The Motherstone [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Joseph F. Prussing
eBook Category: Fantasy
eBook Description: A Major New Fantasy Writer Is Born! In the tradition of Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, comes is a work of fiction that provides a unique and entertaining perspective on American culture as viewed through the eyes of its main character, Elmo Cotton. A young black sharecropper with questionable past and the product of a mixed marriage, Elmo is no one's candidate for the hero of the year. But that is exactly what he is. Shortly after the Civil War, Elmo is invited by Homer Skinner, an old man with a toothache and a dream, to help search for a lost gold mine. Skinner found the legendary lost mine of Cornelius Wainwright more than forty years earlier, but something he won't explain has prevented him from seeking it before now. Soon the pair is joined by Rusty Horn and his four horsemen. Along the way, Elmo discovers that Horn was once a colonel in the army, has a bewildering psychological problem, and nurses a secret agenda. Skinner is seeking wealth, Horn immortality, and Elmo his destiny. But, their quests are all united when they begin to hear legends of a mysterious black object known as the Motherstone. Brought to the U.S. from the South Seas, the Motherstone is reputed to lie now in a "golden tabernacle, guarded by the watchful eyes of the gods who made it." In their quest, the trio will encounter magic and mystery, death and danger. When they find the Motherstone, they discover that it is both far more and far different than they ever imagined. It's a discovery only one man will survive, and his life will be changed forever. The Motherstone is 1300,000 words of epic fantasy you will never forget!
eBook Publisher: Spellcaster E-Books/Mage, Published: 2003
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2005
CHAPTER ONE. THE TOOTHACHE
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Reading time: 272-381 min.
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Sundays were always hard on Homer Skinner. It was only the beginning of the week and already he felt empty and drained, like rain barrel in a dust bowl. It's been that way for the last forty years. Lately, it seemed like time was passing him by. He was old and tired, but he still had one more adventure left in him. So he went to bed early that night hoping things would soon change for the better. He was feeling lucky. So he said a prayer and tried to get some sleep.
It wasn't the sound of the whip-o-will 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 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!--That's what it felt like. He'd had them before, you know. And it didn't have anything to do with his teeth; he'd had lost them all years ago, and still it hurt like Hell. All of the symptoms were there: the throbbing, the frustration, the sleeplessness, the helplessness, the irritability--You name it. The pain was there too ... well, maybe not physically. But it was there, just like it had been for last forty years ago.
He'd sometimes wished the pain would just go away. It never did, of course. Sometimes he would forget about it for while, but it always came back--usually at night. At one time he thought that he would eventually get used to the suffering. Unfortunately, that didn't happen either. The pain came back. It always did.
It's about time..." said Homer Skinner, dragging his feet across the hardwood floor of his own bedroom. He was an elderly man by now and his teeth still hurt, but he was still alive. And it was a good morning after all. It was one of those mornings that somehow reminded him of his younger years when the pain was like a needle piercing a raw nerve but somehow mitigated by the sheer exuberance of youth. It was times like those when he hardly noticed it at all. But those days had long since passed.
Lately, the pain was dull and steady, like a dry hangover. It would keep him awake at night and have him pacing the bedroom floor in circles. It drove his wife crazy. It was burdensome, just like everything else in the life of an old and lonely man. At the age of seventy-two, some might've thought that any sensation, even a painful one, was better than none at all. But don't tell that to old man Skinner. Not if you want to experience a little pain yourself.
Pain is painful. It's just that simple. It hurts. 'Ain't nothing good about it', most would surely agree. Some say character is built on the vicissitudes of life, that suffering is the salt of salvation, and that we all must learn the hard way if we are to learn at all. They may be right, but it still hurts. Homer found that out a long time ago. He couldn't even pray anymore without the pain distracting his thoughts in one way or another. Pain's a problem; it is any age. And forget about getting anything out of it. You don't. Pain's not redeemable. And don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. They're only liars.
The years had passed by quickly for Homer Skinner, as they do for most old men with aching teeth that aren't there anymore. He could hardly believe it'd been forty years since he'd first discovered the lost gold mine up in Wainwright's mountain. Sometimes it seemed like it happened four hundred years ago. Other times, like these, it felt like it all happened only yesterday. He wondered at times if the gold would still be there after all these years. Did anyone remember? He'd told the story enough times, which he now wished he hadn't. Maybe they simply forgot. Maybe they never really cared. Perhaps they weren't even listening. They never seemed to believe him anyway. And hell, it happened such a long time ago.
But time has a way of changing things, he rightly reckoned. It changes minds, too. People forget. They die. Things get buried--just like the gold. But it wasn't all about the gold. There were other things; things Homer could never forget, even if he wanted to. How could he? You just don't forget things like--Cannibals! Do you? And that's what they were all right. Homer saw it all with his own eyes. He was there.
It all happened forty years ago. It was the time of the great Gold Rush, when slaves were imported from islands to work the cold dark mines of the Silver Mountains. The slaves miners were called ferals, which is a word not spoken in polite society anymore. 'It just ain't proper', most folks would agree by now. But that's what they were called, those 'Strange Jimmy's' from across the sea. Yep, that's what they were all right--ferals. Just ask anyone who remembers, if they ain't dead yet. Ask Homer. He was there. He could tell you. And he still had the map to prove it.
Actually, the map Homer had made nearly forty years ago was by now as thin and wrinkled as the back of his own transparent hand. Iron rusts, memories fade, and the days grow shorter with each passing year. But, gold ... Gold survives. And that's what'd kept him alive all these years. It was a golden tooth that still ached. That's what kept him awake and pacing circles on the bedroom floor like a goddamn fool.
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 into his ear the sad and simple secret that he still refused to believe: 'Thems that want don't get.' Of course, it only made the toothache worse. It made him want it even more.
Whether or not Homer Skinner had actually found the mortal remains Cornelius Wainwright, or the gold for that matter, was always a subject of interest and debate, along with many skepticisms. The members of the original posse could never agree on exactly what'd happened that day up in the mountains; most of them were dead by now anyway. The tale the deputy had told them was just too incredible, even for Homer. And where was the evidence? There was nothing to substantiate the old man's story. Who could believe it? And considering the source--Who would?
Nothing was ever brought back from the mountain that day--certainly not any gold. The claims Homer had made were simply outrageous, especially the part about the flesh eating ferals. He could never prove it, you know. How could he? There was no evidence. There was nothing: not a tooth or nail, or the shrunken head of the infamous gold miner, Cornelius Wainwright. As it turned out Homer Skinner had nothing to show for his efforts, or his courage in the face of certain doom, other than a tale of woe that remained hard to believe even till this day. All he had left was an old yellow piece of paper that he'd kept tucked away in a draw for the last forty years--The map.
And what about the ferals--you know, the wild cannibals Homer claimed to have found at the end of a long and dark tunnel? Were they really the same slaves brought over from the Islands by the greedy prospector to mine the unholy hill that until this day bears his name? Or, did Homer just make that up, too? Was poor Cornelius really 'boiled alive' like Homer said he was? And did the bloodthirsty cannibals partake of his flesh in the manner prescribed by their own barbaric custom?
Well, that's the way Homer Skinner remembered it.
Just desserts? Well, what goes around comes around. Only got what he deserved, some might say. Poetic justice? Karma? You be the judge. And what did Mister Wainwright get out of it? Ironically, it was he who once so proudly proclaimed: 'Ain't no such thing as a free lunch!' Yep, those were the exact words he shouted over the heads of his slaves as the doomed prospector drove his feral labor force further and deeper into the bowels of Mount Wainwright. And that was the last anyone saw of Cornelius Wainwright. Until...
The bones told the real story, the ones Homer found in the tunnel, as clean and white as a virgin's tooth and striped of all Humanity. They were the bones of Mister Wainwright, whose own hideous and shrunken head was all that remained of the dead prospector with the brush-broom mustache.
Of course, there were many other questions that remained unanswered. Like--what about the gold? 'The mother load!' as Homer himself so eloquently described it so many years ago. And all that talk about a hidden Temple inside the mountain? And didn't the deputy also mention something about a mysterious black stone? Could it be? Well, legends being what legends are made of you decide what is true, and what ain't.
But never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Homer Skinner never did. But this time he was telling the truth. He had to. It was the only way he could get Red-Beard and the four horsemen to believe him. And they were all there that morning, watching and waiting with their own aching teeth, and dreaming of gold. And as Homer had convinced them all, not so very long ago: "Indeed! It's about time."
But there was someone missing. His name was Elmo Cotton, a young man from Harley whom the old man had grown very fond of lately. He was still at home in bed with his wife, but more about him later. And oh, there was one other person involved. It was someone and Homer wasn't aware of at the time, although he always had his suspicions.
It was Tom Henley, an aging prospector who lived up in the hills with his son, Sam, not far from where the old man was headed that day with Red-Bead and the four horsemen. Some say he was crazy. Others say he was the last real mountain man alive. Both were right. But Tom Henley was more than that--much more. He'd lived the city and been to the mountain. He always preferred the later. He was at home with kings and counselors as he was with bears and wolves He believed Homer when no one else did. He was the last of his kind. He was what you might call 'an intellectual hillbilly'.
A self-described 'Misanthrope', Mister Thomas Henley would occasionally venture into town wearing only bearskins cloths and a long black beard, chiefly to indulge himself in spirits and conversation at Pete Liddle's Nickel Pig Saloon. There he would wax eloquence for a few select friends, purchase some addition mining supplies, and then disappear back into the hills before anyone knew he was gone. Tom was an educated man, and a widower. He read and wrote poetry, made his own wine, rolled cigars, and kept an impressive book collection in a well-furnished cave, which he appropriately christened his 'Home-in-a-Hill'. His conversation usually drifted around mining activity and practices thereof, but occasionally his discourse included such topics as politics and religion. In was on these two subjects that he was known to be most critical, and when his rhetorical skills would become most pronounced. He didn't debate. He just spoke. And everyone listened.
Tom Henley was not alone. There were others who still lived up in the hills, mostly miners. But they weren't like the ones Homer spoke of in such gruesome detail. And they certainly weren't cannibals. Or were they? Homer rarely spoke of the gold anymore--at least not as much as he did forty years ago when the tooth first began to ache. He had his reasons for keeping silent. But that didn't stop him from talking from time to time, especially when he'd been drinking.
The old deputy still liked to tell the story now and then. It was something 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. Talk of gold did not come cheap. It was dangerous conversation, volatile stuff, like the chemicals used to extract it. Gold mining was risky business, and not to be taken lightly. Not many believed him, but the ones that did would soon be there.
There were so many stories surrounding the mysterious disappearance of Cornelius Wainwright that to discredit any one of them, even with the truth, was unthinkable. It seemed that with each passing year a new story would emerge of what'd happened that day on Mount Wainwright. There were all just a little bit different, of course, just like the people who told them. But they all included the same ingredient--Gold! Maybe it was the same gold that killed the greedy prospector in the end; the same gold Deputy Homer Skinner stumbled upon, quite literally in fact, nearly forty years ago up in the same mountain--The Jackpot! The Mother-load! Eureka! The 'free lunch!' that Cornelius Wainwright claimed never existed. But it did exist. Homer saw it, or at least what was left of it.
Exactly what was going on in the mind of the prospector as he slowly boiled in a pot at the end of a long dark tunnel will never be known. Did he scream? Did he cry out for mercy? Was he brave? Did he die a martyr's death? Or was he dumb and silent as a sheep before the shears? Homer didn't know. He didn't want to know. It's no wonder he never touched boiled meat again after that. How could he? It seems that Mister Wainwright was wrong after all. There really was a 'free lunch'. Cornelius was it? He was the 'free lunch', and perhaps breakfast, lunch and dessert as well. And that's the way Homer remembered it. But none of that seemed to matter anymore and Homer tried not to think about it, although it was sometimes easier said than done--well done.
The future was what Homer Skinner was concerned about lately, or what was left of it. He wasn't afraid of it either. Cornelius Wainwright was dead. The bones were buried beneath the mountain along with the ferals that once feasted on the flesh of their master. But the mountain remained.
It was still there ... and so was the gold. It had to be. Gold last forever. It's eternal. It springs like hope in the human breast, and it never rusts. It's the stuff of dreams and legends are made of. Its beauty never fades. Gold is immortal. It beckoned young and old alike. It knows no boundaries. It has no limitations. And it does not discriminate.
Gold! It seduces the noblest among us, making us do what in our own sober hearts we dare not do. It makes kings out of slaves. It turns wise men into fools. It welcomes all and refuses none. Gold--it's a drug, a poison pill that kills as it cures. It's much like a fever in that sense, tightening its grip little by little, year after year, weighing down on a man like the yoke of a mule.
Gold. It's all these things and more. It's also a lie, you know, just like everything else in this world we yearn for. It's a desire that can never be filled and a hunger that is never quite satisfied. It is a thirst unquenched. It's sweet poison. Still, we want more. In fact, you can never get enough. And the more you get, the less you have and the more you still want it.
Gold. Some die for it, others lie for it, many live for it. We all have our price, you know. It's as pure as the human heat and just as corrupt. You can own it, but only for a while. Gold has outlived the kings and pyramids. It will surely outlast any of us. And the sad part is that, in the end, all that remains is a throbbing heart, an empty chest, sickness in the belly, and little else. It's the wish never granted and the prayer never answered.
Gold? Perhaps it's just like an old aching tooth, of which there is only one cure--Extraction.
Over the years, Homer watched and listened as his story was buried deeper and deeper beneath other golden yarns, some even more fantastic than his own. There were many stories surrounding the lost gold mine of Cornelius Wainwright, which only made him that much more determined to return to the doomed site someday and reclaim it for himself. After all, he did find it; he was the last one to see it. And even though he never officially staked his claim, the old man knew it was his all along.
All he had to do now was go and get it. That's how Homer saw it, and nothing was going to change that unless, of course, someone else found it first. But that was never very likely; he was the only one with the map. In fact, he drew it himself. And it was about time...
Time always seemed to be on Homer's side, until lately that is. He was getting old, and knew he knew it. His only hope was that the gold would still be there when he arrived to re-claim it. As for anything else he might find there ... well, the old man just didn't think about it anymore. Not even the ferals that he'd spoken about in such horrific detail. They all had to be dead by now anyway. Didn't they? Of course, there was only one way to find out. And it was about time...
Homer Skinner always knew he'd go back for the gold. He had to. He really had no choice in the matter. He was sure that it would still be there. It just had to be. Didn't it? He wasn't that sure about anything else however, including the feral cannibals. But the tooth still ached and the pain was almost unbearable by now. There was only way to make it stop. He had to back to the place where it all began--to the mountain.
It was the only way. Besides, he wasn't just doing it for himself; he was doing it for a friend. He was doing it for the 'Lucky Number'. He was doing it for Elmo Cotton. He was doing it for the Harlie. And somehow that seemed to make it all worthwhile. It was something he wanted to do, even if it didn't stop the pain. It was something he had to do. And so, Homer Skinner had finally decided: It's about time... * * * * CHAPTER TWO. THE FOUR HORSEMEN
It was Monday, a cool September morning. One by one the four horsemen rode up in front of Homer Skinner's house that day. There they met a fifth man who appeared as though he'd been waiting there for a very long time. He was holding a great bovine by a golden ring pierced through its nose. It was a bull, a Brahma, with a magnificent white humpback.
His name was Rusty Horn, although he was more commonly referred to simple as 'Red-Beard' on account of the color of his beard. The bull had no name; it didn't need one. It answered only to its master. No one knew for sure where Red-Beard came from or what his true profession was. No one asked. What was known, however, was that he'd served in the army at one time and held a Colonel's rank. He knew war. Everything else about Red-Beard seemed to be a mystery, an enigma, including the old the blue and gray uniform that shrouded his body that day. The uniform, like the man who wore it, was a contradiction in and of itself.
Rusty Horn currently hung his black hat in a place called Eulogy, a small outpost in the desert shared by criminals, outcasts and other misfits of society. It was rumored that Red-Beard fought on both sides during the War, just as his uniform would suggest, perhaps as a double agent. The colonel spoke little of his past lives, and would only comment on the subject whenever he became melancholy, which hadn't happened lately.
Red-Beard was a quiet man by nature, and was said to have no vices of serious consequence. His only peculiarity seemed to be one of ambiguity, a duel personality that may be described as some kind of schizophrenia. It was dichotomy of being that most folks found confusing and sometimes offensive. It was almost as if there were, at any given moment, two beings occupying the same corporeal host. It was a phenomenon best left for psychologists to explain, if that were at all possible.
For the most part, it was Red-Beard who governed the mental facilities of both the patients. But on occasion, Rusty Horn would emerge as the dominating agent, subduing, in his own mitigating and reasonable 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--the work of the devil. A compassionate priest had once attempted to separate the two by exorcising the evil twin. It didn't work.
The priest was said to have gone mad in the process, and eventually hung himself. Although Rusty Horn appeared somewhat remorseful, Red-Beard only laughed when he heard what happened. After that, the two became inextricably linked, physically as well as mentally, and could occasionally be heard arguing with one another. Naturally, Red-Beard usually came out ahead in such bizarre exchanged.
Was it a malignancy of the brain that'd caused such inscrutable symptoms? A disease? Whatever it was, it was yet to be diagnosed, and therefore could not be cured. Perhaps a tumor was to blame. Cutting it out, however, could prove just as fatal as cutting off the patient's beard. And that would never happen.
It was often insinuated that the beard itself might be at the root of the colonel's psychological dilemma. And why not? It's as good a theory any. Rusty often claimed, not only in jest, that he was in fact born with a full face of the soft orange peach fuzz, which his mother lovingly combed every night before he bed. By the age of twelve, the fuzz had turned to fine red strands of many manly whiskers, which he refused to cut off. He never shaved his beard, even under penalty court martial after he'd enlisted in the Army.
In time the strands had turned to wiry red threads of steel. And so they remained that way 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. It was as distinctive as the man who wore it, whether that was Colonel Rusty Horn or Red-Beard himself. It was the one thing they had in common, perhaps the only thing, 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.
It was still dark outside, the sun just beginning to breach the eastern horizon, but not so much so that the four horsemen couldn't make out the man with a red beard silhouetted against the early morning sky. He looked like a shadow. He looked angry, not unlike the white animal standing stoically besides him and loaded down with crates of dynamite and other explosive devices.
"I think he's awake," was all Red-Beard had to say as the four horsemen approached. He was still looking for signs of life within. There was a small light shining in the upstairs window, but that was all.
"I think you're right, Colonel," said one of the horsemen, a sinister looking man mounted on top of an equally sinister looking animal. He was smiling, conspicuously missing all but one last tooth, which somehow always appeared on the verge of falling out of his head at any moment. He had been in the army at one time, just like Red-Beard. He was a corporal.
"Hey Homer!" shouted another man with a tan-leathered face and alligator skin. "You 'wake yet?"
It was the surveyor, Charles Smiley, a shrewd and wiry surveyor who, despite his rugged outdoor appearance, considered himself a man of science. He possessed the intelligence to back it up--although he always referred to it as simple common sense, or 'horse sense'. He was a magnificent orator as well, but could become strangely quiet at times, depending on the circumstance of course, in which case he would hide behind his mustache much as a thief would hide behind a kerchief, or a bride behind a veil. And even when he did speak it was hard to tell by looking at him, for his mouth was covered with hair. It served as a mask as well: difficult to penetrate, if not impossible. Even his name was a disguise--'Smiley'. How could you tell? Simple. His mustache, that broom-like mask that he so proudly sported made it all but impossible to tell what he was thinking at any given moment. Whether he was smiling, frowning, laughing, crying, smirking, sneering, or exhibiting any kind of facial expression at all, was not to be evidenced. The mask concealed all that--just as it was meant to. 'He's a tricky one, that Mister Smiley,' many would come to agree. 'Never know what he's a'thinkin'. Of course, the surveyor would have it no other way.
He wore a wide brimmed hat that concealed much of his head, which had gone prematurely bald at the unfair age of twenty-two. He made up for the follicle deficiency, however, with a handsome handlebar mustache that covered all of his mouth and most of his chin. It was blonde, naturally, much like the golden hair that'd once graced his otherwise magnificent dome. And if you looked real close you might find a few strands of gray mixed in with the others, which betrayed both man and occupation. Because of constant exposure to the natural elements, 'Smiley', as he was sometimes called, affectionately or otherwise, was a man aged well before his years, and it showed. Surveying is a demanding occupation, and is not for the weak. It takes more than it gives.
Despite everything else that he might've lost on account of his chosen profession, including three wives, Charles Smiley always retained his vocal abilities, which could be still heard for miles around. "You comin' down, old man!" shouted the surveyor with little or no effort expended. "Or you gonna make us wait another forty years?"
"Don't worry," assured the Colonel through a face full of long red whiskers. "He'll be a'comin'. He said he would."
Rusty Horn could be a patient man at times, but he wasn't very patient that particular morning. In fact, he looked just a little worried, like a bull about to be steered or a man getting married. The others just looked hungry. They'd been riding all night and their nerves were on edge, and they still had a long way to go.
"Gold drives a man to dreams', they say.
Red-Beard knew he would have to restrain the others from time to time, when it was necessary. He was the leader; it came with the uniform. And the uniform Rusty was wearing that day was the same one he always wore, even after the war. It was as strange as it was revealing. Made up of two distinctive and contradicting colors, it spoke volumes about the man beneath the material. The trouser half below the waist was a solid Union blue with a single yellow stripe traversing the each leg down to the cuff. But above a plain black belt with a silver buckle, the Colonel was adorned with traditional Confederate gray. Gazing at the battle-scarred garments it would be difficult to tell which side he served under, or who won the war. The colors were worn and stained, like two old battle flags. It seemed that splicing them back together would more difficult than tearing them apart.
The others had been up all night, including 'Little Dick' Dilworth who, on account of his tender age, should probably not even have been there to begin with. He was clearly the youngest of the four horsemen, and was brought along by the surveyor who often employed the youth's services on such expeditions. How could he sleep? How could any of them sleep with all that talk of gold? "I'm hungry," whined the youth. "How 'bout you, Mister Smiley?"
Dick knew the special fondness his boss held for sugar pastries and other confectionary delights. Smiley was also a man who enjoyed chewing tobacco, as evidenced by a globular mass of sweet red spittle permanently lodged in an otherwise magnificent curtain of light brown whiskers that gracefully draped the lower extremities of his face, along with other tasty morsels. And if by design or happenstance 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 obvious and irrefutable.
"Is that all you young whipper-snappers ever think about--Food?" enquired an older man sitting on the horse beside the youth.
"Speaking of which," replied the land surveyor, a practical but impatient man with a voracious appetite that, despite his diminutive proportions, never seemed to be satisfied. "Any body got any?"
"Shhhh!" Red-Beard whispered. "I think I hear something." He was gazing at the lighted window.
"What's takin' him so long?" spat Smiley.
Little Dick usually made it a point never to disagree with his employer--But not today. "You know how old men are. Give him some time, Charlie." As usual, Little Dick realized his mistake only after he had made it, which by then was too late.
Expelling an exhausted wad of chewing tobacco on the ground, half the saliva still clinging to his mustache, the surveyor shot back in his typical unseen but unmistakable spleen. "Time for what, boy?!" he erupted. "And don't call me Charlie! You hear? Charlie's for pimps, pirates and riverboat gamblers," he sternly admonished the impetuous youth whom he occasionally employed as a rod-man, along with the additional charge of looking after his vast array of carefully kept surveying equipment. "I hates that name. And don't you ever. Ever!" He reiterated for affect, "call me Chuck."
Call it vanity, call it pride; you may call it many things. Call it what 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 pole cat dipped in sour mule piss. But just don't call him 'Chuck'.
"Easy on the boy, Charles," cautioned the elderly carpenter who was still having his doubts about the enterprise they were about to undertake. He then turned to the red bearded man by his side and said, "I don't know about this, Rusty. Homer may not be up to it. It's been a long time. The boy's right. He's getting' old, you know. I know about these things. Hell! I don't know if I'm up to it myself. My lumbago's been acting up lately. Besides, we really don't know if it's still there--the gold, that is."
"Or, if it ever was there to begin with," the surveyor added, and not for the first time. He had his suspicions as well, especially considering the fact that Homer Skinner had never actually produced any evidence to substantiate his claim. But if the gold was there, Smiley would be the first to know. He could smell the stuff. "How you know it's still there?"
Red-Beard was equally suspicious at times. It wasn't the first time Homer's credibility came into question, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. He respected the carpenter's opinion, and he knew the surveyor was usually right about things. It took a while, but Red-Beard finally came up with the answer he knew they were all looking for. It may not have been the correct answer, but it was the only one he could think of at the time. "How do I know it's still there?" he rhetorically asked. "Simple. Because no one found it yet--That's how."
"Found what?" asked Little Dick, still a little unsure of what the expedition was really all about.
"The gold!" exclaimed Smiley. "What else?"
"Oh," replied Dick, feeling slightly embarrassed, a little tired, and still very hungry.
"Ain't a'gonna be easy, Colonel," the carpenter contended. "Dangerous work, you know. Those old mines..."
"Well, that's what I got me an 'Engineer' for," defended Red-Beard, nodding to the toothless man sitting next to him on a stolen horse.
Throwing a long hard glance at the man from Eulogy, O'Brien shook his head. "Engineer--Eh?"
The young man sprung up his head and ejaculated, "I didn't know you 'drived' a train, Alvin."
"Shut up, Dickworth," he scowled. Actually, the closest Alvin Webb ever came to a train was when he'd once tried to rob one, failing miserably in the attempt. Everyone, including Rusty Horn, knew that sooner or later the hapless outlaw would end up on the wrong end of a gun. And with Alvin's luck, it might just be his own. Neither did Alvin. He was just too stupid to know the difference.
"And they wonder why I drink," muttered the man behind the mustache.
The thief then reached into his holster and produced a flask of moonshine whiskey he'd hidden there along with his gun. "You know, it was a woman that drived me to drink," he said, pulling the cork from the bottle with his one good tooth. "And I never even gots to thank her."
"Lucky for her," the Hammer replied.
Needless to say, Alvin Webb was also a drunk--and that was one of his more admirable qualities. "Want some, Colonel?" he said. "How 'bout you Smiley?"
"You know I don't drink, Mister Webb," Rusty indignantly replied. A teetotaler by choice, Red-Beard made it a practice never to indulge. Potent potables were not to his taste or liking after the operation, or the war. He didn't drink after that, and he didn't trust anyone who did.
Charles Smiley, on the other hand, didn't trust anyone who didn't drink, and accepted the outlaws brew with a little hesitation.
"I don't get drunk anymore," the Hammer solemnly spoke.
"Drink this stuff and you will," Alvin laughed with the cork still lodged in between his gums.
"Shouldn't be drinking on the job anyway, Alvin," scolded the youth.
"Shut up, dick-head!" snapped the corporal.
"Horse-thief!" Little Dick fired right back.
Alvin went for his gun.
Dilworth backed off.
Colonel Rusty Horn stepped in. "Hold it right there, soldier," he abruptly ordered, knowing it was too early for a fight. Red-Beard had more important things to worry about. There was something on his mind. It was not the gold. It was something buried just as deep inside the mountain, something old and dark. And he wasn't even sure what it was 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.
Tom had been mining the mountains for nearly half a century. He was an eccentric old man who wore animal skins for clothing and spoke in an educated manner. He'd confided in Red-Beard that what Homer Skinner had accidentally stumbled upon forty years ago was not just gold, but something far more valuable. It was something he'd been searching for himself, and for a longer period of time. The signs were all there. It was only a hunch, of course, but it was the good one. Tom Henley may've been a crazy old mountain man with too much on his mind, thought Red-Beard at the time it was all revealed to him, but he wasn't stupid. Alvin Webb--Now he was stupid. Even Little Dick Dilworth knew that.
With a full head of curly blond hair, a fair complexion, and a propensity to urinate indoors, 'Little Dick' Dilworth was actually no more than a pubescent youth with an over active bladder and, as in the case of most pubescent youths, a high testosterone level.
The only thing lacking in his sexual life at that time was a partner. He insisted from the start on that his intentions were pure, and that he'd signed on for the noblest of reasons: 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. "I hear tell there are ferals up there in them hills. You know, the kinds what eat other people," he hesitantly added with a hint of trepidation. "Remember what happened to Mister Wainwright..."
"T'ain't no such thing as a free lunch!" reminded Alvin Webb through a scratchy black beard and one remaining tooth. What the renegade outlaw was referring to with so much uncommon and unnecessary exuberance was Mister Cornelius Wainwright's self-fulfilling prophecy that had doomed the fated miner from the very beginning.
"Well, he was wrong," correctly stated the colonel for the record. "There was ... at least according to Mister Skinner. But we already knew that. Didn't we?"
Rusty Horn had heard the story before and was well aware of the outcome. But he was anxious to get underway as soon a possible. He cared little for the company he was keeping and less for the old man they were all still waiting for that morning.
He always considered Mister Skinner a little senile, but not as crazy as others might've suggested. And he did have a map. Rusty saw it. It happened one evening at Pete Liddle's Nickel Pig Saloon after many nights of listening to Homer ramble on about the lost gold mine. Homer had been drinking all night. He was in a talkative mood. It was late, and the old man was getting desperate. Time was no longer on his side, and he knew it. Homer also knew he would need the help if he were ever to get the gold. Red-Beard was willing to listen. He had nothing else to do at the time.
Red-Beard wasn't the only one the old man had talked to that night. There was an old mountain man by the name of Tom Henley who was well aware of Homer's youthful adventures. He had his own story to tell, and it had nothing to do with gold. He also happened to be in a talkative mood that night.
Rusty Horn listened and 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. But with each new round of drinks, the pieces came together a little more easily and the puzzle eventually began to make sense. Red-Beard's motives may not have been as pure and noble as Little Dick's, or as romantic, but his desire for fortune and fame was as strong as any of the others. And between Homer Skinner and Tom Henley, he now had everything he needed to obtain them both. The only thing he didn't have was the map.
It was the same map Homer Skinner had drawn up as a young deputy shortly after he returned from the Mount Wainwright. Coincidentally, it was at that same time when he first noticed his tooth first began 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) and it was fairly accurate.
Not only did it contain the vital information needed to get them to the lost gold mine and back again, but the map also delineated the deputy's own fateful and uncertain steps through the tunnel itself, and then beyond. As the deputy recalled, even until this day, the lost mine tunneled through the stone in many directions, diverting at times into dead-ends--or worse.
Maybe that's the way Cornelius designed the mine, Homer had always imagined. Maybe not. But it was a good way of keeping other miners away, and it worked. Getting lost in a gold mine was not a difficult thing to do, as Homer Skinner had found out the hard way. He knew that the map would lead him back the gold some day. And without it, they were lost. Rusty Horn knew, too. He needed the map and Homer needed the muscle. It was as simple as that. It was a mutual arrangement. They were simply indispensable to one another.
But they'd need help. Previous experience, along with his army training, told Red-Beard that it would take at least a half dozen able bodied men to reopen the old mineshaft. He didn't have to look far. In fact, they all just happened to be there at the Pete Liddle's Nickel Pig Saloon up on the hill when it happened. All Red-Beard had to do was put the pieces back together and convince the others that the gold was still there. They would split it evenly, six equal shares, if and when they found it. It was only fair. All agreed, including Red-Beard who was accustomed, mostly through his former rank, to commanding a higher salary than most. It was not just the gold he was interested in.
Dick Dilworth was the last to sign on. Rusty Horn was against it, stating that mining was for miners, not minors, and no place for inexperienced hands. Charles Smiley insisted, however; he needed someone to help with his surveying equipment. He also liked having 'Little Dick' around--"Just to make me laugh," he would tell to anyone else who might've objected. And for that he would get an equal share of the gold. There was one extra share Homer was taking into account, one the others were yet to be made aware of. It was settled.
The old man had made up is mind about the Harlie long before he'd accepted the services of Rusty Horn and his four horsemen. He still didn't know how they would react when they eventually found out. But that didn't matter. The arrangements had already been made and it was too late to change things. Harley would be the first stop along the journey, or there would be no journey. That much was certain. And as far as Homer was concerned there was still one more body missing from the party that day, and that was the Harlie--the 'Lucky Number'.
As they waited outside for the old man to arrive, still weary from their late-night activities, expectations heightened with the rising of new morning sun. Along with Homer, Charles Smiley, the surveyor and the man they called Red-Beard, there were three others involved in the pending expedition. One of them was Alvin Webb, the aforementioned horse-thief from Eulogy Gulch, who'd served as a private in the army, and who still addressed his red bearded commander by his former rank--'Colonel', even after he'd been admonished not to. A lonely bachelor, given to drink and womanizing, Webb's life was a series of disappointments. Naturally, and perhaps ironically, he always claimed it was a woman who drove him to drink, which he thanked them for at every opportunity.
There was Hector O'Brien, an old but skilled carpenter known simply and affectionately as the 'Old Hammer', whose dead brother was one of the original search party that rode off with Homer Skinner nearly forty years ago in search of Cornelius Wainwright and his gold. Hector was handy with tools, especially a long handled hammer that hung from his side at all times like a gladiator's sword, and he knew how to use them.
The Old Hammer could fix just about anything. 'Except for maybe a broken heart', he would sometimes joke. He was a shrewd and independent thinker who preferred older men and younger women. He liked to read and had once studied Law and History. He was also fair-minded and cautiously gregarious in all his personal and professional dealings. Hector O'Brien swung a big hammer, both literally and figuratively. He was a man of reliable instincts and good intuition whom the miners respected for his knowledge of timber and stone. He was a good man to have around when one was needed.
Last and least of all, there was 'Little Dick' Dilworth, the romantic youth from Creekwood Holler who was looking for his fortune, and perhaps a bride. A compulsive daydreamer and a natural nuisance, 'Little Dick' (a name he did not choose for himself by the way) was not really suited for the job and what lie ahead, but he was available at the time and needed the work. Mister Smiley would employ the services of the young misguided youth whenever there was work do that required his talents, whatever they were. And with all of his surveying equipment, which consisted of so many rods, chains, levels, poles, and other devices used in that scientific field of land measurement, the surveyor was always glad he did. Besides that, Little Dick was the only one who knew how to make the mustache laugh, and that may've been his talent.
Charles Smiley didn't laugh. And he did not like stupid people. So, naturally, he did not like Alvin Webb, the so-called 'Engineer' of the group. He wasn't too keen on the man they called 'Red-Beard' either. In the surveyor's own practical imagination they were both rebel and outlaw, and not to be trusted. He questioned the colonel's credentials, which were indeed questionable at times, on more than one occasion and wondered how he ever got involved with the likes of Alvin Webb.
"Why, that sum'bitch couldn't 'engineer' his way out of a paper sack," Smiley stated as Webb took another sip from his flask. Or a bottle."
Actually, the illiterate outlaw from Eulogy Gulch couldn't spell the word 'engineer' any more than he could pronounce it with all his missing teeth. But it was fun to watch him try. Somehow, the word 'engineer' always came out as "N-in-ear" whenever it left his lying lips. It made the others laugh. At least he was good for something.
And so the party was complete. All they needed now was the old man and the map. Homer Skinner still hadn't come out of his house yet and Red-Beard seemed a little concerned. The others occupied their time by telling one another what they would do with their share of the gold. It was an easy thing to do, and it took their minds off the long hard road ahead and how tired they were already.
"First thing I'll do is buy me a woman--No! Make that a dozen women," declared Alvin Webb in a moment of unfulfilled lust, still a bachelor at the age of fifty-two.
"Why don't you just buy yourself a damn whore and be done with it?" questioned the pragmatic surveyor, cutting right to the chase and the source of the outlaw's lonely frustration.
The Old Hammer agreed. "Smiley's right," he said. "You don't want a woman, Alvin. You wouldn't know what to do with a real woman if you had one. That's why you ain't got hitched yet. Think about it, son. Your whole life's been nothing but a whore."
"Ahhh! Marryin's for young fellers," explained the outlaw, "like Dil-pickle here. We older roosters prefers our hens 'sperienced ... ifin' you know what I mean?" he said with suggestive wink and a toothless grin directed towards the youth in question.
There was something in the way Alvin Webb said 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 Webb was talking about, in his own perverted and twisted way. Alvin had been to Port Fierce where such women of ill-repute were known walk a colorful street known as Avenue 'D' in a place called Shadytown, and he planned to go back as soon as possible.
It was a special occasion, as the outlawed recalled out loud. "They call it 'Fat Moon Friday' or something like that, and it lasts all night long." He remembered one particular woman he saw there with a big bosom and a painted face. He didn't think he would ever forget her. But he lacked the fifty cents needed at the time to satisfy his lust. He would not be the only one.
The 'Ol Hammer' was feeling somewhat sympathetic towards the outlaw's solitary existence, an almost bewildering pity he seemed to understand. As it were Hector O'Brien had married late in life himself. "Even us rooster gets lonely sometimes," the carpenter heavily sighed with his hammer at his side. "But hey! You never know. Look at me," he then smiled with a full head of wavy white hair that was once as black as Satan's heart. "And remember, son," Hector added, genuinely attempting to inspire the sad and lonely engineer while giving him some sound advice to ponder that day in his own professional style: "For every nail there's a hammer, and for every man there's a woman. Think about it, son."
Hector O'Brien was a handsome man who, even in his senior years, was graced with a face women naturally found irresistible. It was a curse and a blessing that may also explain why the Old Hammer was so late in proclaiming his nuptials--some suggesting (wrongly, of course) that he was too preoccupied in the bedroom to ever find his way to the altar. 'An Irish Adonis!' he was once proclaimed by a wealthy female admirer who'd once offered to immortalize that Latin profile with the Celtic smile in marble at her own expense. She was not the only one to make such an astute observation either.
Among the fine ladies of Creekwood Holler, the Hammer was always the talk of unfulfilled desire, and deservingly so. And he knew it. It was not too difficult to imagine Mister O'Brien, himself a skilled artisan and sculptor, staying up late some nights with hammer and chisel in hand and completing a work in progress that may still one day hang in the halls of St. Peter's Basilica or stand alongside Michelangelo's David as a testament to the beauty man. And when asked one day of his blushing young bride whom he betrothed at the ripe old age of forty-six (she being twenty-six years his junior at the time of their engagement) to give a reason for agreeing to such a questionable and perhaps lop-sided arrangement, her answer was as clear and plain as a two by four, and just as stiff. Naturally, it pleased the carpenter to no end. The scene followed as such:
"Is it because he's such a good man?' her bridesmaids inquired only an hour before the Holy Sacrament was to be administered.
"No, not really,' the bride sheepishly replied, adjusting her wedding gown in front of her own bedroom mirror.
"It's his money then. Isn't it?'
"He's a carpenter--Remember?" the young woman reminded them all.
"Well of course then!" they all agreed. "It is because he's so handsome. That's has to be it.
To which the carpenter's bride simple replied, 'that's rather obvious. But still, that's not the reason I will to marry this man today.'
"Well, then ... What exactly is it?' beseeched the jealous bridesmaids in unbridled frustration.
Being a woman whose intentions were questioned from the beginning, the bride-to-be had heard it all before. It was suggested that she might even have had ulterior motives in consummating a marriage that appeared to benefit no one but herself, at least on the surface. However, not one to be gossiped about like some cheap slut, the bashful bride was compelled to reveal to her inquisitive but well-meaning bridesmaids the simple, plain, naked, unvarnished, and sometimes obvious, truth regarding their concerns and the man she intended to take to the grave with her, with or without his money.
But in the end, and for the sake of modesty, along with other more intimate reasons too personal and private to divulge here and now, the carpenter's wife simply choose to keep matters between her and her husband to be, and wisely decided against it. 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 found so irresistible.
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, and one last nut to crack. 'You'll never know, you silly bitches,' she said, as the veil came down over her rosy red cheeks.
Speculation had always abounded concerning the elderly 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 today was no exception.
"I don't exactly know how he does it," observed the surveyor who seemed to have an explanation for just about everything. "But I for one wouldn't be surprised if the old fart ain't hung like a smoke-house salami!" he further exclaimed.
Hector O'Brien found the comparison amusing, if not exactly true. It made the Old Hammer laugh out loud. It was an infectious laugh, the kind of contagion that is found in the fellowship of man, even when they disagree on serious matters. It was a natural thing to do, so naturally in fact that they all laughed as well.
The only one not laughing was Rusty Horn. How could he? Despite the fact that he was once married to a loyal, patient and loving wife, the colonel knew little of love. Red-Beard knew even less. It'd happened too long ago to have any impact on his current disposition. Perhaps it was conflicting personalities that hastened the imminent divorce, providing the poor woman with the necessary prerequisite for obtaining one--maybe not. Neither Rusty Horn nor Red-Beard could ever figure that one out. 'Ain't it just like a woman', they finally concurred. It was also at that time when Rusty joined the army and Red-Beard fully emerged in all his enigmatic glory.
There was an army private who once provided a fantastic explanation of what may've actually happened to Rusty 'Red-Beard' Horn during that time. He'd suggested with not a little incredulity that the colonel had been wounded and left for dead on the battlefield after a long heroic fight. It was during the Great War and Rusty was still a relatively young man, for an officer that is. Rather than be taken prisoner, a humiliation worse than death in some armies, Rusty Horn attempted suicide with his own sword. But Red-Beard refused to die, and so did Rusty Horn. Not though cowardliness or lack of inner strength did he fail, but for some other reason that could not easily explain.
The blade never breached the skin. As providence would have it, the colonel's life was spared of his own hand and put into another. It was there and then that he was spliced back together again. Not by any army surgeon, but rather by an ingenious ship's mechanic who'd been commissioned as an army field doctor for lack of that much-needed medical profession at time of war, regardless of branch or qualifications. The operation was a success--Or was it?
What'd emerged from the mechanic's makeshift field hospital that fateful day was a new man--a new Rusty Horn, more machine than man actually, and devoid of any human qualifications. Not surprisingly, it was then his own troops fist began calling him Red-Beard, on account of his beard having grown so thick and red during his convalescence it would be insulting not to do so. After that, not a single drop of humanity coursed his icy arteries--only oil. Blood would only freeze. A new heart was in order as well, mechanical, of course. And unbreakable.
It was a pragmatic solution to an age old problem and the mechanic's crowing achievement. The old heart was replaced with a new iron pump that was considered a more durable organ and would last forever. His lungs became as two billows stoking the fiery red furnace from within. He was nothing less than a living dynamo, half man and half machine, and nothing more. But that was enough for Red-Beard. All he lacked was the immortality to go along with his newly improved body. That's why he was there that day, and that's just what he was hoping to find--Eternity.
Some years later it was suggested that the mad mechanic had also 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 this, according to the private whom was said to have witnessed the extraordinary transplantation: 'Well, you know, two heads are always better than one'. It was perfect match! And it worked. It would also explain Red-Beard's psychological profile. But perfection doesn't come cheap, if it comes at all, and sometimes commands very high premium. In Red-Beard's case it was worth it. The expense came in the form his current dichotomy, accompanied by a deep and dark void, a vacuum, an absence of Humanity and an emptiness of character that could never be filled.
It was a deleterious condition that would only be exacerbated by time. Money wouldn't mend it. It was something love couldn't penetrate. It was simply incorrigible. And it was not about gold, either. It was something else, something dark and mysterious, perhaps beyond human understanding. It was a never-ending conflict between two opposing forces. It was a battle that would only be won when one of the two creatures that shared the mechanical red host finally died. It was a war of the wills, a duel to the death. And with death came salvation. With salvation came vindication. With vindication came victory. And with victory came immortality. And that was all Red-Beard wanted anyway.
Along with Colonel Rusty Horn's anatomical improvements, the ambitious mechanic had also instilled in his Red-Bearded experiment the precarious notion of this aforementioned immortality. It was a seed he'd planted deep within the brain of the two-headed monster he so lovingly and recklessly created. And there the seed germinated, first into desire and then into obsession. It was they type of obsession, however, that was never clearly defined. 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 have them as well) but a quest for that had eluded mankind since Adam was ignobly kicked out of Paradise. And it 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 aggregated by a story, a tale the colonel had once heard about a mysterious stone that, once pierced by the human eye, would bring ever-lasting life to he who 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. Shrouded in ambiguity and veiled in mystery and myth from across the ocean, the 'motherstone' had remained lost ever since. But the mechanic claimed to have seen it himself, in a previous life.
It was on an Island, the doctor informed his convalescing patient as lay on operating table, south and east, somewhere in the Southern Seas. Istari-Toa was the name of the island, better known to the sons of sailors who'd been there before as 'The Land of the Bleeding Rock. That's where it came. from. Somehow or other this inscrutable black gem had eventually found its way back to the Continent and, according to the physician, there it remained, hidden in a golden tabernacle, deep inside a mountain. It was said to possess the knowledge and power of the gods that created it. In support of this extraordinary claim, it may be noted that the medical skills of the sailor proved far above and beyond his natural capabilities, which alone may suggest that, for whatever purpose, he'd indeed benefited from the inscrutable power of the 'motherstone' himself at one time or another in his short and inexplicable life. It only provided Red-Beard with the evidence he needed to prove, at least to himself, that such a stone actually existed, and that immortality was well within his grasp.
"It's a black stone,' the healer preached to his patient. 'A sailor showed it to me, a black man. Said it was a gift, from a queen. It was alive, I tell you! Saw it with my own eyes. It showed me..." And at that point, the doctor balked. "Find it," he finally said, "and eternity is yours.'
It was those words, along with his new anatomy, that stirred Red-Beard's own black heart, springing him back to life and putting the iron wheel in motion. He was never the same since. And it was all because of a stone. Rusty became obsessed; he had to have it. It held the power of life and death. It was the power of the motherstone. He really didn't know what it was until someone else told him, Tom Henley. And he didn't know where to find it until one night at the Nickel Pig Saloon. Since then, it was all that Red-Beard thought of. It was all he cared about. And it still is.
Shortly after the operation, the doctor himself died. Some say he went completely insane and was last seen headed towards the mountains just north of old Port Fierce. Others say he was murdered at the hands of an angry and ungrateful colonel who wanted more than the good doctor could or would give him, something that could not be repaired so easily--his soul. Neither story could ever be proven, not even by Red-Beard himself. And he alone would know.
Talk of the gold continued, despite Red-Beard's ambivalence on the subject furthest from his mind at the time.
"They say there's still enough gold in Wainwright's Mountain to sink a ship," Smiley clandestinely smiled in his usual manner.
"A man could retire on that kind of money," the carpenter firmly agreed. Naturally, his hands were not as steady and his eyes not as clear as they were in his distant youth. But he could still dream. Couldn't he? And he could still swing a Hammer. It wasn't so much the gold he was thinking about; it was the thrill of the hunt he desired most. He lived his life through the eyes of younger men. Maybe that's why women still loved the 'Old Hammer', and why men still envied him.
The carpenter wasn't the only one entertaining such notions of an earthly Paradise that particular morning. Charles Smiley had long dreamed of putting away his rod and level, finding a proper place to hang his hat, and sleeping until his mustache rolled off his face. "Think I'll take to the Islands," his said without moving a whisker. "Buy me a boat. Settle down. Do some fishin', lay around drinkin' coconut milk and rum, eatin' bananas all day. Take it easy for a change. Hell! Maybe I get married again. Say them Island women know how to treat a man. Do him right! Won't have to cuss so much either. Build me a house down on the beach. Right under a goddamn palm tree."
"You'll need a carpenter," Hector suggested, never allowing one project to stand in the way of planning his next, no matter what the scale. "'Course, I'll have to take my wife along. She wouldn't trust me alone on the islands with me on an island. Not with this hammer."
"I hear tell them island girls don't wear no cloths," gummed Alvin Webb, having heard of such lustful sightings from the old sailors in Port Fierce who'd been there, and then beyond. "Now that'll put a hum in your hammer--Eh, Hector?"
"That true, carpenter?" asked Little Dick, as if awakening from a wet dream he might've been having in the saddle at that very moment.
The Old Hammer shook his head. He looked bewildered. There was sadness in his eyes that did not go un-noticed. He was having second thoughts about the whole expedition. He wished they hadn't brought the young man along after all. It was too dangerous, and, in his own professional opinion, un-necessary.
"Only one way to find out," the surveyor keenly noted as the sound of footsteps was heard trampling down the stairs inside.
Homer Skinner arrived at the door out of breath and slightly perspiring. His thin white hair was hanging over his forehead. His eyes looked glassy, like he was still half-asleep. But they were open and that's all anyone could ask for.
He greeted the day like an old sailor expecting to be buried soon at sea. Which, according to whom you ask, is not necessarily a bad thing. His bags were packed, as they had been for the last forty years. Wearing an old dark suit, a white shirt, and a pair of alligator boots that came clear up to his knees, Homer Skinner looked like a relic from the past. He was also wearing his old deputy's badge, the same one he'd worn forty years when he rode off into the mountains.
Charles Smiley noticed it first. "Hey, what's with the star, Homer?" the surveyor asked as if he didn't know.
"Good luck," winked the old man.
"We'll need it," said the carpenter.
Homer agreed. "Amen to that, brother" he said, looking more like a minister than a miner in his Sunday suit.
"Going to church, old man?" sneered the outlaw, Webb.
"Both," the deputy quipped, addressing no one in particular.
The old miner explained. "Diggin' for gold and goin' to church is pretty much the same thing, I reckon.
"Well, in both cases you're lookin' for something you know is there ... but you just ain't found it, yet."
"Ain't never found no gold in no church," the outlaw argued.
"That's 'cause you ain't never looked, Alvin," said the old man, dragging his bags behind him, the contents of which were actually more than he needed for the task that still lie ahead. Considering the fact that he was too old to be doing any of the real work anyway, it was simply overkill. But as usual, Homer was not only thinking about himself. In his bags the old man carried an assortment of pick axes, hammers and chisels, and other mining utensils that he haphazardly piled on the sagging back of his favorite horse, an old black stallion he called 'Blackie' that was once a fair and handsome stud.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out an old pair if reading glasses that looked like they might've once belonged to Mister Franklin himself and wrapped the thin wire frame around his head. He then gingerly unfolded an old yellow piece of paper in his pale and wrinkled hands and studied it once more.
"The map..." Red-Beard correctly noted, whispered to his four horsemen as Homer's wife chased after him with a bag of food and some other victuals stacked up in her generous arms. Homer Skinner looked at the map for only a second or two as if he'd already committed it to memory and was only verifying what he already knew. After folding it up, he slid it back in his pocket, and nodded.
"Now you be careful, Homer," Mrs. Skinner said to her husband, as Homer slowly crawled up the side of his black horse. She didn't come right out and say what was on her mind but what she really meant was: I know what you're up to, old man. I know what's going on here.
Homer hadn't spoken about the gold lately; he never spoke about it to his wife. Maybe that's what made her suspicious. She knew all about his 'toothache', of course. She'd lived with it for forty years; it hurt her, too. And it didn't take the sound of a whip-o-will or a frightened starling chasing her into the sofa to know what had her husband pacing circles on the bedroom floor all night. She knew what drives a man to dreams. And it wasn't in the kitchen or the bedroom. It was up in the hills. It was gold.
"Be back as soon as I can, old woman," Homer said to his wife. "Don't wait up."
"And don't you be troubling them poor Harley folks!" she instructed, having heard her husband mention something the night before about the Cotton family up in Harley. She could read him like a forty-year-old book; she knew him like he back of her own wrinkled hand, but it was too old to stop him. She couldn't if she tried. "Elmo's got enough to do with Sadie and the boy. You leave them be. You hear me, Homer? Oh, and by the way, Charles," she added while handing a freshly baked pie up to skinny surveyor. He'd been sitting impatiently on top of a brown colored horse with a mane that was almost as long, proud, and blonde as the rider's own mustache. "This is for you," she said with a simple smile.
"Thank'ye, Ma'am," replied the surveyor, gratefully, with a sincerity that caught the others off guard. "Yummm. Blueberry! My favorite."
As a parting request she never expected him to honor but felt was obliged to ask, the old woman pleaded, "And promise me you won't spit anymore, Charles."
"I won't, Madam ... I mean ... I will!" he finally responded, politely and correctly, of course.
"And you, Little Dick!" she scolded the boy as well. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be home helping your mother with the chores? That poor woman..." sighed the old woman. "You'll be the death of her."
"Won't be po' for long, Ma'am..."
"That's enough, Dick," cautioned Homer.
"All right then," she suspiciously retreated. "But just you remember what I said. Leave them Harlies be. You hear me, Homer? And don't be too late for supper." At that point she knew that husband would not be coming home that night. She was beginning to wonder if he ever would.
"What's that crazy old woman squawking 'bout now," said Alvin to no one in particular. "She'll be lucky if he comes back at all. I know I wouldn't."
Homer stifled the wicked engineer with a cold, blank stare, and followed by shouting back up to his wife: "Don't wait up, dear. And don't worry."
And then without so much as a wink or a whistle, Homer Skinner immediately giddy-uped his horse and proceeded due east towards the Redman River; the others, including Red-Beard and his bull, followed closely behind. They were whispering to one another and wondering out loud if Homer had gotten so old he couldn't remember which way he was going. 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!"
"Shortcut, I think," said the outlaw.
"Some shortcut," said Dick.
"Well, the shortest distant between two points is not always a straight line," the surveyor acknowledged. "Found that out when I first realized that the earth is round."
For what it was worth the Old Hammer responded. "Sometimes you have to go backwards to go forward. That's how we got discovered. Let's just go along and see. Amuse him for a while. Old men like that."
"Could be a diversion," Smiley added. People talk, you know. Gold does that to some folks. Best keep quite. Homer knows what he's doin', I hope."
Meanwhile, Red-Beard walked silently next to his proud bull. He didn't hear the talk of the four horsemen. He didn't feel the wind blowing through his whiskers. He didn't see the sunrise. He just stared ahead. He knew where he was going.
And so they traveled east, through the piney woods, and then north. The air was cool, crisp and clean, the colors of the trees just beginning to turn from green to golden red and yellow and brown. The sun was a flaming red ball by now, ascending slowly over the eastern horizon. It made Homer feel like he did forty years ago. It was a young man's feeling, a felling he was not so sure of anymore. It seemed to make 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 was finally on his way. Harley was not far away, maybe a day's ride. He had the map. All he needed now was the 'lucky number'.
It was still early in the evening when they reached the outskirts of Creekwood Holler where the trail narrowed and the land became less familiar. Homer decided to camp there for the night. It wasn't even dark yet. But no one objected, at least not out loud. 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. Perhaps then Homer could explain things better, 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 that time of year when the bean crop was ready for harvesting. He reckoned Elmo was just coming in from the fields by now, and that Sadie was probably setting the table for supper. He could hear the boy playing on the pots and pans. Already he could smell the beans.
Red-Beard lit a fire while Alvin tied down the horses. The others scrounged around for something to eat. Smiley caught a wild turkey and cooked it over the flames. Homer Skinner wasn't hungry. Lying down beneath the moon and stars he fell asleep dreaming of gold and other things.