The Aching Tooth

(a novel)

Book One of 'The Harlie' Series
by J. F. Prussing

Living Water at the Oasis
Living Water at the Oasis

The Aching Tooth
(a novel)
Book One of 'The Harlie' Series
by J. F. Prussing

This work is dedicated to Jesus Christ... on His birthday!

Remember in the days of youth
When life was like an aching tooth
Abscessed before it breached the skin
Decayed since Adam's Mortal sin

The instruments the Surgeon holds
In trembling hands are sharp and cold
As Roman nails and thorny crowns
'Will it hurt?' the patient frowns

A glass of wine will have to wait
Beyond the narrow Pearly Gates
Some vinegar to ease the pain
A Centurion says 'It looks like rain'

And thru it all, the tooth still aches
And even now His hand, it shakes
While cutting nerve and breaking bone
The blood He spills is but His own.

The pain, it goes from bad to worse
With mouth so full it's hard to curse
The hand that holds the cure that kills
'Hey, Doctor! Are you with me still?'

Draped in angels' velvet wings
Smiles the patient as he sings
'He drilled my soul and filled the hole
And capped it with a crown of gold!'

And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.

And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.

And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.

And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.

And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse


The Aching Tooth

SUNDAYS WERE ALWAYS HARD on the old man. It was only the beginning of the week and already he felt empty and drained, like rain barrel in a dust bowl. And it had been that way for the last forty years. Lately it seemed like time was just passing him by; and at his age, time was becoming a very valuable commodity, and not to be foolishly wasted. He was old and tired. But he still had one more adventure left in him. And so, he went to bed early that night, thinking things might soon take a turn for the better, and hoping for the best. He was feeling lucky. He said a prayer, and then tried to get some sleep.

It wasn't the sound of the whippoorwill that had him pacing circles on the floor of his bedroom that night; nor was it the frightened starling that flew in through his window scaring his poor wife half to death and down the stairs to sleep on the sofa that tormented him so – No. That's not what was keeping him awake. It was a toothache. Well, not really a toothache... But damn it to hell! It sure felt like one.

He'd had them before, you know; and it really didn't have anything to do with his teeth. The old man had actually lost all of his years ago, either naturally or at the bloodstained hands of some sadistic dentist, as if there are any other kind, he would often imagine. And still, it hurt, like Hell. The symptoms were all there: the throbbing, the soreness, the irritability, the restlessness, the sleepless nights, constant frustration, the nagging helplessness... and, of course, the pain. You name it! They were all there...well, maybe not physically, but they were mentally; and that as be just as bad – or even worse! It was a toothache, I tell you; one that's been tormenting the old man or the last forty years.

He'd sometimes wished it would just go away; the toothache, that is. It never did, of course. At times he would forget about it for while; but it always came back, usually on nights such as these when the autumn air came down from the mountains like a hungry wolf; and then, it would hurt even more. And there was nothing he could do about it. At one time, he thought he might eventually get used to it. But that didn't happen either. The pain came back. It always came back, like, like sin.

Well, it's about time..." sighed the old man, dragging his tired feet across the hardwood floor of his own bedroom the following morning.

He was in the winter of his life and the tooth still hurt, even after all these years. But he was still alive, and that was enough, for now anyway. And it was a good morning. It was one of those mornings that reminded him of his younger days, the 'green years', when the pain was only just beginning and he didn't seem to notice it at all; or at least not as much as he should have. You see, pain, like any physical distraction can sometimes be mitigated, masked, if you will, if only superficially, by the sheer exuberance of youth. Youth! that wonder drug of the ages. If only we knew where to find it, other than in its natural ephemeral state. No better anesthetic has yet to be found. Youth! Now that's some strong medicine. And what an elixir! It's better than opium; more potent than heroine; and it sure lasts a whole lot longer. But don't look for it in your local pharmacy; you won't find it there. Nor seek for it in the back alleys or on crowded streets of places with names like Sri Lanka, Bangkok, or Tora Bora where it is sold by conmen and thieves, along with various opiates, hallucinogens, aphrodisiacs, snake oil, and other narcotics, man-made or natural. Beware of these so-called 'Miracle-Makers' and their fatal concoctions. Beware! I say. For as any good doctor will tell you, 'There's a little poison in every pill'. And like any other addictions, they all have one fatal flaw: They all wear off, eventually; and then they only leave you wanting more.

Youth!! It's the only real drug, you know. It can't be bought, only had; and then, only for the allotted amount of time. It's that wild-eyed wonderfulness which, if only for a few fleeting years, desensitizes the nerve and detaches us in most merciful measures from the aches and pains of a decomposing and ever-decaying world. The only problem, of course, as it is in any addiction, is that sooner or later the drug wears off; and all that is left is a longing that never ends and emptiness that can never be filled, which is far worse than the pain that preceded it. But those days were gone, and time has a way of abating such natural anesthetics, rather cruelly it would seem, and without pity. They didn't last forever, as the old man once thought they would, and had since passed away into mere memory, just like everything else in his waning and withering life.

Since then, the ache had become dull and steady, like a dry hangover that never went away. It drove the old man crazy sometimes; it drove his wife even crazier, especially late at night when he would pace circles on the floor while she slept downstairs on the sofa, wondering if he'd finally gone insane. It was a burdensome ordeal, just like everything else in the life two lonely old people trying to look out for each other in the aching autumn of their lives.

He rarely complained anymore; he knew it wouldn't do any good. And at the ripe old age of seventy-two, one might have thought that any sensation, even a painful one, would be better than none at all. But don't tell that to an old man with a toothache. In fact, don't tell that to anyone; and you just might not get hurt. The years had passed by quickly. Too quickly! it seemed, as they often do for old men with aching teeth that just ain't there anymore. Like a sprinter nearing the end of the race, time didn't crawl – it flew! And all the while, he himself was slowing down. Nature is not only unfair – it's illogical. But where was it all going? he would often stop to ask himself, never expecting an answer. And what if... Sometimes, it just didn't make any sense.

It had been forty years since he'd first discovered the gold mine in Wainwright's mountain. Sometimes it seemed like it happened four hundred years ago; other times, like these for instance, it felt like it happened only yesterday. At times, he wondered if the gold would still be there, after all these years. Did anyone remember? He'd told the story often enough, which he now regretted, of course, but he never the whole story; and he was always careful never tell anyone, except for the Harlie perhaps, what he'd really found. All who were there with him that day were dead by now; others have simply forgot. Maybe they never really cared to begin with. Perhaps they weren't even listening; they never seemed to believe him anyway. And what the hell, it happened such a long, long time ago.

Whether or not the old man had actually found the mortal remains Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III, as he once claimed to an eager but suspicious audience, the gold, or anything else for that matter pertaining to the fated expedition, was still subject to much speculation and debate. He always did have a healthy imagination – even in his declining years when the creative energies are usually at their weakest – and was known to stretch the truth now and then. Even when they were alive, the members of the original posse, fourteen in all, could never quite agree on exactly what took place in the mountains that day and were perhaps, thought the old man, even in death arguing in their graves, like some grand jury of corpses, over the most minor and inconsequential details as miners are known to do from time to time. He could still hear their ghost-like voices, especially late in the evening, whispering in his ears like spirits of the night; and always... always, with the same admonishment: 'Thems that want don't get'.

* * *

The tale the deputy had told them was just too fantastic. Besides, there was nothing to substantiate the incredible story of golden caverns and man-eating cannibals except for the words of one lonely old man with a silly dream and a toothache; and we all know how unreliable that can be. And considering the source...well, even if there was any truth in it, who would believe it?

As it were, nothing was brought back from the mountain that day – certainly not any gold. The claims he'd made at the time were too outrageous, too incredible, too un-believable, and just too, too... Homerish (especially the part about the cannibalized Ferals and the shrunken head of Cornelius G. Wainwright III) to ever be taken seriously. Besides, he could never prove it; never even tried. There was simply no evidence. Nothing! Not a single hair from man with the bottlebrush they went searching for in the first place all those years ago. As for the gold... well, let's just say that, in the end, Homer had nothing to show for his efforts, or the courage he displayed in the face of certain doom and disaster, other than some strange and wonderful tale about a 'golden temple' at the end of a long dark tunnel that remained dubious at best, and a downright lie at worst, to this very day. It's as difficult to believe now as it was back then. All that remained was an old yellow piece of paper the old man had kept tucked away in his pocket for the last forty years. It was the map.

And what about the gold? You know... the 'Mother-load!' as he so eagerly described what he'd found that day to a select few who were, even now, waiting patiently outside his bedroom window that cool September morning. And didn't the old deputy also mention something about a mysterious black stone he'd found there, inside a...What's that he called it now? A golden tabernacle? Yep! Those were his exact words. That's what he said: A 'Golden Tabernacle'. That's precisely how he described it. That was his story and he was sticking to it. Could it be? Well, legends being what legends are made of, you decide what is true...and what ain't. The others had already made up their mind. They were all there that morning, right outside the old man's bedroom window: the four horsemen, the Negro, the Indian, and of course, Red-Beard. And there they waited, tired and hungry, and with a few aching teeth of their own.

The map he'd sketched out forty years ago was by now as thin, wrinkled, and transparent as the skin on back of the old man's hands, the capillaries of which were as visibly defined as the lines on the parchment itself. If held up the slightest breeze, it would surely disintegrate as if blown away like a dandelion in the wind. He kept it in his pocket, all the time, even in his sleep, and even after all these years. He was still afraid that someone might try to steal it.

And that's what kept him alive all these years. Not so much the map, as indispensable as it seemed, but the gold. That familiar yellow specter that for so many sleepless nights haunted the old man like a grinning ghost creeping through his bedroom long before dawn, climbing under the covers and whispering lugubriously into his ear the sad and simple secret that he still, after all these years, refused to believe: '...Thems that want don't get.'

'They only want it all for themselves...' the old man would protest out loud, even when his wife was listening, 'those greedy bastards!' Naturally, it made her nervous, and the tooth ache more. In the end, it only made him want it that much more – the gold, that is. It was a tooth, I tell you, a golden tooth that had him pacing circles on the bedroom floor like a damn fool, keeping his wife awake all night, and making him do what in his own sound Christian mind he knew to be a sin. But there was something else, something dark and wonderful, something...

And what about the Ferals? You know, the flesh-eating cannibals the old man claimed to have found at the end of a long and dark tunnel that day, sitting cozily and comfortably by the fire, picking their pointed teeth with bones of the dead man. Were they really the same wild savages, the illegal slaves brought over from the Islands by the greedy prospector to mine the unholy hill know to this day as Mount Wainwright? Or, did the old man just make that up too? And was poor Cornelius really 'boiled alive' like the old man said? Did the bloodthirsty cannibals really partake of his flesh in the manner prescribed by their own barbaric and aboriginal custom? Well, that's the way the old man remembered it. He was there; so was the gold. He saw it. He only hoped it would still be there when he returned. He was betting on it; and so was Red-Beard, and his four horsemen.

There was someone missing that day. His name was Elmo Cotton, a young sharecropper from Harley whom the old man had grown very fond lately. He was still at home, of course, in bed with his wife... but more about him later. And oh, there was one other person involved in the events that were about to unfold, someone the old man was always suspicions of.

His name was Henley, Tom Henley. He was an aging but agile prospector, getting on in years who lived up in the hills with his only son, Zack, not far from where the old man was headed that day with Red-Beard and his weary band of treasure hunters. Some say Tom was crazy, 'teched', or just 'not right in the head'. Others, especially those who got to know him better, said he was a genius. They were all right, I suppose; genius and madness often drink from the same bottle. But Tom Henley was more than that. He was what you might call a 'mountain-man', probably the last one left in that civilized part of the world. He was a smart one too! a right 'educated hillbilly' who knew a thing or two not only of this world but those other worlds, the worlds of the mind where only brave men dare to go, and from which they sometimes never return. He had been to college where he studied the arts and sciences. He read books, and at one time had walked among kings and counselors. He has lived the city and been to the mountain, always preferring the latter, of course, to which he finally returned for good one day, taking up permanent residence in his home-in-a-hill, as he called it. He went there not only to mine gold and silver, among other things, which he was quite proficient at, but to escape a world he no longer had any use for. He believed in himself and little else. But he also believed in the old man with the aching tooth when no one else did. Tom Henley was the last of his kind. He was a mountain-man.

The old man rarely spoke of the gold anymore; not as much as he used to; at least not as much as he did forty years ago when the tooth first began to ache. He had his reasons, of course; which may or may not be apparent by now. But that didn't stop him from bringing it up occasionally; especially when he'd been a'drinking, which he still enjoyed to do from time to time despite his wife's admonitions and his own better judgment, and particularly in the company of those he liked and knew he could trust; and even they were becoming scarce. It was something he just couldn't resist, no matter how hard he tried. Lately, however, he was a little more careful about what he said and to whom he said it. Like I said before, he had his reasons. There were so many stories surrounding Cornelius G. Wainwright III and the lost gold mine that everyone knew it was only a matter of time before someone tried to prove them right or, for that matter, even wrong. Nobody suspected it would be the old man himself who would finally do it; after all, he was so old, so tired, and so...

But that's exactly what he wanted them all to believe. That's the way he'd planned it all along. The gold was his; and that's all there was to it. He'd found it; no one else. It belonged to him. He had the map; he drew it himself. It was more than anyone else had! And that was enough. Now, all he had to do was go back and claim it. Naturally, he would have to stake it first, as prescribed by law, and make it all official. That's where Smiley the surveyor came in. Finding it would be another matter. And that's why he decided to bring along Red-Beard and the others. Minin' for gold is hard work, especially at Homer's age. He'd need all the help he could get. And like I said before, there was still someone missing.

Time was no longer on the old man's side. He wasn't just getting old – he was old! just like everyone kept telling him he was; and time, like the tide, waits for no man. His only hope now was that the gold would still be there after all these years. As for anything else he might find... well, he just didn't think about it anymore. And what about the gold? Was it still there? He had his doubts now and then. Or was it only a dream? And what about the stone? There was only one way to find out, of course. He had to go back, back to the mountain, back to where it all began. He had to know.

The old man knew he'd go back. He always knew. It was almost as if he had no choice. It was all just a matter of time. He was sure the gold would still be there when he returned. It had to be. Why? Well, because the tooth told him so – that's why! And it reminded him every goddamn day, just like the spirits of the night. It was a tooth, I tell you! And it still ached after all these years; even when it wasn't there. The pain was almost unbearable. And there was only way to make it stop. He had to go back to where it all began. Back to the mountain. He knew that by now. There was no other way. Homer Skinner just had to go a'minin'.

It was really the only thing left for him to do; besides dying, that is. And that would come soon enough anyway. He wasn't doing it for his wife, although he knew she would benefit as well if everything worked out according to plan; and he certainly wasn't doing it for himself... Or was he? When you get right down to it, isn't that why we do anything? Maybe so; but he was actually doing it for a friend. He was doing it for Elmo Cotton, the Harlie. Somehow, that made all the difference, even if it didn't stop the pain. It was something he had been meaning to do for a long time.

And so, Homer Skinner had finally decided: It's about time... Cornelius G. Wainwright III was dead all right, his bones long since buried along with those of the flesh-eating Ferals. All the old man needed now was time, just a little more time. He had the map. He knew the way. The mountain was still there; and so was the gold.

Chapter One

Waiting for the Sun

IT WAS MONDAY, a cool September morning, and still dark outside; what some folks like to call 'the other side of twilight'. One by one, the four horsemen arrived in front of Homer Skinner's house that day, followed by a small painted wagon with a large Negro driver and a rather suspicious looking passenger who appeared to be fast asleep.

Waiting for them was man dressed in a blue and gray uniform. He was holding fast to a great white bovine, inextricably linked to him by a hemp rope knotted through a golden ring piercing the smoking wet nostrils of the beast. It was a magnificent Brahma bull, as evidenced by its great Hindu hump swaying from side to side atop so many fleshy folds sagging from its creamy white breast.

The bovine beast, not unlike its current owner and master whom it obeyed implicitly, was bred purely for the military purposes. But this animal, whose Asiatic hooves still clearly crack the crowded streets of Calcutta, was no ordinary bull, and was obviously of that same pure stock and noble pedigree; as opposed to its mixed American cousin herded over the virgin plains and prairies, destined for the slaughterhouse to be sold by the pond to a young and starving nation. Not unlike the biblical golden calf that preceded it, once idolized in the shadow of Mount Sinai, even as Moses gazed upon the flaming face of God, this was a sacred cow, and one worthy of worshipped. It had been handpicked by the war-child himself to serve his unholy purpose, and acted accordingly. And so, Red-Beard bestowed upon the animal a name befitting its true character and nature – Jove. And as in the Greek god whose own incarnated spirit was once embodied in the same fantastic form of the great white bull, so too did this ancient Brahma exhibit all the deity invested in its broad beefy being.

The current owner of this magnificent animal, if indeed such a prime and noble specimen could be 'owned' by any mere mortal, was Horace 'Rusty' Horn; although he was more commonly referred to simply as 'Red-Beard' chiefly on account of the long red whiskers that flowed from his face like so many strands of long rusty wires. No one knew for certain where Red-Beard came from, or what circumstances had landed him in his present position. No one asked. No one dared. Aside from his military credentials, which were conspicuously displayed not only in the uniform but in the overall countenance of the man, all of which will be extrapolated upon in the manner they deserve, little was actually known of the colonel's past existence other than the fact that he hailed from a long line of military men dating back to the Revolutionary War, his grandfather having fought at the Battle of New Orleans under Colonel Andrew 'Stonewall' Jackson. It was for this reason, among others perhaps, the young red-head was tagged with the prodigious and self-fulfilling title of 'war-child', a name he didn't necessarily approve of, but one that would follow Red-Beard for the rest of his natural life, and beyond; red being the true color of war. What was known about Rusty's own military background was that he'd served in the army at one time and held the commanding rank of colonel, as evidenced not only by the signature sword that hung like a double edged phallic that was forever at his side, but also by the eagle insignia still attached to the faded flap of the army cap he was wearing that day.

The other occupational talent Red-Beard showed a particular interest in, and was actually quite knowledgeable of, was the specialized field of explosives; especially in its more recent military applications, which proved vital to the outcome of the war. It was a relatively new and unstable science, a revolutionary concept, which, together with the recent introduction of a volatile substance known as 'Nitro-glycerin' became even more unstable, and dangerous. They called it 'dynamite'.

Behind Red-Beard, and slightly off to the side, was a wagon being drawn by two long-horned oxen. They were large and healthy animals, having recently been steered in order to enhance their beefy bulk; not only for the long journey that lie ahead of them, but also so that they fetch a higher premium in the meat market, if and when they ever returned to fulfill such a grim and gruesome destiny.

Inside the painted wagon sat two men. One was a substantially large Negro perched high on the buckboard who was not only the driver of the vehicle but, oddly enough, its current owner and operator. His name was Sam; he answered to no other. The other man, lazily lounging in the back of the overloaded wagon was a rather diminutive, at least by comparison to the black Goliath before him, Native American Indian; or, Redman, as they were commonly, and perhaps colorfully, referred to at the time. He went by the simple, unassuming and, as some might even suggest, condescending name of 'Boy', even though he as well into his thirties by now, and well beyond adolescence.

The wagon was painted green and red, which happened to be the colors of the Redman's native tribe, a fact which didn't go entirely un-noticed when he accepted Red-Beard's offer to join the secret expedition. It was actually Sam's idea, having worked closely with the Redman before and holding no special animosity toward that particular race; chiefly, I suppose, on account of the Redman held no special animosity toward the Negro. In fact, the two actually got along rather well together, as those with common enemies often do in this discriminating and segregated world of ours. His eyes were half-closed beneath a tall hat sitting on top of his sloping red forehead in the conical shape of tall brown wigwam, presently hiding much of his oriental aspect. On one side of the rounded pyramid was an eagle's feather, its sharp quill piercing ceremoniously through the molded fabric. The hat, along with a thick curtain of jet-black hair cascading straight down to his naked red shoulders, made it virtually impossible tell whether the Indian named Boy was awake or asleep at any given moment, a peculiarity shared by many of his noble but suspicious race. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither, as one of the Caucasian persuasion might come to suspect.

Stoically and serenely tucked away among the many provision stacked up all around him, this dark-haired dreamer might easily have been overlooked, if one were not looking for a stoic and serene Indian sitting in the back of a wagon that is, precariously resting his head on one of the many wooden containers placed haphazardly in the back wagon to serve, or so it seemed, as the Redman's pillow.

Little did the Indian know (or perhaps he did know and merely choose to act that way rather than exhibit any outward fear which the others might have taken as a sign of weakness, which was another trait common among his savage ancestors) that the keg supporting his heathenish head contained that special blend of explosives known as dynamite. It was a relatively new concoction, invented by a German philanthropist named Alfred Nobel, who, ironically enough a 'peace prize' would one day be named after, and was said to be a vast improvement over the old black powder, which was still in use in many mountainous parts of the country in the risky business of gold mining, as well as the extraction of other precious ore and mineral so inherent to that noble, and sometimes fatal, profession. But even under such precarious circumstances, the Redman's mind drifted. It seemed to be hovering between the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Appalachians or, perhaps, somewhere over the mountains of the moon.

A day earlier, the little wagon had been loaded down with enough crates, boxes, bags, bottles, barrels, shovels, spades, rakes, pick-axes, saws, hoes, ropes, ladders, chisels, and chains, to open a hardware store. There were other things as well, objects notably designed specifically for the dark and dangerous enterprise of tunneling for gold, a risky business that was not always successful, or profitable, as one famous miner with a bottlebrush moustache found out almost forty years ago.

"Humph!" said the colossal Negro to no one in particular. "The colonel's here. But I don't see anyone else. They's 'spose to be here by now."

As if suddenly awakening from some idyllic Indian slumber filled with beaver and buffalo, and not yet willing to surrender to the realities of life among the pale faced pagans, Geronimo stirred in his blanket. And through that solemn curtain of hair, which, depending on the how the light was shinning on it at any given moment, appeared as insular strands of black and blue ribbon, he instructed the driver of the wagon: "Patience, son of darkness. They will be here."

"What makes you so sure?" said Sam, feeling just a little bit patronized whenever Boy talked to in such a condescending fashion, which any other self-respecting black man might've easily taken for an insult, and be just as wrong.

Drawing the curtain from his tired eyes like a recently widowed lover peeling back the black veil of her grief long after the coffin is buried and the mourners have all gone to bed, the Indian simply looked into the eyes of his companion and solemnly assured him: "the gold..."

"I heard that!" agreed the Negro, which was his own and unique and expressive way of voicing his enthusiasm.

"There's magic in gold," the Indian prophesized, as the Incas of old surly did even as the Spanish conquistadores carted it away by the boatload across the sea, leaving behind the diseases that would eventually doom the ancient civilization to extinction. "It's old, like the mountains, and just as strong. Big medicine! Nothing can break the spell. You cannot let it go." He then lowered his head as his mind drifted from the mountains of the moon and around the Milky Way, adding with a solemnity typically reserved for ones last dying breath, "It always brings them back."

"It do more than that," replied the dark driver, having witnessed firsthand the powerful persuasion of the precious yellow element over the mortal minds of weaker men, black or white. "I hopes I didn't wake you, little feller," he sarcastically apologized. "For a while there, I thought you was dead."

"Death..." philosophized the Redman in that sleepy-eyed state of transcendentalism he could often be found in, "is nothing more than a never-ending nap, where you lie down and never wake up. What the Redman call the 'big sleep', he stated with a noticeable sign of contentment, as if he found the gloomy prospect of complete and total unconsciousness pleasing to his native sensibilities, in a natural sort of way. Perhaps it was something they shared with the ancient Israelites who, in their own ambiguous renderings, describe a similar existence in the shadowy and sleepy world of Sheol. "And oh, by the way..." added the Redman as he mounted his bright red mustang and resumed his solitary sojourn through the deep, dark Heavens, "there are no dreams."

"'Scuse me?" balked the Negro. "No dreams!" Now what kinda sleep is that, Boy? Every man gots a right to dream – don't he? Why even a damn slave gots him a right to dream. Fo' some, that's the only rights they gots... the only time they gets to be free! Why, even a goddamn dead man gots a him the right to dream. Humph!"

Somewhere in the starry outskirts of the Milky Way, beyond the rings of Saturn and the many moons of Jupiter, the Indian named Boy suddenly halted. He turned his celestial pony around and, like a red-tailed meteor breaching a pale blue sky, came hurling back down to Earth in order to address the concerns of the black man he'd come to love almost as a brother in the few short days they'd known each another. "No, Sam," he solemnly proclaimed before taking off once again like the Egyptian sun-god, Ra, who would periodically traverse those that same deep, dark heavens in his own celestial chariot where only kindred spirits so often collide, "Life and death need each other. They are like a husband and wife. One completes the other. Without death, life can have no meaning; and without life... well, there is no death. Same thing – See? It's the same with Freedom. Think about it, son of darkness. Think and die... And be free!"

"Damn Injun..." growled the black man from the front of the wagon, "Go back to sleep." He had heard such gloomy prognostications from his black passenger before, never quite understanding and thus unable to grasp, or appreciate, all the subtleties of the Redman's morbid philosophy and the seriousness in which they were delivered. "Humph!" added the black man to further punctuate his own obstinate attitude. The Negro cared not for such metaphysical nonsense. His reality was hard, cold, and real, like Pittsburgh steel and American justice, as solid and strong as the chains he once wore while mining the sulfur hills of Florida. And as for freedom... Well, freedom for this black man was just a word he'd once heard, as useless and meaningless as those now spewing forth from the back of his painted wagon, and just as confusing. But wait! thinks the Negro to himself just then, recalling to mind a smile that creased the fallen face of a fellow prisoner he once knew down in the Old Florida; a slave, not unlike himself, who'd died in his arms not too long ago in that same poisonous prison. It was the fumes, and the sulfur, that finally killed Ol' Isaac, who'd spent nearly his entire life in the mines. There came a time when he simply couldn't breathe anymore. His lungs collapsed; they gave out. And then he expired. But not without a smile, the black driver suddenly remembered just then. It was the first time it ever happened, at least in the mines. And it was the smile that stayed with all him those long cheerless years; a smile so simple and real, so serene that, if for only for one fleeting moment, he thought he knew what real freedom was, what it really meant and, perhaps, how to obtain it. "You know sumpin', Boy" he was finally forced to admit, although a little reluctantly and not wishing to encourage the red-skinned philosopher or tempt fate any more than necessary, "Maybe you's right after all. Could be the only way to gets freedom, is by dyin'. And maybe we's all be better off dead. And in that case, I 'spose I really don't mind dyin'. But not right now," he finally objected after running it over in his mind for a moment or two. "Gots me a whole lot of livin' to do just yet," he reminded his morbid passenger. "But don't let that stop you. And don't be waitin' on ol' Sam now. He'll be a'comin' along shortly. Yes he will. And I's be right behind you, Boy.

A noticeable smile shot through the Indian's long black mane. Like an arrow piercing a hole through a dark dense cloud, it allowed in just enough light to gladden the Negro's generous and sizable heart.

After a moment of stoic contemplation, the black man suddenly felt obliged to amend his last statement, and selfishly so: "So go ahead and dies... if that's what you has in mind. Ain't no one gonna stop you. Not me. No sir! And I can't say I blames you, either. Humph! Just do me one favor befo' you goes and dies," he insisted. "You'll do that fo' ol' ' Sam – Won't you, Boy?"

The Redman nodded, solemnly.

The Negro shook his big black head and smiled. "Just don't be doin' it my wagon,' he insisted. "This here ain't no damn hearse. And my name ain't Lester Cox. That fo' sho'!" he added, referring, of course, to the Creekwood undertaker who drove a wagon not unlike that of his own; only Lester's was black, and seldom empty, "That's fo' damn sho!"

* * *

OVERHEARING THE FAMILIAR and sometimes quarrelsome voices of his subordinates, Red-Beard simply told everyone to shut up and keep quiet as he continued gazing up at the small window above Homer's porch without so turning his head one degree or another. "And that's an order," he reminded them all.

The Negro's name was Sam. He didn't have a last name, which is what differentiated him at the time him from others of his African ancestry who'd assumed over the years the namesakes of their slave masters, or so the Negro claimed. There was a woman, a prostitute, he'd once met in Old Port Fierce, in a place called Shadytown, who suggested, rather coldly and with no degree of uncertainty, that the Negro's last name was actually 'Harley', a common appellation among many blacks, as well as whites, and one with long roots that could be traced all the way back to Old Erasmus himself, and his benevolent master, Mister Buford Harley. But that's another story, and for another time. Exactly how this woman of ill repute came to such a conclusion and what, if any, facts she had to support such an un-collaborated statement, were never revealed. It was in her best interest, both personally or professionally, never to divulge the sources of her information, which, by the way, was considered a serious breach of sacred trust by those engaged in her chosen profession who took certain precautions in protecting their client's anonymity, as well as their reputations; besides, it was also not very good for business.

Sam was once a convicted criminal, as well as a slave, who'd been sentenced to work the sulfur mines of Tampa Florida, a slave state right up until the end of the war. He worked like an animal, alongside thieves and murderers, digging day and night (he could never tell one from another in the sunless pits tunnels of the mineshaft) for that main ingredient that went into the manufacture of gunpowder, which fuelled the war and eventually lead to his own emancipation. He hailed from a place called Shadytown, a small town on the outskirts of Old Port Fierce inhabited primarily by Negroes, but was also a host to a number of transients known to frequent that 'colorful' part of the city that catered to their peculiar and sometimes self-destructive tastes. The crime he'd been accused of was never proven. But facts, stubborn things they can be in most other situations, were simply ignored or overlooked at the time of Sam's conviction; the color of his skin didn't seem to help matters, either. He was released from bondage at the conclusion of the war and moved to Old Port Fierce where Red-Beard found him laboriously working the docks thereabout, loading and un-loading the many merchant ships that came from the more prosperous cities of the north or, perhaps, around the world. It was chiefly because of these two professions, with all the vicissitudes they so demanded, that Sam the Negro obtained his superior strength, along with his manly reputation.

As previously mentioned, the other man's name was 'Boy', which was actually quite misleading since this 'boy' was, for all appearances and intellectual capacity, well beyond that stage of mental and physical development normally associated with the patronizing term. The name, however unjustly applied and for whatever unconscionable reason, stuck; and so did the shame. At present, this particular 'Boy' was well into his third decade (thirty-eight years to be exact) which, in his own forsaken but not totally forgotten culture, should have easily made him a grandfather many times over by now; the customary age of marriage for Indians at that time being about fourteen years, or, as the Redman themselves would say in their own metaphorically way: '... old enough to shoot the arrow.'

The youthful appellation was first attached to the taciturn native, quite innocently in fact, the day he was orphaned in the wilderness and taken in by an elderly pioneer couple who, just passing through and having no children of their own, took pity on the 'boy' by providing him with not only a new name, but the family as well; his real parents having been massacred shortly after the war, along with the rest of his tribe, at the tender age of ten by a wayward band of mercenary soldiers whose allegiance was never quite established. But the memories remained, as well as the pride instilled in him from a very early age, as he claimed to be the direct descendant of a mighty warrior king who fell at the sword of a great white god. The name just stuck – and so did his vengeance. Despite his civilized surroundings, and perhaps because of them, the Indian named Boy had retained much of his pagan past and would, in the fashion of his ancient ancestors, make burnt offerings to the various deities ascribed to his particular religion. It was just something else the large Negro could never quite understand about his pantheistic passenger: How did he know which god he was worshiping? It's one of those things that makes monotheism not only more practical and desirable, but less confusion. Never-the-less, the two wagon riders complemented one another other quite nicely, like black-eyed peas and raw red meat, I suppose, and were deemed indispensable to the mission for which they were about to embark on; at least as far as Red-Beard, who'd made a career out of assigning men to their rightful tasks, was concerned.

It was still dark outside, the sun just beginning to breach the eastern horizon, but not so much that the four horsemen couldn't make out the anticipated sight of a small painted wagon with two riders and one man mounted on a bull silhouetted against the early morning sky. He looked angry and impatient; not unlike the ominous bovine beneath him with clouds of white vapor spewing from its dilating nostrils.

"What took you so long?" was all Red-Beard had to say as the four horsemen slowly materialized through a dark gray mist. He was still looking for signs of life within. There was a small light shining in the upstairs window by then, but that was all.

Nobody answered.

Among the four horsemen who had arrived just then was a sinister looking man slouched over a sickly horse that looked as though it had difficulty bearing such a wicked burden. He seemed to be smiling, conspicuously missing all but a single tooth that protruded from his lower jaw like the petrified remains of a dead tree stump. He had been in the army, just like Red-Beard, and was a corporal at the time, although it would be difficult to tell. There was just nothing honorable, wholesome, or disciplined about this diseased reprobate.

The middle-aged man next to him spat on the ground, impatiently wiping his chin with the sleeve of his jacket as the young rider behind him waited for the volcano to erupt. He had a tan-leathered face, a magnificent moustache, and skin like an alligator. It was Mister Charles Smiley. He was a shrew and wiry, and often out-spoken, land surveyor who, despite his rugged outdoor appearance and lack of higher education, was considered by many a man of many talents with a keen eye for detail. He also was known to possess a voracious appetite for sugar and tobacco. His only serious flaw, which, by the way, he shared with yet another great revolutionary of that noble profession, General George Washington, was a constant string of obscenities that seemed to accompany all his verbal expressions, which will be extrapolated upon in chapters to come.

Charles Smiley was an institution all to himself. The mountains and the plains were his classrooms, his University, if you will – his Harvard, and his Yale. The earth was his home, with every rock and tree accounted for as so much furniture to be catalogued in a big black field book he called 'The Bible'. He loved the land, and would map and measured every square inch of it, as only he knew how. Aside from that, he was also a magnificent orator, and may've even made a right proper professor, if only he could learn to stop spitting, and perhaps curb that savage tongue of his, from which behind those hairy lips forever flowed a constant string of profanities as thick, as long, and as natural as the manure springing from the rear end of grazing buffalo. It was enough to make a cowboy cry and a sailor blush. But he could also become strangely quiet at times, depending on mood and circumstance, in which case Charles Smiley would simply take refuge behind his mustachioed mask much as a thief will sometimes hide behind a kerchief, or a bride behind her veil. But as any mariner will surely admonish: ''s just the calm before the storm'.

'Smiley', as he preferred to be called, affectionately or otherwise, wore an old red handkerchief for a scarf and a broad black brimming hat, as many in that sunny part of the untamed world still do to shield themselves from the elements. Inextricably attached to his body like any other organ, the hat covered much of Smiley's enormous head, which began balding at the unfair age of twenty-two. Perhaps it was to make up for this follicle deficiency that the surveyor began sporting a magnificent moustache, which covered all of his mouth and most of his chin, concealing the oral cavity within. It was ten inches long from tip to tapering tip, naturally sculptured by the elements, and blonde, of course, much like the golden fibers that had once graced his balding dome like so many amber waves of grain immortalized in song. And if you looked real close you might just find a just few strands of gray mixed within the blonde, which, of course, came with his profession, as well as his age.

The moustache served the surveyor well, like a personal signature not to be outdone or duplicated; or a self-perpetuating mask that was difficult, if not impossible, to penetrate, and growing by the minute. Because of his constant exposure to the sun, not to mention years of battling the harsh elements, Smiley was a man aged well beyond his years. And it showed, not only in his thick alligator-like skin and sun-scorched eyes but in numerous lesions and cancers forming on various parts of his unprotected body, especially on the back of his hands and neck which in constant use and need of. Land surveying is a demanding and dangerous occupation, a risky business that takes both brains and brawn; and it is not for the faint of heart or feeble of mind. It takes more than it gives. It takes a man like Charles Smiley.

Even his name was a deception – 'Smiley'. But how could you tell? The moustache simply wouldn't allow it. Duplicity needs to be deceptive, if it's to be effective at all, as well as anonymous. In fact, it was virtually impossible to tell exactly what was on Mister Smiley's mind at any given moment, as the hairy mask was constantly concealing any and all emotion from the neck up, along with all countenances connected with them. Whether or not he was smiling, frowning, laughing, crying, smirking, sneering, jeering, jesting, or exhibiting any kind of facial expression what-so-ever was not to be discerned nor evidenced. The mask, the moustache that is, made sure of it... just as it was supposed to. 'He's a tricky one, that Mister Smiley,' many would come to agree. 'Never know what he might be a'thinkin'. And that's just the way the surveyor liked it. Hell! He might even crack a smile if you even tried; after spitting out a gallon of tobacco juice, along with a profanity or two; but, of would never know it.

Despite everything else he might've lost on account of his rambling profession, including two wives and more children than he actually knew of, Charles Smiley had always retained his vocal abilities, which could be heard resonating through the hills and hollers, along with every profanity known to man, as he looked through the glass, read his rods, and became, as the saying goes: 'the master of all he surveyed'. "God-damn it, Homer!" shouted the surveyor with little or no effort expended, "if you don't get out of that @#$%^&*'ing bed right this minute, I'll...Why, I'll come up there and... "

At that moment, an older gentleman stepped in. "That'll do, Mister Smiley," he said, affectionately caressing the head of a five-pound hammer protruding conspicuously from his side. "No need for blasphemy."

"Why don't we just knock on the door?" suggested the surveyor's youthful apprentice, resting his beardless chin on one of the many range-poles angling out of his saddle like so many arrows in a quiver.

"Can't," replied Red-Beard, sharply. "Homer's orders. Doesn't want to wake up the wife, you know."

"Can't say I blames him for that," muttered the moustache, having been married once himself and familiar with such unsolicited interruptions.

"Womens is mighty peculiar 'bout that," added the outlaw, which the others took as some perverted twist of male chauvinism they'd come to expect from the misogynistic bachelor.

"What do you know about women, Alvin?" the carpenter inquired.

"I know enough," gummed the thief.

"Enough not to marry one," observed the Negro who, as a matter of pride and principle, had always made it a point, if not a solemn vow, never to trust anyone, especially women, when it came to commitments. It was a difficult chain to break; and he'd broken his share in his long and lustful life, along with many a young girl's heart.

Like the proud American buffalo doomed to certain extinction, the Indian shook his musky black mane and went silently back to sleep.

"Don't worry," assured the colonel through a full face of his own impetuous whiskers, "He'll be a'comin'. He said he would."

* * *

HORACE 'RUSTY' HORN could be a patient man, but only when it served his own dark and ambiguous purposes; and then, only up to a point. He was seldom charitable and forever suspicious of those who were. But he was feeling neither patient nor charitable that particular morning; in fact, he looked nervous, anxious, and perhaps a little angry, like a bull about to be steered, imagined Sam the Negro; or an altar-bound man about to be hitched, which some will say is pretty much the same thing anyway, and just as scared. The others, he thought... well, they just looked tired, and hungry.

They had been up all night, including 'Little Dick' Dilworth who probably shouldn't have been there in front of Mister Skinner's house in the first place. He was clearly the youngest and most naïve of the four horsemen, and inexperienced in all aspects regarding the present enterprise at hand. He'd been brought along by Charles Smiley, who would employ the young from time to time to pull hold the rods and pull chains requisite in the business of land surveying, and maybe even make him laugh one in a while. How could he sleep? How could any of them sleep with all that was on their minds the night before, and all that talk about gold? "I'm hungry," complained Dick, "How 'bout you, Mister Smiley?"

Mister Charles Smiley had only two weaknesses, and Little Dick knew them both. One was for chewing tobacco; the other was his employer's special fondness for sugar pastries and other confectionary delights, the latter of which he was sure to have stashed away somewhere in is saddle bags.

"No time for that, Dick," moved the moustache. "But a little pinch wouldn't hurt right now." He then began fumbling though his pockets for the small leather pouch in which he kept the moist brown leaf, which he would gingerly place between cheek and gum at least twelve times a day, or whenever he was nervous. Smiley just loved to chew, as evidenced by the globular masses of reddish-brown spittle that were occasionally found clinging to the long hairs of his moustache, along with the remains of other tasty morsels that somehow always seemed to find their way into his saddlebag, including cakes and pies, which always seemed to mysteriously disappear whenever the surveyor was close at hand. Not that I'm making any false accusations here; but, if you were to accuse this incorrigible addict of absconding with the last pinch of tobacco from the pouch or the last piece of pie from the tray, you would surely be justified in doing so, for the evidence would be written all over his face, as well as on it.

"That's all you whippersnappers ever thinks about – Food!" exclaimed the outlaw.

"And sex!" ejaculated the moustache.

"That too," Alvin agreed, at which point he began going through his weathered saddlebags for a little brown bottle he'd brought along against the wishes of his commanding officer, and a doctor he once saw in Old Port Fierce. It was the only real lover he'd ever known, and one no woman could compete with; not that she would ever want to, of course.

"Could use a few vittles myself," growled the Negro, with an appetite that could never be quite satisfied, by man or woman.

"Speaking of which..." interrupted the gray-headed carpenter who, possessing a healthy appetite of his own, as most laborers do, had similar concerns about the dining arrangements, or lack thereof. "Where's the cook, colonel?" he enquired, with that particular culinary position in mind. It was a position he, and at least a few of the others, deemed indispensable in expeditions such as the one they were currently embarked upon, and was already longing for, among other things, the home-cooked meals his young wife was in the habit of preparing for him on a daily basis after putting down his hammer and saw for the night.

"Shhhhhh!" Red-Beard whispered in reticent response. "I think I hear something." He was gazing up at the lighted window, eyes wide open, his pupils dilating in mechanical motion in order to take in every bit of light affordable in the early morning hours.

"What's takin' him so long?" Smiley demanded to know, becoming increasingly impatient while considering, along with a few of the others, continuing the journey without the old man's assistance. He was already aware of the proximity of Wainwright's lost gold mine having surveyed much of the mountain himself, and was sure he could find it on his own, map or no map. "Hell! Let's just get on with it," he spat.

Little Dick Dilworth usually made it a point never to argue or disagree with his foul-mouthed employer – he knew it wouldn't do any good – but not that day; there was too much at stake. Besides, he really liked the old man and, as it sometimes happens in this prejudiced world where young and old are considered equally handicapped and treated as such, a bond was formed where it otherwise may never have existed. "Ah, com'on," he pleaded in earnest. "Give the old man a little time. Will'ya, Chuck...?"

Call it a mistake, a simple error in judgment, a careless slip-of-the tongue, the kind young men sometimes make, usually without knowing it and, in most cases, completely pardonable. They just happen. Depend on it. But this was a little different and, perhaps, not so excusable. Dick realized his error the moment it was made; but by then, of course, it was too late. And so, with no way of extricating himself from the delicate position he had carelessly, and perhaps a little foolishly (although without malice and certainly no intention of being disrespectful to the man who paid his wages) put himself into that particular morning, Little Dick Dilworth slumped over his saddle and prepared himself for what he instinctively knew was to follow: a good, old fashion, peel-the-paint-off-the wall, 'ear-waxin', as they were sometimes called by those who'd ever had the displeasure of being on the receiving end of any one of Charles S. Smiley's (and the 'S' stood for swearin', many would swear) profanity laden diatribes.

For sensitivity's sake, and perhaps those younger readers who may not be able to chew, stomach, digest, swallow, comprehend, or otherwise appreciate the surveyor's use (or misuse, as the case may be) of the vernacular in its most vulgar expression – that is to say, with every profanity known to God and man thrown in for reasons beyond human comprehension– it will henceforth be necessary to omit the more offensive and most obscene expressions from the narrative, at least in the special case of Mister Charles Smiley who, if the truth be known, and despite his well-deserved reputation for utilizing the ear of his fellow man for his own personal urinal, was actually a man of deep sympathies with respect and reverence for all God's creatures. His words were often chosen more for their effect rather than their actual meaning, and thus misconstrued, not unlike the language so often employed by the great General George Washington, a pious and God-fearing man by all other accounts, on his own desperate and deleted troops, which was said, according to more than one observant subordinate, '...strong enough to peel the paint off a barn wall!' And in fact, if you really want to get a good idea of what Mister Smiley sounded like... well then, all you would have to do is think of the most disgusting, vicious, vile, vitriolic, obnoxious, obscene, filthy, foul-mouthed, polluted, profane, repugnant, repellent reproachable, sexually explicit word in the lexicon of man you can think of, insert that same tainted explicative either as a noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, adjective, or any other grammatical function, into any one sentence spewing forth from those unpardonable lips, add to it a few god-damn-its and go-to-hells, throw in a half dozen sons-of-bitches, heap a pile of jackasses on top of that, and then, well, with that done, you may have a vague idea of what it is like to be on the receiving end of a good old fashioned ear-waxing, compliments of Mister Charles (And don't call me Chuck!) Smiley.

But take heed and take heart, my judgmental friends; for handsome is not always as handsome does... or says for that matter; and neither is ugliness. For you see, it is not the words themselves, however obscene and graphically presented, that do the most damage (if that were the case we may as well arm our military with Turret's Dictionary rather than guns and grenades, never realizing that the enemy might be equally armed and may very well use our own weapons against us) but the heart and soul of those who deliver them and the malignancy born within, which is, of course, the real obscenity, and the root of evil. For here lies the true source of that festering sewer, springing spitefully from hell's heart, hating for hate's sake, which fountains forth from time to time, straight out of the unwashed mouth of man, as pure, unadulterated honey.

Expelling an exhausted wad of chewing tobacco on the ground, with half of the reddish-brown saliva grimly clinging to his moustache, and discounting all that was said previous to the insulting remark, the surly surveyor shot back in his typical unseen but unmistakable spleen. "!@#$%^&*!!!!!" he exploded in a volcanic eruption of spit, tobacco juice, and profanity. "Don't call me Charlie! You hear me, boy? God-damn-it-to-hell! Charlie's for pimps, pirates and riverboat gamblers," he sternly admonished the impetuous youth whom he'd recently employed as a rod-man, along with the additional charge of looking after his vast array of carefully kept surveying equipment. "And don't you ever – Ever!" he reiterated just to make it stick – "ever call me Chuck! I hate that !@#$%^&*'ing name!"

Call it vanity Call it pride. Call it anything you want. You may even call Charles Smiley a no-good-yellow-egg-sucking dog who's lower than a snakes belly and meaner than a one-eyed polecat dipped in sour mule piss and tossed into the sea. But please... just don't call him 'Chuck'.

"Easy on the lad, Charles," sympathized the carpenter who was still having his doubts about the enterprise at hand. He then turned to the red bearded man by his side and whispered out loud: "I don't know about this, Rusty. Skinner may not be up to it. It's been a long time. The boy may right. Homer is getting' old, you know. And so am I, for that matter," reminded the stiffening Hammer, whose own wooden shaft may not have been as firm and reliable as it once was. "And besides," he added with a trace of doubt in his tiring eyes, "we really don't know if it's still there."

"The gold?" gulped the outlaw, taking a long, sloppy sip from his bottle.

"Or if it ever was there to begin with," the surveyor added, and not for the first time. Like many others, Smiley still had his suspicions, especially considering the fact that Homer had never actually produced any evidence to support his golden claim, or substantiate his fantastic facts. If the gold were there, however, Smiley would surely find it. He could smell the stuff, or so he boasted, in the valley of the Dead. 'It smells, a woman', he said once told Dick in confidence. But how would he know? It was the scent alien to the young man's nostrils at the time as well as his sensitivities.

Red-Beard had been equally suspicious of Mister Skinner at one time. It wasn't the first time Homer's credibility came into question; it would certainly not be the last. What disturbed him most of all, however, was the fact that the others were becoming equally suspicious. It was not a good sign, he thought, especially in times of war. The colonel respected the carpenter's concern; even so, the wheels were already in motion. It wasn't the gold that Colonel Horn was primarily interested it at the time. There was something else, something old and precious; and he knew he wasn't the only one thinking about it.

It took a while, but Red-Beard finally came up with the answer he thought would calm all of their fears, as well as their nerves. It may not have been the correct answer, or the one they were actually looking for, but it was the only one he could think of at the time: "How do I know the gold's still there?" he rhetorically asked himself as he was want to do at times. "Simple!" he likewise answered himself. "Because ain't no one found it yet – That's how."

They all looked at one another, dismayed and bewildered; but somehow, they were satisfied with the colonel's response. It was a good answer; one that made sense. And they all knew deep down that the gold would still be there. Otherwise, why would Red-Beard, who was known to be a prudent man, as well as a very ambitious one, be spending so much of his time and energy in pursuing such a dangerous enterprise in which he himself could perish in the process? Besides, they all finally agreed: if anyone else had already found the gold, surely they would have heard about it by now. Things like that are difficult, if not impossible, to keep a secret for very long, especially in times like these, after the war, when money was in short supply and gold was the only king. But greed always leads to gossip, sooner or later; and gossip ends at the grave. Some say gold can loosen a man's tongue quicker than white lightening' or a woman's whisper, and be just as fatal.

"Ain't gonna be easy, Colonel," the old carpenter opined with his hammer dangling stiffly his side. "Dangerous work, you know. Those old mines..."

"I heard that," the Negro solemnly agreed, having worked the mines himself at one time, at the business end of a whip. "Had one drop in on me once," he stated quite frankly. "Thought I was gonna die. Buried alive under all that sulfur and sin. Six mens was kilt that day...all chained together. Convicts, you know. Never had a chance. Never found the bodies either! Nobody even look. They was all niggers... just likes me. Rest of us, we just goes back to work... like nothin' happen. Nothin' I's could do."

"Could'a said a prayer," suggested Dick.

"Won't do no good," reminded the Negro. "God don't hear no prayers in them ol' mines. Only the devil.

"Like I was saying, Colonel," the carpenter resumed, "those old mines are graves in waiting."

"Well," said Red-Beard, nodding to the toothless man sitting next to him on a stolen horse, "that's what our Engineer is for.

Throwing a long hard glance at the man from Eulogy, the Old Hammer shook his heavy head and sighed, "Engineer – Eh?"

Little Dick, who was still feeling the aftershock of his previous admonishment suddenly sprung up his own head and ejaculated, "I didn't know you 'drived' a train, Alvin!"

"And they wonder why I drink..." voiced the outlaw. Actually, the closest Alvin Webb ever come to a real train was once when he'd tried to rob one on horseback, failing miserably in the process when, while attempting to ride and shoot at the same time, and with a black stocking pulled a little too tightly over his head, he fell off his horse and shot off his big toe by mistake, leaving him with a visible and painful limp that would not only haunt and hound him for the rest of his miserable life but remind him, along with everyone else who had witnessed the bewildering event, of just what a pitiful poltroon the toothless outlaw actually was. It was enough to drive Alvin to drink; and it did. Everyone, including Rusty Horn, knew that sooner or later the hapless thief would end up on the knotted end of a rope, or perhaps the wrong end of a gun. And with Alvin's luck, not to mention his addiction to alcohol and his lust for other men's women, it might just be his own. He pulled the cork from his bottle and took another deep draw. "You know," he suddenly mused, wiping his mouth with the back of his dirty sleeve, "it was a woman that drived me to drink... And I never even got to thank her," he grinned.

"Lucky for her," the Hammer replied.

Alvin was a drunk, of course, as well as a thief and liar; and those were just some of his more admirable qualities. "Want some, Colonel?" he said, tilting the little brown jug in the colonel's general direction, as he would do from time to time, tempting not only the devil but his own fate as well. It is an undisclosed yet well-known fact that, while vice loves company, virtue often dines alone.

Red-Beard merely turned his head and looked away. A teetotaler by choice, Red-Beard had made it a practice never to indulge, taking a total Muslim approach on the subject of alcohol. Moonshine was not to his taste, or liking, at least not after his after the operation. In fact, he never drank after the war; and he didn't trust anyone who did. He considered it undisciplined, and cautioned his soldiers to avoid the spirits as they would a scorned woman with a deadly weapon.

The outlaw laughed. "Hector?"

"You know I don't drink that belly-rot," replied the Hammer. As it were, and despite his Irish name, Mister O'Brien never developed a taste for hard liquor. Since marrying his beautiful young bride, Hector had become accustomed to the finer things in life, like new food, old wine, Cuban cigars, and, of course, younger women. "And besides," he added for the benefit of those who just didn't know any better, "I don't get drunk ... anymore."

"Drink this and you will," said Alvin, the cork still lodged in between his gangrene gums. "How 'bout you, Mister Surveyor? Care for a snoot?"

Charles Smiley, on the other hand, did get drunk; and contrary to colonel's sober attitude toward Ol' John Barleycorn, he didn't trust anyone who didn't pull a cork, at least once in a while. He gratefully accepted the outlaw's offer, careful to wipe off the top of the bottle on the skirt of his coat in attempt to ward off whatever other diseases might still be lingering thereabout, the antiseptic effects of one hundred proof distilled moonshine notwithstanding. "Damn!!!!" he exclaimed in one long hard swallow. "Now that's what I call white lightnin'!"

Turing his attention, as well as an instigating eye, to the Indian in the wagon, Alvin winked, "How 'bout you, Geronimo. A little fire-water?"

The Redman sneered, "White man's medicine..."

"Better than no medicine at all," suggested the outlaw, corking the bottle and tossing into the back of the little wagon well within the Redman's reach.

"Cures what ails you, Boy," smiled the surveyor. "Go ahead! You know you wants it. All Injuns do. It's in the blood."

The Redman acquiesced. Unplugging the contaminated corked container and holding it to his savage red lips, the Indian named Boy imbibed. "Hair of the dog," he gulped. "I hope this one don't bite back."

"I'll has me a taste," sounded Sam, eagerly enough.

Boy corked the poison and quietly passed it up front to the driver.

"Wait!" cautioned the owner of the bottle. "We don't drink with no nig..." But on second thought, Alvin nodded his approval and Sam had his fill by emptying the clear container in one satisfying and integrated gulp.

"None for you, Dick," insisted Smiley as the half-empty bottle finally found its way into the receptive hands of his young apprentice, "I promised yo' momma. Remember?"

"Yeah," mocked the outlaw, "remember what yo' momma say... boy,"

"Shouldn't be drinking on the job anyway, Alvin," scolded the youth in return.

"Shut up, dick-head!" snapped the outlaw.

Dilworth fired right back: "Horse-thief!"

Alvin went for his gun.

No one moved. The four horsemen simply looked on, as cowboys often do in these in trying situations. Calling a man a horse-thief (even if it was true) was serious business, and everyone knew it; even Little Dick who perhaps should have known better. But the alcohol had already taking its toll, at least on Webb. There was little anyone could do, or say, at that point. So no one said a word, not even Hector O'Brien, whose towering presence and ever-present hammer had always, at least up until then, had a calming effect on the others.

It was then when Colonel Rusty Horn stepped in. "Hold it right there, soldier," he abruptly ordered, knowing it was way too early for a fight, especially one that could end in a man's death. They were all, in their own self-serving and self-destructive ways, indispensable; and he needed all the help he could get. Besides, Red-Bard had more important things on his mind at the time to worry about; and it showed. Even Little Dick could see it. It wasn't the gold, but something else, something buried deep inside the mountain, something deep and dark, as old as the Heavens, and just as powerful; and he wasn't even sure what it was. Not yet. It was a secret he and the outlaw shared with only one other man, Mister Tom Henley, a nearsighted hillbilly they'd met up at the Nickel Pig Saloon one night not too long ago.

With a full head of curly blond hair, a fair complexion, an eye for older women, and a propensity to urinate indoors, 'Little Dick' Dilworth was actually little more than a pubescent youth with an over active bladder and, as in the case of most pubescent youths, a high level of testosterone. The only thing lacking in his sexual life at the time... was a partner; and maybe just a little gold – 'to bait the hook', as the old angler would say.

Dick had signed on, reluctantly at first, insisting that his intentions were pure and noble: to win the heart of a high society woman who was contemplating his affectionate advances. And that's where the gold came in. But his mind was not on gold that morning, or affection; it was on the mountain, and things he had heard. "They say there are F-Ferals up there in them hills," he stuttered out loud for no particular reason. "You know...the kinds what likes to eat people." He had one eye on the road before him and the other on Smiley, his boss, who had told him of such things. Whether he was simply trying to scare the boy or amuse himself, Dick could never figure out. But whatever he was trying to do, however – it worked. "Remember what happened to Mister Wainwright..." cautioned Dick.

"Taint no such thing as a free lunch," reminded Alvin Webb, through his scratchy black beard and one remaining tooth. What the degenerate outlaw was referring to with so much unnecessary and uncalled for exuberance was the fated miner's self-fulfilling prophecy that would eventually lead to his doom, an event Alvin seemed to derive a morbid satisfaction or pleasure from, as if he were somehow up-lifted by the misery of others; something we can all relate to from time to time, I suppose; like the spectators at the Coliseum feeding on the blood of saints and martyrs.

Rusty Horn had heard the story before, and was well aware of the fateful outcome as well as the Ferals spoken of by the deputy; but he was anxious to get underway and saw no reason in bringing ghosts from the past, real or imagined. "Where is he?" the red beard muttered to himself, thinking of more of the map than the man who made it, and who they were all still waiting for. He could do without the man, but he needed the map. He knew it. And so did Homer.

It happened one evening up at Pete Liddle's Nickel Pig Saloon after many nights of listening to Homer ramble on about a lost gold mine, something he'd never mentioned before when reminiscing about what happened forty years ago up in Wainwright's mountain. He had been drinking that night, which wasn't that unusual, and was in a talkative mood. It was late in the evening, and the old man was getting desperate. Time was no longer on his side, and he knew it.

He would need help, of course; if he were ever to go back for the gold, buried as it was under a mountain of stone. He knew he couldn't do it alone. The Colonel was willing to listen; he had nothing else to do at the time, and thought he might hear some news about the aftermath of the war and the assassination of the Great Emancipator. Rusty was a pragmatist by design, and an opportunist by nature, as most tyrants are.

Red-Beard wasn't the only one at the Nickel Pig that night; Tom Henley was there, too. He came down from the mountain that day to purchase some dynamite, which he was sure Mister Horn could supply him with. He'd been dangerously running low on the expensive explosive and was hoping to run into the infamous colonel sooner rather than later, but, like all misanthropes, he disliked being around society in general for any length of time. That's not to say Tom was ignorant, or even disinterested. Quite the contrary! He was actually quite intelligent, and curious, as most real 'Hillbillies' are; and Tom was smarter than most. He was also well aware of Homer's youthful adventures and incredible story. He'd met and had personally known Cornelius G. Wainwright III at one time. He also happened to be listening that night. He had his own story to tell.

That night Rusty Horn quickly began putting the two stories together. It was a tiring task, a puzzle with a few missing pieces. Force would be necessary to make them all fit, he imagined, and force was something he knew a little about. However, with each round of drinks, the pieces came together a little more easily, and the puzzle eventually began to make sense.

It seemed that Homer and Henley were on the same track after all; only their trains were headed in different directions, and each in search of something else. Homer, as he saw it, was merely looking for the lost miner; a mission of mercy, you might say. Instead, he'd found the gold; and perhaps something else; which was exactly what Tom Henley was looking for, the exactness of which he was reluctant to divulge and spoke of in abstractions, metaphysical terms, riddles, and in a language only he and perhaps a few others could ever understand. Red-Beard was one of them; and he understood just enough to form his own hypothesis on the subject. There was only one way to test his theory. That's why he was there. That's why he came.

The colonel's motives may not have been as pure and noble as Little Dick's, nor as romantic; but his desire was as strong as any of the others, perhaps stronger. It wasn't the gold he was chiefly interested in, although he knew it could never be ignored, but something else. The gold was merely a way of persuading the others; which, of course, it did. It was merely a means to an end. What mattered most to Red-Beard was immortality. That what he was after. That's why he came. And now, with Homer Skinner and Tom Henley finally on board, he had everything he needed to get it. He had the experience, the knowledge; not to mention the rank. He also had the explosives; and he knew how to use them. He had the men too. The only thing missing was the map.

It was the same map Homer Skinner had drawn up as a young deputy shortly after returning from the Mount Wainwright one day. Coincidentally, it was at that same time when he first noticed his tooth beginning to ache. He'd sketched out the map nearly forty years ago, mostly from memory (quite an achievement for Homer under any circumstances by the way, as his memory was always a source of great concern) and was fairly accurate. Not only did it contain the vital information needed to get them to the lost gold mine and back again, but it also delineated the deputy's own fateful and uncertain footsteps through the tunnel itself, and beyond. As the deputy recalled, and penciled in on the fragile yellow parchment the following morning, the path began on the outskirts of town not far from his little own little house on the prairie. From there it went northwest, in the general direction of the Silver Mountains, meandering along the way through various valleys and streams until it reached the foothills of Great Northern Wood. At that point, the trail significantly narrowed through a thickly forested wood ominously known as 'Dark Mile Road'. Once inside the woods, the road went on for about one mile, just as the name ominously implies. And then it preceded dead north, straight up into the towering peaks of the Northern Mountain range. It was there, in the crater of a dead volcano, where the lost gold mine was to be found. It was also there where the map continues, in a more detailed fashion, protracting a line straight into the mouth of a cave located within that very crater itself. Tunneling its way through the stone, the line progressed in various directions, diverting at times into many dead-ends, which are also show on the map, at least to the best of Homer's recollection, until it ends up at the precise location where he'd found the last remains of Cornelius G. Wainwright III, and the gold.

Precisely why Cornelius had incorporated so many twists and turns into his tunnel remained an unsolved mystery. Perhaps, Homer had always imagined, it was done intentionally, a way of keeping other miners away. And it worked, apparently, as no one, as far as Homer was aware of, had ever come close to approaching the lost gold mine of Cornelius G. Wainwright III, the miner with the bottlebrush moustache and a hankering for gold.

Getting lost in a gold mine is not a difficult thing to do, as Homer had found out so many years ago; and he never pretended that it couldn't, or wouldn't, happen to him again, even with the map, which was another reason he'd decided to bring the others along. He knew that the map would lead him back the mountain some day; but from there he would need additional help, without which the mission didn't stand a chance. It would remain just another hopeless dream that would have him pacing the floor of his bedroom for another forty years, or at least until Lester Cox came along in his black wagon and carted him off to his funeral parlor. Homer realized all this of course, and so did Red-Beard.

The others, they just weren't sure. Homer needed them as much as they needed him. It was a mutual arrangement, strictly business, and one that Homer and Horn hoped might prove successful. It was as simple as that. They were indispensable to one another, like the opposing twin blades of a scissor. Previous experience, along with his army training, had led Red-Beard to believe that it would take at least a dozen able-bodied men to reopen the abandoned mineshaft if, in fact, it was still there, and in the condition Homer described. He didn't have to look far. In fact, they all just happened to be at the Pete Liddle's Nickel Pig Saloon that same night when the plan came together and the puzzle finally solved. Homer had actually thought nine able-bodied men would be more than enough for the job; and there was still one more he had yet to tell the others about. Besides, being a superstitious man by nature, he had always considered nine to be a lucky number. Only, there were eight in the saloon that evening, four short of the original twelve thought to be needed for such a bold and adventurous expedition. Tom Henley was not counted among them, for reasons undisclosed, even though Red-Beard insisted he come along, offering him half of total profits, if the gold was ever found. The old hillbilly said he had more important matters to attend to at the time, as mountain-men always do. Little did Red-Beard (or any of the others for that matter) know at the time, but he was there all along.

Hector O'Brien suggested they split the gold evenly, in however many shares it turned out to be. 'It's only fair', he had instructed the others, realizing of course, that if everything Homer had told them that night was true and accurate, there would be plenty for everyone, and then some. But first they had to find it, which even the Old Hammer knew wouldn't be easy. Without the old man and his map, it would be virtually impossible. And so they all agreed on the carpenter's terms, including Red-Beard who, mostly through his former rank, was used to commanding a higher commission than most. But, as previously hinted upon, it was not so much the gold he was interested in, but immortality.

Richard Dilworth was the last to sign the contract which, by the way, was written up by Mister Charles Smiley himself who, chiefly because of his knowledge in both the reading and writing of legal documents, was unanimously chosen for that very specific task. He also threw in a few of his famous profanities just to make it authentic. It was also Smiley who'd suggested that Dick be included, as he was getting on in years, and would need some assistance in performing the many surveying operations necessary to make the claim legal, if and when they ever found it. Rusty Horn was against it from the start, stating in his own professional manner that "Mining's for miners, not minors!" and no place for inexperienced hands and meandering minds. The large Negro agreed, having worked, and once almost perished, in the sulfur mines of the South Florida. The Indian, Boy, didn't quite see it that way, however, and though the experience would do Dilworth justice by introducing him to people and places he should learn about sooner rather than later, such as working alongside murderers, thieves, and other assorted reprobates, and, more importantly, how survive among them, just as he himself had to.

Charles Smiley also liked having 'Little' Dick around – 'Just to make me laugh!" as he told anyone and everyone who might've had objections at the time. And for that, if nothing else, he would get an equal share of the gold, he further insisted.

There was one other share Homer was taking into account, the one previously mentioned, which the others were still unaware of. The old man had made up his mind about the Harlie long before he'd accepted the terms of the contract and/or the services of Mister Horace Rusty Horn and his four horsemen. He still wasn't sure how they would react when they eventually found out, which, of course, was inevitable; but that didn't matter, his mind was already made up. It was settled. The arrangements were made, and it was too late to change anything. Harley would be the first stop on the long awaited expedition, or there would be no expedition. That much he was certain of; and, as far as Homer Skinner was concerned there was still one more body missing from the party that day, and that was the Harlie himself, Elmo Cotton – the 'Lucky Number'.

Still waiting outside for the old man to arrive, and weary from their late night activities, expectations rose among the four horsemen like the new morning sun. Of these horsemen, Alvin Webb, the aforementioned horse-thief from Eulogy Gulch, deserved a word or two more at this point. He'd served as a private in the army, along with Rusty Horn whom he still addressed by his former rank of 'Colonel', even though it was no longer protocol to do so. A bachelor by choice, as most thieves are, and one given to drink and womanizing, Webb's life could accurately be described as a series of disappointments that could all be traced back to his lack of discipline as a youth, not to mention a number of metal deficiencies that may've accelerated the process from earlier on. Drinking at least a quart of moonshine a day for the past twenty-five years not only exacerbated his problems but also contributed to his lethargic disposition and general ill health. Ironically, he'd always claimed that it was a woman who first drove him to drink, 'and something...' he would sometimes add in the way drunks often do whenever they feel the need to blame someone, or something, else for their own misfortunes, 'I never even got to thank her for.'

And then there was Hector O'Brien, known simply and affectionately as the 'Old Hammer' by those close, and maybe not so close, to him. His brother, Jack O'Brien, a gifted musician who'd died earlier on in the war was, along with Homer Skinner, part of the original search party that rode off with Homer Skinner nearly forty years ago in search of Cornelius G. Wainwright III and his gold.

Hector was a carpenter by trade, and a darn good one. He was handy with tools, especially the heavy long-handled hammer that hung ceremoniously between his legs like a gladiator's sword, a phallic symbol of his resourceful Roman strength, and forever at his side. It was said that Hector could fix just about anything. 'Exceptin' maybe a broken heart...' the Old Hammer was known to have once uttered in a rare melancholy mood. Perhaps he was thinking of his own damaged organ; although, as any physician knows: a wise doctor never has himself as a patient. There are some things that only time can mend, if they can be mended at all. And even then, 'the fix is only temporary', the Hammer was quick to point out: 'a patch, perhaps, and doomed to fail, as all patches do, eventually, in this poor and patched world of ours.'

Just as the name suggested, Hector O'Brien was of Irish and Spanish ancestry, and of fine Caucasian stock. They were called the 'Black Irish', that special blend of Latin and Gaelic blood, descendants, perhaps, of those brave mariners that settled on Erin's Isle soon after the humiliating defeat they, along with their invincible Armada, suffered at the hands of Lord Nelson and the British Navy. Such fine linage was evinced not only by their brown eyes and jet black hair, as opposed to the blue and blonde aspects of the indigenous Celtic Druids who'd meet them on the icy beaches as they crawled from their ships wrecked Galleons, but also by their temperament which, if you are familiar with those two proud and noble cultures, ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other, and could be quite unpredictable, and explosive, at times.

Hector liked to read and write. He once studied History and Philosophy, as well as great Literature, and had a special fondness for Dante and his Divine Comedy. He was considered by many to be fair-minded and cautiously gregarious in all things personal and professional. He was also known not only for his practical knowledge of things in general, including the arts and sciences of the times, but for his eloquent command of the English language. He was actually well-versed in Latin and Greek, and Gaelic as well, the native tongue was of his own flaxen haired mother who'd taught him the different dialects at an early age; ones he'd not only committed to memory but practiced as well over his many long and loquacious years. He was sometimes described as a 'man of measure' or 'a man's man' who had retained not only his mental facilities over the years but his physical ones as well. He worked in both wood and stone, and was a Master Mason of the third Order by the time he was forty. Hector O'Brien was, indeed, a man to be reckoned with. Perhaps that's why they called him the 'Hammer'.

Above all, Hector was a shrewd and independent thinker who preferred older men and younger women, the latter of which he had married five years earlier, and had fathered two children with, both boys. He'd always been a handsome man and, nearing his seventy-second birthday could proudly boast: 'There's still a little hum left in this ol' hammer!' Indeed and in fact, Mister Hector O'Brien swung a very big hammer; and no one knew that better than his affectionate young wife, Sophia, who had felt the full force of that instrument in the venerable hands of the old Celtic conquistador. Hector was also a man of keen and reliable instincts, good intuition, one whom the miners and masons respected for his encyclopedic knowledge of timber and stone. He was a good man to have around, when one was needed. That why they called him the 'Old Hammer'.

As for the two men keeping company in the wagon that day, the red and the black, enough has been said of them for the time being. In many ways, their lives remained a mystery to all the others, as do the lives of so many other outcasts society labels undesirable.

Last and least of all, there was Richard 'Little Dick' Dilworth, the romantic youth from Creekwood Green who'd been looking for his fortune, and maybe even a bride, at the time of his hiring. A compulsive daydreamer and natural nuisance by nature, 'Little Dick' (a name he did not choose for himself by the way) was probably not exactly what Red-Beard was looking for at the time; but he needed the work, and Smiley insisted on having him come along anyway. And with all surveying equipment he'd acquired over the years, consisting of so many rods, reels, chains, levels, poles, and other measuring devices and contrivances used in the scientific field of land surveying, the surveyor w always glad he did. Besides, Little Dick was the only one who knew how to make the old moustache laugh; and that, truth be known, was Dick's real talent.

Charles Smiley didn't laugh very much (on account of most of the time he was too busy cursing and swearing) – and even when he did laugh, or smile, as previously mentioned in the narrative, it was not easy to tell on account of his whiskers. Not unlike the misanthropic mountain-man, Mister Tom Henley, whom w have already touched upon in detail, Charles Smiley tended to shy away from and steer clear of society in general, which is probably why he became a land surveyor in the first place, a profession that afforded him not only the solitude he craved but a place where he could curse and swear as much and as often as he pleased. It is no wonder his wife left him.

Smiley had little patience for idiots and fools; so naturally, he wasn't very fond of Alvin Webb, whom took for both, as well as a drunkard. Upon scrutiny, he'd since modified that negative assessment to include the adjective 'dangerous', and kept a wary eye on the outlaw every since. Charles wasn't too keen on the man they called 'Red-Beard' either, who, in his own analytical mind and professional estimation was not to be trusted. He questioned the colonel's credentials more than once, and wondered out loud how an army officer ever got involved with the likes of Alvin Webb, whom he'd first introduced to the others as an 'engineer'. No offense, Mister Webb, Smiley opined at the conclusion of their first meeting in Pete Liddle's Nickel Pig Saloon involving the business at hand, 'But you're no engineer... You're just an idiot.' To which Alvin merely laughed and walked away, not knowing how to challenge such an obvious and irrefutable truth. 'Why, that sum'bitch couldn't 'engineer' his way out of a paper sack," Smiley was overheard saying that same day, '...or a bottle, for that matter.' In truth, the illiterate outlaw from Eulogy couldn't even spell the word 'engineer' any more than he could pronounce it with his many missing teeth. But it was fun to watch him try anyway. Somehow, whenever he tried to pronounce it, the word always came out as "End-in-ear" It made him look ridiculous. It made everyone else laugh." Oh well, at least he's good for something," Smiley finally concluded.

And so the party was now complete, thought Red-Beard. All they needed now was the old man and the map. There was a frost in the air made visible by the expelled breath of man and beast.

Chapter Two


GOLD DRIVES A MAN TO DREAMS... or so the saying goes. Sometimes it just drives them crazy. Red-Beard knew this better than anyone; and had taken all the necessary precautions to avoid such madness. He also knew he would have to restrain the others from time to time as a simple matter of protocol. That was his job. He was the leader. It came with the uniform, the same one he had worn since the end of the war.

It was an odd mixture of blue and gray, which perhaps should have disqualified it from being called a uniform at all. The fabric was old and battle-scarred, not unlike the wearer of the ambiguous colors. It was a man-made contrivance, painstakingly spliced together by Red-Beard himself shortly after Lee surrendered his sword at Appomattox. It was a contradiction in colors that spoke volumes; not only about the man, but his past allegiances as well, which were dubious at best.

The bottom, or trouser, half of Red-Beard's uniform, from the waist down at least, was dyed in solid Union blue, with a single broad yellow stripe traversing each leg straight down to the cuff. Above the equatorial waistline, he was equally adorned with traditional Confederate gray, woven, perhaps, from same cotton picked by slaves in Alabama and stitched together so finely that the seams were all but invisible to the naked eye.

Separating the two competing colors, as cleanly and clearly as any Mason-Dixon line, was a plain black belt with a silver buckle that not only provided the proper delineation, but did an excellent job at holding up the colonel's trousers, along with his pride; it also provided him a proper place on which to hang the two remaining symbols of his authority: his famous revolver and the officer's sword that was standard issue for the time. It was also way a good way keeping the two opposing forces in check, since borders are often a major source of conflict in any dispute, minor or major. A temporary truce, one might easily imagine, and a line not to be beached under any circumstances; unless, of course, it's absolutely indispensable to do so, such as in times of war, in which case it could happen at the mere sound of a bugle or the first crack of gunfire.

Gazing at the battle-scarred garments it would be difficult to tell which side had actually won the battle, or the war for that matter, and which flag the colonel still saluted, if not both. The colors were tainted, stained and faded in many places, like two bullet-riddled banners flying over desolation and dead bodies. The uniforms, like the flags and people they represented, refused to surrender, despite treaty and armistices, and would not be taken down so quickly, or easily. Splicing them back together would be a monumental task, and one that would take a great man to accomplish. But by then, most of the great men were dead, including the Great Emancipator himself who'd died not on a battlefield like so many of the brave generals he commanded, but in a theatre, and at the hands of a lunatic. Indeed, sowing the colors back together again would actually prove to be more difficult than anyone imagined, far more difficult than it was in tearing them apart; and perhaps it would only weaken the fabric from which they were both famously made. It might even destroy them, just as it would destroy Red-Beard.

Red-Beard was an intelligent man, as officers usually are, educated perhaps in one of the many Northern Universities that drew their scholars and future heroes from the Southern Aristocracy. Or maybe he was appointed to one of the military academies as a political favor, nepotism dictating such favors now as then, where perhaps Generals Lee and Grant once sat together, not in mortal combat but at opposite ends of a chessboard, planning and strategizing, even as mere cadets, exactly how they would one day annihilate one another on the real battlefield, or die in the process. Whether or not Rusty Horn had ever graced the presence of either of these two future Titans, he would never say; although he once hinted that Lee was the better chess player, and that Grant drank too much, something we all might have guessed anyway.

Upon retiring from the army, Red-Beard drifted for a while, carrying on his own mercenary agenda and talking treason to anyone willing to listen, which was by no means was limited to his fellow countrymen. Along with his uniform, he also retained, as previously hinted upon, his weapons of choice: several well-maintained and fairly modern firearms, along with his favorite sword that presently hung from his broad black belt like the sharply polished blade of that Turkish sultan, King Suleiman. He was a man who knew war and saw death, and was once wounded on the battlefield where he'd almost perished, but was miraculously resurrected, or so it seemed, not by the grace of God or any other supernatural power that might have a stake in such matters, but by the hands of some mysterious and perhaps deranged doctor, a surgeon in fact, who'd somehow manage to pull the half-dead colonel from the indiscriminating jaws of death (a death which might otherwise have immortalized Colonel Horn as a national hero, just as it would Benedict Arnold had he been brought down in similar fashion at the battle of Saratoga) and back into a war he knew he couldn't win. Whether the physician acted out of loyalty, his hypocrite oath, or mere kindness, no one knows for sure; perhaps all three. But little did he know, or maybe he did, the outcome of his actions that day would, like some modern American Frankenstein, come back to haunt him.

Everything else about Red-Beard seemed to be a mystery, an enigma, including the old the blue and gray uniform that has shrouded his body since the end of the war. The uniform, like the man who wore it, was a contradiction in and of itself. For some, like Red-Beard, the war never ended, only the battle. Unlike his contemporaries, who had long since retired their services along with their stripes and medals, Colonel Horn clung to his uniform like a Muslim to his prayer mat, as if his life, in both worlds, depended on it. It was suggested by one old general that he was only at war with himself, and still is for that matter. Perhaps he was right, as most old generals are in the hindsight of their war weary lives. It was a struggle Rusty would take to the grave and, perhaps, beyond. He had no other home.

Red-Beard currently hung his battle-worn hat in a place called Eulogy, a small outpost in the desert occupied by criminals, outcasts, and other societal misfits, like Alvin Webb, generously supplied by the War. The infamous little town of outlaws earned its morbid name and evil reputation probably on account of its proximity to an old Catholic Church, Saint Sebastian's, a mission that once blossomed in the sands before the war like a cactus flower in the desert, but was since converted into a gambling brothel and saloon hall by those interested in a more earthly Paradise.

It was rumored, and with more than one eye-witness to substantiate the horrible claim, that Red-Beard once killed a parish priest there, in cold blood, who'd been celebrating Holy Mass when the tragic incident took place, which only added to the town's infamy. It was said, whether true or not, that a certain Red-Bearded colonel shot the celibate in the back as he turned his venerable back on his congregation to lift up the heavenly host to a life size crucifix suspended high above the altar. 'Behold! the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world...' Bang! A shot rang out. The priest fell. And the round white wafer rolled across the floor until it came to rest not far from the boot of the bearded gunman. Rushing past the pews to exit his escape through the vestibule, Colonel Horace 'Rusty' Horn trampled underfoot the trans-substantiated substance of God and was seen no more.

Not since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, when the iconic cross at St. Sophia's Cathedral was sacrilegiously torn down and replaced with the crescent of Islam under that same noble and venerable dome, has any Christian Institution been more and thoroughly desecrated. Whatever had transpired between the two professional men to trigger such a holocaust would never be known, although it was often suggested that a woman might have been involved, despite the pastor's unblemished reputation and solemn vow of Chastity.

There was also speculation that the Holy Padre had somehow stumbled upon, whether by accident or fate, some prosecuting information that might've shed light on Red-Beard's true identity, whatever that might be, which if true could've led to a court-martial. But nothing was ever proven and no official charges were filed. It was just another casualty, one of those things that happened during the war.

Furthermore, it was reported by a highly reputable and reliable source that that Red-Beard had served, and subsequently fought, on both sides of the grand battle during that heroic struggle, just as his uniform would suggest, perhaps as a double agent, or a spy. No one knew for sure. Mister Horn spoke little of his past lives, military or otherwise, and would only comment on the subject whenever he became melancholy, which didn't happen very often, and then only in metaphors and other ambiguities understood by those of his kind.

Colonel Rusty Horn was a quiet man by nature and could be aloof at times, a quality not wasted on great men and competent leaders. He was said to have no vices of serious consequence. His only peculiarity (other than his attire, it seems) would to be one of ambiguity; a single genetically induced flaw, inscrutably evidenced by a duel personality forever at odds with itself. It may've been described more scientifically as a certain kind of schizophrenia, a dichotomy of will, or being, which most folks found confusing, confounding, often offensive, and sometimes even amusing, as if there were at any given moment in time two separate beings occupying the same corporeal host.

What was even more disquieting was the fact that this condition could and would manifest itself in a most awkward fashion and on such auspicious occasions when, as it was once reported, the two had actually be overheard conversing with one another like two old soldiers debating the outcome of the war while sipping mint juleps with the governor. Lucky for the colonel, however, the governor had a sense of humor about these things, but has since given up mint juleps.

It was a phenomenon better left for psychologists to explain, if that were at all possible, and best left alone. The blue and gray uniform only added to the ambiguity, the doubt, and the danger of Colonel Rusty 'Red-Beard' Horn.

For the most part, it was Red-Beard, being the dominant of the two agents and thus commanding the higher authority, who governed the mental facilities of both patients. But on occasion, Rusty Horn would emerge as the principal, subduing, in his own mitigating and magnanimous manner, the brute that dwelled within. It may well be described as a conflict of personalities, a mental deficiency of some sorts; or, as some have suggested, simply the work of the devil. But there is nothing simple about a sickness of the brain, the intricacies of which would fill a thousand medical journals; and still, there would be no cure. Maladies such as the Colonel's were never cured; they were simply endured, usually until the very end, which, in fact, was perhaps the only real cure after all.

It is said that a compassionate young Catholic priest once attempted to separate the two diametrically opposes forces with an exorcism (a practice not uncommon at the time to that particular denomination, preformed only by those trained in such spiritual remedies and only in the most extreme cases) concentrating all of his most potent and supernatural powers, of course, on the evil twin. It didn't work. The priest was said to have gone insane in the process and eventually committed suicide, the means of which was said to be too gruesome to describe even in the most delicate detail. Although Rusty Horn appeared somewhat remorseful over the outcome of the event, Red-Beard only laughed when he heard what'd happened to the exorcist.

After that, the two became inextricably linked, physically as well as mentally and, just as in the case of the governor, could occasionally be heard arguing with one another over matters of great and small consequence. Naturally, Red-Beard usually came out ahead in such bizarre exchanges, becoming stronger and more confident with each and every victory; but it always left him more aloof and detached than before, in a strange and almost melancholy way, as it sometimes happens with tyrants and conquerors.

Was it a malignancy of the brain that had caused such inscrutable and incorrigible symptoms? A disease – perhaps? A virus? Whatever it was, it was not to be found in any medical journal. It was not yet diagnosed and, therefore, could not be cured. Perhaps a cancer was to blame – a tumor! Cutting it out, however, could prove fatal, as fatal as cutting off the head or, in this particular and peculiar case, the beard, of the patient; and that, at least while Red-Beard lived and breathed, would never happen. It would be tantamount to surgically removing, say, the antennae from ant, the claw from a lobster, the fins from a fish, or, perhaps, if one were to ever to get so close without being barbequed alive, the proud tail of Lucifer himself, without which the king of Hell would surely perish in disgrace. Remove the beard from Red-Beard and you remove that which defines it, gives it purpose, meaning, and life. It was simply impossible.

It was often insinuated that the beard itself might be at the root of Red-Beard's psychological dilemma. And why not? It's as good a theory as any. Hadn't the colonel himself claimed, not only in jest and despite his secretive nature that he was, in fact, born with a full face of soft orange fuzz, the curly down of which his mother would lovingly comb each and every night just before she put the babe to bed. By the age of twelve, the pubescent peach fuzz had turned to fine red strands of many manly whiskers, bleached by the sun, thrown to the wind and fertilized in the testosterone of youth. And he refused to cut them off ever since. He never shaved, even under penalty court martial shortly after he'd enlisted in the Army. He wore his whiskers proudly, defiantly, like the old Orthodox Jew in the company of clean-shaven Romans, planting his bearded flag on the crumbling stones of the Temple Mount.

In time, the rusty strands had turned to wiry red threads of steel. And so they remained ever since, growing perhaps lighter and more sparsely over the years, twisting and turning, and bleeding into one another like the tormented soul of the man they masked. If nothing else the beard was unique, and beautiful in its own masculinity, ascribing to Rusty Horn a certain character that men respect and women come to admire. The beard was as distinctive as the man who wore it, whether it happened to be was Colonel Rusty Horn or Red-Beard himself. It was the one thing, perhaps the only thing, they both had in common; and they wore it with equal distinction. It could be said in all candor that it was not necessarily the man who worn the beard man. Quite the contrary! It was the beard that worn the man.

There was an army private who had once provided a fantastic explanation of what may've actually happened to Rusty 'Horn during that time. He'd suggested, with not a little incredulity, that the red bearded colonel had been wounded and left for dead on the battlefield after a long and heroic fight. It was during the Great War when Rusty was still a relatively young man, for an officer at any rate, and surround by the enemy. Rather than be taken prisoner, a humiliation worse than death in some armies, he attempted suicide with his own sword. But Red-Beard would not die. It was not for lack of trying or possessing that inner strength and determination required for the drastic deed, that he failed; but for some other reason that could not be so easily explained. The blade simply broke on impact. It never even breached the skin. But his wounds were fatal, or so thought his adversaries; and he was left to die. He was later found on the battlefield, more dead than alive, as the private went on to explain, but salvageable. And it was there, in the afterbirth of Hell, where Rusty Horn was spliced back together again. Not by any army surgeon, as the story goes, but rather by an ingenious ship's surgeon who'd been commissioned as an army field doctor at the time for lack of that much-needed medical profession, regardless of branch or professional qualification. The operation was a success. Or was it? The jury was still out on that crucial point. Can God's handiwork, however much we criticize it, ever be compromised? Can His own creation be improved upon, or altered in any way, to suit the needs or purposes of any mere mortal? And to what end? Was it even possible?

The surgeon thought so; and, apparently, so did Red-Beard who was not only ecstatically pleased with the outcome of the bold experiment but eternally grateful to his physician who, as the private later suggested, was rewarded handsomely for his altruistic efforts. But not for Humanities' sake had the surgeon acted. No. He had other reasons, chief among them that of resurrecting the lifeless red corpse, a thing so near and dear to his own imperfect heart and diabolical brain, which was, of course, the ephemeral condition of the human anatomy in general in all its debilitating deficiencies. In his own blasphemous words: 'God's fault... Not mine!' he pronounced while convalescing his post-op patient back to health after the battle. 'Poor design to begin with... A mistake! It happens sometimes. But why? And what good is a body if it only last a lifetime? See! It breaks. It bleeds. It leaks. It cries. It cracks! And then, God damn it! It dies," lamented the proud physician. "We can do better than that. Surely, man was made to outlive the usefulness of his God. Isn't that what any good parent would want? And if God himself can make such a fatal error in judgment, what then can we, in our own finite minds, make of Him? Destined from the start, we are doomed by our own Humanity; murdered in the womb, man; before the champion sperm penetrates the fated egg. We are born to die...' the murmured wild-eyed mortal, 'unless...'

What had emerged from the surgeon's makeshift field hospital that fateful day was a new man, a new Rusty Horn, more machine than man by then, devoid of any human qualifications and better off for it, as far as Red-Beard was concerned. He then pronounced the operation a success, if not a downright miracle, and quickly went off to exhibit his new anatomy.

Not surprisingly, it was there and then his own troops first began referring to him as 'Red-Beard', chiefly on account of his beard having grown so thick and red during his brief convalescence, it would be insulting to do otherwise. The colonel would have it no other way. Subsequent to that, not a single drop of humanity coursed his Antarctic arteries, only oil. Blood would naturally freeze in those icy veins; the corpuscles would simply not survive. A new heart was in order as well, mechanical of course, and unbreakable.

It was a pragmatic solution to an age-old problem that has plagued mankind ever since the first beat of the pulmonary organ, and the surgeon's crowning achievement. It was also quite ingenious. The old heart was simply replaced with a new iron pump that would, barring any unforeseen circumstances, beat forever. It was considered far more durable, and thus a more practical device in that regard. And it was guaranteed not to break.

A transfusion was in order, oil in lieu of blood, naturally, to lubricate the internal mechanisms and grease the gears within the new iron man. Like a corpse lying stiffly on the coroner's table, the patient was drained to the marrow of the precious life-giving substance and filled to the measure with the finest petroleum money and military could provide. His lungs became as two expandable billows, stoking the fiery red furnace from within while supplying the oxygen needed to fuel the flames.

In the end, Rusty Horn had been transformed into living dynamo, half man and half machine, nothing less, and nothing more. But that was exactly what Red-Beard wanted and, for the present time at least, that was enough. All he lacked now was the immortality to go along with his newly improved body. That's why he was there that day. That's why he came. Like some modern day Gilgamesh slouching through Eden for the fabled Tree of Life a thousand years before Eve was tempted under similar circumstance by that old familiar serpent in the arbors of Paradise, so too was Red-Beard fated to follow in Adam's fatal footsteps. Would he find what he was looking for, as the famed Mesopotamian was said to have found in the Persian valley of the four rivers? Or, would he lose it all in the process, like the old matriarch of the Bible who, with a single bite of the forbidden fruit, cursed the entire human race. Eternity, like freedom, I suppose, comes with a price. It was a price, that for over two thousand years, nobody could afford. It was Immortal. And it could only be paid in blood. But that's just what Red-Beard was hoping to find in the mountain, Immortality, among other things. And he was willing to pay the price. The only problem was: he never had it to begin with.

Some weeks later, it was suggested that the ship's surgeon had taken the liberty of providing the injured officer with an extra brain he'd confiscated from a Union General that was also left for dead on the same battlefield. His reason for doing so, according to a private whom was said to have witnessed the extraordinary transplantation, was obvious. 'Well, you know,' stated the madman, his meddling hands still covered with blood and brain matter, 'two heads are always better than one!' It made sense, and was perfect match.

And it worked, too! Well, at least as far as doctor and patient were concerned. It would also explain Red-Beard's disturbing psychological profile, which proceeded him ever since. But perfection doesn't come cheap, and it comes at a price, if it comes at all; and it sometimes commands very high premium. But in the case of Colonel Rusty 'Red-Beard' Horn, and in his own recalcitrant opinion, it was all worth it. The expense came in the form of his current biomechanical condition; a melding, or splicing, if you will, of man and machine with all the phantasmagorical possibilities that go along with such a hybrid. It would prove to be a never-ending struggle, however; a dichotomy of the being; one consisting of flesh, blood and bone, the other made of steel, hardened perhaps, in the heart of hell, and forever in conflict with one another. And just like Mary Shelley's monster, whose Frankenstein fantasy would come to life one day under the diabolical hands of a madman, so too would Red-Beard be resurrected in an eerily similar fashion. The only difference being the electricity needed to revive the monster and, of course, Red-Beard's indomitable iron will which was schizophrenically at odds with humanity in general, and that of Horace 'Rusty' Horn and whatever values and virtue that might have survived the vital operation. It was a symbiotic relationship, accompanied by a deep dark void, a vacuum, a soulless container, and an emptiness of character that would be with them both for the rest of their co-existing lives, or until one the other prevailed. It was a deleterious condition that could be fatal, and would only worsen with time, exacerbated, perhaps, by Red-Beard's unquenchable and never-ending quest for immortality. Money would not mend it. Love could not penetrate it. Sympathy would merely aggravate it. It was incorrigible. And it was not about gold, either. It was something else, something dark and mysterious, something old, and, perhaps, something beyond human comprehension. It was an eternal conflict shared two opposing forces; a battle of the wills, a struggle that would only be won when one of the two combatants died. It was a war of the wills, a struggle that began before the world came into existence, a duel to the death. With death came salvation; with salvation, vindication; with vindication, victory; and with victory came immortality. And that's all Red-Beard ever wanted.

Along with all of the colonel's anatomical improvements, the ambitious physician had also instilled in his red-bearded experiment, for whatever diabolical reason we may never know, the precarious notion of this aforementioned immortality. It was a seed he'd planted deep within the brain of the two-headed monster he'd so carefully, lovingly, and so recklessly created. And there the seed germinated, first into desire, then into ambition, and then finally into full-blown obsession where it flowered in all its ambiguities.

It was the type of obsession that was never clearly defined and, therefore, could not be satisfied. It was not necessarily a desire for material wealth and all the power it provides (although Red-Beard always knew deep down that he would eventually have them as well) but a quest for that which had eluded mankind since Adam was rightfully, and rather rudely, kicked out of the portal of Paradise. It was that power, that lost and fading glory, stripped for all eternity, that Adam, and now Red-Beard, so cravingly desired. Simply and sadly stated, it was merely the vainglorious and contemptuous attempt to regain that which was either lost or denied so many eons ago, and to accomplish that by any means necessary or available. It was a human desire with monstrous consequences, and one which eventually invaded every artificial fiber of Red-Beard's being, every man-made cell, until man and monster became one. It was a cancer of the soul that was only further aggregated by a story, not unlike the epic adventures of Ponce Deleon trekking through the swamps of old Florida in search of the well-documented fountain of youth, or the quest for the Holy Grail. It was a tale the colonel had once heard, about a mysterious black stone that, once pierced by the human eye, would bring ever-lasting life to whoever so possessed it.

It was called a 'Motherstone', a name given to it by an old prospector who seemed to know a great deal about it, and who'd been searching for it for quite some time now. The prospector's name was Tom Henley, whom we already know something about. He'd learned about the stone from this same wayward sailor who had confided in him many of its deep dark secrets between sips of homemade mountain wine and starry-eyed meditation inside a cave in the side of a mountain that Tom called home. 'It came down from the deep, dark Heavens,' the sailor enunciated in a transcendental state of self-induced hypnosis. 'Across sea and sky...' But that's all he would say about it, revealing, it would seem, a certain ambivalence, or ignorance, on a subject that was otherwise so dear to his heart. And shrouded in such ambiguities, the Motherstone remained lost forever, mired in myths and mysteries of the past. But there was someone else present that night in Tom Henley's self-described 'home-in-a-hill'. It was Red-Beard himself who, upon learning the whereabouts of his faithful physician, had followed him that day into the mountains, hoping to find out more about the his immortal prospects. He sat down and listened.

Before the night ended, however, the starry-eyed surgeon claimed to have seen it himself, in a previous life. It was on an Island, and archipelago, he informed his hillbilly host and Red-Bearded patient, south and east, somewhere in the Southern hemisphere. Istari-Toa was the name of the mysterious island, better known to the sons of sailors who frequented that vicinity as 'The Land of the Bleeding Rock. 'That's where it came from!' he insisted. "I saw it with my own eyes."

Somehow or other this inscrutable gem eventually found its way back to the Continent, according to the ship's surgeon, and there it remained, hidden ever since, like a black pearl in an dark oyster, the exact location of its whereabouts hitherto unknown. It was said to possess the knowledge of the deities that had supposedly created it, along with all the unearthly and supernatural power they brought along with them. In support of this fantastic claim, and to serve as further proof of this extraordinary power, it may be noted for the record that the medical skills of this one particular ship's surgeon, a drunkard by nature and known among his contemporaries as 'the butcher' for indeed he lacked the requisite skills so crucial in such invasive operations, had indeed proved to be far above and beyond his natural capabilities, as evidenced by what happened on the battlefield shortly after he had come in contact with it. Was the Motherstone itself the source of his newly acquired skills? It would seem so. But to what evil end? And for what unholy purpose? The answers may never be known, despite Mister Henley's lifetime ambition to not only find the elusive stone but to unlock its secret power; a power, he was keen to observe, over life and death itself, and the key to immortality.

But isn't death, in and of itself, exactly what some consider immortality to be anyway? A gateway? A door, perhaps? But to where? The Bible gives us only hints and metaphors, as do the other religions of the world that not only predate the Scriptures themselves but, as some have suggested, became the source, if not the inspiration, of the Holy text. Perhaps, we will never know, and Salvation, along with all its eternal implications, may just have to wait. Death may be the only solution. Never-the-less, we are admonished: 'the Kingdom of God is at hand'. Be prepared! Like passing through some fiery sieve, death itself refines us, prepares us by breaking us down to our bare and basic elements before... And what if, after such a proper and necessary purging, nothing is left? Can we be purified, in that sense, right out of existence? Or is there a place called Purgatory? as some Catholics suggests, where we can prepare for eternity a little more comfortably, patiently, and at least without the eternal flames of Perdition crackling at our heals, reminding us of our final doom and destination. Does death deliver, or does it merely transform? There's only one way to find out, I suppose; but it's not to be found on this side of the glory.

But the Motherstone would challenge all that, or so Red-Beard was led to believe. And the tale he'd been told provided him with all the evidence he needed to prove a theory, if only to himself, that such a miraculous thing actually existed, and that immortality was now well within his greedy grasp.

'It's a black stone I tell you,' the old soldier whispered as the last jug of wine fell from his faltering hand. 'A sailor showed it to me, some years ago. He was a black man, a Negro, by no small coincidence, and a genuine son of darkness. Aye! Said it was a gift, from the queen, no less. And I never doubted it. Not for a moment! It was alive, I say. Alive! But don't ask me how. Saw it with my own eyes. It showed me..." At that point, the surgeon balked. "Find it," he finally stated in a strange, far away, voice mixed with pathos and delirium, "... and eternity is yours.'

It was those words, along with his new physiological form, that stirred Red-Beard's own black heart, springing him back to life and putting the iron wheel in perpetual motion. He was never the same since. And it was all because of a simple black stone, a rock, which would quickly become the sole object of his manifest desire, leaving all other natural longings in its inscrutable black wake. Red-Beard became obsessed with it. He had to have it. It was the key to his immortality, and all that was missing from his automated anatomy. It was power, the source of immortality, the very motor of the machine, what had eluded mankind ever since he was first able to even imagine it. It was the Motherstone. And he really didn't know what it was until someone else had told him. His name was Tom Henley. And he didn't know where to find it, either; until one night at the Nickel Pig Saloon when it was first brought to his attention. And since then, it was all that Red-Beard thought of. It was all he cared about. It consumed him.

Shortly after the fated meeting, however, the doctor himself had died. Some say that he went completely insane, and was last seen headed towards the Silver Mountains, north of old Port Fierce, in the direction of Henley's Hill. Others say he was murdered at the hands of an angry and ungrateful colonel who wanted more than the good doctor could, or would, provide him; something that could not be repaired so easily: his soul, perhaps. Of course, neither story could ever be proven; not even by Red-Beard himself who was at the very heart of it. And he alone would know.

* * *

TOM HENLEY was what you might call an 'educated hillbilly', a man of letters as they say, but a mountain-man never-the-less. Some called him a crazy, a little 'teched in the head'; and they may've been right about that, but in their own simple and ignorant ways. Tom had been to college, and was actually a professor at one time. He studied philosophy and law, and had collected books on a wide variety of other erudite subjects as well, including geology, physics, theology, and astronomy. He'd had even written a few volumes himself on the heady subjects, along with some prose and poetry, which he shared with fellow academics and scholars that would visit him from time to time in his Home-in-a-Hill. They never stayed very long; and they were usually gone by sundown, or whenever they had their fill of mountain wine, tobacco... and Plato.

Mister Henley held other prestigious titles as well, many of which Red-Beard couldn't even begin to pronounce, including a Doctorate in Medicine, which was perhaps his highest achievement and the one he was most proud of. His books were piled so high in his mountain library, it was a wonder he had time to read them all. But he did, which naturally had caused him to become near-sighted at an early age. It was an optical deficiency he corrected himself by manufacturing his own eyeglasses out of a discarded mason jar and some baling wire he'd found near on old campsite one day. He also made his own clothing, mostly from bear hide and goatskin, which he wore quite comfortably.

Tom possessed other talents as well, and was considered an authority on gold mining and other aspects of geological excavation. He had even invented and patented his own sluicing machine that made panning for the precious elements in the river obsolete. When the rivers ran dry, which would happen from time to time, he naturally turned to the mountains where 'hard mining' for gold became his new passion. It was there, not far from Mount Wainwright, that he claimed to have stumbled upon a great secret, which he was only recently willing to share with a few other men. And it had nothing to do with gold.

Exactly why the he was willing to share this well-guarded secret with Rusty Horn and Alvin Webb would remain a mystery, for the time being at least. It was certainly not in Mister Henley's prudent character, or interest, to divulge such important and valuable information. Mountain men were not that gullible. Indeed, they had a reputation for being sly as foxes and cunning as snakes if and when they had to be. Bu they also could be lazy, and dumb as dishwater if you gave them half a chance, and perhaps just as dirty.

But Tom wasn't your ordinary hillbilly; he certainly wasn't lazy or dumb. And he wasn't about to let Colonel Rusty Horn, Alvin Webb, Homer Skinner, or anyone else for that matter, claim what was rightfully his. He was merely using them, for the time being at least; all of three of them, and to his own manipulative advantage. It was all part of the plan; and, so far, the plan was working perfectly, like a beaver trap that was about to be sprung. 'And the beavers won't even know what hit them', he explained to his young son that morning, as the boy looked up at the bearded genius with the awe and respect he'd come to expect.

Sure, there were others who would've assisted the near-sighted mountain-man in the bearskin clothes in his mysterious quest, and in a much more professional manner. But Tom refused them all, choosing instead the two men from Eulogy and the hapless old deputy to do his bidding and help him find the Motherstone. The gold, he could take or leave, (he'd already stashed enough of it away in his 'Home-in-a-Hill' to buy back Manhattan Island, which he considered to be worth no more than a trunk full of trinkets anyway, along with all the surrounding boroughs) but like all ambitious men, it was never quite enough. It was a stone he was chiefly interested in, a plain and simple black stone, which to anyone else who didn't know any better would appear as nothing more than... well, than a plain and simple black stone.

But it was no ordinary stone. It was a Motherstone, a term Tom himself coined early on to describe the elusive black object he so keenly desired. He said it was worth a hundred times its weight in gold, and then some. Furthermore, as he would later relate to the two mercenaries in his own lofty and sometimes unfathomable words, and in the strictest confidence, of course, it held the secrets to life and death; and, therefore, immortality. Naturally, he kept his own esoteric thoughts on the matter to himself, myopically shrouded as they were in the myth and mystery they deserved. He had his reasons. And it seemed he was not alone in his quest.

Red-Beard had heard rumors of such a thing during the war, a magic stone; and he'd heard them from a very reliable source – his own doctor. And if anyone knew anything at all about life and death, it would be the surgeon who had miraculously brought him back from the grave. He spoke of it often, but was never certain of its origins or where it could be found. Even with a new heart, an iron lung, and two new brains to match his old one, Red-Beard was incomplete. Without immortality it was all for nothing; he would die just like all the rest. And that just wouldn't do.

The stone would change all that, however, if only he could find it. Exactly what it was and where it might be found, presently escaped him. It must've been stolen, reckoned the red bearded colonel, desperately; and anything worth stealing was worth having, even if he had to steal it again. And the more he thought about it, the more he wanted the Motherstone all for himself. He would kill for it if he had to; a notion which, the more he thought about it, seemed that much more inevitable. In fact, the more he wanted it, the more Colonel Rusty Horn became Red-Beard. And that's when his problems really began.

Henley was the first to observe the mysterious transformation, or 'dichotomy of the wills' as he put it in its proper psychological terms one fine evening at the Nickel Pig Saloon when he'd first attempted to probe the disturbed and complicated mind of Colonel Rusty Horn. He did so first out of pity, feeling the physician's sympathetic desire in him to heal a troubled soul and, perhaps, cure him of this curious and potentially fatal aliment in the process. It was the Hippocratic thing to do, of course; and one he would later come to regret.

But the session didn't last long. Sometimes went wrong. It seems that during the exchange both patient and physician became equally and violently ill. Apparently, they'd infected one another with a virus, a mutant strand of some newly formed disease produced, perhaps, by the introduction of one another under the rich and ripe conditions that spawn such contagions. After that, they were mutually infected, feeding off the same contaminated host, and inextricably linked for eternity like the opposite ends of the same magnet, fatally attracted to one anther but never quite coming together. It was a terminal illness that would eventually claim both their lives. But for the time being they lived, and for the same reason. They lived for the Motherstone.

What the hillbilly doctor was actually attempting to do at the time was simply to plant a suggestion into the mind of his red bearded experiment. He knew Colonel Rusty Horn to be a talented man with numerous resources, human or otherwise, and capable of doing what the good doctor, in his own sound judgment and failing health, was incapable of. And that was to pluck the stone from its golden tabernacle, just as the Jacob's pillar, that famous Stone of Destiny, was once pilfered from it sacred surroundings in the Holy City and spirited off the rocky coast of Whales where it has remained ever since in the Saxon hands of pagan kings and princes, and claim it for his own. But it wasn't quite that simple, and Tom Henley knew it. There was more to the story than that. The mountain doctor had told his patient only enough to whet his appetite; and, in the end, it only made Red-Beard wanted it that much more.

After hearing Homer's fantastic tale on more than one auspicious, albeit slightly inebriated occasion, both Henley and Horn came to not only a common understanding but a mutual and well-reasoned agreement on the whole matter: They would share the Motherstone, no matter which one found it first, as if such a gem could be split in two like some Gordian knot, or the infant brought before King Solomon with two mothers. And not unlike the biblical account, with all its pragmatic wisdom, the stone would eventually go to whoever loved it, or wanted it, the most. Red-Beard wanted it the most, that much was clear enough to Tom Henley from the start; but he would have it never-the-less. It was all part of a plan he'd been working on for quite some time. You see, Tom had other ideas, and thought that he might use the colonel's misguided and untrustworthy greed to his own advantage. He was actually hoping that the pathological wonder would indeed find the stone before he did, the exact whereabouts of the eternal object still unknown to either of them at the time, and, for reasons he was not willing to divulge even to his own son, Zack, surrender it to its rightful owner, whoever that was. But it was Homer who held the key, as well as the map; and Tom was not yet ready to turn that key. He had some other business to attend to first; and that too, would involve Red-Beard.

Thomas Henley lived in the mountains with his pubescent son, Zachariah; where together they (although it was Tom who did most of the heavy lifting) mined for silver, gold, and whatever else they could stubbornly abstract from the nearly depleted mountain. It was there also, in the sacred solitude of the mountain, with all its hidden secrets and deep dark mysteries, where the old mogul waged his own private and personal war on God and Humanity, along with anyone else who got in his way. It was his life-long ambition to mine every inch of the Silver Mountains before he died. And he didn't care how long it took or how he did it. It was more than a challenge, and more than a job, much more. It was an obsession, which, when you get right down to it, most worthwhile jobs are if they are worth anything at all. But unlike the dead prospectors of old, many whom he'd known on a personal basis, and the spirits of the night whose phantom bodies them presently inhabited, it was not necessarily the gold he was looking for. Like I said before, he already had a king's ransom of the lucrative yellow stuff; and, in a mountain of gold, or so they say, copper is king.

No, it was something much older, more precious than any earthly element, and perhaps just as hard to find. It was knowledge, in its purest, highest, un-eviscerated, and most natural state; not the kind found in college text books, manufactured by professors with too much tenure and not enough scholarship; mired by superstitions and prejudices of the past; calligraphically illustrated in antiquity; tainted by Scripture with good and evil and hung from a tree for all to see in some paradisiacal garden that, perhaps, never existed; twisted and tainted by self-serving historians and other egotistical theorists; sanctioned by political sycophants, and packaged for mere mortal consumption by those who might benefit from such manipulative manuscripts, the volumes of which could not be contained in all the vaulted libraries if Alexandria; but rather, in a cave on a hill, in its most primitive and basic appearance, encapsulated as it were in the simple and unassuming form of one solitary object: a stone, a black stone, the Motherstone, that was said to exist before time and space began and command the power of life and death, which, when you get right down to it, is all mortal man can ask for, and still want more.

Tom knew something about it already, having heard of such an object from sons of sailors that frequented Old Port Fierce from time to time when they weren't out circumnavigating the globe in their own quest for immortality. One in particular was a young black sailor, a ship's cook, who went by the unlikely name of Reginald Cotton. He claimed to have 'found' such a stone on the island of the Two Volcanoes, Istari-Toa, which lies within in the Parrot Archipelago located somewhere in the Southern Sea of the Pacific Ocean. Mister Cotton told the near-sighted mountain-man that he'd brought it back with him on his last voyage and, for reasons he was unwilling to disclose at the time, hid it inside a cave, somewhere in the vicinity of the Silver Mountains, not far from where the expedition was presently headed. And that was all he would say about it. Shortly afterwards, the dark sailor disappeared, and was never seen again in that part of the contaminated world.

Naturally, it was something Tom Henley found irresistible, the quest of knowledge having remained the focal point of all his earthly ambitions, and one that could be as powerful and explosive as any device manufactured by the mortal mind of man, in the proper hands, of course, and at the right time. He searched for it for it day and night, not unlike another gold miner he once knew who'd found his destiny to lie not in the mountain of gold as he'd once hoped for, but rather in a boiling pot, his shrunken head dangling at the end of a string and his last remains scattered on the cold, cavernous floor by the same party of pagans that had cannibalized the man with the bottlebrush moustache, but to no avail. He combed the foothills and hilltops, peeled his eyes, exploring every cave and abandoned mine he could find along the rugged way; and still, the stone eluded him.

What he couldn't pick and hammer his way through, he blasted; and the sound of 'Mad' Henley's thunder could be heard for miles away, as far south as Old Port Fierce, and beyond. And when he finally came to Cornelius G. Wainwright III's own unholy hill, where the fated miner was last seen driving his feral work force deep into the legendary volcano, he suddenly stopped and would go no further. He never said why, although it was suggested but never quite proven, that it was there, in the cursed crater itself, that Mister Henley's young wife died in a shower of falling rocks and smoking ash that many maintained was a direct result of Tom's impulsive behavior and unexplainable obsession. Some even called it murder, or worse.

But the battle raged on. Explosives, including a homemade concoction of nitro-glycerin and sulfuric acid, among other ingredients he prudently kept to himself, were Tom Henley's weapons of choice. He made it a point to avoid contact with the outside world as much as possible, except for when he ran out of blasting powders, nitro, or any other chemicals he might need to further his insatiable ambition, including alcohol. As it were, Tom Henley was known to pull a cork now and then, and no strange to hard spirits. He especially enjoyed drinking the wine he produced from the grapes growing in the rich volcanic soil surrounding his self-described Home-in-a-Hill. He would drink large quantities of the sweet mountain elixir while causally puffing away on thickly rolled cigars he would manufacture from leafy tobacco plants he cultivated in the same mineral enriched soils.

Tom was not a selfish man, and would occasionally share his intoxicating beverages and aromatic smoke with his brother 'mountain-moles' as he affectionately called others his professional ilk, until the waking hours of the morning. They were a hard living but dying breed, these mountain-men, and sometimes hard to find. At times, Tom would come down from the mountains out of sheer boredom and loneliness, in search of the adult male companionship he craved so much and preferred over all others, including that of his own wife even when she was alive. Other times he was forced to come down from the mountains, especially when he was in much need of mining materials, especially the explosive kind that could only be found in the Creekwood Green, a small town just south of the Great Northern Woods and the closest he would ever get to civilization. Occasionally, he was seen up at Pete Liddle's Nickel Pig Saloon on Lazy Hill Road.

It was there at 'The Pig', as it was traditionally and affectionately known as in Creekwood Green and parts beyond, where Tom first meet up with the infamous colonel and Mister Alvin Webb, 'the engineer' which was actually a title Mister Henley flippantly bestowed upon Red-Beard's dim-witted companion, if for no other reason to satisfy his own eccentric and often dark sense of humor that sometimes manifested itself in deadly sarcasm that usually left its victims both dumfounded and speechless. Apparently, and much to the chagrin and displeasure of those whom occupied that otherwise industrious and noble profession, the name stuck and Alvin Webb became, whether he liked it or not, 'the engineer'.

It all began in a place called Eulogy, where and when Alvin was first introduced by Horace 'Rusty' Horn to the mountain-man named Tom Henley and Mister Homer Skinner. It was a chance meeting that'd brought them all together that night, which only goes to show you just how inextricably linked chance and fate can be at times, and how closely they work together, and not always for the better.

Tom Henley had known Homer for quite some time by then, having passed many a pleasant evening with the venerable old deputy within the privacy and comfort of his spacious Home-in-a-Hill. He especially noted how much Homer enjoyed puffing on his thickly rolled cigars and drinking his homemade wine, and made sure that he always sent the deputy away with a handful of his famous stogies and a jug or two of his equally famous mulberry wine each and every time he stopped by, which happened more frequently than Tom himself actually would've like sometimes.

They first became acquainted at Pete Liddle's Nickel Pig Saloon. It was there the two struck up a causal but cautious conversation that would put the wheels into motion, the spokes of which would eventually not only include Colonel Horn and his toothless cohort, Alvin Webb, but six others as well, including Homer Skinner, the four horsemen, a big Negro named Sam and the taciturn Indian who rode in the back of his painted wagon. Fate, as they say, took over from there and landed them all right in front of his house that morning, waiting for the sun, and the old man himself.

Naturally, Homer was intrigued and fascinated by the crazy old prospector who'd lived up in the mountain for so many long and adventurous years. And why shouldn't he be? Tom Henley never doubted the old man's story; in fact, he supported many of Homer's dubious facts with evidence of his own, especially regarding the lost gold mine, which he himself came close to discovering once or twice while searching for clues, or so he imparted to the curious deputy one dark and drunken evening they spent together in the shadow of the infamous mountains, shortly after his wife had mysteriously died near the very same place Cornelius G. Wainwright III was said to have disappeared and Homer knew so well.

As the whisky flowed and the smoke rose into the redwood rafters and long into night, the two men talked. The aging deputy told the mountain-man, reluctantly at first and only after so many glasses of Pete's famous liquor with the double footprint brand, everything he could remember about what had happened on top of the mountain that day, which was more than he'd told most folks over the years. He spoke of cannibals and caves, bones and stones, a shrunken head at the end of a string, and an old handkerchief with the initials 'C.W.' sown into the faded and fated fabric.

He spoke of the gold as well. Somewhere in the course of the heated conversation, he mentioned something about a strange and mysterious stone he'd found not far from the very spot where poor Cornelius met his doom. It was the first time he had told anyone about the 'Black Eye' he'd found in the mountain that day (or perhaps, as he himself had once suggested, it was the eye that'd actually found him) enshrined, as it were, in its own 'golden tabernacle'. And it was at that point that the glassy-eyed mountain-man became very, very interested.

Tom Henley was well aware of the infamous Ferals Homer spoke of in such horrific detail, and what had happened to Cornelius G. Wainwright III up on the mountain. He had once found a small tribe of cannibals still living in the hills and hollows of the Silver Mountains not too long ago, and not too far from Mount Wainwright itself. But, of course, he never reported it. Ironically, it was the mountain-man himself who'd ultimately scared the savages away at the time and not the other way around, as some might've otherwise expected. And if you ever chance to clap an eye on a near-sighted hillbilly dressed in bearskin clothes and a long black beard stomping through the hills with a stack of dynamite in one arm, a jug of wine in the other, and smoking a foot long stogie, you would probably understand why and take for the hills yourself, if you knew what was good for you. With his long wild beard and Mason jar eyeglasses, Tom Henley must've appeared to the frightened Ferals as nothing less than the resurrected ghost of Cornelius G. Wainwright III himself that had somehow grown a new head that was even more hideous than the one that hung from string in a cave forty years ago. Even a cannibal knows a madman when he sees one, I suppose.

But knowing that the gold had already been found, although never brought back from the unholy hill, and judging from Homer's detailed description of the 'Black Eye' and the golden tabernacle where it was first found and last seen, Tom Henley rightly deduced that the Motherstone might be nearer at hand than he'd previously thought. It was then when the conspiracy began. And it was there, on the mountain top, where it would end not too long after that.

There was still much the mad mountain-man didn't know about the mysterious black stone that, in the enigmatic words of the ship's surgeon '...fell down from the deep dark Heavens', and more to it than he could actually comprehend at the time. He knew all along that in the explosive hands of Colonel Rusty Horn, or even worse, those of his drunken 'engineer', the stone would be useless; and it could even be dangerous, which is exactly why Red-Beard would have to find it first. And then, all Tom Henley had to do was to find Red-Beard.

Tom had been mining the Silver Mountains for nearly half a century. He was old and stubborn, and riddled with eccentricities as most old and stubborn men are; but he was also determined. He'd confided in Red-Beard that what Homer had accidentally stumbled upon forty years ago was not gold, but something far more valuable. It was something he'd been searching for himself, for a very long time, in fact and indeed, but had yet to find.

The signs were all there. It was only a hunch; but it was the good one. Tom Henley may've been a crazy old mountain-man, after all, with too much education on the brain and not enough time on his hands, thought Red-Beard at the time it was all revealed to him, but he was not stupid. Alvin Webb – Now he was stupid. Even Little Dick Dilworth knew that much. But for reasons the others have yet to figure out, the outlaw was indispensable, to Red-Beard at least, and may even have played a bigger part in the drama than anyone could have imagined.

Chapter Three

On the Road Again

"WAIT! I THINK I SEE SOMETHING," said Red-Beard, as the front door slowly began to move.

A withered hand suddenly appeared through the crack, followed by the balding white head of slightly nervous old man.

Homer looked out to make sure the coast was clear. He had almost expected his wife to be waiting there for him at the foot of the stairs with sour look on her face, and a frying pan. He was perspiring, and slightly out of breath. He looked restless. His eyes were glassy, but still very much alive, like he'd just woken from an exhausting and, perhaps, unfulfilled dream.

He stepped out on the out on the porch, turned his back on his guest, and gingerly closed the front door behind him, careful not to make any un-necessary noise. He'd noticed that his wife wasn't in bed when he woke up that morning, and suspected the worse. He didn't remember the starling that flew into the bedroom window the night before, or what scared her down on to the sofa. He had too much on his mind at the time; and besides, his tooth was aching more than ever. It was a wonder he fell asleep at all.

He waved to Hector, nodded at Red-Beard, and greeted the others with a glance that barely acknowledged they were there. In many ways, Homer Skinner looked like an old sailor expecting to be buried soon at sea, which, according to whom you ask, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

He was wearing an old gray suit, a white shirt with a red tie, and a pair of alligator boots that came clear up to his knees. The clothes were out of style, perhaps; but they had been well kept all these years and were only slightly worn. The last time he'd put them on, his wife had told him, in all wifely sincerity, 'Why, you look good enough to get buried, old man'. It was on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. And she meant it, too! On top of his head sat a tall black hat with sharp angles that not only complimented his waistcoat, but covered many of the small white hairs protruding from under the broad black brim and blowing loosely in the breeze.

Most noticeable of all, however, was the badge. It was a deputy's badge; the same five-pointed pentacle Homer had worn forty years when he first rode off into the mountains with a toothache and a dream. It was silver, of course: the metal of choice at the time. Precisely why, no one knows for sure, although it could be pointed out that silver was abundantly mined in that part of the world at one time, as evidenced by the Silver Mountains themselves where it was first discovered in voluminous quantities. At one time the silvery white substance was preferred even over gold and manufactured into many fine items such as rings, necklaces, belt-buckles, ladies broaches and other expensive jewelry. Of course, silver was also the main ingredient in the manufacture of badges, particularly those worn by sheriffs, rangers, deputies, police officers and lawmen in general who would don sacred metal with pride. The badge was presently pinned just above the right breast pocket of the old man's gray waistcoat. He'd put it there only the night before, but not before first polishing to its former luster and bringing it back to life after so many tarnished years of worry and neglect. Naturally, his guns were strapped to his side as well. They were special order forty-five caliber six-shooters with twelve-inch barrels; blue steel babies with ivory inlay embedded into each handsomely carved wooden handle. And they were magnificent! – not unlike General George S. Patton famous ivory handled sidearm which he would proudly display some years later in one of his many glorious reincarnations while battling the dreaded Hun.

Homer's bags were packed, as they had been for the last forty years, and stacked inside the barn. He'd stashed them there the night before, so that his wife wouldn't get suspicious. He didn't think it would work. It didn't, of course; she already knew, or at least suspected, what her husband was up to. But he didn't know that yet. "Give me a minute, and I'll go and fetch my things," he said to the red bearded colonel as he headed straight for the barn in the back of his yard.

Charles Smiley, who was first to notice the brightly polished metal proudly displayed on the deputy's chest that day, smiled and said, "Say, what's with the star, Homer?" before the old man had gotten very far.

"Good luck," replied the deputy, stopping in his tracks and quickly turning his head.

"We'll be a'needing it," reminded the surveyor.

Homer agreed with a wink and a nod, and then he was gone.

When, after a short time of shuffling and silence, the old man returned from the barn pulling a tall black horse behind him at the end of a limp rope. He was carrying several boxes as well, along with some bags he'd hung from his waist like so many useless trunks on an aging elephant.

Tucked under the old man's right arm and covered with a thin layer of dust, was a rather large, rugged, and very life-like Roman crucifix; the kind that can often be seen hanging above altars in Catholic cathedrals throughout the Papal empire, with its victim fully intact. In fact, if not for the actual size, which was about one quarter the size of the genuine article, one would suspect that this particular relic might've indeed been pilfered from the vaulted archives of St. Helena's Cathedral, by the Knights Templar perhaps, and spirited across the Atlantic for safe-keeping, along with Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant. Did it actually contain a splinter of wood from the original instrument of death it so clearly represented? An organic artifact hermetically sealed somewhere deep with the wooded tabernacle, as did some of the earlier relics of the ancient church? It was a tantalizing thought, if nothing else.

"A crusade?" suggested the carpenter, blessing himself with the sign of the sacred icon, as his Spanish ancestors might have done while facing down the Muslins invaders as they marched on the Pyrenees.

To add to the authenticity of the object in question, as well as the event that inspired such a masterpiece, the artist of this particular icon had skillfully incorporated into his work, in three-dimensional bronze, no less! the unmistakable and forsaken figure of Jesus Christ in all him transubstantiated glory, hanging naked on a tree, in pain and perpetuity, with all the gore and anguish associated with Golgotha (no wonder they called it the place of the skull), richly defined and exquisitely detailed, right down to the thorns piercing the sacred scalp and the blood pouring forth from the four stigmatized wounds, It was terrible! It was beautiful! And so... so, organic! But most of all, it was necessary. And in it, Homer Skinner thought he saw, not the graven image others had warned him about, but the face of God himself. He took one last look; and then, suddenly, he noticed that his tooth didn't seem to hurt quite so badly. It worked every time. Maybe there's something to be said after all, he began to wonder, about obtaining strength and comfort through the suffering of others.

"See something?" questioned the carpenter who had, on more than one occasion and with hammer in hand, knelt at the foot of the cross entertaining similar thoughts.

The old man just smiled.

"Maybe he's goin' to church," grinned the outlaw, eyeing the crucifix with a certain amount of disdain that didn't go un-noticed by the others.

"It's for...Oh, never mind," said Homer, shaking his hat and head together as he reverently placed the rugged old cross deep inside a bag he had strapped to his saddle. It had actually been given to him as a gift, by a black preacher he once met in Shadytown. He'd kept it ever since. At one time it had hung reverently over this fireplace where it seemed to glow above the fiery red flames of the furnace, giving it an almost eerie aspect, but took it down soon after one of his guests, a Baptist minister who disapproved of the such things in general, claimed that it was simply 'too...too, Catholic! And it might frighten the children,' another young woman was quick to observe, even though she knew damn well the Skinner's had no children of their own. He tried his bedroom next. But that didn't work either because his wife said she felt like she was constantly being 'stared at!' which she was of course; not by the holy image hanging over the bed, but by her own guilty conscience, which was perhaps her harshest accuser.

"Wife never liked it anyway," Homer sadly admitted. He was referring, of course, to the shrouded crucifix now tucked safely and securely in his saddle. "Too... "

"Won't do you any good, old man," Alvin hissed. "We're all goin' to hell anyway. Thought you know'd that by now."

Little Dick interjected, "But I thought we was goin' a'minin'."

"Same thing," insisted the Negro.

"Well, wherever we're goin', we better get there soon," reminded Smiley. "Sun's up and we're already behind schedule."

And with that said, the four horsemen stirred in their saddles. The two oxen heaved with a snotty groan and short and sudden jerk that caused Boy and Sam to steady themselves in the wagon. Meanwhile Red-Beard remained alone and aloof in his own quiet and suspicious world, the white bull beneath him expelling small jets of smoke from its dilating nostrils.

"Let's go then!" shouted Little Dick, attempting, as young men sometimes do, to prove to the others that he could be just as eagerly determined as the rest of them.

"So what'll it be Mister Skinner," the carpenter finally chimed in, "God, the gold...Or the Devil?"

"All three!" sang the old man in response and with no particular bias. "None, maybe," he then whispered to himself.


Homer explained. "Diggin' for gold and goin' to church are pretty much the same thing, I reckon. And as for the devil," he added in a low and ominous voice, "Well, you can find him just about anywhere."

"How's that?" asked Dick, having never heard such a thing and slightly intrigued by the old man's observations.

"Well, it's like this son," he tried to explain. "You see, in both cases you're looking for something you know is there... but you just ain't found it, yet."

That's for damn sure," the outlaw bristled. "Ain't never found no gold in no goddamn church, old man."

"Careful, Alvin," admonished the Hammer, "Don't blaspheme."

"And mind your @#$%^&*!'ing language," added the surveyor who, despite his own verbal abuse of the English language, which was known to include every profanity known to man, along with various sexual references, would never curse or swear in front of women and children, or when it came to the Church, or on any other religious matters which he deemed not only inappropriate but useless; since he knew very well that God himself would have the final word in all matters, and would need no expletives when he doomed mankind to the everlasting flames of Perdition, where Smiley himself assumed they all going anyway.

Alvin frowned, "Well, I ain't never found it."

"That's because you never looked," replied Homer.

"All Homer's trying to say..." elucidated the carpenter, attempting to shed a little philosophical light on the subject, "is that we all find what we're looking for; eventually, that is – Even you, Alvin."

The outlaw managed a small toothless smile, which came across more like a sick grin. He looked satisfied, somehow; but no one knew what was thinking about. Not even Red-Beard who nodded at every word the carpenter just said.

In his bags, the old man carried everything he thought would be needed for the pending expedition, and more: an assortment of pick axes, some hammers and chisels, and axe, and other mining utensils he haphazardly piled on the sagging back of his favorite horse, a black stallion he affectionately, and appropriately, called 'Blackie'.

The old equestrian buckled under the unaccustomed strain of the sudden and sizable load, the contents of which were far more than Homer would actually be needing, and glanced questionably back at its master one last time. Considering the fact that both man and beast were far too old for any of the real work, the others simply considered it a complete waste of valuable time and precious energy that could better be spent on the front porch swing, or the back of a healthy young mare in the case of the aging stud.

Homer reached into his pocket, the one sown into his waistcoat, and produced a pair of old, wire framed reading glasses, or spectacles as they were sometimes called. They looked like they might've once belonged to dear old Mister Franklin himself, the metal rings of which he looped round each ear individually until both glass and wire conformed perfectly to the roundness of his balding head. He then reached into another pocket and pulled out an equally old piece of paper that appeared to have been folded and unfolded many times and was wrinkled with age. Gingerly, he unfolded the yellow parchment in his steady but wrinkled hands, and studied it once more.

"The map..." Red-Beard quietly noted, whispering to his four horsemen as Homer's wife chased after him with a bag of food and some other victuals stacked up in her frail but charitable arms. Homer looked at the map for only a second or two, as if he'd already committed it to memory and was merely verifying what he already knew. He then folded it up and slid it back in his pocket, pretending that he'd been expecting her to be there all along.

He crawled up the side of his tall black horse like any old man would: carefully, and with steady determination. And as he did, Homer could already hear his wife shouting after him as any old woman would, and should: "Now you be careful, Homer!" she cautioned. What Mrs. Skinner really wanted to say (and perhaps should have said under the circumstances) was something she was already aware of. But then again, she didn't have to. What she had to say that morning was could be said with nothing more than a look. And that was enough. It was a look that spoke louder than words; a look any husband can easily recognize, and one Homer was quite familiar with. It was a look, that look, which spoke volumes and communicated in all its unspoken and simplistic wisdom: I know what you're up to... old man! It seemed the proverbial cat was already out of bag. She knew where he was going, of course; she just wasn't sure why. "Bring back something to eat," she instructed, so as not to appear too apprehensive in front of the others, "You hear?"

Homer hadn't spoken about the gold lately. And he'd never told his wife, at least not in so many definitive words; but somehow, he suspected she knew all along. In fact, she'd known all the about the gold, and his toothaches, for quite some time; and it showed! After all, she'd lived with them both for the last forty years, and it's been hurting her just as much. She just didn't know what to do about it. And so, the old woman kept quiet on the subject, as most old women do in these situations, and kept her opinions, and worries, to herself. It didn't take the sound of a whippoorwill or a frightened starling chasing her into the sofa to know what had her husband pacing circles on the bedroom floor all night long and for so many long and frustrating years. She knew what drives a man to dreams. And it wasn't in the kitchen or the bedroom. It was up in those hills. It was gold.

"Be back as soon as I can, old woman," Homer said to his wife. "Don't forget to feed the chickens," he waved. "And don't wait up, dear," he finally admonished the frail looking woman before him.

"And don't you be troubling them poor Harley folks!" she warned her husband with a wave of a long withered finger. She'd heard him mention something the night before about the Cotton family, and Elmo in particular. She could read him like a forty-year-old book, and knew him like she knew the veins on the back of her own wrinkled hand. But she was too old to stop him, and couldn't if she wanted to. She knew it would be no use. "Elmo's got enough to do with Nadine and the boy," she further admonished the man she still loved after all those years. "You leave them Harlies be. You hear me, Homer? Oh, and by the way..." she added while handing a freshly baked pie covered in a paper napkin up to Mister Smiley. "This is for you, Charles." He'd been sitting impatiently on top of a brown colored horse with a mane that was almost, but not quite, as long and as blonde his own proud moustache. And he was hungry. "Don't eat it all at once... and save some for the others" she said with that stern and customary smile the women of Creekwood Green were famous for.

"Thank'ye, Ma'am," replied the foul-mouthed equestrian, with a sincerity and politeness that caught the others completely off guard. "Blueberry! Mm! Mm! My favorite!" he beamed beneath his hairy mask.

As a parting request (one she never expected to be honored but felt obliged to ask anyway) the old woman pleaded with the spiteful surveyor, "And promise me you won't curse anymore. Will you, Charles?"

"I will...I mean, I won't...Er, curse, this is," he said, nervously chewing on an exhausted wade of tobacco he was just then getting ready to expel.

"And no spittin'!" she added for good measure.

"Yes'um, M'am," he swallowed.

"And you, Little Dick..." she scolded the boy as well, knowing how impressionable young men are at that age, especially in the irrepressible company of men like Mister Charles Smiley. "What are you doing here anyway? Shouldn't you be home helping your mother with the chores? You'll be the death of her," sighed Mrs. Skinner, shaking her old gray head, "poor woman..."

"Won't be po' for long, Ma'am!" replied the optimistic youth.

"That's enough, Dick," cautioned Homer from atop his saddle, not wishing to raise his wife's suspicions any higher than they already were. "Don't wait up, old woman," he reiterated.

"And don't you be late for sup..." she started to say as Homer took the reins of his black stud. By then, of course, Mrs. Skinner knew very well that her husband would not be coming home for supper that night. She was beginning to wonder if he would ever return.

"What's that crazy old woman squawking 'bout now," said Alvin to no one in particular.

"You'll never know," the carpenter replied.

But by then Homer had stifled the wicked engineer with a cold hard stare that properly heeled the insensitive outlaw. He followed that by shouting back to his wife, "Don't wait up, dear," for the third and last time, "And don't worry."

And then without so much as a wink or a whistle, Homer Skinner immediately giddy-upped his horse and proceeded directly due east towards the Redman River. The others, including Red-Beard and his bull, followed closely behind, slightly confused. They were whispering to one another and wondering out loud if maybe Homer had lost his mind, and perhaps was so old by now that he couldn't remember east from west, or which way he was going at all. They hadn't even begun, and already were headed in the wrong direction, or so it seemed.

"Where the hell does he think he's goin'?" questioned Smiley, knowing quite well that they were going the wrong way. "We should be going west – Not east! Any damn fool knows that – even Webb!"

"Shortcut... I think," said the outlaw, trying to figure out if he'd just been insulted.

"Some shortcut," said Dick.

"Maybe it's just a diversion," suggested, Hector. "You know, in case somebody's been watching. There's been talk. Ain't easy to keep these things a secret. Gold drives a man to... Anyway," he finally said, glancing over to the old man on the black horse with mixed emotions by then, but trying not to alarm the others, "I'm sure Homer knows what he doing."

Red-Beard, who had had drifted apart from the other by then, wasn't listening anymore. He rode alone, on top of old Jove, like a Muslim nomad in the Sinai without the traditional turban. He didn't feel the wind blowing through his whiskers. He didn't see the sun rising in the east. He didn't feel the warmth. He just stared ahead, always ahead. He knew where he was going, even if Homer and the others didn't."

Having overheard the conversation (fortunately, Homer's hearing was not nearly as bad as his eyesight was) and feeling a little disappointed by then, the old man made the following geometrical observation: "The shortest distant between two points is not always a straight line."

The surveyor agreed, of course; and thinking that he may've spoken a little too hastily on the matter, added to the conversation by stating, "And sometimes you have to take a few steps back in order to go forward."

"'Specially if you're going in the wrong direction to begin with," noted the carpenter. "It's like sinning, I suppose."

"Sinnin'! Who said anything 'bout sinnin'?" questioned Sam, not quite following the Old Hammer's apologetics.

"I think he's talkin' 'bout Alvin," said Little Dick, noticing that the outlaw had fallen slightly behind and out of earshot of the others by then.

"It's a Greek word – Sin," explained Hector for the benefit of anyone who might be interested, "It simply means 'to miss the mark'."

"You mean like an arrow?" enquired the Indian, presently sitting up in the back of the wagon and pulling his hands apart as if he were bending a bow. It was a good analogy, and one the Hammer approved of. It would be important to note, however, that in Boy's own cultural past, the word 'sin' was nowhere to be found in his native lexicon. It simply didn't exist. It was just another one of those concepts brought over by the white settlers he was finally led to believe, like alcohol, guns, and syphilis.

"That's right, Boy. You got it!" exclaimed the Old Hammer, without going directly into the 'Doctrine of the Fall', which he felt he wasn't equipped to do anyway.

"We all fall short," reminded Homer, as the sun rose up before them, confirming the fact that were, indeed, going east, just as they'd all suspected, and in the wrong direction. "Keep your eyes sharp and your aim straight, son, and you can't miss."

Pulling the string of his imaginary bow just a little tighter, the Indian responded, "You mean just like the soldiers who killed my people."

"Well..." began Homer, sadly, and suddenly wishing he really was lost by now, "that's not going to bring them back, son."

The Indian lowered his head, as well as his bow, and said with a sigh, "It won't bring the buffalo back either." He turned his head the Negro.

"Now don't blame me!" shouted Sam, taking no blame for cruelties of the past he was very much accustomed to, more often than not on the receiving end of, and had absolutely nothing to do with, "I's just mindin' my own business."

And he was too! Just like his grandfather who, through no fault of his own, was suddenly snatched up in a net while running from an wild African wilder-beast that he'd only moments before attempted to sodomize, whereupon he was put in chains, stuffed in the hull of a slave ship where he watched his father die and his mother get raped, sold to a farmer in New Orleans and dragged off to Richmond Virginia to pick cotton and cut tobacco for the next forty-five years before he was finally hung from a sycamore tree for exposing himself to the farmer's daughter whom he'd accidentally but quite understandably mistook for a wild African wilder-beast when the unfortunate event took place.

"Never shot me no damn buffalo, either," growled the Negro.

* * *

THEY TRAVELED EAST through the piney woods for a spell, and then headed north. The air was cool, crisp and clean, the colors of the leaves just beginning to turn from green to golden reds, yellows and browns. The sun was a radiant ball of fire by then, riding high in the heavens like Ra in all his golden glory. It made Homer feel like he did forty years ago, like all young men feel at that time in their inexperienced lives. It made him feel brave.

It was a young man's feeling, a felling he was not so sure of anymore; he almost didn't trust it. It only made the tooth ache that much more. But the pleasure of the moment seemed to balance out the pain. All in all, it was a good feeling, he reckoned. He was finally on his way; and Harley little more than a day's ride ahead. He'd be there soon. He had the map. All he needed now was the 'Lucky Number'.

It was early in the evening when they reached the outskirts of Creekwood Green where and the trail narrowed and the land became less familiar. Homer decided to camp there for the night. It wasn't even dark; and they were still headed in the wrong direction, as far as the others were concerned. But no one objected, not out loud anyway. Not even the inexhaustible Red-Beard who had remained strangely quiet ever since they'd left the farm.

They would be in Harley in the morning, thought Homer as he rolled out his blanket on the cold, hard ground; perhaps then he would explain things, after a good night's rest. Sleeping on the trail had a way of opening the mind, or so the old man remembered. He also knew that the farmers of Harley went to be bed early, especially around this time of year when the bean crop was ready for harvesting. Best wait until morning. He reckoned Elmo was just coming in from the fields by now, and that Nadine was probably setting the table for supper. It was a good home, a happy home. He'd been there before. He could almost hear Lil' Ralph playing on the pots and pans with that big wooden spoon. Already, he could smell the beans.

The four horsemen slid sorely from their saddles for a well-deserved rest, while Sam covered up his wagon and Boy constructed a small campfire in the traditional manner of his ancestors. They were tired, of course, but that didn't prevent them from talking, as cowboys often do when they have one of two things on their minds, or both, which somehow always seem go hand in hand – gold, and women.

"First thing I'll do is buy me a woman. No! Make it a dozen women," declared Alvin Webb staring into the flames of the newly constructed campfire in a typical moment of unfulfilled lust, and still a bachelor at the age of fifty-two, "with big breasts."

"Wouldn't do you any good," said the carpenter, cutting to the chase in his usual manner and getting right to the source of the outlaw's lonely frustration.

Smiley agreed. "Hector's right," he said. "You don't want a woman, Alvin. Hell! You wouldn't know what to do with a real woman if you had one. What you're looking for is a goddamn whore... That's all! That's why you ain't never got hitched yet. Think about it, son."

Alvin did think about it, but only for a moment, which was all his dysfunctional brain would allow; and so did the Negro in the painted wagon who, upon further reflection on the matter, wondered out loud, "So what's wrong with that?"

"Ahhhhhhhh! Marryin's for young fellers... like Dil-pickle here," explained Webb, pointing a fingerless glove in Dick's general direction. "We older roosters prefer our hens 'sperienced," he slyly winked, 'if you take my meanin'."

There was something in the way Alvin pronounced the word 'sperienced' and the way he winked that made Little Dick Dilworth hungry with a lust he was only beginning to understand. He knew what the outlaw was talking about, albeit in his own perverted and twisted way. He'd been to Old Port Fierce a time or two, where such women of ill-repute were known walk a colorful street known as Avenue 'D' in a place called Shadytown, but never did stay long enough to sample any of local hospitality. But all that may soon change, he recently began to wonder, if things didn't work out with the widow, that is. "You mean..." questioned the youth, innocently enough, "like the women of Shadytown, Mister Webb?"

Alvin had been there too; and so had a few of the others, including black Sam who, for lack of anywhere else to call a home, still hung his homeless hat there from time to time. It was a special occasion, as the outlaw suddenly recalled out loud in slow slurring words "They calls it 'Fat Moon Friday'... or sumpin' like that. And it lasts all night long." He suddenly remembered one particular woman he saw that night with an open bosom, a painted face, and a rather large backside that sweetly swayed to and fro as she sashayed down the Avenue like a boat trolling for dolphin.

"She was a black cat beauty," Webb suggestively admitted, a little hesitantly at first in view of present company. But nothing happened that night. Sure, he had the time; and he certainly even had the nerve, especially after drinking enough rotgut alcohol to anesthetize the Russian army by then. The only thing Alvin Webb didn't have, however, was the money. It just so happened that he lacked the fifty cents needed to satisfy his insatiable lust at the time. And he wasn't the only one.

Feeling somewhat sympathetic towards the outlaw's solitary existence for a brief and bewildering moment, and having drank himself from a similar poisoned well, Mister O'Brien seemed to understand Webb's sad predicament. As it were, Hector had married late in life, so he knew what it was like to sleep alone... but not always. Unlike the pitiful thief who had been naturally disfigured from birth, the carpenter had always been a handsome man, even in his senior years when his hammer was less employed but just as potent. But still, "Even us old roosters get lonely sometimes," he softy sighed.

"Cock-a-doodle-doooooooooo!" crowed the outlaw.

"But you never know, son," grinned the carpenter (Hector was in the habit addressing all men under the age of fifty-five, or whatever, with such fatherly condescension) with a full head of wavy white hair that was once just as black and virile that of the Redman's and just as long, "Look at me!"

The carpenter was merely attempting to console the lonely old reprobate with some sound fatherly advice he'd received not only at his own expense but from the beautiful and slightly manipulative hands of lady barber he'd met in previous sometime life during the war in the town of old New Orleans where colonel Jackson once routed the redcoats: "I tell you something, mon..." she shamelessly suggested through a thick black curtain of tightly woven hair, "...for every stick there's a bush." She was Jamaican woman, he suddenly recalled, a real black beauty, a Banshee with body of Venus and the face of Aphrodite. A witchdoctor! Or so she claimed at the time, with deep African roots who had arranged his own beautiful black mane that day in so many dreadlocks not unlike the ones adorning her own Medusa-like head like an intertwined orgy of thick black garden snakes. He remembered she had offered him some red wine, which he could still taste from time to time, especially in tropical climates when those Latin lips were parched and dry. And just as black curtain came down that day, smothering him in palm oil and kisses, the mighty hammer fell for the first time.

Over the years, the eloquent craftsman had modified his first sexually experience to suit his own professional taste, which he'd introduced that day not only to Mister Alvin Webb, but the virgin ears of a blushing Dick Dilworth who found the Medusa's metaphor not only funny but pregnant with truth. "And remember, mon," the carpenter regurgitated with a twinkle in his Irish eye and a thick island accent hanging on his lips that reminded you of red wine and cannabis, "for every nail.... there's a hammer. Think about it, boys. Think... and strike!"

And Hector knew what he was talking about. He was a good-looking man who, as previously described, had been generously graced by the gods with a face that, even in the autumn of years, women naturally found irresistibly attractive. It was a curse, as well as a blessing, and one he would sometimes lament. It may also explain why the Old Hammer was so late in proclaiming his nuptials, some suggesting (quite erroneously, of course) that he was distracted at the time, and too preoccupied in his own adulterous bedroom to ever find his way to the altar.

'An Irish Adonis!' he was once proudly proclaimed and properly anointed by one female admirer who'd once offered to immortalize, at the expense of her own dead husband, that famous Anglo-Latin profile in the finest marble money could buy. It was to be a statue, a sculpture, not unlike Michelangelo's David, in all its apocalyptic fame and masculine beauty, to be ceremoniously placed, upon completion, in her own private collection of similarly marbled deities that graced the tomb of the family mausoleum, including a life-size statue of brave Achilles, the arrow perpetually piercing the great heel of the great Geek. Apparently, this was one wealthy widow, with exquisite taste who, despite all earthly endowments bestowed upon her by her recently deceased husband, would ostensibly prefer to pass through eternity gazing upon the face of Hector, her 'Irish Adonis', in lieu of any other, including that of her own magnanimous spouse. But the old carpenter refused and, in his own gentlemanly way, politely declined the generous offer, thinking it best, and perhaps only natural, to be buried alongside own lovely bride who, if Nature and the laws of probabilities had their way, would surely be dead long after the worms had turned his famous face into a pile of organic mush.

The adoring widow was not the only one to make such an astute observation. Among the many fine and respectable ladies of Creekwood Green (and perhaps an equal amount of the not so fine and un-respectable ones) the 'Old Hammer' had became over the years not only the subject of their envious discourse, but also the source of their unfulfilled desire as well. And Hector knew it, as most Adonis' do. But like all gods and demi-gods who somehow always come close to, but never quite reach, the perfection we humans so selfishly seek to bestow upon them, this Old Hammer merely considered himself a 'work in progress', or, if you prefer, 'an unfinished symphony', to be completed, perhaps, by artisans of another generation, not unlike Leonardo's famous 'Horse', which today stands as a bronze monument to such an ambitious enterprise. In fact, it would not be too difficult to imagine Mister O'Brien, himself a highly skilled and much sought after artisan and sculptor in his own right, staying up late some nights with hammer and chisel in hand, completing that work in progress which may yet one day hang in the celebrated halls of St. Peter's Basilica, or stand alongside Michelangelo's David as an everlasting testament and tribute to the true beauty of man. It was the least he could do for his lovely young wife.

It was not only Adonis's face the young woman found so irresistible and interesting at the time. When asked one day of his blushing young bride whom he betrothed at a ripe old age (she being twenty-six years his junior at the time of their engagement) to give a reason for agreeing to such a questionable and, by all accounts, lop-sided arrangement, her answer simple. It was as clear and plain as a two by four stiffly and painfully delivered to the head of anyone who was dumb enough to even ask. Naturally, it pleased the old carpenter to no end when he heard of what had happened the day of his betrothal as the three bridesmaids were contemplating and questioning, in their own envious ways, their little sister's decision. It went something like this:

'Is it because he's such a good man?' one of her siblings inquired only an hour before the Holy Sacrament was to be administered.

'No, not really,' the bride sheepishly replied, adjusting her wedding gown inside the bridesmaids' chamber in front of a full-length mirror.

'It's his money then. Isn't it?' wondered another out loud.

'But he's only a carpenter,' the young woman reminded them all, as if they hadn't known.

'Well, of course!" cried the third bridesmaid who happened to be the youngest of the three, 'it must be because he's so handsome. That's has to be it.'

To which the bride to be simply replied, 'Well, that's rather obvious, my dear sister. But still, that's not the reason I will to marry this man today.'

'Well, what exactly is it then?' beseeched the eldest sister in unbridled frustration and growing very impatient by then.

Being a woman quite used to such personal interrogations by her jealous siblings, and being the youngest and most beautiful of them all, the bride-to-be felt she at least owed them an explanation, if not an apology. But it went deeper than that. You see, her intentions had been questioned from the very beginning. It was suggested that she might even have had ulterior motives in consummating a marriage that appeared, on the surface at least, to be somewhat gratuitous, benefiting, it would seem, no one in particular, least of all husband and wife, and one that would undoubtedly make of her a widow long before her time. And so, the bashful bride was suddenly compelled to reveal to her inquisitive but well-meaning sisters the simple, plain, naked, unvarnished, and rather obvious, truth regarding their concerns and the man she intended to take to the grave with her, with or without his money. But that was her business, as well as her future husband's; and she would not be gossiped about like some cheap gold-digging slut. So in the end, and for the sake of modesty, along with other more intimate reasons too personal and private to mention right now, the carpenter's wife simply choose to keep the matter between her and her husband to be, and wisely decided against divulging the source of her happiness. It only made the bridesmaids that much more determined to find out exactly what, if anything, it was about this man that their younger sister had found irresistible!

And so, they all cried out in unison that day, "What could it be!!!" with such a force, and in so many ear-splitting decibels that reached out well beyond the bride's chamber that day, echoing through the halls of the old Cathedral, and lingering in the air with so much vile vitriol that the entire congregation, including the puzzled priest and nervous groom, stood and stared at one another, dazed and confused, until it finally faded away in doomed silence.

And just before walking down the aisle, the blushing young bride discretely shook her head and gave her sisters one last thing to think about that great and glorious day; and one last nut to crack. 'You'll never know, you silly bitches,' she said, as the veil came down over those rosy red cheeks.

Speculation had always abounded concerning the carpenter's unprecedented ability to win the affections, as well as the hand, of such a pretty young woman more than half his age; and that day on the road to Harley was surely no exception.

"I don't exactly know how he does it," observed the surveyor, wryly. Smiley seemed to have an explanation for just about everything that happened under the sun and on God's green earth. "But I for one wouldn't be surprised," he further extrapolated, "if the old fart ain't hung like a smoke-house salami!"

"Or heap big buffalo..." noted the sleepy-eyed Indian.

"More like Mississippi black snake!" boasted the Negro, cupping his massive groin in his black leathery hand.

What the astute mustachio had so keenly observed, and what the others were so quick to confirm that day in their own cultural vernacular, was, in fact, the correct answer to the bridesmaids' otherwise unanswerable question.

Hector O'Brien found the comparison amusing, if not exactly true, and flattering as well; but, in a gentlemanly sort of way, of course. It made him laugh out loud. It was an infectious laugh, the kind of contagion often found in the fellowship of men of good will wherever they happen to be, even when they disagree on serious matters, and particularly in the absent of female company. It was just a natural thing to do; and so, naturally, the others laughed right along with him, including Alvin Webb who looked as though there might be some hope for after all.

The only one not laughing at the time was Rusty Horn. How could he? Despite the fact that he himself had once been married to a loyal, patient, loving, and surprisingly beautiful wife, the colonel actually knew very little of love, or the perils and pleasures that went along with it. For Red-Beard getting married was, and still is for that matter, a mere formality, something an officer was expected to do. It was all part of the protocol.

It happened too long ago, however, to have any impact on the colonel's current disposition, and probably wouldn't have changed his mind on the matter even if it did. Perhaps it was the conflicting personalities that hastened the imminent divorce, providing the poor woman with the legal prerequisite for obtaining one when she did; and not a moment too soon, one might imagine. Being married to a madman was one thing. Being married to two was simply unbearable. 'Ain't that just like a woman', he quietly resigned when all was said and done and the sacred bond was broken. He simply let her go. Whatever happened to the disgraced woman was anyone's guess, although it was suggested that she eventually took refuge with a maternally-dominated tribe of Indians who, chiefly on account of her long blonde hair, bestowed upon her the appropriate title of 'Great White Goddess'. It was a title she took quite literally, along with all the benefits associated with such a lofty and privileged position, including finding her way, as goddesses are famous for, into the teepees of any unsuspecting young man she happened to fancy. But even goddesses aren't safe in a world dominated by so many jealous and desperate housewives; for it was also rumored that shortly after her deification this particular 'goddess' was summarily scalped and stoned to death by a mob of angry red squaws who'd come to the firm and natural realization that there is room for only one goddess in any teepee. Naturally, their hen-pecked husbands agreed. It was also at that time when Rusty Horace Horn joined the army, and Red-Beard fully emerged in all his enigmatic and diabolical glory.

Talk of the gold continued.

"They say there's enough gold in Wainwright's Mountain to sink a ship," noted the surveyor with a visible puff of his moustache.

"A man could retire on that kind of money," the carpenter concurred, looking a little wearier than the rest by then. Naturally, his hands were not so steady, nor his eyes as clear, as they were in his distant youth, but he could still swing a hammer; and could still dream. Hector O'Brien lived his life vicariously through the eyes of younger men, but worked just as hard, or harder, than any of them. He shaped and molded them, blow by hammering blow. The earth was his anvil, they were the metal, and his was the hammer that pounded flesh into spirit and made men out of boys. Maybe that's why they admired him so much. But he was getting old, and Hector had long thought about hanging up his hammer for good, a prospect that up until only recently had never even entered his mind, and retiring. In fact, he'd already made a few plans.

"Think I'll go to the Islands," said the Hammer in a rare moment of outspoken self-indulgence. "Settle down. Buy me a boat... maybe does a little fishing. Might even try my hand at farming. Tobacco plant grows well on the islands. It's the soil, you know. Just like in Ol' Havana! You can never have enough cigars."

"Don't forget your wife, Hector" the surveyor keenly observed.

"I never do," reminded the Hammer. "Wouldn't rule out another bambino, either."

"Even at your age?"

Hector smiled. "Still a little hum left in this ol' hammer, my friend."

Smiley was entertaining similar thoughts of retiring to some remote island paradise in the South Seas as well that day. He'd been to Old Port Fierce, and had heard stories about islands that were never mapped. The way he figured, he would survey one of these uncharted land masses and claim it all for himself, not unlike the early pioneers of the Americas who quickly became governors and land barons that way themselves at the expense, and sometimes in spite of, of the local inhabitants. He even had a name in mind. "Smiley-Town!" he exclaimed. "Kind'a rolls right off your tongue – Don't it? Hell!" he thought out loud, "might even bring little Dick along... if it's alright with his mother, that is." And being that the surveyor's last wife had left him by running off with a traveling shoe salesman not too long ago, he added, "Might even take up with one of them there island women," with an invisible grin. "Can't run too far on an island, you know... and there ain't no !@#$%^&*!!! travelin' salesmen hangin' 'round.

"And no shoes..." observed the youthful apprentice.

His boss agreed. "That too!"

"I hear tell the womens there is nec'ked," spoke the outlaw with a toothless grin that was all too visible. "And that means they don't wear no clothes," he added, not only for the benefit of those who might not know any better, like Dilworth for instance, but for the sake of his own lustful imagination.

"It'll take more than a naked native to cure what's ailing you, my insatiable friend," acknowledged the Hammer.

"Then make it a dozen," gummed Alvin.

To which the Indian celestially observed, "One for each sign of the Zodiac."

Hector opined, "Now that'll put a hum in your hammer!"

"Let's not get greedy now," warned Red-Bead from a top of old Jove. They were the first words he'd spoken since they stopped for the night.

Little Dick ejaculated, "Make that two for Gemini!"

"I'll take seven," said the large Negro. "Any more than that would be askin' for trouble."

"Women are like cigars, my ebony friend," struck the Hammer, "You always want more..."

"And bigger!" Smiley wholeheartedly agreed.

"But didn't you tell me you were born in September, Dick?" questioned the moustache, suspiciously turning a large hairy ear to the wind.

"Ha!" laughed Webb. "Then that makes Dick a virgin."

"Is that true, boy?" Sam demanded to know, as if personally offended by the outlaw's latest observation in some dark African way that perhaps only he understood.

The Indian spoke up next. "Sagittarius is a Redman, you know. Did you see how he bends the bow? And he never misses! He aims for the Heavens..."

"And hits a fish!" sings the Hammer. "Pisces, if I'm not mistaken. Isn't that you, Charles?"

The outlaw thinks it's funny.

"I may be a fish... but what the hell are you, Webb?" the surveyor wants to know.

"A crab!" said Boy. "What else?"

"No he's not!" protests Dick. "He's a goat! A toothless ol' billy-goat. Damn him to hell. Just look at his beard."

Webb sneers. "At least I got one... boy."

Sam lit a fire while Boy secured the wagon and tied down the horses and two oxen. The others went about doing what cowboys do on the trail before settling down for the night. Smiley, always on the lookout for a free meal, caught a wild turkey and cooked it over the open flames. Homer wasn't hungry. Lying down beneath the moon and stars, he fell asleep. It was the first real rest he'd had in forty years.

Chapter Four

The Iron Gates of Harley

(The F-Word)

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, old man Skinner awoke from his earthy bed refreshed and alive. He'd almost forgotten just how peaceful it was sleeping outdoors, and made it a point to do it more often. He didn't even notice that his tooth had stopped aching by then.

Not long after a quick breakfast of coffee, beef jerky, and few leftover biscuits his wife had packed away in his bags that was just as difficult to chew as the jerky and even harder to digest, Homer and company found themselves standing before a massive metal gateway known to all those who passed that way simply as the 'Iron Gates of Harley'.

Naturally, everyone knew by then where they were, and where they were headed.

"This here is 'feral' country. Ain't it?" questioned the outlaw, rather suspiciously it seemed, as if he'd been there before.

"Harley," nodded the surveyor under his broad brimmed Stetson... "And Harlies and Greens just don't mix," he added as a precautionary measure, pointing the wrought iron gate standing before in all their arresting gloom, "just like the sign says."

It was a tall manufactured structure comprised mostly of long vertical bars about one inch in diameter, spaced approximately six inches apart, and held together by a half dozen iron bands welded at the apex. The metal was caked with multiple layers of flakey red rust and appeared to have been painted many times over, the colors of which was indiscernible. Yet, they still looked strong enough to serve the original purpose, which will soon become evident. There was a calcifying lock passing through one of the metal bands where two outer bars meet just about five feet above the ground. The gates were closed and the door was lock, just as it always was. And no one had the key.

Supporting the gates on either side of this man-made barrier were two equally tall walls that crumbled off into the distance. They were made up of brick, mortar, and other masonry products, patched with cement and held together with chicken and barbed wire. The walls extended North and South of the gate as far as the eye could see. It was an ominous sight, like something an archaeologist might expect to find in the Judean desert, or the bottom of the Aegean Sea near the fabled ruins of old Atlantis. Both the wall and the gate appeared as though they were made of each other. Perhaps they were.

No one knew for certain who it was that actually built the wall was; but they damn sure knew why it was built. It had always been suspected that the structure was first conceived and constructed by the original inhabitants of Creekwood Green as a visible means of maintaining their own segregated boarders. Others, like those on the Harley side of the gate for instance, had always maintained, in their own quite but stubborn certitude, that Erasmus Harley had a hand its construction, which was why many of the local inhabitants of Harley and thereabout still referred the iconoclastic structure as 'Erasmus' Wall'. Perhaps they were both right, to one degree or another. But it really didn't matter. There it was and there it stood, for over a hundred years no less, on the threshold of a small rural community in the northeast territory just beyond the eastern borders of Creekwood Green. Simply put, its function was ostensibly designed to keep the two communities apart, physical and legally. And it worked, just like it was supposed to, regardless of who put the first brick in the wall.

Like most manmade contrivances, walls are created for a plethora of reasons, some more justifiable than others. 'Erasmus' Wall' was no exception. Its message was clear, as cold as stone and as hard as iron. There was, however, a certain amount of ambiguity attached to the structure which some, if not many, found not a little disturbing. Either as a deliberate attempt to segregate those within from those without, or as some cruel joke incorporated into the architectural design itself, the Iron Gates of Harley swung in one direction only – inward.

It seemed that you could enter, but you could never leave; at least not without knowing a good deal of effort. Apparently, both architect and engineer wanted all who stood before the Iron Gate to know exactly where they stood. They never explained why. They didn't have to. At the time, they probably didn't even think it was necessary. You see, back when the wall first came into existence things were different, life was simpler, less complex; and certain things didn't even need to be explained. They were simply taken for granted; like knowing which side of the wall you belonged on, and staying there. Life, in general, was more black and white, so to speak, delineated along cultural and racial lines that had existed long before the Great War itself. But the war, among other things, would change all that, and not necessarily for the better.

Suspended directly over the gate, and supported by two wooden post cemented into the tops of the columns forming the buttress ends of either side of the wall, there was a sign. The sign, as the surveyor previously made mention of, was made of same metallic substance of the gate itself, only painted with a glossy black finish that had faded over the years while still retaining all the admonishing gloom invested in its original design. It spelled out one word – HARLEY. Six letters of no particular size or shape twisted together, rather cleverly it would seem, in order to achieve the blacksmith's desired objective. Where one letter ended, the next simply began, suggesting, perhaps, that at one time the sign itself was no more than one long piece of rusty re-bar, the kind used for reinforcing modern concrete. The letters were, for the most part, chipped in places as evidenced by several layers of rusted metal flaking off below the surface. And just beneath the letters hung a simple wooded placard with several numbers scribbled into the grain. They appeared to have been painted over many times, modified, perhaps, to reflect the number of recent births and deaths that had since taken place in since its latest revision. Apparently, at one time or another, the number of people residing in the town Harley had been much higher.

Charles Smiley was the first to notice that the gate was indeed locked shut, and was not particularly surprised. "It's locked," he said, shrugging his shoulder and moustache together.

"What do we do now!" cried Dilworth, feeling about as helpless and useless a young Israelite before the impassable waters of the Red Sea with Pharaoh's chariots in hot pursuit.

But before anyone else could voice their opinions one way or another, or utter even a single syllable on the subject at hand, the old man reached under his coat, pulled out his special order forty-five caliber six-shooter with the twelve inch barrel and mother-of-pearl inlay, and, with one sufficiently aimed blast, shot the mechanical device completely from its hasp. "It ain't no more," pronounced the deputy, as though he'd just brushed a fly from his face.

And so, one by one they passed through the Iron Gates of Harley, although no one, except maybe Homer, knew why.

IT WAS TUESDAY MORNING when they finally arrived at the first stop of the old man's long awaited expedition. The sun was shining and the sky was pale silvery blue. There was a cool crispness in the air, sweetly scented by a unique odor that reminded Homer of food, family, fun, and a full harvest moon. It was ubiquitous! There was something sacred about it, like the freshly mowed slopes of the Andes before the snow comes. It smelled, Heaven after the great Day of Judgment, one might imagine. He'd smelled that smell before, and more than anything else, it told the old man that he was exactly where he wanted to be. Before them lay acres and acres of fertile farmland sprawled out in a quilted patchwork of rural greens and browns. No doubt about it. They were in Harley.

He hoped Elmo hadn't changed his mind by then. It was something the old man had worried about from time to time, especially considering the company they were sharing. He was never quite sure where the Harlie stood on the matter entirely, and hadn't really thought about what he would do if, in fact, Elmo had suddenly changed his mind, which the Harlie was occasionally known to do, and backed out. It was always possible,

And who could blame him if he did? After all, he was just a sharecropper. He had wife and child to consider; and his farm, like so many in that area wasn't doing too good, either. And then there was Ike Armstrong, Elmo's promiscuous and nosey landlord who did not take kindly to his tenants running off when there was work to be done, especially in the company six white men, a large Negro, and one red devil mounted on an evil white bull. And what about the contract? Ike could, and would, have the Harlie thrown in jail for reneging on his legal responsibilities, a fact Homer was very much aware of at the time. But it would only be for a few days, the old man thought in a rare moment of selfishness. One week! That's all he would need. And then... then, Elmo Cotton wouldn't have to worry about his family, the farm, or Ike Armstrong ever again. But he would have to worry about Mrs. Cotton, the old man suddenly realized, thinking about his own wife, Mrs. Skinner, who was by then more than likely writing his own obituary.

The town of Harley was actually a peaceful settlement of 'colored folk', or Negros, as they were sometimes called, lying about twenty miles northeast of Creekwood Green in the lower elevations of the agricultural region. The families that lived there were mostly farmers, sharecroppers, who tended to mind their work as well as their own business, doing the best they could to raise their meager crop of beans, greens, and whatever else they could coax from the muck and mire of the silty soils sandwiched somewhere in between the Silver mountains to the North and the Redman River to the east.

In reality, Harley was not the best place to invest in a farm, or any other enterprise for that matter. Due to erosion and poor agricultural practices, the soil had already been depleted of many of its natural elements, and the rain was not always dependable. Being situated on the lower latitudes of the historic plain, the town of Harley was known to experience both flood and drought in equal and disastrously proportioned measure. It was almost impossible to know just what to plant at any given time of the year, how long it would last, or who would even buy it. Most of the crops failed, of course; but there was one that somehow always managed to survive. It was a certain type of bean, known as the 'Harley bean'; unique to the area since the days of Old Erasmus Harley who, as history would have it, first cultivated the sturdy crop when he'd arrived there shortly after the Great Emancipation.

His wife called them 'freedom beans'. And they did give off a rather sweet and pungent aroma that could be described, at least among those who cultivated them, as nothing less than the 'sweet smell of freedom' in its own natural and un-eviscerated state. But Erasmus thought otherwise, and would soon christen the blessed vegetable the one and only 'Harley bean!' immortalized down through the ages as that 'musical fruit' for reasons we are all too familiar with. The name stuck... and so did the beans, which were said to have a certain 'staying' quality about them, along with famous flatulent sound often associated with that potent produce which typically occurred at the tail end of the bean's gastronomical journey through the digestive tract. It was a purely natural phenomenon that brought about a variety of human reactions, some more generous than others. In some cultures the 'flatus', or 'fart' as it is referred to in the contemporary vernacular was actually considered a compliment, an audible expression of one's approval after a satisfying meal. Naturally, there were those who found the sound disquieting, if not downright disgusting, and almost as offensive as the nocuous odor that typically, but not always, followed the flatus. And justifiably so! one can always argue. No wonder Martin Luther was so infatuated with the revolting sound he would so graphically, and rather cruelly it would seem, apply to his most vocal critics, particularly those of the Papal persuasion and chiefly towards the end of the Great Reformer's celebrated life. For some it could be a most musical experience, like the long-winded note of trumpet, and a source of many good humored jokes. For others, however, it was just downright embarrassing. But ohhhhhh! What a relief! And what a bean!

Most of the farmers in Harley were sharecroppers, indentured to the land under the prescribed and protracted terms set forth by the contractual agreements they made with their landlords. They were hastily signed, little understood, and generally unfair to the illiterate subscribers who didn't know any better. The Harlies owned nothing, not even own the land they worked. But it was honest work; and for many, it the only work to be found after the war. Some wondered if it was worth it – the war, that is.

The party of eight rode slowly through the Iron Gates of Harley, mostly wondering what they were doing there at all, and with not a little apprehension. It was not where Rusty Horn, or any of the others for that matter, except for maybe Homer (and even he wasn't too sure anymore) expected to be on that particular Tuesday morning. It was not part of the plan, not in the itinerary; and it certainly wasn't in the contract they'd all had signed not too long ago unless, of course, it was written in letters so inconspicuously small as to escape the immediate attention of the human eye, which, as we all know, is not that unusual, even in the most innocuous agreements. It seems that duplicity knows no boundaries. It beguiles all, and spares none.

In a cowardly and confused whisper, almost as if they were all being watched, Alvin sneered, "I don't like the smell of it."

"Don't smell too bad to me," the Negro reacted, his nostrils summarily expanding like those of a she-moose that had just caught wind of her musky mate. There was something familiar about it, something that reminded him...of home.

"It's them ol' beans," said Dilworth, wondering out loud and pointing to the fields where the farmers of Harley were already well into a new day's work.

"What's that you say, Dick-weed?" interrupted Alvin Webb, in his in own brand of sarcasm that only he found amusing.

"Kind'a sweet, tho'...Once when you get used to it," recognized the Negro, "Not bad, actually."

"Beans!" Dilworth proclaimed once more, only this time with added enthusiasm. "It's them ol' Harley beans, I tell you! I can smell 'em a mile away. Momma use to feed em' to me when I was just a little Dick...'Ceptin' she used to call be Richard back then. Never liked 'em much myself... Make me fart."

Having ingested the potent pellets on many a long and hungry trail, the four horsemen had to smile in unison. Why, even the otherwise stoic Red-Beard raised a whisker or two at the mere mention of the famous fruit, better known as Harley beans, but more scientifically classified as a vegetable.

They may not please every palate; but they were nutritious, hardy stuff, and a staple for armies since they were first cultivated. Red-Beard had eaten enough of them during the war to sink Old Ironsides, and could personally attest to their life-sustaining efficiencies. They also kept well, even under the harshest of battlefield condition, and could be eaten baked, boiled, barbequed, or right out of the sack, the same small burlaps sacks they were often shipped in. They were affordably as well as transportable, and organically preserved in their own natural skins. It was rumored that General Robert E. Lee had once ordered a wagonload of the highly regarded beans to be personally delivered to J.E.B. Stuart at the Battle of Bull Run, First Manassas. Enough said.

Harley beans were strong medicine, too, and used in a variety of ways in treating the ailments of soldier and sailor alike, everything from 'trench-foot, to shell-shock, and historically documented as such. The sailors swore by them, and would never leave port with them.

Point in fact, it seems that there once was a certain naval vessel called 'The Firefly' that had sailed out of Old Port Fierce with a cargo of the famous produce known as Harley beans, among other perishables, on-route to the Southern Seas. The captain was a bold one, of German and Spanish descent, named Maximilian Orlando. It is said that he was on his way to the Island of Istari-Toa, also known as the Land of Bleeding Rock, to supply the troops at New Fort Stanley with some badly needed provisions after a long and drawn out battle with the native population there. However, as she approached the infamous island, located somewhere in a Parrot Archipelago, the Firefly encountered gale force winds that hit them like a hurricane just as the captain neared landfall. And there, in the rocky reef of the Bitches Bay just off the southern tip of the remote landmass, Orlando's ship went down. The captain and crew had all somehow survived the calamitous event, which many on board considered nothing less than a miracle delivered by St. Elmo himself in the mist of the boiling tempest. But the ship and her cargo were lost, forever. Or were they?

As it turned out, the Harley beans stowed on board the doomed vessel had been hermetically sealed in small wooden containers; the kind used for storing large quantities of beer at the time, which also constituted a generous portion Captain Max's inventory. The only discernable difference between the two containers was that the beer had been distinctively and appropriately marked with Charlie Kessler's Double Footprint signature, which indicated not only content of the container, but what was inside and, more importantly perhaps, where it came from. And as any self respecting connoisseur of fine adult beverages could surely tell you, that meant only one thing: it was brewed at the Lazy Hill distilleries which was first established by Ezra Kessler and his five sons, the family who first invented that famous rejuvenating elixir more commonly known as 'Creekwood Cornbrew', or beer. But that's another story altogether, and one that will have to wait.

Anyway, after the grand old ship had capsized and sank, the precious cargo of beans and beer simply floated back up out to surface, buoyed by their natural tendencies. From there they floated along the ocean current until such a time that the containers were, in fact, swallowed by a nearby passing sperm whale – a very hungry one at that. Now, exactly how all of this happened is difficult to explain. However, to lend credence to this otherwise incredible tale, and add to the accuracy thereof, captains of certain whaling ships that'd have sailed those very same oceanic currents supply ample testimony, along with written documentation, as to what might've actually occurred.

As one of these whale men, a young bright-eyed mariner with a flair for fiction and a taste for pathos who just happened to be in the general vicinity of where the unfortunate event was said to taken place, so descriptively entered into his journal one day:

'... And lo and behold! We observed a great spermaceti whale cruising off our starboard bow as we neared the Japanese coast. On captain's orders, and a half empty hull, we immediately gave chase. The solitary bull didn't notice us at first, appearing totally ignorant of our position, as well as our oblivious intentions. He had a magnificent spout, the signature of that much sought after species, flukes like twin spinnakers, and a great hump that rose out of the water like King Kufu's great pyramid from the sands of the Sinai.

We proceeded east at about five knots off the southern coast of Japan; and just prior to lowering the boats, the creature suddenly stopped, turned towards the boat, fan-tailed fin-out, and let loose a great burst of gas that shrouded the ship like a suffocating cloud of black smoke. And then something strange happened. God as my witness, the fishy fiend then looked straight up at the captain, who was by than climbing into one of the boats, pistol and spear in hand, and, and... grinned. That's right – the whale grinned! And as he did so, with a crooked jaw and so many bolts of ivory white teeth, the mammal upped those magnificent flukes high in the heavens as if beckoning pursuit. And then, just like that, he was off again like a shot, heading south, me thinks, cruising in the general direction of the Philippine Archipelago and leaving us in a fecal plume of its wasteful wake. Naturally, this only infuriated our brave captain, an old mogul with a short fuse and a long memory who, owing perhaps to the fierce reputation ascribed to captains of whaling industry in general, seemed to hold a personal grudge against leviathan, and this one in particular who appeared to have crossed his wrathful wake on previous voyages. The orders were given. We gave chase.

And so, we manned the rigging, putting every inch of canvass to the wind and pursued the indignant leviathan for two days and a night, hoping to harpoon the great fish and fill our hull in record time with enough spermaceti to light up old Manhattan for the next twenty years, and enough ambergris, the full Heidelberg Head, mind you, to scent all the perfumes of Paris. But alas, that was not to be, as yet another flatus forcefully burst forth from the warm-blooded brute proved too strong for both captain and crew to negotiate. The nocuous fumes filled the air so odorously that even the scavenging sea-gulls were afraid to light upon our nesting spars, and were of such a magnitude that we were finally forced leeward as the breaking wind turned suddenly and sourly against us. Overcome as we were in the ubiquitous stench of defeat, of which the flatulent whale, for whatever unfathomable reason, seemed entirely indifferent to, we thus gave up the chase. Even the captain was holding his nose by then, hurling every curse and blasphemy he could think of at the fleeing fish, the profanities of which, as the pious boatswain later had confided in me, would 'peel the paint off the Sistine Chapel!' as well as the barnacles from our own hulking hull.

Buoyantly bubbled up in a nocuous pool of his own gastronomical juices, the wayward whale merely seemed to laugh (if such a countenance could indeed be ascribed to a creature whose eyes and ears are so infinitesimally small, as compared to the rest of his massive hulk that is, that they can only be detected from viewing the mammal sideways, owing perhaps to the enormity of its bulky head, the length and berth of which has been measured to take up approximately one third of the fish's overall dimensions) whereupon it suddenly up-lifted its titan tail for a second time that day in the same horizontal salute affording both captain and crew a parting shot, a final gesture, it would seem, before plunging into the unsounded depths of its own polluted grave. But not without one last death-defying spout, the jet of which shot up – straight up! in one long vaporous fountain which hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity before showing down on captain and crew while cleansing the blood-stained decks in the process, and extinguishing the try-works where once the blubber boiled. Through the misty prism that followed, there suddenly appeared a great and glorious rainbow, not unlike God's mighty bow so colorfully set to rest in the heavens on the very first day of the New Covenant. 'Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti...' Aye! Saint John the Baptist could not have said it better... and our decks never looked so clean!

And so, waving goodbye to the grimacing god which we bid adieu with bewildering relief and good riddance, we settled instead for a half dozen or so humpbacks playing in the nearby atoll that proved a far more favorable game; less rendering in the commodities we had shipped for, perhaps, but more pleasant to pursue and easier to kill; and without that god-awful smell... that smell!'

And here the whale-man's journal abruptly ends. Whether or not the lowly Harley bean was, in fact, to blame for the leviathan's gastro-intestinal manifestations – the flatus, that is. Maybe it was just a bad case of indigestion, a poisonous patch of plankton, perhaps, or a disagreeable Jonah (surely, the old fugitive was not the only mariner to suffer such a fishy fate) that caused the whale's dyspepsia. We may never know. But then again, there are a great many thing we may never know, including those things we are not yet equipped to know, at least not on this side of Paradise. But it's a good story and, for all we know, both the hunter and the hunted lived on for many long and happy years doing what hunters and hunted do best; or maybe not.

Little Dick was right, of course: Harley beans do make you fart, as would any food with a high concentration of carbohydrates and protein; adding beer to the menu only intensifies the effect, like throwing gasoline on a fire, I suppose. In fact, at times they were ingested in large quantities for the sole purpose of producing the familiar and sometimes comical sound. It's no wonder that Harley beans became so famous and were in such high demand. And best of all, they grew in such quantities that you could find them just about anywhere, at any time; if not in the produce section of your local grocer, then perhaps sitting in a bottle on the counter of your local pharmacy.

From its humble origins, beginning perhaps in the soupy soil of some pre-historic swamp when all the continents were one, the Harley bean had long since proved itself, from a biological standpoint at least, to be one of Mother Nature's most reliable champions; for it has survived not only draught and pestilence, but Mankind itself! along with so many wars, revolutions, an ice age or two, and perhaps even the Great Flood itself, the waters of which have been documented to have at one time reached the very rim of the Americas, and beyond. Through it all, the bean survived, unlike the woolly Mammoth in its entire insulated splendor that perished, along with the dinosaurs, under such adverse conditions. It's a Harley bean, I say. And with any luck, it may one day make it through a nuclear holocaust and, just like the lowly but durable cockroach with its own natural body armor, will sprout its shell-shocked head and come crawling from the wreckage only to start the whole ugly process of evolution all over again, perhaps to a more peaceful and productive end. We can only hope.

But getting back to the pharmacological aspects of this potent little pill, the Haley bean also proved to best medicine of choice when it came to purging the bowels or, metaphorically speaking, removing the waste of Humanity from the system. And in this congested and constipated world in which we are all forced to live with one another, whether we like it or not, and without killing one another in the process I might add, what more could you ask for? What better remedy could find? And they were cheap, too.

"Strange how a bean that taste so good can produce such a bad smell," the surveyor noted, rather academically. Not only did Charles Smiley possess a keen and discerning nose for odors, most notably of the outdoor variety, but he also boasted a botanist's knowledge of natural herb and plant remedies far superior to that of your average Amazonian witch doctor, which, if you have chanced to explore the deep dark interior of those famous jungles with all their teeming tributaries supporting a vast array of herbs and plant-life, the like of which would not only fill a thousand or so volumes and stock an equal number of pharmacy shelves, but have Darwin's head spinning on a stick, is really saying a mouthful. It was an acquired taste, and talent. It came with the surveyor's profession, a job in which a keen sense of smell could be a curse as well a blessing; depending, of course, on what was being smelled at any given moment. "Mighty peculiar," observed Smiley. "Might peculiar..."

"They do put the pepper in your gumbo tho'," acknowledged Hector O'Brien, whose own young and resourceful wife would sometimes use the remedial beans to flavor her husband's favorite stew, "...if you know what I mean," he smiled. She'd claimed them to be a powerful aphrodisiac as well, and may've been proven right in that amorous regard, if the Hammer was any evidence to her fertile claim. They were also said to have promoted more regular bowel movements, which, at Hector's age, came as an added bonus and a welcomed relief.

Little Dick could not agree more. "Big Dick... I mean daddy, would eat em' all the time with his mustard greens, and beer. His show' loved those beans. Momma said they make him fart. She was right about that. Ooooo-Weeeee!" recalled the youth with one hand still pinching his nostrils for effect, "that smell! Why, one night it got to stinkin' so bad that momma chased him clear out of the house. I think daddy slept out in the barn that night. But he sure loved those beans... almost as much as he liked his beer."

Hector O'Brien wasn't surprised, naturally; and he seemed to understand. "God bless your momma," he said half-jokingly, standing tall in his stirrups to get a whiff of the odorous bean crop. And he meant it, too.

Webb was not so easily amused, however. "I don't know much about beans," he glibly admitted, "but I do know what trouble smells like. And it don't smell like any farts. Smells more like e'wals to me," he suspiciously added, unable to produce the word correctly absent the aid of his many missing teeth, particularly those in the front of his foul mouth required for such speech. Naturally, and perhaps predictably, whenever the toothless outlaw attempted to enunciate words with 'f' in them (and, to a lesser degree, those with 'r') it always came out sounding funny, a little awkward, and perhaps even embarrassing. Deprived as he was of those missing front teeth that had since dropped from his skull like so many diseased and worm-infested apples from the tree, it was simply unavoidable, That, combined with a sudden state of anxiety that presently overcame the toothless wonder, made it even more comical to watch. He was referring, of course, to the slaves, those wild aborigines, considered savages by all account, imported at one time from the mysterious islands of the South Seas that, despite their docile, and sometimes timid, appearance, and were thought to be cannibals at heart.

"Tain't no Ferals left in these here parts," insisted the surveyor, knowing his history as well as he did his botany.

"Hasn't been since the days of gold rush, and Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III, confirmed the Hammer who was indeed old enough to have personally known the infamous prospector with the bottlebrush moustache at one time or another. "And besides," he added with a hint of pitying sympathy uncommon for those of his seasoned and prejudiced years, "we don't use that word anymore. Ain't polite, you know."

"Well I still uses it," challenged Webb, as if he were somehow personally offended by the carpenter's unsolicited apology. And to prove his wicked point, the outlaw sprang up in his saddle and vomited out the word in question: 'Eeee'wallllllll!!! he howled, with gooey stream of spittle running down his tortured cheek. "There! You see? I just said it.

Being the only one present with any formal education, other than Hector perhaps, Little Dick Dilworth felt obliged to remind his fellow seniors of what he'd recently been taught in school. "They're called 'colored folk. Where've ya'll been? I thought you knowed that by now," he interjected with an air of superiority, which he probably shouldn't have, that often comes with youthful arrogance and inexperience. "Used to be called nig..." And here the young man stopped in mid-sentence, as he caught the towering black frame of Sam looming a little too close for comfort.

"Niggers," said the Hammer, completing the sentence as if extracting an unwanted nail from a green piece of wood.

And here the large Negro, who was still sniffing the air, turned his hulking head towards the old gray head. At first he appeared to grimace, but then he smiled; not because he approved of the carpenter's careless choice of words (he knew O'Brien better than that) but simply because he'd had long ago come to the realization that words, like sticks and stones and other weapons of personal destruction, could no longer harm him. By now he was scarred all over with them and, like the Perth the blacksmith once said, 'you cannot scorch a scar'.

"Well, I don't care what you call 'em," gummed Alvin. "I call 'em likes I sees 'em. And I damn well know an e'wal when I sees one. They's can'bals, I tell you! Just like the ones that ate up poor Cornelius. And that's what I smells now – e'wals!"

The truth of the matter was that Alvin Webb simply could produce the sound the letter 'F' without making a bigger fool out of himself than he already was. Actually, he did have one tooth left in his gingivitis gums. It was broken and brown, protruding loosely from his lower jaw, like a post that has been rotting in ground from too long. It pained him at times but, short of extraction, which as far as Alvin was concerned was out of the question, there was really nothing he could do about it; and he was too much of a coward to have it removed himself.

"They call themselves Harlies, Mister Webb," instructed Smiley, in the proper vernacular of the day. "And if you ever get your head out of your ass, or at least out of that @#$%^&*! bottle for a little while, you would know that Ferals ain't the same as Harlies. They never were! That's why Wainwright brought them along with him in the first place. Ferals do you call it? – of the cannibal persuasion.

The carpenter concurred with the surveyor's astute, if not charitable, observations in regard to the outlaw: Webb was an idiot, and a dangerous one at that. He also agreed with Smiley on another fine point. "The slaves Mister Wainwright took along with him up into the mountain were indeed Ferals. "I know. My brother, Jack, was there. He told me so. They were Ferals, alright, not Harlie. There's a difference, you know."

Sam knew, of course; but he didn't want to start the battle all over again; one war was enough and, in many ways, he felt like he was still fighting the first one. So he remained silent on the subject, which was probably the most prudent thing he could do at the moment.

But the outlaw persisted. "I still say Harlies and e'wals is the same thing. Just look at 'em. Black as sin! All of em'! Inside and out."

The Indian could see the anger, as well as the growing resentment, in Sam's big brown eyes. In many ways, he knew what was going on inside the black man's soul. In a comforting gesture of solidarity and friendship, he too remained silent on the awkward and sensitive subject the outlaw had intentionally stumbled upon. Besides, there was really nothing left to say on the matter, not in the presence of men like Alvin Webb anyway. It could get ugly. And it would. And so, for the moment at least, the Redman held his tongue, as well as his arrows.

Alvin didn't like being called an idiot. Most idiots don't, you know, at least not the smart ones. And he wasn't going to let it go so easily. There was one other person that day that could clear up the matter once and for all but, for whatever reason, he too had remained silent on the subject he himself was probably most qualified to discuss. And that was Homer himself. After all, he was there that day, along with the carpenter's brother. He knew what happened. He saw it with his own eyes. "Tell him, Mister Skinner," he begged the man riding out front on the big black horse. "You was there. Tell 'em what you saw. They're all the same. Ain't they?"

Homer shook his head, no. He'd heard this kind of talk before, and was aware of the many pejoratives and prejudices that existed in that regard. He didn't appreciate it; and he knew Elmo wouldn't like it either. He wished the outlaw, and everyone else for that matter, would just shut up and ride. The war was over. "Let it go," he loudly whispered.

But Alvin Webb couldn't resist one last insult. "Hawies... E'wals... Niggers... They's all the same to me," he repeated to himself, as idiots usually do, even in the disinfecting light of the truth manages to penetrate their untenable lies, refusing to make any clear distinction between the cannibalistic slaves imported from the Islands, unfairly tainted as they were with that horrible appellation, and the good and otherwise civilized 'colored folk' of Harley.

There was a difference, of course. The farmers of Harley were, for the most part, freed slaves turned sharecroppers who, ironically enough, had been put into that questionable position by the Great Emancipation himself when he freed the Southern slaves, excluding, for political reasons it would seem, their black cousins to the North. Harlies were actually much darker in skin tone than the Island Ferals spoken of so egregiously by the bigoted outlaw, and were generally more civilized and accustomed to the ways of the South. In realty, the Harlies had been living in that area long before the Ferals who were first introduced into the region by the renegade pirates who'd bought and sold them regularly on the black market, had ever arrived. But unlike the Islanders of Mister Wainwright's generation, who were actually of Oriental origin and by all accounts brought here illegally, the Harlies were a people whose perennial roots were clearly and ostensibly nourished in African soil, the sands of the Serengeti. They couldn't wash it off if they tried.

As for appellation in question, 'Feral', it was a term originally applied to those same aforementioned aliens brought over from the Islands of the South Seas to mine the Silver Mountains of the South, which, as it turned out, proved to be a Bonanza. They were brought over by pirates and sold indiscriminately to anyone who could afford them. The price for the human contraband was reasonably low at the time of the exchange, which, on account of where it originated form and who was supplying it, was quite understandable. By then, the transportation of slaves, from any part of the world, happened to be against the law. But that didn't stop those who still profited from the illicit enterprise, and it didn't stop people from purchasing the contraband. That's why they're called pirates. And that's why they did the things they did. They were only acting accordingly.

As for the Ferals themselves, they were not actually as wild as the term would clearly suggest, such as in 'ornery as a feral cat' or 'wild as a feral pig'. In some cases, and under the right circumstances, they may've been described as downright mild and easily domesticated, a trait rare among more common slaves of that era who, as evidenced by countless insurrections and mutiny, as in the case of the famous slave ship, Amistad, were considered less desirable by those who were willing to pay a higher premium for the domestic tranquility offered by the more docile Islanders.

Apparently, and appropriately some may say, they were labeled with the feral appellation for one particular reason, which is as bewildering today as it was at the time of its inception. You see, they all seemed to share, to one degree or another at least, that one dehumanizing characteristic that set them apart from all other races, free or slave. It was like this: From time to time, particularly when the darker forces of their natural instincts took over, and for whatever genetically encoded reason, the Ferals, or at least those inclined to such behavior, would do to the unthinkable. They would resort to practice Cannibalism. That is to say, they would partake of human flesh. It was a gruesome diet, and one not limited to the feral flesh itself, as witnessed by none other than Homer Skinner himself some forty years ago at the end of a long dark tunnel. They were cannibals alright, with all the superstitions and ambiguities attached to the subhuman title, but civilized in all other human aspects, or so it was said.

At first, their forbidden cravings were thought to be an anomaly, a mere cultural habit of a people who simply couldn't, or wouldn't, comprehend the difference between right and wrong; or perhaps, they just didn't know any better. Cannibalism was, and still is under almost all circumstances, a barbaric aberration diametrically opposed to civilization as a whole and limited to the Ferals themselves, or so it would appear. And, in some cases that may have been true; but not always.

For the most part, the Ferals were considered hybrids, something slightly less than human, but a little more than animal, or a mixture of both, perhaps; and, according to some anthropologists, a sort of 'missing link' in a long chain of human evolution that began in the primal soup of the dinosaurs and will end, presumably, when all animals, including man, will either become extinct or evolve into beings we could not neither recognize or imagine. God knows where, and in what diabolical form, these changes will occur, and what new life form will emerge from such a progressive transformation. But as one old English professor, a self-described 'dinosaur' destined to outlive his time, once observed, 'new does not necessarily mean improved, and progress if not always for the better'. Old habits die hard, I suppose, just like dinosaurs and old English professors. And if not for that one particular and peculiar habit of eating human flesh, mortal or immortal, the Ferals might've eventually joined the ranks of civilized society along with the rest of Humanity, and be equally doomed. Naturally, the slave traders had other plans for these fated and feral creatures, God and Nature not-with-standing.

As it were, the importers of the flesh-eating commodity tried their best to conceal this one singular detail regarding the feral menu from their potential customers (at least until the sale was procured and they were miles away from any legal recourse and reprimand the illegal transaction demanded) and were often successful, such as the case with Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III. But for that one abominable trait, hideous as it was by all reckoning, these Islanders were actually quite civilized in their own peculiarity and, as some would even go as far as to suggest, gentile ways. They neither drank nor fornicated, and appeared modestly content in all other natural aspects, exhibiting a shyness that, at times, would bring out the bully in those of us who were inclined to that kind of rude behavior. In some ways they may've even been considered 'dainty' by those ascribing to such toiletries, modestly picking the flesh from their sharply filed teeth after a fine Sunday supper.

Another curious aspect setting the Ferals apart from their African counterparts, along with their even more civilized Caucasian cousins, were their tattoos: those dark inscrutable lines indelibly etched into their skin in so many geometric patterns unique to their own cultural taste and environment. They, the tattoos, seemed to tell a story, each in its own dark and disturbing way, from savage head to cannibal toe in extreme cases, but always with a certain dignity attached to them that would somehow look inappropriate and out of quite place stitched on the ivory arm of any English sailor. In fact, it might be considered downright offensive to savage sensibilities, and just as insulting. It would be, in reverse, like a Zulu warrior donning a Scottish highlander's kilt and go marching off to war across the Serengeti plains of Africa playing Amazing Grace on Angus MacDougal's bagpipes; which come to think of it, would strike fear into the hearts of the most fearsome warrior, and quite a scary thought at that. But it just wouldn't do. Besides, it didn't make any sense. And neither did the tattoos.

Some were more pronounced than others, depending, I suppose, on various factors such as the age and sex of the living canvass on which they were inscribed, but owing more, I should also suspect, to the importance placed on that particular individual in a previous existence. On some Islanders, these same tattoos were hidden almost entirely, intentionally, shamefully in would appear in some cases, beneath colorful layers of contemporary clothing they wore either by choice or coercion, preferring them over the grass skirts and coconut palms of their tropical past, which they customarily wore, if they wore anything at all, in more mild and temperate climates, such as Tahiti and the lesser Antilles. And for all the weird and wonderful wildness ascribed to these so-called 'savages', they seemed to have adapted quite easily, almost naturally, to their present subservient condition. But alas, any attempts at converting them from their pagan beliefs were usually met with abject failure. But as one suspecting mariner once so eloquently observed: "Better a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."

Unfortunately, for the Harlies at least, the feral pejorative was not limited to the man-eating variety. At one time, the word was equally, and quite liberally, I might add, applied to the peoples of Harley themselves, having enough in common I suppose, at least from a purely visual aspect, with the wild islanders of the west to make such a presumptuous claim. But alas! Discrimination paints with a broad brush, and prejudice knows no boundaries. And so it was with the Harlies who, through no fault or desire of their own, were tagged with the dehumanizing label that so many had come to fear and distrust. Calling it unfair certainly didn't help.

Feral – The word is bad enough when applied to those for whom it was originally and erroneously assigned; how much more insulting when pejoratively attached to, or even associated with, those thought to be above and thus beyond its feral application, which included, of course, anyone who happened to be a shade darker than your average pale-faced Caucasian? Prejudice comes in all colors; and it crosses many lines. Naturally, the good folks of Creekwood Green who'd lived and worked with the Harlies (at a charitable distance, of course) were not at all immune to similar discrimination either. In fact, many of the poorer white farmers of European descent residing in those rural parts of the territory have been tagged with pejorative labels of their own, such as: 'Greens' or 'Crackers', the former more often associated with those who tilled the soil for a living, the latter of which was said to have derived the appellation from the distinctive sound made by the long whips of cowboys as they drove their herds across country. It was said by many a self-respecting 'Green' farmer or 'Cracker' cowboy whose God-fearing sympathies did not necessarily preclude the plight of his black brethren, even though slavery, at least in their own keen but sometimes jaded eyes, was a Biblically accepted concept, that given the choice between the whip or the word (that is, the insult) nine out of ten of them would choose the whip. And if you were to ask any one of these nine proud and independent agrarians for a reason behind such a painful preference, they would more than likely smile and say in all characteristic candor, 'the whip just sounds better, I reckon. And it don't hurt so much'.

Naturally, that same familiar cracking sound could also be produced by applying, in equal measure, that same tortuous device to the bare backs of slaves and criminals, achieving, and with similar effect, the same desired punitive results. Sometimes, it worked, other times it didn't, just like the word itself. No one knew that better than the Harlies themselves who were certainly no strangers not only to vicious verbal attacks, but the physical ones as well. They cut just as deep; the wounds were still visible. And they had the scars to prove it. But even they were not immune from inflicting such atrocities on their fellow man, and would occasional use the f-word themselves, on one another no less, with equal force and disparagement, and justify the abuse simply because they just happened to share the same skin pigmentation, which, of course, makes it alright in the eyes of the abuser. The same could be said for the 'Greens' and the 'Crackers'. Oh well, one bad turn deserves another, I suppose; and no good deed goes unpunished. Black or white we suffer from the same self-inflictive and un-healing wounds, and are equally doomed.

In either case, the pejoratives were generally ignored and the insults easily dismissed by all races, and on both sides of the Harley Gates. Reacting to such insensitivity and maliciousness only seemed to exacerbate the problem. Many simply tried not to. People are just cruel, I suppose, some more so than others. Ignoring them is not always the worst thing you can to do; but sometimes you have to make a stand, even if it hurts, or kills. There are always those that just can't resist stirring the pot of cultural diversity now and then; not to mix the ingredients into some kind of cohesive building material that would surely benefit the structure of society as a whole, but merely to aggravate the aggregate, to make things even worse by fanning the flames of hatred all over again. Alvin Webb was just one of these. He actually seemed to enjoy it when he could make someone as miserable as himself, which wasn't an easy task by any means. But Red-Beard was different. He saw no colors, made no distinctions, cast no aspersions. He merely hated for hates sake; an infectious phenomenon that respected no borders and knew no boundaries.

Despite a barbaric proclivity towards consuming the flesh of their fellow man, and as previously hinted upon, the Ferals in question were said to have otherwise been most accommodating in all other areas of human Endeavour, and easily domesticated by those who'd purchased them for their own selfish reasons and ill-gotten gains. At one time, they were in very high demand, particularly among the miners whose profits were directly related to the amount of tunnels they could dig at any given moment; and Ferals were, for reasons that defied human reckoning and according to the miner with the bottlebrush moustache, 'Best goddamn hole diggers money can buy!' And considering how cheaply he'd purchased them for, and how easy they were to maintain, even that was an understatement.

They ate very little, as far as we know, and sleep even less. The women were known for their vicious and voracious appetites, as well as their voluptuous bodies. They were gruesomely groomed with pointed rows of pearly white teeth sharply filed in the fashion of their customs and tastes. The male Ferals, being typically thinner than their female counterparts in all nonessential aspects, required even less sustenance and possessed a reputation for being diligent and hard workers; although, left to their own natural devices and pagan proclivities, they would just as well sit comfortably in their smoke-filled huts discussing, among other things, how fat and lazy women are in general, while their wives labored at home or toiled in the fields, gossiping, no doubt, about how stupid, weak, and thin men, in general, are. Well, at least it's nice to know some things never change; and that men will always be boys, and women will always be girls, no matter where you go in this wild, wonderful, and ever-evolving world of ours; and that things like chivalry and chauvinism, although they may take a leave of absence now and then, never really die.

But getting back to the subject at hand, and the source of a problem that was that was still being debated on both sides of the Iron Gates of Harley, even until this day. And that was whether or not the two displaced subjects, the Harlies and the Ferals, were actually related by blood, chromosome, or any other biological matter that could prove a common ancestry. The answer might best be left for the anthropologist or genealogist to decide; for they were, as a matter of physical observation, as similar as they were different, neither one appearing to be particularly indigenous to the same continent. In fact, it was difficult to say, if the Ferals were indigenous to any continent at all, as they appeared to possess the attributes of several distinct races, not least of all, the Oriental variety. But who ain't an alien? Tell me that! And except for maybe the native Indians – Who came first? Who knows where any of us came from. And who cares! And if this same anthropologist knows anything at all about the evolution and history of man, as he should, then he would certainly have to conclude that we are all Feral – Harlie, Green, or otherwise; and that we are inextricably linked to each other, whether we like it or not, and that have been since Adam. Furthermore, he might come to know, or at least speculate that, indeed, we've been cannibalizing one another throughout history, for the last four thousand years at least, mentally and physically, as well as mortally and culturally, ever since we first figured out just how to do it, and get away with it. It's only human.

Of course, if our Darwinian friend happens to be a Christian, and if he's an honest one, then he would be forced to concur that we are all equally in need of a little redemption now and then, along with the Salvation it provides. Who is to say were God, or evolution, will lead us? Or in what form we will be ten thousand years from now? Could it be that in the grand scheme of things we are only zygotes in our present state, embryonic wannabes, mere organic matter, little more than fetal tissue with no viable signs of intelligence or life, waiting for the next reproductive stage in the process of evolution to begin? And if that's the case, what do we make of the abortionist? Perhaps the next step of the evolutionary ladder, if that's what it truly is, will not be physical at all – but spiritual! Maybe what God has in store for us mere mortals is a metaphysical metamorphosis, if you will, a quantum leap that goes beyond the physical laws of nature, a vital transformation that transcends not only science but religion as well, an awakening of the soul that no one would have or could have ever predicted. The new man! And why not? It could happen, you know; just like it did a millions or so years ago when suddenly, and for reasons we shall never fully comprehend, a monkey in a jungle stood up on its simian hind legs and realized, perhaps for the very first time in its young transitional life, that it was... was – naked! But that's a matter of opinion, and something for all of us mortals, feral or otherwise, to come to terms with, if we haven't done so already.

Still there were those who insisted, as appearances would clearly suggest, that Ferals were not really 'colored' at all, at least not by their own definition, but were actually more closely related to that Asian race of Mongrels; perhaps, descendants of the Great Khan himself who went from Nomad to warrior overnight and conquered two continents in the process. They may've been more right than they were wrong, however; for in reality, the Ferals spoken of so ambiguously up until this point were, in fact, of Oriental origins, born and breed on the Eastern steps of Asia Minor; but not entirely, having made their way by boat, canoe, or whatever other migratory means available at the time, to the very ends of the earth, not unlike their Hunnish ancestors who ruled the world before them. In fact, they were of mixed blood and lineage; but more about that later.

Exactly how and when they'd arrived on the tropical Islands of the South Seas and beyond, where they were first discovered by seafaring missionaries in search of new souls to salvage, was a mystery for inquisitive minds to ponder and for anthropologists to debate. Consider also, the fact that these same aboriginal tribes had somehow managed to traverse the mighty Pacific from Madagascar to the Hawaiian Islands in little more that make-shift out-rigger canoes, isolated as they were from any other civilized shores, and you will indeed gain a certain respect, if not reverence, for these tropical nomads of the sea with their tattooed faces and naked bodies. But that's a story as old as antiquity, and for another time and place perhaps. Here we are concerned with the modern era and current state of affairs, namely, the Harlies and the Ferals.

Further separating, and thus dividing, the two aforementioned progenitors were more obvious and distinctive physical characteristics such as skin tone and eye color; the Island faction being graced, for the most part, with light brown eyes, fair olive complexions, and other physical features more common to those of the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern persuasion; but not quite. Considered by some to be the more civilized of the two imports, and despite their carnal inclinations, the Island Ferals were also know to exhibit qualities above and beyond their own savage reputation, although some might disagree on that.

Of the two specified groups, the Harlies had always considered themselves the superior race, if only in the sense that they were here first and, well...because, because they said so! But who was here before them...or the Greens? Or any of us for that matter! Of course, the Indians, or 'Redmen' as they are still called in many regions of Americas, were here before anyone. But even they had to come from somewhere. Perhaps, in that sense we are all natives, no matter who we are or where we come from. So where does the argument end? And does it really matter? It was often suggested that it was the Harlies themselves who'd first coined the infamous f-word; but that's never been entirely substantiated, either, as is sometimes the case in the uncertain and ever-evolving world of philology.

Prematurely proclaimed the inferior race, regardless of any similarities or genealogical connections, the Ferals were quickly relegated to the minority status they presently enjoyed, which was rarely ever challenged. Prejudice? Perhaps. It depends on your point of view, I suppose, and perhaps one's own insecurities; and it happened to everyone at one time or another, even the Greens and the Crackers whose parents and grandparents had suffered the same tyrannical whip, usually because of their religious beliefs, in the brave New World as well as the Old, which they'd fled from in the first place to escape such injustices.

The Harlies knew how it felt, which is why it seems just a little disingenuous (some have even suggested that it was the Harlies themselves who'd created the f-word, perhaps as a way of mitigating their own shame by simply displacing it on the shoulders of another) on their part. 'Guilt transference' might be one way of putting it put it, in more modern terms. And if that were the case, it simply didn't work; as the Harlies themselves quickly found out when they realized that they were no better, and perhaps a little worse, off for becoming the very enemy they'd fought so hard to escape from. Ironic... Ain't it? It may simply have been a matter of pride on the part of those who considered themselves, either rightly or wrongly, slightly higher in the pecking order of societal evolution at the time. We've all experienced it. But there was a time, of course, when pride was all that the Harlies had. Some things never change. And for that, they may be excused; but only for a while, and not without remorse.

In time, the Ferals had all disappeared, their own cannibalistic nature suggesting the instrument of their demise. As recalled by older generations that still spoke of such things in bewildering, if not downright disdainful, tones, it was a welcomed departure that could not have occurred a moment too soon. No one knew for sure whatever became of these feral subjects of servitude; but one would have to agree, or at least surmise, that Cornelius G. Wainwright III must've played a significant role in their strange and sudden disappearance which, in many ways, remained almost as mysterious as his own. Although the Ferals had, by all accounts, totally disappeared by then, the word remains even until this very day, the f-word, lingering within and without the Iron Gates of Harley, as it did for over a hundred years.


Pronunciation: (fēr'ul, fer'-) –adj.

1. existing in a natural state, as animals or plants; not domesticated or cultivated; wild. 2. having reverted to the wild state, as from domestication: a pack of feral dogs roaming the woods. 3. of or characteristic of wild animals; ferocious; brutal. 4. causing death; fatal. 5. funereal; gloomy.


The meaning, except perhaps in the last two definitions, is perfectly clear. It's a wild word; make no mistake about it. It speaks to us on a primitive, almost personal, level. It's wild, untamed, regressive, and animalistic in every sense. It barks. It bites. It howls. It stirs the imagination, conjuring up images of rabid dogs running wild in the streets, foaming at the mouth; diseased cats with overgrown claws and matted fur, eyeing us from the alleyways; pigs that once rolled mildly in the mud suddenly charging at us like Hannibal's elephants; or any other animal, having once been properly domesticated by its master, reverting back, for any number of reasons, to its original and natural state. And it's at this crucial juncture the animal forfeits all its former value as either pet or livestock, perhaps both, and whatever privileges it had attained in the elevated position it had once occupied, for what it once was – a beast. It is then deemed incorrigible, out of control; whereupon it is summarily shot and killed by any and all means necessary.


The word mocks us. It mauls us, making us do what in our own natural minds we dare not do, and makings us less than we are in the process; like an African lion recently escaped from the local zoo, whose basic instincts to survive are, to one degree or another and depending on the circumstances, really no different than our own; and perhaps a bit more merciful since, man, as it has been proven time and again, kills for the sake of killing, with ever increasing efficiency and more tortuous methods. And it comes back to haunt us: for we, as humans, having been granted dominion over all other creatures by the Creator of all living things, are directly responsible for the recidivism in the first place. In other words, we have failed. But we have a right to fail; animals don't. It's what separates the species. And with those rights comes responsibilities. It's the price we pay for being human, I suppose.


It's a painful word, especially when applied to humans. It hurts because it's supposed to hurt, like a kick in the stomach or a punch in the nose. It's an insult, a slap in the face, a strap across the back. It's a word that has crossed that irreversible barrier from adjective to noun, the original meaning of which has since prejudicially morphed into that which it no longer represents. Better if it had simply vanished from the lexicon of man altogether, along with so many other pejoratives etymology supplies us with through no fault of her own. It hits hard, goes straight for the jugular; and it never misses. It discriminates on levels be may not even be aware of; for like all pejoratives with their derogative connotations, it was a word use often enough by those it is meant to target who, out of anger or sheer frustration, are known to apply the same appellation to one another, quite liberally in fact, and with equal condemnation and hubris, which by the way should not surprise anyone. For instance, it is one thing for a Harlie to use the f-word in reference to another Harlie, and understandably so. It is something else, however, for anyone else, especially a Green or a Cracker, to make the inference or use of the offensive word in a likewise fashion, at least from the Harlies' point of view. You see, in the first case, the f-word may by harmlessly applied and taken as a term of recognition or even endearment (such as an older brother calling his sibling a 'nitwit' or a 'numbskull') with little or no malice attached to it, or in a comical sense. In the second case, however, this very same five-letter word is taken in its more literal context, and with every negative connotation attached to it. It is the ultimate insult, the height of condescension, patronization in its worse form. But don't be fooled. There's a serious difference in the two applications that should be carefully considered. In one, the use of the f-word could be easily excused, or even ignored, by all parties concerned. But when used in any other manner, the manner in which it was designed, it becomes the unpardonable sin.

The Islanders, the Ferals for whom the word was originally coined, for the most part ignored the f-word. What else could they do? They often joked about it... but in a strange and self-deprecating sort of way, which some found amusing as well as bewildering. When confronted with the offensive two-syllable word, either publicly or privately, they merely smiled and went about their business, which was usually something menial, like cooking, cleaning, or emptying chamber pots. They simply didn't seem to care, even after they'd found what the word, with all its bestial implications, really meant and stood for. In a strange and sadistic way, something students of Nietzsche might understand, it only seemed to make them stronger and even more resolute in their own stoic convictions. It also made those who lorded it over them that more suspicious of them in general, which only added to the confusion. They simply could not be trusted. And they weren't.

They were slaves, after all, who'd worked the mines and fields in that part of the world from sunup to sundown, all year round. They were first brought over from the Islands of the South Seas and sold by pirates in Old Port Fierce who participated in the outlawed practice of transporting and peddling human flesh, despite the New Abolition. Exactly where the pirates found this new labor force is still open to debate, although many had long suspected that they were sold to them by their own feral king, King Bobo, on an Island called Istari-Toa, or the Land of the Bleeding Rock. Who were they? Where did they come from? They weren't white, but they weren't exactly black, either. What were they? might be a better question.

But it was all a thing of the past. Freedom was the Law of the Land and the will of the people, or at least the people who counted, that is to say, the ones that won; and it would remain that way, for the time being. It was written in the Declaration of Independence and addressed, albeit in its own ambiguous and ambivalent way, in the Constitution itself. But wait! Didn't many of the Founding Fathers, Christians all, own slaves against their own moral consciences, better judgment, and even their better angels? Then why did they allow it to exist at all after July 4, 1776? you may as well ask. Anyone with half a brain and half a heart would surely see the hypocrisy here.

The answer to the slavery issue, at least at that time, was quite simple: Without it, the young Nation simply would not have survived. It would have died in the egg, its infancy, along with the chick pecking at its revolutionary shell. The Southern block was simply too strong. It would be a problem for another day, another time, and for someone else to deal with. Pass it on to the next generation – it's the American way! But by that time the answer to the slavery question was quite the opposite, and so was the question: How could the Nation survive – with slavery? The answer came this time, not with a capitulation, but with BANG! And History was changed forever.

Little did anyone know, or even suspect, that new forms of slavery, which were far worse than the old ones, were already waiting in the wings to fill the vacuum left by the war, and the emancipation that had precipitated it. Indentured servitude was one of these, and the working conditions were even worse. Whichever way you choose to look at it and whatever else you may like to call it, the practice of slavery was just plain wrong, morally and intellectually, and at last – legally. It was even wrong economically, as many of the landowners themselves would quickly learn, although you would never get them to admit it, at least not I public.

Slavery was an abomination, a calamity, a curse, an evil spirit that would haunt the land and poison the soil forever. Its demise was foretold in the crystal balls of sages, the counsel of the wise, and the tealeaves of gypsies. Slavery, like the great Dodo, or the giants of Patagonia, was doomed to extinction and relegated to the ash-heap of History were they no doubt belonged. It was a bloodstain on the fabric of Humanity that would never be fully expunged or expurgated. It was a disgrace. It was a debt that could never be paid; and thus, one that would never be collected; at least, not in Confederate dollars. Nor should it be! – the sins of the fathers notwithstanding. The Harlies seemed to understand. Slavery simply was something that was, even if it were not of their choosing. The legacy of these forgotten folk lived and died behind the Iron Gates of Harley. And that's why they called themselves Harlies. That's who they were. But what about the Ferals? surely, they should have benefited as well. They were, after all, human – Weren't they?

By the time of the Great Emancipation there were no more Ferals to be found, anywhere, or so it was thought. A common assumption of what became of these man-eating mammals was that they simply cannibalized themselves into extinction; an ironic way to go, if nothing else. A more realistic account was that they finally escaped their mining masters by means of their own nautical knowledge of the sea, which, despite their mountainous surroundings, they never fully abandoned. It's always a good idea never to forget past professions, the knowledge of which could someday prove indispensable, especially when a quick get-a-way is in order. The tools just might come in handy.

As it turned out, the Ferals were natural navigators and anglers, having proven themselves on the high sea in many regards and on many occasions, not least of all in battle. It was in their blood. It was also suggested, with evidence to prove it, that these same native islanders had once hunted the great Leviathan. And the fact that it was done in dugout canoes and bamboo harpoons only added to their prowess. And that's not all! A documented account existed of how a mutinous band of Ferals once commandeered their own slave ship from its Spanish owners off the coast of Peru. It is said that they piloted the fated ship all the way back to the Islands where they were absconded from; and they accomplished this, or so it was logged, with nothing more than the wind, the currents, the stars, and a bloodthirsty taste for Freedom to guide them through the perilous waters they seemed to be so familiar with. What they did to the captain and crew of the doomed vessel would soon become evident. For it seems that for the duration of the voyage, which spanned no less than fifteen hundred nautical miles, the Ferals never once lacked for food. But that, of course, is another story.

Whether or not the Ferals might've been freed along with the Harlies as a result of the Great Emancipation was a subject of scholarly debate. No one would ever know. But one thing they did know was that not all things had changed for the better, not even for the Harlies who, according to who you ask, were still at the epicenter of the conflict and fighting their own battle.

It seemed that shortly after the Great Emancipation both the Harlies and the Greens became even more distrustful towards one another and, perhaps, more spiteful in their own unique and discriminating ways. This may have occurred for a number of reasons. Wounds of the past heal slowly, if they heal at all, and some prejudices never dies; they simply takes on other forms and find new targets for their hatred. It was a gap that could never be successfully or completely bridged. There were those who suggested the gap was never meant to be bridged at all, relying on Scripture and their own prides and prejudices to back up their antiquated and unjust reasoning. Others simply wished that slavery never existed.

All worthwhile things take time, and Freedom's no exception. In a strange, ironic, and almost prophetic sort of way, it was the most vocal proponents of Emancipation, many of them slave owners right up to the end of the war, who may well have been responsible for making matters even worse by either breaking or bending the new laws to suit their own hypocritical agendas (with the help of a few good lawyers) before the ink was even dry on the paper they were written on. Jim Crow was alive in well, especially in Dixie where, as we all know, things happen slowly – like courtship and conversation – if they happen at all. It was a gap that could never be totally bridged; and one that would only grew wider with each passing generation, despite all efforts to narrow it.

Old prejudices die hard, and some wounds never heal. Just ask the Harlie. All the talk about Freedom...and the rights of man! Did it really work? Perhaps diversity is for crop rotation and pie baking contests after all, integration being a necessary evil at best. But that's what makes it so difficult. That's the problem. They're all just words, and words can be misconstrued. They hurt. They mislead. Sometimes, they kill. And they never fully convey what's really going on inside human heart, where wars really begin.

The problem was plain as black and white, but the blood on the battlefield is always the same color red; and it doesn't really matter whose it is or where it came from. It may've flowed voluntarily, as it did from the proud veins of the Confederate soldier from Alabama who couldn't understand exactly why anyone would want to make him change his way of life, denying him his Constitutional and unalienable rights in the process. On the other hand, that same blood could've easily been drawn, and in equal measure, from the icy arteries of New York City Yankee, drafted and spliced into the Union Army by the cooked politicians of Tammany Hall and the Five Points, like that of the poor Irish immigrant who could barely feed his family, much less himself, and marched off to fight Mister Lincoln's war with a musket in one hand and a John Brown's Bible in the other.

Or perhaps it was merely the inferior blood of a poor slave that nourished the cotton fields of old Virginia, like it had for so many years, who was fighting for nothing more than an acre of land to call his own and, perhaps, a little peace of mind. Either way blood flowed, red. It's the color of Ahab's pennant, the color of war, the primary pigment dyed into the fabric of both standards, whether it was the stars and strips of Old Glory or the Southern Cross of Old Saint Andrew.

It was Yankee Doodle Dandy and Dixie, together, as they should've been played all along. They really don't sound very different, you know. Think about it! Or better yet, if you happen to be musically inclined, try this little experiment sometime: Simultaneously, if you can, play both tunes together, 'Yankee Doodle' and I wish I were in 'Dixie' at the exact same time, and see what happens! If you are a good musician and as skilled on your instrument as you should be... well then, you will perhaps learn something you might've known all along. For when you play the two old songs together, as one, you will quickly notice something strange and wonderful happening: a brand new song has emerged. That's right! You got it! It's 'Yankee Doodle Dixie! Of course. And it's beautiful, man! Listen to how naturally it sounds: how north and south blend together, in perfect harmony, as if scored by the same musical mind. It's the way they're supposed to be played; the way it was meant to be all along, like the black and white keys of a fine old piano, in perfect time and in perfect tune. It was a marriage of necessity as well as convenience, as most successful marriages are, and one that should last, despite the occasional conflicts that arise now and then is such great and noble Institutions, forever.

Not all marriages end in divorce, of course; some just separate, temporarily, we should hope; but not without the grief and pain that goes along with it which, in one sense, is a the best reason for not getting divorced in the first place. Sometimes it's simply unavoidable, as in the case of Yankee Doodle and Dixie, that famous couple whose marriage also got off to a very rocky start. It was a bitter divorce – most usually are – predicted by some over a few arguable lines in the original contract, something about all men being created equal. It was enough to put the honeymoon on hold, for a while at least, until they would meet again under different circumstances in places like Gettysburg and Appomattox which, in more charitable times might have provided a pleasant platform for two young lovers to meet; a place where gentlemen could sit and sip their mint juleps in peace, tell long stories and smoke even longer cigars under a mild Maryland sky rather than trying to murder one another over something they really didn't understand and had very little to do with. And the banners that draped the bodies at Gettysburg were not so different after all: stars and bars; red, white and blue; cut from the same course cloth, dyed in blood, spliced together, and ran up a flag pole in Baltimore Maryland one star spangled evening at Fort McHenry. At the end of the battle, the flag was still there, and so were the stars and bars, arranged a little differently, perhaps; but they were still there. And no one died in vain.

So, show some gratitude and perhaps a little respect for those bloody banners and broken bodies. They fought for what they believed in, rightly or wrongly, and just as bravely and boldly, as all good soldiers do; they would expect nothing less. They fought for freedom. They fought for their families, their country and king. But most of all, they fought for each other, these battered, bloody bands of brothers; and for an uncertain future they could only seen darkly through myopic clouds of war. Some fought for themselves, selfishly, perhaps. And what's so wrong with that? Hey, at least they fought. And that's the reason we celebrate them, no matter what colors they wore, or whose banner they flew. And for Christ's sake, never forget them, any of them, black and white, 'Johnny Reb' or 'Paddy P'tayda-head', wherever theses great souls now rest in God's Eternal Fields. Was it worth it? Well, let's just say that's for you to decide. You be the judge. And while you're at it, say a prayer, for all of them – Will ya? That's what brothers do. And they were your brothers, too.

Homer once tried to explain the sad and simple truth to the boy from Harley, the 'Lucky Number' he was hoping to find that day. 'Takes a might getting use to,' he told his Harlie friend one day shortly after they'd met, '...this Emancipation thing.' What the old man was trying to do at the time was instill in his new young friend a sense of worthiness, which, as any old man can tell you, comes only with time, experience, and maybe a little forgiveness. 'Pride goeth before the fall', warns the prophet. 'And the meek shall inherit the earth', preaches the minister. 'A little humility never hurt anyone,' the wise man reminds us. And 'the only free man is a dead one', both cop and criminal might add as the hammer comes down and the bullet meets the bone. Of course, they're all right, in their own judicious self-serving way.

'It's kind of like a new pair of shoes...' Homer once elucidated from the saddle, referring, of course, to the black stud between his tired old legs, "this Emancipation thing. Got to be broken in proper like... like ol' Blackie here. See what I'm gettin' at, boy"? he beseeched his newly emancipated friend in a firm and fatherly tone. "Takes a might gettin' use to... freedom, that is. And it ain't that easy. Some folks find it more difficult than others. But that's the price we pay for being human, I 'spose. We's all sinners, son. And we all have our crosses to bear. It's just that some are bigger than others,' he continued, referring, perhaps, to the very large and life-like crucifix he'd kept inside his barn all these years, and one he planned to put to good and proper use one of these days, in all its gory glory. 'And that goes for Greens and Crackers, too! As well as Harlies. Am I getting' thru to you, boy? I say – am I getting' thru!' he would enunciate in the familiar 'Fog-horn-leg-horn' style gentlemen of the South often come to rely on when confronting the innocence, ignorance, and oblivion of youth.

Had Homer been more inclined to incorporating parables in his awkward and sometimes illogical apologies, the way many great teachers do (and often with great success, as evidenced by a humble carpenter from Nazareth) he might've tried something along the lines of: Freedom might very well be described as an incredible thirst. Think of a man dying in the desert from dehydration. He'll drink his own urine, and it just might save his life; but it's hard to swallow. A sailor at sea adrift in a lifeboat knows from practical experience that even a mouthful of salt water will drive him insane and, sooner or later, kick him; and so, he wisely resists the temptation. But let either of these two unfortunate souls be suddenly and miraculously presented with the Holy Grail itself, filled to the brim with the cool, clear, life-giving water of salvation, and he will undoubtedly (if not prevented from doing so by some metaphysical power beyond his control or comprehension) drink himself into an early and un-necessary grave if he didn't know any better. For as any good doctor who knows anything at all of the human anatomy, will surely prescribe: 'Small sips at first, if you please. Dink and live! But do it slowly, moderately; and drink it to the dregs! Ask any veterinarian if it is wise to kennel a wild animal from birth in the benevolent but ignorant hope of domesticating the poor creature, and he will laugh in your face. Then try asking him if suddenly returning that same wild animal back into its own natural environment (among predators it'd never learned to defend itself against) in a mistaken moment of mercy and regret, and he will (if he doesn't report you to the authorities and have you thrown in jail first for cruelty to animals) tell you that the only way it can be accomplished, if it can be accomplished at all, is slowly, and with great care and consideration.

But wait! We're talking about people here – Ain't we? Not animals! Well, yes; but, like I said, it's just a parable. And when you get right down to it, we're all animals anyway, at least according to the Evolutionists. The point here is: Freedom takes time. And it ain't cheap. Nor is it always desirable, as Moses found out while herding a half million stiff-necked Israelites through the Sinai who realized that they may have been better off baking bricks for Pharaoh, where they at least were fed, rather than dying in the desert with a old and a staff who they would just as soon stone to death. Freedom, as the songwriter says, may be just another word for nothing left to lose; but it sure don't come easy. And it certainly isn't free. That's all the old man was really trying to say that day, albeit in his own bumbling but benevolent way. It was something Elmo had already suspected but never quite understood. It should never for granted, either; no matter how great or small the measure. And he was right about that, too.

'Freedom is not something we deserve, but rather something we earn', explained Homer. 'And sometimes it comes with a price tag; a price that, more often than not, has to be paid in blood. Liberty is not to be taken lightly. It is not an entitlement; and it is never guaranteed. Freedom brings with it certain rights, and those rights bring responsibilities, which is the real difference between man and animal; the only thing an animal is responsible for is survival. Freedom's not for the weak or faint of heart; and it may not for everyone. And it don't happen overnight, either.' What the old man was really trying to say was that, like all altruistic things, Freedom takes time, for everyone. 'Not so fast, son. Not so fast! he warned in typical fatherly fashion. 'Just give it some time'. Whether or not Elmo Cotton actually agreed with the old man is hard to say. Old men say strange things sometimes and, like everyone else, I suppose, they don't always say what they mean. But he loved him just the same; and that that's what really mattered, of course, to both of them.

The Harlie was always patient and polite with the old man, as he was with most older folks, just like his grandmother would wanted him to be; if he only knew who she was. 'And Watch your step, son! Better a chain around your leg', further admonished the kindly old man on an issue he'd always feared might one day tear the two of them apart, 'than a chain around your heart.

'Or a whip 'cross yo' back...' the Harlie would often remind him, having been whipped himself not too long ago and for no other reason than being born on the wrong side of the Iron Gates of Harley, although it really wasn't necessary. Elmo knew what Freedom felt like. It felt like pain. It bled. It hurt! And for the most part, he still wasn't sure what it was.

Homer Skinner was one of the first ones to embrace the new Emancipation Law when it finally was introduced to the Southern states, much to the confusion and consternation of friends and neighbors who were not so accommodating, along with the entire Confederate army. Needless-to-say, it did not apply to the slaves residing north of the Mason-Dixon. It was understood, at least among his constituents, that Mister Lincoln's new Law was aimed like a cannon directly at the Southern states, primarily a political tool, rhetorical propaganda to swell the Union ranks with fresh blood, even if it was only the blood of slaves. In his own masterful and strategic mind, the Great Emancipator reckoned the Negro would fight just as bravely for his noble and altruistic cause as any damn Yankee, if for no other reason than revenge. He was right about that. The slaves did fight! But they fought on the Confederate side as well, if the truth be told. Oh well, I guess, in the end, we pick our own fights, and our own enemies. And you can't squeeze blood from a turnip, as Mister O'Brien would say.

Homer never did hold a grudge against those that resisted abolition, and remained friends with many a young southern soldier long after the war ended, handing out cider and cigars to the wounded rebels as the picked up their dead and headed home; not with their tails between their legs, or wearing a dress as Jefferson Davis was caricatured at one time, but with their pride, and their manhood, fully intact. Homer applauded them all. It was the right thing to do; the gentlemanly thing to do. And besides, residing as he did in a border State, it was also the wise thing to do. For a while there were those who choose to ignore the new Law, like the miners for instance, who'd maintained and kept alive a bitter and bloody feud that only ended shortly after they were forced to free their human contraband or face military reprisal. In the end, they capitulated. But they never forgot, or forgave, those who took away their own 'free lunch', along with their property and, perhaps, a little bit of their Southern pride. And they weren't the only ones. After they had gained their freedom, the Harlies reacted accordingly by holding some grudges of their own, which were manifested in occasional hostilities directed towards the Greens whenever the two would sometimes congregate in churches, courthouses, and other social arenas open to the general public... with separate facilities, of course. It was a mutual distrust, as relationships sometimes are, healthy or otherwise. And it was still there.

Homer Skinner always had a kind word and a helping hand for any hard-luck story that chanced to pass his way, Harlie or otherwise. He realized, of course, that Negroes were still very suspicious of the white man in general, perhaps more so now than ever; and he really couldn't blame them. One of those stories was Elmo Cotton, the Harlie whom the old man had befriended one day shortly after the war when they were first introduced to one another by Joe Cotton, Elmo's uncle who would sit in his rocking chair on his front porch catching horseflies in his big brown hands with a speed and agility that amazed just about everyone. He came to love Elmo almost like the son he never had. Despite public criticism and prejudice that still existed on both sides of the Iron Gates of Harley, Homer always treated him as such. The old man didn't call him a Harlie either, and he certainly never called him a Feral. He just called him Elmo, because...well, that's who he was.

As the party of eight rode through the muddy roads of Harley, they watched with bewildering pity as the poor farmers worked the land with bent backs and black faces. These were the farmers of Harley who lived on the other side of the iron gates. They wore stitched overall jeans with no shirts. The ones that could afford them had shoes. The women of Harley were there as well, gathering up the famous beans in long white aprons while sweetly singing 'In the Color of the Lord', an old hymn they'd been singing since... well, since they were old enough to sing, which for a Harlie is usually as soon as they can open their mouths.

It was harvest time in Harley, and so the women were naturally more busy than usual. They hardly noticed the eight strangers coming down the road that day; and even if they did, you would ever know it. And so, they just kept right on singing and toiling, as if the two were one of the same. And they were doing it all 'In the color of the Lord', just like they always did. It sounded almost... almost, like a prayer:

In the house of the Lord, I'm a'prayin'!

In the light of the Lord, I see!

In the fields of the Lord, I'm a'singin!

In the color of the Lord, I'll be!"

Chapter Five

The Lucky Number

THE HOUSES OF HARLEY were small, shacks actually, simple wooden structures held together with little more than a few two by fours, some rusty nails, and a tin roof. They had no basements, of course; only a few had windows. Many of these homes had been constructed – rather hastily, it would seem, on brick stem-walls rather than solid foundations, especially those nearest the swelling banks of the Redman River.

During the rainy season, which typically lasted from April thru the end of July, the streets of Harley would often flood, making travel all but impossible; if you ruled out boats, rafts and anything else that might float. At times the water level would reach such alarming proportions, flooding not only the streets but many of the homes as well, and washing away much of their meager bean crop in the process. It was just one of those things you learn to live with, I guess, like your in-laws coming to visit once a year.

The good and decent folks of Creekwood Green helped as much as their conscience and resources would allow; and the Crackers as well, if they weren't too busy driving their hungry herds cross-country, which took up a great deal of time. It was usually too little and too late, but appreciated never-the-less; and what little they did receive, the Harlies would, for the most part anyway, always pay back, either with a good strong back if and when one was needed; or better yet, a sack of Harley beans. And if that weren't available, a good old 'Harlie handshake' would always do.

With very few exceptions, almost all of the farmers in Harley were sharecroppers. They had little or nothing to call their own, except for maybe the clothes on their backs, which someone else had probably owned before them. They didn't even own the shacks they lived and died in. Everything, it seemed, belonged to the landlords, including the land itself, which the farmers worked from sunup to sundown, and sometimes, depending on the time of years, beyond that. They bought what little they needed to survive, mostly dry goods and food, from these same greedy landlords who sold them at inflated prices at makeshift general store or behind closed doors. What they couldn't buy, they borrowed; what they couldn't borrow, they simply went without. Unless...

At times, the landlords would loan the farmers the money they needed to sustain themselves, but with interest rates that would make a New York loan shark blush. Not being able to pay them off would only drive the sharecroppers further into debt, which, in a strange and paradoxical way made them even more valuable, to the landlords anyway. It was a never-ending cycle of dependency, poverty, and despair that made the landlords richer and the farmers poorer. Like they say: some things never change.

Expressing little or no interest in the general welfare of the indentured bean farmers, the landlords (whom themselves had been slaves at one time, albeit of a higher class and order than, say, your typical Negro in a previous existence, but slaves never-the-less) were in many ways no different from their former task-masters who, obviously, had taught them well. Through extortion, fear, and perhaps a little favoritism, they became just as rich and twice as cruel as their evil predecessors under the new system known as 'Indentured Servitude'. It was really nothing more than legally sanctioned extortion disguised as free enterprise and masked in unattainable rewards. It was all stick and no carrot. But it worked! And it worked rather well; at least within the Iron Gates of Harley.

Historically speaking, the town of Harley was first settled by one, Erasmus Harley, shortly after the war. It was for him that the town was properly named, and deservingly so many would certainly agree. It happened at the time when slavery, was officially abolished from the land and became a thing of the past. Old Erasmus was awarded a generous parcel of land (forty acres to be exact) and a mule, shortly after the war.

Of course, there were those who'd claimed that Emancipation was merely a convenient excuse to centralize political power at the expense of the farmers, miners and anyone else who profited from the whip and chain in the pursuit of 'free labor' which, when you get right down to it, really wasn't 'free' at all.

Slaves were considered a valuable commodity at one time, a natural resource, and a great asset to those who purchased them, feral or otherwise, and were treated, for the most part, with great care and respect; just like you would treat any piece of personal property, such as a prize bull or a good stud. It didn't make it right; but it made sense. Some were eventually freed in return for their many years of faithful, if not so voluntary, service; and they were grateful for it, too. Despite the evil institution that was responsible for bringing them together, albeit not in the ways they would have preferred, many a friendship was said to have developed between master and slave during that time; and friendship, no matter how it comes about, is a thing to be cherished, and not to be taken lightly. In some cases it might have even called considered... affectionate. But there are always exceptions. Cornelius G. Wainwright III was just one of these exceptions. He treated his slaves cruelly, right up to the cruel and bitter end. And for that alone, he became infamous. He only got what he deserved, as many would agree.

But there was hypocrisy to be found in all quarters. It had always been a curious fact that those who cried 'Injustice!' the loudest were always the first to flee whenever a Harlie happened to cross their self-righteous path. In fact, it was the abolitionists themselves, many of them die-hard Unionist, that somehow managed to hold on to their human chattel the longest, right up until the end of the war in many cases, claiming they were only doing so out of fear of being put out of business themselves if and when their altruistic cause was finally realized. They were the biggest hypocrites of all, of course, hiding behind their white sheets of anonymity, and certainly no stranger to Jim Crow and his many illegitimate children. But at least they were honest about it, which is more than could be said for some others who were no more than sanctimonious carpetbaggers with political axes to grind.

When the great day of Emancipation finally arrived, Erasmus Harley wiped the surly dirt of Old Port Fierce from his bare muddy feet and never looked back. Some say the old manservant cried that day, on account of he and his former master had been, in spite of popular misconceptions and perhaps even themselves, the best of friends for so many years.

In many ways the Emancipation, and the end of the war it precipitated, was a sad time for Harlies as well as Greens. The chains were gone, literally if not figuratively, but the memories remained; and not all of them were bad. Some bonds can never be broken, nor should they. I'm taking about the good ones, of course. They live on through trial and tribulation, through the good and bad, even under the weighty yoke of injustice. They may even have existed between slave and master at one time, growing only stronger with each passing year, mutually benefiting both parties, despite the circumstances they were forged under. What begins in sin does not necessarily have to stay that way. Love has a way of seeing through such disguises. It has many faces, and comes in many colors. And of all the faces of love, is there any more pure and noble, more pleasant, more comfortably reassuring, more understanding, more real, or more lasting than the familiar face of friendship? It's a simple bond, but made of the strongest stuff. It's thicker than blood and, unlike mischievous Cupid or unpredictable Eros, you can always count on Friendship. Friends know where they stand: not in front of or behind one another, the way lovers often do, but side by side, shoulder to shoulder, always equal to themselves. True Friendship has no jealousy and holds no grudges; and in that sense, you might say that it's the most innocuous and inclusive love of all. It can be found almost anywhere and at anytime – where we work, play and pray; often when we least expect it, and sometimes between the most unlikely of bedfellows, including the slave and his master. Would it be anything less than a sin to break such a formidable and sacred bond? The Bible doesn't think so. And whether those bonds are forged on friendly front porch step where neighbor meets neighbor over a friendly game of checkers, in the halls of academia, in churches and playgrounds, on the bloody fields of battle where the weld is considered virtually inextricable, or even in the dark and dirty dungeons of slavery, the union holds. The bond cannot be broken, or compromised for that matter, despite position and protocol, politics and religion, master and slave. And in the case of the later, severing such a bond would surely be more evil than the Institution that initiated it in the first place. It's no wonder the master of Monticello was often seen in the company of a beautiful young black girl who, if history was to have anything to say about, which it usually does, was not only Mister Jefferson's mistress but the mother of at least one of his many children.

And such was the case with Erasmus Harley when, with the gentle but resolute stroke of a pen, the old slave suddenly found himself free, for the first time in his long hard memory, and on his own. And it happened so quickly that it frightened poor Erasmus at first, so much so that he actually doubted his own freedom for many days to come, suspecting that is was merely a temporary condition to bring the war to a much needed end, at which point he and his family would be put in their proper place, where they belonged. But it was not temporary; and it was real, at least from a political standpoint.

Erasmus left his master's farm one day with a fat wife, five daughters, a son, one mule, a pig, a few chickens, and the clothes on his back. Along with him, he also took a name, Harley, which was all he would accept from his former master, Mister Buford Harley. He was actually offered much more for his faithful years of service, but Mister Erasmus Harley was a proud and stubborn man; and he didn't want to be obliging to anyone, not even Buford Harley who had always treated him and his family with kindness and, need-less-to-say, a great deal of respect.

"Thank'ye... But no, Mister Buford," Erasmus was known to have proudly stated on that glorious day of Emancipation. "But I must be gettin' on my way now. You's done me right, treated me fairly, and I respects you for that. I surely do. You's been good to my chil'runs, too. But look'ye here, Mister Buford," explained the old Negro that same sad day, "I's been obligin' to folks my whole life. And I ain't a'gonna be obligin' no mo'. I's on my own now. And that's the way I likes it. So, let's just calls it even and goes our separate ways. I'll be seein' you, sir. So long, Mister Buford. Goodbye now. May the Heavens bless you." So with tears in his cloudy blood shot eyes, the old slave departed his master. Needless to say, Buford Harley cried on that day as well.

Well within the confines of Iron Gates of Harley, in the front of a small wooden shack stood a young, dark woman slowly pumped her churn. She was wearing a long red dress that came clear down to her ankles beneath an equally long white apron tied tightly about the waist. It made her mid-section appear a little too small for the rest of her delicate frame, which only added to her natural feminine beauty. There was a kerchief tied neatly in a knot in the front of her head exposing just a hint of her tight black hair. She looked both serene and sad while softly singing a haunting melody in rhythm with each stroke of the churn. She was a barefooted beauty with strong but subtle arms, large dark eyes, and the proud profile of a Nubian princess. Her legs, or what could be see of them, were long, powerful, and seductive, like two lovely dark pillars gradually tapering down from a well rounded backside riding characteristically high off the ground. It was a distinctive quality, common among those of her race, particularly the women of Harley who could, as the saying goes: "...can raise a blister on a brick with just one look!" It was just something engineered into their African gene pool, I suppose, a special kind of sexuality intended promote reproduction and ensure the survival of the this ancient and noble race. It worked.

At her feet sat a little brown boy. He was playfully teasing a black-spotted rooster with a carrot he was supposed to have feed to the mule. He was laughing, with that mischievous smile common to all little boys. He almost looked as though he was born with a grin.

"Mornin', Miss Nadine," smiled Homer Skinner, climbing slowly down from his overburdened horse. "Up a little early – Ain't you?"

"Mornin' to you, Mister Homer," she politely replied, glancing up with a slightly uneasy but welcoming smile. "My husband's inside. I go gets him for you."

"Take your time, Nadine. Ain't no hurry."

While waiting outside, the old man rested his hand on the boy's nappy head. Lil' Ralph stared quietly up at the familiar white ghost with dark inquisitive eyes. The others stirred in their saddles and watched as the woman pumped herself up the stairs in a way that appeared strangely inviting, the halves of her buttock rising and falling with each seductive step. They couldn't help but stare. It was not an unpleasant sight. It was the kind of walk that reminds a man of where he came from.

In less than a minute there appeared at the door a bare footed young man wearing no shirt and dressed in a pair of old soiled overalls, and nothing else. He was a poor man, as most Harlies are, with curly brown hair, a slender build, and a soft growth of whiskers around his mouth and chin, the sides of his face not yet developed enough to grow a proper beard. Some may've considered him a boy, as more than one of the four horsemen had already decided upon first impression, despite any evidence that might have suggested otherwise. He was sharecropper, of course; that much was obvious. But he was also a Harlie, which wasn't so obvious. You see, this Harlie was different. His eyes were unusually bright, with that bluish green tint you sometimes find in the African eyes of Mulattos residing in the Lesser Antilles, or thereabout; inherited through one of their aboriginal ancestors, or perhaps a former slave-master; either way, they were both striking and bold, and reminded one of the sea. And he had a rather light complexion; for a Harlie, that is. And his hair was not quite right, absent the tightness and thickness of curl commonly found on your average Negro head. Some found this confounding, confusing and, in an ambiguous sort of way, most disturbing, especially the bigoted outlaw who was about to fire the first shot through his one last tooth, when Homer cut him off him off with a dismissive wave of his hand.

"Well, boys," said the man on the black horse with a sudden surge of confidence that had been suspiciously absent from his countenance up until just then, "Now we're ready to begin."

There was no immediate response; only bewildering looks of confusion, mixed, perhaps, and a hint suspicion. Only one of them looked genuinely angry.

The wiry surveyor was the first to break the silence. "This what you dragged us all the way out here for, Homer? Is this what you wanted to show us? A damn Harlie!"

Homer pretended to look surprised. He'd been expecting just such a reaction all along, although not necessarily from Smiley, whom he thought would be more open minded on the matter, in the Socratic way he was famous for. "Not just any Harlie," he challenged the moustache. "He's our... our, lucky number – Number nine!"

It was something he'd been waiting to say for quite some time now, never quite sure exactly how he was going to say it, or when. The idea of a' lucky number' first popped into his head not too long ago when, after carefully examining his henhouse one morning after a late September frost as he was want to do, Homer noticed that all but one of the chicks he'd placed there the night before had died. It wasn't out of the ordinary; things like that happened all the time; and besides, no one had predicted the freeze. To add to the tragedy, it seems that Mrs. Skinner had, through no real fault of her own and with no malice towards fated foul, killed the mother hen for supper the night before, leaving her orphaned avian brood with no mother to protect them from the chilling winds that suddenly came down from the mountains that very evening. The chick that lived was one out of nine. And it was black.

'Just one of those things..." Homer sighed in the cool autumn air that day. "Can't be helped."

Since then, Mrs. Skinner refused to kill any more chicken, leaving the grizzle task to her husband instead, who, being no stranger to the pains of remorse and perhaps feeling a little more guilty than he should have over the unfortunate incident, had trouble digesting his southern fried chicken ever since. But the miraculous survival of 'number nine', a little black chick with a solid patch of white across its newly born breast, seemed to take away the sting of the shame. Over time, the little black chick developed into the full grown rooster, tall and proud, with a stalk of bright red tail feathers. It was the same bird Little Ralph was presently playing with out on the lawn that day, and making such a fuss over. It was number nine, the same little chick that had survived the winter wind, along with Mrs. Skinner's frying pan; and the same number nine Homer had been contemplating ever since; the one he hoped would explain to the others his unalterable intentions of bringing the Harlie along on his final journey. It was a good a story as any. And it was actually true!

Red-Beard wasn't at all surprised. In fact, you might say he'd been expecting something like this all along from the old man. He knew Homer was up to something, ever since they'd left Creekwood Green; he just couldn't put his mechanical finger on it. Earlier that day, he'd suspected that the old man might've lost his nerve, as well as his mind, along with his senses, and maybe even his taste for gold; and was now merely attempting to extricate himself from a situation he would just as soon abandon for whatever reason old men do such things. Red-Beard would just have to wait and see, along with the others whom, by all appearances, might've been having similar thoughts by then.

The young man standing in from of them was no stranger to at least one of the four horsemen that day. Little Dick acknowledged the young man from Harley with a nervous glance, then quickly turned his head. It seems they'd met once before, but under different and more trying circumstances. It was an awkward moment, for both of them; and only they knew why. They suddenly found themselves wishing they were somewhere else at the moment... Anywhere!

Elmo returned the young man's glance with one of his own, and then looked away just as quickly, the way estranged lovers sometimes do when confronting one another in unexpected places and under unpredictable circumstances. There was nothing left for them to say to one another. It was over and done with. They might forgive one another someday for what'd happened; but they simply couldn't forget. How could they? The damage was done. All that remained were the scars, which, like some old war wounds would never quite heal, physically or emotionally. And they were still there, like those still visible on the naked back of the Elmo Cotton, the Harlie.

Dick Dilworth could still see those scars, even now, beneath the blue denim straps of his overalls as Elmo slowly turned his back on the one man on earth he could never, ever, forgive, or forget.

The scars were put there to remind the Harlie of a crime that, in his own self-righteous judgment, and perhaps that of a few sympathetic on-lookers who where the day of the trial, was never committed. And it was for that one specific criminal act, the details of which were never quite adjudicated, that had linked the two young men together in an inextricable bond. It was a crime that had not only put the Harlie behind bars for the first and only time in his young and inexperienced life, but one that earned him his stripes as well. And they were right there for all to see, placed on the broad of his back, to serve as a bold and visual statement, an example, a deterrent, if you will; a firm and forceful reminder to anyone, especially Harlies, who might be predisposed to committing similar acts of aggression against anyone, especially Greens, that crime just don't pay. And even if it did, it simply wasn't worth it, as evidenced by the bloody red stripes that were sown into the skin of the Harlie that day, as bold and red as the Scarlet Letter itself, and just as difficult to bear. But of all the scars traversing the young Harlie's back that day, one in particular stood out from all the others. It was a long straight line about two feet long and an inch wide (depending on where you measured it) with a deep purplish hue to it. It began at the back of the neck and ended just above the base of his spine. It was a wound that never healed, and it was branded right there on the bare back of the sharecropper, raised about a quarter inch above the living epidermis, like blister on a brick or a pile of dog manure on the sidewalk for all to stop and stare at but never actually touch; not that they ever would, of course.

It was a scar that, not unlike the mark of Cain, would follow the Harlie the rest of his life, and beyond; just it did the biblical murder whose famous forehead, even in death, bears the shameful stamp for all eternity. And it was still there for all to see; most notably whenever Elmo happened to be out in the fields, striped to the waist and driving a plow through the muddy bean fields of Harley under a hot and hostile sun that made allowance for no modesty. It was difficult not to notice. It worked, just the way scars are supposed to. He would take his strips to the grave, the sharecropper always imagined; and he would take the shame, too. But he wouldn't take the guilt, which, in his own unrepentant and irreproachable heart, simply wasn't there, because, because...well, because as far as he was concerned, there was no crime to be guilty of. He did what any other innocent man would have done under the circumstances. He committed no sin; but still the scars remained. He often wondered, sometimes right out loud when he was out in the bean fields and knew no one could hear him (except for maybe his mule who was accustomed to such monologues) if St. Peter would think any less of him for doing what he did and refuse him entry through the Pearly Gates on account of his scars. Or perhaps the old fisherman would simply heal them, with a miraculous wave of his hand, as Jesus once did in the garden of Gethsemane. And wasn't the venerable old saint known to have a temper of his own, as well as a sword? To the point of slicing off the ear of the high priest's servant in anger and contempt. How could the 'Rock' refuse him? The Harlie could only imagine. With God, all things are possible, I suppose. Elmo thought so; and so did the mule.

Alvin Webb was next to voice his concern on the subject at hand; and he seemed to speak for the others that day who appeared almost as confused, albeit in far more civilized manner, as he was. He couldn't speak for Red-Beard, however. No one could do that. No one dared. "Lucky?" questioned the outlaw, aiming a long, loaded finger at the exposed head of the Harlie. You call him lucky," he sneered. "Why, that there's a E'wal... unless I'm a'going blind...Which I ain't! And E'wals ain't lucky. They's just plain dumb... and stupid! Ask anyone. They's ugly! And they smells bad too!" he added just for spite.

"Sounds familiar," observed the surveyor's apprentice.

"Likes the pot callin' the kettle black," noted the Negro.

"Whadaya think, Mister Skinner," begged the hammer.

Homer shrugged. "If the shoe fits..."

"Don't wanna hear 'bout no !@#$%^&*!!!ing shoes," Smiley insisted.

If the Harlie knew that he had just been insulted, it didn't show. He'd heard talk like that before, and from men more evil and sinister looking than Alvin Webb, whom he'd actually seen before prowling around the muddy streets of Harley on more than one occasion. What the outlaw turned engineer was looking for at the time, the Harlie would never know. But he had his suspicions, which was only one reason he began keeping his shotgun close at hand, even though he was afraid to use it. In fact, lately he kept it under his bed, when it wasn't outside in the barn where it belonged. It was an old firearm, actually, inaccurate but very powerful '– like a musketoon!' as an old soldier once observed.

"Too dark to be a Feral, Mister Webb," the Old Hammer confidently stated while eyeing the Harlie up and down as if Elmo were some foreign specimen of timber or a piece of exotic stone placed before him for personal examination and his professional opinion. "Ferals come from the Islands... Besides," he added with no measurable amount of uncertainty, "Tain't no Ferals left in these here parts – Just Harlies."

With the keen and cleaver eye of a surveyor, Charles Smiley was next to observe, "Too damn light... and look at his hair," he added, noting the curly brown locks sprouting atop Elmo's uncovered head. "And get a load of them eyes, will ya!"

Unlike most of the other farmers that lived in and around Harley, this one particular sharecropper, Mister Elmo Cotton, had eyes that were not brown at all. They were actually blue and green, or a combination thereof, it would seem; depending, perhaps, on how you looked at him, and in what light of day. As to the surveyor's other astute observation: the hair on this particular man's head couldn't really be described as 'nappy' – a term generally used to describe the spring-like qualities of the hairs typically found on your average African, which, chiefly on account of its thick, untamable texture, has sometimes been compared to the steel wool employ at times by housewives in cleaning their pots and pans – and it wasn't even black! In fact, Elmo's curls didn't appear very much different than the fair follicles adorning the juvenile head of young Dilworth that day; suggesting, in a sort of sly and sinful way, that the two might actually be related; although getting either one to admit to such a scandalous relationship would be like getting Thomas Jefferson to admit he had a fathered a child through one of his own female slaves. There were other similarities as well, which we need not go into right now.

At that point, the two horse drawn passengers began to take notice of Homer's 'Lucky Number' as well. "Just 'cause a man come from Harley don't necessarily mean he be Harlie," noted the big Negro, with an authority in his voice that seemed to speak for an entire race. "Lots of folks come from Creekwood. That don't necessarily mean they's Green. Now do it?"

"Don't mean they ain't," countered Webb.

"Man's got a point... I think," the Hammer hesitantly agreed, not quite sure what to make of the outlaw's tormented logic, or double negative for that matter.

"The only point Alvin has," insisted the surveyor, "is the one on top of his head,"

"Maybe if we drill a hole in it, Mister Smiley... we can let the evil spirits out!" suggested the young apprentice. "And then he just might make some sense.

"You hear that Hector? The boy may have something there. Quick... carpenter! Where your drill?

Sam obliged, "I's hold 'im down, Mister Smiley."

"Take more than a drill bit to get through that thick skull," observed the Hammer. "Mighty tough nut to crack."

"Then use your hammer, man..."

The Indian stirred in his blanket. He was sitting up in the back of the wagon by then, clearly interested in the business at hand, as if some great secrete had suddenly been revealed to him. And then, from somewhere on the dark side of the moon perhaps, he verbalized his concern. "Maybe he's not of this world. Ever think about that?"

Smiley laughed. "Go back to bed, Geronimo. You had too much whiskey! You're seein' things, Boy."

"I see what I saw," replied the sleepy-eyed Somnambulist."

"Gotta be from somewhere," observed Dick.

"Or, nowhere..." suggested the Redman. He was talking about the Harlie, of course. And then he went back to bed.

"Ah, shucks! Ain't no one from nowhere. Everyone's gots to be from somewhere. Don't be so ig'nant, Boy," scolded the Negro perched high on the buckboard. Sam made a habit out of correcting his passengers whenever he thought it was necessary, which was not as often as he would have liked, and more than Boy would have it. The wise Indian wasn't as 'ig'nant' as his driver suspected; and so, he simply responded in the usual way. He ignored Sam, for the time being at least.

"You're right!" rang the Hammer, in the mood for a little philosophizing himself, present company not-with-standing. "Even Socrates had home... and it wasn't ol' Athens."

"What's he talkin' 'bout now," wonder the outlaw out loud.

"Read your History, damn it! And learn something," exclaimed the surveyor, who had not only heard of the ancient Greek philosopher, but put much of what he'd taught into practical use, especially when confronting idiots and morons, like Alvin Webb, whose miniscule brain was, in the surveyor's professional opinion, "... 'bout a half bubble short of level'.

"It' like this..." Hector extrapolated. "One day, when ol' Socrates was giving one of his famous lectures, a young man, much like yourself, I suppose, came up to him asked where he came from; or, in other words, where he lived. And do you know what ol' Socrates told him?"

The blank look on the outlaw's face, along with a long impotent pause, told the Hammer what he, along with everyone else, had long suspected: Alvin Webb didn't have a clue.

Hector himself supplied the answer."Well, I'll tell you then, my ignorant friend. "Ol' Socrates told him the truth. That's right – the truth! Nothing more and nothing less. He told him that the entire world was his home."

It was something even Little Dick Dilworth could understand. And why not?" Wasn't it the youth of Athens, the very one Socrates was accused of corrupting with his revolutionary thoughts and ideals who, though their own wide-eyed wonderment not only elevated the great Greek to the heights he so richly deserved, but went on to... to change the world in ways even the great Plato could not have imagined? Sometimes it takes a great man to see one. What Mister O'Brien might have added to his eloquent definition of greatness that day is this: that it is sometimes earned posthumously, which, in some ways only adds to the greatness of the man, or woman, it is bestowed upon. It's called immortality; and it can be achieved in a variety of ways, I suppose. Some attain it through music: Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Handel, Shubert, Chopin, the list goes on and on, like a never ending symphony. Others achieve it through their art: Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Rembrandt, just to name a few. Of course, there are those who seek immortality through great literature, Homer, Shakespeare, Bunyan, and find it! And greatness is not limited to the arts, either. Think of all the great scientists throughout the ages, Christians for the most part, despite their heretical views and revolutionary ideas: Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei Nicholas Copernicus. Sir Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel, William Thomson Kelvin, not to mention Georges Lemaître, the Roman Catholic priest who went on to prove even the great Einstein wrong, among others. It's no small wonder there are so many great Christians and so few great atheists. Just as Christians tend to transpose their Faith into great works of art, and succeed famously in the process, atheists tend to turn theirs into a science; a science based on, in their own ambiguous and convoluted language, 'falsifiable evidence' which, by definition, is evidence that, in the end at least, cannot be trusted simply because it is always changing, evolving, and not based on truth. It's not even real science! Just an empty stack of theories and hypothesis put forward by atheists to help advance their own politically funded careers and agendas, or impress their fellow scientists with their genius, probably both. At least the artist earns his loaf of bread, and has something to show for it.

As for the war... well, they don't call them war heroes for nothing. If not for a military career, which in his younger years was questionable at best, General George Washington would never have made it onto the dollar bill, and would probably have been hung on the tree of Liberty as a traitor to the crown, along with all those other rebel rousers. And if you happen to be one of those self-righteous pacifists who think war and poetry just don't mix... well don't tell that to King David. He'll probably send you off to the front lines, along with Uriah the Hittite, to fight the dreaded Philistines, and then go home and write a psalm about it. Remember: In the land of the pacifists, only the tyrants are kings. Nobody, I suppose, knew that better than Peter Muhlenberg, a patriot who was born to an Amish family in Pennsylvania where he and his brother, Frederick, grew up to be Ministers. George Washington asked him to take command of the 8th Virginia Regiment in 1775. His brother persuaded him to reject the appointment. Soon after his church was burned down by the British, he joined the Continental Army on his own. Muhlenberg was first stationed in the south defending Georgia and South Carolina with the 8th Regiment. In 1777, the 8th regiment joined Washington's main army. He was promoted to Brigadier General of the Virginia line and participated at the end of the war in Yorkville. In 1783, he was promoted to Major General. He also had a successful political career as he was elected to the 1st congress as at-large representative where his brother Frederick was the Speaker of the House. He also participated in the 3rd and 5th Congress. Thomas Jefferson appointed him Supervisor of Revenue in Pennsylvania in 1801. And in the words of the Great Emancipator himself who was no stranger or war or religion: 'Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.'"

There are scores of politicians who have been called great, most often by themselves, and usually not until long after they are dead and unable to baste in the glory of their own greatness. Unfortunately for some, greatness is only realized once they are deceased; Our Lord and Savior being the prime example, I suppose. But there are others, of course: the one that comes most often to mind, at least to the novelists among us, is great Herman Melville who, as some many know, died in virtual obscurity, after having been declared a botched author at best, and a madman at worst, chiefly on account of his propensity for putting into the written word those things that simply could not ne comprehended, or condoned, at the time he wrote them. At the time of his death, the New York Times who, by the way, spelled his name incorrectly in the obituary section of the 'Old Gray Lady', listed Mister Melville's official occupation as that of 'Customs Inspector' at the New York Harbor, badge No. 75, a title held by the great man, and one I'm certain he took great pride in, right up until the day in died in his Manhattan home. One can only imagine, knowing what we know now about the great author, how it would have felt, especially after a long and arduous voyage across the Atlantic, when we are then greeted at the dock by an old man with a white square cut beard and ledger in his hands, asking us for our passport, realizing all the while that this same old tired looking clerk in the wrinkled shirt and the baggy trousers is none other than the author of Moby-Dick himself! How honored and amazed we would be! Perhaps just as honored and amazed as the Mister Melville himself, wherever the grand old mariner currently resides (on some island paradise, perhaps, working away on a new novel, no doubt, among kings and counselors) who once commented on his many great works the critics would come to cannibalize like so many meal-bound missionaries: 'All my books are botched..."

Reputations don't always precede us; and genius is sometimes ahead of its time; which is precisely why it's often so difficult to find. And as the poet reminds us: 'Hope springs eternal...' And that hope, the old philosopher would surely come to agree, would lie chiefly in the future, however uncertain and shaky; hope in that brave new world, unshackled by the prejudices of the past; hope in two green young saplings, like Dick Dilworth and Elmo Cotton. Socrates could not have asked for a better audience.

"And he died with truth on his side," struck the Hammer with one last confident blow. It was a fitting end for a great man, he had always maintained, albeit not one he would have chosen for himself under similar circumstances. "But isn't that the way it always is..." he mused out loud, not unlike the great Geek himself, "with all great men? They don't seek greatness. Greatness seeks them. Often it finds them, whether they like it or not. Sometimes it even kills them..." just like it did ol' Socrates."

"And Lincoln..." sighed the old man.

Dick interjected, "They say he was killed by a Yankee soldier, at Garrett's a barn, I think."

Smiley observed, "Now that takes some balls!"

"Say he was a eunuch."

"'Scuse me?"

"His name was Booth... John Wilkes," Hector elucidated. "One of those actors. Good one, too! Ford's theater, if I'm not mistaken. They say he had it all: good looks, fortune, fame... and women."

Dick chimed in: "Some say it was a conspiracy."

"They were all hanged... including a woman," noted Smiley.

"Her name was Mary Surratt," sang the hammer. "Had to tie down her skirt so...well, modesty, you know. She ran a boardin' house. I was there once. And so was Booth."

"You knew him?" questioned Dick..

"Had it all planned out, boy. Right down to the get-a-way. And it wasn't just the president. Headed south... to ol' Virginia. Made it clear across the Potomac... with a bad leg. Almost got away with it."

"I'll drink to that," replied Webb, literally.

Hector continued, "They cornered him in a barn.... Place called Garret's farm. Never had a chance. Died the next day from a bullet wound. They burned down the barn.

"Sho' they gots the right man?" wondered the Negro out loud.

Red-Beard, who had been strangely quiet up until then, suddenly looked up as if he might have known something the others didn't, and reminded them all." They both did."

As evidenced by his two tone attire, it was never quite clear exactly where Colonel Horn stood on the war, or the outcome thereof; although it was always suggested that his true allegiance, along with his sympathies, belonged to the South, despite his Union credentials.

Elmo and Dick were about the same age, and at that awkward and sometimes confusing stage in life where they were too young to be called 'boys', but not exactly old enough to be considered 'men'. Both had beards, alright; but they were sparse and not fully developed, the kind of beards most boys first notice upon entering puberty, those same soft whiskers their grandmothers usually sprout at about the same time, and are just as reluctant to shave, but for different reasons, of course.

And the similarities did not stop there. If not for a few minor but noticeable details these two 'boys with beards' might actually have been considered brothers by those with more discerning and less discriminating eyes. In fact, it might even be said that this particular Harlie was not a Harlie at all! That would be a lie, of course; but not entirely, and not without some merit. Aside from the obvious, there were other, more subtle, physical characteristics that may've further extricated the man in overalls from his Harlie heritage; but they were too few to mention and too inappropriate to properly identify without getting too personal. But for all intents and purposes, Elmo Cotton was in fact a Harlie, if he was nothing else.

Angered and dismayed over the sudden display of solidarity among his fellow equestrians, and getting back to his own gratuitous concerns, the mentally challenged Webb obstinately spoke out: "Well then...just what the hell is he anyway? Hummmm?" he gummed.

No one knew the answer. Perhaps there was no answer, which, come to think of it, is an answer in and of itself. Even the Old Hammer, who seemed to have an answer for just about everything, wasn't quite sure at that point. Obviously, the Harlie, or at least this particular specimen, was of mixed blood, black and white, genetically speaking. But which was the more dominate? That's what we all would like to know. Did it show? Could you measure it with a ruler or weigh it in so many pounds? What was it made of? Could you identify it? And if so, could you mitigate the matter simply by removing the inferior part, or ripping it out like some unwanted rusty old nail? Perhaps it could be covered with a good coat of paint. Or what about just sawing it off, like a rotten limb from an otherwise healthy piece of timber? Was it practical? Was it even possible? Even Hector didn't know the answer to that one, as much as he would have liked to. But he was old and wise enough to know how fickle and mysterious Mother Nature could be while molecularly molding the many faces of humankind, along with all the subtleties and variations contributing to each and every individual characteristic from a balding head to tapered toe. And when at last these same molecules, originating, perhaps, from two distant and distinctly unique races, are mixed and intermingled in a loving embrace, not unlike that which can be witnessed through the microscopic lens of the biologist in all its complexities and spiralings, forming what we now know as the famous double helix of the genetically encoded DNA molecule, who can predict the outcome? Who can prove it? Who can prevent it? And who cares! The other three horsemen, along with Boy and Sam, simply choose to hold their judgment, along with their noses, at least until they knew more about what was going on. Red-Beard was still thinking about it.

Alvin Webb had already formed his own opinion of the Harlie, and all others like him for that matter; and so did Colonel Horn. But he was keeping his opinion, as well as his thoughts, to himself, for the time being. All Red-Beard would say regarding the so-called 'Lucky Number', which he considered not only a fateful and factual error on Homer's part, but self-evident right from the start, was this: "You're wrong, old man," he insisted, with one eye on the Harlie and the other on Homer, "Nine is not the lucky number."

"But seven is!" noted the superstitious Negro. And Sam was absolutely right; for as Scripture clearly states: 'Seven is the perfect number', spiritually speaking, of course. It also happened to be Sam's favorite number, seven; especially whenever he gambled, a vice he'd picked up in the sulfur mines of north Florida when, usually in-between shifts when there was little else to do, the miners would engage themselves in games of chance, most notable that of throwing dice, or, as it as sometimes called 'rolling bones', which not only occupied their time, but emptied their pockets as well. And even if he did lose more times than he won, seven was still the Negro's favorite number. Ironically, it also happened to be the exact number of years he was sentenced to the mines in the first place for a crime he had never committed, or so he claimed. Lucky?

As for Red-Beard's more sensible but less palpable alter ego, Rusty Horn was an firm disbeliever in superstitions, lucky or unlucky, along with all the metaphysical manifestations associated with them, whether they benefited him or not. It was against his instincts, as well as his better judgment, to dabble in such vices. It was also unbecoming of an officer. Besides, it was just bad for morale. And it wasn't in the army manual. But even that would not prevent him from allowing his evil twin to voice his opinion on such matters, which, was bound to happen now and then, regardless of who was right or wrong. "And that's what I count here," insisted Red-Beard, "Nine! If you want to include the Harlie here, which I for one don't. Besides, nine's an odd number. Ain't that right, Mister Webb?" Red-Beard officially questioned his self-appointed 'Engineer'.

It was an easy enough question, even for someone like Alvin Webb. "That's right, Colonel," the outlaw agreed. "Everyone knows odd numbers ain't lucky. Besides, they just don't add up."

"Add up to what?" asked the bewildered moustache.

Alvin paused, "How the hell should I know. They just don't... That's all."

"That true, Mister Smiley?" questioned Dick, "I mean, the part about odd numbers being bad luck."

Before the surveyor could answer, Webb jumped back in. "'Course it is! They calls it 'rithmatic! he exclaimed. "Everyone knows odd numbers is bad luck. Look'ye here, boy, and I'll show you." Slowly, almost painfully it would seem, he began peeling off his gloves, one at a time. It was like watching a snake wiggle out of its own skin. He then counted out each number on his deformed but unusually long fingers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8... until he finally came up with the number he was looking for. "You see?" he proudly professed, holding out both hands for everyone and anyone to examine, as though he'd just single handily deciphered some mathematical wonder, like the celestial calendar of the ancient Mayan that predicts the end of the world to occur precisely on December 21, 2012 (Of course, it's too bad they won't be around to witness the cataclysmic event, on account of they were completely annihilated by the Spanish conquistadors long before it is suppose to take place) or the Code of Hammurabi itself. "See! Nine is an odd number," insisted the engineer. "It's evil, just like the colonel's says. Count 'em if you want."

"No thanks," said Dick, feeling a little sorry for the witless outlaw by then.

"Congratulations, Mister Webb. You can count!" noted the Old Hammer, sarcastically praising the dim-witted thief on his newly discovered mathematical skills.

"I can keep goin'... ifin' you wants me to," said Webb, pretending to ignore the carpenter's last remark.

"Can't neither," the Negro quickly calculated. "– Not 'nough fingers..."

"Well then I'll just have to count my toes. Won't I?" said Alvin, reaching down for the muddy heel of his boot.

Red-Beard interjected, "That won't be necessary, Mister Webb,"

"Some engineer you got there, colonel," laughed Smiley.

Red-Beard wasn't particularly amused with the surveyor's observation, no matter how much the sarcasm rang true, but felt obliged to defend his fugitive friend for undisclosed reasons. It was the least he could do considering the fact that Webb had served under him, quite obediently in fact, in army at one time. He was only a private, and not a very good one at that, the colonel would finally have to admit. But Alvin was a loyal soldier, and he knew when to keep his mouth shut, which was exactly what Red-Beard was looking for at the time. "He ain't had much education," the colonel apologized, "Cut him some slack – Will'ya?"

"I'll cut him some slack," said Smiley, squinting daggers at the toothless engineer who he never liked, or trusted, from the start, "... but only at the end of a rope. And not until I know for goddamn sure the @#$%^&*! is good and dead!" he added just to make it stick.

Hanging a man was not only distasteful but, to the Indian way of thinking at least, a most dishonorable and humiliating form of execution; as it still is for most warriors who, if by chance or design the opportunity presents itself, would take their own bullet over the rope under such a mortal conviction. Hanging was typically reserved for cowards, criminals, traitors, horse thieves, and other incorrigibles, all of which Alvin Webb had already been accused of at one time or another but could never be proven in a court of Law; unless, of course, that court just happened to be presided over by one US District Judge Isaac C. Parker, the famous 'Hanging Judge' of the Arkansas who, on his twenty-one years on the bench, handed down a hundred and sixty death sentences; or, the other famous 'Hanging Judge', Roy Bean, who held court sessions in his saloon along the Rio Grande River in a desolate stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas. According to the myth, Roy Bean named his saloon and town after the love of his life, Lily Langtry, a British actress he'd never met. Proclaiming himself the 'Law West of the Pecos, he is reputed to have kept a pet bear in his courtroom and sentenced dozens to the gallows, saying 'Hang 'em first, try 'em later.'

"Why not just shoot him..." suggested the practical Redman, sincerely enough, "and be done with it?"

"I would..." responded the Hammer, with a half-cocked smile.

"I'll give you the gun," said Homer, offering Hector his own special order forty-five caliber six-shooters with the twelve inch barrels and the mother-of-pearl inlay, the ones he'd already put to good that day by blowing the lock off the Iron Gates of Harley.

"Waste of a good bullet, if you ask me," said Smiley, spitting a juicy wad of used tobacco through the corner of his hair-covered pie-hole.

"Easy now," insisted the colonel. "If anyone does any shootin' 'round here, it'll be me. I'm responsible." And he meant it, too. Red-Beard was still pondering what Alvin had said earlier, about nine being an unlucky number; and he wasn't too sure about eight, either, which would be the total number of men if they did not included the Harlie. Seven was out of the question as far as he was concerned, no matter how lucky or consequential it was purported to be. It was the Negro's number; and besides, he simply didn't like it. Not too long ago, Rusty had actually entertained the idea of leaving the Negro and the Indian behind, considering them indispensable at the time; but he had since changed his mind, having grown respectful, if not downright fond, of the two 'colored' cohorts. Besides, that would've made it six all together; and six, as any Evangelist will tell you, is an evil number.

While the others debated among themselves as to what role, if any, the Harlie would play in their monumental plans, Elmo simply stood there in front of his little house in Harley wondering what he could, or should, be doing at the time; or if he should be doing anything at all. Occasionally, he would look over to Homer with soul-searching eyes for advice, a sign... something. Anything!

But the man on the black horse remained strangely silent. Although he'd already made up on the matter, sealing the Harlie's fate for good and forever, he wanted the others to decide for themselves. He just thought it would be better that way.

"Best just take him along," cautioned Little Dick. "You know, for good luck... like Homer says."

Sam agreed wholeheartedly. "He's right, Colonel, sir. It's true! Like the man say: You should always bring you at least one nigger along for good luck'. Say so in the Bible! And now...well, look'ye here! You done gots yo'self two good niggers! Now you just can't gets more lucky than that, I 'spose."

Smiley was not so easily convinced. "We don't have room for luck, Sam."

"Or Bibles," said Webb.

"He can sits here in the wagon... with Boy. See?" returned the Negro, reaching a big black paw in back of the wagon and rearranging a few loose items to accommodate the 'Lucky Number'. "Gots plenty of room!"

The Indian didn't seem to mind; in fact, by then he would've enjoyed the company of another rider, even if it was just an odd-looking Harlie he'd never met before. For three days and two nights the big Negro was the only one he'd held a conversation with for any length of time. And although he appreciated Sam's congeniality and gregarious nature, Boy thought the Harlie would be more suitable company, especially considering the fact that Harley was not very far from the Redman River and the old Indian camp where Boy's own father was once proclaimed high priest and king, not too long before he and his entire tribe was murdered in cold blood by a renegade troop of Union soldiers who knew they would soon be out of a job and had nothing else to do at the time. It was no secret that the Harlies and Redman Indians had more in common than just enemies with pale faces. Many long suspected, and may very well have been correct, that they even shared the same savage blood and ancestry; as it sometimes happens when two persecuted races are placed in close proximity of one another, either by choice or design, and discover such genetic similarities, real or imagined, just as the modern Ethiopian claims such legendary linage to the ancient Israelites, whose scared Ark they claim to have in their possession to this very day. "Get on board, number nine," motioned the Indian with no immediate objection.

Again, the old man smiled.

"No so fast," cautioned Red-Beard, growing increasingly and uncharacteristically unsure of himself. "My engineer here says nine's an evil number..."

There was no one else Dilworth feared more than Red-Beard, that day or any other; but he somehow found the courage just then to correct the colonel on a subject he knew something about – the Bible. Despite his youthful indiscretions and lustful peccadilloes, which usually occurred only in his dreams or imagination, Little Dick had been born and raised a Baptist, which meant, if nothing else, he would learn the word of God in its most primitive and literal interpretation, or be barbequed alive in the fire and brimstone of hell, if Deacon Donnelly didn't get to him first, that is. It was on that authority alone, and perhaps just because he felt that he still had something to prove to the others (although he still wasn't quite sure exactly what that was) he thus spoke out in the red face of Colonel Rusty Horn that day: "No sir, Mister Horn," he began with a gulp of air, "Not nine... Six is the evil number. The Bible says so. Look it up, colonel. It's in the Book."

"Hold the weddin!" exclaimed Smiley with a proud but invisible smile. "Six is the evil number, come to think of it. The boy's !@#$%^&*!!!'ing right!"

"Make that a third right," observed the righteous old Hammer, having studied the Scriptures long enough to know the numerical formula to which the young man was alluding to at the time. "Six-six-six, to be exact. It's the number of the beast. At least that's what Saint John the Divine has to say about it.

Homer Skinner wasn't a superstitious man by nature; and he didn't take the Bible quite as literally as perhaps he should have. The other, he sometimes imagined, didn't take it at all; except maybe Hector, who always kept a small copy of the Holy Text tucked away in his apron; and perhaps Dilworth who, as we have already found out, could quote Scripture. The others, he'd always assumed, believed only in luck, or the lack thereof. And Homer knew from the start that the success of the mission would depend on more than just luck, the Harlie not-with-standing. Red-Beard knew that as well; he just didn't want to admit it. The old man stood firm. "I still say he's our 'Lucky Number," Homer persisted, reassuring the Harlie with a nervous nod and a reassuring wink that seemed to say: We're almost there, Elmo!

"Lucky or not, he's still a Harlie," said the Surveyor, feeling by then there were already too many greedy hands in the pot; and one more would only make matters worse.

The colonel, the man in charge, remained suspiciously quiet. There was obviously something on his mind. You could tell by the way he looked. You could almost hear the tiny gears and cams clicking and turning in his mechanical brain, like a finely tuned grandfather clock, the springs of which were perhaps wound a little too tightly. He wasn't thinking about numbers, lucky or otherwise; and he certainly wasn't thinking about Bibles and beasts. Nor was he thinking about the smaller portion of gold one extra share would cost him or the others. No. Red-Beard had bigger things, more important things, to consider at the time. He was thinking about himself and, perhaps, eternity. As for the Harlie in question, he really didn't give a damn any longer.

Webb reiterated his protestation. "I say he stays."

By then some of the others seemed to be leaning in the outlaw's direction, albeit reluctantly and not without feeling a little nauseated in doing so. Even the Old Hammer was having some reservations by then, and thought that maybe it might not be such a good idea. "Too many cooks..." he wisely cautioned.

Not being the type of man to vacillate on any particular subject once his mind was made up, Smiley simply shook his head. No!

Meanwhile, Colonel Rusty Horn was still thinking it over. He didn't know much about Harlies, or Homer Skinner for that matter whose acquaintance he'd made not more than three months ago; but he did know one thing by now, and that was this: once the old man made up his mind, there was little he or anyone else could do to change it.

There was some back and forth shuffling of hooves and whispering among the horsemen. Sam and his native passenger seemed to be holding some kind of secret Pow-Wow in the back of the little painted wagon as the Harlie just stood just stood there, barefooted and bewildered. Apparently, Dick and Sam were on Homer's side regarding the matter of taking the Harlie along with them. Smiley and Webb were squarely against it, although the surveyor wasn't giving any particular reason for his dissention.

Homer looked to the Hammer who, despite a reputation for making quick and wise decisions, appeared hesitant, as though he were still weighing all options, for an answer. He was staring curiously at the Harlie, in much the same way Don Quixote might've gazed down at Sancho Panza while leveling his lance at the windmill.

As evidenced by his own ambivalent attitude, Red-Beard appeared he could still go either way. And whichever way that was, or so Homer would soon come to realize, the others would surely follow.

"Well, wha'daya think, Hector?" said Homer, wisely seeking the advice of the friendly carpenter who had always been known as a fair and honest man who, although you would never get him to admit it (Vanity and Virtue are not are not always mutually exclusive, you know) was perhaps closest in years to the old deputy. Not that it mattered, or would make any difference, of course; but it did make him feel obliged to ask, just out of respect.

But alas, after thinking it over a bit more, the Hammer could not bring himself to acquiesce, not even at the behest of Homer Skinner, an old and dear friend who had confided in his judgment on many occasions in the past. He simply didn't think it was the right thing to do at the time. Naturally, he was only thinking of what was best... for everyone.

Having no reasonable objection to the old man's request, however, and actually looking forward to the company of someone closer to his own color, Sam smiled down and repeated his earlier offer, "I'll keeps an eye on him, Mister Homer, sir. He can ride in back...with Boy. See? Gots plenty of room!" he added, turning his bulky brown frame a hundred and eighty degrees towards the back of the wagon.

It seemed like a done deal; that is until, for whatever reason and despite his earlier acquiescence, the young Indian suddenly reversed himself in mid-stream with a simple but definite: "No." And what was it that made the savage suddenly change his mind that day? Well, maybe it was something he saw in the Negro's eyes that day. Or perhaps, in his the soul; something akin to what his father must have seen in the pale blue eyes of the first settlers he'd encountered on the prairie who were, no doubt, just as strange looking and alien to him. Maybe the stars were just quite right. No one would ever know. Except maybe the savage himself. And he wasn't talking.

When Sam gently pressed his reluctant passenger for a reason why the Harlie, who in all probability had suffered the same indignities and injustices as they themselves had, and in equal or maybe even greater measure, should be denied to share the back of his wagon, the Redman would only replied with all the sublime solemnity attributed to that Oriental race of physicians: "Bad medicine." And that was all he was going to say about it.

Sam shrugged. He still didn't know much about the man occupying the back of his wagon that day, other than he'd paid his fare by magnanimously supplying the two long-horned oxen presently pulling the over-packed vehicle; but he did know this: Custer and all his Calvary could not deter the will of a single Redman once the Great Spirit has spoken to him, particularly when there was medicine involved. It was a sacred subject, not to be taken lightly, if taken at all. It was something no arrow, or bullet, could penetrate.

Tallying up the score in his now uncertain and aching head, Homer became a little dismayed, if not disappointed, at his finding. Apparently, only the Negro and Dick Dilworth were for allowing the Harlie to be counted as one of their company. Webb, Smiley, Hector, and now, quite un-expectantly, the Indian, whom he was certain would have no objections to his sincerest desires, were now against him. The score presently stood at three to four against poor Elmo. The only one that could change the outcome of the vote in the old man's favor was Colonel Horace 'Rusty' Horn, better known as Red-Beard. And it didn't look promising.

All eyes were suddenly cast upon the lone figure sitting on top the white bull so ambiguously clothed in the gray and blue uniform. It seemed that, for all intents and purposes, Red-Beard would have to decide, for better or for worse, the fate of the Harlie and maybe the entire expedition. "Good luck - Eh?" he mused beneath those famous red whiskers as if weighing the scales of Justice in his own infallible hands. He paused, looking down upon the Harlie the way fathers sometimes look down on their own wayward and prodigal sons just before they foolishly squander away their inheritance by trading the safety and security of their homes for the dungeons and pigpens of a forsaken, incorrigible, and fallen world they never should have wondered into in the first place, and said with what might actually have been considered a smile, "Extra hand wouldn't hurt, I 'spose."

And so it was decided. The Harlie would go.

"And his hands will do just fine," smiled the deputy in return, happily rubbing the Harlie's head for additional luck, as was the custom of senior citizen worldwide, regardless of race, creed, color, political or religious affiliation. "You'll see," Homer insisted. "You'll all see. He's our lucky number!"

"Well, he's still an odd one," noted the surveyor, spitting in his hand and preening the tips of his moustache with his own tobacco tainted saliva, suspecting that the esteemed colonel had perhaps just made his first mistake of the campaign.

"He's your boy, Homer," acknowledged the Hammer, thinking along the same lines, although not as pessimistically.

Assuming that the matter was finally settled to everyone's satisfaction, Homer Skinner turned to the Harlie and asked, "Well, number nine? Are you ready?"

Feeling very much out of place, and anything but lucky, Elmo Cotton just stood there that morning, barefooted and blue, appearing not too sure about anything at that point. He didn't like what he was seeing, particularly whenever he happened to clap an eye on the two-toned colonel sitting on top of a massive white bull, not to mention the ugly outlaw with the one tooth who was never far from the colonel's side. He'd never seen a Brahma bull before, or any other animal for that matter with such peculiar looking hump; or one so white. And he especially didn't like the way the man with the red beard kept starring at him, and without blinking, just like he'd been doing ever since their eyes first met, or so it seemed. It was almost as if he had no eyelids at all, imagined Elmo from a respectable distance, which he found disquieting, as well as disturbing.

Apparently, the colonel had seen something in the Harlie he thought might be useful, or perhaps indispensable. Officers are trained to think that way: to look beyond the ordinary, and find in men what otherwise might be overlooked, or discarded; what they themselves, either through fear, ignorance, or out of sheer laziness, are incapable of finding out on their own, and whittling it into something not only useful but far superior to what they had to work with in the first place. And like any mortal masterpiece, it was always a work-in-progress. Words like adapt, improvise, adjust, and make-do were not only part and parcel of the military lexicon, they were uniquely American.

It was something the Harlie picked up on immediately, this distinctly American attitude exuding from the colonel's cool lidless eyes. And it really wasn't that unique at all. Elmo had seen it, or at least something like it, before; whenever he looked into the tired blood-shot eyes of his Uncle Joe, which, now that he actually thought about it, never seemed to blink either, or at least not as much as they should have. There was a coolness in his uncle's eyes, a calm, that certain serenity that penetrates, like an x-ray, not only the body and soul, but the spirit as well, that secret and sacred part of a man usually reserved for God's eyes only. It was almost irresistible, like looking into Red-Beard's eye, only not as cold and blue. You might even say he was drawn to it; in the same way, perhaps, that a moth might be drawn to a flame. And from that moment on, and without really knowing it himself, Elmo Cotton was determined to get that same look in his own eyes someday.

It was Homer's idea from the start that Elmo Cotton should go along. He had decided a long time ago, long before he'd ever heard of a man called Red-Beard and his four horsemen, that it would be that way. Elmo was aware of that as well; although he was never quite sure whom, if anyone else, would be involved. He never even asked. Up until then, he'd always assumed that he and Homer would go back for the gold alone, all by themselves, just like always; although he never fully understood the magnitude of the project or scope of the work involved in accomplishing such a monumental task. But Homer did. It was just too much work for one Harlie and an old man with a toothache. Like the chicken too weak to peck itself out of its proverbial egg, the plan was doomed before it even hatched. But this chick wouldn't die so easily, not if Homer had anything to say, or do, about it. Salvation finally came, in all its enigmatic glory. It showed up one night at, of all places, inside a saloon: the Nickel Pig Saloon, to be exact, up on the hill, in Creekwood Green. It arrived in the form of a questionable army officer named Horace 'Rusty' Horn, otherwise known as Red-beard. The others were soon to follow.

It seemed that going back and finding the lost gold mine of Cornelius G. Wainwright III was something Homer had been planning to do for years, decades, in fact; hopefully, before it was too late. It was a scheme long in the making, the inception of which actually began forty years ago when, as an inquisitive and overly ambitious young deputy, he'd stumbled upon the yellow hoard, quite accidentally it would seem, at the end of a long dark tunnel.

Elmo had heard the story many times before, with some variations, of course; and by now, he was almost weary of it; so weary, in fact, that he sometimes wished Homer would just forget about the whole idea, and they could both just go coon hunting, or fishing, which would at least out some food on the table. All he really wanted to do was please the old man, make a few dollars and, perhaps, buy his wife the new bathtub he'd been promising her ever since... well, we'll get to that later.

Despite the fact that that it had been rehearsed a hundred times before, Homer wasn't exactly sure how the Harlie would react when the question was finally put to him in the faces of those who would be accompanying them to the unholy hill known as Wainwright's Mountain; faces he suddenly found distasteful as well as distrustful. Maybe he should've warned the Harlie first, the old man was suddenly thinking to himself. Homer didn't like to lie, to anybody; unless, of course, it was simply to make a good story even better, or to avoid hurting someone's feelings, which, as we already know, he was not only capable of, but was actually very good at. He was also wise enough to know that a lie, even a very small one, can travel half way around the world before truth has its boots on. But he didn't want too scar him away, either. And so, all he told the Harlie was that he'd hired a few extra hands to help them along the way. Little did Elmo Cotton know, or suspect, at the time, that the hands Homer had spoken of so matter-of-factly would actually turn out to be attached a toothless alcoholic, a foul-mouthed surveyor with a tobacco stained moustache, a carpenter with a hammer for a side arm, the biggest black man he'd even seen his life (and he'd seen plenty) plus a suspicious looking Indian with dark eyes and even darker thoughts; most of whom didn't want him there in the first place. Not to even mention the blue and gray army colonel with the lidless eyes and mechanical stare.

The bean farmer both looked tired and confused; not at all like himself, thought the aging deputy. It was almost as though he really didn't want to be there. Homer suddenly began thinking of calling the whole thing off. Maybe it was wrong to go back after all, he reluctantly imagined. Perhaps the time still wasn't right. And who were all these strange men on horses he had surrounded himself with anyway? Looking around, he suddenly realized that he didn't recognize any of them; not even Hector O'Brien, whom he'd actually known for over twenty-five years, the ol' Hammer himself. He'd lived with the toothache for so long now... "Hell! I'll be dead in a year or two anyway," he said to himself, as the others looked on in quiet desperation. And just as he was about to voice these and other concerns that'd suddenly overwhelmed him to a point of resignation, the Harlie shrugged and simply said, "Alright then. I'll go."

The old man smiled, even though he would've done so just as easily and naturally had Elmo answered in the negative. He patted the Harlie gently on his bare brown shoulder and said in a voice that sounded almost twenty years younger: "Alright then. Let's get a'goin'."

"Well that settles that," sighed the surveyor with a great globular mass of tobacco spittle dangling precariously off the upper edge of his whiskers.

"What's your name, son?" asked Mister O'Brien in a sincere tone of voice the Harlie found pleasingly sweet and low, not unlike that of his own Uncle Joe. It was the tone some men reserved for women in distress, and other creatures prone to hysterical dispositions.

The Harlie turned to the old man with a hung-dog look, as if asking permission to speak.

"Go ahead, son," said Homer. "Tell the man your name."

The Harlie hesitated at first. "C-cotton," he nervously stuttered.

It was the first time that anyone present, besides Homer and Little Dick, of course, had heard the Harlie utter a single syllable.

The others were beginning to wonder if this particular Harlie was a mute, as some of the older slaves were at the time. They'd heard of criminals having their tongues cut out, along with other body parts, for telling lies before the local magistrate; and they suspected slaves owners were no less reluctant or more merciful in that same regard, especially considering the consequences of an educated and out-spoken Nigger. And they knew from personal experience what happened to slaves at one time who had tried to escape the plantation, and failed. It's shuttering to think of what happened to them in more serious cases, such as rape and fornication.

"Cotton's my name," repeated the Harlie after a brief and deliberate pause.

The outlaw, as well as a few of the others, was still questioning the Harlie's ambiguous appearance. "Where I come from...cotton's white," he sneered from the top of his high horse.

"He's right," the surveyor was forced to agree, as much as it displeased him to do so.

Exposing two even rows of perfectly formed gums, Alvin Webb attempted to grin. "Well now, Mister Cotton, you ain't white...but then again, you ain't 'zackly black, either. But what I wants to know is this," he said as Homer looked on in frustrated umbrage, "is you is, or is you ain't, a Feral?"

The Harlie looked a bit perplexed, like he did whenever his wife scolded him for reasons he could never quite understand, which happened more often than not, and could do nothing about.

The Negro tried to explain, even though he knew it was a question that should never have been asked in the first place. "Man just wants to know if you're colored, boy. That's all."

Standing before him barefoot and bewildered, and wearing nothing more than an old pair of patched overalls strapped loosely about his shoulders, the young man from Harley answered the outlaw as honestly as knew how: "I's... just Elmo," he spoke in voice that sounded as innocent as it did ignorant. And he said it with such sincerity, such naivety, that everyone, including Alvin Webb, believed him.

"What's it gonna cost? Smiley demanded to know. It was something he, and maybe a few of the others, suddenly began wondering about.

"Eh?" said Homer, fingering a large hairy earlobe, as if he'd heard the question but wasn't quite prepared to deliver the answer he knew they were looking for.

Red-Beard elucidated. "His cut, old man. He wants to know how much we'll pay him."

"Oh...that," replied Homer. And then he paused, thought for a moment, and said with no further apology. "It's none of your damn business. That's how much!" He looked both pleased and angry when he said it.

Contrary to what Homer may have been thinking at the moment, and despite the fact that he alone held the map, and the keys, to the lost gold mine, it was Red-Beard's business, as well as all the others. And he knew it. It was only fair, he finally conceded even though he probably didn't have to; besides, it was in the contract. "Same as the rest of us, Charles," he finally stated out loud, "same as everyone else."

While attempting to do the arithmetic in his head, which, as we have already seen, was asking quite a lot of the mentally challenged outlaw, Alvin sternly objected. "Tain't fair!" he gummed out as out as he could. "No one said anythin' 'bout an extra man, least of all a Harlie! That wasn't part of the deal."

Combing through his moustache with tobacco-stained fingers, Smiley had to agree with the outlaw, for a change. "Mister Webb's got a point, I reckon... much as I hate to admit it," he said, addressing Alvin with the courteous title for the very first time, even though they both knew it was something he didn't deserve. "And it ain't the one on top of his head this time," he added just for laughs. "Whadaya say, Colonel?"

For whatever reason, Red-Beard had dismounted his bull by then and was presently standing alone and aloof, like a blue and gray Paul Bunyan besides his beloved Babe; only in this case it was not a giant blue ox, but a great white Brahma, which, in many respects, was just as large and legendary as the mythical beast of burden that plowed the American frontier and altered the course of the might Mississippi. "He'll get what he deserves," said the colonel, reaching over to wipe a handful of snot from the nose of the great humpback. He sounded almost sincere at that point. "Just like the rest of us."

Elmo didn't know what to make of the colonel's latest remark, and neither did any of the others. It sounded almost, almost threatening. Red-Beard would often speak like that, in riddles and subtle innuendos. It was something he'd learned in the army, and perhaps from Tom Henley, the erudite mountain-man, who would speak in similar fashion (although he always referred to such speech as hyperbolic rhetoric or some other heterogeneous descriptive unheard of outside the cloistered halls of Academia where he once wrestled with minds as deeply penetrating and eclectic as his own) in a collegiate but forceful manner, especially when he didn't want others to know exactly what was on his mind, which was usually most of the time anyway. It was Tom's way of way of judging people's character, solely by the responses he received from his rhetoric and how they reacted to his purposeful ambiguities.

The Harlie's response spoke volumes. There simply wasn't any. Apparently, Elmo Cotton wasn't very interested in the gold anymore, which was perhaps the only thing he and Red-Beard might've had in common at the time; at least not as much as he once had been, or as much as the others might have guessed. He was more concerned about Homer at the time, and the way he'd been acting lately – like he wasn't sure about himself anymore, or anything else for that matter. Something just wasn't right; or as they say in Harley – 'It just don't boil the beans'.

Red-Beard had noticed it as well, but was not saying anything to the others. He could see that the Harlie was a little worried, and justifiably so, he thought. He could also sense a certain bond between Homer and the young sharecropper that went well beyond loyalty and friendship. It was a bond that might have escaped anyone else who wasn't as perceptive about such things as he was. It was a strong, too, and old; a bond familiar to those who've serve in the military that actually had little to do with position and protocol, and more to do with survival. It was something Red-Beard knew and recognized at once. It was something Rusty missed most of all after reluctantly turning in his resignation. He even thought that he might come to like the young man from Harley. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, Elmo's thoughts were not so very different than those of the red bearded colonel that day, only not as mysterious, or regimental.

Maybe he was the 'Lucky Number' after all, imagined Red-Beard.

And just what was it about the number nine, this little enigmatic and, perhaps, insignificant single digit that had caused such a sudden and disquieting stir on a bean farm in Harley that one fine and fateful day? There may be more to the number nine than meets the eye, not unlike our own Harley hero, which demands further investigation.

Dee Finnery tells us nine is composed of the all-powerful 3x3. Nine – the result of 3x3, nine represents an even greater holiness found in three. It is the Triple Triad. It represents completion; fulfillment; attainment; beginning and the end; the whole number; a celestial and angelic number.

Nine represents the Earthly Paradise. Nine is seen as an incorruptible number. It is the number of the circumference, its division into 90 degrees and into 360 for the entire circumference. Nine is symbolized by the two triangles which are a symbol of male, fire, mountain and female, water, and cave principles.

In Egyptian mythology nine represents The Ennead. The goddess Sekhmet is always portrayed wearing the solar disk, surmounted by the Uraeus, or right Eye of Ra, on her head, which symbols immediately connect her with both the Twin Lion gods and their disc, and therefore the balance and evolution of this planet. In her role as Divine Warrior, she wages war against the enemies of Ra, just as her feline brothers and sisters did against the evil of Apep. Masters writes of the war in Heaven which is 'intruding ever more fully and terribly upon this earth'. It is this intrusion, he tells us: ...which has given rise to the re-entry into human time and space of the Great Mother, in these Mysteries manifesting as Sekhmet. To Chaos She brings terror and a swathe of destruction. By means of Love She comes to re-establish those conditions which alone can preserve the human race and provide for the harmonious development and fulfillment of human beings as individuals, but also as parts of the Great Cosmic Whole that The War in Heaven is about – the eventual outcome: either Being or Nothingness.'

A Prayer to the God RA

O Amen-Ra, the gods have gone forth from thee.
What flowed forth from thee became Shu, and
that which was emitted by thee became Tefnut;
thou didst create the nine gods at the beginning
of all things, and thou wast the Lion-god of the
Twin lion-gods.

In the mythology of the Mayan civilization, there existed nine levels in the underworld. Metnal, the ninth level, was a place of eternal darkness, cold, and suffering. The Christian Bible is divided into nine subsections. One of the most famous legends in Celtic mythology tells the story of nine magical hazel trees at the center of the Otherworld. They hang over the Well of Wisdom and drop their nuts into it, importing wisdom and inspiration to all who drink from the water or eat the salmon of the river. The ninth astrological sign of the Zodiac is Sagittarius, identified by the Greeks as a centaur. Centaurs are magical creatures known for their skills as archers, philosophers, and predictors of the future.

To the Chinese, nine is a celestial power. It is 3x3 being the most auspicious of all the numbers. Nine also signifies the eight directions with the center as the ninth point known as the Hall of Light. There are nine great social laws and classes of offials. In land divisions for Feng Shui there are eight exterior squares for cultivation of the land by holders and the central, and ninth, square is a 'god's acre', dedicated to Shang-ti, the supreme ruler. It is also known as the Emperor's Field, giving homage and respect denoting the position of heavenly power. Nine is an important number in Chinese culture. It is considered lucky, and is strongly associated with the Chinese dragon, a symbol of magic and power. There are nine forms of the dragon, it is described in terms of nine attributes, has nine children.

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the heaven was Yang or masculine while the earth was Yin or feminine. Since numbers were considered a mystical part of the universe, the ancient Chinese regarded odd numbers as masculine and even numbers as feminine. Nine, as the largest single digit, took on the meaning of "ultimate masculinity" and implied the loftiest reverence for heaven. Therefore, the number nine symbolized the supreme sovereignty of the emperor who was the Son of Heaven. For this reason, the Son of Heaven would naturally communicate and offer sacrifices to heaven from a world composed of nines. Hence, the number nine (or its multiples) is often employed in imperial structures and designs. Ancient palaces were usually designed as nine-section architectural complexes related to the number nine in number or size, with doors, windows, stairs or fixtures also multiples of nine or otherwise related. Nine is also considered a good number in Chinese culture because it sounds the same as the word 'long-lasting'.

The Japanese consider nine to be unlucky, however, because it sounds similar to the Japanese word for 'pain'. In Thai language, the word for nine, 'gao', is the same as the verb for 'to develop or progress'.

Important Buddhist rituals usually involve nine monks.

Norse mythology recognized nine realms of existence. Eight of the realms were embodiments of opposites: fire and ice, heaven and hell, creation and destruction, and light and darkness. These realms all converged on the center realm where humans lived out their lives.

The ancient Egyptians believed that a person had to earn the right to enter the afterlife. Before an individual could pass into the next realm, nine great gods known collectively as the Ennead had to judge his worthiness.

In Greek mythology, there are nine patron goddesses of the arts, daughters of ZEUS and Mnemosyne, a TITAN who personified memory. They were: Calliope (epic poetry and eloquence), Euterpe (music and lyric poetry), Erato (love poetry), Polyhymnia (oratory or sacred poetry), Clio (history), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy), Terpsichore (choral song and dance), and Urania (astronomy). In ancient Greece, nine was the number of the Muses, patron goddesses of the arts. They were the daughters of Mnemosyne ('memory'), the source of imagination, which in turn is the carrier of archetypal, elementary ideas to artistic, realization in the field of space-time.

Graeco-Roman: There are nine Gods and later nine muses.

Hebrew: Nine is pure intelligence (eight was perfect intelligence) and also represents truth, since it reproduces itself when multiplied.

Kabbalism nine symbolizes foundation.

Hindu: Nine is the number of Agni, fire. The square of the nine forms the mandala of eighty-one squares and leads to, and encloses the Universe.

Pythagorean: The nine is the limit of all numbers, all others existing and coming from the same. ie: 0 to 9 is all one needs to make up an infinite amount of numbers.

Scandinavian: Odin/Woden hung for nine days and nights on the Yggdrasil to win the secrets of wisdom for humankind. Skeldi, the northern Persephone, the goddess of snow, lives in her mountain for three months and by Niord's sea for nine months. Nine is the sacred number in Scandinavian-Teutonic symbolism.

The number nine relates traditionally to the Great Goddess of Many Names (Devi, Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Artemis, Venus, etc.) as matrix of the cosmic process, whether in the macrocosm or in a microcosmic field of manifestation. The reason for the suppression of her image by a clergy interested in the claims only of a divinity heavily bearded, therefore, can be readily surmised; but why the same company of priestly doctors so artfully concealed in their document an unmistakable notice of their own knowledge of her power awaits interpretation.

Buddhist tradition holds nine to be the supreme spiritual power, and a celestial number. Celtic legend symbolizes nine as a highly significant number. It is a central number with the eight directions with the center making nine. The Triple Goddesses are thrice three.

There are nine Celtic maidens and nine white stones that symbolize the nine virgins attendant on Bridgit. Nine is connected with the Beltane Fire rites which are attended by eighty-one men, nine at a time.

Nine is one of the numbers that appears scantly in Christian symbolism. There are the triple triads of choirs of angels and nine spheres and nine rings around hell. The angelic beings, or celestial intelligences, are divided into three triads, containing the nine orders, and whose names, as we shall see, represent the divine attributes that they manifest to all below them. Continuing from the fine introduction to the work, Dionysius says these divine attributes also have an inner relation with every human soul, for through their ministrations the aspiring soul becomes liberated from the bondage of material things, receives knowledge of that soul's purpose, and is enabled to live its true life, ultimately attaining its divine likeness to the full.

The first order of the first triad is seraphim. They are described in the passage already quoted from Isaiah as the 'burning' or 'fiery' ones, from whom the stream of super-essential grace flows (God transcends all essence). Like fire, the seraphim consume all that separates the human from God. The second order is cherubim. The name "cherub" means "fullness of knowledge". Through cherubim, the energy of God streams forth as a transcendental light that perfectly illuminates the soul and unites it with the divine wisdom. It imparts a full and lucid understanding to the universal divine immanence. In the Bible, cherubs are depicted as great winged creatures – for instance, in the construction of the Ark in the wilderness, King Solomon's majestic temple and the visions of Ezekiel. In one passage, the cherub is portrayed as a flying creature on which God traveled in order to help King David. All this shows how hard it is for the human mind to avoid conceptualizing a formless energy The third order of the first triad are the thrones; these are divine seats through which the soul is lifted up to God and becomes established in the constancy of the divine service. This first triad is closest at all times to the divine presence.

In the second triad come first the dominions, or dominations, that are free from all earthly passions, from all inward inclination to the bondage of discord, and from all that is low; they display a liberal superiority to harsh tyranny, and an exemptness from degrading servility. They are true lords, perpetually aspiring to true lordship, and to the Source of Lordship. The second order of the second triad are the virtues, that have a powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their God-like energies. There is no weakness in them: instead, they ascend unwaveringly to the super essential virtue which is the Source of Virtue, and flow forth providentially to those below. The third order are the powers, or authorities, that are invested with a capacity to regulate intellectual and super mundane power which never debases its authority by tyrannical force, but is irresistibly urged onward in due order to the Divine. This order beneficently leads those below it, as far as possible, to the supreme power which is the Source of Power. It re-directs the forces that fetter the human mind to earthly things. Through this second triad, the soul is liberated from all that is below, and assimilated to that which is above.

The third, and lowest, triad is concerned with the final execution of the work of providence, which is God's beneficent care for his creatures. The principalities exhibit divine lordship and true service; through them, the soul may turn from attachment to earthly activities to the service of God, so as ultimately to become a co-worker with the divine ministers. The archangels imprint the divine seal on all things, whereby the universe is the written word of God. They impart to the soul the spiritual light through which it may learn to read the Bible, and also to know and use its own faculties correctly. The lowest order of this triad is the angels, who minister to all things of nature, including humans, by purifying and uplifting them.

In this triadic scheme, the higher orders inspire those lower than they, but not vice versa. Thus it is clear that the third triad is nearest the world, and transmits the illumination received from above. The end of the process is the transfiguration of the whole of the universe in the glorious light that proceeds from on high. This whole hierarchy spreads the divine light through the cosmos, that vast realm that includes the universe, as far as human understanding can define it, and also the psychic plane where we may meet the spirits of the dead and also the communion of saints and the ministry of angels. The great work of the angelic hierarchy is to praise and glorify God. This praise is not a rational acclaim so much as a great paean of joy that the world is as it is and that the angels are privileged both to know it and to participate in it. This is how we should say the Gloria of the Eucharist: that we are privileged to partake of the body and blood of the Savior If the whole cosmos could resound to that praise, and move beyond prejudice and emotional bonds, we would pour out peace and goodwill to all creatures. The angelic hierarchy, with its enlightened will turned resolutely to the divine presence, helps to bring forward the Kingdom of God on earth - and elsewhere in our unimaginably glorious cosmos.

In Roman Catholic Europe, when the Angelus tolls (at morning, noon, and evening), it ring nine times, in celebration of the Virgin's conception of the Savior. The recited prayer at those junctures, 'The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost...and THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH...' is in recognition of this miracle at the opening of a new world age. There is a nine days' private or public devotion in the Catholic Church to obtain special graces. The octave has more of the festal character; to the novena belongs that of hopeful mourning, of yearning, of prayer. The number nine in Holy Writ is indicative of suffering and grief. The novena is permitted and even recommended by ecclesiastical authority, but still has no proper and fully set place in the liturgy of the Church. It has, however, more and more been prized and utilized by the faithful. Four kinds of novenas can be distinguished: novenas of mourning, of preparation, of prayer, and the indulgenced novenas, though this distinction is not exclusive.

According to Dr. E.W. Bullinger, who has written extensively on the Biblical significance of numbers: the number nine also has a great deal of spiritual significance attached to it. It is held in great reverence by all who study the arts sciences and to a lesser degree, the occult. In mathematical science it possesses properties and powers which are found in no other number. Among others may be mentioned that the sum of the digits which form its multiples are themselves always a multiple of nine. Nine is the last of the digits, and thus marks the end; and is significant of the conclusion of a matter. It is akin to the number six, six being the sum of its factors, and is thus significant of the end of man, and the summation of all man's works. Nine is, therefore, the number of finality or judgment, for judgment is committed unto Jesus as 'the Son of man'. It marks the completeness, the end and issue of all things as to man–the judgment of man and all his works. It is a factor of 666, which is 9 times 74. The solemn amhn (ameen), amen, or 'verily,' of our Lord, amounts also to 99, summing up and ending His words. Nine is not yet the full or complete number; that distinction goes to its well-rounded follower, the number ten, but it does mark the ending. It is the last, but not least, of the single digits in our decimal numbering system; thus it can be said to represent the conclusion or ending of matter.

There are a variety numbers that hold secret significance within occult circles. Among the most common are 3, 6, 9, & 13. The number nine holds powerful significance for many occult groups. Satanists take delight in the number nine for a couple of reasons. First, Satanists enjoy reversing, mirroring and inverting symbols, letters and numbers. When you turn the number '9' upside down you get '6' which makes up the number of the Beast (666) as revealed in Revelation 13:18 in the Bible. Satanists also take perverse pleasure in commemorating the death of Christ and the death of Christ is associated with the number nine. Mark 15: 34-37 reveals that Christ spoke his last words on the Cross of Calvary at the ninth hour and 'gave up the ghost (died)'.

Another good place to see the occult art of numerology within architecture is at the Temple of Heaven where emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties prayed for a good harvest in the spring and offered sacrifices to heaven in the winter The number nine is ubiquitous in the architecture of the sacrificial temple, especially at the Circular Mound Altar (Huanqiutan). There are three tiers of staircases made of white marble, each with nine steps respectively on all four sides. The white marble balustrades around each tier equal nine or are multiples of nine. The upper terrace is made up of nine concentric rings of slabs with the innermost ring consisting of nine fan-shaped slabs; each outer ring consists of slabs arranged in increasing multiples of nine. The final or ninth ring is made up of eighty-one or 9 x 9 slabs. The sum of all diameters of the three tiers of the Circular Mound Altar is 45 zhang (an ancient unit of measurement). Along the steps up the Circular Mound Altar in the center is a round stone slab called Tianxinshi (Center-of-Heaven Stone). During each ceremony the shrine of god was placed on the Center-of-Heaven Stone to symbolize that god lived above the 'nine heavens.'

According to the book 'Numbers: Their Occult Power and Mystic Virtues' by W. W. Wescott nine holds great significance among many Masonic orders and secret societies. He said, 'There is a Masonic order of Nine Elected Knights in which nine roses, nine lights, and nine knocks are used.' In fact the number nine is the number of 'the earth under evil influences.'

In music theory, the ninth note of a musical scale or the interval between the first note and the ninth. A ninth chord is a chord with a ninth. In classical music the curse of the ninth refers to the popular and journalistic notion that some 'mortal' significance attaches to the composition of a 'ninth' symphony, which prevents the composer from writing another.

After Beethoven died leaving his Tenth Symphony unfinished, many composers were superstitious about writing Ninth Symphonies for the rest of the nineteenth century. Following the composition of his Eighth, Gustav Mahler tried to 'cheat death' by disguising his next symphony as an orchestral song cycle entitled Das Lied von der Erde. Although he went on to complete a work called the Ninth Symphony (which he considered his Tenth), he died before he could complete his Tenth (or, strictly and in his mind, his Eleventh).

Perhaps Antonín Dvořák was also superstitious about the number nine, because he wrote no symphonies after his New World Symphony, which is nowadays considered his Ninth, but which he thought of was his Eighth because he considered the score of his early C minor symphony lost forever. He lived for seven more years.

In the twentieth century, a handful of composers, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, have written a Ninth Symphony and lived to write more.

Ralph Vaughan-Williams wrote nine complete symphonies, and the last symphony of Anton Bruckner is recognized as his ninth.

Nine is the number of Valkyries in Richard Wagner's Die Walküre.

In sports, a batting lineup in baseball consists of nine players. In addition, nine represents the number of innings in a game.

In chess, the maximum number of queens one side could possibly have after queening all pawns.

Nine ball is the standard professional pocket billiards variant played in the United States.

In association football a forward/striker commonly wears the number nine shirt. For example, Alan Shearer is a famous English footballer who is known as a number 9.

Another famous number nine is Mia Hamm, who has scored more international goals than any other player of either sex.

In rugby union the scrum-half wears the 9 shirt. In baseball, nine represents the right fielder's position. In ice hockey the number nine is one of the most prestigious sweater numbers.

Nine is also the highest single-digit number in the decimal system. Nine is the number of musicians in a nonet.

Nine babies born into a single birth are called nonuplets, although not one baby born into a set of nonuplets has ever survived infancy.

A novena lasts for nine days.

Nine judges sit on the United States Supreme Court.

There are nine members of The Fellowship of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings saga, to balance and combat the nine Nazgûl, or Ringwraiths.

There are nine basic personality types represented on the enneagram.

In astrology, Sagittarius is the 9th astrological sign of the Zodiac. Joel Garreau identified nine different 'nations' of North America.

Nine months is approximately the gestation period for humans.

A standard work day of 9 to 5 begins at 9 a.m.

Stanines are measured on a scale of 1 to 9.

The name of the area called Kowloon in Hong Kong literally means: nine dragons.

Someone dressed 'to the nines' is dressed up as much as they can be.

There are nine planets in the Solar System.

Nine, as the highest single-digit number, symbolizes completeness in the Bahá'í Faith. A simple nine-pointed star is a Bahá'í symbol.

Legend has it that that a cat has nine lives.

Chapter Six

The War-Child

"WELL, I STILL SAY he's an e'wal," repeated Alvin Webb, with little or no regard for the truth by then, and still unable to pronounce his 'f's' on account of his many missing teeth.

Unlike many of his friends and neighbors living in and around Harley at the time, Elmo Cotton might very well have been mistaken for a Feral, or whatever it was the insidious outlaw was accusing him of, given previous descriptions and despite any discriminating evidence indicating otherwise. But depending on the light of day, and one's own prejudices, this particular Harlie could just as easily have been mistaken for a resident of nearby Creekwood Green solely by the color of his skin, which was after all not very different from theirs, particularly on hot summer days when skin tones in general are known to a shade darker than they normally appear, bleeding and blending into one another in the most interesting and integrated ways, whatever pigmentation they were originally prescribed.

You see, Mister Cotton was not nearly as dark as your average Harlie; but then again, he was not quite as light as your typical run-of-the-mill Creek-man either and, depending on your discerning perspective, he was probably a little more of one and less of the other, or visa-versa; although, as you may have guessed buy now, he was actually, and in equal measure, a combination of both. To some it was simply a question of balance, the mixing and mingling of the races, a matter of little consequence and even less concern, which, at another time and under different circumstances might easily be overlooked To others, it was freak of Nature, an ambiguity... a mistake. To many it was plain as Black and White and just that simple, as clear as crystal, as old and cold as the stones in the iron gates of Harley itself, and just as definitive. Still, there were those who thought of it as something more complex, more subtle, perhaps. They looked at Elmo, and others like him who seem to be cropping up more and more since the end of the war it seems, through myopic, and sometimes blinded, eyes that would glance at him for a moment and just as quickly turn away, clouded with integrated thoughts of doubt, sympathy, curiosity, confusion, prejudice and, perhaps, even anger. It was all very disquieting; at times it could be dangerous. It seemed that that all who clapped eyes on Elmo Cotton saw exactly what they wanted to see, nothing more and nothing less. And that, dear reader, includes your own discriminating self. You see, it all depends on your point of view, the angle of observation, and how you look at things in general. It's a matter of perception, I suppose, and how we were taught to deal with such ambiguities.

Naturally, and predictably, I suppose, there were individuals on both sides of the Iron Gates who'd always maintained, and with no definitive proof, I might add, that Elmo Cotton was possibly a hybrid: the by-product of a mixed (and therefore illegal) relationship, illegitimately conceived in a private moment of forbidden passion and born out of wedlock; or, if you will – a bastard. But not all bastards are beggars; many come from wealthy and famous families, some even from royalty. Rumor had it that the young sharecropper may very well be a direct descendant of Mister Buford Harley himself, who, even as an elderly man was known to have fathered more than one illegitimate child from any one of Erasmus' many beautiful, and willing, daughters. Of course, this was never substantiated and pure speculation. But rumors remained and the similarities seemed to speak for themselves; and so did the gossip. Whatever the case may be, the evidence could hardly be refuted, or ignored, regards to the Elmo Cotton, the Harlie: light brown skin that appeared almost orange under the sun; thick, curly brown hair; eyes that could've been either blue or green depending on the light, or lack thereof; not to mention a face that bore no immediate trace of any one race in particular. Or maybe, just like the ever-perplexing platter-puss, or any of Darwin's other natural curiosities that continue to confound our sensibilities, so too was this poor specimen doomed to mere speculation; or worse yet, to the scientist's laboratory where, like a two headed toad, it could be dissected right down to its bare and basic components; and we still wouldn't know what the hell it is! Any more than did before the vital vivisection, any more than we would the Harlie himself. Exactly what was he anyway? Well, perhaps medical science could help.

It seemed that some folks would never be satisfied; unless, of course, the subject at hand were to be turned over to the proper medical authorities, cut open for examination, much like the aforementioned frog undergoing vivisection, to find out once and for all whether or not the Harlie bled black blood, in which case he might instantaneously be declared normal, at least for a Harlie and from a purely hematological perspective, and sent back home... or whatever mutant lair he crawled from in the first place. If, however, the same life sustaining liquid turned out to be otherwise... say, red, purple or orange; well then, he might just as well be systematically tossed into Nietzsche's evolutionary trash can reserved for such freakish fools and anomalies – but only after every attempt to cure the patient had been exhausted – and disposed of in the usual manner. Or perhaps, if the false prophets have their wild and wicked way, he would be thrown into Nebuchadnezzar's famous fire, along with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and be barbecued alive without the Son of Man to rescue him from the king's fiery furnace. It was almost as if they actually expected poor Elmo's blood to be something other than red. One drop. That's what they said. One corpuscle! That's all it would take to convince them he was of the wrong race; or, as one of these sanctimonious simpletons so erroneously and ignorantly stated at the time, in a metaphorical analogy he would later come to regret when his own pedigree, which turned out to be not nearly as genetically pure as he proudly proclaimed it to be, was brought into question: 'One drop of manure spoils the whole damn well!' It seems that this fellow's well was poisoned long before he knew it; and by the same 'manure' he was born and bred in.

They say the misguided and misinformed orator died one day at the hands of an angry mob who discovered, much to their chagrin and bewilderment, the naked truth his own dark and inscrutable past, which was said to have including a nubile slave girl, and his father's unbridled lust for women of dark complexion. He was found lying at the bottom of the same contaminated well, quite literally one day, with a woman's garter-belt wrapped around his hypocritical neck and castrated like a bovine steer. And for the record: his blood was definitely not black. But his body stank just the same; '... like the left wing of Judgment Day', as the mariner poet so eloquently stated when describing the famous whaling ships of old Nantucket, whose try-works with their boiling blubber fill the air with such an evil and unctuous odor. As far as other bigoted minds of that judgmental generation were concerned (there were plenty to go around, now as then, and they come in all shapes, sizes and colors) Elmo Cotton was indeed and in fact a Harlie; and that's all there was to it. He had to be. After all, he lived in Harley. Didn't he? And that's all that really mattered. It was as plain as black and white. It was as simple as that. Case closed.

Not all agreed, however, and said so. And when asked his own opinion on the ambiguities surrounding his clouded genealogy, which happen more often than he liked and on both sides of the Iron Gates of Harley, Elmo would merely shrug his shoulders and walk away. It was his way displaying indifference to the subject he knew so little of, and simply didn't care about. Homer Skinner didn't care either; yet his own prejudices, as well as those of others, betrayed and beguiled him at times.

"And another thing..." the old man was quick to point out to any remaining doubting Thomases, Horns, Webbs, Smileys, Dilworths, or O'Briens that day. "There's more to this here fer... I mean Harlie... I mean Elmo here," he quickly corrected himself after unintentionally exposing his own prejudices, "than meets the eye. Something you boys don't know much about, I reckon."

They all just looked at one another.

"Anyone know what that is? Hummmm?"


"Care to take a guess?"

By then, the others had accepted the old man's proposition, as well as the extra share of the gold it would afford them. Even Alvin Webb, who could be as stubborn as a three legged mule on its way to the glue factory if it would advance his warped agenda a quarter of an inch in his favor, was resigned to the fact that they were now a party of nine.

A practical and impatient man by nature, and who was famous for keeping to a tight schedule, Colonel Rusty Horn wanted to get back on the road, hopefully in the right direction this time, and back to the business at hand as quickly as possible. He felt they had already wasted enough time in what turned out to be a trivial matter anyway. And now this! It was mid-morning, and the sun was already beginning to burn a hole in the back of his neck. He didn't suppose anyone knew the answer to the old man's riddle anyway. "We give up, old man," he finally said in regard to Homer's last minute inquiry, acquiescing on behalf of his four horsemen, soldiers all at one time or another, and the two mongrels in the wagon.

"I thought so," said Homer with a triumphant but uncertain smile. "Well, then... It's like this...' he said, forcing the words from the back of his throat. "Any of you boys know how to cook?"

"What?" said Smiley, knotting his bushy eyebrows.

"I say..." repeated Homer, "do any of you boys know how to cook?"

"Cookin'!?" the outlaw sourly whined, "that's woman's work."

"Well, someone's got to do it," noted Hector, already suspecting what the old man was up to by then.

Homer pulled the Harlie forward. "And I know just man for the job," he proudly stated with one hand resting on Elmo's naked shoulder.

"The Feral?" motioned the outlaw.

"The Harlie," corrected Homer.

The colonel hadn't thought about it. Food was usually the last thing on his mind, or agenda, leaving such amenities for lower ranks to deal with. He was thinking about the real business, which, as previously hinted upon was not necessarily about the gold.

And what exactly was that business? It was the business of the Motherstone, of course; that mysterious black object that had eluded Tom Henley for so many years, maternally referred to at times simply as – 'Mother' by the old prospector. That's what Red-Beard was chiefly concerned about. It was something that'd been shielding from the others for quite some time, ever since he first met Mister Henley and Homer Skinner up at the Nickel Pig Saloon.

Webb had been made aware of 'Mother' while Tom Henley and Red-Beard stayed up one night discussing the 'real' business at length. Alvin had apparently fallen asleep at the bar, or so the two late night conspirators imagined. He didn't hear everything; but he'd heard enough, enough to question the colonel the following day about the subject of the previous evening's discourse.

He gathered from the clandestine conversation that what lay at the heart of the matter, as well as the mountain, was something far more important, more precious, than gold. He was right, of course; although he had no idea what that might be. Red-Beard told him as little as possible, knowing Private Webb as he did and the outlaw's proclivity towards professing knowledge on subjects (like engineering for instance) he really knew very little, or nothing at all, about. It was part of his character; and Alvin Webb was certainly a character... without any character, that is.

There were only two other men who may've known something about the real business that day. That would be Alvin Webb, whom Red-Beard had confided in, perhaps more than he should have, and Homer himself. Tom had mentioned it only once, almost by accident, and in his own imaginary and ambiguous manner, which was usually shrouded with half-truths and innuendo. It quickly became obvious to the colonel that what the old man was really talking about and, moreover, what he was actually trying to hide, was not the gold at all, but something else. It all began to made sense.

Whether or not Homer was trying to satisfy his own private ambitions in regard to the Motherstone was something Red-Beard had become increasingly wary of. There was always something suspicious about the way the old man would become strangely quiet or avoid the subject altogether whenever Red-Beard pressed him on what else he might've found in the lost mine, besides the gold; not to mention the last mortal remains of Cornelius G. Wainwright III, which was what he went looking for in the first place. Homer had seen the stone before; that much was evident by the old man's silence, if nothing else, thought Colonel Horn who'd interrogated enough prisoners during the war to know when someone was simply lying to him, or hiding the truth for more devious reasons. He was there alright, Red-Beard concluded; even though it happened forty years ago. Homer was there. And now the old man was going back. But for what? Why? the colonel kept asking himself. Was it is really for the gold? He couldn't take any chances. Red-Beard knew by then what he had to do. He just didn't know how to do it yet, or when. He would deal with Tom Henley later, along with Alvin Webb.

"The real business," reminded Red-Beard in a voice so low that only the man seated on the horse next to him could hear. "Remember, Mister Webb?"

Having been properly and discretely reminded of why they were there in the first place, the man from Eulogy acquiesced, as if on cue, by quickly changing the subject without really changing it at all, as only he could do. "Did some cookin' in the army, I did! But 'course, that was before I become an En-in-neer'," he boasted, gumming up his words in the usual manner. Apparently, Alvin had gotten the message. "The infantry! Ain't that right, Colonel? Cooked for the whole goddamn regiment! Most of 'em dead now, 'course."

Smiley laughed. "Ohhhh! So, that's what killed 'em ..."

Private Webb frowned. "It was those damn Yankees! Piss on all of them!" he protested, spitting out the words in several misguided directions as if he were being falsely accused of committing the murderous act himself. "They killed 'em...those sum-bitches! They killed 'em all!"

"Easy, soldier," warned Red-Beard. "Keep your powder dry."

"And your mouth shut," added Dick who'd been standing close enough to the outlaw to catch some of the outlaw's foul spray.

The cook cursed, "Go to hell!"

"War is hell," reminded the young romantic, whose loyalty to the Union cause was never in serious doubt. "They only got what they deserved."

"What do you know about it, Dick-head?" snapped the outlaw.

Dick paused. "I know this," he thought out loud after some careful consideration: "The world is a very dangerous place...."

As if suddenly awakened by the universal implications of the young man's last statement, the Indian named Boy peered out of his long black curtain and begged the obvious. "Compared to what?" he asked.

What had set off the private's short fuse that day, among other things, was something he and his superior officer would just as soon forget, shameful as it actually was. You see, what private second-class Alvin Webb failed to disclose that day in Harley was the fact that he was eventually court-martialed from the military with a dishonorable discharge, and for reasons unspecified; although not to Red-beard.

It had always been suspected that the outlaw's sudden dismissal had something to do with stealing, which, in the army, was a court-martial offense, punishable by the whip, and/or imprisonment; and in extreme cases, such as the one suggested in the case of the pilfering private, hanging. Being the preferred method of execution at the time, it a sentence Alvin reluctantly but eventually accepted, firing squads reserved for more honorable criminals, such as cowards, horse-thieves, and child molesters. And to make matters worse, the thievery in question seemed to involve weapons, firearms and munitions to be exact, that somehow had found their way in to the hands of the enemy. This was serious stuff, which should by all accounts have earned Private Webb more than just hanging to death, if that's possible. But there a last minute reprieve. It was long suspected that Red-Beard had a manipulative hand in mitigating the outlaw's lethal sentence, and that he might have been equally charged himself, had the investigation reached his own level of responsibility and its logical conclusion. Private Webb made sure that that didn't happened, of course; his testimony precluding the red bearded colonel from all wrong-doing, which he would have denied anyway,'...on the grave of Andrew 'Stonewall' Jackson', as he so often solemnly swore.

In the end, and despite his cowardly inclinations, Private Alvin Webb did what any good soldiers would do in a similar situation: He fell on his sword; as they say in military jargon, just like Cato and King Solomon's servant. It was never brought up again. The incident died a quick and painless death, not unlike the poor Southern soldiers who were later found shot to death on the battlefield with Confederate bullets buried in their brains – their own bullets that might otherwise have found their proper place in the bloated bellies of dead Yankees. There are times, as the Samurai warrior knows, when surrender is simply not an option. Many wondered but no one asked. No one dared. Rumor had it that Colonel Rusty Horn, his outlaw partner, and perhaps a few other renegade soldiers that were likewise being instructed to 'keep your powder dry, boys,' remained confederate sympathizers long after the war – never mind the outcome or which side they had actually served on – and were secretly planning an insurrection. Of course, there were those who didn't seem to have a problem with that, soliciting their services even to a point of plotting against the current Administration and assassinating its leader.

Most agreed, however, that it would only be a matter of time before the new central government extinguished the last few rebel flames remaining in the deep, and not so deep, South. These things are to be expected, and dealt with accordingly; or so Lincoln himself acknowledged, refusing, for the most part at least, the security measures offered to him at the time, which were far from adequate and more often than not refused. "If they want to murder me..." the old Emancipator was once overheard to have whispered in the ears of his hysterical wife one day, "they know where to find me." Apparently, many rebels agreed. The holdouts had militarized their forces shortly after the War in one last desperate attempt to rally their forces, along with their cause, in one final insurrection and one last heroic battle that would be the South's equivalent of Gideon's revenge. But one that would never take place... thanks to a man named Booth.

It was a courageous act, noble in purpose and design, reminiscent of General Gate's defeating the British forces in the Carolinas during a previous and, perhaps, even bloodier occupation of the South. But alas, it was a plan doomed to failure from the start. There was no General Washington crossing the Delaware, or marching on the Manhattan this time, to save the day; no French war ships sailing into the Chesapeake Bay; no Lafayettes or Baron Von Steubens lending a sympathetic ear and experienced hand; not even a Benedict Arnold in the ranks who, despite his ignominious ending, was once considered among the greatest of American patriots at the time. Nothing! No one. The war was over and things would never be the same. Unless... Some say it was Red-Beard's idea from the start, which might make sense considering his bravery and velour on the battlefield; but that could never be proven, not in a court of Law anyway. And besides, as so many other Confederate officers had done after the war, and in the true spirit of the warrior, Colonel Rusty Horn simply traded one sword for another and did what he had to do. He joined the Union Army, which may explain, among other things, his uniform of the day.

As it were, the South had been out-numbered, out-gunned, and doomed to defeat from the start of the war, despite the fact that they'd actually killed more northern troops than they lost. It was a good fight, however; one Alexander would be proud of. Brave men died on both sides. Half a million – Dead! History is written by the winners, of course; and the losers, well, they just lose. But not all is lost; and, as the poet warrior says: 'Old soldiers never die...'

They called it a 'civil' war (if, as some of our pacifist brothers might suggest, there is civility at all to be found in any war) and one that simply could not be avoided. But actually, when you think about it, it may not have been a 'civil war' at all, if, by applying the conflict with that specific appellation, you are attempting to suggest that either side had as its chief goal and objective the total annihilation and takeover of the other, which, as we all should know by now, simply was not the case.

Succession, as originally proposed by the Southern Aristocracy in all its humble and hospitable charm, was the preferred outcome; and one that might have actually been achieved; peacefully, perhaps, and without the predictable bloodshed. But of course, we will never know. It all ended with the same old government and a new way of life. But no one died in vain, which is more than can be said for contemporary wars that are fought for political reasons rather than patriotism and principal, and may be its only redeemable asset. They were buried side by side, in most cases, and on the same battlefields; facing one another, clasping hands, perhaps, beneath the bloodied soil for all eternity in a final gesture of resolution, forgiveness, and maybe even a little brotherly love, despite the orphans and widows they'd left behind. Defeat was predictable, given the unlimited resources of the North and the iron-fisted resolve of its leaders, if not inevitable. Victory, on the other hand, was neither blue nor gray. It was red, the color of the blood still fresh on the fertile fields in places with names like Gettysburg, Antietam, Mannoses, and Turkey Creek. It was a terrible war that took many young lives. But it was the right war, fought at the wrong time, perhaps, and for reasons the politicians and historians will never understand. Maybe that's why it turned out the way it did. One thing was for certain: It was a war no one would ever forget it; which, I suppose, is the ultimate purpose of all wars.

Hector O'Brien, the carpenter, would know. He was there. He'd served in the Southern army as a sergeant but seldom, if ever, spoke of it. Most veterans never do, you know; not only for personal reason, but sometimes just because they want to forget, however impossible they know that to be. Unlike the dishonorable and cowardly private who'd acted strictly out of self-interests, the Hammer's regrets ran much deeper; and his sorrows were shared with an entire nation. What made the old war-horse weep at times, although it didn't happen very often and was always done in privacy, was not so much that they'd lost the war, but rather that a way of life had been sacrificed in the process. Good brave men can get over defeat and live to discuss it honorably, in the company of their captors, perhaps, like gentlemen should, and live to fight another day; but as far as Sergeant O'Brien was concerned, there was nothing honorable about losing a culture. It was, as the writer says, 'gone with the wind', destroyed forever; although there are some who will argue that there are times when a thing, or a nation, has to be destroyed in order for it to be saved. Naturally, many of the Founding Fathers would have agreed, as they drained the last drop of blood from the British Crown. Losing a war is one thing, but losing a culture, an identity....well, that's something entirely different. That was the real shame. People can be replaced, eventually; but once a culture is destroyed, it is gone for good, especially in a place called Dixie where life is all about sipping mint juleps on soft summer evenings and eating fried chicken on the front porch as the band plays 'Old folks at Home', and where things like loyalty, modesty, and chastity, are the staple. And nothing can bring it back, no matter how many swords are broken, and no matter how many armistices are signed.

It was a sore subject for the old sergeant, the wounds of which were only just beginning to heal. For years, he'd tried to keep his feelings to himself; buried, deep down, in the dirt, along with a good number of brave young men who'd once served with him so heroically. 'They were just... boys', he privately wept from time to time. 'Just boys...'

It seemed that after the war, and particularly after his 'operation', Colonel Rusty 'Red-Beard' Horn couldn't have cared less about the war, or how it turned out. He blamed both sides equally for the uncertain outcome of the conflict, which in and of itself was still a little bewildering to him, and had always maintained that it, the war, should have continued until one side or the other (it really didn't matter to him which one) won by completely and totally annihilated the other. 'The way all wars should end', he once boasted after an unusually long and hard fought battle that'd ended, much to his own frustration, in a draw. He didn't believe in truces, peace treaties, reconciliation, or even ceasefires for that matter; they only prolonged the inevitable he'd always maintained. And in a strange and almost prophetic way, he might actually be right about that.

In the end, Red-Beard burned all of his uniforms, except for the odd hybrid of blue and gray clothing he was wearing in Harley that day. Likewise, he buried his medals along with the deeds and the dead that had procured them. He had no need for of them, any of them, anymore. It did it not out of spite, but simply because they reminded him of the man he used to be. They simply reminded him too much of Colonel Horace 'Rusty' Horn, a man he would later come to say 'never existed'; present company notwithstanding.

As for the complicated and controversial issue of slavery, which many still insist was not only the chief proponent of the Great War but may've very well ignited the conflict to begin with, Red-Beard cared even less. He had always been ambivalent about the whole idea of Emancipation, vacillating from one extreme to the other, considering the debate a mere distraction to the real issue, whatever that was in his own delusional and dichotic mind, at hand. And whenever the subject came up, which was all too often as far as he was concerned, the colonel became strangely silent, as though the issue had already been settled, at least in his own mechanical mind, and was no longer worthy of gentlemanly debate. He'd always thought it a shame and a sin that good men should have to die over a matter so trivial and inconsequential as slavery; although he knew they would always find '...something to fight over'; one cause being as good as another in that respect, which was all the true war child can hope for, what he lives and breathes for: – the next battle, of course. What else?'

'War should always be about something big – real big!' the colonel contended. It should be about something more just than ideals and convictions, more than ambition, more even than glory. As far as Red-Beard was concerned war was, in its own mutually destructive and self-perpetuating way, a necessity. ''Good for the circulation' he would preach in whispered tones of red, the color of war by the way '...and mankind in general.' And who could disagree? Didn't one of our own distinguished forefathers once enunciate, quite eloquently I might add, that 'the Tree of Liberty', still in its most experimental, infantile, and fragile state, 'needs to be nourished now and then with the blood of patriots and tyrants'? He was taking about war, you know; and he knew what he was talking about.

War! 'It's the purest of all professions,' Red-Beard would proselytize from his bully-white pulpit on top of Old Jove, 'There's something religious about it'. And in some ways, he was right about that, too. But wars are usually more secular in nature and, despite what some may claim, are seldom fought over religion matters; although religion has been used from time to time, chiefly as propaganda, to fuel the furious flames. Praise God... and pass the ammunition! Saying that religion is the cause of war is just a poor excuse put forward by sophomoric intellectuals and cowards who are too afraid to fight and too lazy to think. Life is not quite that simple, and neither is death. The true war child knows why he fights. He fights to win! He has no religion, at least not in the way we know it; his gods are captains and generals, men he seldom sees. He answers to them alone, if he answers at all. He worships at the altar of Mars, the feet of fleet-footed Achilles; he bows before Aries the Archer; and, not unlike his Christian brethren, he drinks the blood of his deity to the dregs. He is the war child.

War is what he lives for. 'Let the other poor bastard die for his country,' as one old warrior-poet so aptly once put it. War is in his blood, in his genes. It's a relationship, in that respect, like father and son, an inextinguishable and self-consuming flame that burns in perpetuity from one generation to the next. He's the war-child who drinks from his father's fiery cup and vomits it back to him like a true god of fire. And when there is no more war, there will be no more gods, and no more fire. And there will be nothing left to fight for. Then, and only then, will the true warrior come into his ultimate glory by executing the final order. And he will carry it out to the end; whereupon will stand, salute, and then simply cease to exist by putting the last bullet in his own brain. Mission accomplished, Sir!

For men like Red-Beard, war was more than a profession; it was an art, his passion, a way life Sun Tuz would surely approve of, and something to make Nicolo Machiavelli proud. 'War! Live it. Learn it. Love it!' the colonel once commanded his troops. 'And that's an order!' It was more precious than life itself. War! Without it, Red-Beard was nothing; with it, he had a purpose, and a pulse. War! It didn't matter who started it, or even why; one excuse being as good as another. It only mattered who finished it – and who won. When and where, of course, were always negotiable.

War's a science! And it's fought for a variety reasons, the last one being no exception; if not slavery, it would've been be fought over something else. When pressed for an opinion on the final outcome of the continental conflict, Red-Beard had always maintained that the wrong side had actually won. But he never specified which one; at least, not in so many words. Never-the-less, he did finally concede that it was all probably for the best, and that, in the end, poor Johnny Reb never really stood a chance, being out-numbered and out gunned as he was, and however heroically he may've fought. From a more personal perspective, however, and despite his military metamorphosis, Rusty Horn still sided with the defeated by agreeing with them on the central and critical issue that had ignited the war to begin with, which, regardless of what you may or may not have heard, was not what History proclaims it to be. The war was actually less about slavery and more about State's rights, which, as most clear thinking folks would later come to agree, was always at the heart and soul of the matter. It was an economic problem as well a moral crisis, and one that even Colonel Rusty Horn knew would have to be resolved sooner or later. He'd only wished it was later. He had his reasons, but would not speak of them out loud; not publicly, anyway. He was a war child; and this was a private, and perhaps personal, war. It was his war.

Having lived long enough to know the true history of the human drama leading up to the great conflict that pitted brother against brother, the carpenter had to agree with Red-Beard's assessment that day, as much as it disturbed him to do so, and despite how little they actually had in common, then or now. "We were only doing what we said we would do... what we were supposed to do!" banged the Hammer for the sake of anyone willing to listen. "And legally, mind you. Hell! that's all we really wanted... pure and simple. And it could've been done peacefully, too, I reckon. It's in the Constitution, you know. Look it up!"

"You're talking about secession, aren't you, Mister O'Brien?" questioned Little Dick for the benefit of those who weren't aware of what the old soldier was alluding to, historically speaking; and specifically for his boss, Charles Smiley, who still might not have realized what his own brother died fighting for.

"Hector's right," agreed Colonel Rusty Horn, putting aside his red bearded alter ego for a rare moment of introspection. "Johnny Reb never wanted a war, civil or otherwise; and neither did those damn Yankees for that matter. And when you get right down to it, there was really nothing 'civil' about it. Civil War, as far as I can tell," he continued, as if lecturing a classroom full of new cadets, "is when one part wants to take over another part. And that was the last thing on Johnny's minds. He wanted to be left alone. That's all! And if that didn't work, he just wanted to leave."

"Secede! Leave! What the hell's the difference?" pounded the Hammer in a rare display of emotional outburst. "We were just minding are own business, and our own property. Who knows?" he added with a blow that would've driven home a ten-penny nail in one strike, "Things would've worked out sooner or later...with the slaves, that is. They always do, you know. It was all just a matter of time, I suppose, before they got what they deserved. Hell, maybe the war wasn't necessary after all. Who knows? Don't ask me. I don't know. But you know those politicians. Anything for a dollar..."

"Freedom ain't Free," reminded Homer, serving no particular alliances, and holding no grudges.

"Tain't cheap, either," Smiley sadly agreed, having lost his own brother at the Battle of Bull Run; whose death he'd witnessed fighting alongside his older sibling on what many still considered the 'wrong side' of the war.

At that point, Sam slouched down in the front of the wagon, wary, it seems, of the confrontational conversation by then, and not particularly fond of the direction in which the carpenter had suddenly steered it, intentionally or not. He knew Hector, as well as Webb, and maybe a few of the others who he'd only recently made the acquaintance of, were from that part of the South that didn't necessarily agree with the outcome of the war, nor the sad and pathetic attempts at reconstruction and reconciliation. He could tell by the way they talked. It was in their blood, like a malignant virus infecting their bodies and brains, one that simply refused to die. And he knew there was nothing he, nor a thousand Union armies, could do to stop it. "But that's just the way life is... for some folks," was all the Negro would say on the matter, referring to the white man's recalcitrant behavior.

Boy was not so reticent, for a change. "Cost us plenty, too," lamented the Redman in the back of the wagon, equating, in his own Native-American way, the decimation of his heterogeneous tribe and the fate of the entire Indian nation to the plight of the black man; as he would often point out to anyone willing to listen, regardless of the color of their skin, the size of their genitals, or the choice of their weapons. But unlike their African brethren who, against their own free will were dragged from their ancestral homes in chains and forced to suffer the injustices a new and ignorant world where they would wait in sorrow and shame for another hundred years before they could call that land their home, the Redman could not wait. He didn't have to. He was already there. In the end, it was the American Indian who paid the ultimate price for freedom; not with his life, as pure and pagan as it was, but with extinction... just like the buffalo.

"We fought because we had to fight. There was no other way," Hector hammered home. "Man can't serve two masters, you know."

"Try serving just one," noted the Negro, growing bolder in his assertions, as well as his rhetoric.

The surveyor acknowledged, and rightfully so, albeit from a purely humanitarian perspective, "Never did get what they was promised, either," he observed, referring, of course, to the final settlement granted to the slaves who'd fought for their own freedom, which came, as a matter of fact, to the grand total of five acres and a mule. But some on the winning side of the war thought it wasn't nearly enough and so, along with 'Reconstruction' which they'd grudgingly acquiesced to knowing full well that it was never going to happen anyway, especially now that the Great Emancipator was dead and Johnson, and his Northern alliances who still had a bone to pick with old 'Johnny Reb' as well as a few debts of their own, held the purse-strings; and so they came up with another idea novel, a compromise. They called it 'Reparations'.

As part of Mister Lincoln's 'reconstruction' efforts, soon to be abandoned by his predecessor (as many suspected it would, and perhaps should) proposals had been made to compensate not only the plantation owners whose mansions and fields were left in ruins after the war, along with the cities and towns they supported, but the freed slaves themselves who, though no fault of their own some would argue, were left with even far less. 'Reparations' was only one of those magnanimous gestures put forth by those whose sympathies lie in that general direction. It was a topic of heated debate that would survive for many years, revived by now and then by lawyers and legislatures who saw it not only a sound legal instrument for undoing injustices of the past, but as a way of lining their own depleted pockets while at the same time procuring the 'sympathy vote' needed to keep them in office where, in their own political way of thinking, they could 'make a real difference'. It was to be, and still is for that matter, the largest class-action law-suit ever devised by these self-serving hypocrites.

Forty acres and a mule was a good and fair starting point, they all would argue. But for the more liberal minded of that post-war generation, even that wasn't enough; and they said so. Not so much for the sake of those they so magnanimously sought to defend, and indeed had shed their own Caucasian blood to liberate, but more so out of guilt and shame, which, as we all know, is not best motive to adopt when carrying out such humanitarian efforts, however altruistically applied. Some called it political indulgence; other saw it for what it really was – secular absolution.

Whatever it was, it seemed to take hold; and like a poisonous plant whose roots run as deep as a Samarian fig tree in search of moisture, it spread until something finally had to be done about it. But the remedies needed to make up for the egregious offensives of the past, which were said to have put some at a greater disadvantage than others, simply weren't there. For if they were, then every slave since Adam would rightfully have a legitimate claim to Eden, along with all the other conquered territories he was either thrown out of, forced to flee, or remain there as mere slaves. And if that were the case, the Jews would have to give up Jerusalem, the British Empire would never exist, Rome would revert back to a safe haven for wayward Etruscans, and we would have Geronimo sitting in the White House. It simply wasn't going to happen; at least not without a fight.

'Fixin' things' was the logical, if not so eloquent, argument in defense of Slave Reparations; or, as others in the ever-expanding legal community would've liked to put it in the vernacular of the day: 'Levelin' the cornfield.' It would come in the form of new taxes, the lawmakers agreed, levied against those that may, or may not, have benefited the most from the evil institution itself. Satirically, but quite accurately, referred to as 'a re-distribution of wealth', which all taxes are when you get right down to it, by conservatives whose political leaning tend to be slightly right of Attila the Hun, 'Reparations' were, and still are for that matter, doomed from the start; as well they should be.

'But it's for the good of all mankind!' progressive thinkers would further elucidate, hoping to gain support for their ideological cause, particularly among those now eligible to vote and who would stand to gain the most from such a proposition. It was a noble idea, but a bad one, as most ideas are that spring from the heart and not the head; emotions like hope and change, and done for all the wrong reasons. But it's the thought that counts. Or is it? Once you politicize Charity, it is no longer Charity. It's... it's... Well, whatever it is, it's not good. 'Render to Caesar...' the Good Book tells us. And leave salvation to God.

Needless-to-say, the issue of 'Reparations' died a quick and painless death, which is more than can be said for the soldiers who died fighting for something entirely different, as well it should have; but not after so many days of legal haranguing over a subject that proved to be just as divisive and destructive as the Institution it sought to prosecute – namely, slavery. Reparations were a mistake from the start, many would come to agree, albeit begrudgingly. It was really nothing more than legalized extortion in the guise of political correctness gone amuck; another liberal disaster done with all good intentions. But as most good intentions eventually do, it backfired! the effects of which only exacerbated the problem by opening up old wounds that should've healed naturally, and permanently, over time. Even bigots know when to give up and throw in the towel. You can't hate forever... I don't think.

Justice comes swiftly for some, and slowly for others. But it comes, never-the-less; and sometimes it comes not with the strike of the gavel in the hands of some angry and activist judge, but rather by our own better angles and, perhaps, the grace of God. Forgiveness and Freedom are no exceptions. Both have to be earned; and once they are, there's no looking back. Look at Lot's wife, all ye Sodomites; look and learn.

Reparations? There was simply no justification or legal precedent to support such a concept, or any other remedy for that matter that would right the wrong the Founding Fathers once tried to ignore not too long ago in the fly-infested halls of the Continental Congress. As one bright young lawyer once observed and later argued as he presented his very first case before the American Bar: 'Why should I allow the government to legally pick my pocket just because my daddy once robbed the bank? Who can put a price on sin? Where's the arbitrator, man! Will Egypt mortgage the pyramids, along with all the treasures of the Pharaoh, to pay back Moses and his suffering Jews? Would that be Justice? I think not, sir. And neither would Solomon!' And thus he rested his case.

Considering his own personal relevancy on the subject, and his stake on outcome of the war, the Harlie, who although he'd been listening intently to the preceding discourse with great and growing interest, had remained strangely, but not uncharacteristically, quiet on the matter at hand. He disagreed vehemently with much of what had already been said on the divisive subject of human subjugation, as well as the injustices suffered both before and after the war, and was going to say something about it; but he just didn't know how. And besides, how could he? The gentleman from the South was right, of course. No one in Harley, or anywhere else that he knew of, had ever received their allotted 'five acres'; in fact, most, didn't own soil they walked on. The mule they could always take or leave.

The wealth of Harley (relatively speaking, of course) was held mostly in the form of real estate that had been magnanimously, and for reasons no one could comprehend, granted to a chosen few newly freed slaves shortly after the war. Some considered it fair, the right thing to do, a down payment, a form of egalitarianism, something like... like Reparations! But as in all social experiments, some are 'reparated' more than others; and to each is not always according to his needs. And that's why Reparations eventually failed, leaving the land in worse stewardship than it ever was, and the people of Harley just as poor; maybe even poorer, than before. Oh well, so much for Socialism.

And as for the mule, Elmo already had one, albeit a sorry old jackass given to him by his good friend and neighbor, Mister Sherman Dixon, not too long ago as a wedding present. It was a stubborn animal a with a healthy appetite, a nasty temper, and a bad habit of kicking in the barn door whenever it was hungry, which just happened to be most of time; or just to annoy and aggravate Elmo, whom it would kick just as regularly and just as hard, sometimes for no good reason at all.

Naturally, Elmo would kick right back, and curse the animal right out loud... whenever Sherman wasn't around, of course (after all, it was a gift from the fat farmer; and besides, it just wouldn't look right) which only seemed to exacerbate the problem and prolong the untenable situation. He would occasionally try to talk sense into the malicious mule, which never seemed to do any good, while attempting to engage the dysfunctional beast in honest dialogue, which at times could be lively and quite revealing, knowing all along, of course, that he was only arguing with himself. At times, the poor animal would even talk back, not unlike Balaam's Biblical jackass that was forced to verbally admonish its rider in the presence of the angel of the Lord, which it was severely beaten for. It was merely a safe and imaginary way of amusing himself at work, where there was actually very little to be amused about, and letting off a little steam in the process; and besides, it made the day go by faster. And being strapped behind the infernal beast for such long periods at a time, it was sometimes only conversation he would have all day. But then again, imaginary friends can sometimes be just as annoying and aggravating as the real thing, or worse. The mule was no exception. On one such occasion, Elmo almost shot the ornery orator for kicking him in the shin-bone, and would've gladly returned the mule to its original owner, Mister Dixon, had he not already known about Sherman's voracious and insatiable appetite, which included everything from apple armadillo to broiled zebra-fish. Surely, he thought at the time, the poor animal would only end up in Mrs. Dixon's stew that evening, which was a fate unfit for man or beast, and ultimately in the fat farmer's famous stomach. Elmo had seen Sherman eat on more than one occasion, and it still frightened him to think of it.

And so, the Harlie mercifully decided to spare the poor animal a death it probably deserved and would one day certainly get; but he just couldn't afford it at the time; not with fields that still needed plowing, and a hungry family to fed. Not even a dumb jackass with a large appetite and a bad temper deserved the unwarranted fate of winding up on the business end of Sherman Dixon's fork. And besides, the mule kept him company, anthropomorphically speaking, and could still fairly pull a plow; when he wanted to, that is. And even bad company is better than no company at all, Elmo wisely reckoned. He would miss the conversation as well, even if it was only his own. In the end, I suppose, as it is with most symbiotic relationships, the Harlie found out that he needed the mule as much as the mule needed him. They complimented and confounded each other, like Lewis and Clark, despite their harsh disagreements; and, in a strange and almost bewildering sort of way (the way lovers sometimes do, and which is, perhaps, something only they can ever understand) actually loved one another.

The mule was actually one of the few possessions the Harley bean farmer could actually call his own. Other than the clothes on his back, a few pigs and chickens and a sickly old hound dog that couldn't even catch a coon, Elmo owned nothing else except for a rusty old shotgun his uncle gave him as a birthday present, which he was actually afraid to use. He liked the dog, however, which was more than he could say about the mule and most of his neighbors. At least it didn't try to kill him, or talk back way the jackass did from time to time; and besides, he could always shot the dog.

As usual, Alvin Webb was either forgetting, or intentionally leaving out, the one thing that the Harlies, along with thousands of others like them, did get. That was their Freedom, if nothing else. And for most, that was enough, barely; it was all they ever really wanted anyway.

"Dumb bastards," cursed Private second-class Alvin Webb under his foul and festering breath. "What good's freedom to a goddamn e'wal anyway? You can't eat freedom. They's cannibals, you know."

"That reminds me," said Little Dick Dilworth, feeling a little frustrated by that time, "We ain't had any breakfast. And I'm hungry."

Homer was getting a little impatient by then as well, feeling they had wasted enough time already. But he was glad the young man had brought the subject up. "Thanks for reminding me, son," he said with grateful nod. "That's brings me right back to what I was getting' at. Let me put it another way. Do any of you sons of bachelors, besides Mister Webb here, know how to prepare a proper meal?"

The question was answered in the same ambivalent manner as before: with heavy sighs and the shuffling sounds of hooves and leather.

"You mean cook?" the Negro reluctantly questioned.

"That's exactly what I mean, Sam."

"Well..." began the outlaw, whose culinary qualifications had already been expanded upon, much to everyone's dissatisfaction.

"Well then..." interrupted Homer, proudly touching the Harlie once more on his bare brown shoulder, "He does!"

Having spoken his mind on the matter and then some, hopefully for the last time, Homer Skinner finally rested his case. He then turned to the newly commissioned cook and said to him, "Ready, Elmo?"

The barefooted bean farmer simply looked up at the old man sitting on the tall black horse and nodded, yes.

Chapter Seven

It's About Time...

ELMO COTTON HAD KNOWN about Homer's long awaited expedition for quite some time now, having discussed it at length and in detail with the old man on more than several occasions. Even then, he was never quite sure if they'd actually be going; Homer had made plans before that never materialized. And if they were going, he'd always assumed they would going alone, just like they always did; just the two of them, just the way he liked it. Perhaps Homer never really made that clear... up until now, that is.

As it were, the young man from Harley was the only one Homer Skinner ever really confided in to any significant degree with his secret. The others only knew what Homer wanted them to know, which was just enough to persuade them that he wasn't as crazy as everyone said he was, and that there might be some truth to his ambiguous and sometimes incredible story. He trusted Elmo, not only with the map but with everything else, including his toothache, which the Harlie had always responded to with sympathy and a certain bewildering pity that only Homer could understand.

On account of the Skinner's biological failure to produce any offspring of their own, and for sentimental reasons perhaps, Elmo Cotton had been legally designated and documented as Homer's sole heir and beneficiary; providing, of course, his wife was also deceased by then, which, considering her healthy constitution and the fact that women generally outlive their husbands in most cases, wasn't very likely. It was all in Homer's last Will and Testament...if only he could remember where he'd put it.

The old man had always held a special affection for the Harlies, the Cotton family in particular. Nadine was a good woman, and even a better wife, he would remind Elmo on any given day and under no particular circumstances. She also happened to be the mother of Homer's godchild, 'Little' Ralph Cotton, Elmo's only son who would often sit on the old man's lap and comb his thinning white hair with his delicate brown fingers. Even in his declining years, Homer would make the long trip into Harley, sixteen miles thereabout, at least once a week just to see how the Cottons were doing, and maybe buy a bag or two of Harlie beans, which he was never in short supply of and consumed on a regular basis, baked, boiled, or right out of the sack, as most folks preferred.

Elmo was the only one, besides Homer of course, who'd actually touched the thin yellow paper that showed the way to the Wainwright's Mountain and the exact location of the hidden gold mine Homer had stumbled upon over forty years ago, along with the tomb of the dead prospector. The others, including Colonel Rusty Horn, only knew of the treasure's approximate location, which was assumed to be somewhere in the foothills, at the base of the Silver Mountains, just like all the other mines of that time. They were wrong, of course. For as it turned out, the entrance to Cornelius G. Wainwright III's lost gold mine was actually located at the top of a live volcano, deep inside the crater of Mount Wainwright itself. Geographically speaking, it was a rather small crater, and not place where one would expect to find any precious minerals, like the ones Mister Wainwright was so desperately searching for; most of ore having been spewed out in ash, or carried down the mountain side in streams of hot flowing magma by then. Never-the-less, that's where it was.

At the time of the Gold Rush, most prospectors (at least the ones that knew anything at all about gold mining, which by the way were not very many) panned for their fortunes in the shallow streams and river beds at the base of the Silver Mountains, collecting the precious golden nuggets one at a time from the bottom of their copper bowels. It was hard and tedious work, and not for those who are easily discouraged. But with lots of patience and perhaps a little luck, it did pay off. Later on, when the streams ran dry and most of the miners had packed up their pot and pans and left, a few of the more ambitious prospectors, like Mister Wainwright for instance, remained behind. They turned their attention and tools to the hills, where 'hard-mining' became the business of the day. It was more difficult than panning and required a great deal more effort, along with the proper resources needed to extract the golden reward. In some cases, it was actually worth it.

Not surprisingly, however, it was inside the great mountain where Cornelius was most successful. It was also there where he meet his fate, in the very same mine Homer and company were presently headed for that day. It was abandoned, of course; sealed shut with Mister Wainwright's own dynamite, within the cavernous crater itself And it was there where the tunnel began, meandering deep down into the rock in a labyrinth of twists, turns, dead-ends, forks and false starts, which were obviously placed there for reasons of obscurity. It was a vast subterranean maze that Homer, knowing how bad his short term memory actually was, wisely included on his map, in painstaking detail, shortly after he made his escape. He knew he would eventually need it, if he ever came back; although it was never really a question of if, only when.

Having long since been covered up by nature or contaminated by unsuspecting trespassers, the original site of the old gold mine would be almost impossible to find without Homer's map. The stone crucifix left by the original search party marking the grave and bearing the dead man's name had long since faded into the surrounding rock like an old Gaelic cross in a graveyard, and was by then as indistinguishable as all the other slumbering stones breaching the earthy soil like so many forgotten tombstones.

Elmo had only enough time to pack a small bag that day, on which he hung a few copper pots and pans along with some kitchen utensils that he hoped his wife wouldn't miss too much. He brought along several burlap sacks of beans of course, some coffee, sugar, and a few bundles of collard greens, all of which he strapped on the back of his plow mule. The old man never did say exactly how long they'd be gone, so he just wanted to be prepared. He was thinking it could take well over a week, which was longer than he'd even been away from his family and farm, just to locate the lost gold mine; and longer than that to unearth the hidden treasure, if it was still there, which the Harlie himself was always suspicious of, knowing Homer the way he did. And so he threw on a few more bundles and bags just in case. He also brought along some carrots for the mule. Not that he deserved any after kicking him in the backside not too long ago; but he knew that there would be very little for the poor animal to eat once they were on the trail, and even less when they got into the mountains. Nodding to the old man on the tall black horse, Elmo simply said, "I's ready now."

Homer nodded back and gave Elmo a wink, his usual way of reassuring the Harlie, or anyone else for that matter, that all was well; or at least as good as they were going to get under any particular circumstance. He knew how the Elmo must've been feeling just then; he'd felt the same way forty years ago when, as young and hopeless romantic, the heart raced and the blood began to boil; it was also at that time when the tooth first began to ache. It was a strange and exhilarating feeling, he suddenly recalled, hot and cold at the same time, the kind of feeling experienced by all young men at one time or another with too much time on their hands and not enough brains to know what to do with it. But it was a good feeling, as most feelings are for young men of any generation, even the unpleasant ones.

"I's almost forgot!" cried Elmo, looking as though he might be having second thoughts on the matter, "I'll be right back." He then ran quickly around the back of the house and into the barn where he kept his shovels and rakes, a plow, and a few other faming tools left there by the previous tenant. He was gone for on only a moment or two.

When he returned, slightly out of breath and looking somewhat anxious, the Harlie was carrying with him an old shotgun, so rusty and worn as to suggest that it that it very well have been pried and pilfered from the venerable old hands of Rip van Winkle himself as he lie in slumbering ignorance for the last one hundred. And just think of how surprised the Ol' Rip would be upon finding out, years after he was eulogized in legend, whatever happened to his famous firearm, and whose hands it finally wound up in: the hands of Harlie... and that it actually still worked.

It was a rather queer-looking firearm, a cross between a shotgun and a long barreled pistol, if you can imagine that, and just as lethal. It was called a 'blunderbuss', actually. It had a short wooden stock at one end and the trademark flared end section at the other for expelling a wide range of munitions. It was an odd and old weapon, from an earlier generation, preferred by pirates and other criminals of the time who'd come to depend on the wide spread of their gunshot, which usually consisted of so many small metal projectiles, or anything else that could be rammed down the gaping barrel of the gun at a moment's notice, and seldom missed their target. It especially came in handy at close range, which, despite what you may've heard, is how much of the real fighting is done on board ship; or whenever these same sea-sick sailors were too drunk to hit the broad side of Admiral Nelson's flagship on a calm day, which, knowing their fondness for rum, was always a distinct possibility. His uncle Joe had given it to him as a birthday present when he turned sixteen years old. He told Elmo it was good for hunting coons. 'And you can't miss!' Joe Cotton said with a great grin at the time of the presentation. Elmo had tried it only once. He missed.

The four horsemen looked at the Harlie and his antiquated weapon, and laughed. They had the right. It was a sight worthy of ridicule. Why even Red-Beard, whose face was forever frozen in an everlasting frown, seemed to crack a smile that day. Sam and his Indian companion simply shook their savage heads in simultaneous disapproval. Homer looked just as surprised as everyone else, and even slightly embarrassed. But in a strange and almost complimentary sort of way, both the Harlie and his gun, the man and the machine, looked as though they were made for one another, being equally odd in many of the same bewildering aspects, and just as much out of place.

Having served in the military not too long ago, Hector O'Brien was familiar with most types of modern weaponry, including firearms. He'd fired everything from pistols to cannon, and could still handle them as well as any hammer. But even he couldn't recall ever seeing such an old and out-of-date firearm, at least not one that he thought might actually work, like the one the Harlie was holding that day. "Say, just what you gonna do with that thing, son?" enquired the old sergeant-at-arms after the laughter had died down to a mere snicker or two, "...shoot yourself a Pterodactyl?" He was referring, of course, to one of the larger prehistoric birds common to the Jurassic period that are now long extinct; although there were some who claimed they still exist and can be seen on moonlight nights circling high over the Silver Mountains, looking for gold... or gun-toting Harlies, perhaps.

"How could he miss!" noted the surveyor.

Elmo often wondered that himself. He simply shrugged as he placed the blunderbuss in a burlap sack on top of his mule along with all his pots and pans. It was just a precaution, he reminded himself, just in case... "Might do me a' little 'coon huntin'," said the Harlie for lack of a better answer and feeling somewhat inadequate by then.

The comical incident gave Homer pause to think for a moment about what he was getting Elmo, as well as himself and the others, into that day. He wondered if he was doing them all a disservice by bringing them along in the first place. He had often thought about going it alone, as ridiculous as it sounds and as difficult as it would actually be, and no matter what the outcome. After all, there were no guarantees; and the road into the mountains was not an easy one to follow, if it could still be found at all. It would be long hard slough, as the General would say. And that was long before the dirty and dangerous work of excavation began; a monumental undertaking even under the most professional standards and favorable conditions. Men have died up in those hills, Homer often imagined; good men, better and more capable men than the ones he'd chosen for the expedition, including Red-Beard and the experienced Old Hammer. And what right did he have dragging the Harlie along anyway? Surely, Elmo had more important things to do at the time. He still had a farm to take care of, not to mention a wife and child that needed him there more than ever. What if something went wrong? It could happen, the old man was presently considering. It did once before. And what would Nadine say? What would she do? And what about the boy! These, along with a myriad of similar soul-searching questions suddenly descended upon the old man like a ghost knocking gamely on the front door of a house that was due for a good haunting. Homer cursed himself for not thinking about these things earlier, and thought about calling the whole thing off right then and there. He imagined that he could always tell Red-Beard and the others that he suddenly had change of heart; that he was too old and too sickly; or maybe, he thought at length with smile, he could tell them that he'd made the whole thing up, just like everyone said he did; just like he always did. Hey! It was all a joke, he might say to them. And what a joke! A real knee-slapper! A regular gut-buster! Why, it would probably make him even more famous than he already was, or so he gloried in a greedy moment of self-indulgence. It was a tempting idea, but one that was born too late and probably wouldn't have worked anyway. Hell! he finally thought to himself without ever believing it: maybe I won't say nothin'; just go on home and come back some other time... when I'm not feeling so poorly. He had the right, you know. And he also had the map. But before the old man had time to think it over any further, Elmo had the mule packed and ready to go. He'd made the decision for him.

"Something wrong?" questioned Colonel Horn, noticing for the first time that Homer's hands were trembling as he put on his reading glasses and unfolded the map for one last time.

Elmo noticed it as well. He'd seen it before, but never so pronounced. It looked like Homer was actually shaking. He looked old.

"Nothin' to worry about," insisted the aging deputy, noting a slight crease on the Harlie's otherwise smooth, unwrinkled brow. "Just a little rheumatism. That's all. Comes and goes... like the weather, I 'spose."

He then slowly began studying the map, again, even though he'd committed it to memory many years ago. It seemed the more he looked at it, the more uncertain Homer became, and the more his hands shook. The four horsemen just sat and stared, wondering what was going through the old man's mind at the time. He looked a little scared, thought Smiley, with a keen and discerning eye for trouble, whether in the physical or environmental sense. He looked at the Harlie again. Perhaps he wasn't so lucky, after all. No one said a word.

As previously hinted upon, it was rumored that Elmo Cotton was perhaps a direct descendant of old Erasmus Harley; his daddy, it that were the case, being just one of Mister Harley's original twelve children; the first to be exact. However, this could never be verified, much less documented, due to the simple fact that historical records of genealogical events were rarely kept in back then, especially in Harley, except for by word of mouth, perhaps, which was unreliable at best and sometimes downright duplicitous.

It was also commonly misconstrued that all Harlies, however remotely removed and wherever they eventually wound up, were related to one another, either directly through Erasmus Harley himself, or by one of his many offspring, creating, if you will, a sizable and protracted community of incestuous village idiots. Mathematically speaking, of course, this would be impossible, for the numbers alone simply would not add up, much less support such a ridiculous theory. Mister Harley's gene pool simply wasn't that deep. It would've taken a lot more sperm, not to mention stamina, than his aging body could afford to produce such noble numbers. Fortunately, most Harlies couldn't count that high. But facts, stubborn things that they are, really didn't seem to matter when it came to speculation on such matters (never mind the fact that 'race' is something no one has any personal control over anyway) and probably never will. But Harlies, in general, were used to speculation and gossip, along with the pain and embarrassment that sometimes accompanied it.

Things only seemed to have gotten worse after the war. It was a difficult and confusing time for everyone, including those who resided in nearby Creekwood Green. But the Harlies bore it like they bore everything else in life – with pain, suffering, humility, and maybe even a little laugher. And no one laughed longer, or louder, than Erasmus Harley himself who, despite whatever else might've been said about him over the years, happened to be not only the richest and wisest of the Harlies, but also one of the humblest.

Actually, the name 'Harley' was quite common among Harlies; and still is for that matter, despite the fact that it was not a name they would have likely chosen for themselves. But names, like the people who bear them, can be deceiving. And least we ever forget: few ever get to name themselves. If the good folks of Harley were, as previously mentioned, related to one another more so than anyone would care to admit; well then, so be it. As far as the Harlies were concerned, it really didn't matter. And if, in fact, this particular Harlie, Mister Elmo Cotton, was indeed a direct descendant of the venerable old Negro, he would never admit to any such lineage; to do so would not only be presumptuous, it might even be a lie. Besides, Elmo had always maintained that his own father, whoever he was, was just another Harlie bean farmer among all the other sharecroppers and, by all accounts, not even a very good one at that.

Many say Reginald Cotton was in trouble with the law from the day he was born; and that was just on his mother's side. In any case, Reginald, or Reggie, as he preferred to be called, was a sharecropper, a fate befitting someone not only of his race but of his questionable character. He worked for Ike Armstrong at one time, just like everyone else in Harley; albeit when both he and Mister Armstrong were much younger, and stronger, men. In many ways, Reginald Cotton was a strange and mysterious man, even to his own wife, or so the Harlie was told on many an unsolicited occasion. He wasn't a particularly good farmer; and he especially didn't like working for a landlord, especially Ike, which may've been the one thing, the only thing, he and Elmo ever had in common, and perhaps one of the reasons he ran away in the first place. And run he did, as fast and far as his Harlie feet would take him. Exactly where he went or where he wound up, was anyone's guess. But something happened to him along the way. Some, including Joseph Cotton, Elmo's uncle, who enjoyed reminiscing about such things while sitting on his front porch in his favorite rocking chair and catching horseflies in his big brown hands, said it happened in Old Port Fierce. 'It was befo' the war...' Joe would say in a frog-like voice that was as thick as molasses and just as sweet; and that, for reasons few would ever know, was all he would say on the subject. But he would tell other stories, stories of faraway places he'd heard about from the sailors in Old Port Fierce, tales and adventures so incredibly Homeric (pardon the pun) that many folks though he was just making them up. Reginald Cotton was a big part of those stories, of course. However, when questioned about what might've actually happened to the old fugitive, Joe Cotton clammed up like a New England oyster. Some waters are just too deep to fathom.

In the end, they say that Reggie Cotton simply ran away; a little insane perhaps, but with a burning desire no hearth or home could satisfy. Some suggested there was another woman involved. Or maybe even another man; a soldier, perhaps. No one knows for sure; nobody knew what happened to him after that, including Elmo's mother, Daisy Cotton. No one knew why; and no one really cared. Some still claim, with scattered bits of evidence and here say to support their story, that he headed down to Old Port Fierce, as Joe suggested, where he eventually gained passage onboard a slave ship headed for the islands. But that, along with other stories about him, such as taking to the hills to go a'minin', joining the army, or running off with a wealthy white woman whom he was also said to have murdered, were only stories, tall tales, mere words; but they were words Joe would neither confirm nor deny, even until this very day. Mining, especially for gold, was typically reserved for more adventurous young men, with paler complexion, and a lot of money than Reggie ever had. 'Not too many Harlies took to mining in those days', his uncle would say... 'unless, of course, they be woikin' for someone else'. As in the case of poor Sam, I suppose, who had worked as both slave and prisoner.

No one knew for certain what happened to Reggie Cotton: not his wife, not even his own brother, Joseph Cotton, who was known to most Harlies simply as Ol' Joe, and whom Elmo called 'Uncle' Joe. It was just one of those things all too common in Harley after the war. Families that hadn't been scattered as a result of the divisive conflict were lucky enough to have merely survived. It was a time of confusion and uncertainty, everywhere, even in Creekwood Green where the affects of the war could still be seen on the lily-white faces of widows and orphans alike. Need-less-to-say, husbands and fathers were as scarce as hen's teeth in those days, and just as difficult to identify.

It was said that Reggie Cotton's wife died not long after her husband left town, making Elmo a complete and utter orphan at the tender young age of seven. For a while, his uncle, Joe Cotton, took care of the boy; but only until Elmo was old enough to, as his uncle was famous for saying in his own eloquent accent: '...drives a plow and woiks the dummy-end of a spade'; although Elmo was never exactly sure what his uncle meant by that, or which end of the shovel he actually belonged. And it all began on his tenth birthday. It also happened to be the same day he finished school, which he always thought to be no mere coincidence.

He didn't even own a mule at the time, and his father had left behind nothing but a grieving wife and a lonely and confused little boy. It was something he would never forgive Reggie Cotton for, not even if he out-lived Old Erasmus Harley himself, who was said to have survived long enough to see his hundred and thirteenth birthday. It was a hard life for a little boy with no father, and few prospects. And he never expected things to get any better.

When Elmo reached the respectable age of sixteen, Joseph Cotton talked his landlord, Isaiah 'Ike' Armstrong, into allowing his young nephew to farm a small piece of bottomland as a sharecropper. It was actually a swamp that flooded so often that the only thing it was ever good for was frog-gigging and, depending on the time and tide, fishing. Joe also gave his nephew the previously mentioned shotgun, or blunderbuss, as a birthday present. It looked more like a small cannon, he remembered thinking at one time, and just as dangerous to operate. 'And remember, son,' he could still hear his uncle saying at the time in his big, bull frog voice: ' can't miss.'

Elmo Cotton hated farming. He especially hated sharecropping, and considered it just another form of slavery, which, it actually was, and in more ways than one. He hated the long hot summers and the cold hard winters. He hated the little shack he was forced to live in. He hated the muddy soil of Harley that stuck to the soles of feet and could never be completely remove no matter how hard he scrubbed them. He hated his plow; and he wasn't too fond of the mule, either. He hated the beans he harvested and ate almost every day of the year. Needless-to-say, he hated his landlord, Ike Armstrong, whom he blamed for many, if not all, of his current problems, as well as his Uncle Joe for introducing them in the first place, in a forgiving sort of way; although it was something he would never say, or admit, to the old black man with the big hands and even a bigger heart who, other than Homer, was the closest thing he ever had to a real father. Besides, he knew it would only hurt the old man's feelings.

In fact, Elmo hated so many things about his life at the time that he hated just thinking about them. And he hated Harley, too. He hated the stone walls and the Iron Gates that keep him in, and everyone else out, especially the white folks, the so-called 'Greens' from nearby Creekwood Green who would sometimes ride right up to the iron gates, but seldom any further, at times just to stop and stare at, before heading on their worldly way. He hated them as much as anyone, even though he actually knew very few of them. He hated them almost as much as he hated the Harlies. He hated them all, black and white, Harlie and Green, and for the same reason: namely, because they all hated him first. But most of all, he hated Reginald Cotton. Elmo hated his father not so much for what he did, but what he didn't do; and especially for what he did to his mother. He always suspected that she would still be alive today if not for her husband's unpardonable sin of abandonment; and perhaps he was right. Whenever the name Reggie Cotton was mentioned, he would merely spit in the dirt and step on it, like he was extinguishing a fire ant or some other loathsome insect. And he didn't care if anyone had seen him do it, either; not even his Uncle Joe, whom Elmo always liked and admired despite the shortcomings and failures of his older brother.

Elmo was only a boy when he scribbled a shaky and thin 'E.C.' on Isaiah Armstrong's long piece of paper. Not being able to write out his full name at the time, Joe Cotton taught his nephew how to sign his initials on the doomed document the night before the contract was legally executed. It also had to be read out loud, on account of Elmo couldn't read at that time, and the law demanded it. Not that it really mattered, of course; it was just a formality. Never-the-less, it was a binding contract, and would be upheld by any magistrate. And so, like everyone else in Harley, Elmo cotton went a'farmin' that day for Isaiah 'Ike' Armstrong and regretted it ever since.

But he was young and green at the time, and would surely have put his 'E.C.' on his own death warrant if it meant a roof over his head and a bowl of beans. How was he to know? Isn't that what everyone did back then? put a mark on Ike's long piece of paper, pick up a shovel and, if they were lucky enough, stare at the rear end of a mule for the next ten years, or at least until they died (I'm not talking about the mule here), whichever came first.

It gave the Harlie a place to live, even if he couldn't call it his own for at least ten more years (not that he ever really wanted to anyway) and a place to hang his hat, even though he didn't one of those either. But it was a roof over his head, and he was at least thankful for that. He hoped things would get better; but, of course, that never happened either; not he actually believed they ever would.

The house the Cottons lived in was little more than a small wooden shack in the middle of a mud-hole with a door, one window, and a rusty old stove. There was also a small barn located on the property, which Elmo used to store his mule and his plow in. Actually, the only difference between the barn and the farmhouse was that the barn was bigger.

At one time Nadine Cotton suggested they keep the mule inside the house, and they sleep in the barn. Elmo disagreed, of course; and he told her so, harshly, in what turned out to be their first real argument. Needless-to-say, Elmo slept in the barn that night; but without his wife. It would not be the last time. The mule was there, too. 'Peoples live in house,' he admonished the mule that cold and lonely night, '... not barns!' Naturally, the mule did not agree, and said so. It was the first of many conversations he would have with the ornery animal; it would certainly not be the last.

The house was actually so small that it was often mistaken for an outhouse by passing strangers, which, understandably, resulted in more than a few embarrassing moments, one involving the Harlie's own wife as a matter of plain fact. The incident occurred not too long ago. It had not only landed Elmo in jail for a lengthy period of time, but also got him whipped as well for taking matters, along with a rusty bucket, into his own 'Harlie' hands. He had always considered the whipping he got in exchange for breaking another man's leg the lesser of the two punishments he received that day, and would do it all over again – only next time he would break both of Mister Richard 'Dick' Dilworth's leg instead of just one. He never forgave the young man from Creekwood Green who had urinated in his bathtub that day and invaded his wife's privacy both at the same time...but more about that later. Back to the farm.

Elmo's only consolation for signing away ten years of his uncertain life to 'Woik da fields' as Ike would say in his own dialectic drawl, was in knowing that he was now considered a properly 'made man', which gave him access to the only thing he really cared about at that time: marrying Nadine Simpson, a local farm girl with a pretty smile, a voluptuous body (or, as they say in Harley – 'all the right tools!') and all the ancillary delights that went along with them. The Harlie knew, of course, that without a steady source of income, however small and meager, Farmer Simpson simply would not allow it to happen; marriage, that is. And neither would Mrs. Simpson; or Nadine for that matter, who, as any good farm girl knows, if she knows anything, would never – Ever! go against the wishes of her parents; at least not with a mother's size thirteen shoe, her father's twelve-gauge shotgun, and a dowry to consider. Despite what you may have heard about farm girls (and I'm sure you've heard plenty) they are not shy about these things; and they certainly ain't dumb.

Elmo Cotton just had to get married. It is what every young man in Harley did, sooner or later; despite the looks and fortunes of the bride-to-be, and sometimes against their better judgment. Besides, it was simply the right thing to do; even if it's sometimes done for the wrong reasons. "Getting' 'hitched," as an old black farmer who happened to be a rabbi of the Jewish faith once told Elmo in all candor and confidence, "is kind'a like... like 'getting coi'cumcised (what old Semite was actually referring to at the time was the Hebrew tradition of removing the foreskin of every male child not long after they were born, which in his case was the day he turned thirteen. He said it was done down at the creek, with a hollowed out reed and a butcher's knife. Naturally, it was something the Harlie would not soon forgot... as much as he tried to.) 'We calls it a 'Bris'... And I's the Mohel!" exclaimed the old Ethiopian with a slicing gesture that reminded Elmo of his wife cutting off the head of a chicken, in one swift, accurate, and deadly motion. "It may not be all that necessary; and it may not be for everyone; but, you sees, the truth is," the high priest went on to explain that day, "...the sooner you gets it over with, the better! Thinks about it, son." Talk about cutting to the chase; and with such eloquence... and orthodoxy. Ouch!

When Nadine Simpson finally agreed, reluctantly at first, to marry the young man from Harley with the strange complexion, curly brown hair and blue-green eyes, it seemed to somehow make it all worthwhile. Elmo was happy for the first time in his short, un-ambitious and ambiguous life. His neighbor, Sherman Dixon, gave him the mule he presently owned as a wedding present; and his landlord, much to everyone's surprise, gave him a day off for the honeymoon. Miracles do happen, I suppose; and they sometimes come from the most unlikely places. He was happy, and thought that, perhaps, he and Ike might actually become friends. It was a thought that died the very next day, however, when he was told by the same greedy landlord that he would have to work the following Sunday, which just happened to be Christmas day, to make up for the time off. It was cold that day, and lonely. It was the first Christmas Elmo Cotton ever had to spend in his overalls; it wouldn't be the last. Not if Ike Armstrong had anything to say about it, which he always did. But, hey! at least Mister Armstrong gave him a chance, the Harlie had to grudgingly admit as he drove his plow through the frozen mud and rain while the presents were opened and the pumpkin pie was passed around the humble houses of Harley that bright December morning. It was more than most folks gave him at the time, including his own father. It was enough, for now at least.

They were married in 'The First Congregational Church of the Holy Ghost' and had a son eight months later. They named him Lil' Ralph because...well just because Nadine liked the name. As for Elmo, he would've settled for any name; except for 'Reginald', of course. He still hated that name, almost as much as he hated the man himself; and he would still spit in the dirt and step on it every time it was mentioned or brought up in conversation which, fortunately for everyone concerned, did not happen that much.

Things suddenly looked brighter for the young sharecropper, and even the plow didn't seem as heavy as it used to. He even began taking a liking to his mule, especially when they were forced to share the barn together, usually during certain times of the month when, for reasons the Harlie would quickly find out, were those special times when Mrs. Cotton was going through her menstrual period (or, as she herself so delicately put it: 'when I has my little guest...") and sexually activities were definitely out of the question, as well as the bedroom.

But he still hated his job. He hated farming more and more with each passing day, and cursed the soil he stood on. Knowing that one day his own son would be standing on that same silty soil, driving the same stupid plow behind the same dumb mule, and 'woikin' the same muddy bean fields for the same old greedy landlord only made him want to, against all his better instincts, follow in his father's shameful and forlorn footsteps by running away for good. Some things just never change, I suppose; and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. It only made him bitter and sick.

And through it all Elmo Cotton plowed and planted his muddy little bean field from sunup to sunset with little or nothing to show for his efforts other than a few sack of beans, a broken back and a handful of blisters. 'Oh well', some would say, observing the angry young man from a respectable distance with little help or sympathy to offer, 'at least you is E-mancipated!'

Elmo was never quite sure if he was being pitied or praised by the remark. It sometimes made him laugh, which was its only redeemable value, but not for very long. For a free man, Mister Cotton felt about as 'E-mancipated' as a raccoon caught up a tree, and just as frustrated. And the hounds were always waiting for him, right below, ready to pull him apart, limb from limb, at the slightest sign of surrender. Somehow, he found that amusing as well, but only in a melancholy sort of way.

Before long, he wanted nothing more than to wipe the muddy soil off his feet and leave Harley for good; and he actually came close to doing it at one time. But that was before he was married; and now, with a wife and child to support, it was simply out of the question, if not altogether impossible. Besides, Elmo swore he'd never do what his father did by simply running away. It was too easy, and far too risky; especially with a knife-toting farm girl at home going through her monthly cycle who knew how to cut the head off a chicken. And the mere thought of abandoning his family made him shamefully ill, as well it should. Still, he needed to get away, if only for a little while, he thought. But where would he go?

He needed some time to think, to sort things out, something he always did best when he was alone. He was tired; it showed. And it wasn't necessarily from work – he knew himself better than that. There was something else bothering him, something he couldn't quite put his finger on, something more intangible, and more personal. He felt yoked, like the mule pulling the plow in front of him day after day. It weighed him down, like an anchor; it was a weight he felt he could no longer bear. And there was nothing he could do about it; there was just no relief in sight. It frightened him at times: that strange and bewildering combination of anxiety and hopelessness that would come over him, suddenly it seemed, and without warning. It was a sinking feeling, as if he were drowning in a sea of deep muddy water. And the more he tried to get out of the water and mud, the deeper and muddier it became. He would think about what his Uncle Joe had told him about his father, which was never enough; and about how his mother died after he ran away. Needless-to-say, it only made the water deeper and muddier; and he sank even more.

His wife often suggested, in the way farm girl sometimes do in times of trouble and despair, 'Why don't ask the Lord for help, Elmo?' She was right to do so, of course; and she would pray for her husband, in spite of himself.

Although Elmo still believed in God, he never saw the point in asking God, or any other elusive deity, for assistance when, in his own unsophisticated but otherwise sound and logical mind, he had always assumed that: if God was God, and He knew what everyone needed, even before they asked for it, and He was as merciful and benevolent as everyone claimed Him to be...Well then, why should anyone have to ask for anything in the first place? It didn't make sense; or, as they say in Harley: 'It just don't boil the beans'. Wouldn't God already know what he, or anyone else for that matter, wanted, or needed, before they even asked for it? It was a paradoxical dilemma, with critical consequences, and not for Elmo's uneducated brain to solve at the time. It was the kind of problem that has perplexed the mind of man since Adam donned his first fig leaf and starred at his wife, wondering, out loud perhaps: 'What the hell went wrong!?' He never could figure it out. And neither would Elmo. Nobody would, or could, he recently began to think. The answer was to be found somewhere else, if it ever existed at all.

And perhaps that is why he decided to go along with Homer and the others that day. And then there was the gold. He'd heard about it before (Who hasn't?) and not only from Homer. People talk, you know; and on both sides of the Iron Gates. It was no secret that Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III did, in fact, locate and excavate some of the most lucrative mines in all the Silver Mountain range; and that he did have stubborn streak in him as wide as the Grand Canyon; and that he very well may have been as greedy and treacherous as most folks claimed him to be; but no one ever accused Mister Wainwright of being a stupid man; quite the contrary. He knew exactly what he was doing, and precisely what he was looking for. Some say he eventually found it: Death, and immortality. Other say it never existed at all... whatever it was.

It was Mister Wainwright's methods they chiefly questioned, more than his motives. He just didn't know when to stop, they sadly say. And in the mining business, a foot or two, even inches, could very well be the difference between life and death. Elmo sometimes wondered if Homer would make the same fatal error; if, in fact, that's what had doomed the famous prospector. He didn't think so. But what did he know? He was just a Harlie, a sharecropper, a famer; and the first thing Harlies were taught from a very young age, whether they understand what it means, or not, was that Harlies belong in Harley. It's as simple as that. And if they ever forgot it, which is known to happen from time to time as it does for everyone born under a wandering star...well in that case, all they have to do is cast that same wondering eye on the old Iron Gates before them, and be reminded... just like the ancient Israelites were reminded every time they gazed up at the towing towers of Babylon.

Talk of gold didn't happen too often in Harley; and even when it did, it only surfaced behind closed doors, in smoky back rooms and empty barns where liquor flowed and the men of Harlie would sometimes congregate to discuss such forbidden subjects while pitching pennies, playing cards, or emptying a few whiskey bottles. Gold, like so many other desires of the flesh, has a way of finding its way into the hearts and minds of men, regardless of where they hide and what color they happen to be. Elmo was no exception.

For a long time Elmo pretended, like so many others, that the gold never even existed at all. It was just an old man's dream; a wish, something Homer made up, as old men often do to amuse themselves and perhaps a few others along the way; the way his Uncle Joe would sit in his rocking chair on his own front porch catching horseflies and telling stories, mostly to the children who could stop by just to see a big black man in a rocking chair catch horseflies on his front porch. It was perhaps the one thing the two old gentlemen had in common, Elmo sometimes imagined; and the fact that they were born opposite sides of the old Iron Gate; perhaps it was the only thing. But whatever it was, it was a good thing. It was something Elmo came to realize later on in life; and it wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It seemed that some folks would prefer to make up a good yarn rather than tell a bad one. And what's wrong with that? And who could blame them? Especially when their own 'true' stories were too short, too long, too sad, or just too boring to hold an audience for any length of time. Facts are not always stranger than fiction; sometimes they're just plain dull. If a man can't dream, then what the hell can he do? And when dreams become more preferable than reality, it says more about the reality than it does the dream. Just ask Homer.

Folks had always considered Homer Skinner a little strange, 'teched in the head', as they would sometimes say, rather cruelly and erroneously, I might add; especially in his senior, and what some considered his more 'senile', years. 'No fool like an old fool!' they would howl at him as he rode by on his big black horse, usually on his way to Harley to pick up some beans. And they would say it right to the old man's face at times. Homer always seemed to understand; and he took it all in stride, waving to the crowd as he passed by with a wink and a nod only he seemed to understand. Of course, that didn't necessarily mean he agreed with them. He didn't. He would simply smile, wave, and walk away if he had to, the way Harlies sometimes do when there's nothing else they can do under similar and even more humiliating circumstances. And it worked! just like it worked for the Harlie.

As previously mentioned, Elmo had recognized only one of the four horsemen that day, Richard Dilworth, who was better known around Creekwood Green as 'Lil' Dick', and not for the reasons one might come to suspect. The others, including the two men riding in the painted wagon, remained totally unfamiliar to him; and Elmo planned to keep it that way, at least as long as he could. He'd heard of the old man with the heavy hammer from his uncle Joe, on several occasions, and wondered if it was the same individual the old man spoke of with such awe and reverence that was presently standing in front of him that day in Harley. It sure looked like it. The hammer said so; it seemed to speak for itself. Likewise, he'd also heard of a man called 'Smiley' who would, whenever his professional skills were called for on that particular side of the Harley Gates, practice his trade in the same accurate measure he would anywhere else, and at the same reasonable rates; not unlike Mister Lester Cox, the Creekwood County coroner who also happened to be a close and dear friend of the foul-mouthed, pie-eating, tobacco spitting, surveyor. And everything he'd up until that point regarding to the magnificence of the surveyor's famous moustache, at least from his own personal point of view, certainly did not do it justice; it only made him feel more insignificant. For it was indeed spectacular sight to see. As far as Red-Beard, it was the Harlie's first introduction to the man Homer had already warned him of, and whom he was already having mixed feelings about. The other one, the one they called Webb, he didn't even want to think about.

'Little Dick' (a name actually given to him by his mother) Dilworth was approximately the same age as Elmo Cotton, with similar height and weight measurements. The two young men had actually met not too long ago when, quite un-expectantly it would seem, the Harlie returned home one hot summer's day to find his wife in a bewildering state of shock. She was five months pregnant at the time, and she was crying. And no wonder! For standing right there with his bare backside exposed to the open door, and with his pants still dropped down around his boots, the young man from Creekwood Green had just finished doing his business. And right in front of Elmo's wife! He had urinated in the bathtub.

He didn't even have a chance to pull up his pants, before Elmo picked up a rusty water bucket that he'd specifically placed there for the sole purpose of accommodating certain bodily functions that need not be mentioned here, the contents of which had already approached an alarming and unhealthy level, and began mercilessly beating the perpetrator over the head with it. And he didn't stop there.

In the end, Little Dick Dilworth was sent away in shame and disgrace, and without any clothes. All Elmo would allow 'The Urinator' to take home with him that day was a broken leg, a bruised ego, and a newly found respect for other people's property, even if it was only their bathtub, and nothing else. As for the Harlie...well, after a short trial and speedy conviction, he was summarily stripped to the waist and whipped in public, at the Redstone Tree, for the role he'd played in the unfortunate incident, however justified he might've been in his actions, and sent promptly to jail. But he had always felt he had done the right thing; even after he got out six months later and people were still talking about it. And so did his wife, of course, who was perhaps the only innocent victim in the whole sorry and sordid affair, having personally witnessed the disquieting event up close, and personal. Naturally, due to her relationship with the defendant, her testimony was considered biased from the start, and therefore inadmissible at her husband's defense and long awaited trial. And since there were no other witnesses – besides Elmo, that is – to collaborate her story, the case over before it began. It took the jury a minute or two to reach their verdict – Guilty!

To this day Nadine Cotton could still count the number of scars on her husband's back. They were the same ones he had received shortly after being charged with the crime of beating Richard P. Dilworth, better known as 'Little Dick', with a bucket and breaking one of his legs. During the trial not a word was mentioned about Mister Dilworth's trespassing on private property, maybe because the property didn't belong to the man on trial to begin with. Elmo reckoned it probably wouldn't have made any difference anyway. He was right, of course. It was as plain as black and white, and as clear as the scars on his back.

Elmo confessed that he would do it all over again, even if it meant getting another whipping and going back to jail. Little Dick Dilworth deserved what he got, and then some! He'd always maintained. And the fact that he was from Harley and Dick was from Creekwood Green didn't help the Harlie's case, and no doubt had something to do with the severity of the sentence. Need-less-to-say, there were no Harlies on the jury that day. But that was to be expected. Uncle Joe seemed to be the only one who understood at the time, and privately told his young nephew that he would've broken more than the Urinator's leg.

As further punishment for his terrible crime of passion, Elmo Cotton was incarcerated in the infamous Redstone Tree (a device that served conveniently as both prison and gallows, and quite efficiently, I might add) for ninety days.

The prison cell he was thrown into was actually an old petrified tree trunk, appropriately christened the Redstone Tree chiefly on account of a deep reddish hue embedded in the smooth surface of the petrified wood, which was indeed from that same specific species, Sequoia sempervirens and, as many have suggested over the years, tainted with the actual blood of those who were most acquainted with it. It was located in the center, the very heart, of Creekwood Green, in a place called Middle Square Park in Creekwood County. As previously described, it was actually the solidified remains of old dead redwood that had stood there for time immemorial, with a razor sharp crown of splinting timber jutting straight up into the sky like so many barbs placed on top of a wicked chimney. Its lower extremities consisted of a smooth finish, making it impossible for anyone with such an inclination to climb up or slide down the phallic red obelisk. There was also a single dead branch jutting straight out over the grassy green lawn below that, for obvious reasons, became ominously known as 'Hangman's Knee'.

For ninety day an equal number of nights, this was Elmo's home and sanctuary. Alone he sat inside the redwood cell looking out through a small opening at the base of the organic structure, which was properly fitted with a small iron grate through which food and other vital necessities could be passed to the prisoner.

It was a shameful and lonely existence; and one that would creep into the Harlie's brain, usually when sleeping, and haunt him for the rest of his days. The punishment he received at the end of a whip, which had actually lasted for no more than the five minutes, as prescribed by Law, was not nearly as bad as being incarcerated, and a lot less painful. He really didn't mind the solitary confinement, however; which, in many ways, was a vast improvement over the little shack he currently resided in thanks to Mister Ike Armstrong, or sleeping in the barn with an ornery old mule. But he did miss his wife, of course; even though he knew we would have to spend many more nights in the barn before she finally got over the horrific events that landed in jail in the first place, if she ever did at all. And if not for the fact that he was an innocent man, at least in his own unrepentant mind, he might've enjoyed his incarceration, considering it nothing more or less than a well-deserved convalescence, a vacation, after the terrific beating he had just experienced. In a strange and almost pathological sort of way, he found the confinement soothing, even peaceful. The only thing he didn't appreciate was the time; it passed by much too slowly; and time, along with a host of many other things, was something the hardly simply couldn't afford. He still had a wife to support, fields to plow, and a baby on the way, which was perhaps the only thing that kept him alive inside the tiny red prison after all...

The only ones who ever came to visit him in his lonely little dungeon during that time were his wife Nadine (of course), his uncle Joe Cotton, Homer Skinner, and Sherman Dixon, who was kind enough to bring Elmo a hot apple pie Mrs. Dixon had made, which was half eaten by the time it arrived, naturally. Oddly enough, Little Dick Dilworth showed up as well one cold and lonely night with a blanket, a mending leg, and maybe even an apology. Guilt ridden over the unfortunate and, as Dick himself would later come to admit 'unnecessary incident', and seeking contrition for his despicable act, the self-described 'Urinator' peered in at the Harlie one moonlit night through the old iron bars of his petrified prison and smiled. He actually came to apologize, and tell the Harlie how sorry he was; and that, if it were in his power to do so, he would gladly change places with him. And he said it with such honesty and sincerity that the prisoner almost forgave him that night, right there on the spot, just out of bewildering pity. But he didn't.

To his credit, not that he actually deserved any, Little Dick finally did apologize to the Harlie for not only trespassing on his property, but violating his wife's privacy in the process, which is what really made Elmo act as violently as he did; '...and understandable so', Dick would come to agree. And he tried to explain that night, unsuccessfully it would seem, that he was in Harley the day the unfortunate incident took place to buy a sack of the famous Harley beans from Mister Dixon, when, all of a sudden he was overcome by an irresistible and unstoppable urge to relieve himself – and as quickly as possible. 'I just couldn't help it!' he openly confessed, admitting only then that he was just too... too embarrassed, to relieve himself in the woods that day, as anyone else might've done under similar circumstances, and was afraid that someone might see him. And it just so happened that Elmo's house was the only shelter available at the time that would afford Dick the modesty he so desperately desired. 'I didn't think anyone actually lived there!' the perpetrator tried to defend himself, which only made the Harlie angrier at the time. And as for Elmo's wife...'Well', Little Dick went on to explain in his own penitent way, 'I'm sorry 'bout that Mister Cotton... But she didn't see much.' To which the Harlie naturally agreed, but without absolution.

And finally, Little Dick Dilworth cursed himself in front of the imprisoned young man for being such a coward and not taking full responsibility when he'd had the chance to do so before judge and jury. It was a humble and humiliating experience, for Dick anyway. But in the end, and after careful consideration, Elmo simply could not bring himself to forgive the young man from Creekwood Green for doing what he did; although he did feel a little less angry, and a little more remorseful for having broken the Urinator's leg.

Promising never to pee in anyone's bathtub again, Little Dick left the Redstone Tree that night a sadder but wiser man, with a contrite heart and a feeling that he'd done the right thing after all; despite Elmo's unwillingness to forgive him. In a pool of tears, heavy sighs and mixed emotions that were about as convoluted as the muddy soil of Harley, the Urinator said goodbye, and good luck, to the Harlie that night, and never looked back.

"Well, just don't let it happen again," Elmo warned the penitent burglar, as Little Dick limped off into the dark of night with at least one good leg, and a clearer conscious than he ever had before. "And don't you be comin' round Harley no mo' either. You hear! Or the next time you go peein' in someone's bathtub, you'll be doin' it like a woman... Standin' up!" he shouted in the moonlight. Elmo thought for sure that it would be the last he would ever see of the young man from Creekwood Green. He was wrong about that, too; of course.

Little Dick's leg still hurt from time to time; it never did heal properly, and probably never would. There was a limp in the young man's walk from that day on that perhaps only Elmo ever noticed. It sometimes made him look slightly lame, gimpy, or like he was carrying a stick in his trousers; so much so that his new employer, Mister Charles Smiley, once observed in his usual callous candor, 'is that a stick in your pants, boy – or have you been hangin' around the widow Jones again?' But that was all in the past now, except for the part about the widow Jones of course; and they both wanted to keep it that way, one of them perhaps just a little more than the other.

The Harlie never spoke of the incident again after that, and neither did Little Dick Dilworth for that matter; which was more than could be said for some other nosey-bodies in both Creekwood Green and Harley who, upon learning of the vulgar act, falsely began turning it into something far more sinful than it actually was. One account had actually placed Mrs. Nadine Cotton in the tub, and naked, at the time the unspeakable deed occurred. It was further suggested that she might've even initiated the crime herself by shamelessly arousing the young man's sexual curiosities in the first place, and in a way that would make any Madam blush. The fact that she was seven months pregnant at the time only made it that much more scandalous. Nothing could've been further from the truth, of course; Nadine Cotton simply wasn't that kind of woman. It only made Elmo angrier ever time he thought about it. So he tried not to.

It was shortly after his incarceration when the old deputy from Creekwood Green took the young man from Harley under his weary but willing wings. He did so first out of pity, for the unjust punishment of a crime that was probably never committed, and then finally out of compassion for a fellow human being who just needed a friend at the time. It was a friendship that would last a lifetime, he hoped, as all real friendships should.

It was about that same time when Homer first told Elmo about the gold and his long anticipated plan to go back and find it someday. He'd made it clear from the start that the Harlie was part of that plan. And he never let Elmo forget it; not for one golden moment. It was also at that time when the friendly old curmudgeon first introduced Elmo to culinary art of cooking, a skill Homer had acquired from his own father, Horatio Skinner, shortly after his mother deserted them both for a life of sin and debauchery. Ironically, she'd ran off with a drunken sailor, a fisherman by trade, who'd somehow stumbled into her parlor one day while Horace was out fishing with his boy.

When they both returned that day for supper, there was only a note: 'Gone fishing – Love Alice'. And that was all it said. She never did return, which was just fine with Horace after he'd found out what really happened from a young Negro sailor, a cook, he'd met one day who, as it turned out, not only knew the adulterous mariner who'd made-off with Mister Skinner's unfaithful wife, but witnessed him throwing the poor woman overboard one dark and drunken night after a long argument they'd been having over ... you guessed it – another woman. And just like Elmo's father, she never did return. But Horatio Skinner never went hungry for her, or his supper, again; and neither did her son... or the sailor.

Many years and many toothaches later, when Homer Skinner was getting on in years and could no long stir a pot or hold a spatula, the Harlie would often come by fix the old man's supper when his own wife was away, or sick on the sofa. He helped with the other chores as well, such as chopping wood, mending fences, washing, fetching and fixing anything else that might need fixing. It was mostly woman's work, but Elmo didn't mind. Besides, the old man had always paid the Harlie handsomely for his work, which was more than it was actually worth, and a whole lot more than Elmo could ever make growing Harley beans in the mud. And with a new mouth to feed, Elmo could always use the extra money. They had remained close friends ever since.

And so, Elmo Cotton hugged his wife and child goodbye on the steps of his little house Harlie that day, right in front of Homer Skinner, the four horsemen, the Indian and the Negro, and a man called Red-Beard. He didn't know when he'd be back; and Homer didn't offer any specific time, either. "I'll be back as soon as I can..." was all he said to his wife after a long and soulful kiss.

"I'll keep an eye on him, Miss Nadine," said Homer Skinner with a familiar nod and his trademark wink of reassurance. He then walked over to the little boy and patted his nappy black head. "Don't worry, Lil' Ralph, I'll bring your daddy back home soon... real soon," he promised.

"And do what your momma say, boy!" the Harlie admonished his little boy for the first and last time, even though he knew it wouldn't do any good. "You hear?"

"Time's a'wastin'!" cried the wiry surveyor, spitting out his last red wade of chewed tobacco into the muddy soil of Harley. "Let's get a'goin'."

"Now you be a good boy, Ralph," warned Homer Skinner one more time, as he walked away from the stump and mounted his tired black stud. "And when I get back...I'll tell you the story about the Apple Tree."

"He like that," replied the boy's mother, leaning wearily against the churn.

The child looked up at his mother and smiled in agreement. After hearing what he wanted to hear, Lil' Ralph Cotton quickly ran off to play with spotted rooster again.

"Let's go, Elmo," Homer Skinner said for the first and last time that day. "It's about time..."

Chapter Eight

Dark Mile Road

(The Spirits of the Night)

THE HARLIE WAS MUCH OBLIGED when Homer Skinner offered to share his saddle with Elmo that day, as he'd done on previous occasions. Blackie didn't seem to mind, either; and Homer... well, he just liked the company. The old stallion actually nodded in agreement when Elmo suddenly produced a carrot from his pocket and fed it to the horse before climbing up its side. The mule, of course, was not so impressed.

In single file, the nine pilgrims made their way back west through the muddy fields of Harley with Homer leading the way and the painted wagon bringing up the rear. Red-Beard was walking somewhere in the middle, towing the humpbacked Jove behind him at the end of a short rope tied through a brass ring piercing the vaporous nostrils of the beast like an African nose ornament.

More than once Boy the Indian looked over at the beefy Brahma with a tantalizing mixture of awe and suspicion, as he would any other great white god, or meal. He had seen buffalo just as large and majestic roaming the great western plains, but never one so wondrously white, or easily tamed. He mused over how many mouths such an animal would feed, and what a wondrous white coat he could make of its hide.

The large Negro, on the other hand, gazed suspiciously at the magnificent animal from a respectable distance and with a visible amount of trepidation in his otherwise fearless black eyes. Not only was he suspicious of bulls in general, a condition that was only exacerbated as a result of being chased through a cotton field one day by a bull he'd somehow mistaken for a cow one foggy and hung-over morning which he attempted (unsuccessfully, of course) to milk, he was naturally quite wary of them. To put it more succinctly, he simply hated the horny bovines, particularly large white ones like the one striding so defiantly in front of him that day. It was as if he and the bovine held a secret and mutual animosity towards one another, albinos of all species being consider a bad omen in certain parts of the colored world, and one that he knew would eventually lead to the extinction and total annihilation of one or the other; perhaps, both.

There was something strange and sinister, thought Sam, about the color of the beast; something that stirred in him all the forlorn feeling he, and others like him, I suppose, had towards that particular color, or non-color, as white is often and accurately describes as. But there was also something sweet in its countenance, like the milky white substance virgins are made of, like breast mile, perhaps, or seamen. And topping it off was that great white Hindu hump, swaying so lazily, like a whole shock of wheat in the autumn breeze just before harvesting. There was something un-natural about it as well, something old and taboo, like Voodoo. He didn't know what to make of it. He didn't even know what to call it. It was something the Negro had heard of in old New Orleans, by a Catholic priest, that he couldn't quite comprehend. It was something he just couldn't get his hands around it. Perhaps, a knife might help.

The farmers of Harley were all out 'woikin da fields' by then, just as Ike Armstrong would have them, looking not very different than the Harlie himself, had he been working alongside with them that day as he should have been. They were already well into their laborious daily tasks which, at that time of year, consisted chiefly of harvesting what appeared to be a typically poor crop of Harley beans. Some were bent behind plows, already preparing the muddy soil for next year's crop, which was actually something Elmo should have been doing that very same day instead of riding off into the mountains looking for gold with six white men, an Redman, and one suspicious looking Negro who looked about as out of place as he did.

A few of the farmers acknowledged the travelers with turned heads and squinting eyes. Most of them, however, pretended not to take any particular notice at all, and went right on with the work at hand as if they weren't even there. A few spat on the ground as the men from Creekwood Green leisurely passed by. Only one of them, a short dark man who resembled, in more ways than one, a fat brown turtle, acknowledged Elmo with any trace neighborliness. "Howdy, Mister Cotton! Where you a'goin?" he smiled and waved with a wide suspicious grin. He was wearing baggy black trousers, a yellow shirt and, oddly enough, a pair of shoes. His name was Sherman Dixon.

Not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to his unannounced departure, Elmo pretended not to notice the fat man in the bean field, hoping Sherman would not be offended at the unavoidable non-gesture. He did not wave back. But the fat brown turtle kept right on smiling, and waving, anyway. It seemed he was born that way, smiling and waving. It was as unique to his person, and just as inextricable, as the dark brown skin that covered most his gloriously naked body. Remove either one, smile or skin, and the fat man most certainly die.

There were a number of women laboring in the fields that particular morning as well, along with a few of children who were obviously still too young to be at school. Graciously adorned with long white aprons, similarly fashioned about the waist, the women of Harley appeared almost as soft white angels with solid black faces ushered from above to tend the never-ending business of the Lord, gathering up the grains, along with the righteous souls of men, to be counted and stored in the voluminous vaults of Heavens. They were all wearing the same red kerchiefs, too, wrapped around their heads as they toiled among the beanstalks of Harley. Of course, they were all singing, sometimes in unison, other times in harmony, but always, always, in the color of the Lord.

One of these black angelic beings of considerable age, as evinced by her goitered back and gray head, glanced up from her work and rested for a brief moment as the party of nine passed through the beans fields. She recognized the young man riding on back of the black horse along with the old man driving it. She wondered what Reggie Cotton's son was up to now. "Umm-Umm-Umm... just like his daddy," she sighed, leaning on the end of her rake in a rare moment of self-indulgence. "Take me Lord, fo' now I done seen everythin'." All she could do after that was shake her old gray head and smile a toothless grin. She was right, of course. By the time the horsemen and the wagon had reached the Iron Gates of Harley, she'd laid down her rake and died in the muddy fields of the Lord. They passed through the gates without a sound, without a word.

Meanwhile, back inside the little house in Harley, Nadine Cotton sat in the kitchen as her son played outside in the yard. She was sad, and worried about her husband; she was also crying. The little boy didn't hear her, of course, as it is with most little boys. He was too busy climbing bean stalks, breaking broncos, shooting Indians, and killing giants in the golden years of his own adolescent imagination, in a place where the lemonade springs and the blue bird sings... in that big rock-candy mountain,

When the riders were well beyond the iron gates and old brick wall, Elmo could still hear the women of Harley singing in the fields, just as they always have done, in the color of the Lord.

Already he missed his wife more than he should have, perhaps, and wondered when he would see her, and the boy, again. Looking back over his shoulder, he could barely see the farm anymore. What he did see, however, made him just a bit little suspicious. There was someone standing at Gate. It was a man. But not just any man; and he was definitely not a Harlie. He was white, or at least he appeared to be; and he was just, just standing there beneath the old metal sign, as if trying to decide whether he was coming in or going out. He appeared to be dressed a long dark coat that looked like it was made from the hide of some kind of wild animal. It had no sleeves. Thinking that it might be someone Homer would've known, Elmo tapped on the old man's shoulder. When Homer turned his head, the man was suddenly gone, like he was never there at all. Whoever it was, he moved fast, real fast, like, like a raccoon on the run, the Harlie imagined.

With the additional weight of an extra rider, along with so many pots, pans, pick-axes, shovels, and other accoutrements, Homer's horse soon began to buckle under the strain. It made the others laugh; even Red-Beard, whose face, it seemed, was usually as blank, cold and cheerless as slab of freshly quarried granite and as ominous as the dark red clouds seen just before a storm.

Feeling slightly inadequate, and useless as ever, Elmo whispered into the hairy ear in front of him, "Still think I'm lucky, Mister Homer?"

"Nope...but I am," Homer reassured his doubtful passenger without even turning his head.

Elmo looked over the old man's shoulder and noticed that his hands, which were tightly gripping the reins of old Blackie, were no longer shaking. It made him feel a little less worried than he was when they were all still in Harley wondering what to do with him.

Elmo laughed, even though he wasn't exactly quite sure what Homer meant by his last statement, if anything. "Them ol' Greens don't think I'm so lucky. Do they Mister Homer?"

"Never mind them, Elmo. They don't mean nothin' by it. Just actin' foolish. It's the gold talkin', that's all. It sometimes does that to a body, you know. They'll settle down, once we're on our way. You'll see."

Again, Elmo wasn't sure if he understood exactly what Homer was talking about. "What's the gold sayin," he just had to ask.

It was a question Homer had been asking himself for the last forty years. Sometimes he thought he knew the answer; other times, he wondered if there ever was one. He was just never quite sure. 'Oh, the usually things," he said, looking straight ahead at a mountains range looming in the distance like the humps of a herd of green and brown elephants floating through the clouds, "lots of things! Gold's like a woman, son. Never really know what's on her mind. That's make makes it so... well, interesting," he paused. "Yep! Gold's a woman, alright. Just ask anyone who knows her. Yes sir, Elmo, that's just what she is – a woman. And sometimes she can be real ugly. But most of the time she's just beautiful, like a bride, I 'spose... like Nadine!"

Nadine was a beautiful woman; and Elmo knew it. He only wished he had told her so more often. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he told wife that he loved her. Maybe the gold would make up for it, he thought to himself. Buy her some of the things woman want, sweet things, fancy things... maybe even a new bathtub! It suddenly occurred to him that he never even bought her an engagement ring. Even the dress she wore at the wedding wasn't hers. She borrowed it, from Mrs. Dixon. It was five sizes too big, of course; but she never looked more beautiful," Elmo had always imagined. "Does the gold ever talk to you, Mister Homer?" sounded Elmo from the back of the saddle?"

"Gold talks to everyone," replied the old man, turning his wondering attention to the four horsemen who were trailing behind them just then, "that's the way women are. Look! She's talkin' to ol' Smiley right now. Tellin' him how smart he is. She knows just what to say to get a feller's attention. Now she's whispering something in Webb's ear. Don't ask me why. She ain't shy; and she ain't particular, either.

"Must be somethin' dirty," the Harlie observed.

"I Reckon so," agreed Homer. "Otherwise, why would Alvin be droolin' at the mouth and stirring in his stirrups so much? Oops! Don't look now, son; but I think the poor bastard's actually got a hard one!"

When the profanity of the old man's humor finally set in, the Harlie laughed so hard he almost fell out of the saddle. "Who talkin' dirty now!" he exclaimed. Elmo loved it when Homer talked that way, especially when he was poking fun at those he didn't like, like Alvin Webb. He could take a joke, as well as dish one out; and he could be very sarcastic when he wanted to. He would occasionally make fun of himself, too; in the innocuous and self-deprecating way men of intelligence and good will do when they are among their peers. It was this special kind of humor pleased him most of all. Steering his attention to the more sensible victims of those long golden tentacles, absent the sarcasm he usually reserved for outlaws and idiots, Homer further observed as the pained wagon suddenly rolled into view, "My God! She's going after big Sam now! Poor woman...Wonder if she knows what she's getting into. Watch out for that black feller," he attempted to warn her. "He's a big one! wings a mighty big hammer, too." he added, mostly for his own private amusement.

"Bigger than Mister O'Brien's?" Elmo wondered out loud.

Homer laughed. "Well, maybe not that big.

"That there gold... she sho' do a'lot of talkin' – Huh, Mister Homer?"

"She do that, son."

"But Mister Hector...."

"He's spoken for," reminded Homer. "Pretty young gal, too! Don't 'spose she stands much of a chance with ol' Hector – the gold, that is. But I can't say I blames her fo' tryin'. Man like that..."

The Harlie agreed, even though he was still a little confused and slightly offended over the carpenter's earlier remarks regarding not only outcome of the war, but Harlies in general, and his insistence that he not come along. Never-the-less, Elmo couldn't help but admire the man they called the 'Old Hammer', and not only for his wisdom, but his level headed way of thinking in times of uncertainty. He'd also been taught from early on to respect his elders, as well as his betters. There was something reverential about the venerable old gentleman with the wavy white hair, a certain godliness about him that even a Harlie could understand, appreciate and, perhaps, even learn something from. "What's she doing now?" he egged the old man on.

Homer took the bait. "Well, let me see..." he mused, eyeing the wagon and its lethal contents with a no small measure of fear and cautious trepidation. "They say the Redman has many squaws. That's why he sleeps so soundly at night. He doesn't dream of gold like the rest of us. His mind is bent on others things, wild things, dark and deep, like the moon and the stars, things not of this world. No, Elmo... the Redman has no need for gold. He can take it or leave it... just like his squaw."

Elmo was still confused. "But if he didn't come for the gold...then why did he come?"

Homer had to think about that for a moment. "That's just the way Injuns is, son. Maybe he wants to find out if the white man is just as crazy as everyone says he is."

In his own wide-eyed and wonderful way, Elmo tried to digest what the old man was saying. And he was just about to say something when Homer suddenly sprang up on his spurs. "Oh-No!" he exclaimed, standing straight up in the saddle like a frightened prairie dog so as to get a better look at the situation, "Now she's really getting' desperate. She's going after the boy!"

"You mean, Lil' Dick...I mean, Mister Dilworth?" questioned Elmo, feeling a little less indignant towards the young man from Creekwood Green than he did before they'd started.

"No one's too little for her, son... Or, too big. She takes 'em as she finds them. The young ones are just a little easier. That's all. They don't know what a harlot she really is. But they'll find out alright. Just you wait and see. Gold's a whore, I tell ya."

"A what?"

"Never mind."

"Let's just say some men can't live without her – the gold, that is. Just a spoonful, they say. That's all it takes. Some even dies for it."


"Because that what men do, son."

"We ain't a'gonna die – Is we, Mister Homer?

It was a question the old man had often thought about himself, without any clear or definitive answer. He just thought it sounded a little strange coming from the Harlie. He knew the possibility always existed; after all, mining wasn't like going fishing or coon hunting. It was serious business, for serious men; and not everyone who tries it survives. The mountains were full of graves; and one in particular stands out most of all. Homer should know; he was there. Still, it was an honest question, and one that deserved an honest answer. And so, the old man answered it as honestly as he could... without causing any un-necessary alarm, of course. "We're all gonad die, Elmo, sooner or later. But not today!" It was probably the most honest thing Homer Skinner ever said in his life, simply because it was true.

Of all Homer's virtuous attributes, telling the truth was never one of them. No one knew that better than Elmo Cotton. But in this case, the Harlie was making an exception. He knew what the old man with the aching tooth was talking about, albeit in his own metaphorical but convincing way; and he knew it was the truth. He was talking about the gold, of course, and how dangerous it can be when sought after for the wrong reasons, if, in fact, there were any right reasons for being so enamored to it. Men have died digging for gold. Case in point: one Cornelius G. Wainwright III, perhaps the greediest and most self-motivating miner to ever plant a spare in the ground.

Was it the gold that drove him to such an early and horrifying grave? Or was it something else? Elmo was beginning to suspect it was the latter, although he wasn't quite sure why. He was about to ask Homer what else the gold might be saying, particularly to the big Negro driving the wagon, someone he might've had a little more in common with and, perhaps, his red-skinned passenger. But he didn't want tax the old man's imagination any more than necessary, which, as everyone knew, was as deep as the Gulf of Mexico and as wild and wide as the Louisiana Purchase. He was also curious to know exactly what the gold was saying to the red bearded colonel, if anything; but he didn't ask. Instead, he simply smiled and asked the old man one more question; one he'd been meaning to ask all along. "Mister Homer," he said, in a voice that sounded not too familiar, "The gold...what's she sayin' to you?"

Homer saw it coming. Unlike the previous one, however, he already knew the answer. He knew because he'd heard it a thousand times before, from the spirits of the night; usually at night while he was pacing circles on his bedroom floor, just before he fell asleep. And it really wasn't an answer at all. It was actually more of a warning, like an omen... or something. In fact, he really didn't know what it was. But whatever it was, he whispered the words exactly the way he'd heard them a thousand times before, and just loud enough for the Harlie to hear: 'Thems that want don't get....'

It was a good answer; but not the one the Harlie wanted to hear, or even expected. They were strange words, which he never understood. He'd actually heard them before, when they were alone in the woods, camping out as they would do from time to time, and usually when the old man thought he was asleep by the campfire. 'Thems that want don't get'. It didn't make sense. It just didn't boil the beans, Elmo thought at the time, as he did just then. They seemed to contradict everything the old man said; about the gold, anyway. After all, that's what this was all about – Wasn't it? The gold? That's what he came for. Why else were they there? Of course, he wanted it. And he would get it, too! The Harlie had no doubt about it – ever! And yet, somehow, the prize itself, the gold, even when it was well within their own greedy grasp, became all but attainable to these, these spirits of the night. Who are they? The Harlie wondered out loud, as he fell asleep beneath the moon and stars.

It's the ultimate paradox, I suppose: 'Thems that want don't get'. Maybe, Elmo often imagined, that's why the spirits were always at odds with those who sought to follow in their own invisible and gratuitous footsteps, no matter how ambitiously they dug themselves into early graves. They were doomed before they even started, by their own admission, it would seem, and by their own ominous words; the same words whispered into the ears of a tired old man as he paced circles on his bedroom floor late at night when the mind wonders and the tooth aches.

'Thems that want don't get!' That was their mantra, their slogan, the creed their code, all wrapped up in one simple, irresistible sentence. It was the eternal admonition of these spirits of the night that would haunt and hound the old man to his grave, and beyond; even as he slowly progressed towards their own hallowed graves, like an old Indian chief slouching off to his own burial ground. But it was more than that, he couldn't help but wonder. Sometimes, like today for instance, it sounded more like a dare; a wicked wager, a ghoulish gamble, as if the spirits were saying to him: 'Go ahead, old man. Throw the dice! Go for the gold, Homer. Go for it! We dares you. We double-dog dares you! And then they would laugh, all through the night, until the sun came up. Sometimes, it scared him; other times, it only made him angry. One time, it almost killed him.

To pass the time of day, and make the journey a little less dreary, Homer thought of a few things the young man from Harley should know before they penetrated the wilderness that was still miles ahead of them. It was sound advice, good common sense; what some might call cowboy logic. He called it 'horse-sense'; the things Homer had learned along life's long, unpredictable, and often dangerous trails and highways: lessons he'd learned the hard way, which, of course, is always the best way to learn them; sometimes, it's the only way, 'That way, you never forget em!' he once confided in his young Harlie friend.

It's the sturdy stuff cowboys are made of, rooted in the western wilderness, hardened in the saddle, frozen in time, baked in the sun and soaked in the rain, found in the flames of a lonely campfire, or at the bottom of an old tin cup; some coffee, perhaps, and a little beef jerky; and maybe even a shot of whisky, ol' red-eye, of course. It was branded in the hearts and on the backsides of all real cowboys, young and old, like the brands burned into the living flesh of cattle they drove across the expansive wastelands only to be butchered at the end of the trail by hands that never held a whip or heard the lonely cry of the wolf. They would never savor the meat, or taste the special kind of life, and death, the cowboy chooses for himself; a life he wouldn't trade for all whores in Babylon, all the whiskey in the world, or and all the tobacco in West (By God!) Virginia. It's a place and a piety only the cowboy knows, and can thus understand. It's what gods are made of; but only if those gods are equipped with whips, spurs, chaps, six-guns, ropes, whips, and a ten-gallon hats. It's the stuff cowboys are made of, and lesser men are not. It's the kind of things all buckaroos, no matter where they come from or what they looked like, should be taught when they're old enough to understand and still young enough to learn. It's what every little boy knows, almost instinctively. And momma, you may not want your babies to grow up to be cowboys...But hear me now. Boys will be boys! Let them be; because if you don't, how can you ever expect them to be men?

And so Homer did what he had to do, what all old cowboys do before riding off into a dark, uncertain, and imminent sunset. And like all old buckaroos, too frightened to die and too weary to live, he did it in the only way he knew how. He did it with a wink, a twinkle in his eye, a smile, a simple nod, perhaps, and a word or two just to help the Harlie along the trail he had only just begun. "Remember, son," he admonished his young apprentice that day, as they walked side by side giving Blackie a well-deserved break. Feeling the years creep up on him like an old ghost he was soon to meet but would rather not, he spoke the words of wisdom so familiar to all cowboys: "Don't ever drink up-stream from the heard... And don't look straight up at a bird. And never, never, EVER!" he vociferously remonstrated, like an elderly Sampson lecturing a young King David on the duplicitous nature of lady barbers, "squat with your spurs on!" And don't let this happen to you,' he may as well have added in that same traditional Jewish vein. "Life's a long and winding road, son. Lots of twists and turns, mountains and valleys, you know. Some things you can change, and some things you can't. Just try to remember the difference between the two and...well, I reckon you'll be just fine."

The Harlie was aware of many of these things already. In fact, he'd heard them many times before: sweeping the old man's floor, fixing his barn, peeling potatoes, or sitting by the campfire late at night, usually just before the spirits of the night showed with their transparently mocking faces. He just smiled and tried to look surprised, as if hearing these western pearls of wisdom for the very first time. It always made the old man happy; and his teeth didn't seem to ache as much. They were on their way. There was no turning back, the spirits of the night not-with-standing.

* * *

THE SUN WAS SHINING, the birds were singing, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. As they slowly approached the low-lying foothills to the north, with the sun blazing boldly and brightly over their heads like a golden coin tacked to the pale blue sky, Elmo suddenly realized, for the first time perhaps, that it was all the old man ever really wanted, or needed. It did them both a world of good. He saw only good things ahead, for the both of them, and he wasn't even thinking about the gold.

They traveled north and west, for about forty miles, before Homer and his fellow treasure hunters found themselves in a thickly wooded area where the tail became noticeably narrower. It was late in the afternoon by then. He hadn't taken out the map once; he didn't have to. The old man knew where he was. And he was exactly where he wanted to be.

Surrounding the base of the Silver Mountains like a green leafy belt, the Great Northern Wood served as a mile wide buffer delineating the lofty highlands in the north from the lower woodlands to the south. It formed a natural barrier made up mostly tall pines and other evergreens that knew no fall. There were also a good number of cedars, oaks, firs, and even some tall redwoods, growing in the green girdle that gave the forest its unique and unchangeable character. On account of the tall timbers and their interconnecting canopy of branches, little light ever penetrated to the carpeted surface of the forest floor, even in winter when all the leaves had fallen.

It was always dark in the lower elevations of the mountains, or so it seemed; and there was only one road that ran through it. It was called 'Dark Mile Road', and for good reason. It was the same dimly lit serpentine trail Homer Skinner had once traveled forty years when the tooth first began to ache. And come to think of it... it was just as dark back then, he suddenly imagined.

Turning due north and traveling for about another two miles, the old man found a place in the clearing where the perimeter pines gave way to a small dirt road leading directly into the undergrowth of the Great Northern Wood. They rode in single file, Homer cautiously leading the way with Hector right behind. Red-Beard followed, along with Smiley and Dick, with Sam bringing up the rear, as Boy fell asleep in back of the little wagon. Having decided to dismount and walk for a while, the Harlie was somewhere in middle, along with the four horsemen, pulling his mule along at the end of a long thin rope. They were entering Dark Mile Road, one of the oldest and most thickly forested trails leading up into the mountains.

Once they were in the thick of it, the road suddenly and surprisingly widened, slightly, allowing the ponies to maneuver more freely than they would otherwise and had upon first entering the deep dark wood. Apparently, and quite naturally, by the time the sunlight had filtered down through the thick evergreen umbrella hovering ubiquitously overhead, there was hardly any energy left to sustain the smaller plants, or any other vegetation for that matter, that might have otherwise thrived under such lush and tropical conditions. There was hardly any underbrush: no shrubs or bushes; not even a wild flower or weed could be found in that enveloping gloom. The ground underfoot quickly became hard, almost like rock or concrete, covered with a thin blanket of dead pine needles. There was a stillness in the air, a sacred silence, like that which hung over Balin's tomb in mines of Moria long after the Orc invasion, with its vaulted ceiling supported here and there by great green obelisks. Slowly they passed, like crusaders entering the sacred shrine of Saint Sophia after the Persians lay to ruin that iconoclastic cathedral. All that was missing were the stars, and the crescent moon of Islam.

When they were about half way into the dark green corridor, the sun began to set. Naturally, and for reason previously touched upon, it was a phenomenon hardly noticed from within by any of the highwaymen. Homer knew it would be nightfall by the time they arrived on the other side of the Northern Wood, and just as dark, or darker, than it had been since they embarked upon Dark Mile Road. There was little time to waste.

From there, the journey would really begin and, needless to say, so would the climbing. There was still a mountain range in front of them, which, for the time being, was completely blocked from their view; but first they would have to get out of the woods. Homer recalled the first time he'd came that way, subsequently followed by other excursions into the Great Northern Woods, which he spoke of quite often; at least to Elmo, who he always knew would be with him that day. And he spoke of how frightened and confused he was at the time, which was something that only now Elmo could really appreciate.

To ease the anxiety, and perhaps the tension, Homer reminisced about one of the cowboys he knew and had been traveling with the day they went looking for the doomed prospector, Cornelius G. Wainwright III. "His name was Jack," the old deputy suddenly recalled, forgetting the last name of the famous 'singin' cowboy'. "Hell of a crooner! Played a mean Spanish guitar, too," he added, earing the woods for the familiar sound produced by that golden throat and those silvery strings he once knew so well.

By then, the old man's eyes had suddenly sprung to life, darting from side to side, this way and that, tree to tree, limb to limb, as if half expecting something, or someone, to jump out of the forest or swing down from one of the branches like the dreaded North American Sasquatch, or 'Big Foot' as he was sometimes called by more contemporary frontiersmen, which even the brave Indians would run from at the slightest foot fall or rustling of leaves. "Yes! Now I remember!" he gleefully exclaimed, nearly falling out his saddle in the process. "It was O'Brien. That was his name...Jack O'Brien, although most folks called him 'Slim', on account of his weight, you know."

"Three hundred and seventy-five pounds the day I planted him in the ground," sighed the carpenter. "He was my brother."

As it were, 'Big Jack' O'Brien was just another casualty of the war. He was known not only for his instrumental and vocal skills that were said to have expanded five octaves, but also for his voracious appetite, which, if comparisons are permitted here, was said to rival that of 'Big' Tiny Brogan, another famous and similarly endowed gentleman from nearby Creekwood Green whose measurements, as well as his reputation, preceded him in excess of four hundred pounds. Whether or not the two great men had ever meet in person is not known; however, they were said to have shared similar tastes in their gastronomical pursuits, whose menus included, among other palatable delights, generous servings of bangers and beer, the former being thickly stuffed sausage (typically served up with a mountain of mashed potatoes) the latter of which needs not further description. These were two big men – giants of their time! In a time when big men were a healthy commodity.

Homer would never forget the words to the song Jack would sing so sweetly and so often, especially when traveling the melancholy trails of the Great Northern Woods; and neither would Hector for that matter, whose own blessed instrument came not in the shapely fashion of a six-string guitar, but rather in the more masculine form of a sixteen pound hammer, on which he would pound out his own private symphonies in his own passionate pleasures. But unlike 'Big' Jack O'Brien, wherever in the Heavenly choir of angels and saints that great soul currently resides, and in whatever celestial capacity, Hector could still be heard singing; with a less forceful voice than that of his king-sized sibling perhaps, and at about half the weight; but he could still sing! And so, that's exactly what he did. Taking his cue from the reminiscing deputy, he began by softly humming the melody to the song Homer was just then thinking of, as if his vocal chords, being invisibly struck by some phantom finger, suddenly began vibrating all on their own accord, like the noisy old harp in the famous nursery rhyme of 'Jack and the Beanstalk' whose Celtic charm and sudden alarm not only stirred the giant from his golden slumbers only to have him cast down to earth in one perilous plunge, but made Jack a very wealthy man in the process. It was a low, slow, rhythmical sound, with a certain silvery quality about it that echoed through the sacred woods, just as it did forty years ago. All that was missing was the strum of the guitar, the old Spanish six-string Jack loved so much, and was subsequently buried with after the war, as a husband is buried with his own beloved wife, I suppose; or soldier, his favorite rifle. The melody, if not the memories, came easy to the Old Hammer, and so did the lyrics.

"Dark Mile Road, hear the lonely wind blow
From the echoes of the Wastelands
Through the Valley of the snow
In the mist of indecision, I will find a way to go
There is one fact, you can't turn back
On dark, Dark Mile Road.

The moon shines like a madman's face
The stars seem strange and out of place
I hear soft whispers in the Trees
As if they are a'warning me
Of days gone by, in times of old
When many tales remained untold.

Which way to go is never clear
The winding road is old and queer
Up and down then underground
Through the woods without a sound.
Even when the end is near
The breath of death is everywhere.

Dark Mile Road, hear the lonely wind blow
Through the echoes of the wasteland
Cross the valleys of the snow.
In the mist of indecision, I will find a way to go.
There is one fact, you can't turn back
On dark, Dark Mile Road..."

Shortly after nightfall, they'd arrived on the far side of the Great Northern Wood, at the north end of Dark Mile Road. The air was cooler, cleaner; and the stars came out, one by one, to welcome their early evening guests, along with a full moon that shone not unlike the disturbing and sometimes familiar face of a madman.

"We'll camp here for the night," Homer declared, sliding off the side of his horse in the middle of a small clearing surrounded by pine trees and live oak that he thought looked vaguely familiar. "Here."

They had been traveling all day. Homer needed a rest, and so did the others who hadn't slept much in the last three days. Rusty Horn was still restless, however, and did not want to stop just yet. "Let's get on with it," he bristled from beneath his wiry red strands. "We've wasted enough time already." He paused. "Sure it's dark. But it ain't that dark. And look'ye here! We even got us the man in the moon to keep us company. What more do you want, men?"

They all looked up, and then at each other, each with his own critical suspicions.

"I said...what more do you want?" repeated Red-Beard.

Smiley, yawing: "About forty winks, Colonel. If you please."

Dick, stamping his feet on the ground: "How about some grub! And maybe a soft warm bed."

Webb, as usual: "A good woman would do nicely."

Sam, gazing at the stars and mulling it over: "...The bad ones are better."

Boy, eyes wide shut: "Whiskey!"

Hector, still thinking about his dear dead brother: "I'll drink to that..."

Homer, trying to light a fire: "Damn it! Forgot the matches."

Elmo, reaching into his pocket: "Me, too."

Red-Beard was still looking up at the lunar lantern, quietly contemplating the Heavens, and beyond. He appeared like a man lost in a thought. There was look on his face no one had noticed before. It looked like insanity; but in the calm and calculating sense of the word, which, of course, is the most dangerous. There was method to Red-Beard's uniquely disguised madness, and a purpose as well. No one knew what that was, yet. "I still think we should keep going," he whispered into the bull's branded ear, as if it shared his deepest and darkest thoughts, and understood.

Overhearing, just barely, the Red-Beard's quiet consultation with his beloved Jove, the surveyor suggested, "You go ahead, Mister Horn. Give my regards to Mister Wainwright, if you happen to run into him. And take that goddamn bull with you. Will ya? It ain't natural, I tell ya."

Homer responded, "Gotta agree with you there, partner."

"Spooks me a little sometimes, too," confessed the outlaw.

"It's evil," said Sam, privately comparing the creamy white coat of the beast to that of the moon with its cratered face and pale blemishes, which for all intents and prejudicial purposes, may very well indeed be made of the same sinister substance. He could see little difference.

Boy, who'd become even more silent than usual since exiting the shadow of the forest, was entertaining similar thoughts that evening. From his typical horizontal position, he gazed straight up into the starry night sky with his hat pulled back over his head, exposing for the first time the Oriental features of his full face hitherto hidden behind that jet-black curtain. "The devil had many faces, son of darkness," he softly spoke, "Sometimes white, sometimes black. I've seen them both."

"Well, don't look now", replied Sam, suspiciously eyeing the four legged specter more contemptuously than ever, "but this one has horns."

"You're both wrong," insisted Smiley, gazing longingly and lovingly at the lofty white orb drifting deliciously through the starry sky as if it were a great ball of goat cheese, a giant macaroon pastry; or, better yet! a big, round, juicy, honeydew melon. "That's no devil. Why, that's a, a.... Pie!" he emphatically shouted while jumping to his feet in a frenzied state of gastronomical excitement brought about by something he'd just then suddenly remembered. "That reminds me... Dick! Dick!" cried the moustache, "Bring me my pie!"

"Ain't got it, boss," Dick sheepishly shrugged.

"What the –?"

"Tain't here, Mister Smiley."

"You didn't eat it on me – Did you, boy?"

"Nope," replied the youth, feeling slightly offended at his employer's false but rational accusation.

It was no secret to the others that Dick had been whining about food ever since they had left Creekwood Green, as young men who aren't accustomed to such expeditions usually are, and were equally concerned. They were also painfully aware that all the food had been rationed, chiefly due to the fact that no one, including Homer, knew for certain exactly how long they'd be gone.

"Well, where the @#$%^&*!!! is it then!" roared the moustache.

"Right where you put it..." replied Dick after a brief and biting pause that was intentionally aimed at the surveyor for his unwarranted remark. Earlier that day he had actually watched as his employer ate half of Mrs. Skinner blueberry all by himself, rather greedily Dick thought at the time, while hiding the other half in his own saddlebag for future consumption, as evidenced by tiny blue food particles incriminatingly clinging to outermost hairs of his famous moustache. Needless-to-say, it wasn't entirely out of character for Mister Charles Smiley to engage in such beguiling behavior, especially under such uncertain conditions. "In your pie-hole!" added the youth, somewhat disrespectfully, and in a manner Smiley was not exactly accustomed to, and certainly did not appreciate.

"Ohhh..." was all the moustache could muster at the time. And he left it at that.

As they all settled down under a deep purple sky, Dilworth tied down the horses and oxen while Red-Beard put his bovine brother bed.

"Best get some shut eye. But first we'll have us a bite to eat," sounded the carpenter, taking a cue from the hungry youth. "Man don't live on gold alone, he mused out loud. "That means you too, Colonel.

It was the first time (at least up until then, thought the Harlie who had, by then, located the missing matches in Homer's saddlebag and began to light the fire) that anyone directly told Red-Beard what to do. It just didn't seem right, or natural. But Elmo could tell that Red-Beard valued the carpenter's opinion, as well as his hammer, on such matters, and would not question his prudent judgment; unless, of course, it was indispensable to do so.

The others acquiesced, of course, including Red-Beard who realized by then that he was outnumbered, and maybe even out-gunned. It was not an admission of defeat, merely a retreat. It was something he'd learned to do in the army when the odds were stacked against him, or he needed to apply a different strategy. And besides, he wisely concluded: Who wants to pick a fight with a man they called the 'Old Hammer'? It was perhaps the wisest decision he ever made in his life, militarily or otherwise.

Elmo took his time preparing the evening meal under Homer's ever-watchful eye and helping hand. Together, they cooked up a bubbling broth of Harley bean stew, boiled greens, and some piping hot coffee. While stirring the pot, the man from Harley kept wondering to himself why Homer had taken him along. He knew that the old man didn't believe in lucky numbers, or any other superstitions for that matter. He also knew the Homer didn't really think that much of his cooking, either; which only made him that much more suspicious from the start. As the beans began to boil, Elmo wondered what his wife was doing just then.

Nadine had warned him not to go. It was harvest time; and there still twenty-seven acres to unearth before winter frost set in. "What have you gotten yourself into now, Mister Cotton?" he said to himself while no one else was listening. These thoughts, among others, crossed the Harlie's mind when suddenly he heard someone shout: "Hurry it up!"

The sound he heard was coming from the same young man that landed him in jail by urinating in his bathtub. Little Dick Dilworth was, as predicted, crying for his supper that night. It made Elmo want beat the young man from Creekwood Green all over again, with something much larger and heavier than a water bucket, and fracture more than just his leg this time, despite any previous acts of contrition. It quickly became clear, to the Harlie at least, that Little Dick hadn't really changed at all.

"I want some supper!" ejaculated Little Dick, who could be heard shouting over the silent and somber spirits of the night.

Elmo was indignant (Who wouldn't be?) and would've undoubtedly peed in the Urinator's soup that night if no one were watching, that is; and if it didn't make Dick so sick that he would become a burden to everyone else, which, of course, he would somehow be blame for as well. And it would have served him right, the Harlie imagined. Maybe Dilworth was just teasing him, maybe not. Whatever the case, the cook didn't appreciate it. And so, when it came time for serving up the victuals, Elmo Cotton simply, and gratuitously perhaps, spat on the beans and smiled before handing the plate to Little Dick Dilworth. It didn't even the score; but it did make the Harlie feel a little better, for a while at least. The son-of-a-bitch didn't even say 'thank you', he noticed.

As was the custom of cowboys everywhere out on the trail, they ate in silence; filling their bellies with beans, greens, and as much fresh brew coffee as their saddle-sore bladders could hold. And as for Homer Skinner, an old man with an aching tooth and a severely enlarged prostate, it didn't take much; as he was observed on more than one occasion later on that night, dropping his pants in the near distance, and in utter relief. Much to Elmo's surprise and delight, they all begged for seconds, Smiley the surveyor diving into his beans like a bear into a honeycomb. All that was missing was the growl; and all that could be heard just then was the sound of spoons scraping the metal bottom of bowls, the gulping of gizzards, and the occasional smacking of the lip which, in Sam's case, was extraordinarily loud; and could actually be quite dangerous, if you happened to be sitting next to a Neanderthal Negro with a healthy appetite. But it was a sound not unpleasing to the young cook's un-complimented ears, and one he was more than happy to hear.

The food was satisfying, and actually quite tasty! It was also the kind that will sometimes came back to bite those who indulge in such gastronomical adventures, particularly in older men, and especially late at night when the digestive system is inclined to rebel against the volatile mixture of the three main ingredients resulting in a mild form of dyspepsia known as heartburn. It was times like those when Homer was most susceptible to sudden attacks of indigestion. Despite the many medicinal benefits the famous beans were known to offer, in their own highly publicized way, they didn't seem to help the old man very much and were, in fact, more than likely the main culprit in that regard. What he really could have used at that time was a younger body, and perhaps a little bicarbonate of soda.

At the end of the meal, Homer reached into one of the many oversized pockets lining his equally oversized coat and, like some old magician with one more trick left up his sleeve trying to pull a rabbit out from his hat, produced instead a fistful of finely crafted handmade cigars, which he summarily passed around to the satisfaction and amazement of his round-eyed audience. He had brought them along thinking it was least he could do to show his appreciation, especially if everything thing went as planned. "I was saving these beauties," he ceremoniously began, "for when we found the gold. But... Oh, what the hell! No time like the present, I 'spose. Here you go, Hector," he said, passing one of the torpedo-shaped stogies to the man on his right. "They're from a place called Cuba," he boasted. "That's an island, you know, somewhere in the Antilles, I think."

The wrinkled eyes of the carpenter suddenly lit up like a fine old Latin lantern. "Si, senior...Habana! Gracias! Gracias!" he spoke in his mother's native tongue, which he hadn't totally forgotten after all the years since she passed away. Accepting the hand-rolled treasure with the graciousness of a Spanish matador as he bends down to pick up a rose thrown from the balcony of the ring by a pretty young senoiretta, Hector smiled in chivalrous appreciation and eternal gratitude. Had Homer produced a bottle of Irish whiskey from out of that same magic pocket to go along with the celebrated Cubans, he may very well have been kissed on the cheek by the Old Hammer right on the spot, in the tradition, perhaps, of old Don Fuentes.

"How 'bout you, Rusty?" said Homer, addressing the red bearded wonder in a more familiar tone while waving the last and longest cigar in the direction to the lonely figure leaning against his Brahma in the near distance. His eyes were still fixed upon the ubiquitous night sky as if contemplating the Universe itself, and all the mysteries thereof. If he saw something there the others did not, no one would know. Red-Beard was not speaking that night, or so it seemed.

"I'll save yours for later, colonel," suggested the old man, placing the precious stogie back in his pocket, not knowing what to make of Red-Beard's sudden, but not quite unexpected, transformation.

In a ritual rivaling that of the Olympic torch being lit on the steps of the Acropolis, Homer reached into the fire and retrieved a long glowing ember, which he used to ceremoniously ignite each man's cigar in turn.

When the torch was finally put out, and the exhaled smoke rose to mingle with the spirits of the night, Homer relaxed like a sultan before his harem trying to decide which one would have the pleasure of sharing his bed that night.

"Good smoke," puffed the Indian brave, sending great clouds of smoke signals into the wide-open air. And coming from someone accustomed to inhaling the fragrant aromas of the potent tobacco leaf, it was quite the compliment; although, in truth, Boy would have much preferred his own special home-grown blend, which included several other ingredients commonly found in the wild plants of the parries he so longed for. It is said, and with much pharmacological evidence to support such findings, that many of these same species of plants spoken of and cultivated by such celebrated tribes as the Seminole, the Apache, the Pequod, along with various other Indian Nations accustomed to such addictive indulgences, were the source of great power, strength, and boundless energy, as well as the madness and disease which naturally accompanies such addictions. 'Big Medicine!' the partakers of the sacred herb would proclaim it, with a reverence befitting its metaphysical properties, which at times were known to produce such hallucinogenic affects that would, in Boy's case at least, allow him to, cross the oceans in a single night, scale the mountains of the moon, and return safely before his squaw ever realized he was gone.

Sam, on the other hand, was not interested in crossing oceans, moving mountains or soaring into the stratospheric heights his Indian companion took so much delight in reaching. He simply enjoyed the calming affects of the intoxicating weed, and lazily puffed on his own, thinking he would much prefer lying naked on the white sands of some paradisiacal island in the Pacific, with two or three brown-skinned beauties at his feet, feeding him pineapple, peacock and coconut wine until his belly burst in one throbbing orgasmic explosion. "Gold drives a man to dreams..." he said as his black head was enveloped in a vaporous white cloud of smoke. "It surely do."

The Harlie innocently sucked on the end of his cigar that night the way he'd once seen his Uncle Joe do back in Harley when, either out of boredom or adventure, or both, the old man traded his precious pipe for one of the long brown stogies. Elmo looked strangely out place among the older gentlemen sitting around the campfire that particular evening who, or so it would appear, had imbibed in the sacred art of tobacco smoking many times before, as evidenced by manly manner in which they conducted themselves and the protocol observed; although he had personally known some women, particularly the older women of Harley, who would suck on the phallic brown tubes with as much gruff and gusto as any manly man, and with equal satisfaction, if not more so. It seems that when it comes to the sinful pleasures of indulgence, especially where and when they are most forbidden, vice, like its virtuous twin, knows no gender. Women may ultimately own such pleasures, and do with them as they will; but always remember, my fine feminine friends: it is man who found them in the first place, and perfected them. It was evident in the dexterity by which they handled their instruments and the easy way they puffed, so calmly and casually, allowing just enough of the sacred smoke into their bodies so as not to cause any sudden, undesirable, or adverse effects. And they seldom inhaled. It looked so... so natural! Why, even Little Dick Dilworth, who was actually no older than Elmo, and no doubt just as ignorantly naïve when it came to the many other manly arts they were both soon to experience, suddenly appeared as though he was born with a cigar in his mouth, the gaseous white vapors of which he would come to prefer over his own mother's milk. And for this reason alone, and perhaps out of sheer determination not be outdone by his own nemesis, and especially in the company of real men, Elmo Cotton did what he had to do. He took the cigar and, in one long un-interrupted draw, perhaps the longest breathe he'd ever taken in his whole inexperienced and unadulterated life, the Harlie did the unthinkable – he inhaled. And he held it in as long as he could, which, of course, as anyone attempting such a fool-hearty feat for the very first time will tell you, was not very long at all. He coughed and choked, of course; and then he coughed some more, prematurely expelling much of the precious white substance uselessly into the night air. He then, not much to the surprised of anyone present who'd gone through a similar initiation, proceeded to turn a lighter shade of pale.

Homer looked at the Harlie and sighed, thinking, perhaps, that he may've indeed wasted one of his best stogies on someone who was obviously too young, and perhaps too weak, to have enjoyed and appreciate a good cigar. "You alright, son?" he questioned, in a fatherly tone that may've escaped the unsympathetic ears of the others who were laughing at the unfortunate incident.

Elmo pretended not to hear; his pride prevented him. And so, he kept right on huffing and puffing, filling his lungs as though he now had something to prove, and trying as hard as he could to keep it all in this time. It wasn't easy though. The smoke was hot; and it burned like sin. He could feel it; he could taste it in his lungs. It burned. He felt dizzy, and then faint: but he held in the hot vapor for as long as he possibly could, spasmodically coughing and choking like an internal combustion engine in the fits and starts of ignition.

Smiley, who was actually more accustomed to chewing the intoxicating weed rather than inhaling it, seemed to understand. "Easy now," he admonished, calmly and cautiously, as the others laughed even louder, "That there ain't corn silk, you know." He then leaned back, blowing smoke rings into the air the size of little white donuts.

"That's it, boy!" encouraged Webb, with the sarcastic spleen we've all come to expect from him by now, "I think you got the hang of it!"

Sam just sat smiled as the Harlie took one last drag, the length and depth of which surprised even the Indian who could, if he so desired to do so, inhale an entire forest fire, hold it for a lifetime, and blow it out of his dilated nostrils in his last dying breathe, sending smoke signals to the deities that he was indeed ready to join them on the many moons of Jupiter, or wherever their spirits may currently reside in that part of the cosmos.

And when he thought for sure that his lungs would surely explode, the Harlie exhaled, releasing in the process a voluminous cloud of thick white smoke, the like of which had not been seen since Vesuvius spewed forth her venomous vapors on the fated citizen of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and beyond. It was so dense, in fact, that all hands appalled the Harlie in their own congratulatory and perfunctory way. Even the Old Hammer, a man known for his etiquette and expertise in such manly matters, was mightily impressed. "Bueno! Bueno!" he applauded.

Being of proud Irish descent and spiced with the Spanish blood, on his mother's side, that is, Hector O'Brien was a fine specimen of manhood; or at least what it ought to be, despite the on-coming of years. Like the tightly grained timber that goes into the making of a vintage violin, which only gets better with age, so too it was with this smoky old Hammer, whose tone and value had only increased over the years like any fine fiddle. It was something only Hector, who in his wilder and younger years had once displayed a thick rich mane of flowing black hair that has since turned a fine silvery gray, could understand, and perhaps be proud of; if pride can exists in such a venerable old souls. The rising white streams seemed to both magnify and compliment the large brown eyes and smooth olive complexion of this Latin legend as Hector partook of his cigar with a flair and reverence of a true Aficionado, having mastered the fine and traditional art of smoking, in all its subtle complexities, at a very early age. "Now that's a smoke!" he pleasantly exclaimed while expelling a voluminous cloud of second-hand smoke that would aromatically hang in the air long after the instrument of its creation had been extinguished.

"!@#$%^&*!!!" exclaimed Smiley, whose cigar had suddenly and prematurely burned itself out, as stogies often do when left unattended for any length of time; which, by the way, is just one advantage they have over inferior cigarettes that will burn themselves to ashes if left to their own incendiary devices, along with your house and barn if you are not careful. He huffed and puffed, then cursed some more, but to no avail. The Cuban, or what was left of it, was as dead as Montezuma after Hernán Cortés and his Spanish cohorts got through with him, snuffing out what was left of a once great civilization. "Will somebody please give me a light?" he pleaded to no one in particular, examining the last half of the dead cigar for any sign of combustible life.

Sensing an immediate urgency in Smiley's plea, Elmo Cotton obliged the surveyor by reaching into the campfire, just as Homer had done earlier that evening, producing a long burning ember, the tip of which, not unlike a king-sized Lucifer head, was presently ablaze with a fine, fiery red flame. Smiley leaned forward to accept the match while still puffing away on his dead instrument like a man in need of oxygen. He leaned closer still, until the tip of his moustache was no more than a quarter inch from the fire. The stogie burst into flames and was finally ignited, as evidenced by a sudden puff of solid white smoke that blocked everything else from view, including the head of the smoker, which was now even closer to the match head than. And before Elmo, or any of the other smokers, knew what was going on, the surveyor shot suddenly up through the blinding white cloud of smoke with one wing of his moustache very much in flames by then.

Having encountered this sort of thing before, especially among gentlemen with protracted beards and moustaches of the Latin variety, Hector O'Brien sized up the situation immediately and acted accordingly by promptly dosing the surveyor with the nearest and most available liquid he could find at the time, which just so happened to be the putrefied contents of an old metal spittoon Little Dick had brought along and recently made use of; but not in the way it was originally designed for, as the tobacco-spitting surveyor might have well appreciated. True to his well-know reputation and modest up-bringing, and ashamed to relieve himself in the company of grown men, for a variety of reasons no doubt, he had been, in fact, using the silvery spittoon as his own personal and portable latrine, or chamber pot, if you will, in lieu of a proper outhouse, or bathtub, to pee in.

Covered in the vile substance and steaming in the fumes of his own displeasure, the surveyor frowned as he quickly put out the last flame with his own calloused fingers. He looked down at the cigar, which by then lay in the earth like a soggy dead snake, his entire face awash in rancid hot urine. The tips of his moustache hung loosely, droopingly, in fact, as the steam rose and the blood began to boil.

Smiley, of course, knew what had happened. He'd witnessed the use of the spittoon on more than one suspicious occasion by his young and bashful apprentice, and had spat in it himself a time or two, which didn't make it any less painful or easy to bear. There was enough blame to go around. And it did. The Hammer, who'd only acted out of kindness and concern in doing what he had to do would not be exonerated, of course. But it would be the two boys, Dick and Elmo – especially the Harlie – who would feel the full fury of the surveyor's wrath that evening, in all its protracted profanity.

He raised his head slowly, the steam still seething from his brow And then, as the smoke began to clear and looking directly at the Harlie who, despite all that had just happened, was still holding his Lucifer head match, the angry surveyor let go a string of profanities that would have Satan himself stuffing his pointed ears with angel wax, or whatever else he could find in the medicinal wards of hell. "Why you @#$%^&*! What the – ! are you trying to do to me anyway, you stupid little @#$%^&*! Of all the !@#$%^&*'ing things to do!"

And you, Hector," he excoriated, turning his rage next on the carpenter who, as the surveyor himself would later come to admit, apologetically, of course, had only done what any other sympathetic soul might've done under similar circumstances, and in such a sudden state of emergency, "Why didn't you just drop your !@#$%^&* pants and hose me down with that !@#$%^&*'ing hammer of yours!" He was referring, of course, to size of Mister O'Brien's genitalia, which was rumored, mostly by wanting woman of questionable character who take note of such comparisons, to be of exceptional proportions, especially for someone so advanced in years. Little Dick blushed as he handed his boss a red-checked handkerchief he kept for just such emergencies, and had just blown his nose in." And then we will all know for !@#$%^&*!'ing sure", he further gesticulated, wiping the beaded waste from his brow, "... if it's true or not!"

The old Spaniard simply shrugged, as if he couldn't have care less, shook his silvery head and smiled. He then took another long pull on his cigar as if he had no idea what his friend the survey was talking about, and exhaled, "No comprende, senior?"

Still fuming, and perhaps feeling a little ashamed of himself by then for having aimed his acrimonious arrows at the carpenter when, in fact, they could have been better and more accurately spent on the two irresponsible youths, Smiley smiled right back. "Ah com'on, Hector," he said, twisting the singed ends of his moustache into tightly pointed spears, "You know..."

The carpenter smiled again, only this time with that sly countenance know only to those of Celtic origins; he might have even blushed a little. "Know what, laddie?" he finally had to ask in an inquisitive and almost self-congratulatory sort of way.

"Never mind," Smiley resigned, thinking that maybe he'd said too much already, "It ain't that important anyway."

To which the Old Hammer humbly replied: "Maybe not to you. But to Mrs. O'Brien...."

"Ain't it the truth?" laughed the moustache out loud. "Ain't it the @#$%^&*'ing truth!"

Naturally, they all laughed along in the fellowship of the campfire and the spirits of the night.

To add to the intoxicating effects of the nicotine, and fuel to the fire so-to-speak, Alvin Webb pulled a cork from a tan leather flask, the contents of which had been previously undisclosed, that was slung about his neck and hanging by a string, as a good Catholic reverently adorns his Papal scapula. He drank his fill and then passed it on down the line. "That'll put some fire in your cracker!" he exploded, as the potent potable founds its mark in the pit of the outlaw's growling gullet. When the flask finally reached the Harlie, however, it was empty. Elmo was not surprised.

Talk of the gold was the order of the evening, as it had been on previous occasions. But it was spoken of quite differently now, with that deferential quietude usually associated with and reserved for more solemn occasions such as funerals, wakes, church functions and other non-secular activities. It sounded almost reverent. Never-the-less, the fever was as high as it ever was, perhaps more so.

You could feel it. You could taste it. Hell! You could even smell it. It was all around them. It was in the air, and in their eyes. It was hot and heavy. It was gold! And it was yellow, like the burning embers crackling in the fire before them. Watch out! That's dangerous stuff, boys. Put it in a bottle, cork it, and it would probably explode before long. Combine that with corn liquor, cigars, and a little ambition, and it becomes quite a volatile mixture; lethal in some cases. It was the fever, of course; and it was all about the gold, something the spirits of the night were all too familiar with. That's why they came. That's what they were there for. "Thems that want don't get," spoke the old man once more as the wood burned and the tooth ached. He'd heard it all before; and still, he wondered what it all meant.

The moon waxed full behind a long dark cloud. The night air was lightly scented with the smell of pine, tobacco smoke, liquor, and adult men after a hard day on the trail. The cowboys all kicked back, feet to the fire and hands behind their heads, as their long awaited and much needed meals slowly began to digest. Together they lazily lounged around the campfire like a pack of well-fed lizards leathered in rawhide, the western equivalent of the original twelve disciples at the Lord's Last supper whose bodily positions were similarly inclined to be more horizontal than vertical. And if, for the sake of comparison and perhaps a dash of irony, you were to cut off the beards of these same red-necked Israelites remove their boots and denim, sandal them in the footwear of the day (e, don't forget to remove the spurs),drape them in togas, trade their horses for chariots, trade in their harmonicas and banjos for woodwinds and lyres, their ten gallon Stetsons for laurel leaves of gold, and their red-eye' whiskey for fine red wine which, as everyone knows, goes a hell of a lot better with peaches and peacock than beef jerky and biscuits any day of the week; and, in lieu of a smoldering campfire enveloped in smoke and fireflies, leisurely arrange these same cowboy philosophers around a simmering hot bath with a steamy flat surface and smoking... well, whatever it is they smoked back then while discussing everything from the hydrological benefits of aqueduct engineering to the merits of Marcus Aurelius; surround them with alabaster and gold, marbled white walls, Corinthian columns, compound arches, motif ceilings, bar-relief frescos, statues of Venus, Jupiter and Mars polished to a high glossy finish, along with an ample supply of phallic renderings inspired no doubt by the sultry pages of the Karma Sutra, a portrait of Cupid, perhaps, with bended bow and arrows all a'quiver...and oh! don't forget the prostitutes! A boy for Caligula, a handful of Vestal Virgins, if you can any; some slaves, of course; a eunuch here and there to wait on the women, along with so many talented Negroes for entertainment purposes. Now, do all that...then, and only then, will I say with all metaphysical certitude that you indeed have the makings of a right Roman Senate in all its republican glory. Empire has its rewards. But beware! Autocracy, like the royal robes of kings, comes in many forms, many guises, some more recognizable than others; and, just like pure democracy with its majority rule and mob-like mentality, so they too must fall.

And fall they will, not unlike the fortified walls of old Jericho that predictably fell on the seventh day with one bold blast of a Hebrew Shofar; or the Tower of Babel itself, along with all the ill-fated Nimrods who endeavor to construct such palaces in the sky in the first place. And that same trumpeted sound was to be heard once more; not in the rocky ruins of ancient Palestine, but rather in a quiet circle of nine denim-clad gentiles gathered around a campfire half a world away and three thousand years removed, worshipping their own golden calf in the shadow of Jehovah's Holy Hill.

And what was this sound that so suddenly and un-solicitously broke the silence of that sacred night? Was it Gabriel, the venerable archangel himself blowing on his horn, having taken it down from his celestial mantelpiece one last time just to remind us... remind us of what? That he was still able to produce such a powerful and potent blast? Such a heavenly sound! Oh well, even powers and principalities have their moments; vanity not to be limited to the conceited minds of mere mortals. Or was it something else? something more natural... more human. Either way you would be right. For the sound that was heard that night, trumpeting forth in all its familiar and fleeting glory, was nothing more and nothing less than the sound produced by one little bean – the Harley bean, followed, of course, by that equally familiar yet highly reproachable odor. That smell! Oh, that smell!

Little Dick, who was sitting on a log he'd just pulled up to the campfire, responded by holding closed his young and sensitive nostrils between two fingers, and scowling with an incredulous look on his otherwise angelic face.

"What the @#$%^&*!!! was that?" Smiley cursed, as if he really didn't know, and actually tried to look surprised, forgetting, for the moment at least, that old children's' adage which is so often applied under similar circumstances, and with an equally amusing effect, along with its subsequent and silent response: 'He who smelt it... dealt it!' Or perhaps the smiley surveyor did remember. And maybe, just maybe, that's exactly why he was smiling; even though, as previously elucidated upon, it was very difficult to tell.

Dick, still refusing to let go of his nose, looked over at his employer and, detecting for a moment a slight smile breaking beneath that beguiling blonde moustache, merely shook his head in wonder.

"I smells it, too," the Negro reacted, sniffing the air through his own generously proportioned nostrils, like a musky moose in search of a mate.

"Smells like, like..." said the Indian, springing up is head in a start while trying, unsuccessfully it seems, to find the right words to describe the pungent odor that somehow seemed vaguely familiar to him, "like...".

"Like a skunk juice!" howled the outlaw.

"No. More like buffalo chips," observed the Old Hammer, whose olfactory organ was still as sharp as ever, and just as keen and alive, like that other organ we need not mention right here and now. He was referring, of course, to those miniature mountains of manure excreted by that noble, and now nearly extinct, bovine.

And all the while Smiley just sat there, clandestinely smiling in his own private world as the annoying and nocuous fumes hung over their heads like the left wing of Judgment Day. He almost seemed to be enjoying it.

Finally, Little Dick, who couldn't take it anymore, and was just barely able breathe, let loose his nostrils and cried out in one long voice, "It's them ol' Harley beans! I knew it all along!"

Having the unique displeasure of being seated directly downwind of the surveyor at the time, Homer himself was the first to observe: "Charles... was that you?"

With every eye cast upon him by then, and rightly so as one might imagine, the sly old surveyor looked around, squirmed a little, shrugged, and said with as much sincerity as he could find that night in his beguiling but sometimes cynical heart, "... I thought that was Alvin."

Little Dick Dilworth laughed so hard that he fell off his log; and the others, except for one, perhaps, all joined in. For it is in times like these when most fine fellowship are formed. And what better glue to bind them all together than a joke? It works every time, and under any circumstance, usually at the expense of the one who, either intentionally or unintentionally, is not only the butt of the joke, but the perpetrator as well. Case in point, one Charles S. Smiley who may have been well advised to hold his tongue (if he could ever find it, that is) and keep his as thoughts, and opinions, to himself. Silence may not always be golden...sometimes it is priceless! as any good defense lawyer will tell you.

Red-Beard was not so impressed, however, and could not find the humor in something so vulgar. Perhaps it was not so much the vulgarity he objected to, but the humor itself; which in its own infectious and effective way had far greater command over of his men than he could ever imagine. And besides, there was nothing he could do about it. It was just Homer's man's way of getting their minds off the gold; and it seemed to have worked, for a while at least. But what was the old man really up to? He knew Homer would tell him what was really going on in his manipulative mind, eventually. He only hoped it would be sooner rather than later, so they could get down to the real business at hand.

And then all was quiet again, except for the crackling of burning wood, the stirring of the horse hooves and leather, the grunt of a bull, and the occasional noise of bean flatulents permeating the sacred silence of the night.

"Tell us more about the gold, Homer," whispered Little Dick Dilworth after a while, as if he were almost too afraid to ask.

The old man balked. "Well, I don't..." he hesitated, having already told the others as much as he dared under the circumstances. No use in throwing kerosene on an open fire, he wisely imagined. But it was a fire that's been burning for quite some time, ever since he could remember; perhaps since the world began! and a fire which he, like every generation before and after him will undoubtedly say: 'I didn't start it'. But where there is smoke there will always be fire. It smokes and smolders in all of us, to one degree or another and with different levels of intensity. It's really nothing new, I suppose. It was there from the beginning, sparked to life by lightening from the sky, perhaps, snatched from the gods by Prometheus and put in the hand of mortal man to cook his food, light his way, burn down his neighbor's house, and kill his enemy. It fuels his imagination, drives him through the darkness and gives birth to civilizations. It's a never-ending cycle of life and death, destruction and re-birth. And it's all wrapped up in that precious flammable substance we call fire, a commodity whose stores will only be emptied when the Universe itself is finally snuffed out by the same finger of God that first set it ablaze by putting it into motion in the first place. Who else could do it? Who else could put out the eternal flame? Not Homer. There wasn't an ocean deep enough, a river wide enough, or a hose long enough, to put out the inferno. And he knew it.

Still, they persisted, each in his own personal and persistent and way.

"Nothin' like a good yarn after a meal," suggested Smiley, still quite potent from the beans and with the remainder of Mrs. Skinner's blueberry pie conspicuously caked to the hairs of his magnificent moustache.

"Good for the digestion," noted Sam, puffing lazily on the tapered end of his cigar, spreading his celebrated legs like a Zulu prince in a smoke house who, after killing a lion with his bare hands and thus partaking of its flesh, sits back to indulge himself in the company of his fellow tribesmen under the wide and wild African sky.

"Ah, go ahead, Homer," coxed the Hammer who could see no harm in telling the story one more time. "Might be just the thing to take the edge off. You think?"

Tracing a sign in the air with the glowing tip of his cigar, the meaning of which was undecipherable by any of the others sitting around the campfire, the Indian suddenly began chanting in his own native tongue, the utterances of which would be too complicated and difficult to translate into proper English at this time.

"What's he sayin'? the outlaw demanded to know.

"Don't know," replied Sam, "ain't never seen him act like this before."

The chanting stopped as suddenly and mysteriously as it began. Boy's face was presently glowing red, yellow and orange, just like the flames in the fiery pit before him. His eyes were now wide open, for a change; the lids being propped open somehow, perhaps by the prying fingers of some unseen, and therefore unclean, spirit. And thus he embraced the night.

"The spirits..." murmured the large Negro in a small thin voice that sounded quite different from what the others might've expected coming from such a thick-lipped gargantuan.

Upon hearing this, the Catholic Hammer who, up until just then at least had showed no outward signs of being superstitiously disposed, summarily blessed himself with the sign of the cross, the Holy Trinity, and in Latin reverence kissed his crown of his own clenched hand.

"They're here..." whispered the Indian, almost as a warning.

Some of the others sat up in abject apprehension. And considering the source of the alarm, they appeared not a little frightened; especially Big Sam, who, being no stranger to such night time apparitions and superstitious by nature, was obviously the most concerned. Besides, he'd been with the galaxy galloping Redman long enough now to know when something was bothering him. He didn't like what he saw.

A Baptist by faith and familiar with the ways of the Redman, chiefly though what he'd read about in the popular westerners of the day, Little Dick quietly reached for the small Bible he had tucked away in his overcoat.

"Who! What?" Smiley questioned, gulping down the last piece of Mrs. Skinner's blueberry pie, and looking not a little annoyed.

"The spirits," repeated the Indian. "They're here... Listen."

Hector put out his cigar and reached for his hammer. "Then God have mercy them," he defiantly spoke out.

"And us, too" reminded the Baptist.

Naturally, or un-naturally, I suppose, Homer knew what they were all talking about. He had actually been expecting it all along; only not so soon, and not with such a loud and intrusive entrance. He knew these spirits, many by name. He'd meet them before. He knew what they wanted, where they came from, and why they were there. They've been tormenting him for years, forty, forty... usually late at night as he paced circles on his bedroom floor back home. He was hoping they wouldn't have followed him all the way back to the mountain. He was wrong, of course; they did. He knew they would.

" that all?" mocked the surveyor who didn't believe in spirits, ghosts, witches, warlocks, or any other man-made manifestations, physical or otherwise; but he could see that some of the others did, and it made him just a little nervous. And so, he did what he always did in times like these. He pulled out a small bag of loose tobacco he kept hermetically sealed in the top pocket of his coat, pinched a generous wad, and placed it in its usually and most comfortable position, right between his left cheek and gum. Anyone care for a chew?" he politely offered. "Help settle your nerves. Hector?"

As the spirits of the night hovered over the open flame of the campfire, Hector regained his cool Latin composure, which came as a welcomed relief a few of the others who thought he might be in over his head. He then turned his heavy head in disgust, as if the very thought of chewing on the sacred weed actually pained him, and one he found almost insulting. He considered it a waste of perfectly good tobacco. "No thank you. Only horse thieves and fools chew their leaf," he quietly explained, respectfully declining the surveyor's generous but un-welcomed offer. "No offense, Senoir."

Smiley shrugged, "None taken, pard'ner... more for the rest of us." He then turned to the others one by one, repeating his previous offer. "How 'bout you, Webb?" he said while savoryly chewing his wade.

"I would... if I could still chew," gummed the toothless addict.

"I'll have me some of that," said Sam who was still obviously quite upset with all the sudden talk about spirits, and the strange incantations coming from his Indian side-kick.

Even Little Dick, who until only recently was in the habit of declining Smiley's generous offer when it came to sinful chew, couldn't resist. "Well, just a pinch wouldn't hurt," he said, placing a generous char of the soft moist substance between his tender cheek and gums in the same manner as his benevolent employer. "Thank you, boss," he said with a mouthful.

"How 'bout you Geronimo?" the Redman was finally asked as he sat staring silently into the flames from under the black brim of his medicine hat, listening, perhaps, for further evidence of the his previous observations.

But the only answer the charitable surveyor would receive that night from the wooden Indian sitting by the fire was only more of the same incomprehensible chanting.

The surveyor translated: "Reckon that means no."

Despite all that'd occurred that particular evening, including Red-Beard's bizarre behavior, Boy's apparitional announcements accompanied by strange chanting and gestures, and perhaps even against his own better judgment, Homer Skinner recounted the incredible tale that began and ended on the very same mountain presently looming before them on a moonlit night as it did forty years ago. He must have told the story a thousand times. But never was it so real, and so close to him, as it was just then. It was the story of how he'd found the gold, along with the mortal remains of Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III, at the end of a long dark tunnel, one day in hell.

Gazing deeply into the crackling wood of the campfire and appearing even older than he actually was at that moment, if that was all possible, Homer Skinner began speaking, extemporaneously it would seem, in a low and methodical voice that everyone had come to recognize so well whenever he spoke of the gold. Elmo was sitting close to the old man's side, as he had been ever since they'd left the farm. He knew what he was about to hear. He'd heard it all before. The tooth was beginning to ache; he could feel it throbbing.

But there was something different this time, thought the Harlie, noticing for the very first time a light in Homer's eyes he hadn't seen before. And it wasn't just his eyes. He could hear it in the old man's voice; it just wasn't the same. It was as if he was listening to a man who'd died more than a hundred years ago and was only now revealing some hidden secret he'd found beyond the grave for mortal minds to ponder. He sounded like a ghost, a spirit, or something even worse. The others heard it too; but not the way Elmo did. They could only listen.

Sparked by wild imagination and kindled with the magic spell of the mountain, the spirits of the night came out, one by one, taking their rightful and well-deserved places around the campfire along with the others. These were friendly ghosts, with pale and weatherworn faces not unlike those of the company they sought that particular night. Theirs was a brotherhood, a sacred trust, a fellowship as old as the mountains themselves, and just as rock solid. Solitaires by nature and not known for gregarious salutations, these kindred spirits of the night seldom congregated unless it was absolutely necessary to do so; and only when summoned, as apparently they had been tonight, and for reasons they were still uncertain of. They preferred to be alone, and did not take kindly to strangers.

These were gentle-spirits, however. They respected the privacy of others and demanded no less in return. They came from all corners of the earth, from across the seas, and beyond, from highlands of the Himalayas to the levied lowlands of New Orleans, portions of which are still located beneath sea level. They came from the sulfur mines of the swampy South to the frozen glaciers of the Northern Tundra. They came from the East and the West, across the dry deserts and the Great Plains, through the Heartland, from the wasteland and in the valleys of the snow. These were the spirits of the night; more precisely, they were the spiritual manifestations the old miners of past generations, long since dead and turned to dust, gold dust, or stone. They've mined the mountain of the earth and moon and knew ever hill like the backs of their invisible and calloused hands. They came with their picks and their pans, their bags of black powder, shovels and rakes, their axes to grind, their bibles and beads and a heedful of dreams, some whiskey, of course; and they came with their guns. And they came with a purpose, unholy perhaps, but what the hell? And most of all, they came for the gold.

They lived their lives not in space and time, but in the rocks and stones. They were the spirits of the night. They breathed fire and ate coal; their hearts were made of stone. Diamonds were their friend, silver their mistress; but gold... Ah, gold! That most precious and sought-after of all earthly elements was their lover. They heaved it. They hoed it. They hoarded it. And like some old prostitute who had outlived her profession but perhaps not her usefulness or welcome, a harlot they had come to know and respect so well over the years, or even their own widowed wives, dead or alive, they lord it over her. They couldn't live without her (which is probably what made them spirits to begin with) and they couldn't die. They were seldom seen or of heard anymore. That's because they were all dead by now; but even that couldn't stop them from passing up a good tale. That's why they came. That's why they were there; and why they were, in fact, the spirits of the night.

And there was old Homer Skinner, right in the middle of it all. Again! Why, it was just like old times. Then, like some old acquaintances he hadn't seen in quite a while, the old man began greeting the spirits of the night, one by one, in his own silent and subliminal way, as if to say: 'Howdy Clem! Where've ya' been hidin'? Jack! Well I'll be... Thought you was dead...' Hey, Joe! you ol' mountain-mole. Whada'ya know? Haven't seen you since '49. That you, Lester? Pull up a log and sit a spell. Take your shoes off and tell us your story, ifin' you got one worth listen' to...'

Or, 'Hello there, Hank! How's your hammer hangin'? Hey Mike, did you hear what happened to ol' John Henry? You know, the big black feller who done whooped the steam-drill at Big Bend Mountain yonder in West (By-God!) Vir-ginny. Was what you call a steel-drivin' man. Black as coal, he way. Died, I heard, with a twenty-pond hammer in his hand. Buried him in the sand, along with his hammer, I 'spose. Some say, if you listen real close, you can still hear a whistle blow at the ol' White House – that's the name of the prison next to the old cemetery where they bury colored folks, you know – every time a train goes by. Wrote a song about him. Wanna hear it? Too bad! I ain't got my guit-fiddle with me. But if I did, I'd play it for you...'

That's just the way they talked, these gregarious and sometimes quarrelsome spirits of the night; and the old man was listening. That's what he came for. Homer was doing exactly what was expected of him; and the spirits of the night demanded no less. And as he spoke, the old man began fanning the flames and feeding the fire, again, filling their lungs with smoke and bringing their dry and dusty bones back to life again in the process.

It was one of those metaphysical experiments necessary from time to time, like digging up the decomposing corpses of dead relatives and soldiers, just to have their sacred remains relocated to, in their own conceited words: 'a more suitable and honorable resting place'; as if the moldy old bones would know, or appreciate, the difference. But that's just the way we are, I suppose; making up for in death the respect we lacked for the living, especially those who'd died in battle, like the poor young bastard who lies in requiem beneath the tomb of the unknown soldier, whose own bruised and bulleted and body, undoubtedly discovered in some unmarked grave sheltered on foreign soil, was finally and ceremoniously exhumed and brought home to rest in more familiar surroundings, consecrated in the manner of Gettysburg, placed in hallowed graves reserved for dead presidents, heads-of-states, war heroes, and other such dignitaries, memorialized forever, and covered with American soil. Or, perhaps, it is done just for the ceremony of it all.

Either way, it just felt good – Good as gold! And maybe, just maybe, the spirit of that same brave young boy who died in the trenches of World War I was there that night as well, along with all the other spirits of the night. And perhaps he had his own story to tell. Listen...

Chapter Nine

The Golden Tabernacle

(A Feral Tale)

THE TALE HOMER WAS ABOUT TO TELL hadn't changed much over the years; only lately, however, did he see it fit to go into it with a little more detail than usual. He had his reasons, of course; and there was no more holding back. Not anymore, he reckoned. Not anymore.

For the sake of the expediency, and maybe even the truth, which as we all know is subject to interpretation at times, as evidenced by what we read in newspapers and history books, it will be helpful, if not downright necessary in some instances, to narrate the events of the story as they actually occurred forty years ago, either adding or subtracting, at my own discretion, details that Homer had simply forgotten or may otherwise wish to remain undisclosed for reasons only he and I are currently aware of. To do otherwise might be embarrassing and would do the story, as well as the reader, an grave injustice neither one deserve, and would be too difficult anyway, as the old man's memory was fading even as I write down these words.

For it is at times like these, I suppose, when fact and fiction overlap, blending and bleeding into one another, which, contrary to what some critics might say, at times only adds to the their authenticity, complimenting each other in ways only lovers, in all their intimate intermingling, can relate to without losing their separate and true identities. But even in its purest and most un-eviscerated state, the truth, like everything else, I suppose, can become cloudy and obscured, if not altogether lost. Not to mention the fact that Homer was getting older, and still prone to exaggeration; as we all are from time to time, stretching or bending the truth for our own benefit, and perhaps the amusement at of our listeners; and in that regard, I am no exception. And I wasn't even there! But I do know the truth when I hear it... at least, I think I do. And I will do my best, dear reader, to tell you exactly what happened, and let you decide for yourself what is true... and what ain't.

Not long ago, shortly after the war had ended, a wealthy gentleman farmer was said to have purchased an entire village of Island slaves, or Ferals, as they were commonly referred to at the time, for the sole purpose of excavating his many mines located there about the great Silver Mountains of the North. His name was Cornelius G. Wainwright III. He had dark brown hair, a bottlebrush moustache, a short fuse, some firearms, and a very long whip. He'd purchased the aboriginal slaves during a period known as the 'Great Gold Rush', and at a very price well beneath the market value. He bought them from the captain of a pirate ship that had sailed into Old Port Fierce harbor one hot summer day to repair a broken mast and secure some much-needed provisions for his bloodthirsty and battle-scarred crew.

A deal was finally struck behind closed doors involving a certain family, or tribe, of these so-called Ferals (or 'Islanders' as they were sometimes more humanely and accurately described as) which, owing perhaps to the isolation in which they'd developed and the incestuous relationships that normally and naturally occur in such primitive societies, could very well have constituted an entire village at one time, in all its organized and industrial complexities. And with that, the farmer's fate was sealed.

Once more on solid ground, the seasick Ferals seemed satisfied enough just to be able to walk upright again on two legs, even though their strange and new world continued to move beneath their savage feet for quite some time, the way it usually does for greenhorns and other landlubbers upon returning from their first, and most likely their last, excursion on the high seas. The captain, in a hurry to dispose of his human contraband as quickly and quietly as possible had let the entire tribe go at a very generous price. It was considered a bargain at the time; what some might in the business might actually and accurately describe as a 'real steal', which ironically enough, is precisely what it was, considering, of course, the way in which the illicit cargo was obtained in the first place.

The captain of the slave ship was paid in full and Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III got what he wanted, which also happened to be exactly what he needed at the time: a quick source of reliable labor, which he deemed indispensable in unearthing the fortune he was certain to find in the Silver Mountains. And they were cheap, too!

In the end, the pirate ship sailed away with a new mast and enough fruits and vegetables to keep him and his crew of scallywags scurvy-free for the next three years, along with a dozen pigs, six horses, a cow, and fifty-two barrels of rum, which just so happened to be the exact number of men under his insufferable but sometimes questionable command, and about the right amount needed to avoid a certain mutiny that surely would've occurred had he chosen to do otherwise. Everyone was happy, including Mister Wainwright and his Ferals... for the time being at least.

Keeping whole families of slaves, Feral or otherwise, together for any length of time was considered not a good idea, then as now. It was one of those things that just wasn't done, a principal adhered to since times of antiquity, or whenever the evil Institution first showed its cruel and greedy face. Such arrangements, however humanely considered, were simply deemed inadvisable, and for a good number of reason; chief among these being the threat of insurrection and inbreeding, the latter of which having already been scientifically proven to increase the chances of producing an inferior, and thus less productive, breed. Naturally, the pirate had never explained this to Mister Wainwright; nor did the fated farmer ever bother to ask. All he cared about was gold and, of course, getting his money's worth. And in the end, as you will soon see, he got more than he bargained for.

Cornelius needed as many hands as he could get. He needed them cheaply, and he needed them fast. Time was a'wasting. There were already too many prospectors staking out their claim in the fruitful mountain range and digging for his gold. Time and money were the two of the same thing Cornelius never seemed to have enough of. Patience was another.

Unlike the more common slaves brought from across the seas during that time, this one particular family of Islanders was said to have been abducted from the inner most jungles of a strange and beautiful island located somewhere in the South Pacific in the unexplored parts of the vast watery world. It was place first discovered by a renegade band of Christian missionaries, Franciscans, who sailed under the black banner of that brotherly Order, and later occupied by various military forces. The missionaries had fled the island for undisclosed reasons shortly after several unsuccessful attempts of converting the native inhabitants that lived thereabout of their pagan practices. Since then, the uncharted landmass had served as a lone military outpost for both strategic economic purposes; and, for that reason alone, its exact coordinates had been kept classified ever since. But these kinds of secrets can only be kept for so long.

Then the pirates came, transforming the island in their own barbarous ways, into a seaport from which to launch their newest and boldest enterprise. Despite the many dangers presented in approaching the island, which included a natural off-shore coral reef, rip tides, and two active volcanoes forever on the verge of eruption, it became a very busy and most lucrative endeavor. It was the sort of a harbor most sailors tended to avoid, especially at low tide and high winds. But as the sailors say: '...any port in a storm'.

The natives who lived there called the island Istari-Toa, which loosely translates into 'Island of the Two Volcanoes'. Others, like the pirates and missionaries who'd first explored the volatile terrain, referred to it, quite accurately in fact as 'Lucifer's island', chiefly on account of the many lava streams that would occasionally cascade down from the cratered mountain top like cataracts of liquid fire from hell. One of these still-active volcanoes was named for the Sun-God, Apo. The other mountain was christened for his twin sister, Lanomi, the Moon-goddess that rose up out of the ashes to Apo's immediate right. Together they comprised almost half of the entire landmass, which is perhaps why they were held in such high esteem and granted divine status by the local inhabitants that occupied the jungles below.

The official name given to the island by the military was Stanley's Island, in honor of the late and great Captain Walter Stanley, who had command the original wooden structure deep within the jungle itself, which, what was left of it at least, also bore the great man's name. It had been constructed further inland, for strategic reason no doubt, between the virgin white sands of the bay and the interior rain forests that had protected the deities for centuries, hidden, even until this day, in those same sacred and hallowed hills known by the natives thereabout as the mountains of the sun and the moon.

The old fort was eventually torched during a native uprising that was as inevitable and it was predictable and subsequently burned to the ground. The destruction was total and complete, devastating, and, depending on one's point of view, I suppose, well deserved. The insurrection lasted for only three days and was lead by one of the Queen's many ambitious sons, a certain young prince with a special appetite for war, and the human flesh it sometimes provided. Her husband, King Bobo, being indisposed at the time of the battle, and whose regal authority and mitigating influences may've resulted in a more favorable outcome for Captain Stanley and his troops, simply, and much to the royal prince's advantage, turned out to be too little and too late.

The prince's name was Mabutoo, the son of Bobo, who turned out not only to be the chief instigator of the short but successful insurrection, but also the presumptive king of the Istari-Toa when, shortly after massacre at Fort Stanley, his father's body was found at the bottom of a shallow lagoon, mysteriously murdered, or so it seemed, at the hands of one of his many unfaithful subjects. It had always been suspected that Mabutoo himself had a bloody hand in the assassination; a rumor summarily dismissed by the Queen who, being fully aware of the treacherous nature of her son, and with a few suspicions of her own, had no intentions of being found on at the bottom of that same lagoon, the water of which was said to 'run red with blood' on the anniversary of her royal husband's demise.

All the soldiers were killed the day of the massacre, except of one lone survivor, a corporal by the name of Elwood Needles who resides there to this very day in a place called 'Bonestown', located not far from the ruins of the old fort, the remains of which have long since been re-claimed by the jungle; and there, in a tropical rainforest, among the shallow graves of his comrades he managed a small, hospitable, and sometimes even profitable little inn where, with the help of a native boy he called Bingo, he flew his regimental flag, and colors, in the face of the tyrannical King Mubutoo, the murderer of his friends and fellow soldiers. It is said that Corporal Needles simply and adamantly refused to leave the bodies of his dead comrades behind without a proper burial; and he's been burying them ever since. Hardly a day would go by when he wasn't out among the slumbering stones of the fallen soldiers, in the rain perhaps, and usually at sunset when, with a rusty old bugle pursed firmly against his cracked lips, Corporal Elwood would lull the restless spirits to sleep by blowing taps in the shadow and defiance of Mabutoo's mountain fortress. Not many passed that way anymore; and the organic remains of the old fort have, for all intents and purposes, become part of the ever-encroaching jungle. And since the Island wasn't even supposed to exist, as far as the military was concerned, that suited the old corporal just fine; for since then he had become somewhat of a recluse, catering to troops stationed at the new 'Fort Stanley' who, from time to time, would made the long and laborious journey from the coast to the small but well-stocked outpost in the jungle where he served them whiskey and gin.

Shortly after the battle of Fort Stanley, the island was re-named by its new inhabitants, another regiment of army soldiers ordered there by a secret congressional committee to make sure nothing like 'that' ever happened again. Naturally, and despite the small and somewhat covert military presence, Istari-Toa quickly became a haven for pirates and sea-thieves who sought sanctuary in such remote parts of the watery world. It was a good place to do business, especially if that business included the slave trade.

It was rumored that the horrific uprising may have actually resulted from the selfish acts of a few overly ambitious soldiers who had collectively and clandestinely taken upon themselves the risky business of kidnapping the local inhabitants of the jungle and selling them to the pirates, or any other slave ships that chanced to cruise off their barbarous shores, for their own ill-gotten gain It was a profitable exchange, but one that proved fatal, not only to the soldiers who'd committed the illegal war crimes, but to Sir Stanley himself and a number of good men.

When the new fort was finally built, close to the beach this time for reasons of practicality and protection, the soldiers who were stationed there began referring to their new home as 'The Land of the Bleeding Rock'. They did this, not unlike the pirates and missionaries who'd preceded them, for a number of reasons; not least of which could still be evidenced by the solidified streams of frozen lava that had once cascaded down the fiery slopes of the mountain.

The island itself was actually a geologist's dream come true; but one that, for a variety of reasons we will eventually learn of, would remain unrecorded for the next century. Ever since the native uprising, no one, not even missionaries who still came with their black banners and Bibles to save the savage soul, were allowed beyond the western boundaries of Bonestown, where once stood the original fort; not even when assisted by military escort, which would've been refused anyway, and for a number of good reasons. The powers to be simply wouldn't most of the dirty and difficult work of rounding up the human contraband, their own brothers and sisters in some cases, and placing them onboard the eastbound vessels. For practical and legal reasons perhaps, he said no more about his business but promised to return with another shipment as soon as time and tide permitted. Naturally, Mister Wainwright couldn't wait for that to happen, and insisted on financing the very next voyage.

The mysterious island from which the human cargo was obtained was somewhat of a mystery to most in the Americas, let alone Old Port Fierce. Other than the military personnel who were stationed there at the time, along with a handful of sailors, a few enterprising merchants and, of course, the pirates themselves, no one was aware of the Island's existence or location and, even if they were, had no business being there in the first place, in the 'Land of the Bleeding Rock' on the isle of Istari-Toa.

The Island Ferals purchased by the ambitious gentleman farmer turned prospector were different from other slaves brought back to the civilized world at a time of the Great Emancipation. For one thing, they were readily available, which was precisely why Cornelius G. Wainwright III had purchased them from the pirate in the first place; and for another thing, they were cheap! Moreover, they proved to be dependable and tireless workers, despite their physical stature, which was generally smaller than that of the more common and darker variety imported by slave merchants from another parts of the world, particularly the African continent. They were also more intelligent; a fact the pirate carefully and conveniently withheld from the shrewd farmer with the bottlebrush moustache, for obvious reasons. No one likes an intelligent slave, you know; not even a cheap one.

To the delight of their new owner and master, these particular feral slaves possessed a gentler and more accommodating attitude than their darker skinned cousins, which naturally made them easier to domesticate and, subsequently, more desirable to be had. If not for the tone of their skin, which appeared strangely pigmented in varying shades of blue, yellow and orange, one might actually mistaken these enigmatic Islanders for Native Redmen of Americas, or Indians, as they were sometimes falsely identified as by those of limited knowledge of such people and places.

From a purely anthropological point of view, these exotic and inscrutable creatures would indeed have been more properly identified with the Orient, as their physiognomy would clearly suggest, not only in skin tone but in the overall countenance of the genus, which glowed with that distinctive Asian mystique. But the chains that bound them were as unbreakable as any that adorned the ankles of their darker skinned contemporaries, the metal of which did not discriminate; it never does. And the blood they shed was no different either. It was red, of course, as red and royal as the Hebrew blood that flowed through the nomadic veins of the ancient Israelites as they fled Pharaoh's chariots across the Red Sea and into the wilderness. But unlike other imported laborers, these natives from across the Southern Seas displayed little or no hostility, surprisingly enough, towards those who'd bought and sold them. They seemed to be indifferent towards everyone, including themselves; aggression and arrogance seemingly the missing ingredients left out of their psychological make-up either by accident or design, when placed in the oven of Life and baked by the Great Chef Himself.

Curiously enough, and generally speaking, there was no word for 'War' in the strange and ambiguous language employed by the inhabitants of these remote and remarkable islands. Why should there be? There was simply no need for it; at least, not from any practical standpoint. Neither was the word 'Love' anywhere to be found in, or translated from, the savage dictionary (if one existed at all), which would undoubtedly be grammatically lacking in all manner of syntax and filled with inconsistencies not found in more western lexicons. In many ways, the feral tongue of the Aborigines remained, to one degree or another, incomprehensible to modern philologists and just as indecipherable. Indeed, the language seemed to contradict itself in many respects, leaving many a missionary convinced of the eventual destruction and final damnation of these insufferable souls. It would seem that western ideology had no meaning to the savage heart what-so-ever. It simply, and for whatever reason, escaped them, in much the same way the rhetoric of Saint Augustine would escape the mind of the Hun.

Neither did these aliens allow for any discernable difference between such concepts as 'good' and 'evil', as both were expressed in terms that merely suggested they were actually two in the same and, for all intents and purposes, quite equal. To the savage mind-set, black and white were considered nothing more than equal opposites, much like the Ying and Yang of Eastern philosophies. In some ways the philological duality of the dialect was as convenient as it was bewildering, for the natives of these islands seemed to live a life where conflict and contradiction simply did not apply; precluding, of course, your occasional uprising, massacre, tribal warfare, and random headhunting, all of which were considered perfectly normal, like a visit to the local witch-doctor, and as natural as breathing. If distinctions did exist at all, then they did so only in the hearts and minds of the animals and other demigods that were obviously better equipped than themselves to deal with such primitive and self-destructive emotions. It seemed to work, on the surface anyway.

There was one fatal flaw, however, that further divorced these isolated islanders from the rest of Humanity, which has already been touched upon in previous chapters; and if you haven't guessed it by now, as the pure heart is often the last to learn of the evil that lurks within, you surely will have by the end of this one. It was nothing new and, perhaps, has been around as long as man himself. It was older than the pyramids and just as mysterious, at least to those who attempt to penetrate such ancient ambiguities. It's as plain as a pikestaff and sometimes, depending of course on how badly it is needed, just as necessary. It's something we instinctively find offensive, repelling and reproachable. But not all instincts are bad; in fact, most are good and, moreover, necessary for survival. That's way we put so much stock in them, if we know what's good for us, that is. Think of fear, and where we would be without it. It's the fear we flee from that invariably saves our life, as any caveman being chased by a wild woolly mammoth or a sabre-toothed tiger will certainly tell you. Shame, on the other hand, is a strictly human emotion; animals know nothing of it, and wouldn't, given their intellectually capacity, know what to do with it if they had it. It reminds of who and what we are; or at least were, in a more primitive and precarious state. It touches us where we would rather not to be touched, in that sequester and private part of the brain which lies dormant in us all, that once shared its atoms, as well as our genes, with sea slugs and lizard kings. To put it in context of with the subject presently at hand, it was nothing more than a simple but hideous shrunken head and a pile of clean white bones.

Legend had it, mostly from the sons of sailors of Old Port Fierce who were acquainted with such practices, that these Island natives, or Ferals, if you will, were known to partake of mortal human flesh, human or otherwise, which they considered no different than that of any other animal and, in some perverted and self-deprecating ways, inferior. They particularly seemed to enjoy drinking the blood of their enemies, the powers of which would, upon defeat and ingestion, be ritualistically absorbed, by a form of plasmatic osmosis perhaps, into the very soul of the victorious consumer. It was powerful medicine, and quite tasty to the feral palette, I might add. It was further rumored that in difficult and desperate times, the tender flesh of their young was not precluded from their carnivorous diet; although this, like so many other false claims concerning cultures alien to those who make them, may have been highly exaggerated. But then again, anthropological studies have proven that, at least in some remote instances, this barbaric practice was considered not only the proper thing to under certain and extreme conditions, perhaps as a last resort, but a delicacy as well; and one their own children would fain submit to, even as they slowly simmered in the soup. Apparently, honor thy father and thy mother left much to be desired in the cannibal code; 'and make sure they're well fed!' must have been added to somewhere along the line. But blessed with mild, year round tropical climate, rich volcanic soil, plenty of fresh water, and enough bananas and breadfruit to feed Napoleon's army, the Islanders seldom starved; and there were always plenty of children around, just in case.

Of course, it is not difficult to image any harder times or more desperate measures than being imprisoned on a slave ship during the days of the gold rush, packed in the hull of an ocean-going vessel for months on end like so many sardines in a tin can and tossed over the side at the slightest sign of sickness or disease like a day old mackerel. No wonder they resorted to the unthinkable and un-natural act of cannibalism! And who could blame them? Certainly not the sons of sailors who knew better and were more qualified as judges in that regard than some land-locked magistrate who never wanted for a cup of fresh water, a stick of stale bread, or thigh bone to nibble on. It happened before, you know. You may as well blame the survivors of the doomed ship Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket, for committing similar atrocities in the face of certain and horrible death they would, no doubt, have suffered had they decided to act otherwise.

The Captain's name was Pollard, and with him sailed a mate who would latter document a tale so fantastic it would eventually find its way into the pages of, as the author himself once called it, 'A wicked book'. It happened after they had been struck by a renegade whale and left afloat in the middle of the merciless ocean along with three surviving lifeboats. The first to die was a black man, a bad omen by many onboard. But there was no discrimination when it came to the color, the taste, or the nourishment of the dead man's flesh. Others onboard the tiny floating prisons were no more than boys. One of them was Owen Coffin, the nephew of the captain and one of the first to be sacrificed.

They drew lots. The captain of the lifeboat threatened to shoot the first man to lay a hand on the unlucky lad. But the brave young Quaker acquiesced, claiming that his lot was just as good as any. The deed was done quickly and mercifully, painlessly we are led to believe; and it done with a gun. One by one, the others followed in a like manner until there were but a few remaining who eventually made it safely to back to civilization, the captain of the fated boy being among them. A handful of others chose to stay on Henderson Island, a remote and uninhabited island somewhere in the South Pacific where they'd found temporary refuge from the relentless torments of the sea. And it was there they choose to stay, rather than take their chances in the flimsy lifeboats that brought them there in the first place and had saved their lives up until then. But they would be in no better shape when their bodies were finally found on the depleted landmass, dead of starvation and dehydration. Christian Fletcher should've been so lucky.

We will never know what was in the hearts and minds of the men of the Essex, Christians all we are told, when the grizzle act was committed; any more then we can know what's in the hearts and minds of our own enemies when they do what, under any other circumstances other than war, perhaps, and even against their own better judgment, they dare not imagine. But we don't what happened. We weren't there. Was it a sin, as some Evangelicals would suggest, submitting to the primordial instinct of self-survival? It's only natural, other might morally suggest, and think no more of it. As Brother Darwin once theorized, either correctly or incorrectly, the jury may still be out on that one: We are all animals after all, sharing not only a common ancestor but also a common will to survive, even when we are not the fittest fish in the sea. So, why not? Desperation is a dangerous thing. Would any one of us have acted any differently under such difficult and trying circumstances? These, of course, are questions for psychologists to debate, theologians to wrestle with, and for the rest us to decide if and when we find ourselves in similar circumstances and are forced to do so. Pray it never happens to you. It wouldn't be the first time that man has resorted to the unimaginable act of cannibalism, nor will it be the last. History records other such instances of the barbaric behavior, such as the Donner Party and its ill-fated adventure, the members of which, after being halted in a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada, and with nothing left to sustain them by one another, at last surrendered to the desperate deed, and the ultimate sacrifice. And what greater sacrifice could they have offered? But History records only the facts; and facts, like people, are stubborn things, and can sometimes be manipulated, or at least misconstrued. It tells us nothing of the human factor. But then again, there are some things we may not want to know.

So, did the men of the Essex make the right decision? The Church says they did. And you would think that that would be the end of it. But it wasn't. For there are still those among us, charitable in all other regards towards their fellow man with hearts as pure as ivory, who would condemn the survivors of that fateful voyage while feasting themselves on the flesh of saints, as if it would add one more day to their own hypocritical and sanctimonious lives. But for those of more sympathetic persuasion (like the sons of the sons of sailors who knew about these and other matters regarding the risks and vicissitudes that goes with a life at sea) the men of the Essex acted not only selflessly, but courageously, and perhaps even prudently, and were, as far as they were concerned, exonerated before God and man.

It was a question of survival. And who could blame them? But did they really have any other choice? And what if the Church was wrong after all? It wouldn't be the first time, you know; they've made mistakes in the past, and have their share of tyrants. And what if, in God's eternal judgment, which we all must endure on one side of the grave or the other, the lone survivors were doomed even before the first bite? Should they not have at least acted and died as men rather than commit such a heinous act of desperation that many still consider a sin against Humanity, as well as a prosecutable crime, regardless of what more sympathetic souls may say? Did they behave morally? Did they give into temptation, quite literally, of the flesh? And perhaps too easily? Did they act out of selfishness? Or, were they, as some have suggested, just weak? More questions for politicians and priests to ponder, along with other pundits who pursue such profundities. In the end, they were only human, I suppose, just like the rest of us; and they reacted in the only way they knew how: out of sheer survival and with mere mortal fear, as all men do from time to time, saint and sinner alike, in dire and desperate situations.

It was their choice to make. And they made it alone, right or wrong. Would we do the same? Could we? By our own hand, we are saved or condemned. And if we are doomed for choosing life... what then if we chose death? And if so, didn't Our Lord commit a similar offense when he instituted the Holy Eucharist by offering up his own precious body and blood for human consumption? Is the flesh that sustains mortal life any less filling or efficacious than that which offers immortal life? Decide for yourself, if ever placed in the position to do so. And pray.

As a curious footnote to the extraordinary tale of the Essex, it is interesting to know that subsequent to his carnivorous ordeal at sea, Captain Pollard had always made it a point to be sure that his cupboards were well stocked at all times. Once bitten twice shy, you might say. Of course, the old famer probably said it best: 'Taint no eg'cation in the third kick of the mule." And the captain never went hungry again.

Claiming to have actually been exposed to the horrific display of cannibalism onboard one of the earlier slave transports, a certain captain by the name of Elijah Hatch spoke, quite eloquently and with great pains, of what he'd once witnessed in a way that may have very well exonerated the participants of the practice altogether, Christian and pagan alike. It seems that as a young officer himself who'd piloted the transport to safety after a perilous and protracted voyage at sea, he not only went on to praise the Islanders for their resourcefulness in the matter of their own survival, which included, among other things, cannibalization, but accepted, with sincere gratitude, the extracted teeth and shrunken head of one of their own sacrificial lambs as tribute for him bringing them all safely to dry land, regrettably to be sold into slavery the very next day to the highest bidder.

Oh well, as the songwriter says: all forms of refuge have their price. Whether or not these feral Islanders actually engaged in other sorts of cannibalistic behavior, such as drinking the blood of their enemies or devouring one another in some exotic spiritually ritual, is unknown. Even the great Elijah Hatch, who seemed to have had unfathomable knowledge in these and other matters concerning the natives of the South Seas and their many peculiarities, was at a loss for words when it came to explaining the cultural mores of these so called 'uncivilized' societies. But Mister Hatch knew a savage when he saw one; and as far as he was concerned, they came in all shapes and sizes, in all colors, and from all parts of this doomed and discriminating world, civilized or otherwise. He saw none on his ship that day. But enough of the past. Let's see what's going on around the campfire – Shall we?

By that time, the spirits of the night had all arrived and were in full session; although, for reasons we are unaware of, their metaphysical presence was made manifest only to Homer. It was he they were chiefly concerned with; the others, particularly Red-Beard, whom, from a respectable distance they were casting long suspicious glances at, and the large threatening Negro whose race they were never particularly fond of, and whose company they actually found disturbing, they cautiously avoided. They were mere shadows of men, as I'm sure they are to one another, even in their most congregated and concentrated states. The Redman, whose starry gaze seemed to penetrate even their own their ghostly disguise, they could, at least on some metaphysical level, relate to. Naturally, they steered clear of the Ol' Hammer, and were obviously jealous of the surveyor, whose moustache exceed that of their own, at least in length. The boy they could take or leave; the outlaw they would simply leave. They looked at Homer Skinner and collectively expressed their grievances, if that's what you want to call them, in a most challenging way, 'Go on! Get on with it, old man! We don't have all night, you know. Yes, yes, yes, we know all about poor Mister Wainwright and the feral cannibals. But what about the gold? That's what we wants to hear about!'

Homer had heard these pleas before, but never with so much insistency, or intensity. But there was something else the spirits were concerned about that particular evening; and they expressed it quite succinctly, well aware of the risks they took on making such nocturnal appearances. 'Now look'ye here, Mister Skinner,' voiced one ghostly old dwarf, his beard brushing the ground as he spoke, 'you know damn good and well that the sun'll be a'comin' up soon. And you know what that means. Don't you? That's right! It means we'll all be turning into trees, just like the others, if we remain out here much longer. We are spirits, you know. Or have you forgotten?'

Homer hadn't forgotten, of course, and was therefore compelled to admonish his ghostly audience, "Hold your horses! And your sheets! I'll get to all that. Give an old man some time. Will ya? " He was well aware of the spirit's metaphysical concerns, especially the part about them turning into trees if, in fact, they failed to return to their stony hideaways in the hill at the prescribed hour, having been lectured on the woody subject more than he cared to remember. It was a subject he never understood, and one he didn't necessarily agree with. He'd heard the warnings before, when the spirits would sometimes come down from the mountains and creep into his house late at night and have him pacing circles on the bedroom floor long before dawn. And they always came with the same message: 'Thems that want don't get'. And they would whisper it into his ear, time after time. Was it was warning? It sure sounded like one. Whatever it was, Homer just wasn't buying it. He didn't think they believed it, either; it was just their way of aggravating him, he always assumed. But it was something they were very good at, something to be expected from a bunch of old dead men who should know better than to go around scaring the living daylights out of old living ones.

The whole idea always seemed a little silly to the deputy anyway. The prospect of these old, obnoxious, and sometimes annoying apparitions actually turning into wood, as they claimed they surely would if they were not back in their beds of stone before the emergence of the first rays of a new rising sun, was only a theory – Right? a notion, an old wives tale, perpetrated, perhaps, by the widowed wives of these doomed dwarves themselves as a way getting even with them; or, perhaps, getting them back to bed, even if they could no longer share their intimacies anymore, which if you ever chance to lay eyes on one of these fairies of the night, with all their warts and wrinkles, probably isn't such a bad idea. But it was one tale the spirits took very seriously, almost as seriously as they took their wives, no matter what side of the grave they currently resided on. Having never actually had the opportunity to put such a ridiculous theory to the test, however, Homer simply dismissed it, as he did most things he knew he would never understand. Besides, the spirits of the night were always gone long before the sun came up anyway. But you never know. You know? It could be true. Couldn't it? And if you happen to come across some old gnarly old oak tree, the kind that presently pepper the landscape here and about the base of the Silver Mountains, you just might believe the spirits of the night after all, or at least sympathize with their concerns. The old man seemed to understand, but was in no hurry to appease them that night, or any other for that matter. "Go ahead!" he insisted out loud, "turn into a tree... a stone. Or a patch of skunk-weed, for all I care! Just get it over with. And be quiet about it!"

In response to the preceding incredulities, the other mortals sitting around the campfire simply looked at one another, wondering if indeed the old man was indeed going crazy, or if he'd had perhaps a little too much corn liquor to drink that night. Never-the-less, Homer Skinner continued voicing his thoughts, and whatever else was on his mind at the time. And here the narrative continues.

At first, Cornelius G. Wainwright III thought he'd gotten a bargain by purchasing these Island Ferals from the sea-thief captain when he did. But as I have said before, he got more than he bargained for; much more, as you all probably have guessed by now.

With the money he saved on the illicit transaction, Cornelius bought a modest supply of pick‑axes, shovels, hammers, saws, powder‑sticks, and other provisions needed for his ambitious enterprise of mining the Silver Mountains. "Ain't no such thing as a free lunch!" he would boast in view of his fellow fortune seekers who'd remained dubiously suspicious of this gentleman farmer turned prospector, the one with the bottlebrush moustache, right from the start, as well as his questionable intentions and unorthodox methods. There was something about the man that just didn't sit right with them; something they didn't like. Mister Wainwright was an ambitious man, that much was evident; but his ambitions went beyond greed; even greed has its limitations as well as its benefactors. It seems he wanted too much; and he wanted it fast. And he didn't how he got it, or who was hurt in the process. The impatient famer was also unwilling to conform to the more conventional methods of hard mining they had all come to rely upon, simply refusing to adhere to the tried and true principles painstakingly established over the years for the sake and safety of its many participants, many of which have been around ever since the first hammer struck the first stone in the first mountain on the first day of creation, one would only suppose.

Mister Wainwright was what you might call a 'Progressive Thinker' whose liberal views often came at the expense of others. He was frugal, to a point, and brought along only the barest necessities on his over-drawn and under financed expeditions, including food. He reckoned that the Ferals he'd purchased, being natural hunters by instinct and resourceful in most other regards, would be more than able to secure their own game and therefore feed themselves along the way, perhaps with enough left over to feed Cornelius' hired hands as well. Besides, he had always maintained that by giving his laborers just enough to live on, they would remain grateful, as well as ignorant, right up to the very end. And after all, they were here illegally. But unlike the unwashed masses that huddled together on Ellis Island under the Liberty's beckoning arm, or the illegal immigrants that would later swarm the unprotected shores of America in search of wealth and freedom... or someone's lawn to cut, these aliens that never had a choice. For just like their African brothers who came before them, the island ferals came in chains, against their will for the most part, and would, given half a chance, and perhaps a big enough boat, return to their native nests a quickly and time and tide permitted. He was as right as he was wrong on the subject, as you will soon find out. And so, with whip and rifle, along with a cold and greedy heart, Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III set out to stake his claim in the Silver Mountains, along with almost everyone else at the time.

With one lucky stroke of the hammer, Cornelius G. Wainwright III hit pay dirt, on the very first try! His excavation proved to be a huge success, yielding not only the generous supply of gold he knew would be there all along, but other precious ore and minerals as well, such as silver, copper, quartz, rubies, opals, and even a diamond or two. It came as no surprise to Cornelius, who'd predicted it all along; although he had no logical or practical reason to do so, other than simply to impress the others if and when his predictions just happened to turn out to be true, which he was actually never quite sure of. Some of the older and more experienced miners, attributed his good fortune to 'beginner's luck', insisting all along that he would still be better served plowing a field of potatoes than mining a mountain of gold, something they, despite their many disappointments, still knew a thing or two about. There were some who had suggested Providence might have played a hand in the farmer's good fortune. Perhaps they were right. Time would tell. Providence, like lightening, doesn't always strike twice in the same place. But it does strike. Sometimes it strikes those who least deserve it. Other times it just kills thems.

The feral slave miners that Mister Wainwright put to work in his mines proved exceedingly useful in all manner of excavation and tunneling operations. They never once complained and were always willing to work the long hard hours demanded of that laborious profession. They also possessed an almost uncanny, if not instinctual, ability to locate, mine, and extract the largest mineral deposits of ore ever found in the Silver Mountains. And they never stole from their master; not once, not even a nugget. They apparently seemed to have no particular interest in gold, or any precious element for that matter, which Cornelius found a bewildering at first but inconsequential at last. For the most part, they considered the yellow veins a mere nuisance, annoyances, something that only got in their way, a thing to be avoided. It was almost as if they were searching for something... something else all together, besides the precious metal, something that perhaps Cornelius wasn't even aware of at the time.

Because of these and other observations, it didn't take long before more profitable and, perhaps, bolder enterprises entered the mind of the industrious prospector. He actually began to imagine, with increasing frequency and fear that someone else would find it first, that there might be even more gold on the islands from which his feral labor force had originally been abducted. They had apparently come across the golden nuggets before, and still didn't seem to have much use for it. Maybe they just disposed of it all somewhere on the island, he began to wonder more and more, like so many pieces of unwanted and unused furniture; or put it into storage somewhere in the great Halls of Montezuma, perhaps; or buried in the sand, under the pyramids, in the Valley of the Kings, no doubt, for Pharaoh to make use of on his mysterious journey through the Land of the Dead where, despite what they say about not being able to take it with you, it sure comes in handy! Especially when it comes to ferry-boats captains with black hoods and open palms. It is hieroglyphically decreed that in order to pass over to the other side, one's heart must, when placed on a scale, not exceed the weight of a single feather. It is also said, by Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ no less, that it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Both may be right; however, given the choice, and left to our own greedy devices, I would suspect that many of us would much rather prefer spending eternity with a heart of gold (the bigger the better!) rather than with one so delicate and light. Call it capitalism...but it works! And as for our camel riding friend... well, yes! Jesus did say it would be more difficult for him to pass through the eye of a needle (literally as well as figuratively) with such a high and heavy load. 'Difficult indeed, my Lord...' the wealthy Jew may very well have responded (although he will never know, of course) to the both the surprise and delight of the Savior, 'but not impossible." No doubt he was carrying a little gold in his pockets when he said it. It just had to be! Mountains of it! Heaps and hoards of it! Literally tons of gold! And silver, too! There were rumors of such bonanzas, mostly started and perpetuated by the sons of sailors known to frequent that part of the watery world, the golden wealth of which eclipsed, or so they claimed, even the great and glorious empires of the Incas and Aztecs of South America. To support these suspicions, Cornelius quickly went about enquiring among the many merchant ships coming into Old Port Fierce, if in fact there might be any truth to such rumors.

The answers he received were, although wrapped in riddles and shrouded in ambiguity as most sea yarns usually are, always in the affirmative. But all that would have to wait, at least until such a time when Cornelius could afford such a bold and ambitious adventure. And with the way that the Ferals tunneled through stony crust, he didn't expect to wait very long. It was almost as if they could smell every golden vein, each golden nugget, from miles away, no matter how deeply hidden under the mountain of stone. But alas, the Ferals seemed to have no use for the glimmering yellow rock, or any other precious metal they happened upon. It served only as a guide, a map, a compass, if you will, magnetically drawing them towards something far more valuable, which, for the time being at least, remained a mystery to the ambitious miner. But the notion had always intrigued Mister Wainwright and only made him that much more determined to mine the Island of the two volcanoes some day; just as soon as he chiseled, scraped, panned, and clawed every last ounce of gold from the mainland, that is.

In the very first year, Mister Wainwright's mining enterprise yielded more gold than his feral laborers could carry back to the Old Port Fierce on their naked and savage backs. He'd also extracted enough silver, copper, nickel and iron ore to make him one of the richest men in Creekwood Green, and enough rubies, rhinestone, opals, turquoise, and other precious gems and minerals to make a sultan green with envy and buy up his half his harem. When one mine was exhausted and depleted of its mineral wealth, he simply started on another. Before long, he was wealthy enough to buy up the whole damn mountain, which he did of course, and, in keeping with his frugal reputation, at a very generous price. Naturally, he named the mountain after himself, and with enough pride and vanity to make King Solomon rent his royal robes in shame and disgust. It seemed that many of the other miners were not so lucky, however, and were forced to sell off their own mines and business for a song. And Cornelius whistled all the way to the bank.

But all good things eventually come to an end, or so the saying goes; especially when the means of obtaining those things and that end are dubious at best. And in the case of Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III, nothing could've been closer to the truth. As usual, blind ambition eventually paved the way for greed. It begins with pride, and eventually ends in destruction. It was bound to happen; it always does. No matter how relentlessly and mercilessly the wicked prospector drove his feral work force into the bowels of the mountain, that much more did he expected from them in return. And when he didn't get it, he only gave them that much less. And when the food was gone, he couldn't even give them that. "Get to work, you savages!" he would hoot and holler at them over the thunder of gunpowder and the cracking of whips, in that wild-eyed manner we often associate with mad-dogs and Englishmen, and justifiably so, along with all their other eccentricities. "Ain't no such thing as a free lunch, you know."

Then one day, and for reasons best left for geologists to decide, the mines all dried up. Suddenly, there wasn't even enough gold left in all the Silver Mountains to fill a single tooth. It was around that time when talk of Emancipation, and war, began sweeping the land, suggesting the abolition of all slaves, feral or otherwise; 'and high time, too!' many would argue. There were rumblings in the North, and a call to arms in the South. The storm clouds that have been gathering ever since seventeen seventy six had finally fell upon the fledging new nation, just as predicted by not a few of its famous founders; and the chickens were all coming home to roost. They were dark and dangerous times, charged with lightening and ready to ignite at any moment. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Soon the rain would come; and with it, the flood. Talk of emancipation only served to fan the flames, and loose the dogs of war.

Naturally, many of miners, along with some wealthy plantation owners, were outraged by such talk and vowed to fight for their God given rights and property, to the death if necessary, even if that meant destroying both in the process, which is precisely what many of them they did. But even with the winds of war flying his face, and his creditors barking at his heels, Cornelius G. Wainwright III would not abandon his dreams, or the unholy hill that bore his infamous name. It was depleted by then, like most of the bank account he'd invested, unwisely many would come to agree, in a dying business. His capitol was spent; but he still had his slaves. Greed, you see, along with the limited resources of Mother Nature, merely ran its ugly course. There was simply nothing left to mine. But that, or so it seemed, only made the dark haired prospector with the bottlebrush moustache that more determined to find it. It was as though he held some personal and private grudge against the mammoth mountain, which could only be explained in medical journals devoted to the causes and cures of such mental disorders.

In time, and with the end of the War finally in sight, the slave owners sold out while they still had the chance. Cornelius foolishly purchased their worthless deeds, and on credit he no longer could afford. Many went back to their former occupations as farmers, carpenters, storekeepers, masons and millers and such, no worse off and perhaps (thanks to Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III) just a little wealthier than they were before entering their industrial but short-lived experience. Many of their former slaves went along with them, trading in their hammers, chisels and chains, for shovels, rakes, and plows to mine the more fertile, and less risky, fields of Harley and beyond.

By then the War was over; and despite the graves that were still being dug, for blue and the gray alike, little had actually changed in that part of the continent; and in some ways, they only got worse. There were some prospectors, like Mister Cornelius G. Wainwright III for instance, who, even after the armistices were signed, refused to give up their property, human or otherwise. And considering how much he'd lost already in the risky business he chose for himself, it only added insult to injury; and, as everyone was well aware of by then, Cornelius G. Wainwright III, the man with the bottlebrush moustache was not a man to be injured, or insulted.

Word spread quickly around Creekwood Green and Harley, even as far south as Old Port Fierce, of Wainwright's fantastic boner. Skepticism quickly turned to cynicism; and the jokes never ended. Nor did the criticism and ridicule, which naturally only exacerbated the famer's shame. In the end, most folks reckoned that the greedy gold miner only got what he deserved and, either out of spite or jealousy (probably a little of both) were glad of it.

By the time he'd paid off his hired hands and settled with his many creditors, Cornelius had only a very small piece of his golden enterprise left. Ironically, and for reasons many found confusing if not downright confounding, his slaves stayed by their master's side, despite the Emancipation in which they were included, continuing to dig their way further and deeper into the mountain, gold or no gold.

The miner knew he would need the Ferals to carry on his ambitious business, assuming all along that sooner or later he would strike it rich, again. And with all of the debt he'd accumulated by then, mostly from borrowing even more money at inflated interest rates to secure the mortgages on his worthless real estate, Cornelius had no intentions of giving up, and no other choice than to keep on digging and hope for the best. Now that's progressive thinking for you!

It was boom or bust for the stubborn prospector, and he knew it. With each shovel of dirt, swing of the axe, and every new tunnel, Cornelius G. Wainwright III only managed to bury himself deeper and deeper in debt. It was a gambler's disease: the more you win the more you lose, and the more you lose, the more you want it back. It's a sucker's bet; a bad deal; and, as any gambler can tell you: 'There is only one way out of the casino... and that's feet first'. It's the same with most marriages, I suppose, at least the good ones. It's a gambler's bet. Few get out alive. The percentages, as well as the odds, are stacked against it. Ask any black jack dealer. The pit boss knows. The house always wins, eventually. Driven by the desire to get his money back, or just break even by then, Cornelius continued on his doomed and desperate quest. He continued to roll the dice, even though he knew by now that the dice were loaded, and ready to explode. By all accounts, he was 'griped' by gold fever and, perhaps, quite mad by then.

And so, day-by-day, shovel-by-shovel, inch-by-inch, the relentless miner dug deeper into the decaying mountain. By then, the bedrock had become so hard and dense, and the progress of penetrating it so slow, that the Ferals themselves were forced to work around the clock with little to sustain them but a handful of Harley beans, a mouthful of water, and little or no rest. In his never-ending search for the elusive gold, Cornelius insisted that the jackpot, the 'Mother-load!' was just around the corner, the very next tunnel, in fact; or, to put it his own cruel and condescending words: 'Just a bite away, my fine young cannibals!'

When the time finally came, and the gold didn't, Cornelius G. Wainwright III was forced to sell back all his mining equipment at a tremendous loss. Oh well, so much for Progressive thinking. Deserted by the few remaining hired hands that had stayed with him as long as they were being paid, which wasn't very long, all Mister Wainwright had to show for his efforts was a mountain of debt, some useless real estate, a pile of rocks, and a tribe of very hungry Ferals on his greedy hands. Not to mention a number of angry bankers barking at his heals, along with their lawyers and creditors. But the miner still had his pride, if little else, and a few more dollars to spend, which was enough to keep him going, for a while anyway. And so, among the hoots and hollers, and the occasional 'I told you so!' he stubbornly persisted.

'Ain't no such thing as a free lunch!' he barked back even louder, with a rifle in one hand and a whip in the other. The only thing that mattered to Cornelius at that point was proving himself right and everyone else wrong, even if that meant blowing up the whole mountain, which, as far as he was concerned, wasn't entirely out of the realm of possibility. It was all about pride; the fall was soon to follow. Cornelius simply didn't know that; and he refused to give up.

And so the dark haired prospector with the bottlebrush moustache beat and drove his island slaves mercilessly, refusing them anything to eat unless they found gold; or perhaps some silver or copper ore that might've been enough to keep him in business for a little while longer. He even put their feral children to work in the fruitless mines as well, finding them particularly useful when it came to crawling into tight places between the rocks where no one else would fit, in order to put in place the explosive charges of black powder even deeper into the empty bowels of Mister Wainwright's mountain. He cursed and whipped the feral youths just as harshly as he did their feral parents when at last each and every charge failed to uncover the gold that was, in his own defamatory words: 'just a shovel away, my fine young savages!' The blasting never ceased and could be heard for twenty miles, all the way down the mountain and well into Creekwood Green and Harley. It was maddening, to say the least. But Homer wouldn't give up; and neither would his hungry Ferals. So, deeper and deeper into the mountain he dug, cursing it, and anyone else who got in his way, every inch of the way.

Then one day the digging suddenly stopped; and so did the blasting. There wasn't a sound to be heard, anywhere, not even a single stroke of the hammer. No one knew why, and no one really cared. Not for a while, anyway. Many had actually found the silence quite comforting, and welcomed the peace and quiet for a change. In fact, it wasn't until Cornelius G. Wainwright III had been gone for over six months that anyone showed any interest what-so-ever in his sudden disappearance. Some thought that perhaps something had gone wrong, which, in the mining business anyway, was always a distinct possibility; but they thought little or nothing of it, and said even less.

Still, others thought Cornelius was dead. And good riddance! They may as well have added, only wishing they had been there to see it. Those with more charitable and sympathetic hearts, merely shrugged and sighed, wondering if something should be done to find out what might've happened, if anything, to the famous farmer turned prospector. He'd been blasting for over a year by then, with nothing to show for his efforts but a mountain of rocks and a bunch of empty holes. He never came back down to buy more explosives, either, which raised more than a few curious eyebrows.

A small posse of men was hastily (and reluctantly, I might add) put together to serve as a search party with the sheriff taking command and leading the way up into the silent mountain. Among them was a young man name Homer Skinner. He brought along with him a badge, a gun, and a tooth that was just beginning to ache. The others, duly deputized along the way, went along mostly out of curiosity, not really caring what might've happened to the stingy old man with the funny looking moustache, thinking perhaps that they still might find a gold nugget or two left over from one of his previous and more fruitful excavations. Hey, you never know... You know? Along those lines, a few were hoping beyond hope that Cornelius may've been right, after all! And that he'd finally hit the rich vein he'd been searching for all along, and was either trapped inside the mountain, or had lost his way somehow; and that they themselves might share in the profits as well by rescuing him if, in fact, they could find him. And it didn't even matter if he was dead or alive; although, truth be told, there were many would have much preferred the latter. And so, they rode off into the Silver Mountains hoping for the best but fearing the worst.

Finally, arriving at the last known excavation site, deep within the crater of the mountain volcano known as Mount Wainwright, the party suddenly stopped. Cornelius and company were nowhere to be found – dead, or alive. The mine was open, however, and surprisingly undisturbed. It looked new and freshly cut, like an open wound that had never healed. To Homer, it looked like the mouth of hell.

The tunnel was long and deep, just as they'd expected... and empty, too. The mine had been abandoned, or so it seemed, except for a few scattered remains of the missing prospector and his feral workforce: some shovels, hammers, pick‑axes, and a few loose bags of black powder thrown carelessly about the rocky soil.

'They must still be inside, men,' declared the sheriff, cautiously, not knowing what else could've happened to Cornelius and crew, or where else they might be. But it was getting dark, and so they decided to rest for the night before going in any further, or deeper.

At that point in the story, Homer rested for a moment as the spirits of the night drew closer to the fire. The Harlie was sitting by his side as the glowing embers crackled beneath the orange flames, unaware of his ghostly guests and audience but somehow aware that they were not alone. The men were weary; but still they couldn't sleep.

In his own stoic and enigmatic way, Red-Beard seemed particularly restless that night as well. Not unlike the others, he'd heard the story in progress on previous occasion, but never before told with such glib application. There was frankness in the old man's voice that night, an unambiguous honesty that came through in his softly spoken words, and with a certain candor that was missing in previous utterances, the details of which were always dubious at best. Red-Beard could hear it; and he appeared to take a special interest, his eyes temporarily turning from their celestial observations, whenever Homer made mention of the feral slave miners in particular. He was especially intrigued by the fact (a fact that he was only just then made aware of) that they seemed to be looking for something more than just the gold, if, in fact, they were looking for gold at all, not unlike the red-bearded miner himself. Of course, it was never determined exactly what they were searching for, if anything in particular, or even if they had ever found it. No one would ever know, except for maybe Homer Skinner himself, and perhaps Red-Beard.

With his beloved Brahma sleeping on the ground, its great white hump sagging lazily to one side like a deflated balloon, and in keeping with his previous attitude, Red-Beard stood alone and aloof from present company, contemplating the night sky in a way that made the others just a little nervous. But it was not the sky, as dark and beautiful as it was that particular night, that caught the colonel's attention; it was something else, something remote and removed from all earthly observances, something beyond the moon and stars. His gaze, or so it seemed, went beyond all that, reaching out into the vastness of time and space itself; and beyond even that, into those deep dark Heavens we can only imagine, where angels lightly hang their halos and the gods make love. It's something we cannot see, like the 'dark matter' of the Universe that would one day be discovered (although modesty would surely prevent him from using such a self-promoting word, especially in regard to physical laws which, in his own infinite mind at least, are not to be celebrated but merely observed from a purely mathematical perspective) by that famous German physicist, Albert Einstein, who would die before realizing the significance of this darkly discovered phenomenon which, by the way, he accounted for at the time as one of his errors. And through that same 'dark matter', which we know now not only exists but takes up more space and time than that other matter we know of, Red-Beard focused his lens.

Could it be that he was looking for a sign, perhaps, a prediction of things to come? Or maybe he was merely admiring the cluster of stars in the remote and radiant distance that made up the Milky Way. It was difficult, if not impossible to tell. Maybe his mind was bent on more earthly observations, and he was using the heavens as a celestial guide to map out his own diabolical destiny; but then again, maybe not. He pretended not to be listening, but he was hanging on to every golden word uttered by the old man, as if his very life depended on it.

The night can do that to a body, thought the deputy, pausing for a moment to collect his own metaphysical thoughts under the same celestial canopy that night.

The mere fact that the Ferals simply disappeared one day, might alone suggest that they did in fact find whatever it was they were looking for, eventually. It was a minor detail, one the old man would sometimes omit from his wondrous tale of woe. It would explain much, considering not only the Feral's ambivalent attitude at the time, but also their industrious determination to find... to find – What? He'd always assumed, much like Cornelius did, that perhaps it was just some silly superstition they'd brought back from the islands. But like all superstitions, once properly stripped and sanitized of all their prior potencies, there is always a grain of truth lying somewhere close to the kernel that not only survives, but thrives! in its newly formed state. All it needs is time (and perhaps, a little water) in order to germinate in its new environment.

Red-Beard didn't believe in superstitions any more than he believed in lucky numbers or religion; and he didn't believe the Ferals found what they were looking for, which is precisely why he was there. And if it turned out that they were both searching for the same thing, it only served to strengthen his resolve in knowing that he was at least on the right track. For indeed, they were both looking for the same thing; although for two completely different reasons. One was looking for the Motherstone; the other, for eternity. Only one would find it.

While the sheriff and his posse rested that night beneath a cold moon and starlit sky, Homer Skinner, lit a candle and, unbeknownst to the others in the search party at the time, entered the doomed mine all by himself to, as the old saying goes: 'just to see what he could see'.

Due chiefly to his unsteady nerves and the smallness of his wick, Homer didn't expect to be in there very long. Making his way through a long dark tunnel, the length of which he had no way of actually knowing and the circumference of which grew smaller and smaller with each uncertain step, the daring young deputy made his way deep down into the mountain itself, like a child crawling into his grandparent's wardrobe.

Little to his surprise, for he knew that mines generally tend to go down before they go up, he soon found himself progressing at an ever-increasing rate of decline, which only added to his anxiety and heightened his sense of awareness. He considered turning back at that point, thinking perhaps he had gone too far already, but somehow found it within himself to keep on going, even against his better judgment. What propelled him on was not so much courage, for he knew himself better than that, but something else; something he really couldn't explain. Was it the gold then? He'd heard the stories of Mister Wainwright's earlier and more successful finds and thought, if only for a brief and tantalizing moment, that he might just get lucky. And it was just then when he noticed a sharp pain in his lower jaw, as the tooth first began to ache. He didn't think much of it at the time, reckoning it was only a temporary inconvenience, as most aches are for men of youthful ambitions; but still, he thought he'd have it looked into as soon as got home; if he could find a good dentist, that is. A gold filling! he suddenly thought to himself – just the thing! Like everyone else of that time, it seemed that Homer Skinner was 'gripped' with gold fever, even at that young and tender age. He was also ambitious and, in his own innocent and inquisitive way, still quite foolish. He could also be cowardly, especially when threatened of life or limb. But he felt brave that day, and he also felt lucky. There was something else driving him on just then. Exactly what that was neither he nor we will ever really know. Maybe it was just something he had to prove to himself, or us. It really had very little to do with Mister Wainwright, or the gold. It was more personal than that.

And so, downward and deeper he ventured in to the tunneling darkness, noticing at once that it was rapidly becoming difficult to breathe, as well as see. Not only that, the tunnel itself was getting smaller and smaller with every step he took. Before long, he could feel his head scraping the ceiling. Perhaps he was less brave and more foolish than he'd first imagined.

By then it was nightfall, and looking back for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, Homer noticed, for the first time, that it had disappeared all together, completely, like it was never there to begin with; and so, he wisely decided to turn back. But even as he did so, the hapless deputy came to the sudden and sobering realization that he was indeed and in fact lost, something he had always been afraid of. Assuming no fault of his own, however, other than sheer ignorance or sheer stupidity, which he could somehow always excuse himself of, he quickly came to the sad and obvious conclusion that the tunnel must've certainly split in two somewhere along the way, leaving him in a vulnerable and precarious position. He looked all around, the light from his candle flickering in the dark like a lone and frustrated firefly. But just like Diogenes, hopelessly determined to find the last honest man in Athens, he held out his light in the face of despair.

As he groped his way back through the darkness, Homer suddenly noticed two tunnels opening up before him. There was only one problem: he simply couldn't remember from which one he came. He could feel the cold damp walls closing in all around him. He could hear the of running water echoing around him; but it was faint, like a He could also make out the distinctive sound rats sometimes make when they are suddenly discovered and frightened out of their nasty nests. But because of the reverberations caused by the rocky interior, it was impossible to tell precisely where the disturbing sounds were emanating from. It did nothing but confirm his earlier suspicions that he was indeed lost, and would probably never find his way back home. Homer Skinner was scared, really scared, for the first time in his life. He wasn't even sure if either of the two tunnels would bring him back to safety. He wasn't sure of anything, other than the fact that he was lost. And to make matters worse, he'd left his compass outside in his saddlebag. The candle also began to flicker indicating, if nothing else, that his oxygen supply was slowly fading as well.

At that point Homer was left with only two options: 1.) Turn around and keep on moving ahead, in spite of drowning and getting attacked by giant tunnel rats; or 2.) Take one of the two tunnels back to where he'd started from which, come to think of it, actually gave him a third option to consider. He ruled out first option almost immediately. It was too risky; and besides that, he was just too scared. That left him with only two choices. And so he began going through his pockets for a coin to toss. It seemed to be the only way to decide which way to go, right or left.

He found a coin. It was an Indian-head nickel, which Homer immediately took as a good sign. But before the coin flew from his fingers, he thought he'd heard something. More noises? But these sounds were strangely and distinctly different from anything he'd heard up until then; and they seemed to be coming from somewhere deep within the tunnel itself. It was faint at first, and vaguely familiar, in a comforting sort of way. It sounded almost... almost human, like the sound of a small crowd murmuring incoherently to one another in a long dark hall. More than that he simply could not tell, and would not even venture to guess. Curiously intrigued, however, at the whispering sounds in the dark, it suddenly dawned on the young deputy that perhaps someone had noticed that he was missing by now and, having found yet another way into the tunnel, was already searching for him. And so, reclaiming the courage he'd so easily surrendered only a moment ago, Homer Skinner put the nickel back in his pocket and proceeded forward in a downward trajectory.

With an ever-diminishing candle in one hand and a pocket in the other, and with and a renewed sense of hope and adventure, Homer Skinner followed the sounds through the dark corridor until he arrived at what appeared to some kind of transition in the rock as the tunnel suddenly grew a little larger. By that time, the mysterious voices had become slightly more audible, but as indiscernible as ever. He also noticed that the incline on which he'd been advancing seemed to have leveled off at some point, providing him with a completely flat, but still horribly hard, surface to walk on. It took it as another good sign, however. And then, suddenly, without even knowing it, he came to the end of the long dark tunnel, at which point everything seemed to change.

Stepping out through a gaping orifice, Homer found himself standing in the middle of a large hollowed-out cave. The air was much more breathable by then, much to his surprise and relief, and there was an odor in the air that reminded him of...of... a barbecue! Something he found both curious and inviting, as by then he was also very hungry. He smiled, and was contemplating these and other aspects of his immediate surroundings, when suddenly, and quite un-expectantly, the candle he was holding burst into flame, as if suddenly reinvigorated by some invisible supply of oxygen that came from... God knows where. It was like... like magic! he quietly thought to himself, examining the orange flame more closely to see what might've caused the small but explosive display. It was almost as if the candle had taken on a life of its own, radiating with a newly found energy, the fire within the inner mounting flame growing and glowing exponentially, hotter and brighter, until it all but burned his hand. But there something even more intriguing than exploding candles that demanded the deputy's attention at the moment. And it wasn't magic at all! It was real. And it was gold.

He could see it. Gold! It was right in front of his face, right where the tunnel vaulted into the wide mountainous cavern he was presently enveloped in. Holding out the lively little flame, Homer could see it clearly now.

The walls sparkled with it. Gold! The ceiling radiated it with it. Gold!! The floor shined with it. Gold!!! In fact, there was so much gold that it almost blinded him. It was all around him. Gold! Everywhere! Gold! Gold! And more gold! Not just hints of it sprinkled here and there within the amalgamated mass as it sometimes appears in quartz and granite, but tons of it! Gold! Nor was it concealed deep within the earthy elemental compounds, the extraction of which can be laborious, time consuming, and costly. It was not just a flash in the pan, either, elusively hidden in pebbles, sand, and other contaminates where only mercury can find it, but solid chunks of the precious yellow stuff. It was all there, right for the taking, as easy as you please, appearing to Homer as large shimmering streams of bright yellow light coursing through the freshly cut stone at each and every angle. No smelting or sluicing necessary. No panning! No stamping! No blasting! No quicksilver! No hard mining! No picks. No shovels. No dynamite. No nitro. No Nothing! Except perhaps some very large buckets and a few strong back to carry it all out. Just gold! Everywhere! Pure, unadulterated, unmitigated, uncontaminated and unabated gold! Tons of the stuff! Everywhere! Gold! It was a virtual temple of gold. A...a golden tabernacle! And Homer Skinner was standing smack dab in the middle of it. And all you had to do was pick it up!

Now, in the very center of the golden sanctuary, the deputy attention was suddenly and serendipitously drawn to single black hole penetrating the opposing wall of the mysterious cavern. It was perfectly round, like the pupil of an eye and, in stark contrast to its otherwise golden surroundings, perfectly black. It was something he suddenly wished would disappear, his mind still swirling in the golden haze that surrounded and enveloped him.

At first he'd guessed it to be nothing more than mere hole placed there by a previous miner; the kind they would sometimes chisel into the rock in which to place their charges. They called them 'rounds', for obvious reasons, and they were not that uncommon at the time. The hole appeared almost to have been placed there by design, as evidenced by its perfect symmetry and un-natural roundness. In many ways, it was actually quite pleasant to look at. And it was draped on either side by two gold spangled panels etched with so many other perfectly shaped geometric designs that it appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be purely man-made. Homer stepped forward with his luminous candle, ignoring the sounds that were still emanating from somewhere beyond where he stood in the cave, a for closer look.

Upon further examination, he could see that it was not really a hole at all, but rather a single black object embedded into the vertical wall of the cave, like some ancient bar-relief one might expect to find in Tutankhamen's tomb. It was a rock, actually; or a stone, perhaps: a singular black host encased in its own golden tabernacle, appearing no less consecrated than the Kabala Stone likewise enshrined within the Dome of the Rock itself set and upon the holy ground of Solomon's temple mount. He held the candle close to the stone and could clearly see in its smooth dark surface, being licked as it were by the inner mounting flame within, a reflection of his own recognizable face.

Homer immediately found himself intensely studying the strange dark gem, looking at it and in it both at the same time, forgoing all curiosities and concerns, which alone should have been enough to command his full attention and perhaps raise a few red flags. He felt drawn to it, though through no effort of his own, by some mysterious force that was hitherto alien to his being. Like a moth drawn to the deadly embrace of the flame, he was compelled forward. And it quickly became the sole object of his desire. He merely wanted to touch it; for now, at least.

But before he could go any further, and despite the alluring spell to which he had already surrendered himself to, the deputy noticed another great vein of gold searing the rock directly over his forehead. It appeared so pure and solid that it shimmered with an indescribable and inscrutable whiteness that the deputy found not only intriguing but simply irresistible. White gold! he suddenly imaged.

He'd heard of such a thing (although he had never actually seen it) from the old miners who'd claimed, without ever actually having found any of the precious white ore, that it was ten times lighter, stronger, and more durable (if that is even possible) than its yellow cousin, which, of course, also make it ten times more valuable. It was the stuff of legends, what you might expect to find in myths and fairy tales; like mithril mail, the kind of precious material woven into Bilbo's protective armor, but very, very real. Such a find was almost unheard of, even in the days of the great gold rush. It was thought by many to be a hoax, something the old miners made up to amuse themselves and perhaps confuse their younger apprentices; either that, or some fantastic yarn spun by some disillusioned gold miner down on his luck and grasping, as desperadoes often do in desperate situations, for something that exists only in his own wild and wonderful imagination. But not always. And here, right before his very eyes was physical proof that such a substance actually existed. And if such a substance did exist, how could anyone pass up such a bonanza! Let alone be detracted from it, even for a moment?

He looked at the stone again, and then back at the gold. It was a difficult choice, almost like trying to decide which tunnel to take, the right or the left, the gold or the stone, the black or the white. No coin was needed this time. It really wasn't such a hard decision after all. His hand instinctively went for gold, the white. The spell was broken, temporarily at least. Homer reckoned that he could always go back for the stone, even though he still didn't know what it was. But he sure as hell knew what gold was. And It wasn't just yellow. It was white! And so, he followed the vein instead.

At that point in the narrative, Red-Beard raised a heavy eyebrow as if he'd just been made aware of something through some kind of mental osmosis. He was thinking about something; but it wasn't gold, not even the white gold Homer had just than alluded to in his re-telling of the tale, that caught the colonel's eye, although he too had heard the rumors. It was something else... And there! the old man just mentioned it again. He's getting careless in his old age, thought Red-Beard noticing, even from a distance, how Homer's voice would suddenly change, lowering itself, almost to a whisper, every time he made mention of this ambiguous black stone he'd found at the end of the long dark tunnel. It was almost as if he really didn't want to talk about it. But how could he not? It was the best part of the story! and one he'd forced himself to omit, rather difficulty it seemed, from his wondering tale of woe and wonder for too many years now. And if he couldn't talk about it now...Well, when the hell could he talk about it? When they were all dead and buried? Sitting around some a campfire like the spirits of the night, trying to convince everyone that they still matter, even though they no longer have any matter? Or haunting the bedroom of some tired old man late at night, whispering non-sense into his hot and horny ear only to have him pacing the floor all night like some goddamn fool with a toothache, while his wife snores soundly downstairs on the sofa? No, thought the deputy. Strike while the iron's hot! And besides all that – it was true.

Red-Beard had known about the strange black stone for quite some time now. He'd heard about it before, and from equally reliable sources, but never so specifically, nor told in such irresistible and exquisite detail. The old man still had a way with words, the colonel had to admit. Most of what he knew about the stone he had learned from Tom Henley, but always in riddles and shrouded in questionable ambiguities, many of which he still hadn't quite figured out. The mountain-man was never willing to divulge all he knew about the mysterious dark object that'd occupied so much of time and effort, which only made Red-Beard want to posses it that much more.

He remembered how Tom once described to him. It was exactly as Homer was describing it just then, well almost. Henley had always referred to it in more endearing terms, such as 'Mother' or 'she', in the same sentimental way sailors often feminize their vessels in that specific gender. 'She was born on a wondering star that came down from the deep dark Heavens', were only a few of the esoteric words the hillbilly chose to describe it, Red-Beard presently recalled, his eyes fixed firmly on that same celestial tapestry as if trying to decipher some encrypted alien code he knew was up there, somewhere. 'She lived in the mountains of the moon... surrounded by Paradise,' murmured the wild-eyed misanthrope, 'a queen without a king, far away and across the sea... A sailor had found her and took her away. She stole his heart, so he took hers...He put her in a prison, locked her away... in a tabernacle of gold, deep down, deep down where the dark things live. And he threw away the key...'

And that was how the bifocal mountain-man once described the Motherstone to Colonel Rusty Horn on particular, the last words 'and he threw away the key,' trailing off in a hopelessness which at the time came across with a certain metaphysical certitude that left both of them only wanting it, and her, even more. Tom spoke about 'her' in other ways too, which, to the discerning ear at least, sounded obscenely Romantic.

It's 'her –', the colonel was thinking to himself just then, careful not to expose his hidden emotions to any of the others, which for Red-Beard wasn't a difficult thing to do. He found her...Mother! –the stone! Homer was there... down deep, in a prison, a cavern...the tabernacle of, of, gold! he suddenly connected '...where the dark things live'. He knows where she is, Rusty Horn confided to himself in silent thought that night. He found her!

Homer followed golden artery all around the temple, caressing the soft pale metal with the tips of his fingers. The vein grew bigger and brighter before his eyes, reflecting every little bit of light emanating from his dancing candle. He imagined it to be the largest deposit of pure white gold ever found in the Silver Mountains. Found anywhere! for that matter; if it was ever found at all. He was right about that, if nothing else. It was!

Suddenly he felt, and actually was, less afraid and just a little braver than he was only moments ago. The noises in the distant continued, however; and they may've gotten even a little louder by then. He still couldn't tell exactly where they were coming from, what they were saying, or for that matter who, or what, might be emitting such strange and incoherent utterances. And he really didn't care anymore. Caught up in the incorrigible 'grip' of the old white ghost, the gold that is, the fever only intensified as deputy Homer Skinner pushed himself forward with a throbbing heart, an aching tooth; and perhaps an empty head.

He couldn't explain the feeling he was experiencing at the moment, but somehow found it both pleasing and painful at the same time if, in fact, the two competing sensations could ever live comfortably together side by side without annihilating one another in the process. Was it the excitement, the anticipation, or was it foolishness that compelled him to do what in his own better judgment he knew to be wrong? Was in his heart or in his head? Just what the hell was it? It was gold, of course! What else? There's a glory in gold, to be claimed only by those quick who find it and strong enough to keep it. It glistens! It glitters! It gleams! It glows! There's a giddiness in gold that speaks of youth; a fluttering in the stomach, too; a feeling that something good is about to happen. It's a feeling that drowns out sorrows and puts out the last fear. And thus, Homer put out his, along with the strange noise that was growing even stronger with each advancing step.

For the benefit of those who may be too young and naïve, too inexperienced, or simply too old, and may have forgotten, like Homer for instance, about such things, allow me to offer up this small but important nugget of advice which may, or may not, help you along life's long and lonesome, and sometimes even confusing, highway; whether it be made of dirt or asphalt, and especially if it happens to be paved with gold. And it is this: If and when you ever find yourself in the sometimes precarious and often unenviable position having to make some important and critical decision you would otherwise choose to ignore; or, if you are suddenly cast into, certainly through no fault of your own and for reasons that might escape you for perhaps he rest of your lives, what is sometimes described as that thick and mystifying 'mist of indecision' that all too often envelopes us like a fog creeping in from the sea or down from the mountains, obscuring all in its soupy white wake and clouding our better judgment in the process...well then, all that I have to say on that dark gray matter is this: When in doubt, real doubt, serious doubt, matter of life and death doubt, trust neither the head nor the heart; for one is weaker than the other, and are equally prone to error. They will turn on a dime and leave you like a jilted lover, head and heart in hand. Instead, put your faith in something else, something bigger than yourself. And where will it be found? Dig deep, my friend, deep down, to the lower levels where the juices of life churn and burn, breaking us down to our barest essentials in all its gastronomical glory. Still not sure? Go deeper, still. Deeper, I say! into the indomitable belly of the beast... where head and heart fail, the lungs collapse, and emotions drown in their own pool of tears. Seek a more primitive source; animal in all natural instincts, but still human in its own free will. It's a place only a few have discovered; and it's hard to breath. Hold your nose if you have to; but don't be afraid. It's only... only organic. In other words, dear and gentle reader: Go with your gut! It'll never let you down. And if Homer had indeed 'gone with his gut' instinct at the time (although we will never know for sure – Will we?) which undoubtedly was telling him in so many unspoken words to 'get the hell out of there! and as quickly and quietly as possible...well then, maybe, just maybe he wouldn't be such a pickled predicament, staring down the throat of an insatiable monster he knew absolutely nothing about, while putting in peril not only his own ephemeral life but the lives of all those above. And for what? Wealth? Health? Power? Prestige? No! All for the glory of gold.

* * *

And so, he followed his heart, and the gold, until he came to a ninety-degree bend in the rock. He turned, advanced. It was there that the cavern suddenly led him directly into a smaller chamber from where the strange voices apparently were clearly emanating from. He entered the chamber undaunted and undeterred. At that point, Homer might've realized by then that should've followed his head instead. But, of course, he didn't.

It wasn't so much the noise that eventually halted the deputy's progress that day inside the mountain, caressing his ears like the song of some familiar Siren; nor was it any suspicions connected with such a sweet and soulful sound. No. It was a sight. And what a sight it was! So bold, so beautiful, and so bewildering it appeared that, at first blush at least, the young deputy actually... well, blushed. It was a sight to behold! as stark and naked as Adam before the Fall, and just as unashamed. It was dark and dangerous, too; and so unusual that it had, in fact, stopped the deputy dead in his wavering tracks. Dropping what was left of his nearly exhausted candle to the ground, the young man froze like trapped raccoon. Oddly enough, however, he could still see.

Somehow, and despite the fact that Homer's candle now lay dead on the hard cold ground, there was light. Lots of it! It was a soft yellow glow that lit up all his immediate surroundings. He was enveloped in it. He was amazed by it; and, generally speaking, he caught up in it all together. Never-the-less, it frightened him; not the light itself, but what it had just then suddenly exposed. But that's just what light does. That's what it's supposed to do. It not only disinfects and sanitizes; it allows us see what we otherwise may have missed, or have simply refuse to look at in the first place, for whatever unfathomable reason; and in that regard, it can most revealing. For along with the all the goodness (and indeed it is far more than we ever could've imagined in our previous dark existence) we see, for the very first time, perhaps, all the ugliness within. It's not always a pretty sight. But as the old Irish dinosaur once observed as he stomped, rather reluctantly we are told, out of his own dark dungeon: 'I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else'. The dinosaur's name? Why, Clive Staples. C.S. Lewis – of course! But his friends just called him Jack.

And just what was it that had sent such a shiver up the young man's spine just then, making him wet his pants and vomit up his supper with just one glance? It was more horrible, more hideous, than anything he could ever imagine; and Homer, as we all know by now, could indeed conjure up some very horrible and hideous images, real or unreal. What the brave young deputy saw in front of him that day, or night (he really had no way of telling at the time) was something far more deadly, of course. It was evil. And most of was there.

Bathing in the small halo of orange light flickering in the newly oxygenated air, he suddenly spied a great cauldron, larger than any he'd ever seen before. It appeared to be made entirely of... what else? Pure gold. Beneath the fine yellow tub was a crackling fire feeding on the many burning embers below, the flames of which crept continually up the curvature of the boiling bowl, licking its sides with long tapered tongues of fire. And seated around this boiling pot, with legs akimbo and faces all aglow, were perhaps a dozen or so long‑limbed savages, or Ferals, as previously descried, albeit not in such a horrific light.

Forced to abandon his former fears for a brief and bewildering moment, the way children sometimes do when suddenly exposed, usually through no fault of their own, to sights and sounds they will later in life, one could only hope, come to recoil from in horror and disgust, Homer began to suspect that the Ferals before him might, in fact, actually be the same slaves imported from the Islands; the same poor pagans, perhaps, that Mister Wainwright was said to have purchased from the pirate not too long ago, said to have disappeared along with their evil taskmaster in a mountain that bore that same wicked name; the very same savages, in fact, he'd driven so mercilessly, to the point of exhaustion (almost to the point of extinction, it would seem) and starvation, and by all sympathetic accounts into the killing mines that would eventually become their own graves, searching, in vain many would finally conclude, for that which was never found. Or was it?

At first, the fiery Ferals appeared completely oblivious to the deputy's sudden and, perhaps, unwelcome presence, almost as if he wasn't eve there. Either that or they simply hadn't noticed him at the time of his untimely arrival, which, due to the fact that he was so conspicuously different than anyone else in the immediate vicinity, and actually wearing clothes, was very unlikely. In reality, Homer was by then sticking plainly out, like a white thumb among so many black fingers; and he knew it. He froze, attempting in vain to control his trembling hands and wobbly knees, his eyes darting in his sweating brow, this way and that, for quick and possible escape route. He was scared, really scared. He waited for something to happen. Nothing did. Not a feral finger was lifted.

They just sat there, turning an occasional and lazy glance towards the intruder whom, for all they knew or were capable of comprehending, could've been the devil himself disguised as some kind of a phantasmagorical white ghost. They appeared to be neither frightened nor alarmed, certainly not angry; in fact, they looked rather at ease, and acted almost as if they had no real objection to a Homer crashing their dinner table at all. Indeed, had they known he was coming, they might've even set an extra plate, along with knives, forks and spoons, he began to imagined, wondering if the feral feast included such dining luxuries. For the most part, they simply chose to ignore him, which is to say they just didn't seem to care one way or another, for the time being anyway, in their own lazy and wide-eyed ambivalence.

To further evidence this somewhat bewildering attitude, while explaining the source of the sounds first heard by the deputy's incredulous ears, these same feral campers were singing, softly and sweetly (deliciously, one with a perceptible ear might say) all around the fire, like a troop of young condors cooing around the half dead carcass of an injured antelope, and in tongues Cornelius G. Wainwright III himself surely would have recognized himself; for they were, in undeniable fact and in diabolical deed, the greedy prospector's own long lost slaves. They were the Ferals of Mount Wainwright, alive and well. And they were there.

But for the most part, and for reasons we shall soon find out, these dark and devilish miners looked perfectly content and satisfied for the moment; even happy, as one whose sympathies lie in that direction might observe; but in that strange and lethargic attitude that is sometimes beguiling and often misleading. Some of them appeared to be smiling, having acknowledged the deputy's presence by then with casual nods and grins, exposing at their pleasure rows and rows of sharp white teeth that appeared to have been filed into long formidable fangs, in the grotesque style unique to their native culture and custom, and fashion that way for whatever diabolical purpose. There were also a number of tattoos adorning their otherwise naked bodies, as deep and dark as their own carnivorous constitutions, on the men as well as the women. Fortunately, for the deputy at least, these appeared to be friendly Ferals, for they displayed no immediate signs of anger, hostility, or even alarm. In fact you might actually say they gave the distinct impression, despite their feral appellation, of being downright civilized; like a cozy family of friends sitting leisurely around the Thanksgiving table long after the turkey and cranberries were gone, waiting for the pumpkin-pie to arrive, and maybe even a cup of coffee.

But these were like no relatives Homer Skinner ever had the pleasure to dine with, let alone meet. With a throb in his heart and a blush in his cheek, the deputy was quick to notice, as previously touched upon, that they were all naked as jay-birds, including, and most notable of all, four voluptuous and well-endowed females Ferals lying casually reposed on the stones next to the glowing pot of gold. And it was in this same relaxed and tranquil attitude, they sensuously stirred the fire while strumming their vocal chords and combing their long black hair. It was an arousing sight, and one which physically stirred the deputy in ways he'd never been stirred before; sexually speaking, of course. For by then he could clearly see their firm brown breasts sitting way up high (where they properly belonged he would later fantasize after having witnessed first-hand the sagging effect of old age, not to mention gravity, on those wondrous globular glands he'd become so enamored of) their dark brown nipples standing stiffly erect upon soft twin peaks overlooking the forbidden valley below. Exposed as they were in the lusty light of the fire, their legs slightly parted providing just a glimpse of the treasures buried below, these dark beauties were ripe for the picking thought the harvester, becoming increasingly aroused under the circumstances, and naturally so. What a fine wine those juicy young grapes would make! he quietly imagined as one of the nubile nymphs suddenly looked his way and smiled. Likewise, the men, sensually exposed in their own raw masculinity, which hung like elephant trunks at the watering hole after a very long journey, appeared equally at ease in their nakedness and right at home with their naked counterparts. They simply had no shame; or, perhaps they were just too proud.

Despite a sudden and foolish urge to stay just a little while longer, Deputy Homer Skinner wisely decided right there and then that it was definitely time to leave – and fast. He realized, a little too late perhaps, that he would have served himself better had he followed his instincts and 'gone with his gut' instead of listening to his heart, his head, or the gold, and not have gotten himself into such a magnificent mess to begin with. So he quickly and quietly turned to walk away. But not before he'd found what he and the posse had originally came looking for.

For there, in a quiet corner of the room, enshrined as it were on a makeshift altar of wood and stone, right in the middle of the feral sanctuary and illuminated by the fire within, was all that was left of Cornelius G. Wainwright III: a small pile of clean white bones ceremoniously stacked in a manner that would suggest not only respect, but reverence, for their original owner, and a few scraps of discarded flesh.

To further evince the miner's untimely demise, and give credence to his grizzly remains, the deputy also noticed some clothing lying on the floor close to the dead man's bones; among them a pair of knee high alligator boots, some dark blue trousers, and a long sleeve shirt, along with some other rags of varying proportion and color. There was also a long black whip and a rifle placed visibly against the wall, but without the ceremonial attentiveness afforded the other articles of the doomed prospector. What really told the story, however, was a single white handkerchief spread open for all savage eyes to gaze upon, to whatever pagan end and for whatever heathen purpose, with the initials C.W. embroidered handsomely into the fabric. The letters said it all. They were red, of course, not unlike the famous Scarlet Letter that once burned so ignominiously the lovely on the adulterous bosom of charitable Hester Prynne, and just as un-retractably.

But there was more – much more. For hanging directly over the deified handkerchief of the deceased, about twenty feet from where he was standing, Homer next noticed what at first appeared to be, by all mortal reckoning, the head of a doll. It seemed to be floating, at first, in the thickness of the smoky atmosphere, but was actually being suspended in the air by a thin, almost transparent, black thread that disappeared into the darkness above.

The face of the doll was grotesque, and eerily life-like, purposely deformed not only by the hand of its creator, but by the warm glowing light within the chamber that cast shadows in every wrinkle etched into the hideous head, which itself was otherwise as pale and white as that of a Icelandic ghost. It had dark brown hair tied up in a ponytail, a bottlebrush moustache and, curiously enough, a three-month growth of beard. Its mouth, eyes, and nostrils had been hermetically sealed, sutured it would seem with the same hideous black thread from which it hung, the stitches as visible and clearly defined as those found on a baseball. But this was no baseball, or any other inanimate object for that matter; as Homer would quickly find out upon further examination. This was real. This was... human. It had a face; and it had a name. It was no ordinary face, and no ordinary name. It was the face of a very foolish and greedy man; a man who simply didn't know where, when, or perhaps even how, to stop. And the face had a name: Cornelius G. Wainwright III. The shrunken head hanging at the end of the string that day belonged to none other the infamous farmer turned prospector himself, the one with the bottlebrush moustache, perfectly preserved and forever entombed, like a jar of pickled pig's feet, in pure feral formaldehyde.

Exposed to the horrific and almost pitiful sight, Homer Skinner quickly and quietly turned around and headed straight back into the darkness, and safety, of the long dark tunnel from which he came. His candle was out, but there still enough light to make out the strange black stone embedded in the rock that he'd first mistaken for a hole in the wall. It was the same black stone he'd meant to come back for after he'd made off with the golden treasure. And it was right there in front of him, right where he'd left it. It was the black host of the golden tabernacle, staring straight down at him just as before in the holy of holies, like the Arc of the Covenant itself in all its ancient awe.

There was something about it, something magical and magnetic, like a loadstone drawing his needle closer and closer to true north. And just as before, Homer felt an sudden and irresistible urge to just reach out and touch it, again. But it was more than that. He moved closer; and the closer he moved, the more he wanted to touch it. The same alien force, this magnetic thing that he'd successfully averted only moments ago, suddenly, and with a renewed strength and vitality lacking in its previous aspect, overtook the young deputy with such magnified intensity that he simply could not resist. It was just too overwhelming. He no longer merely wanted to touch it, he had to touch it; moreover, he wanted to just take it. And this desire to have it all for his own, to pluck it out of its sacred tabernacle as a thief would the very eye of Vishnu, to free from its golden bough as Jason lifted the golden fleece from his protective perch, to steal it like a common thief, a criminal, a burglar, to break the seal of Pharaoh's tomb, to reach inside his holy sarcophagus and remove the diamonds from the dusty rags of a dead king, to do the unthinkable and reap its unholy rewards of eternal damnation, was simply too irresistible. He knew it was wrong; but felt he had no other choice. He had to have it.

Ironically, it was the deputy's own fear and trepidation, in the mist of indecision that ultimately proved his deliverance that night, as it had so many times before, by preventing him from committing the act he'd been presently contemplating. That is to say, the deputy simply balked. Driven by his better angels, or perhaps that higher power that is responsible for creating such benevolent and influential being, Homer suddenly had second thoughts about the whole matter. And as he tried to decide which way to go, moving first in one direction and then in another, the black eye of the temple, which had previously appeared so inanimate, seemed to have suddenly come alive, anticipating, it would seem, his every thought, and thus following his every movement. It all but blinked.

As if being driven by some mechanical device incorporated into its original design or by some other supernatural energy yet to be disseminated, the all-seeing, all-knowing eye of the tabernacle would not let him go. It was almost as if during his brief absence, the optical nerve had somehow been reattached to its mother organ, affording the stone a more human quality, something it had lacked in its former state, which only added to its beauty and appeal. What power propelled it would remain unknown, even if placed before the Oracle of Adelphi itself for a more intimate and metaphysical examination. It was a puzzle not even the Great Alexander could unravel, and no sword could sever.

And then something else happened to make all previous manifestations, whether presented through sight or sound, pale in comparison. For suddenly, and without the slightest hint or warning that something spectacular was about to take place, the host of the tabernacle burst forth in all its omnipresent and omnipotent glory. It happened in a brilliant display of so many amazing colors. And it happened so quickly, so intensely, as to catch Homer completely by surprise and totally off guard. A rainbow of lights immediately flooded the cavern, all of which seemed to be radiating from the single black stone fixed in the epicenter of the cavern, although by then, it appeared anything but black. Calling it a solid ball of light surrounded by an explosion of color would come close to describing what Homer had witnessed that day, but that would still not do it justice. Comparing it to a miniature sun, the energy of which had somehow been compacted and compressed into the space of a child's ball, if one could imagine such an experiment, would be a more accurate description; but even then come up short. There are times when words simply fail.

Mesmerized by what had just transpired and feeling an inexplicable urge to draw even nearer still, as if that were at all possible by then, Homer thought for sure that the Ferals would see it as well, and follow sooth. And why shouldn't they? Surely, he imagined, this wasn't a singular occurrence initiated or sustained for his own private amusement. Or was it? The indifference exhibited by his feral audience to all that was happening just then would suggest otherwise, as they all appeared to take no immediate interest in the dazzling display of lights, which, at least from the deputy's personal perspective, made the Fourth of July look like child's play in comparison. But the light that blinds also reveals. It showed Homer way, the way out. He'd found the tunnel.

Racing back into the safety and seclusion of the darkness, the deputy hit his head on the ceiling and began to bleed. He fell to the ground and heaved a solemn sigh of relief, but only for a moment. He didn't have time for the pain, or the blood. He felt ill and suddenly wanted to vomit again. Instead, he found himself crawling back up the tunnel, feeling his way back the best he could under the sightless circumstances.

He could feel the floor rising up on an angle, and could only hope that he was headed in the right direction. He could also hear the rats running for cover, as if they were actually just as more frightened as he was at the time, and perhaps next on the feral's mind and menu. To Homer's surprise and relief, not one of the feral cannibals followed him back up the tunnel that night; still, he was able to hear them for quite some time in the distance. He thanked God for the darkness more times than he could remember, and swore he would never go back, the gold notwithstanding. And even as he stumbled and fumbled his way through the blackness of the long black tube, Homer Skinner could still hear the feral voices echoing ominously off the cold stone walls, along with the sound scurrying rats. Apparently, the slave miners had no interest in the fat young deputies, a butterball even back then, preferring simply to sit and stir the fire, comb their hair, and pick their fangs with the dried white bones of the dead man, as if nothing at all had ever happened to disturb their evening meal, or plans.

The tunnel grew narrower before it grew wider, which told the deputy that he was at least headed in the right direction. Without the aid of his candle, and groping his way in the dark while making few twists and turns in the process, Homer Skinner somehow managed to find his way back to the mouth of the tunnel. He didn't think he would.

As he ran out the mouth of the cave, it suddenly occurred to the frightened young deputy what might've happened had he entered the tunnel a day later than he actually did. Perhaps by then, he imagined, the Ferals would have had time to properly digest their carnal meal, and were hankering for the next course. Dessert, perhaps! And what a fine plum pudding Homer would've presented them with. On the other hand, any time sooner than that and his own head might now be hanging from a string right alongside that of the unfortunate prospector, and looking just as grim and gruesome. The only difference would be that his would have a little less beard and a little more fat. Apparently, it was only through fortune and good timing that Homer's life was spared, so far. He vowed never to go back. Not in a million years.

The man with the bottlebrush moustache was not so lucky, however; and in the end, the deputy with the aching tooth learned something new that day. It was something Cornelius G. Wainwright III might've figured out as well, if only he'd not been so greedy. And yes! The 'G' did stand for greedy. But by then it was too late. And just what was it? Simple. You could not say it more eloquently; and you certainly couldn't say it any better. But you could still say it: 'You see, Mister Wainwright... there is such a thing as a 'free lunch' after all. And you, my fine fellow, are it!

When Homer finally exited the lost gold mine, drawn and exhausted, he found the sheriff and his posse sound asleep in a small evergreen hammock. It was dark outside by then and he could hear them snoring. He didn't want to wake them, not just yet anyway. The deputy still had some serious thinking to do. There was still much to be considered here; not least of all the gold.

As his fears gradually subsided and his tooth began to ache a little less, the young deputy reconsidered his earlier commitment and the vow he took never to go back there again. He stayed awake the whole night, quietly drawing up a map on a small piece of paper he found in his saddlebag. He did it all from memory, one line at a time, scratching his head now and then, trying to remember exactly where he was and how he got there. When he was done, he folded the map that would one day lead him back to the gold and put it back in his saddlebag. And on that night, under a cold moon and starlit sky, the wheel that was constructed long before the stars and moon appeared, slowly began to turn in its own perpetual motion. It was a plan that would be forty years in the making. Homer had the time. He had the map. And he had the Harlie. The incubus was about to hatch.

When the others awoke the very next morning, the deputy told them all what he'd seen and heard, carefully avoiding any and all references to the golden temple he'd accidentally stumbled upon just before encountering the bloodthirsty Ferals the night before, and for good reason. He knew firsthand what gold could do to a man. Hell! It had almost gotten him cannibalized, or at least killed, he suddenly imagined; as if the two were mutually exclusive. He would not tempt the others; he would certainly not tempt fate, not yet anyway. But he would go back for the gold, eventually. Naturally, what he'd purposely omitted from his strange and fantastic tale, namely the gold, the deputy made up for with sheer exaggeration, which was not unusual for Homer Skinner, especially at that young and exuberant age, or any other age for that matter. It was easy to do; it actually came quite natural. And he enjoyed it.

'You should've seen 'em!' he gasped in animated terror, searching for his breath as well as the most convincing words, or perhaps just for theatrical effect, which was also one of Homer's strongpoint. 'Thems was Ferals I tell you! More than I could count! (As if the duplicitous deputy couldn't count to twelve). They was sav'ges – Devils! Black as sin! Sons of Satan... and his daughter's, too! Evil elves, I say, every impish one of 'em. The whole damn lot of 'em! Naked as scrub-jays, too. Shameful! Disgraceful! Why, it was downright... heathenish!" he further remonstrated, his voice breaking at times upon his own platitudinous proclamations. "Had these here long claws and sharp pointy teeth, you know; and they was all covered with tattoos! And their eyes...well, their eyes was black as coal. They was half man and half animal. It was Homeric... Calamity, I tell you. Tumult! Chaos! Apoplexy! It was... It was..." And here Homer paused to catch his breath, as he often did whenever he became overly-excited.

Several of the riders looked at the deputy dubiously, as if they'd heard this sort of thing before from the little fat man. A few thought he might have gone mad. They all had their suspicions, of course; but still, they were intrigued and naturally begged for more.

As if frightened by the conjurings of his own hyperbolic imagination, Homer continued from a more sober and solemn perspective. "Something must've happened up in them there hills... something bad, something bad-wrong... something, something evil!" he further insisted, blessing himself with the sign of the cross, like the good Catholic he was. "Some of them Ferals, I think, had (gulp!) tails... and pitchforks! It was unnatural, I tell you. And they was sittin' round this here big ol' pot and... it was dark and all. And w-w-well," he stammered. "you just had to be there, I 'spose. There were women, too! And they was just as naked," he hesitantly suggested, as if that too were possible, and with no small measure of shame, "as the men!"

"Go on, deputy!" spurred one old rider, suddenly intrigued but not so beguiled by the words of the bold young deputy.

And so he did, providing his captive audience with even more gruesome details of the horrific event he'd witnessed only a few hours ago. "... And was ugly as sin!" he further insisted.

It was a lie, of course; at least the part about being ugly; for in fact and form, the feralized women the bashful deputy spoke of that day were indeed very beautiful to behold, as Homer himself had observed that dark night of the flesh in his own forbidden tunnel of lust. It was a sight he would long remember, when many others had long since faded away, the sight of those firm naked brown breasts basting in the warmth of the fire.

But he knew what he was doing, and he knew what he was saying. He was lying. But he'd always considered it one of those 'little white lies'; you know, the kind that really don't hurt anyone in particular and are usually applied only to make the liar appear more important than he actually is; or worse, to cover up a truth he may otherwise not wish to be reveal at the moment. It's the kind of lie that doesn't necessarily make you feel guilty, but it sure as hell can make you pretty damn uncomfortable. But lies, like the truth I suppose, come in all shapes and sizes. What Homer didn't realize at the time, and perhaps still didn't, is that sometimes it's a whole lot easier to tell the truth than it is to lie, and that one lie eventually leads to only another, and yet another, and so forth and so on until it becomes impossible to keep track of them all. And that's when it really gets to be a problem. Then there are those, I suppose, who, in their own demented and self-serving minds, will heap lie upon lie until such a time when the lie itself becomes no more than some perverted version of the truth, which they themselves eventually come to believe in; or, to put it in more clinical and psychological terms best understood by those in that noble and uncharted profession of psychoanalysis who are in a better position and higher authority to explain such complexities of the mind: If you believe it's the truth, than it cannot be a lie. But I guess when you get right down to it: a lie's a lie, no matter how much you want it not to be. Even the good Doctor Freud high on cocaine would have to agree, I suppose.

The deputy had told them before; lies, that is. Whoppers, too! And he was not alone; nor was he ashamed, even when he did get caught, which wasn't very often. But this time it was a different. There was a purpose to the lie, a reason, a method to his madness, a hidden secret, an agenda, if you will. "It's for their own damn good..." he'd always maintained, never meaning any harm.

Homer Skinner always considered himself an honest man, despite the tall tales he was famous for, which he would weave and spin now and then chiefly for their entertainment value. It was something he had developed over the years, the way other men become lawyers and doctor and such, mostly by practicing, and one he became quite proficient at. He was not always truthful, of course; but he was never boring. However, what prompted his duplicity at that particular time was the knowledge that he would eventually go back, back for the gold, alone if possible, or with few others as possible. And that's when the tooth began to ache, again.

"I wouldn't go back in there if I were you," he severely admonished the others on the mountain that day. "Tain't much left of poor Mister Wainwright anyhow. Just a bunch of ol' dry bones... And a shrunken head!" he exclaimed in a rare moment of candor. "And them Ferals still looked a might hungry if you ask me," he falsely warned. "Just best we just high-tail it out of here. And the quicker the better! Tain't nothin' else we can do here...'Ceptin' maybe get ourselves killed."

The other all agreed, albeit reluctantly at first, and with much trepidation; including the sheriff himself who should have known better than to listen to an excitable young man who probably shouldn't have been there in the first place. It wasn't the first time his deputy made up a cock and bull story; it certainly wouldn't be the last. That's just the way he was. It was in his nature, the others privately agreed. "Well, I 'spose you're right," the sheriff finally acknowledged, keeping his opinions to himself, for the time being at least. There was something about the deputy's story that just didn't ring true.

But this time, this time Homer's story was so wild, and so outrageous, so... that it might actually be true. And knowing for certain that a good many, if not all, of the Island Ferals that Mister Wainwright had purchased from the pirate captain were still unaccounted for at the time, the cautious lawman reckoned that Homer's tale was nearer to the truth than it was to a lie, which was enough to persuade him, as well as the others, not to pursue the matter, or the gold, any further.

And so it was decided. They would abort the mission, whether Cornelius G. Wainwright III was dead or alive, and no matter how much gold might still be left in his unholy hill. 'Let's just go home, boys," said the sheriff, a little hesitantly and standing outside the black hole in the mountain that day. So in the end, they all agreed to blow up the entrance to the cave and go home. And they would use Mister Wainwright's own leftover blasting powder to do the job. It was only natural, and seemed like the appropriate thing to do. Of course, Homer had no objection.

It was a tremendous blast. And it did the job splendidly by bringing down a good chunk of the mountain that day. When the deed was finally done, the sheriff noticed that a tall red stone that had fallen out of the sky, somehow, landing in an upright position at the base of the cave which was sealed up by then as tightly as Pharaoh's tomb. It was used, appropriately enough, as a headstone to mark the exact site of the doomed excavation. On the face of the rock was chiseled the initials of the dead man, 'C.G.W.', along with a crude but very distinguishable crucifix etched into the face of the stone itself, which Homer found a fitting enough headstone for the dead miner, but quite inadequate all things considered. It was a simple act of faith done not only out of respect for the deceased, which even the most wicked among us deserve in death, but moreover, as a warning to others that might consider following in the fateful and foolish footsteps of Cornelius G. Wainwright III. It was a fair warning, an omen, and not to be taken lightly. It was signal to any and all that would come that way in the future, whether they came looking for gold...or a 'free lunch.'

As for the feral slave miners themselves, who might've still been trapped inside the mountain after the blast, the sheriff took no blame. If they weren't already dead by then, he naturally assumed with not a little remorse in his otherwise hardened lawman's heart, they soon would be, for lack of oxygen if nothing else. There was nothing he could do for them anyway, even if he'd wanted to. And if his deputy was telling the truth, about the cannibals at least, then they were all guilty as sin, just as Homer had suggested; and they only got what they deserved. But if not, and the deputy had only made the whole thing up for his own amusement, or whatever psychological deficiencies he may have been suffering from at the time, then the blood of the innocent would be on Homer's head, and not his. Either way, the sheriff had completely exonerated himself, as well as his posse, of any and all criminality, which may, or may not, have taken place that fateful day on the mountain, or so he thought. Besides, they were only Ferals, he maintained, a disposable commodity as far as many were still concerned, and were going to burn in Hell anyway, or so he reckoned.

'God forgive them,' prayed the sheriff, after a brief and unceremonious eulogy, as he blessed both the living and the dead, or whatever the case may be. Homer didn't say a word during the short and solemn service, which was perhaps the only proper thing he'd done all day. He was already making plans to return and, perhaps, ease the pain in his newly aching tooth.

Years later, and despite all official warnings, several attempts were made to uncover the cannibalized bones of Cornelius G. Wainwright III, thinking that he at least deserved a proper Christian burial. Others only wanted to forget the whole gruesome affair. And, of course, there were those who were still thinking about the gold.

Rumor had it that there still might be pregnant veins of the valuable commodity left over in Wainwright's mountain from previous excavations. It was a rumor Homer would neither confirm nor deny, for his own personal reasons, of course. But nothing ever came of it. As for the cannibals, the deputy still spoke of them freely and frequently, but in more sympathetic terms perhaps than he'd previously described them. It was often suggested that they were still alive and, well... hungry. And according to Mister Homer Skinner (or, as some folks soon began calling him – 'the man who walked among the cannibals') the Ferals of Wainwright Mountain might have indeed very well survived the blast witnessed that fateful day, as evidenced by sightings over the years of wild Ferals still roaming the hills in the vicinity of the lost gold mine. "You never know... you know," was Homer's only words on the grizzly subject that would haunt him for the next forty years. And he might've even been telling the truth this time.

In time, a few of these so called 'feral sightings' had actually been verified by surveyors and other professionals who'd later mapped out much of the land surrounding the Silver Mountains, none of which were ever be substantiated. And with the only entrance to the lost mine having been blasted shut so completely by the original expedition, no one thought it really possible to find the bones of the doomed prospector with the dark brown hair and bottlebrush moustache, or the gold. No one ever tried – Until now, that is.

Then there were others who'd always maintained that the wicked prospector was perhaps still digging himself further and deeper into the infamous mountain that bore his ignominious name. 'Burying himself deeper in debt,' the mortgage lenders all agreed. 'Digging his own grave,' others further speculated. 'And good riddance!' That suited them all just fine, including the deputy who'd seen it all, and knew better.

Of course, there were always those who simply refused to believe any of the fantastic stories Homer had spun over the years. And not one of them ever thought about going back for the gold, or anything else for that matter. Why should they? Tom Henley was not one of these skeptics, of course; and neither was Red-Beard. And as for the four horsemen, the brave Indian and his giant Negro companion... well, let's just say they weren't going along just for the ride. As far as Elmo Cotton was concerned, he simply wanted to help a tired old man with a toothache and a dream, and perhaps return a favor long overdue.

And as treasure hunters nodded off under their hats and under the stars, the Harlie found he just couldn't sleep. Something was keeping him awake, something far more potent and powerful than the gold, or the spirits of the night that had since invaded his own personal privacy, as well as that of his friend and benefactor, Mister Homer Skinner, that solemn and sacred night.

It first became evident by a sort of low rumbling sound obnoxiously emanating from the vicinity of the slumbering sleepers huddled around the campfire like a small herd of well-fed walrus' lying snugly on the beach in the dead of night after feasting all day on and fish and flounder. It was a natural sound, despite the un-natural vibrations it produced, and one Elmo could not seem to put out of his waking mind, no matter how much he tried.

It was the sound of grown men snoring. It was something the Harlie wasn't quite used to, and one he didn't particularly like; but it was something he was quite familiar with. He'd witnesses such a cacophonous concert once before, when forced, through no choice of his own, to share the lumpy but comfortable bed of his good friend and neighbor, Mister Sherman Dixon, who, chiefly due to an insatiable appetite for the famous beans we already know so much about, currently held the record for keeping awake the most people in a one community solely on the decibels he was able to produce simply by inhaling and exhaling through the deepest and driest nasal cavity ever to exist in the quiet little town of Harley.

And to make matter worse for our Harlie friend that particular evening, it was those same aforementioned beans that were also known to produce yet another equally disquieting sound that brought with it its own unique and distinctive odor. That's right... you guessed it. And there they were! trumpeting forth like a flatulent flock of long neck geese on the wing, in the general vicinity of the campfire. Think of a herd of wild buffalo lazily grazing on the open plain; and imagine, if you will, the head of that herd lifting its heavy hairy head to wind as the coyotes come in for the kill; and because of that one single and solitary movement, a gesture that has been rehearsed a thousand times before, instinctually breed into the beast for the survival of its species, the entire herd, as though driven by a one mind and a single thought bursts into a galloping stampede of thunderous proportion. And once it starts, it cannot be stopped. Not the best analogy, I suppose, but a good one; and at least it gets the point across, particularly on such a universal and delicate subject. The sound said it all. And it came that night with the same boldness and veracity of the famed Israelite horn that brought down the proud walls of Jericho. And through it all, they slept the sleep of the dead, not once complaining, nor stirring, in their own nocturnal symphony.

If Red-Beard had joined them in their golden slumbers, no one would know for sure. He'd remained seated on a hollow log that night with one eye half open and the other half closed, neither asleep nor awake at any given moment. It was difficult to imagine him completely incapacitated for any length of time, or in any kind of leisurely repose. Red-Beard did not dream. He did not sleep. He merely existed. There was no peace for the colonel, not even in the Indian's so-called 'dreamless sleep', the kind Boy had so blissfully spoken of earlier with so much tranquility associated to it, which, when achieved, as he was keen to point out, is probably the closest thing to perfect peace anyone can possibly achieve, or even imagine, at least on this side of the grave.

As he lay awake that night, Red-Beard's bloodless heart beat like a bellows within his iron bosom. And then, as if a skylight had if suddenly and mechanically been lifted from top of his head, he turns his telescopic lens on the deep dark Heavens, the stars and their various constellations. They appear as so many pearls that have been cast into a shallow pond, or scattered like coins on the bottom a wishing well, shimmering just below the still surface. The war-child exhales, breathing fire and smoke upon the water. Mars, the god of war, nods in the distance, as generals often do, a smile creasing his ruddy red cheeks. And one by one, the warriors come back to life, standing fully erect, like the life-like statues found in the Emperor's Terracotta tomb long after his ceremonial burial, fully equipped and ready for battle, stirred it would seem from centuries of slumbering silence by the fiery breath of the war-child. Scorpio salutes him with an over-arching tail. Now that's a stinger for you! declares the archer as Sagittarius boldly bends his bow. He's game for a fight, naturally; and he never misses. Aries, with his horny head leads the charge with Taurus hoofing up the dirt at his side. And look! Here comes the marines! Cancer, in his subterranean tank; and Pisces, with his mail-like scales. No bullet can penetrate that kind of armor! And unlike the Yankee ironclad USS Monitor whose mettle was tested under fire at the Battle of Hampton Roads where she traded blows with the CSS Virginia (the former frigate USS Merrimack) of the Confederate States Navy just before surrendering to a storm off Cape Hatteras whose hurricane winds had claimed many a mighty hull, wood, steel or otherwise, these mariners don't sink. Aquarius, with his buckets of water, merely shrugs, as if to say, 'How could they?' Libra wistfully winks as she tips her scales in the war-child's favor, this time. The twins simultaneously nod their approval as Leo stalks his celestial prey. And all along Orion with his star-studded belt and hilted sword stands ready for battle, with all chariots in Pharaoh's army at his disposal.

Elsewhere in the Universe, other armies are gathering on the bloody fields of Megiddo, with weapons no mortal mind could conceive, mustering their own celestial troops in anticipation of the final battle they will not be denied. Meanwhile, white dwarfs and reds giants go spinning off in space along with their plentiful planets, multitudinous moons, black holes, Quasars and Nebulae, comets and meteors, and all other matter, organic or otherwise, moving like the currents of the sea in this mild, monotonous and meandering galaxy. But to where? And to what end? Red-Beard paused to ponder this for a while. And who, or what, commands them? He can't seem to find the answer. Perhaps there is none, he finally resigns. Mortal or immortal, we are cursed, like Universal lemmings marching to oblivion, to roam the infinity, eternally rotating and revolving, never living and forever dying, searching for what can never be found, and powerlessly to do anything about it, even as we lean over Perdition's precipice and of peer into the black abyss. Is this what the future holds? Is this our fate? Are we doomed?

Frozen for the moment, and with all Humanity, as well as his own destiny, hanging in the balance, Red-Beard contemplates these questions along with his own mere mortality. He is alone and detached, as an object suspended in time and space, a thing too infinitesimal to measure, a mere mathematical point, like the earth itself, a mere concept moving without motion on the gravitational currents of the cosmos, shinning, if for one glorious and fleeting moment, only to be put out, pitilessly and mercilessly, cruelly and casually, at the appointed time, by the breath of some unfathomable being, that fateful foot and that unyielding hand that strikes all and spared none.

But who is it that drives that foot and that hand? God or the devil? Perhaps they're one in the same. Not that it really matters, he shrugs. Like some ant-like creature crawling along the kitchen floor in the middle of the night, he appears – a slinking, sliding, and vile thing, whose only salvation was suddenly to be found in the hovering heel positioned to crush the life out of him. He feels old and bent, like Adam; and perhaps just as guilty. He cowers. And then, covering his skylight head, he lets go a long and silent scream that can only be heard by the spirits of the night.

Red-Beard opens his eyes. The stars and the heavens are still there, as deep, dark, and mysterious as ever, waiting for the final command. But they are only stars, and the heavens will all fade away, he quickly comes to realize, pressing his red face hard against the ubiquitous night sky. And for one brief and penetrating moment, he breaches the starry vale and catches a glimpse at what lies behind the invisible curtain of time and space, and sees – Nothing. He then turns his cheek away from all powers and principalities, from devils and demons, from God and man, and from all the other horrors of this world and beyond that may or may not exist, which makes him loath them even more. Retracting his lens and closing the hatch for the last time, the war-child gives the final order: 'We march at dawn!'

End of Book One

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