded monster but stole his gold and magic harp as well, and lived to tell about it. ‘Why, it was Homeric, Boy!’ the old man stated in no uncertain terms.

“Reckon I had you all wrong, Mister Cotton,” apologized Alvin Webb with a toothless but affection smile that seemed to have made up for all previous injustices. It almost sounded as though he was speaking for his entire race.

“Guess we all did,” Smiley sadly agreed. “Sorry I ever doubted you, son.”

Meanwhile, Sam was stirring a pot of beans boiling on the fire. “I told you so. Didn’t I?” he said with a silver spoon in hand. “Harlie’s is good luck.”

“Our own Lucky Number! Remember? reminded Homer, repeating the words he’d once spoken outside Elmo’s little house back in Harley with no so much applause.

And with that, the Indian just smiled in a cataract of long black hair. He didn’t have to say a word. And if he did, it would probably have sounded something like this: ‘It’s a good day to be alive.’

Conspicuously missing from the happy audience on that fine and festive occasion was Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, Red-Beard. And if Elmo weren’t so caught up in himself at the moment, thinking of all the things that could be, would be, and should be… then he surely would have realized by now that the red haired monster was there all along; right where he had always been; where he was supposed to be. In fact, he was right there behind him, like a hellhound on his trail. And he was still coming.

Elmo opened his eyes and they were all gone. Not that they were ever there to begin with; it was just the Harlie’s imagination playing tricks on him. And as he tried to find it within himself to turn around and go back down into the tunnel and find them, the footsteps in the dark became louder, thicker, wetter, clearer, and nearer than ever.

SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH!

The sound took on a whole new meaning, or dimension, it seemed. No longer did they sound like the infernal footsteps of some underworld deity, doomed to fall in his own deep dark grave for all eternity, or those of an angry ghost, a deceased king perhaps, who’d been rudely awaken in the middle of the night by some tomb-raiding grave-robber who had no business being there in the first place. No! The foot-falls he heard just then were mortal sounds, human, like the voices in the dark he’d heard earlier. But it was more than just a sound. There was light as well. Elmo could see it, clearly but distantly, like a star twinkling in the black of night, or the hidden spark in the heart of a cold black stone. It was coming from somewhere deep down inside the tunnel and getting bigger and brighter by the moment. It appeared to be emanating from the same place the footsteps were coming from, the source of that light very much a mystery to the Harlie’s dumb and doubtful mind, just as the footsteps themselves. And it was getting bigger and brighter all the time, vibrating with some kind of angry energy, it seemed, but providing him with a sure and significant sign that indeed and in fact something, or someone else, had survived the blast. He waited. And as the light drew nearer, Elmo thought he could make out a lone dark figure of a man silhouetted against a cold stone wall.

For a brief and breathless moment, he took it to be a lantern; similar to the one Homer had taken into the mine with him that day in lieu a candle. Naturally, his first thoughts were that it might be Homer, or perhaps one of the others; after all, who else could it be? His spirits rose, but only for a moment as he suddenly feared the worst. This was no ordinary light, the Harlie knew that by now. He could tell by the way it shinned, like no other light he’d ever seen. Lanterns just didn’t work like that; there was something un-natural about it. What Elmo found most intriguing about this particular illumination that seemed to have appeared almost out of nowhere was not only the way it shinned, with such a intensity that it quickly enveloped the entire space it occupied crowding out all other aspects of the tunnel, but the way it seemed to have spread, steadily protracting itself like white batter being poured over a hot black skillet, he visualized in his own culinary mind, radiating from one central core in concentric waves of pure, delicious, white light, while crowding out all blackness in its vibrating path.

After a moment or two, which seemed like an eternity, it was almost too bright to look at, even from a respectable distance, and especially for someone like Elmo whose eyes, having stumbled around in a tunnel of complete darkness for quite some time, were so unaccustomed to such sudden illuminations that even the flickering flame of a match-head would have seem like the nothing short of the Fourth of July by comparison, and just as exciting. It was a miracle, so it seemed; or at least the closest thing to a miracle Elmo had ever laid his skeptical eyes on. But there was something strange about this providential miracle, if that’s what it truly was; it looked different, somehow, than any light the Harlie had ever seen before could ever imagine. For unlike the light that once shone so weakly but steadily from his own ephemeral candle, or that produced by oil lamps hung in the musty moldy basements of Harley that would often flood and Elmo was so familiar with, this strange and mesmerizing light suddenly appeared to be radiating inward, rather outward, it would seem, which, of course, is the most natural path of radiating energy. It was almost as if each individual photon ray was being drawn into its own irresistible source, like the confluence of so many perfectly straight rivers and streams pulsating with life and converging at some centralized location where they naturally flow into one another becoming part of the surrounding sea itself. And perhaps, in that sense at least, it wasn’t light at all! the Harlie began to wonder, but something quite different; something… more than light.

But whatever it was, phantom or photon, friend or foe, it came not a moment too soon for someone in the middle of a long, dark, wet, and self- imploding tunnel, surrounded by bats and rats and other things too numerous and nasty to mention, and with not even a candle to show him the way out. But it was showing him something. He could see! And what he saw next delighted him even more. For just up ahead, illuminated as they were by the penetrating light from behind, Elmo could clearly make out some strange markings on the wall. They were long vertical lines that had been etched into face of the stone like so many rows of matches spread out on the kitchen table. He’d seen the lines before, not too long ago it seems, with the aid of his extinguished candle. And there! right next to the match-stick figures, he could clearly see, in all its familiar features, the same solitary red handprint he’d observed earlier, but not so realistically defined. For it was presently all aglow! The bright fiery red hand seemed to have sprung back to life somehow, evidenced by tiny particles of sparkling red light pulsating just beneath the epidural surface like capillary rivulets of living blood, each flaming finger gorged, as it were, with the vital red substance. It was alive! And it was brighter than ever, further convincing the Harlie that he was, indeed and in fact, getting closer to the entrance of the tunnel…and freedom.

His overalls were soaked through by now, which he could clearly see. He was cold and wet, and scared. He turned his head and listened. The footsteps had momentarily stopped, and so did the motion of the light, which seemed to follow that of the footsteps. Immobilized by his own vacillation, Elmo thought that he might wait there for a while and catch his breath, despite the ominous red-hand and all it apparently stood for. But he was still very much afraid, enveloped even as he was in the pure liquid light. He began moving forward when, suddenly, he struck his head on a rock that he clearly should’ve seen by then; perhaps, he was just too anxious to get out or, maybe, after being immersed in the in the dark for so long, he simply forgot to look. Either way, it still hurt like hell; and he was bleeding. But he didn’t have time for the pain, or the blood. He reached out his hands and immediately realized that he had another problem. A split in the tunnel had, at that point, suddenly impeded his forward progress. It was something didn’t remember seeing before; but then again, nothing at that point seemed familiar to him, and it was just so dark at the time. And now he had to make a decision. But which one? Which way?

Elmo panicked. The footsteps resumed, echoing ever closer as he hesitated on all fours in the blinding mist of indecision – SPLISH! SPLASH! SPISH! SPLASH! It was clearly the sound of someone, or something, approaching. A man? But who?

Suddenly, a loud noise shot through the tunnel. It was cool and crisp, like the crack of a whip, a sound the Harlie was very well familiar with, only magnified a thousand times. Like a bolt of invisible lightening coming down from the deep dark Heavens, it seemed to split the mountain in two. Then the tunnel began to collapse all around him, rocks falling out in great chunks, walls caving in like a stack of cascading playing cards. He could see it all; he could feel it. Elmo was in trouble, real trouble; and he knew it. He had to get out right away. Something was going on, something he didn’t understand. He knew it was bad. The footsteps kept coming; but so did the light.

SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH SPLASH!

Maybe it was Homer, the Harlie hopefully imagined, maybe not. Maybe it was....He didn’t want wait to find out. He didn’t even want to look. He just didn’t want to know.

The current felt equally divided, affording the Harlie no help in choosing the correct path as he previously had hoped; but he knew he had to make a decision, and fast. But before he could make up his mind on the matter one way or the other, he thought he heard a voice. It was not a real voice, he was quick to realize; it was more like the sound of his mule; that imaginary voice he would sometimes project into the mouth of the dumb brute. It was that tiny inner voice from within, which, although never very loud, is more often than not correct. Only this time, the voice didn’t belong to him at all. It seemed that somebody, or something, was telling him what to do and, subsequently, which way to go. The voice (if that’s what the Harlie was really hearing at that moment, which he still wasn’t quite sure of) sounded vaguely familiar. It sounded almost like…like “Homer!” Elmo imagined out loud. But it couldn’t be….Could it? They were all dead. Right? He knew that by now, or at least that’s what he thought. No one could have survived it, except for…

SPLISH! SPLASH! SPLISH! SPLASH!

The footsteps kept coming, hotter and heavier with each new wave. And they didn’t stop until they were right behind him. And by then, Elmo knew to whom the footsteps belonged. He didn’t have to guess anymore; he didn’t even have to look. He just knew. It was… “That you, colonel?” questioned the Harlie, as his hands trembled and his knees knocked in the water.

There was no answer.

For no particular reason, or maybe because that’s what the little voice inside was telling him, albeit in its own mysterious and benevolent way, Elmo took the tunnel on the right. It turned a sharp and sudden corner, and then he was all alone in the dark again. But looking straight ahead, he saw another light. It was different than the first, but not nearly as bright; and it was real. It was the proverbial ‘light at end of the tunnel’, he hopefully imagined. It was the light of day! or, judging by its color alone, at least hat was left of it. The Harlie had made the right choice after all; if indeed it was he who’d actually made it. His heart quickened as the stones bounced off the wall, as well as his head and shoulder, splashing into the water at his feet. If the footsteps were still following him, Elmo didn’t have time to notice. It didn’t make any difference anyway. He had to get out. There was no turning back. He pressed on away from one light and into another, the last dying rays of the new setting sun.

As he crawled out into the open air, the tunnel suddenly caved in on itself, completely this time, belching out a dark cloud of hot, black smoke behind him. He collapsed to the ground, cold, wet, shivering, and very exhausted. He felt as if he’d just been shot out of the mouth of a canon; which, in a sense, he did. Hiding his face in the dusty dirt, Elmo Cotton finally had the time for the pain. He also had time to cry. And so he did.

A moment later, however, while still lying on his ground, he lifted his head and looked back to see if anyone else had made it out alive. The footsteps...Red-Beard! The light, he thought. The mountain was still rumbling, just as it had been ever since it vomited poor Elmo Cotton out of the belly of Hell.

And there, in a whirling cloud of smoke and ash stood Colonel Rusty Horn and Red-Beard, two separate men occupying the same corporeal host; and still wearing the same blue and gray uniform. It was so scorched and torn by then that it was difficult to where one stopped and the other began; the colors, or what was left of them, bleeding and blending into one another like the mind and soul of the man they clothed. Both looked as though they’d just been through battle of Armageddon, and survived.

The Harlie was not at all surprised to see the Red-Bead standing there that day; but he was a little surprised that Rusty had made it out as well, even though he knew by now they were actually one of the same. He could tell just by looking at him that both were in an obvious state of shock, exhibited all the signs associated with someone who had just undergone a major traumatic experience of cataclysmic proportions. He looked weak, mortal, and all too human. It was as plain as the blood on the colonel’s hands, which wasn’t even his own. And in those same bloody and blackened paws, Red-Beard was holding something.

He had stumbled out of the tunnel that day like a red-bearded Lazarus exiting the grave. All that was missing were the mummified rags of the corpse and a few friendly and astonished faces to greet him. He was gasping for air while holding a single dark object near to his chest. He coughed up a few unintelligible syllables and stumbled out a little further into the light. There was smoke streaming from the top of his head, as well as the singed tips of his iron whiskers, which, not unlike those of infamous privateer, Edward Teach, better known as Black-Beard the pirate who, chiefly to further frighten his naval adversaries into premature submission (in the rare event that it was actually necessary) or perhaps just to enhance his own demoniac reputation, was said to have laced his own black braided beard with gunpowder, which, upon ignition was said to bear a striking resemblance to the smoking fuse of freshly lit cannon, appearing as so many smoldering candle wicks yet to be extinguished. His face was contorted, and covered with slimy black soot that made him look old and evil. He was scorched and scarred from head to foot, his smoldering clothes clinging tightly to his broken body like dirty wet rags, becoming, for all intents and purposes, part of his own skin, or so it seemed, the blue and gray bleeding into each another like Ahab’s dismembered body and tormented soul. Even at a good distance Elmo could smell the burning flesh. It smelled like… like death.

Elmo didn’t look much better, of course; but he was in no position to notice and wouldn’t have cared one way or another even if he did. He resumed his previous position on all fours while attempting to put as much real estate between himself and approaching red storm, and as quickly as possible. He looked back and could still see the fateful form of his adversary silhouetted against the black hole of the tunnel, just as it appeared inside when pressed against the effervescent and mysterious light that shone from within. He panicked. The Harlie froze. He was so scared just then that he couldn’t even force himself to get up off the ground, which would’ve indeed been the smartest thing to do at the time, and run like hell. So he just kept crawling, and did the best he could.

Exposed to the twilight formed by a slowly dying sun, they both appeared to the naked eye as two resurrected spirits, wet and dirty; one crawling away on hands and knees as fast as he could; the other lurching forward, coughing, groping the air, wheezing and wrenching, bleeding and belching, and trying to speak while stumbling around like a drunken preacher teetering on the precipice of Perdition. It was bewildering sight to see; and, under any other circumstances, it might’ve even been comical just to watch. Horn’s hair and beard were burnt to a crisp and his eyes glowed like two burning coals plucked from the fiery pits of Hell. He stopped, looked directly at the Harlie who, in a panic of fear and wonder, suddenly found the strength to pull himself up off the ground and stand on his own two feet, for a change. Their eyes locked.

It was the devil after all, Elmo quickly came to realize, in all his incarnated and transubstantiated glory. Looking directly into eyes of evil, the face of the man who had not only survived the terrible explosion but who, in the Harlie’s estimation was the probable cause of the explosion in the first place (Who else could it have been?) the same catastrophe that claimed the lives of his friends, along with a few others. He was sure of it by now. He slowly rose to his feet; and, just as he was about to turn and run from the devil incarnate, the tunnel belched forth one last blast, leaving them both in a whirlwind of dirt and dust that hung in the air like the veil of Judgment Day. And then the walls of the cave gave way completely, crumbing back into the mountain and sealing the grave of the dead men inside for all eternity.

Red-Beard coughed, stumbled, and mumbled something under his foul and baneful breath. And then he went down like a felled redwood timber, flat on his face and into the dirt, still clutching the Motherstone to his breast.

And Elmo went down with him.


Chapter Ten

The Other Side of Twilight

HE DIDN’T KNOW HOW LONG he lay on the ground after the explosion, but it seemed like forever. And the first thing he realized when he woke up was that the sun had gone down and it was dark outside. But the moon and stars were out, providing the Harlie with more light than he actually needed, or even wanted, at the time. It was early in the morning, what some folks call ‘the other side of twilight’. He had slept through most of the night without even knowing it.

The horses were still there. Not only could he hear the shuffling of their hooves, but he could see them silhouetted against the dark blue sky, heads bent low, scratching for food on the stony ground. He also spotted his mule not far from the grazing equestrians; somehow that made him feel a little better. At least he would have someone he could talk to.

He felt safe in the dark, having grown quite accustomed to it, and could appreciate it even more now that he was out of the tunnel. The first thing Elmo noticed, besides the fact that it was still early in the evening, was Red-Beard lying on the ground not far from him. The colonel hadn’t moved, or so it seemed, since he’d stumbled out of the tunnel and fell face down into the dirt. He quickly made a small campfire near the mouth of the collapsed cave and waited. He wasn’t exactly sure why.

All his natural instincts were telling him to run, get away, and fast. But something was holding him back. Maybe it was the shame of leaving the others behind, particularly Homer; even if they were all dead, as he already suspected. Thieves and murders get buried, he rightly reckoned, even those like Alvin Webb who would suck out your brains and dance a gig in your empty skull if you gave him half a chance. Hell, they might still be alive for all I know, Elmo thought to himself. It was dark. He heard their voices. He was sure of it. Perhaps they just got lost. Maybe they were still alive, but barely. It was possible. Wasn’t it? How could he leave them? How could he let them… But the Harlie was in no position to help at the time, any more than he was just now. And Red-Beard… well, he wasn’t going anywhere, either. Elmo wanted to run.

But there was something else compelling the Harlie to hold his ground. Maybe it was just pure unmitigated fear. It works every time, you know. And now, more than ever, after all he’d been through, Elmo Cotton still had a sinking and stinking feeling that he was being watched. But by who? What? He just didn’t know; and, in a strange and almost defiant sort of way, he really didn’t care. He had other things on his mind at the time to consider; more important things. He no longer felt the same way he did before about the man they called Red-Beard, when, for whatever reason the colonel saved his life by killing the rattlesnake that surely would’ve killed him had things turned out differently. He remembered riding by the colonel’s side not too long ago when he thought, perhaps, that Red-Beard was beginning to like him… or maybe it was Mister Horn. It was difficult to tell sometimes. There was a connection there; like they both had something in common, something to hide, or deny. But what? What could he, a Harlie sharecropper, possibly have in common with a great white devil he was sure by now was going to kill him; just like he killed Homer Skinner, and all the others, that very same day at the end of a long dark tunnel. And then it hit him. He knew. It was their colors, of course! In Red-Beard’s case, they were blue and gray; for Elmo, black and white. But it wasn’t the colors that matter, it was the conflict. It was personal, something they saw and recognized in one another, and perhaps pitied. Both were torn in half and equally divided by two competing masters. There was one difference, of course; Elmo knew the devils that tormented him. Red-Beard did not; or at least, he didn’t seem to care. In both cases, however, one of them would have to die. There was just no other way. But it was more than just the colors. It went deeper than that. There was something else; something…organic.

More than once that evening the Harlie thought he’d heard a sounds coming from where the colonel had fallen. It was still dark outside, but, with the moon still fairly full and hanging low over the crater, not so dark that Elmo couldn’t clearly see the man lying on the ground in front of him. There were gurgling noises that seemed to be coming from Red-Beard’s caked and blood-stained lips. It was a disturbing sound, like footsteps in the dark or grown men crying. Somehow, Rusty had managed to turn himself over and was presently lying flat on his back. Elmo also could see several rivulets of blood tricking out of the side of his half-opened mouth, flowing down his wiry red beard and into the dirt. He must’ve turned over sometime during the night, Elmo imagined, while they were both asleep. The colonel was still alive, or so it seemed. Elmo had hoped otherwise, and was already thinking of ways to kill the man they called Red-Beard. He noticed several sticks of dynamite lying on the ground next to him.

For the remainder of the night, Elmo sat by the fire and watched as Red-Beard lay belly-up at the foot of a small avalanche consisting of rock and rubble. He was breathing, steadily, with his huge gray chest heaving slowly up and down and quantities of bile and blood oozing from his exposed orifices. Most of the time he was silently still; but occasionally he would suddenly move, spasmodically, coughing so loudly that Elmo thought he would choke himself to death in his own vomit, which was something he was aware of, and could easily happen under the circumstances. Needless-to-say, the Harlie surely would have assisted the colonel in that regard by strangling him right on the spot, if he wasn’t so scared. It would be the least he could do to the man whom he already suspected of murdering his best friend. He thought it over.

There must be a hundred ways to kill a man, imagined the Harlie who, having never before contemplated such as fatal and final solution, was actually surprised at just how easy it might be. Let’s see, how did Dick put it? Easy as… as, falling off a log.’ he suddenly recalled in the words of his fallen brother. Or putting down a dog, he desperately tried to convince himself; which was something he’d actually done before by putting a bullet through the brain of his own emaciated hound-dog when he was old and sick, and it seemed like the only merciful thing left to do. But that was different, he quickly realized. The dog didn’t hate him, and he certainly didn’t hate the dog. The animal was just too old and too sick. It was one of those things that had to be done; like mercy killing, perhaps, although it didn’t make it any easier at the time.

And wouldn’t it be just as merciful to kill Red-Beard, he likewise began to ponder, who, when you get right down to it, was just as sick as his dog was when he shoot the poor animal, maybe just in a different way? Sickness comes in many forms, many guises, and for a variety of reasons. Some we understand, and accept; others, we don’t, and never will. And they’re not always that easy to define; and even harder to detect sometimes. Ask any doctor; especially ones who deal in the thorny issue of euthanasia, sometimes against their own conscious and better angels; never mind the Hippocratic Oath, which they were professionally, morally, ethically, and in most cases, still legally sworn to uphold. Would it be considered merciful to allow a terminally ill patient to linger on a few days longer through the administration of a wonder drug or some other contrivance modern medicine has to offer, designed, as all drugs and contrivances unfortunately are, merely to mitigate the pain and prolong the inevitable, perhaps against the patient’s own morbid wishes, not to mention those of his family and friends? Or would it be preferable to simply let the patient die, as prescribed by Nature, in her own time and by her own motherly and merciful hand, however cruelly administered, escaping perhaps an even more horrible end had the patient decided otherwise? And if the patient is nothing more, or less, than simply another part (albeit a highly intelligent and inventive one) of Mother Nature herself, working as an agent for some higher principal or power he knows not what, often at his neighbors expense and for his own selfish reasons, wouldn’t he doing exactly what he supposed to be doing? And if so, who can blame for doing what he does, for good or evil? For in doing so, he is only doing what comes, well…naturally! Who’s the real murderer then? Is it Man, or Nature? Who knows! God, perhaps; after all, He created both – didn’t He? As the poet says: ‘Where do murderers go, man! Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?’ These were questions simply beyond the Harlie’s groping grasp. But still, he had to make a decision.

He could end it all right now. One shift blow to the head would do it. And he wouldn’t even feel any pain. But Elmo wanted him to feel it, just like the others did. It was only fair; and it only right. Besides, he thought: wouldn’t the colonel, a man of practical instincts and action himself, want it that way, and demand no less? Isn’t that what soldiers do? They kill, of course; and not only to their enemies, but to themselves as well; when there was no more reason to go on fighting, that is. Depend on it. Take no prisoners! That’s the war-child’s cry. There is no victory in surrender – only shame, and defeat. Better to march into Hell with a bullet in the brain than to crawl through the Pearly Gates shrouded in the white flag of surrender, Elmo thought to himself with unenviable pride, not unlike the war-child himself. Saint Peter, the ambivalent apostle who swore sword in hand to fight to the death only to get his wish by being crucified upside down after denying his master three times, would surely understand the war-child’s logic. The colonel would have it no other way. Elmo agreed. It would be easy enough to do. But how? A stone might work; but it would have to be a very large one, he imagined, larger than he could probably lift. And he might wake up the sleeping giant before he could actually use it. Again, he imagine: there must be a hundred ways to kill a man.

If only he was in pain, the Harlie thought to himself as he sat and studied his prey, like a hungry hyena without its pack of fellow predators to depend on. If he would cry out, just once, just a little, that might make all the difference. It might even make it easier. Of course, a shotgun would do the job nicely, like the one his uncle gave him not too long ago. How could he miss? But Elmo did miss. It was a raccoon; and he’d missed from a distance not that much greater than that which presently separated him from Red-Beard. It was worth a try. And so, slowly and quietly he made his way back to the mule. He untied the rope and reached into the burlap sack where he’d kept his cooking gear and a few personal belongings. But the shotgun wasn’t there. It was gone.

The mule just looked at him with those big brown innocent eyes, as if to say: “You won’t find it in there.”

In all the chaos and confusion, Elmo realized that he must’ve misplaced it; or maybe he just lost it. But where? When? And How! It never seemed to be there when he needed it; and there was no time to go looking for it now. He wasn’t even sure anymore if he’d brought it along in the first place. Still, he wondered: There must be a hundred ways to kill a man. There were, of course; but there is only one way to kill the devil; and he reckoned it would take more than a stone or a shotgun to do it. Homer could have told him that much, if were still alive; but he really didn’t have to. Elmo already knew what to do. He was awake when it happened. He saw it. He heard it. He was there. It was the spirit of the night. Fire! It killed the firefly; it would kill Red-Beard, too. It might be the only way after all.

Quietly walking back to the campfire and reaching into the crackling red flames, he pulled out a smoldering stick and held it up to his face. It looked beautiful, he thought, staring at the burning ember the way a man might stare into the eyes of his lover. He knew it would work. It had to work. And to make sure that it did work, Elmo Cotton picked up three sticks of dynamite he’d found earlier near the mouth of the tunnel – with fuses! It was Red-Beard’s own deadly explosives, or what was left of it. He’d witnessed firsthand the powerful and devastating impact of the potent devices two days earlier, when, with in an almost fatherly fashion, Red-Beard himself had personally instructed the Harlie, along with anyone else who might’ve been interested at the time, of the proper handling and use of the high explosives; particularly when igniting them by hand, which, as you may have guessed already, involves the use of a very short fuse and some very strong legs – to get away, that is, after the fuse was lit. It was Elmo all needed to know. It was almost, too easy.

It was still that quiet time in the morning, the other side of twilight, when night and day appear to blend and bleed into each other, like two opposing medians colliding on the same atmospheric plane, rendering them virtually indistinguishable, if not altogether meaningless. It was a time when light and dark become, for all intents and shadowy purposes, the same. Elmo had always enjoyed that special time just before dawn. It was at such times when he was usually roused from a deep sound sleep by his wife’s boney elbow digging into the small of back and telling him it was time to wake up and get to work. It was simply her way of reminding her husband, as if he could ever forget, exactly who and what he was: a bean farmer, just another sharecropper on Ike Armstrong farm, a Harlie. Not that he ever had to be reminded.

Every farmer in Harley knew what she meant to work of Ike and, to their own credit (and usually for their own good) accepted it with little or no resistance. What else could they do? They were farmers. It came with the territory, and the plow; and nobody knew that better than Elmo Cotton. Besides, given the choice of listening to a farm girl harangue him for the rest of the day, or pulling a plow through the muck and mire of a Harley bean field in the middle of a sweltering summer, there was really no debate. Naturally, he always chose the latter, as most farmers did, at least those who were married and knew what was good for them. For the most part, Elmo never seemed to mind very much, and actually looked forward to those early hours of the morning when at least he could be by himself for a change and not have to answer to anyone, except maybe his mule, which he could usually pacify with a carrot or two. These and other domestic thoughts crossed the Harlie’s mind as he moved slowly and cautiously across the stony terrain towards his objective. With fire in one hand and a stick of dynamite in the other, he approached the man he was about to kill, Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, Red-Beard.

Elmo was standing directly over the fallen body lying on the ground before him when his attention was suddenly drawn to something in Red-Beard’s hands. He’d noticed it before and thought by now that it must be the source of the strange light he saw in the tunnel that day; the one that was so bright, so beautiful … so, so fascinating. Only now, in its present static state it was anything but a light. It was dark and round, wrapped up in the colonel’s scorched and bloody fingers, and resting on his hulking chest like a dead thing waiting to be buried.

At first glance, he took it for a simple stone covered in dirt and dust, and whatever else it might have picked up in the course of the cave-in. Maybe it was gold! he wondered, knowing that’s what the expedition was really all about. It wasn’t, of course; but it just as well could’ve been, Elmo imagined, especially considering the way it was being held so tightly in the colonel’s unconscious yet vice-like grip. It was actually more precious than the Harlie could ever imagine; far more precious than gold, at any rate. Tom Henley knew it what it was, and so did Red-Beard. It was the Motherstone.

What Red-Bead had actually found hidden so deep within the mountain that day was exactly what he and Mister Henley were looking for, albeit for entirely different reasons, and what brought them together in the first place. Tom’s Interest in the stone was strictly academic; he simply wanted to know what it was, where it came from, and perhaps un-ravel some of the mysteries surrounding the elusive gem he’d heard so much about. For Red-Beard, it was a much more personal. It was the key to eternity (his eternity, to be specific) – life! the fountain of everlasting youth and vitality, and the means to immortality, which, in his own mangled imagination would make him complete and thus finish the job the ship’s surgeon, for all his medical knowledge and industrious ambition, was simply unable to fulfill. And he was not alone in this immortal quest. You might say even it is something we are all born with and invested in to one degree or another by… by own humanity. And what makes it even more desirable is the simple fact that it’s really nothing new at all; moreover, it is something we all once shared at one time or another before it was lost, forever – Eternal life! Immortality. As the poet once acknowledged: ‘You don’t miss what you never had.’ How much more then do we crave those things we once knew, and had? Better never to have had them at all, others may argue, and deny themselves their own birthright. Eternity! It’s the desire of mankind ever since Adam, the old Patriarch himself, walked shamefully upright out of the Biblical Garden of Eden and into the vale of tears, alongside his disgraced and pregnant wife with prehensile tails tucked between their fig-covered legs and sucking their opposable thumbs on the threshold of an uncertain and very questionable future. It was the Motherstone. And, perhaps, that’s why he clung to it so desperately, so greedily, even on death’s door. But to Elmo, it was still only as stone.

It was still too dark for him to make out exactly what it was that Red-Beard was holding in his hands at the time; his death grip, so it seemed. But it really didn’t matter. Not to Elmo, anyway; he simply couldn’t have care less at the time. It did, however, make him stop for a moment and think some more about what happened in the tunnel that day, and the strange light that suddenly flooded the tunnel like so many… Was that the source of his freedom? thought the Harlie for the first time since exiting the long dark tunnel. Is that what did it? Was it the light? It did show him the way out, after all. Wasn’t it? It did light the way; however unintentionally or unintelligently it occurred. And it worked! Whatever it was. And it seemed to be working still; although in a much more subtle, and perhaps sinister, way. The light was out. Yes! But the stone, the stone was still there; just like it always was; deep, dark and beautiful, he thought, drawing even nearer to the same irresistible force that mysteriously, miraculously! it suddenly seemed, rescued him from the jaws of the dragon, forcing him to do what, in his own broken and vengeful heart, he’d actually made up his mind to do long before he ever heard of Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, Red-beard, or the gold; perhaps, before he was ever born. Go on! Go ahead, he kept saying to himself, kill him! Before he wakes up and kills you, you stupid fool of a Harlie. Go ahead.

Having sufficiently dried out in the heat of the night, Red-Beard’s blue and gray rags had resumed their former combustibility by then. They would surely have to ignite, Elmo could only imagine, just like the dynamite. The thought did occur to him that he might blow himself up in the process; but it was worth the risk. And besides, he felt as though he had no other choice. The stone told him so. He was standing so close to the colonel by now that he could almost count the whiskers on his face. He could also see more clearly now what it was that Red-Beard was holding so closely to his chest, as if unconsciously guarding it against some invisible fiend that would wrench it from his vice-like fingers at any moment. It was lying just beneath the white knuckles of the man Elmo suddenly feared more than any other, dead or alive. It was dull and black, and covered with mountain dust and blood.

Standing alone on the threshold of a new day with a full moon still visibly looming over the eastern horizon like host of Heaven itself, the Harlie could clearly see the delineated circumference of the small black stone still cradled in the colonel’s cold-blooded fingers, contrasting perfectly with his pale white skin. Elmo approached, as if still being mysteriously drawn to the object of his desire. Then, suddenly, he remembered why he came. He placed two sticks of dynamite directly on Red-Beard’s stomach, just above his belt where the gray turned to blue. All he had to do now was light the fuse, and run! as fast as he could. But what about the stone? the thought suddenly occurred to him. Should he take it first? What if Red-Beard woke up? What would he say? What would he do? What could he do? He reached out his hand. It was shaking; just like Homer’s, he remembered, was before he went into the tunnel. He wanted to touch it, to take it, but something was preventing him.

Red-Beard’s hands were also trembling, slightly but noticeably. His eyes were opened, just as they’ve always been, signifying, at least, that there was still a good amount of life left in him. It didn’t really make any difference; but it did make what the Harlie was about to do just a little more difficult. It’s a whole lot easier to kill a man when he’s wide awake, he hesitated for a moment, when you can look him straight in the eye; and, hopefully, he would do the same for you, if you were foolish enough to let him. But this was different. Red-Beard posed no real threat to him at just then; at least not in the vulnerable position he was in at the moment. And he could, after all, prove useful in finding out exactly what happened inside the tunnel, if there was still any doubt in the Harlie’s mind, which surprisingly enough, there was. Or maybe he could just wait, and talk to the colonel, once he woke up and had a chance to think things over after some breakfast; a little coffee, perhaps. And just then Red-Beard’s iron lungs swelled with air and the mechanical heart began to beat more regularly.

“No!” Elmo silently shouted to himself, bringing the fire closer to the old gray rag. “Do it. Just do it...Now! Do it, you stupid Harlie. Damn it! Before it’s too late...”

And perhaps it was too late. For at same that moment, Red-Beard’s entire body moved, and between his claw-like fingers the stone moved right along with him, as if the two were somehow inextricably linked together, like two parts of the same infernal machine. And then he stopped. Lying face up on the ground, Elmo could see that the stone was still moving within the colonel’s greedy grasp as his stomach continued to heave up and down. Whether under the influence of gravity, or if the man holding the stone was merely manipulating it in some dark and disturbing dream he might be having at that very same moment, the Harlie just couldn’t say. And then, either by accident or design, the dirt slowly dissipated, or evaporated, from the face of the mysterious sphere, revealing for the first time all the deep, dark, and delicious luster invested within.

Whatever it was, it was not gold. Assuming that it was perhaps what Red-Beard was looking for all along, having expressed as much on more than one occasion, albeit in his own beguiling way, Elmo thought that it just might be the key to the whole deep dark mystery, a mystery he’d been wondering about ever since they’d left Harley. Homer had mentioned to him, quite by accident he thought at the time, something about a strange black stone, or something, he’d found in the mine, forty, forty years ago, when he first went looking for Cornelius G. Wainwright III, whose obituary was long-overdue and just as anticipated by then, and had found the gold instead. He never said anything more about it. Elmo never asked. It was just one of those things…the Harlie always imagined at the time; and he let it go.

Homer said lots of things. Nobody knew that better than the Harlie; some things more true than others. But whatever it was he spoke of with Elmo that day was more than just a stone. He knew that by now. And he also knew that he was looking at it at that very moment; and he wasn’t even sure why.

Upon closer examination, or as close as Elmo cared to be to the immobilized mass of red flesh at that moment, it was easy to see that it may be something more than a stone after all. It was perfectly round and black, and just large enough to be covered by a human hand. It was smooth and subtle, easy to look at and, in a many ways, attractive; like a pure black pearl bravely brought up from the darkest bottom of the sea, shimmering and wet in the diver’s shivering hands, in all its briny beauty, reflecting in its newly acquired medium, all the wondrous colors of the deep that can only fully appreciated once exposed to the disinfecting light of the sun. There was something liquid about it, watery, something fine and fluid, like the metallic substance found in quick silver or, depending on how you observe such things, the pale face of the moon. And in that regard, it seemed to take on all the luminescent qualities of polished silver, or a mirror, perhaps, that naturally derives all its reflective powers from the blackness behind the glass, which gave the stone its true and natural beauty. Whether principal or agent, the stone seemed to absorb all light and, therefore, all colors, fusing them together in such a way the human eye perceives only as… well, black.

And what exactly is it about ‘black’ we find so disturbing? Why has it become, through no fault of its own, that ‘Pejorative’ color with so many prejudices attached to it? Bearing all negative connotations ascribed to it through the ages, either justly or unjustly, it’s a wonder black has survived at all. Think of it! Since first introduced into the lexicon of man, black has become synonymous with all that is evil, undesirable, sinister, wicked and suspicious. Black is bad. But of all colors, black is perhaps the most inclusive. It is diverse! And in its purest and most natural state, black is actually all colors of the spectrum combined. But among discriminating minds, and in certain cultures, it is considered the color of evil, which they would gladly eliminate if they had the power to do so. But then what would be left? White – of course, which by contrast and by definition, is really nothing more the absence of color altogether: the negative of black; a mere reflection, an abstraction, if you will, of, well – Nothing! In fact, come to think of it, white is actually colorless; and yet, it mysteriously remains the purest, the noblest, of all colors. White pacifies. It purifies. It purges. It’s the color of virginity that knows no blush. It’s the fleece of the sacrificial lamb, the Eucharist! White is the substance of the eternal being. White is formless and boundless, like a snow-covered field, a cloud filled sky, or the face of God. It is the color of angel’s wings as well as the flag surrender; and in that paradoxical regard, white is contradiction. It can be weak and strong, right or wrong. It all depends on your point of view, I suppose.

White it can also be ambiguous, disturbing, disquieting, chaotic, and frightening, such as a madman’s monotone dream. It can also be dangerous and, under certain conditions, deadly. White is a contradiction. Some have even suggested that white is the color of insanity: ‘…madness magnified’, in the words of one who’d actually survived it. He may’ve been right. Just ask any struggling writer who has stared too long at a blank piece of white paper without a thought to fill it with. White? You can write an entire book, or a least a chapter, on the whole sublime and terrifying subject of white and still not do it justice. In fact, it’s already been tried!

Perhaps, it is these uniquely opposing qualities that make black and white what they actually are: not colors at all, as scientists would have us believe, but something quite different. There’s a human quality about them that’s absent in all primary colors. There is something definite about black and white, something absolute, unique, and ubiquitous, like good and evil. They delineate. They separate. They divide. They conquer and ultimately destroy one another. They are as mutually inclusive as they are exclusive, diametrically opposed yet inextricably linked, like the celebrated conjoined twins, Eng and Chang whose own name bear an uncanny resemblance to that other pair of Oriental wonders, the Ying and the Yang we come across so often in philosophical renderings. They exist because and in spite of each other. Separate them, and they die.

Try blending black and white together, however, and you come up with something that is really unique, and quite different; like the other side of twilight, perhaps. Or, come to think of it, something not unlike Elmo Cotton, the Harlie himself! Combined, these two colorless principals exist in a state of perpetual conflict. Separate them, if only for a moment, and they lose their power, their potency, their impact, and perhaps their meaning. In that regard, they practically appear to cancel each other out, like matter and anti-matter, which may not necessarily be a bad thing, depending on who you ask. They annihilate one another, or it seems, until all that remains are varying shades of gray, which they naturally abhor. They exist for contrast and live for distinction. Black and white defines one another. They fed on themselves, like two hungry and restless cannibals eyeing one another with disdain and delight on some deserted island in the unsounded and uncharted sea of Perdition. Without one another, they are meaningless; they die. Or do they?

Consider this: In the same sense that cold may be scientifically, and quite accurately, explained as a mere lack of heat to one degree or another, so too can dark be described as the as the physical absence of light. Likewise, isn’t it logical then to assume then that Evil is nothing more than the absence Good? And if that’s true then Hell, by definition, can only be a place where God is not presence at all, and can only exist in some kind of metaphysical vacuum. But if God is as omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, and as infinite as He claims to be, how then can He be absent from anyone, anywhere, or at any time? Can one exist without the other? Can the sun itself survive without the cold and darkness to give it meaning? Can Good exist without Evil? Heaven without Hell? Does God reign alone? And if He doesn’t, then who the hell does? It may be the ultimate paradox, which we, in or own infinite minds and mortal husks can never fully comprehend. It’s a divine joke, perhaps, in which case God must have the last word as well as the last laugh. He does have a sense of humor, you know. He has to. He invented it, just like he did everything else for that matter. But don’t tell that to an atheist. You’ll only make him mad, or crazy – probably both.

As for Black and White, they are really just mediums after all; ghosts, if you will, like the spirits of the night, or pigments in the skin, I suppose. They have no substance, no reality. It’s only the objects they represent, real or imagined, that they give them legitimacy, or power. It is no wonder the two opposing themes had gained so much notoriety. It’s an ancient dilemma, a story still in the making, a yarn in the weaving, as ancient as Adam and as old as good and evil. There are those who claim the final battle between the two ancient foes is inevitable; and that even now there are armies marching to the valley of Megiddo. But the battle has already been won, of course; long before the first stone was ever cast, even before the Heavens first smile down on a little yellow star spinning off in time and space, so small and insignificant that it can only be defined as a mere mathematical point. Starring down on the blackness of the stone and the whiteness of the flesh only reminded the Harlie of who he was, and what he must do.

Despite the clear and present danger, Elmo couldn’t help but be drawn closer to the curious object that had so completely captured and confounded his imagination. And as he moved closer, the stone suddenly changed. It was still black, but not like it had first appeared, presently taking on a new luster that was lacking in its prior aspect. There was something liquid about. It appeared wet and shiny, all over, almost blue and silver, like the barrel of a gun or the blade of a knife. And it continued to change, fluidly, even as he stood there watching it evolve right before his eyes. Something was clearly happening that he could not explain or understand, on the other side of twilight.

The stone was compelling him to draw even nearer, against the Harlie’s own wishes and his better judgment. And as he did so, a number of long thin lines appeared; not so much on the surface of the stone, but rather deep inside the glassy globe itself. They were faint at first, but growing in intensity and radiating outward like the ripples on a pond after a stone had breached the surface. The ripples spread, turning into solid broad bands of very bright lights moving horizontally across the face of the stone in between Red-Beard’s glowing fingers. And with the light came the strangest of sounds; mechanical noises, likes pops and whistles and beeps that seemed to start and stop at no particular intervals.

For whatever reason, Red-Beard suddenly loosened his fatal grip, revealing for the first time the complete roundness of the stone, the exposed surface of which appeared not unlike the convex curvature of a polished black lens presently energized from within. More lines appeared, moving vertically this time, in distinct rhythmical patterns, in and out over the shinny surface of the glass, perpendicular to the white lines that could still be seen flashing from north to south. The light only intensified, broken now and then only by the random motion of Red-Beard’s translucent fingers still caressing the stone and setting forth with stroboscopic effect a dazzling display of oscillating light and energy.

Moving closer to the source of that magnetic energy, Elmo could clearly see the skeletal make-up of Red-Beard’s entire hand, as if bombarded by x-rays and illuminated by phantom photons being produce somehow by the stone itself. The hand appeared a ghostly red, almost transparent, not unlike the red hand Elmo came across painted on the wall deep inside the tunnel; the same one that created so much controversy among those still trapped inside, and probably dead by now. But this was no image; this was real, which only made it that much more significant. It was a human hand, Red-Beard’s hand, right down to each jointed bone in his fingers that glowed like red embers in a fire. And as his hand came to rest directly on top of the hyperbolic curve of stone, the Harlie could all but count each tiny capillary as it transported blood from heart to hand and back again. It was closest thing to a real ghost Elmo had ever seen, if they existed at all, which now suddenly seemed more probable than ever. Not surprisingly, he further observed that the flesh did not burn; not even a hair was scorched. There was no pain. It only further convinced him that Red-Beard was indeed an apparition, or something even worse.

And then something fantastic happened; at least, that’s what it seemed like to Elmo. The broad bands of light previously descried suddenly broke up into many more lines, curving and arching in all different directions at once. And then they began attaching themselves to one another, forming in the process what looked not unlike like the strange symbols Elmo had noticed earlier that day inside tunnel carved into the stone near the illuminated handprint. The various lines and circles suddenly disappeared, giving way to a series of smaller symbols that quickly began crawling across the black marble like an army of white insects in disarray that somehow reminded Elmo of the time he accidentally fell down an open cesspool and was quickly covered by thousands of albino cock roaches, an experience he could not erase from his memory, no matter how much he scrubbed. To the simple and uneducated brain of a Harley sharecropper, they looked like little white letters, or maybe numbers; he couldn’t tell which. Whatever they were, they came and went so quickly that, even if he’d been able to read them, Elmo never would’ve had the time. It happened just that quickly.

The white letters then stopped, disappearing all together, and were presently replaced by many flashing beams of light, running randomly either over, or through, the stone itself, and quite independent of one another. There were hundreds of them! flashing like so many stars on a clear and cloudless night. At first the lights was bright, white hot, like lightening against a black sky. And then, from somewhere deep inside the gloomy glass, came the vibrations. It was a mechanical sound, a low humming noise that gradually increased in pitch and volume. There was a musical component to it as well, something mathematical in its make up. In some ways it sounded almost human, but not like anything Elmo had ever heard before. The closest he may’ve come to describing what he was hearing at the moment, and still fall short, was perhaps what colors would sound like if they could speak. And then, just as these and other alien thoughts crossed mind, the white hot lights collided in the very center of the starry stone and burst forth in an explosion of many different colors. It was spectacular!

There was red, blue, orange, purple, yellow, and every shade in between! along with some other colors Elmo couldn’t recognize at all, as though he was seeing them for the very first time. Some of the lights appeared as colored balls moving slowly through the dark glass and rotating like brightly lit lanterns suspended on so many invisible strings. Some of the balls had rings them, orbiting slowly around the many splendid spheres; while others, had even more balls rotating about them, although much smaller than their larger hosts, and all in a very orderly fashion. All the movement, the mechanical vibrations, the sights and the sounds, every orbital object, each ray of light, all the clusters of colors, in fact everything he’d seen and heard so far, seemed to have a purpose, a reason, a design, an intelligence behind it that was somehow holding the whole thing together by some irresistible force, without which collision and chaos would surely ensue, while at the same time separating them as well. And even though Elmo had no way of knowing it at the time, that same gravitational energy was presently driving them further and further apart for some unknown and unfathomable reason. But somehow it all made sense, perfect sense; and, even in his own finite, flawed, limited, and imperfect imagination, it was something the Harlie could comprehend and understand, though he didn’t know how. It was the Universe, or some facsimile thereof; a map, perhaps, imagined Elmo, not unlike the one Homer kept in his pocket all the time that showed him where the gold was. Only this map was real, and alive! and it showed everything. There were moons, planets, stars, solar systems, galaxies, novas, supernovas, quasars, black-holes, comets, meteors, and whatever else you might expect to find in vast complexities of space. But it was more than that, much more; and Elmo knew that by now. Along with the many sights, sounds, and other physical manifestations he was experiencing just then, real or imagined, he could also feel a sense of purpose behind it. Some may call it logic or reason, among other things. It’s only natural. Many will simply ignore it which, all things considered, may not be such a bad idea after all. Still others will worship it as a god, from a purely pantheistic perspective, perhaps; while other bow down and call it God. They would both be wrong, of course, and guilty of the same sin. The Creator creates out of nothing; otherwise, He is not a Creator at all; He merely builds on what he already has, just as a man builds a house out of wood, metal, bricks, glass, etc… And if God creates out of nothing, that means He exists both within and without all we know to exist, and all at the same time: time being the key and crucial component here. You see, we, as humans, live in and are bound by a very finite and limited world; like guppies in a fish bowl, we perceive only our immediate surroundings, not knowing (or caring for that matter) that outside the glass is a world of air and energy; a world full of things and beings we couldn’t begin to imagine in our little glassy globe, and whose existence we depend on, even though we have no idea how or why. For us time as ephemeral, passing, something that once spent is gone forever. But what Elmo was only just now becoming aware of (don’t bother to ask him how; he couldn’t explain it if he wanted to) was that God, if He exists at all, must exist not only in a different dimension, but in all dimensions, perhaps some we aren’t even aware of, beyond time and space; and all at the same time, which would not only explain how He can be in all places at once, but why we (just like the guppy in the fish bowl that would surely perish outside his own natural environment) simply cannot; at least, not in our present condition. These and other metaphysical manifestations entered the Harlie’s mind just then as he contemplated his own mortality. And they were all coming, so it seemed, from a single black stone no larger than the head of a small child being held in the hand of a madman.

And then the lights went out. Just like that. Everything was gone: the lights, the lines, the colors, the sounds, the moon, the stars, the planets; the entire universe as a matter of fact. Gone! In the blink of an eye. All that remained was Red-Beard. He was still there, lying helplessly and hopelessly on the ground with the same black stone in his hand. Everything else had simply vanished, as when someone quickly and quietly blows out a candle. And then all was dark again. The fire fell from the Harlie’s hand, harmlessly hitting the ground; and then, it too, went out.

* * *

HE AWOKE TO THE SOUND OF SNORING. It was the colonel, Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn. The sun was shining by then, more brightly than ever it seemed. It was Saturday morning and Elmo had passed over the other side of twilight; and he was still alive. He couldn’t have slept more than an hour, but it seemed like an eternity. Red-Beard was still there; but he was lying on his side by then. He was asleep, it would appear: curled up in a big, dirty, blue and gray ball, and still clutching the stone to his breast as a mother would hold a nursing child. There was blood trickling down from the corner of the colonel’s half-opened mouth; it was in his nostrils and whiskers, too. There was blood on the ground, in the dirt, and all around Red-Beard’s heavy head as he lay there looking straight up into the sky with one eye closed and the other wide open. The blood around his head was dark and dry; coagulated, it seemed, almost black. It was not a healthy sign. It didn’t look real. It didn’t even look human.

Elmo didn’t know how he fell asleep that night, or for how long. He didn’t mean to, and he certainly didn’t want to. It just happened; and that’s what scared him most of all. When he woke up in the morning light of a brand new day, his head seemed a little clearer than it did the night before. He felt refreshed, rejuvenated, like he’d just taken a long draw of water on a hot summer day; but his mind and body ached all over. He noticed several sticks of dynamite lying carelessly on the ground along with the charred remained of a burnt out ember. They reminded him of the night before and what he’d failed to do on the other side of twilight. The flame was out; but the fire still burned, perhaps more brightly than ever.

Tossing a few sticks of wood on the smoldering campfire, Elmo tried desperately to figure out exactly what did happen the night before and, more importantly, what to do next. The others were dead; he knew that by now, regardless of what happened the night before. From the sound of the last explosion, he imagined that the entire tunnel must’ve collapsed; not just the entrance as it did before, but the whole mine itself, leaving nothing more than a mountain of rocks and stones in its devastating aftermath. It would take an army, he imagined, or at least more than seven strong men and two boys with beards, to move them all again. And they were dead anyway.

There was nothing left for Elmo Cotton to do; and so, he did nothing. It came as a tragic end to a sad and short story; and it came much all too soon, though the Harlie, falsely blaming himself for everything that happened so far, including the death of his friends. He was feeling sad, lonely, and guilty; knowing he’d failed in just about everything he ever tried to do; including sharecropping, cooking, combobulating and, perhaps most of all, killing Red-Beard when he had the chance, maybe his last and only chance, to do it. He knew he was a murderer by then; but that’s not the only reason he wanted to kill him. It was more personal than that; it was biological: something that just had to be done, like putting down a bad dog.

Perhaps if he’d acted prudently, or at least more expeditiously, things would have turned out differently; and maybe the others would still be alive. He missed them already, especially Homer, and wondered how much, or how little, they suffered. Did they cry? The sound of Little Dick Dilworth sobbing for his momma was something he would not soon forget. And not to hear Mister Smiley curse and swear anymore, the way he did when Elmo inadvertently set the surveyor’s magnificent mustache on fire when he tried to light his cigar, was simply un-thinkable! Naturally, he lamented the passing of the two wagon riders, Sam and his Indian companion, both of whom he’d felt a closeness to, as if they were all related in a strange, dark and distant way. He missed having Mister O’Brien and his hammer around, almost a much as he missed Homer. He even felt sorry for Alvin Webb, who, as loathsome and undeserving of sympathy the drunken outlaw was, didn’t deserve the kind of death that involved so much pain and suffering. Nobody did. The thought of suffocating to death, which is probably what actually happened to them all, was something Elmo had found most disturbing. He had once fallen through ice trying to cross a frozen lake one winter. The pond was actually never more than four feet deep; but it was very cold and, having swallowed a great deal of water in the process, the Harlie nearly drowned that day. He was eventually pulled out of an early icy grave and saved by his good friend and neighbor, Sherman Dixon who, as it just so happened was fishing at the other end of the pond through a hole he’d chipped away in the ice. With little or no concern for his own safety, the fat farmer ran right over and dove in after the floundering sharecropper, pulling him out by the straps of his overalls. It was a terrifying experience, for both of them, and one the Harlie would not soon forget, even though Sherman thought very little of it at the time, assuring his good friend and neighbor that he certainly would have done the same for him if their situations were reversed. Elmo agreed; although he seriously doubted that he would ever have enough strength to pull a three hundred pound bean famer from the same frozen coffin; and he wasn’t too sure if he would even try. The fear of drowning, or suffocating, which, forensically speaking and for all intents and purposes, are basically same thing, had stayed with the Harlie ever since and became his worst nightmare. A learned man once told him, as a matter of historical fact rather than religion, that suffocation was actually the chief ingredient employed in ancient and brutal art of crucifixion; and furthermore, that the victim of such a gruesome sentence would typically die of asphyxiation, after a certain amount of time of course, rather than his traumatic injuries, as sever and life-threatening as they are, simply by not having the strength to lift himself up to the proper elevation needed to breath properly. Pain or suffocation was the criminal’s ultimate choice as he hung naked on the tree; death would eventually outweigh them both. And it was just at that moment when, from the corner of his eye it seemed, Elmo caught sight of the crucifix Homer had planted in the rocky soil just before he entered the cave that day. And there it stood in all its gruesome detail, a lone reminded what becomes of criminals, cowards, and Messiahs. No one deserved to die like that, the Harlie concluded, not even Red-Beard. So he tried not to think about it. Instead, he put some beans on the fire and boiled some water for coffee. And then he sat down beside his mule and began to cry.

“Poor Homer,” he said to the mule when he could cry no more. Curiously, there was no response from his argumentative alter ego. Apparently, the mule agreed; or maybe it was Elmo who was agreeing with the animal, for a change. It was hard to tell. Either way, it was a rare and melancholy moment, for both of them. The Harlie knew all along that it might come to this. Homer had told him so himself on more than one occasion. ‘Mines are dark and dangerous places, son…’ he would often say, ‘And some that goes up into them ol’ hills don’t come down. And even if they do, they’s never the same’, the old man would admonished him in the same cautious breath.

“Guess I’m not the lucky number after all…Huh, mule?” he said looking into the mule’s large and lipid brown eyes.

“Not a much of a farmer either,” echoed the animal, even though he knew it wasn’t really true.

Elmo agreed. “And the worse damn cabob’lator ever there was!”

The mule nodded.

Elmo shouted, “It ain’t fair!”

“Fair?” replied the mule, calmly resuming his natural and annoying habit of questioning his master’s emotional outbursts, especially when they didn’t make much sense. “You’re still alive... Ain’t you? Is that fair?”

“Huh?” The Harlie had to think about that for a moment. As usual, he was caught off guard, even though it was really he who asked the question. Or maybe, as he was recently beginning to suspect, the mule was merely trying to trap him with his own thoughts and in its own logical instincts. But Elmo wasn’t in the mood to argue. It was just another riddle, he reckoned; and he’d heard enough already.

Is it fair? Is what fair! And what kind of stupid mule-headed question was that? Elmo could only imagine. One without an answer, of course; as most stupid mule-headed questions are. Nothing’s fair! Life’s not fair. Death certainly isn’t fair. And most of all, it wasn’t fair that Red-Beard was still alive when, after all, it was the colonel himself who’d most probably murdered the others in the first place. But why? he wondered. As a wise old wizard once observed: ‘Many die that deserve to live, and many live that deserve to die. Who are we to decide?

“Someone has to pay,” suggested the mule.

“Pay for what?” questioned the Harlie.

“Murder.”

“What!”

“You heard me.”

Elmo: “B-But I didn’t… that is to say… it wasn’t… I mean…”

In his own wild and imaginative mind, Elmo Cotton was just as guilty as Red-Beard, maybe even more so just for knowing it and not doing anything about it; and he deserved the same sentence he was so willing hand down to Red-Beard only a few hours ago – Death! They were both guilty; guilty as sin, it seemed; equally condemned in the eyes and mouth of a mule. But who would carry out the sentence?

The mule turned its long judgmental head to the man lying on the ground. “Red-Beard…” it whined out loud.

It suddenly occurred to Elmo (with a little help from the mule, perhaps) that not only was he and Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn the two prime suspects, but, for lack of evidence, or any living witnesses to prove otherwise, they would also be judge, jury, and executioner at their own trial. There was only one verdict, of course – Guilty! They would construct the gallows themselves, right there on top of the mountain, plank by plank. They would knot the nooses themselves and slip them around each other’s necks. Then they would shake hands (no use holding grudges at that point) and simultaneously release the levers that sprung open the trap doors below. And there they would hang, alone and together, suspended between heaven and earth, in such a way that would make Judge Parker blush with pride and envy, until the buzzards picked them clean. Of course, there are more horrible ways to die: like crucifixion! he imagined, thinking back to the Roman cross Homer dragged out of his barn not too long ago and planted in the pagan soil. Or being buried alive and suffocating under a mountain of stones; that is, unless of course you weren’t lucky enough to first be knocked unconscious by some unforeseen and unstoppable force, such as a falling rock, that spared you such a painful death. But it really didn’t matter, he reckoned; as long as they were both dead.

Still, there must be a reason, a motive at least. Death demands it. Murder screams for it, like the innocent blood crying out from Abel’s grave. Why, even madmen have reasons, and so do murders, despite all their lunacies, cracked pots and half-baked ideas, their howling and hissing, their peeping and poking, their ranting and raving, along with all their nonsensical notions, obsessive and incorrigible behavior, the crowded loneliness, the silence and solitude, the sadness, the fear, the doubts, the frustration, and most of all – the guilt. It is only those self-mocking mechanisms that have plagued mankind since Adam that make up the psyche of the truly insane, which the rest of Humanity, graced as we are with more sound and stable mental capacities, sometimes look upon with a certain bewildering pity that not only defines, but justifies, our sanity.

The Harlie looked down at the mad man lying on the ground. He looked harmless enough, peaceful, like a lonely and tired pilgrim who might’ve simply lost his way and decided to take a nap in the woods. Elmo remembered when, not too long ago it seemed, the colonel had given him the choice to come along when others were dead set against it, or simply stay at home. Furthermore, he recollected the time on the trail when Red-Beard shot the rattler dead, which no doubt had saved the Harlie’s life. But none of that seemed to matter any longer. Elmo knew that he should’ve listened to Homer. He also knew he should’ve killed Red-Beard when he had the chance. Now he didn’t know what to think anymore, or do. He looked to the mule for an answer. He received none. Like I said, it really didn’t matter.

“Humph! Mules can’t talk,” Elmo finally admitted to himself. The voice was his; he knew it all along. He was just too proud, or ashamed, to admit it. “I’s may be a jackass…” he confessed to himself, “but Red-Beard’s a coward, and a murder! He didn’t save no one – ‘ceptin’ himself! Didn’t even try. He’s just a coward… a coward and a murderer! Why, you didn’t even try to save ol’ Mister Webb,” said Elmo, addressing the slumbering giant out loud for the first time since they’d exited the tunnel. “And he ‘sposed to be yo’ friend, Mister Horn – yo’ friend! Some friend you turned out to be. Humph! You’re just a goddamn coward! That’s what you is, Mister Horn, a damn coward. Coward! Coward! Coward!” he repeatedly shouted at the fallen officer who, oblivious to the Harlie’s condemnations, remained as motionless as a living corpse. “And me…” he quietly resigned in the deepening darkness of his own black heart, “I’s just a Harlie.”

He could think of nothing more he wanted to do at that moment other than to simply to walk over to Red-Beard and kick him, hard! the same way the colonel kicked him, only much harder, and in the head. Why even the mule would agree to that, the Harlie imagined. “Should’a just killed you when I has the c-chance,” he stuttered under his breath. But the fire was out by now; not only in his hand, but in his heart as well. It seemed that it just wasn’t his decision to make, any more than it was his decision to go along in the first place. Fate would place that burden on someone else’s shoulders. It was no longer the Elmo’s to bear. He felt relieved; not safe, or innocent, just relieved.

And so in the end, the bean farmer from Harley merely walked over to where Red-Beard lay on the ground and spit on his face, just like he spat in the colonel’s supper a few days earlier. In doing so he noticed that the stone had somehow slipped from the colonel’s frozen fingers and had fallen freely from his chest; for it presently lay on the ground, alone and undisturbed, and well within the Harlie’s reach.

Absent the pasty white flesh that once had cradled it, the stone suddenly appeared darker than it ever did before. It was also more appealing to look at; the light of a mid-day sun only fueling and intensifying its blackness it seemed. All Elmo had to do now was reach down and take it. And he certainly would’ve done just that, if not at that very same moment Rusty Horn hadn't finally woken up from his slumbering madness with only a single word spewing laboriously from his blood-caked and lying lips. “Mother,” he mouthed, just loudly enough for Elmo to hear. And just as he was about the take the stone and claim it as his own, the mule one last warning.

“Damn you!” cried the Harlie.

It was too late. Red-Beard was alive and awake. At the sound of a human voice, along with the whining of the mule and warming rays of the sun, he stirred. Like a great brown bear lethargically crawling out of hibernation after a long and cold Appalachian winter, the colonel coughed, rolled over once or twice, licked his blood-caked lips and uttered his first coherent sentence since stumbling out of Cornelius G. Wainwright III’s now defunct gold mine. “Where am I?” he growled.

Elmo stood and stared, not knowing what to do, or say, at the moment.

Red-beard turned his head from side to side, as if he were trying to remember something or simply get his bearings. “Where is it?” he growled once more, only this time with a little more life in his voice. “Where!” He didn’t have to look far; it was right at his feet, right where it fell only moments earlier. He reached down and picked it up in a quick but gentle swoop.

With a little more difficulty than Elmo would have otherwise suspected from a man who only moments ago was knocking on death’s door, Colonel Horn pulled himself to his feet and stumbled over to the woody hammock where the animals were still tied down. He greeted the white Brahma with a gentle rub of the nose and immediately began rummaging through his gear until he found what he was looking for. It was a tanned leather cloth that he used to wrap the precious stone in before placing it deep inside his gray blood-stained shirt. He treated the stone as he would a thing of great importance, or something of great value, like a gemstone, perhaps, or gold.

He seemed to know exactly what he was doing; everything Red-Beard did since awakening from his comatose state, he did coolly, calmly, and methodically, like it came natural to him, as if he’d done it a hundred times before. Exiting the woody hammock, he casually combed the dirt from his beard with the tips of his fingers, and tightened the belt of his trousers a notch or two. He then proceeded directly towards the Harlie without a word and without a sound, his face slightly contorted and still bloodied and bruised from the tragic incident that had rendered him in his current condition. With squinting but unclosed eyes, a sniffing nose, and a furrowing red brow, Horace Horn appeared not unlike a wounded animal, which, of course, made him that more unpredictable, and dangerous.

Naturally, Elmo was quite scared; terrified, in fact, at seeing Red-Beard steering a clear and deliberate course through the small mounds of rubble in his general direction. He did nothing to avoid an encounter that seemed all but eminent. What could he do? Where would he go? He couldn’t run, and he wouldn’t hide; it was too late. He had a small knife in his pocket, the one he often used for cooking; but he knew it would be useless against a giant of a man like Rusty Horn, especially considering all that the red-bearded Rasputin had already been through, and who, not unlike the Czar’s mad monk, had somehow survived it. At that point the Harlie was beginning to think that nothing could kill Red-Beard. Perhaps he was right. But something was telling him that he would have to try, sooner rather than later.

Placing a bloody red paw on the Elmo’s naked shoulder blade, Red-Beard tossed the farmer aside with little or no effort, just like he would a child’s rag doll. He then proceeded to move right past the Harlie as if he didn’t even exist. He walked straight over to the fire and poured himself some coffee and waited for the beans to boil. For a moment it eased the Harlie’s growing anxieties, but still didn’t answer any of his questions.

An hour had passed and not a word was exchanged between the two survivors of the recent catastrophe. Elmo sat silently next to his mule wondering what, if anything, to do next. He knew he should be on his way back home to Harley by now; he’d been gone now for five days already. But just like before, something was compelling him to stay. There was still something else for him to do; although, for the life of him, Elmo couldn’t begin to imagine what that might be.

Meanwhile, the hungry giant finished off the beans Elmo had cooked earlier and poured himself some more coffee, acting almost as if he wasn’t even there. Other than throwing an occasional curious glance in Elmo’s direction, Colonel Horn appeared lost in his own recuperating thoughts, as though he were weighing his options, whatever he perceived them to be at that moment. He would eventually have to decide what to do about the Harlie. But without knowing exactly how much Elmo had seen, or heard, up until then, he knew it would be difficult. It was not something he was looking forward to.

Red-Beard never considered himself a murderer, or a thief for that matter; he only killed when he had to, or was ordered to do so which usually occurred under military mandate; and those he did kill always deserved it; there were no exceptions, including the Indian infant and the priest at San Sebastian’s he’d killed which, to him at least, were the casualties of war; never mind the fact at in the case of the newborn Indian, Red-Beard was had no real motive other than his own selfish pride and prejudice. In fact, the war-child could think of no one, including himself, who didn’t deserve death at one time or another; Harlies were no exceptions, and perhaps even more expendable. But there was something about this particular Harlie… And what did he know anyway? He was inside the tunnel when it happened. Did he see him do it? It was dark. How could he see anything? But he could’ve heard... thought the colonel while staring blankly into the empty coffee container. He was thinking about the Harlie; and he was thinking of little else, except for what he’d hidden away in his shirt. He felt it was safe there, for the time being at least. Whether or not it was what he was looking for, what he came for, and what he’d killed for, only Tom Henley would know for sure. He immediately began making plans to visit the mountain-man that same day in his home-in-a-hill located in the adjacent mountain. The colonel knew, of course, that he would have to kill him, too. But he had to do something about the Harlie first. He threw the metal cup to the ground and headed over to where the Harlie was sitting silently next to his mule.

He walked with a noticeable limp, thought Elmo, indicating some kind of injury he’d recently sustained, pulling himself along the earth like a large lop-sided spider with a broken leg until they were face to face with one another.

The spider spoke first. “I did all I could,” declared Red-Beard, towering over Elmo like a worn out Philistine after a long battle that could have gone either way. “I tried to warn them. But they wouldn't listen. Nothing else I could do. Besides,” he insisted, “it happened too fast. It’s Webb’s fault… if you really want to know the truth. I told him not to use so much dynamite. Oh well, when you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself,” he lied. “He’s a fool. And now he’s a dead fool. Had it comin’, I reckon.” And then, as if attempting to calm a struggling fly caught in his ever-spinning web with even more venomous lies, Red-Beard confessed: “It’s my fault. I’m to blame for that, I ‘spose. Never should have brought Alvin along. Should’ve stayed in Eulogy…were he belonged. He wouldn’t listen tho’. Never did. But that’s just the way his kind are. They t-think they know everything…”

It was the first time Elmo, or anyone else for that matter, had ever heard Red-Beard stutter. It sounded so… so un-natural. The spider was suddenly a little unsure of himself, perhaps even a little scared, thought the little brown fly. There was something wrong with the colonel. Elmo could tell by the way he talked.

“Nothin' I could do, b-boy,”

There! He did it again. He stuttered, almost apologetically it seemed, which only made Elmo even more suspicious, and confused. It was definitely not in the war-child’s nature to be so defensive, and quite out of Red-Beard’s character who, as colonel and officer, was not accustomed to such verbal vacillations. It just wasn’t in his general make-up. And the words he chose were equally bewildering. They just didn’t sound right. It was too sincere. It almost sounded… human. It was as if he was arguing, or attempting to argue, his own indefensible case before a jury that would just as well have him hanging by his mechanical red neck. And Elmo was one of those jurors. He listened, hoping that he still might find out what really happened that day inside the tunnel, however impossible that appeared by now, and however horrible it actually was.

What Elmo found most disturbing in the colonel’s confession, if in fact that’s what it truly was, was one simple and seemingly innocuous sentence: ‘Nothin’ I could do.’ It was spoke volumes, and not in Red-Beard’s favor. It didn’t sound like the man Elmo thought he knew. As they say in Harley: ‘It just don’t boil the beans’. Of course there was plenty Red-Beard could’ve done, and a lot more he should’ve done, Elmo quickly concluded without giving immediate voice to his opinion. And there were probably some things the colonel should not have done – like let Alvin Webb handle the explosives, if what the colonel was telling him was in fact the truth, which Elmo didn’t believe for a minute anyway. Rusty was just not that stupid, and neither was Red-Beard. Elmo wanted to run over and scream into the spider’s iron ear: You’re supposed to know about things, colonel! That’s your job! But of course, he did no such thing. The fly was just too afraid.

It just didn’t make sense, Elmo kept thinking over and over again as Red-Beard continued looking down on him with the same confounding, condescending and unblinking eyes as he always had. They were too far inside the tunnel for blasting. Hell, even a Harlie could’ve told him that much. Did the colonel know the risk he was taking? Was it worth it? What was he looking for anyway; besides the gold, that is. Was it the stone? Was that what he was after all along? It sure seemed like it. That had to be it, the Harlie concluded. What else could it be? That’s what Red-Beard wanted. That’s why he came. That’s why he was there. That’s why he did it. And that’s why there was only the two of them left alive, he finally concluded. But he was wrong. There was someone else, and he was nearer than either one suspected.

By then the beam farmer had put the deaths of his friends, including that of Alvin Webb, squarely on the shoulders of Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, where clearly it belonged. And he put their blood on Red-Beard’s hands, where it belonged. It was their fault – both of them! Elmo believed that more than ever, even if they were one in the same person. It didn’t matter. It was the colonel’s responsibility. He should have known better. He’s an officer. He was in charge. It was his responsibility. Elmo cursed and judged them both at the same time. It may’ve been Rusty’s hand that held the gun, Elmo knew by now; but it Red-Beard who’d pulled the trigger; or lit the fuse, as the case may be. It was a foolish and selfish thing to do, thought the webbed fly, while trying to avoid the glaring stare of the red bearded spider standing before him with the blood of its prior victims still freshly dripping from fangs of its own murderous mandibles. It was something only a coward or a mad-man would, or could do, he reckoned.

Colonel Horn wasn’t a coward, and Red-Beard was certainly nobody’s fool. Elmo knew that by now. Alone, they were incapable of committing such an inexcusable crime. It took two, both halves of the colonel’s physic, to make it work, just as it takes two blades of a scissors, or two iron gates, to make them function properly and do what it is they’re supposed to do, what they were intended to do all along. You see, singularly or separately, Rusty Horn and Red-Beard were impotent, powerless, incapable of doing such a thing; and, in that sense, maybe they weren’t as guilty as they otherwise were collectively, and not really to blame at all. But together, together they were no better off than Cain, and just as guilty. And the crime they committed that day on the mountain was no less excusable than that of the marked fugitive who slew his own brother whose blood cried out for justice even from its earthy grave. It was murder, pure and simple; and as plain as black and white.


Chapter Eleven

The Motherstone

THE OLD MAN was getting close to the gold, and the Motherstone. He could feel; the spirits of the night were calling, whispering in his ear the same sad and simple secret, the one he’d heard for so many years: ‘Thems that want don’t get’. It was the last time Homer Skinner would hear their voices. He would soon meet them face to face.

He knew that they were very near; and so did Red-Beard. Fearful that the others might become as careless as he was so many years ago, the old deputy kept his silence as well as his distance. He was still well aware of what gold could do to a man, especially now that they were so close to finding it. He knew how they felt, and what they were all going through; he’d been there before. The tooth still ached, perhaps more so now than ever. At least he wasn’t alone; why, even the toothless outlaw could feel it by now: the anticipation, the excitement, the joy, as well as the pain. It was something they had never felt before; but it was a good feeling, something they could get used to, just like Homer did. Only this time, the old man knew he would have to be more careful. And so did Red-Beard.

Actually, they both found what they were looking for, what they came for; only Red-Beard had found it first. He’d found it, not too much to his surprise, deep inside the mountain while the others were busy deciding what they would do with their own shares of the gold and spending it before it was even theirs; and he was alone in the dark.

The Harlie’s suspicions were correct. It was Red-Beard who’d lit the fuse. It was he who ran; and it was he who, despite even his own uncertainty as to the final outcome of events, had survived it. At one point, he didn’t think he would; but it was a risk he had to take. And when the evil act was accomplished, an act long in its design but short in actually execution, Red-Beard left the gold behind and took the Motherstone. He found it not very far from where he’d left Homer when he went back and get the others. Neither of them knew how close they actually were to the gold at the time; in fact, it was right on the other side of the sealed cave. And it was there for the taking, all of it! just like Homer said. It was as easy as… falling off a log.

Unlike a few of the others, Colonel Horace Horn never doubted the deputy’s story. Not for a minute. So it came as no surprise to him when he found the gold right where the old man said it would be. It was just as Homer described it: ‘… a temple of solid gold’. But that was not what Red-Beard was there for; that’s not why he came. It never was. All he ever wanted was to get to the lost mine where he knew, or at least suspected, the Motherstone might be hidden. It was the same object Henley had once spoken to him of in confidence; the one he would affectionately refer to as ‘Mother’ from time to time. In fact, it was the same ‘black’ stone the old hillbilly had been searching for all along. It was also the same stone presently wrapped in a brown leather cloth and hidden safely in Red-Beard’s Confederate gray jacket that very same day.

It happened shortly after the others had arrived that day. They found Homer right where Red-Beard had left him, right where he said he would be: where the tunnel collapsed just outside the ‘golden temple’ forming a solid barrier of rock between them and the gold. It took no more than an hour to break through the barrier, Hector’s hammer striking the final blow that broke the seal of the tomb that had been sealed shout for over forty years. Homer was the first one in. They could tell by old man’s silence that he’d found something. It spoke loudly and clearly. He didn’t have to say a word. They knew. It was the gold.

One by one, which was all the small opening would allow to pass at one time, they entered the hidden chamber. Red-Beard was the last one in. He was holding a lamp in one hand and three sticks of dynamite in the other.

The lamps lit up the cave in a dazzling display of bright yellow lights that reflected and bounced off every inch of the golden interior, including the rough-cut ceiling. Hammers and jaws dropped silently to the ground, knees wobbled, and everyone seemed to freeze, as if mesmerized by the sheer overwhelming sight of so much gold at one time, and in one place. It took a moment or two for it all to sink in, with more than one of the treasure hunters fearing that it was all just dream, a golden slumber they’d somehow fallen into, and one they would collectively awaken from at any given moment. But they weren’t sleeping, and it wasn’t a dream. It was real! And it was just as Homer described it, only better.

The gold inside the cavernous temple was not only voluminous but pure and solid, showing no signs of natural contaminates such as quartz, zinc, copper, iron, or anything else for that matter that would otherwise compromise and contaminate the pure mineral element. This was important in that, under normal circumstances, getting down to the pure gold typically involved a series of purification steps that were painstaking, time consuming, and expensive; especially in the hard mining business where it was often necessary to break down and separate the gold from other elements and compounds mechanically, or by sheer human strength and determination. Exactly how the precious yellow element came to exist in such a pure, natural, and highly concentrated state was a mystery worth solving; but, not until every last ounce of it had been mined, counted, and carted off to the nearest bank vault where (assuming one could be found that was big enough and strong enough to store such a bonanza) it could be safely stored away, as far as Homer and his associates were concerned.

The only problem anyone could have imagine at the time, if the thought ever crossed their minds, that is, was this: How the heck were they going to carry that much gold back to Old Port Fierce on the small backs of their poor dispirited animals? The thought had crossed Red-Beard’s mind from time to time, his ultimate and ulterior objective not-with-standing, and was something neither he nor Homer had made any contingencies for, thinking, perhaps, they would cross that bridge if and when it presented itself which, as most miners know all too well, is never a guarantee. From a professional standpoint, the colonel knew it would take half an infantry with a good many caissons and at least a two dozen healthy horses just to move the heavy metal down the treacherous slopes of the mountain, not to mention guarding their golden cache along the way from robbers, thieves, highwaymen, or anyone else for that matter who would gladly lighten their load and leave them for dead without so much as a thank you or howdy-do. But that’s what gold does: it not only drives a man to dreams, but it drives him to other things as well, like stealing and murder; sometimes, it just makes him stupid. The others, including Hector O’Brien who perhaps should have known better, were like seven restless children waking up on Christmas morning, flying down the stairs and heading straight for the tinseled tree ablaze in all its ornamental glory, rummaging through packages big and small and stuffed with all the delights they’d been dreaming of that night just before the winter sun was ceremoniously ignited by the fiery torch of that jolly old elf himself, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, or, as he better known and loved in that part of the Christianized world by kids from nine to ninety-two – Good Ol’ Santa Clause!

But Christmas would have to wait; for a while anyway. Red-Beard had other plans, of course, and they didn’t necessarily include the gold. As the others were busy congratulating themselves on a job well done with so many hard-earned accolades including Hoo-rays! Hoo-rahs! Hizzahs! At-a-boys! Well done, partners! plenty of pats on the backs and hardy handshakes to go around, along with the occasional ‘Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-Hah!!!’ rebel yell, predominantly from the Southern contingent of the expedition, which could be heard echoing through the mine shaft for a good portion of the day, Red-Beard wondered off alone, by himself and in the dark. He quickly found himself inside yet another cavernous chamber in which, just as he’d hoped he would, he found what he was really looking for. And there it was, right where Tom Henley said ‘she’ would be, bold and black, and as beautiful as ever, sitting on her eternal throne like the last golden empress, a goddess, right in middle of the temple where she belonged, in her own golden tabernacle – The Motherstone.

And that’s not all he found. Guided by the light of his lamp and a lust for immortality, Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, Red-Beard, found what Homer had also found forty years ago inside that same forbidden chamber: the last mortal remains of Cornelius G. Wainwright III, the greedy prospector with the bottlebrush mustache, who, despite time and elements, looked no different now than he did forty years ago when he assumed that hideous position with his infamous and shrunken head suspended from the ceiling by a long black thread. It startled the colonel almost as much as it did Homer at one time, when he accidentally bumped into it just as he was about to lift the sacred stone from its golden tabernacle. Shinning his lamp for one brief, bright and breathtaking moment on the rotting relic before him, Red-Beard could see, all too clearly, every fine devilish detail that went into the makings of the dead man’s final aspect: the tightly stitched lips, the deformed skull, the hair which, like the black fingernails of a decaying corpse, continued to grow long after Riga mortis set in; or the bearded face of Pharaoh whose mummified remains upon exhumation still retained all their follicle features eons after Isis, Osiris, even the great Horace himself, had since turned to dust. It was like something out of a Roman catacomb: a page of pagan history torn from the book of the dead, the pale putrid skin, eyes sown shut; the grim face of evil miniaturized and boiled down to its barest essentials, stuffed with sand, like a doll, and hung out to dry by an evil black thread; a rancid container of decomposing flesh; a bag of dirt and filth scraped from the floorboards of Hades, tightly packed and perfectly preserved for all eternity in that one horrible and hideous head with the famous mustache fully intact in all its wild and wicked wonder.

Not far from the hideous head, Red-Beard also noticed the skeletal remains of perhaps ten or twelve deceased individuals, the bones of which had obviously been lying there for quite some time and arranged in a haphazard manner. They were clean and white, stripped of all flesh, as if every last bit if Humanity had been boiled out of them, as evidenced by a cauldron sitting suspiciously close by, and sucked down to the marrow. It was giant cooking pot, of pure gold, it seemed, as it glimmering and glowed in the sperm scented glow of the Red-beard’s eternal lamp. He knew by then exactly where he was. He reached back, took the stone, and stuffed it inside his shirt. He put out the light; and then he was gone.

Alvin was the first to notice that Red-Beard was no longer among them. “Hey! Where’s the colonel?” he asked no one on particular.

“Don’t rightly know,” replied Hector who was just as puzzled as the outlaw, and perhaps a little more concerned, “He was here just a minute ago.”

“Good riddance…” Homer was thinking out loud.

Suspicious of their red bearded leader from the start, Homer Skinner was not the only one that day who found the colonel’s sudden absence an eerie, but not necessarily unexpected, welcome; a few, like Little Dick for instance, actually felt relieved.

Alvin cried out again, “Where’d he go!” only louder. .He was actually beginning to feel a little frightened, and maybe even a little vulnerable, by then.

No longer attempting to conceal the animosity he’d been feeling towards the colonel as of lately, especially after that happened when they were alone in the dark that day, Homer merely shrugged and said, “He can go to the devil for all I care.”

“God help devil then,” said the Negro, with the serenity and sincerity of a gold-faced Buddha.

Smiley noted: “They’ll make a lovely couple.”

“Should be an interesting honeymoon,” Dick wondered.

“Well, let’s just hope it’s a long one,” replied Hector, picking up an extra large nugget of gold he just hammered out of the wall and holding it close to his eye like a jeweler examining a ten karate diamond.

No one knew exactly what’d happened to the Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn that day, or Red-beard; and no one ever would, I suppose. They would all dead, except for the Harlie, of course; but that too would change, if Red-Beard had anything to say, or do, about it. He’d killed seven men already in one day; one more wouldn’t make any difference; it would only make it even. Besides, it was just a Harlie.

Like a sacred relic of some ancient civilization, lost in time, the ‘Black Eye’ of Mount Wainwright was finally found that day, fully intact and housed in a ‘… tabernacle of gold’. It was just like Tom Henley said it would be, and just like Homer once found it forty years ago at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Immediately, without any doubt or reservation, Red-Beard knew he’d found what the old prospector had been looking for all these years: the missing element of his mere mortal existence, the single component the surgeon never incorporated, for whatever medical reason, into his own mechanized being, the fountain of eternal youth, immortality in the form and fashion of a single plain and simple object; a stone, a black stone – the Motherstone. And all he had to do was reach out and take it.

But even in the vainglorious attempt of satisfying his own monomaniacal desire of obtaining immortality, Red-Beard still could not overlook the gold. After all, what good is eternity… when you’re broke? He wondered. To live on in penniless perpetuity simply wouldn’t do! The Pharaohs knew better, which is precisely why they insisted on having their treasures stored inside their pyramid tombs where they would be readily and easily accessible, in whatever world, or underworld, those mummified rags now reign. The poor may inherit the earth; but it is the rich who will rule it, Red-beard sermonized. And the gold would change all that. It enveloped him. It seduced him. It surrounded him –in gold! It was all over the place, more than he could ever imagined, or spend; far more than Homer ever spoke of – and the old man had spoken of it often enough – or even dreamed of. And it was still there. Gold! It beckoned him, it beseeched him and, like a long lost lover whose kisses one never fully forgets, it mocked him. It only made him want it even more. But time was running out. The others would soon come looking for him. His mind vacillated between the stone and the gold, just as Homer’s did forty years ago. What good is eternity without… but what do gods need with gold? Red-Beard argued as he was slowly drawn to the stone.

For a brief and mortal moment, Red-Beard forgot all about what he was there for. He’d found the Motherstone, and the gold; and now, he would have them both. Who could stop him? But the gold would just have to wait. He just didn’t have the time, or the manpower; and besides, he didn’t intend to share it with the others anyone. Just like the old man who brought him there, he too would return another day. He wasn’t sure exactly when; but he was sure about one thing: he wouldn’t wait another forty years to do it; after all, eternity may not last that long.

It was a plan Red-Beard had made up right there on the spot when he accidentally located the hidden chamber of the golden tabernacle. It was not a perfect plan (few seldom are, and even then there are no guarantees) but it was the only one he could think of at the time; and time, eternity not-with-stand, was running out for the colonel. It had to work. He was betting his life on it. The only other thing Red-Beard had to do now was make sure there were no witnesses. That was the easy part; it’s what the Colonel Horace Horn knew how to do best – his knack. Dynamite! It was the Rusty’s answer to everything, it seemed, from removing dead tree stumps to blowing open unwatched banks vaults. It worked – every time! There was no reason it wouldn’t work now. The only question, of course, was: How could he survive it?

Red-Beard knew what he was doing; Rusty, however, was never quite sure, and was perhaps still thinking about the others. In the short time he’d known them, he had actually grown attached to Homer’s miserable little band of misanthropic misfits, counting himself as one of them despite Red-Beard’s stoic independence and indifference. He held no prejudices, not even towards Sam and the Indian who, under any other circumstances, he might have considered inferior and not worth the time of day. He genuinely liked Smiley and held a special admiration for the man they affectionately called the Old Hammer. Alvin Webb was who he was; there was nothing he could do about it, nor did he ever try. Dick he had no real opinion of, other than he was too young and shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He had even grown quite fond of the Harlie by then, and was glad he was left outside and wasn’t with them that day; still, he too would have to die. He felt melancholy, like a child who about to do something he knows is wrong but has no control of it. And there was really nothing he could do to stop it, even if he wanted to; Red-Beard had made up his mind for both of them by now.

There was just no turning back. It has been that way ever since Homer first mentioned the long dark tunnel, the gold, and something else Tom Henley had told him about that would affect all their lives, forever.

It was his destiny; it belonged to him and to no one else. Red-Beard knew that by now; and if he didn’t deserve immortality…well, who the hell did? He already had the body for it, custom made, as a matter of modern medical fact, for just such an eternal existence. But was it worth it? Murder’s a high price to pay for eternity… but not that high. Rusty, or whatever bit of humanity was left in his eviscerated and mechanized body, was still debating the issue, even as the fuse was lit. Could he? Would he? The answer would come in one big – BANG!

“Where’ve you been, colonel?” asked Homer, as if he might not have know, greeting Red-Beard as he suddenly appeared from out of nowhere it seemed.

“Oh, just having a look around,” replied Red-Beard, with a bead of sweat forming on his iron brow and looking nervously about as if he were being watched, “Thought I heard something.”

Overhearing the quiet exchange that had just taken place between the old man and his superior officer, Alvin spoke up next: “Could be them can’bals, colonel,” he grimly grinned, the gold having, temporarily at least, driven out his former suspicions regarding the carnivorous creatures Homer had warned them of earlier.

Ferals,” corrected Little Dick, not for the first time.

Hector looked on suspiciously, his hammer hanging silently at his side. He’d noticed the colonel’s absence and was wondering as well where Red-Beard’s might’ve wondered off to, and why, since they had already found what they’d came for. “You’re right Dick,” he finally agreed, “But I don’t think that’s what the colonel’s talking about.”

Red-Beard’s face grew tight and cold; and he was about to challenge the carpenter’s last remark, even though he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it just then, just before Homer himself stepped in to prevent what he always knew to be an inevitable confrontation between the two opposing titans. “Well, whatever it was,” he insisted, admonishing Red-Beard for a second time that day, “don’t do it again. And don’t go wondering off anymore, colonel. This ain’t a good place to get lost. I should know.”

Not wishing to arouse any more suspicions about his clandestine activities than necessary, Red-Beard quietly acquiesced to the old man’s request and went about his business. He knew they would all be dead soon anyway.

Caught up in the in the exuberating effects of sudden wealth, something he was not only unaccustomed to but ill-equip to handle, Little Dick Dilworth flippantly remarked, “Hey, maybe it’s Cornelius; you know, Mister Wainwright… the one with the mustache. Come back lookin’ for his gold, I reckon.”

Homer shook his head in wonder. “You tryin’ to be funny, boy?” he excoriated the youth.

Actually, and in an unintentional and youthful way sort of way, Little Dick was trying to be funny. But there is always a great deal of truth in humor, thought Homer, especially when coming from the mouth of babes, like Dick, who are too young to realize what they’re saying at times, and too innocent to be practiced in the beguiling art of deception, a practice Homer himself was all too familiar with, along with the troubles it precipitates. The remains of the aforementioned gold miner surely must still be around somewhere, he gruesomely imagined, even in their most basic and elemental form, permanently preserved, perhaps, by the very means of the miner’s untimely demise. Things like that simply don’t disappear; at least not the hideous head that greeted him forty years ago at the end of a long dark tunnel. Homer knew he was in the right place, or, at least he thought he did; but maybe forty years was too long after all. He just couldn’t be sure anymore. The gold was still there – Yes! But where was the black stone, or the golden tabernacle that enshrined it? And what about Cornelius? and that that hideous shrunken head? Where was the boiling pot, the boots, the bones, the clothes, and the handkerchief? And where were the naked savages that haunted him to this very day? What happened to the bodies? They had to be there – somewhere. Right? And he would have to find them, eventually, in order to prove to the local magistrates, or anyone else for that matter, that the original owner of the mine, Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III, was physically, morally, ethically, and most important of all, legally! dead; as dead as he was supposed to be, as he should be, and just as dead as he had to be in order for Homer to claim the gold for himself… and the others, of course. Sure, it was a mere technicality; but it was an important technicality, and one the deputy was sure he could satisfy, if only… But so far, there was no evidence of that, human or otherwise, and he just couldn’t explain it. He reached into his coat and pulled out his map; but without his reading glasses, his spectacles, it was virtually useless. He looked all around; all he could see was the gold.

But as far as the others were concerned, that was enough. They couldn’t have care less at the moment about Cornelius G Wainwright III, secret caves, shrunken heads, or any other dead things for that matter, mysterious stones, or any other technicalities that might get in the way of their golden dreams and adventures; and they certainly weren’t about to be intimidated by robbers, thieves, cannibals, ghosts, goblins, hob-goblins, or even the devil himself who, if he’d dared to make himself known at that very moment in all his infernal glory and with an army of pitch-forked imps at his satanic disposal, would undoubtedly have been just as un-welcomed and, perhaps, even forced at gunpoint to crawl back into the fiery lair, or whatever other fire and brimstone hell-hole the hot-hoofed bastard was hatched from with his pointed tail curled between his legs and a better understanding and appreciation of man’s indomitable ambition, if that’s what it took. Hey, we’re talking gold here… Ain’t we?

Despite Homer’s former reprimand, and as the others busied themselves assessing their newly found fortunes and planning what they would do with it once they extracted the precious hoard from the mountain, of course, Red-Beard had disappeared for a second time that day inside the mountain. Only this time, he knew exactly where he was going, and what he was doing. He was getting out; and he was going alone. With the Motherstone now safely and secretly stowed away in folds of his military blouse, and one last stick of dynamite hidden in his pants leg, the corrupted colonel groped his way in the dark until he came to the entrance they had broken through only moments ago. There he crept out of the golden chamber before anyone knew even he was gone.

“Just doin’ my job,” he said to an army of tunnel rats that’d suddenly appeared just before lighting the fated fuse. He then ran back down the widening tube like as fast has he could, like a hound out of hell, and just like he’d planned it. It was not a long run, just long enough for Red-Beard to put enough distance between himself and the blast to make it out alive.

It was not a large charge, at least not as large as he thought it would be, just enough of an explosion to seal up the opening until such a time, if ever, he returned for the gold. By then, anyone trapped inside would surely be dead of asphyxiation or starvation, if the initial blast didn’t kill them first. He did not want them to suffer.

He was about half up the long dark corridor when the explosion occurred. It was louder than he’d expected, much louder. Well… Red-Beard thought to himself, stopping for a moment in a puddle of cold black water, they were dead before the last stone fell.

METAPHYSICS! That’s the word Tom Henley used to describe what Red-Beard had taken from the mountain that day. He had other ways of explaining the strange dark stone that had eluded him for so many years, but most were beyond Colonel Rusty Horn’s intellectual capability of understanding. All Red-Beard knew for certain by then was that whatever it was, it was worth a king’s ransom, and great deal more than gold; otherwise, why would the old mountain-man still be looking for it after all those years? – Forty-nine to be exact. What’s that he said… about eternal life? Whoever possessed it, would have it. Isn’t that what the ship’s surgeon said? Not in so many words, perhaps; but that’s what he was talking about. Immortality – Right? In fact, it was just what the doctor had ordered. And now it was his.

The others were all dead; Henley would soon be too, he reckoned. And then, except for the Elmo Cotton, the bean farmer, Red-Beard would be the only one left. He alone would have survived it. But, he would have to kill the Harlie first. There was no other way. There would be no witnesses, of course; there couldn’t be. But what was really bothering him at the time was: just how to do it. These things have to be done in a certain way, discreetly, and at the right time. So far, everything had worked out just the way Colonel Horn had planned it, only better. He was sure he’d found what the mountain-man was talking about – the Motherstone. It had to be.

“You’ll know mother when you find her,” Henley had told him in those gender specific terms, referring, of course, to the Motherstone he was so obsessed with finding. “Or… when she finds you,” the mountain-man was quick to add, as Rusty just then suddenly recalled.

Tom often spoke in riddles, and sometimes in metaphors. It confounded and confused not only the colonel, but anyone else who happened to cross the path of the erudite prospector. He had a way of using long words and complicated sentences as well in his speech, which at times was almost impossible to decipher; words alien to the common ears of most Greens and Harlies, words even the college educated colonel had difficulty to struggle with at times.

It was clear to anyone, with half a brain at least, that Mister Henley, despite his rough and rural appearance, was an educated man. He’d been schooled in the arts and sciences, and could speak a variety of languages. He may’ve even been a genius, as recluses sometimes are, despite their eccentricities and esoteric ways; but you would never hear such egotistical claims from him. Tom was many things; but he was not proud, which may have been what separated him from Red-Beard, and was his one saving grace. He was a well-rounded man, a man of letters, in fact; but he was always a mountain-man, no matter what else he happened to be. And he played the part perfectly, like the fine old country fiddle he would take off the shelf and bow on moonlit nights with a belly full of homemade wine and a lung full of potent tobacco smoke. And whatever he did, he did it quite comfortably, at his own leisure, high in his ‘Home-in-a-Hill’ where he and he and his motherless son, Zack, lived out their nomadic lives in the only way they knew how, in quiet contentment, broken up only by an occasional sound of exploding dynamite which could be heard for miles around, bringing the mountain to its rocky knees one blast at a time.

Tom was also a Romantic (at least in the classical sense of the word) and his speech often reflected this sentimental side of his nature, especially when he spoke of the mountains, the rivers, and of faraway places he knew and remembered so well; and, despite his natural proclivity to blowing things up, he was actually quite the gentleman who did not like noises, which, of course, he associated with most humans, which he avoided at all costs. He loved the wilderness, and respected it even more; but most of all, he loved being left alone, particularly when he had too much wine to drink, and especially on lonely nights such as these. He was what some scholars might call a ‘Renaissance man’. He could recite and write poetry. He’d studied philosophy, and was critical of the arts. In the more exacting field of science, he could be straightforward and direct, never allowing his emotional side to overrule or ignore cold hard facts which he deemed irrefutable. He was a demon for details who could explain just about anything, to anyone; if they had the time and the patience to listen, that is, which, in most cases anyway, they usually didn’t.

Tom avoided religious debate at all costs; just as he did political discussion which, in his own cynical words, ‘… always makes me feel dirty, like I need a bath’. And for a mountain-man, that’s a mouthful! He considered religion a simple matter of faith, personal, and far too subjective to discuss on any intellectual or academic level. Besides, he’d finally concluded after many years of inner turmoil on the controversial subject of salvation: It all boils down to one question: ‘Does God exist, or not? It was a question that simply could not be answered; at least not on this side of the grave, and not without a great deal of bloodshed, ‘…as History has clearly proven time and gain’, he would argue. What Tom didn’t know (or perhaps he did, and was just too ashamed to admit it) was that History is not always the best source for Truth; and that wars, like many other things, are usually fought for more objective reasons, like wealth, power, pride, and real estate; Religion being little more than a convenient excuse for going to war in the first place; and one that usually worked. Ironically, religions, at least the goods ones, are full of scapegoats that also usually worked. At best, Tom Henley was a self proclaimed agnostic; at worse, he was a fatalist. If not for his disdain for mankind in general, as well as individually, one might confuse Mister Henley for a Humanist, which would make about as much sense to a mountain man as paganism would to the Pope, and probably get you shot. As for his own salvation, if it even existed, Tom just didn’t know, which was something he was neither afraid nor ashamed to admit it. And there were other things he couldn’t explain, not for lack of trying, intellectually or otherwise, but merely because he didn’t have the knowledge, such as the time when he’d first attempted to explain to Red-Beard what Homer Skinner had actually found in the mountain so many years ago.

And such was the case one particular evening at the Nickel Pig Saloon, where Tom first described the object of his deepest and darkest desire that had lately commanded so much of his time and energy, to a curious army officer named Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn. But words failed to describe what was on his mind at the time; it was simply beyond his capability to explain, and the colonel’s ability to comprehend. And so, as he would do on other occasions in the company of minds less erudite than his own, he would resort to more primitive, and often more powerful, forms of communication such as metaphors, which he found more persuasive at times. And making use of this Biblical approach, he would characterize what he was looking for all these years simply as a woman, or ‘Mother’, to be more specific, and perhaps a little more personal.

She was said to be dark and lovely, wonderful and mysterious, attractive, intelligent and, of course, dangerous, as powerful women often are in all cultures and generations. “Mother! Ain’t she just like a woman...” the poetic prospector would ponder out loud after all words failed to do the stone justice. He always referred to it as ‘she’, Red-Beard recalled. And he always described ‘her’ as living in a house of gold, a hidden temple of gold; and that she came down from ‘… the deep dark Heavens ,’ he would elucidate with all the charm and eloquence befitting a medieval troubadour or Greek poet, further evincing the Motherstone’s clouded but clearly alien origins, which he himself had yet to determine.

That’s it! That’s exactly how Homer described it, the colonel observed, although he knew the old man was probably more interested in the gold he’d stumbled upon forty years ago in the mountains than anything else he might have found there. But finding her, if in fact she ever existed (a fact Red-Beard had never entirely ruled out until he saw her with his own mechanical eyes) was more than a job for Homer, or even a very capable the mountain-man such as Mister Henley for that matter, he reasoned. This was a job for the army, he reckoned; an army of one, to be more precise. And that army, that one, would be Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, otherwise known as Red-Beard, or it would be no one. But he needed proof; all successful missions required it. And that’s where Tom came in. He knew things about the Motherstone that no one else did. How? It was something Red-Beard could never figure out (Actually, what the old mountain-man did know, and exactly how he came about knowing it, would take another book to explain) no matter how much he tried. But Red-Beard did know one thing: he knew, or at least suspected, that the stone was the key to eternity life, and that was enough; for the time being at least.

In the end, the only real information Red-Beard was able to ascertain from the mountain-man was this: ‘Mother is knowledge’, he confided in the colonel that day, ‘…pure, uncompromised, un-mitigated, un-adulterated and un-abridged knowledge. ‘And in that knowledge’, Henley went on to explain, however alien and incomprehensible it may’ve sounded to Red-Beard at the time, ‘there is power. And in the power’, he further extrapolated, in a way that Red-Beard could understand, at least in his own megalomania, ‘lies Eternity!’ It was the power of ever-lasting life the old hillbilly spoke of that day: a power denied mankind since Adam, a power to rival the gods, to be one of them. It was power of the Motherstone. And now that power, that knowledge, was ducked away in a blood-stained confederate shirt of a cold blooded killer.

But it was more than that – much more! Tom knew that by now, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, so did Red-Beard. Homer might’ve known it as well. But he was dead by now, or so it seemed; so it wouldn’t do him any good anyway, Red-Beard logically surmised. Naturally, Tom Henley would do anything he could to obtain that knowledge, even at the risk of letting someone else finding it first, which was intention all along. He’d been searching for ‘her’ for many years, ever since he’d first heard of the incredible tale from the doctor himself, the same ship’s surgeon that performed the diabolical operation on Colonel Horn. He knew he was close, very close. The only problem was that he’d been searching in the wrong mountain all along.

Homer never did say where he’d found the lost gold mine, and neither did any of the others who were with him that day, including the sheriff who was always a little suspicious of his deputy’s outlandish claims, but took the secret to his grave anyway. They had all taken a solemn oath not to tell, which, by the way, was actually Homer’s idea soon after they returned from the fated expedition. It was all part of the plan – his plan. Besides, most of them were dead by now anyway, just like the spirits of the night. And so no one, not even Tom Henley, knew the exact location of Cornelius G. Wainwright III’s lost gold mine; no one, that is, except for Homer Skinner. And now, he was dead too.

When Tom Henley first heard that old man Skinner was going back up into the mountains after all those years, he reckoned that it was about time. He always knew it would happen; he just didn’t know when. As it turned out, the old prospector had a few aching teeth of his own, and not just for gold. And that explained why Mister Henley had recently contracted the unsolicited services of Mister Rusty Horn and Mister Alvin Webb: to help him find that which had eluded him for nearly a quarter of a century, the Motherstone. Maybe he was getting desperate. Maybe he was getting careless; perhaps he was just getting old. Red-Beard could certainly understand all that, as the years were bearing down on him as well, even though he understood little else of the strange mountain-man who claimed to know where the keys of eternity were hidden.

Red-Beard never once mentioned anything to the others about what Tom had told him, especially not Homer Skinner. He’d instructed Alvin Webb to do likewise, which Alvin did, of course, right up until the very end. Red-Beard murdered him too, just like the others who were only looking for the gold. Webb was a thief, and perhaps not a very good one; but he was a loyal foot soldier; that much at least could be said about him now that he was dead.

>Tom Henley had actually revealed very little of the Motherstone, or its alien nature, to his fellow co-conspirators, Horn and Webb. He’d told them just enough to stir their interest, as well as their imaginations, and get the job done. ‘I know her better than I know my own wife…’ he once said after a little too much homemade wine in the company of confederates. His real wife had actually died twenty years earlier in a mining accident that many suspected may’ve been caused by her own greedy husband and his deadly obsession something she could never understand. Tom always denied this, of course, insisting all along that the tragic events leading up to late wife’s untimely demise were the direct result of a freakish cave-in that occurred when he was in town buying supplies. “And I have the receipts to prove it!” he would challenge anyone who dared to question his integrity, or his loving devotion to the woman who gave birth to his only son, Zachariah Henley. Perhaps, that’s why he called it ‘Mother’ Alvin once suggested, much to the surprise of Red-Beard who never would’ve thought his partner capable of making such a brilliant, and maybe even accurate, observation. “And remember to be kind to Mother when you find her, boys,” was Tom’s last request as the two criminals rode off that day from his home-in-a-hill.

Tom never gave them much of a chance. He’d always assumed that if he couldn’t find ‘her’, no one else would; and at one time he might’ve even believed it himself. But he wasn’t getting any younger, and there was talk in town of more mining expeditions into the Silver Mountains, especially in the vicinity of Mount Wainwright and his own sacred home-in-a-hill where speculation always seemed to gravitate. Perhaps Homer was aware of this as well; and that’s why he was so anxious to go back before someone else, like Tom Henley for instance, discovered the lost gold main, thus robbing him of his rightful claim.

And so, Mister Thomas Henley decided to give the devil his due and allow Colonel Horn and Mister Webb to share in his obsessive dream of wealth and immortality, even though the outlaw’s fate was sealed long before they ever shook hands on it. It was risky, of course, but a chance Tom was willing to take; and gambling, or so he would humbly admit, was the one vice he was never quite comfortably with. It was a difficult decision, and one he struggled over for quite some time before finally acquiescing to his darker angels. He knew a thing or two about the colonel’s checkered past, including the incident at San Sebastian, and what happened on the battlefield. He was acquainted with the ship’s surgeon who’d preformed the live-saving operation and, possessing a fair amount of knowledge himself in that specialized and highly invasive field of medicine, concluded that Red-Beard’s rapid recovery was more than medical science could explain, maybe even a miracle. But what really made him suspicious was the fact that the surgeon, whose medical knowledge left much to be desired, was somehow enhanced in a ways Tom simply couldn’t explain. In order words: he simply did not possess the skills, or the knowledge, necessary to perform the procedure.

Tom’s plan was a simple one. He knew Homer would eventually go back for the gold; that much he was sure of. He just didn’t know when. He’d first learned of the expedition from Alvin Webb, who would stop by his secluded home-in-a-hill from time to time to buy some of the hillbilly’s homemade mountain wine. It was on one such visit the toothless outlaw, perhaps under the influence of the potent potable, ‘spilled the beans’ so to speak and informed Mister Henley that he along with a half dozen other men, including the his former Red-Bearded commander, were to accompany the old man on a ‘long-awaited expedition’, the profits of which, if successful, were to be measured in gold – ‘more gold than I would know what to do with!’ Alvin tried to explain. Speculation as to the exact location, and size, of Wainwright’s lost gold mine was a never-ending source of debate. Some claimed it was indeed worth a ‘king’s ransom!’ Although living in a country where kings no longer ruled made the statement virtually irrelevant. Still, there were others who insisted there was no gold and laughed at such foolishness, which suited the treasure hunters just fine; for it only meant there would be less competition if and when they ever got off their lazy asses and went looking for it themselves. Few ever did of course; and those that tried had so far had come up empty-handed, which made the skeptics laugh only louder. But Tom Henley knew something they did not: He knew that where the gold was, so was the Motherstone. He’d figured it out not too long ago after a long, and quite burdensome, discussion he’d had with Colonel Rusty ‘Red-Beard’ Horn one night at the Nickel Pig Salon, where, as it just so happened, Homer Skinner had turned up that same evening at the famous tavern on top of Lazy Hill Road to indulge himself in some friendly conversation, quench his thirst, and perhaps even do a little business. He actually wound up doing all three; which was probably more than he should have.

It was the first time Tom Henley and the colonel had ever met face to face. They would come together again in a more conspiratorial mode, without the others, of course, and in the clandestine confinements of Mister Henley’s home-in-a-hill. There they would forge an alliance that would serve to satisfy both of their ambitious interests: one with eternal knowledge, the other, with eternal life; which, when you get right down to it are actually one of the same. And it all came down to one small, plain and simple, and otherwise innocuous, black stone. Like a jealous lover, Mister Henley had kept many things about the Motherstone hidden from the colonel and his toothless engineer. He knew neither one of them could be trusted; but he needed their help as much as they needed his.

Red-Beard had found the stone not far from the gold, right where it was supposed to be. His first reaction was one of astonishment and surprise which was quickly displaced by unimaginable excitement; his second reaction was to make sure that no one else found out; and finally, that he alone survived it. And he would’ve succeeded in his deadly design, if not for the Harlie, Elmo Cotton, whom Red-Beard hadn’t considered when he insisted the Harlie come along with them any more than he did when the lethal plan was put into action. It was a minor detail he’d simply overlooked, as happens in all missions great and small, but one he knew could be easily corrected. It was just a matter of time.

So in the end it was Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, Red-Beard, who deliberately murdered the others by setting off the deadly charge that had knocked the Harlie off his feet that day in Wainwright’s tunnel. And he knew what he was doing. He didn’t it for the gold; he did it for himself, and Motherstone.

Elmo walked over to where he’d tied his mule to a small pine tree alongside Homer’s black stallion and the painted wagon. He nervously looked around while untying the animals, still not knowing what, if anything, he should do next. He heard something. The Harlie turned his head. It was the sound of a stone falling to the ground. It sounded like it came from outside the collapsed tunnel.

The war-child knew what he had to do. Only this time, he wouldn’t have to use any dynamite or risk his own life, immortality not-with-standing. He’d killed seven men already that day; one more wouldn’t make any difference. Besides, he was just a Harlie. And who would know? Who would care?

>“You hear what I said, boy?” Red-Beard repeated, while making ready the white Brahma for the long journey home. It wasn’t exactly a question; nor was it a request. It was an order; and the Harlie knew one when he heard it. It seemed he’d been hearing them all his life. “Just forget it. Forget about everythin’! Just like it never happened,” Rusty demanded. “You ain’t seen nothin’ – You hear? Nothin’!”

Elmo stood silently by the pine tree with his mule in one hand and Homer’s black stallion in the other. He reckoned the horses would just have to find their own way home. He paused. There was something he wanted to say, but he just didn’t know how to say it. It only seemed to make Red-Beard more confused and, perhaps, a little angry.

And then the colonel did something strange; something he’d never done before, at least not as far as Elmo could remember – He laughed. “You know… he then said, fingering the dried mud from his whiskers with a disturbing and rather un-natural smile tacked on his face, “Homer was wrong. Dead wrong! You ain’t no lucky number, boy. Your’re… You’re…” And here the colonel hesitated for a moment while trying to find the word he was looking for. But before he could find it, another notion germinated in his mechanical brain. “Say, just what the hell are you, anyway?” he suddenly enquired of the young man standing directly in front him by then. He was stalling for time, it seemed; he was waiting for just the right moment, “And what are you doing here anyway?”

Still, the Harlie would not answer. But he wouldn’t run away, either. He just stood there next to the tree waiting, and wondering, what to do next; which was exactly what Red-Beard wanted him to do. He was playing right into the spider’s bloody red hand.

And then, for reasons that will forever remain a mystery, the steel mask fell from the war-child’s face as Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn was suddenly revealed in all his wild and child-like innocence. But it would last for only a moment, however; and then, like the fleeting beauty of a fading flower; it would be gone. Elmo knew deep down that the mitigating effects were only a temporary phenomenon and that, sooner or later, Red-Beard would rear his tyrannical head and emerge once more as dominating agent, just as he always had, and extinguish any inner insurrection that might’ve otherwise developed within his iron-clad constitution. But then, something else happened: The colonel hesitated. He froze, the way some men do when they are frightened or confused. He seemed to be vacillating on some important issue he’d been struggling with for some time, like trying to decide which way to go long after taking the wrong road and finally admitting they are lost. It was a short and sobering experience. And at that moment he appeared not as Red-Beard, warrior monster and murderer; but rather as Rusty Horn: just another man from Creekwood Green who’d had lost his bearings and was, perhaps, just trying to find a way back home. And then he did something quite unexpected. “Go home,” said the colonel to the bean farmer, licking the blood from his bearded lips and looking down at the Harlie with what could only be described as bewildering pity. Whether or not he actually meant what he said, was difficult to tell.

Elmo sensed the conflict. He felt it the first time they met back in Harley when the colonel and the bean farmer first clapped eyes on one another; and it had grown ever since. It was a struggle that would only end in death. Elmo knew that by now; but there was nothing he could do about it any longer. And even if he had managed to kill the colonel somehow, when he had the chance, the war-child would still go on, just like he always has. The war never ends, only the battle. In his own elementary mind, the farmer knew what was happening; he knew what was going on, even though he couldn’t quite put his finger on it, or explain it so many words. It was a question of good and evil; that age old paradox that has plagued every generation since Adam; it was as plain as black and white, not unlike the Harlie himself, and just as sharply divided. He could feel in his bones, and in is blood: the pain, like a toothache that never goes away, and the struggle. He knew what was happened.

It was something he first felt when he stripped of his clothes, whip like a dog, and thrown into jail for beating another man that only got what he deserved. He thought about Dick Dilworth and the night the boy with a beard came to visit him in prison, alone, with a contrite heart and a broken leg. But it wasn’t enough then; and it wasn’t enough now, despite what happened at the poplar tree, and even though they had since become blood-brothers. Real sorrow takes time – Elmo knew by now – and so does real contrition. He still wasn’t sure if Little Dick had ever figured it out. Red-Beard certainly never did. Maybe he wasn’t as smart as everyone said he was, imagined the Harlie, standing there in front of a cold blooded murderer in the middle of nowhere with death bearing down on him in all its grinning gloom. He wasn’t some god-like war hero; or the devil incarnate, as Homer once suggested. He was just a man, and nothing more. And look’ye here… thought Elmo to himself as the blood ran down the colonel’s beard and into the volcanic soil, he even bleeds! And the blood was red, just like his. It was the blood of a murderer, not a monster; it as the blood of a man. All Elmo could feel at the time was pity. But pity wasn’t enough, and forgiveness would just have to wait. Whether or not Red-Beard would ever find it, the Harlie would never know. What he did know, however, was that it certainly wouldn’t find it in him.

Red-Beard face hardened and turned once again to stone. The great purple vein in his temple began to pulsate as if it would burst at any minute; not with blood, but oil! like a machine that was about to blow gasket. It was a disquieting transformation; and it took only a minute. Elmo had witnessed it before. Each time it happened, the colonel would emerge from it just a little less human than he was before. In time, there would be nothing left of Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn – only Red-Beard. That’s what frightened him the most; and it only a question of time. He didn’t understand exactly what was going on in the colonel’s mind at the time, but he did know something was wrong; and he knew he was in trouble. What he saw that day in Red-Beard’s tormented and disfigured face was more than hate. Elmo had hated; and he knew what real hate was. This was different. This was the stuff murders were made of; what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote to the Ephesians: ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’. What the Harlie saw in the colonel’s unblinking eyes that day was hate for hate’s sake. It was pure, diabolical and spiteful. There was a purpose behind it. It was evil; and it could not be helped. Neither could it be fixed, cured, un-done, plugged up, or pulled out like some old aching tooth. It certainly couldn’t be ignored. Like a sheep before the shears, the Harlie simply looked away. What else could he do?

And in doing so, the black sheep may’ve very well just signed his own death warrant; for by then, Red-Beard knew exactly who the Harlie was, and what he had to do. He had heard that the girl was pregnant, and that she had a child. It was a boy, a war-child, or so they say. It happens all the times. It could’ve been anyone, he remembered thinking at the time. That’s just the way was in those days. Boys will be boys, and soldiers… well, soldiers do what soldiers do. And who can blame them? Besides, those black bitches were always with child; no one ever knew who the father was. Hell! It was war. Somethings never change.

Elmo had nothing else to say. Like a he-coon treed by a hound dog that day, the Harlie had nowhere left to run. There was nowhere else to go. No escape. Elmo Cotton was trapped, and he knew it. He felt like he was dead already. He knew he should run, as raccoons will often do in these kinds of situations – and fast! They are even known to turn and attack under desperate circumstances, especially when protecting their young. But the Harlie did not run; nor did not attack. He certainly had nothing to protect; except perhaps an ornery old mule which he pulled behind him as he slowly turned and walked away. And along with the muted mule, he also took the black horse with no rider.

As Red-Beard followed his movements with icy blue bloodshot eyes, the raccoon just kept on walking, thinking, and dying, as if his bare and bloody feet were being mechanically driven, not by his own free will, by someone or something else that was doing the walking, the thinking, and the dying for him. He didn’t answer. He didn’t dare. “Where you goin’, boy?” the colonel asked, leaning heavily on the evil white hump.

The raccoon kept walking.

“I said, where you goin’, boy?” Rusty repeated, with the subtle trace of a smile still lingering beneath the hairy red mask.

The Harlie stopped, pulled the mule closer to his side and answered as truthfully as he could under the circumstances. “Home,” he said, almost in a whisper. “I just want to go home.”

“Harley?” questioned the colonel in an almost fatherly fashion. “Why in the world would you want to go back to Harley?”

“I just wants to go home!” barked the raccoon.

“You ain’t got no home,” Red-Beard fired back, sounding so sure of himself that, for a moment at least, Elmo actually believed him. “Besides, you don’t belong there. You’re not like them.”

“I goes somewhere else then.”

The colonel thought for a moment while drawing a small rope through the gold ring piercing the bull’s dilated nostrils. “And don’t think about Creekwood Green,” he further admonished Elmo before mounting the great white Brahma that’d somehow managed to survive the catastrophe. “They wouldn’t have you there, either. Just look at you! They don’t like your kind there.”

The raccoon looked down at his bare brown feet, which by then were bruised and dirty, and still very dark. He knew the colonel was right, of course, but was afraid to say anything in his own defense.

Red-Beard knew by now what was on the Harlie’s mind; and he knew he could never be trusted. And what if he did go back? Would anyone believe him? There would always be a deep dark cloud of suspicion hanging over Colonel Horn’s head, mortal or immortal, forever casting a shadow of doubt about him that, like a cancer, would only grow larger and darker with time. “You’re gonna tell them I did it… Ain’t that right, boy?” he thought out loud, fastening the straps around Jove’s beefy white belly. “You’re going to say that I killed ‘em. Killed them all! Is that what you’re going to do… tell Sheriff John that I killed them… and you had nothing to do with it?”

Elmo shook his head, no; even though he didn’t know what he would do if it ever came to that.

Red-Beard knew it wasn’t enough. “They won’t believe you, boy,” he said, considering all his options. “Nobody will.

At that point, the Harlie didn’t see the point in arguing any further. He should have just walked away. “Please let me go,” he begged one last time. He didn’t think it would do any good, and it didn’t; but what else could he do?

“No son,” the colonel paused, “I don’t think so… Best stay right here for a while, with me. Let the ol’ colonel handle it.” And as he said it, a peculiar smile broke through those wiry red whiskers, which only further convinced the Harlie that he had to go, and quickly. He looked around, and then, hopelessly lowering his eyes to the ground repeated himself: “I just wants to go home.”

For a brief and fleeting moment, Rusty Horn looked down on the frightened raccoon standing in front of him with pity and pathos. He wanted to believe him. He wanted to help him. Or at least let him go. No one would believe him anyway, the colonel finally surmised. “Promise me you won’t say anything…” he said, almost in a whisper. And just to make sure, he deliberately added a warning, the way he would sometimes do when reprimanding an incorrigible soldier, “Or I promise you, I’ll shoot your wife… and the little boy, too. Understand?” He was shaking when he said it, which made Elmo more uneasy, and perhaps a little angry. “You know I can do it, son. I know how,” he frankly stated. “I’ve killed before. You know it. And I’ll do it again, if I have to.”

And when he said it, Elmo couldn’t help but notice a certain calmness in Rusty’s voice; there was reason, and sanity, behind the words. And he meant what he said. “I p-promise,” the raccoon stuttered as a glimmer of hope briefly broke through an otherwise a colorless and overcast sky.

Red-Beard was not so easily moved; nor was he persuaded. He knew it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough. He knew what he had to do; he just didn’t know how to do it. It wouldn’t be that simple. This wasn’t the army, but he was still an officer. There was protocol to consider. He presided over court-martials and had sentenced men to death. He handpicked the firing squad and, in a few rare instances, pulled the trigger himself, with no hesitation and no regrets. It was all part of the job. It came with the territory, and the eagle. It was one of those things that had to be done, just like this one. “It won’t work,” Red-Beard snarled, as mounted the white idol and reached down for the gun strapped to his side.

Elmo knew the battle had begun all over again, just like it did before, like it always did. He knew the outcome. It never changed. Red-Beard would win, of course; and everyone else would lose. Suddenly, his heart sank back down into the soles of his naked bloody feet. He actually felt sick this time. “Homer…” he whispered out loud, even though he knew there was no one left to hear him.

And just then another stone fell to the ground. The mule coughed, loudly, as if sounding out a warning in the only way it knew how. Homer’s stallion turned its elongated head towards the sealed tomb of its dead master. It seemed to know that something was about to happen.

Red-Beard stirred on top of the bull. “Homer’s dead,” he growled, through an uneven row of blood-stained teeth, “just like all the others. You killed ‘im, boy! You killed them all. Then suddenly, his whole face went slack, taking on a totally different appearance and a whole new countenance. “It’s none of our business,” he said, in a voice just above a whisper. “ Tain’t nobody’s business.”

The Harlie’s heart pounded as he listened with growing anxiety to baneful accusations. He could see the conflict in Red-Beard’s steely blue eyes. His beard looked like it was on fire. Something was happening.

“Tain’t nobody’s b-business,” repeated the voice of reason and sanity; only this time with a noticeable stutter, which Elmo not only found comforting and familiar, but also left him speechless. All he could do was stop and stare.

What’s the matter with you, boy? Can’t you talk? Say s-something! What’s the matter?” There it was again: the stutter in Red-Beard’s voice. It was almost as if he really was afraid that Elmo would tell someone what actually happened. He was scared. He was afraid of the truth.

It was Rusty talking again. Elmo could tell. He could hear it in his voice; the way it suddenly cracked and hesitated, not at all like Red-Beard’s commanding speech which came across as a steady stream of orders that were to obeyed and not questioned, the voice of authority. These words, however, came with some difficulty. They were strained. Rusty coughed, as if trying to clear a dry and thirsty throat. It made the Harlie suspicious, nervous, and more afraid than ever. “N-Nothin' I could do,” the colonel stuttered once more, staring blankly into the blue eyes of the Harlie who, looking straight up at the war-child as he spoke, kept his silence and well as his distance.

It was Rusty’s uncertainty that betrayed Red-Beard that day. He was still vacillating on exactly what to do with the Harlie, while Red-Beard’s mind was already made up on the matter. Like all great conflicts, it all comes down to one final battle, a war-of-the-wills, you might say; and when you get right down to it, that’s what all wars are really all about – Isn’t it? That’s how the winners and the losers are ultimately decided. Not by armies and navies, generals or colonels, military strategies, patriotism, weapons, or even right or wrong; but the sheer will to win, and survive. That’s what makes all the difference – Will! Who’s going to cry ‘Uncle’? Which one’s going to flinch first? Who’s going to blink? And it seemed that that’s where Red-Beard had it all over Rusty Horn. He had what some propagandists would call ‘the triumph of the will’. He didn’t flinch. He never even blinked. But he did stutter; and that was a start.

He really didn’t want to, and he wasn’t sure exactly why he did it at the time, but just at that very moment Elmo Cotton looked into those same irretraceable eyes and did something Red-Beard was not at all expecting. He asked a question. It was not so much a question as it was a request: a simple, unambiguous, unrestrained, straight-from-the-heart, request. It was a plea, really; not only to save his own life, which he’d all but surrendered by then, but the colonel’s as well. “Horace?” he said for no particular reason.

And then it happened. For the very first time. Red-Beard blinked.

What did you say?” said the colonel, cleaning the dried blood and dirt from one ear with his pinky finger. “What did you just call me?”

“I’s sorry,” Elmo replied, “I didn’t mean…”

It all happened so fast, and so suddenly, that if he didn’t happen to be looking directly into his eyes, Elmo might’ve missed it all together. But he was looking; and he kept on looking. And then he realized that it was the first time he had ever seen it happen. Red-Beard blinked! He actually blinked, with both eyes, or so it seemed. Not only that, the eyes seemed to soften a little, slowly at first, like blue ice melting on the roof under a warm winter’s sun, and gradually. It happened so subtly that it almost looked natural; so natural, in fact, that while leaning backwards with his head slightly cocked to one side Elmo just had to ask, “Who are you?” He wasn’t sure who, if anyone, would answer.

Was it merely the sound of his own name, his real name, his true identity, that caused the unmovable eyelids of the malevolent monster to blink that day? Or was it something else, something… human, perhaps? We may never know. But whatever it was, it was just enough to spark back to life something in the colonel’s corporeal body that had long since been dead – his soul perhaps! And doing so, stimulate that part of the inner ear which, in turn, effected not only the optical nerve but would trickle down into the other nerve endings as well, initiating in the process a bio-electrical shock wave that would be felt in every blue and gray fiber of Red-Beard’s wretched being. Why, even Old Jove, in all his sturdy and steadfast whiteness, felt the energized vibration and began shaking violently beneath its startled red rider as the electrical impulses shot through its own primitive brain.

The charge was a positive and powerful one, which didn’t sit too well with the hard-wired colonel; and it didn’t last very long, either. At least not long enough to having any significant or long-lasting impact on its intended target. Red-Beard had long since divorced himself from sentimental impulses, along with whatever benefits he might’ve derived from such well-meaning gestures. He would blink no more. It was a slow burn that finally extinguished itself in one last gasp. It was a voice that came not from Colonel Rusty Horn, but from Red-Beard himself, the war-child. “Don’t look there, boy” he said, referring perhaps to that part of him that still might respond to names of the past. “You won’t find him.” It was a voice that sounded like victory. It meant only one thing: Horace “Rusty’ Horn was dead. Only the war-child survived.

The Harlie knew by then he was in great and grave danger. Red-Beard had won the battle. There would be no more apologies, and no more warnings. There would only be lies. Rusty was dead, just like all the others; and so was the Colonel Horn. Elmo knew that by now. Red-Beard had found what he was looking for. He got want he came for. But there was still something missing. He needed a reason; a reason to kill Elmo Cotton. It was just that plain and simple. And he thought he’d found that, too, even if, just like everything else he’d done so far, it was only a lie. “You killed ‘em, boy,” he suddenly proclaimed from high atop his leathery white throne. “You killed all of them! It’s all your fault…” he lied, thus absolving himself in his own deceit.

The words were strange but clearly familiar to the Harlie. He’d heard them before, late one night, in the woods. It was by a campfire, while the others, except for the colonel perhaps, who’d been studying the stars through the telescopic lens of his delusional brain at the time, were sound asleep. Homer was there, too; and so was the firefly. They thought Elmo was sleeping. They were both wrong.

‘It’s all your fault…’ The words rang just as hollow now as they did then. And just as it happened before, the devil showed his real face, his true colors. And they weren’t green, either; they were blue and gray this time, but they were saying the same thing. They were the colors, the words, and the lies, of the firefly. Elmo had marked them well. ‘It’s all your fault!” they shouted at him just like they did with Homer. Only now it was Red-Beard who spoke them. ‘It’s all you fault…”

Elmo knew it was a lie, of course; and he was just about to say so, the same way Homer did to the firefly that night in the woods. And he would do it with the truth; the same way the deputy did it, and won. He had nothing to lose. But, before he could open his mouth, Red-Beard cursed the Harlie. “Damn you, boy!” he howled, “You did it! I saw you do it. You killed them all! Didn’t you? You killed the old man!”

It was the ultimate lie. It hit hard, and it hit home; and, like all lies, it even contained that one grain of truth that made it so potent and powerful. But even that didn’t matter; not to Elmo anyway. It didn’t matter simply because he knew that it was a lie; and that’s all that really mattered. And it really didn’t matter to Red-Beard either; who, in his own delusional and diabolical mind, had already convinced himself that it was the truth. But it did matter to someone. It mattered to Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn, or what was left of him.

“Go on home, son,” he spoke to Elmo that day, a beaten and broken man by then. “Get out the hell out of here, while you still can.” It was the voice of a dead man, thought the Harlie, beginning to doubt his own senses and wondering if there was still hope. But the warning came too late. As he turned his back and began to slowly walk away, he could hear the distinctive clicking sound a gun makes when it is being cocked. He wanted to keep walking, but he wasn’t that brave. So instead, he simply turned around to look at Red-Beard for perhaps the very last time. And when he did, Elmo Cotton suddenly found himself staring straight into the black hole Red-Beard’s revolver, the same one he used to kill the rattle snake with.

There wasn’t even time to think about it. “Is you gonna shoot me?” the Harlie spoke in what he believed to be his very last words.

Calmly and quietly, Red-Beard simply replied: “Yes, I am.” And he said without blinking and without a stutter, the Harlie observed, like he really had no other choice. It was Red-beard speaking; and Elmo no reason to doubt him.

And just then, Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn spoke for the last time: “I’m sorry…” he lamented in a voice that sounded like he really meant it. The voice of lasted only for a moment. And then, it too was gone; perhaps for good.

As the sword of Damocles hovered over his cowering head, Elmo Cotton just stood there, silently, like a bare-footed sheep before the shears; poor and dumb, if not so ignorant of what was about to happen. He didn’t walk away. He didn’t run. He didn’t turn his back. He didn’t attack. He didn’t even blink. He just stood there looking straight ahead, and waiting for the hammer to drop.

But it never did. The gun didn’t go off.

In that final and fateful moment, Red-Beard did something unexpected. He hesitated. He froze. Or was it Rusty? Elmo just couldn’t tell anymore. A man’s conscious can do that sometimes. It’s a common reaction. It happens all the time; to all of us, at one time or another. Compassion? Weakness? Vacillation? Or was it just plain ambivalence? No one would even know for sure. Elmo never would; and neither would Red-Beard. Perhaps it was something else, something that suddenly caught the colonel’s lidless eyes that fateful moment; someone, or someone, lurking in the shadows that he wasn’t aware of at the time.

Killing six grown men deep inside a long dark tunnel was one thing. Red-Beard hadn’t had to think about that. Hell! he didn’t even have to look at them. But this was different. This was up close and personal, face-to-face, man-to-man, and one on one. This was what killing was really all about; something commodores and generals rarely get to see or participate in, perched in their protected positions, far from enemy lines, where the real combat is actually taking place. It is something only the true warrior knows: a code of honor more important than the outcome of any battle, or even the war itself. Every man’s got a right to know his executioner. Blindfolds are for criminals, cowards and traitors; the Harlie one certainly not one of them. Red-beard knew that. And he also knew that he had to look this one in the eye before killing him. Elmo Cotton was a man, despite what anyone else might have thought of him; and he deserved no less. Hell! not even the devil likes to shoot a man in the back, Red-Beard acknowledged. He liked the Harlie; moreover, he admired the raccoon’s tenacity, his courage, his honesty, and yes, even his cooking. If things had turned out differently, imagined the colonel, not for the first time since they’d met, he might have even made a proper soldier out of him. In many ways, he had grown quite fond of the young man from Harley whose life he’d saved. The affection was still there; that much was obvious. It was real, unabated; and it went straight to the heart – just like his aim. “Man’s got a right to know who killed him, boy,” said the red bearded executioner from behind a loaded revolver, “...even a Harlie.”

And just at that fatal and fateful moment, the mountain growled. It heaved and moaned like a woman in labor. It then there was a slow gurgling noise, like a rumble, almost as if it were trying to say something. It was a familiar sound; something Elmo had heard before, but in a more human voice. It sounded like someone… someone, he knew. “Homer?” spoke the Harlie in a private moment of prayer, and perhaps a little wishful thinking.

The mountain seemed to respond with yet another groaning growl that came from deep within this time, accompanied by the sudden starts and fits associated with a rusty old engine being slowly cranked back to life after sitting in a frozen field all winter. Elmo wondered. Could it be? Was it really Mister Skinner speaking to him from somewhere deep inside the mountain, under all those rocks and stones; a voice from beyond the grave, perhaps? Sure he’s dead, the Harlie was thinking just then, even as the gun barrel bore down on him in all its fatal aspects; no one could’ve survived it. But the old man did! At least, that’s what it sounded like. He spoke! Not in so many words perhaps; but damn it! he was talking. It was Homer all right. It must be him. It had to be. Who else could it be?

The sound intensified, along with some low and slow grumbling noises. The mountain moved.

He listened some more, and so did Red-Beard, as the mountain groaned and moaned like someone getting a tooth pulled.

The Harlie cried out, “Homer!” He turned his head towards the sealed mouth of the cave.

With one hand on the on the hump and the other on his gun, Red-Beard shouted, “Shut up!”

Elmo would not obey. How could he? “Homer!” he hollered out once more; only louder this time, ignoring the colonel’s last order, not caring for his own safety anymore.

And then the mountain was quiet again. Red-Beard looked around, wondering if maybe he really did use too much dynamite, after all. He’d seen this happen before. Aftershocks were actually quite common in the mining industry. The only problem, of course, was that they usually didn’t wait this long to occur, and typically came one after another; and they seldom stopped at just one. At times, they could be just as destructive as the initial blast and, in some cases, even more devastating. He watched and waited.

The Harlie did not. “Uh-huh, I hears you, old man,” he softly spoke in the aftermath of the sudden and unexpected re-awakening. “I knows it’s you, Mister Homer. You can fools some peoples, but you can’t go foolin’ Elmo, now. And look’ye here... ain’t that just like you to go makin’ such a fuss? Umm! Umm! Umm!” he admonished then old man, the way his wife would sometimes scold him for no other reason other than simply to get his attention. “It’s me, Mister Homer. Don’t you knows me? It’s just me – Elmo! You remembers… Elmo Cotton. I does yo’ cookin’ and cleanin’… and helps ‘round the house. I knows yo’ wife, too! She be kinds to me and Nadine… and lil’ Ralph. She a good woman, Mister Homer… a good woman! You’s lucky…”

But before he could finish the sentence, the earth moved beneath Elmo’s feet. He fell. It happened suddenly, and lasted for only a moment. It was gone before he even knew what happened.

Elmo picked himself up off the ground. “I heard that!” he cried as Red-Beard leveled his revolver. “And I knows what you’s tryin’ to say. Uh-huh! Yes I do. You’s just sayin’ thank you… Ain’t that right, Mister Homer? But you doesn’t have to do that. Shucks…” he sighed, even as the trigger was being squeezed and the cylinder slowly turned. By then, Elmo had one eye on the gun barrel and the other the mountain. “You don’t has to thank me… No, Mister Homer. Thank You! Thank you very much. You’s been like a daddy to me... just like a daddy. And I know why you came back. Yes I do... Uh-huh! You come back just to say goodbye. Now ain’t that right, Mister Homer! Ain’t that right?” And here the Harlie looked the colonel directly in the eye, just like Red-Beard wanted him to. “But I knows you has to go now. So does I. And I’m sorry about that, Mister Homer. I truly am sorry. But I’s be seein’ you again – soon, real soon.” He paused. “Well, I guess this is it, Mister Homer,” sighed the Harlie with a dry lump in his throat and tears welling up in his raccoon eyes, “So long, old man. I gots to go now….”

Red-Beard listened; but he couldn’t believe it. He thought that maybe one of them was going crazy. “What are you jabbering about? Ain’t nobody here ‘cept you and me. Shut up!” he barked out loud.

The old man in mountain, or whoever it was, had been listening all along. He answered the Harlie in the only way he could: in a voice as loud as thunder, as soft as a summer breeze whistling through the pines, as clean and clear as a cool mountain stream, and as right as rain. He seemed to be saying, perhaps not in so many words however, was simply this: ‘It’s alright, Mister Cotton. I hears you. Go on back, Elmo. Go home…back to your wife and your little boy. It’s all over. The spirits were right, you know: There ain’t no gold. You heard ‘em. Remember? Thems that wants, don’t get. They was right, after all. So, just go on home, son; and don’t be late. Nadine and lil’ Ralph are a’waitin’. Go home. Get along now…’

It was the voice of Homer Skinner, alright; Elmo knew that by now, although he wasn’t exactly how he knew it. It spoke, not in so many words, of course – those ephemeral and meaningless syllables we’ve grown accustomed to rely all too often on as our only means of communication – but rather in a quite different mode of expression that came across just as loud and clear. It was more confident sound, too; a voice that could be heard all the way back to Harley, and beyond. And even though he knew for certain that the old man was dead, and that he probably wouldn’t be going home that day, at least not alive, he was still glad he came. He was happy just to be there, even at the end of all things. Most of all, he was happy that Homer was right there with him that day, even if it was just his spirit; or whatever it was that spoke to him just then, letting him know that, somehow, everything was still going to be alright. There was no one else (except maybe his own wife and child) who he would rather be with that day. And there was one last thing he thought he should tell the old man he loved before…“I’s sorry, Mister Homer,” he softly sighed in the shadow of the silent mountain that day, “I should’a knowed. I should’a...” The Harlie then lowered his head and prepared himself to die.

Whether or not Homer Skinner had actually spoken to Elmo on top of the mountain that day, no one would ever know; not even the Harlie himself. Perhaps it was the old man he’d heard; or maybe he heard only what he wanted to hear, as most folks do in times like these. But he’d heard enough. And there was more….

For just when Red-Beard was about to pull the trigger and put the hammer down on the poor sharecropper from Harley, something else happened that neither Elmo Cotton nor Red-Beard could ever have expected. The cumulonimbus cloud that hung so darkly and ominously over the crater of the mountain the day they had arrived had returned. It was black and gray, darker and more ominous than ever, and loaded with a fatal charge of static energy. A blinding, bolting light pierced the purple sky, followed by booming noise that sounded like the sudden the clap of thunder. It came from both the sky above and the earth below as the electric arc bridged the gap between heaven and hell with enough voltage to raise the dead. And perhaps, that’s exactly what happened on top of the mountain that day; for at that very same moment, the slumbering stones of Mount Wainwright collectively heaved one final sigh as they gave up their ghosts for good. The earth moved. The mountain shook. The cloud burst open. And the rain came down like chunks of falling lead. The Harlie ran for cover. He ran for his life.

The sudden shock and shower of hailstones rocked both Red-Beard and his white Brahma, Jove. Together they faltered; but they did not fall. The revolver slipped from his hand and fell harmlessly to the ground.

The Harlie saw his chance; and he took it. He went for the gun. He stopped, picked up the revolver and pointed it right back at Red-Beard who was still somehow mounted on the back of the beast but caught up in an electrified whirlwind of rocks and rain. He remained cool and calm, however; even in the sights of his own lethal weapon, even in the face of a certain and, perhaps, well-deserved death. He was actually smiling at the time, and looked as though he was about to say something.

But something else happened instead. The old man in the mountain wasn’t through; not yet, anyway. He still had something else to say, not only to Elmo but to Red-Beard as well. And who could stop him? It’s like t the poet once said: ‘…Do not go gentle into that good night’. Well, the old man had no intention of doing so. Not until he said what had to say. He would not go out in silence, as some old men do who are too old to fight, or care, anymore; but he wouldn’t exactly fight it, either. And he certainly wouldn’t go out with a bang, the way the colonel would have it. He was not that proud. Nor would he go out like Vesuvius: in a violent eruption of smoke, fire and ash. That’s not the way the old man would have it; besides, he wasn’t the type. No, there would be no fireworks; no Vesuvius, no Pompeii, no cold corpses or dead bodies frozen forever in crystallized cocoons of solidified magma, just as they appeared at the moment of death, like the mummified remains in Herculaneum, to be exhumed one day for generations to gawk at and the scientists to probe with all the latest instruments. No! He would go out gracefully, quietly, the way gentlemen do, with dignity and class. And he would go in style; on his own terms, and in his own good time. Homer Skinner would go out the way he came; the way he always intended to go all along. He would go out with a smile, a handshake, and… and….

And at that moment the great mountain shook one last time. To its very roots! it suddenly seemed; all the way down to that fiery iron core that lies at the foundation of Hell where demons go to die and angels fear to tread. In fact, it shook so hard and sudden that the floor of the crater cracked in two that day, farting forth a voluminous cloud of gaseous smoke that rose in the air, blocking out the sun and filling the sky over Mount Wainwright like a swarm of black locusts devouring everything in sight. The ground suddenly opened, swallowing up all four horses, the black stallion, Sam’s painted wagon, along with the two gelded oxen, just like it did before Moses when it swallowed up Korah and the rebellious Israelites in the Book of Numbers. Elmo could do nothing to save them; he was too busy trying to save himself, and the mule. The odorous black cloud hung thickly in the air, evolving and revolving until it appeared as a great ball of purple and red fire slowly cannibalizing itself. By then, imagined the Harlie, it looked like nothing short of the afterbirth of Hell.

Was it a warning? An admonition? Or was it just the last gasp from a tired old man who had nothing left to live for and nothing more to offer. We may never know. Consider it a parting shot, a good goodbye, a final farewell; a salute, perhaps; a simple wave of the arm or the blink-of-the eye, audibly expressed in the only way available at the time. And right there on his death-bed! Maybe it was just the old man’s last will and testament, something for him to be remembered by; something for the record. Call it what you will…and don’t forget to call the priest. It was a simple gesture, really; natural in all biological aspects. It was real. It was organic. It’s only human.

Then the mountain belched. It wasn’t much; but just enough to catch Red-Beard off guard and throw him off the steadfast back of Ol’ Jove in one startling and unstoppable motion. But just before the war-child fell to the ground, a single round went off and rang out in the chaos. Boom! It happened just like that… like a big, Big Bang! And as he spat out his last breath, Red-Beard rolled over, cursed the Harlie one last time, and died, along with Colonel Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn. The Brahma ran off in a fright but was quickly swallowed up by the mountain, just like the other fated animals that day.

Then all was quiet once more.

A voice whispered in the near distance, “Sic semper tyrannis” – Thus always to tyrants. He was standing close to the collapsed cave, in the shadow of one of the many slumbering stone. There was a gun in his hand. It was still smoking.

And then, he too was gone.

A leather pouch fell from the dead man's shirt. It was covered with blood. The war-child was dead, and so was Horace ‘Rusty’ Horn. Red-Beard had gotten his wish. Immortality was achieved after all. Not with a stone, but with a gun. It was a gunshot wound that did it. And he would spend eternity in Hell, perhaps. You see, what Colonel Horn never realized (or maybe he did and it was just too late by then) was that there are no static creatures; we are, all of us, immortal; that is to say: we are, whether we realize it or not, all progressing, to one degree or another, and at our own speed, towards either Heaven or Hell. Our only options are Eternal Bliss or perpetual condemnation. The path you chose is up to you. One passes through many dark valleys, over steep hills and rocky roads; it’s a long hard slough at times and is definitely not for everybody; in fact, very few actually take it. The other road, the one preferred by most travelers, consists of gently sloping hills, grassy knolls and green pastures, pleasant stream and babbling brooks. There are many places to rest, many cozy inns along the way. The road is smooth and well maintained; in some places it is even with gold. Both roads end in death, however; there’s really no other way. The only difference, of course, is that one goes on to glory; the other, to eternal damnation. And they both go on forever. Eternity is here! It is now! And it is ours. Choose wisely, my friend. Homer did….

The stone rolled out, seemingly on its own volition, before coming to rest at the shoeless foot of the Harlie. It was dull and black, just as it was when Red-Beard plucked it from its golden tabernacle deep inside the mountain tomb. Elmo dropped the gun and picked up the stone. He didn’t even look at it. He just put it in the top pocket of his overalls and walked away.

* * *

AS HE WALKED BACK DOWN THE MOUNTAIN with his mule that day, all he could think of was a sharp pain he was suddenly experiencing in the back of his mouth. It was only a toothache, he imagined. It’ll go away, he thought to himself; they always do. Looking back for one last time, all he could see were seven more slumbering tombstones that had somehow fallen perfectly into place as a result of the earthquake, right alongside the others: Four for the horsemen, one for Sam, another for the dead Indian and, of course, one for the Homer. Elmo alone had survived it; he was the ‘Lucky Number’ after all. There was no stone for Colonel Rusty Horn, however, or Red-Beard.

That night, Elmo lit a fire under the moon and stars in the Great Northern Woods not far from where they’d camped five nights ago. Before going to sleep that night, he was awoken by a small army of fireflies that suddenly appeared, out of nowhere it seemed, just as the campfire was about to go out. He wondered if Homer was watching. Or perhaps, he was one of them by now, a spirit of the night. He tried to listen; but he was too tired, and he needed the rest. There was still a long way to go. And so, the Harlie rolled over and went to sleep.

The following morning Elmo woke up feeling more rested and relaxed than he did in a very long time. He picked up the trail that eventually brought him back to Dark Mile Road. For some reason, the old forest didn’t seem as dark and lonely as it did only a few days ago. The sun was shining. And before he knew it, he came to a stony creek, which he followed down into the valley.

He wasn’t thinking about the gold anymore; but he was thinking about all that had happened since he’d left his little home in Harley. He was thinking about the four horsemen, the large Negro and a silent Indian named Boy. He was thinking about Homer Skinner, too, and what happened to Colonel Rusty Horn up on the mountain when the mountain belched, splitting the sky in two, and the rain came down like heavy metal. “It must’a been them ol’ Harley beans...” he said with a sad but sweet smile.

“Homer never did like them very much,” reminded the mule. “Didn’t sit well with him, you know.”

“You reckon?” questioned the Harlie as they slowly approached the Iron Gates of Harley.

He was thinking about other things as well, things more familiar to him, things he hadn’t thought about in quite a while: like the little black chick that survived the killing frost one cold September morning inside Homer’s henhouse when the chilling winds blew down from the mountains one day. He was thinking about his farm. But most of all, he was thinking about his wife and child.

By then he could hear the women of Harley; their log white aprons blowing in the breeze. They were working in the fields just as they were when he had left them. And they were singing, sweetly and softly, in the Color of the Lord. It made the Harlie think of his wife again; and it made him smile. He wondered if she would be mad at him; after all, he’d been gone for over a week and had nothing to show for it, not even…

Then he remembered what he had brought back down from the mountains that day – the stone! He recalled just then how it suddenly came alive in Red-Beard’s hands, right before his eyes, on top of the mountain. Was it real? Or was it just… He thought of Little Dick Dilworth and the new bathtub he’d been promising his wife for so long. “Maybe…” he said, reaching into the top pocket of is overalls just to make sure it was still there. Just as his hand touched the smooth cool surface of the stone, the mule bleated out an old familiar warning, one Elmo had heard once before. “Thems that want don’t get,” he reminded his master.

“Say, what you talkin’ ‘bout now, mule?” questioned the farmer, withdrawing his hand from his pocket.

To which the animal responded, “Ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

“Red-Beard…” mouthed the Harlie. And still, he wasn’t quite sure.

So together the raccoon and the mule passed through the old Iron Gates of Harley once more. “Now look’ye here, Mister Mule,” Elmo tried to explained as the sun rose like a great red fireball over the muddy bean fields of Harley that day, just as it did a week earlier, and the last three thousand years. “The sun’s up. See? It’s Sunday! It’s a fine, fine morning – a good morning! And I’m still alive! So, I guess that makes me the ‘Lucky Number’ after all. But most of all – We’s free!

“That’s easy for you to say…” replied the mule, with the weight of the yoke already bearing down upon its long, weary neck.

End of Book Two

Continue to Book Three - A Raccoon on the Run

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