Western Short Story
They had found the secret cave, Jehrico and Chico … but they soon found out that they were not alone in the discovery.
Suddenly there echoed with an ear-blasting roar a single shot from a weapon near the opening of the cave behind them, with reverberations traveling deeper into the mountain as if doors were opening, mouths of more secret caves accepting entrance. The walls, though, began to hum with a mysterious throbbing as if the mountain itself was breathing with difficulty, as if it had expended itself too far. And at the far end of the cave, at least as far as they could see with torchlight and probably somewhat beyond, issued drum-like sounds, thousands of them at once, but drums weren’t making those cavernous sounds. Mystery, as alive as breathing, beat back at Jehrico Taxico and Chico Vestra caught inside the cave with all their provisions and supplies still packed up outside, and their horses and two pack mules hobbled in the hurry to look inside the cave.
Old customs, or Time itself, might have been shaking fists at them, warning them. Were ghosts or spirits abounding? The God of the mountain? An old Apache Dream-Chief at a ritual dance? Or an Aztec or Incan leftover still lost, still wandering, not over the land, but within the land? Chico’s heart, too, fluttered, while composed Jehrico, the great trader and elder of the pair, remained calm, measuring in his own way all the sudden changes around them. He still managed a degree of difference between him and his student of recovery of earthly things, the one-time orphan boy, Chico Vestra.
Chico carried a revolver and a recovered Indian arrow quiver he’d loaded with torch sticks back down the trail, enough to burn for hours if handled well. Behind them, after the echo of the gunshot faded in the confines, arose the yelling and chattering of voices as foreign as gibberish, which caused Jehrico to say, “Whatever language they’re speaking, Chico, trying to scare us off, it’s not Indian and it sure isn’t Apache. I think it’s a language from across the great ocean, from another land, the sing-song kind some of the freighters speak in Bola City. Some of those freighters are the laughing Italianos who came from the burst mountain all the way back in Italy, a place so far away it’s a dream.”
Chico, in the half light, nodded and replied, “Of course, you’re right, Jehrico. It’s like they’re trying to trick us, scare us away with the fake old Indian mysteries. Perhaps make us leave here in a hurry, leave behind all the gold we’re going to find.” He laughed lightly in his throat, which made Jehrico laugh in unison.
In the few short years that Jehrico and Chico the orphan from Ciudad verde pálido had “partnered up,” success came by the wagonload to the pair, by the ton, by the day. A find of a “misplaced delivery of gold” lost in 1849 was located, returned to the government and the pair given a substantial reward. It was the same story with the loot, down to the last dollar, when the two of them, at sunrise one morning, discovered the whole take from a robbery of the bank at Lubbock. They’d deciphered directions on a map found in the false bottom of an old suitcase salvaged from the ruins of a tottering barn. The experience seriously bothered Chico because there appeared not one remaining stick of the house or cabin that must have been built close to the barn. The orphan in him was speaking, only recalling vague and mythical elements of a house he had known so long ago … or believed he did.
“There’s nothing here, Jehrico,” he said as he scanned the area around the barn, shaking his head at the puzzle. “Not one board. Not one piece of the house. Not one piece of furniture. No leg off a chair or table. No cabinet or food locker. Not even the front door or a chunk from a shelf.” His head shook again in total disbelief when he added, “Like nobody ever lived here. Nobody at all.”
The statement of the bewildered young man echoed within Jehrico, once lost himself, once alone in the world. He looked again at the span of land, saw the most suitable location for a ranch house and said, “Burned, Chico, turned to everlasting dust the winds have blown away. The grass came back to bury the memories. That’s the way things happen, this side of the great river. I guess it happens on the other side too, in those other mountains.” His eyes had dropped into sadness Chico had learned to read so easily in their years together.
“Did you know them, Jehrico, the people who lived here, whose house is gone with the dust and the wind?”
“No, I didn’t know them, Chico, but it’s easy to say I know of them, or so many people who have perished in a hurry in this land. We may never know how many graves we trod on in our travels or how many homes once stood where we stand any day in our searches. Perhaps neither of us will ever know all the houses that might have been warm beneath our feet.”
His gaze swept far and wide and Chico knew that his new father carried far more mysteries in him than he’d ever allow to be known. It was as if Jehrico used a special scale to find and measure out sadness, so keeping much of it from kicking his own mind into long thoughts about loss and sadness. That, too, Chico realized, was another act of survival. Being taken in by Jehrico and Lupalazo was the luckiest thing ever given to the orphan from Ciudad verde pálido.
The mystery saddened and confounded and yet elated Chico for he had found family, favor and a home with Jehrico and Lupalazo. At 15 he had already embraced and absorbed all that Jehrico openly revealed to him; the secrets that remained hidden in the odd parts life once cast aside in the rush west. He reveled in Lupalazo and his brothers and sisters, in the family warmth, in winter hearth and summer porch where learning the ways of survival and reclamation never ceased. With all that, he had grown into a handsome dark-haired, dark-skinned boy who smiled continuously, especially when he was in the midst of the family or bent over to pick up a cast-off his apt eye had discovered by shape, size, reflection of sun or moon, or with his hands searching old sites still wearing clues to a useful past.
It was not surprising that the handgun, too, had become a toy in Chico’s hands, though he had never seen Jehrico aim at or shoot any living person. It would be an eventful day when Chico fired his first shot in anger; it would, of course, be protecting the family. An expert in one kind of survival, he realized early and often that he was fated by a choice god to make stands in defense of the helpless, swear to his bounding belief that life had secrets man had to hunt down, and that he was a hunter.
As it was, Chico had a chance encounter with a Pima-Mexican in New Mexico who said, “There’s a lost gold mine somewhere in western New Mexico’s White Mountains.” His eyes sparkled when he talked and his head shook with awe. Chico almost felt the riches of that awe.
“Look at this,” he added, as he picked up a stick. On the ground he drew a map of the area, and noted twin peaks as distant markers. “For hundreds of years the Apaches, who have sacred burial grounds nearby, ignored the gold mine, finding little use for the gold in there other than for trinkets. But after several battles with white men, when some old ideas were put aside or killed, their charms and trinkets created too much curiosity about the source of rich gold from a lost mine even the Spaniards long ago had not found in years of searching.”
“All you have to do, Chico, is follow the White River into the mountains, find the prominent peaks as markers, find a secret entrance to the heart of the mountain … and get rich in a hurry.”
“But,” he added, “I will no longer go into that area because the Apaches told me never to come back or I’d lose my hair and the tarantulas and other critters would eat me at leisure before I rotted away.”
Jehrico, when Chico related the story, measured his past trading experiences with the Apaches and decided they swung enough weight for them to follow the White River and go into the mountains in the great search. “We will hunt for the secret entrance to the cave in the White Mountains.” The eyes of Jehrico Taxico gleamed again at the new adventure, the coming new recovery.
Weeks later they found the cave entrance gained by a niche in the mountain wall that lead to the opening of the cave in which Jehrico could stand upright with overhead room to spare.
But the cave drew them in. And their supplies and animals were still outside, probably in the hands of the Italianos yet at their foreign gibberish.
“We can’t go back out there, Chico. They want this place as much as we do. Let’s go on, see what we find, and see what’s really at the heart of this mountain.”
With a single torch on high the pair advanced into the cavernous hole in the mountain. And at one quick turn in a side tunnel, just asking to be explored, Chico gasped as his eyes fell on a large rectangular section of wall featuring artful drawings of strange creatures neither he nor Jehrico had ever seen. The section of wall was about 7 foot high and 4 foot wide. It was flat and smooth to the touch, though it was decorated with dozens of creatures never seen in the west. The odd creatures were upright creatures, not one of them similar to the four-legged critters populating the west, wolves, coyotes, big horn sheep, the deadly cougar or puma at prey. Their heads were as strange as possible, with wide eyes, a hole for a nose, narrow chins which might have held a mouth though it was unseen. Each one had a third hand that seemed unconnected to the body, though it was apparent as belonging with each drawing or etching.
And all the way across the top of the rectangle were a series of arrow-like formations, or bullet-like formations, each one identical to the one before it, but each one smaller until it finally faded into insignificance … as though it had climbed into the skies and disappeared.
Jehrico’s eyes followed the series of etchings until it disappeared, smiling at one point as he thought about a few comets he had seen tracing their routes across the same skies.
“Chico,” he offered, “we are at the foot of history, all history. This is a special place and we have been special visitors. We will only take what we need, like the law of the Indian, and let the rest be at peace, as it has been since near the beginning of time. We will let the Earth and all in it rest where it must rest, and conserve what we must to carry on all possibilities of the future and the future use of all, things that come to our hand.”
He gazed upward as if he was seeing clear through the mountain.
“No gold?” Chico said.
“Only what we need,” smiled Jehrico, “if we can get safely away from those who try to frighten us.”
“Perhaps we can pray to the God of the Mountain,” hoped Chico. “He might answer if we do as we say.”
So each of the salvage hunters, Pappa Jehrico, and adopted son Chico, sent their prayers into the heart of the mountain.
Their deep Mexican incantations alerted the Italianos behind them, a second single shot ensued as if in solitary answer, as if in reprisal, and the mountain shook, the cave walls shook, reverberations started anew, small dust particles behind to stir and rise into a draft of air that caught at them, new noises began a fearful sense of worldly echoes, the rocky surface under the feet of our hunters shook with a vigor they had never known, and the mountain began to fall inward on itself.
Screams came from near the cave entrance, screams of pain and surprise, and loss.
The pair, the new father and the new son, rushed ahead, for cataclysm was behind them.
Chico lit a second torch from the first torch and handed it to Jehrico, who rushed into another tunnel, hoping it was a safe route for them.
There in front of them, sounds of cataclysm still resounding in the cloistered air, they came upon a setting so much like an alter of adoration that they were caught up short; for on open display, like jewels in a storefront or atop a counter for viewing, was a collection of solid gold nuggets, some as big as Chico’s fist … a whole series of them. He took the remaining torch sticks from the leather quiver, tied them into a bundle with a strip of deerskin off his waist, and filled the quiver with the seen sum of gold. It was a heavy weight, but it was tolerable bearable.
Jehrico, looking about, said, "We leave the rest for history, for whatever follows. Now, we try to find our way out of here. I see how the dust moves with the draft, so there is escape somewhere ahead of us.
Behind them the tunnel and the cave had collapsed as they made way through a maze of openings, as though the God of the Mountain offered them choices or possible escape … with riches.
It took them a day and a half to get free of the mountain, to pass down myriad paths and tunnels and skip back from false openings. As they got free of the mountain, and as Chico asked, in their old language, “Y nunca vamos a volver aquí otra vez, Jehrico?” (“And we’ll never come back here again, Jehrico?”), there was another downward crumble of the mountain at the exit they had used. Again the mountain had come fallen on itself, both ends of the secret cave forever closed.
Jehrico nodded a firm and truthful “Yes,” a promise Chico knew would never be broken.
It took them another day to get back to the site of the original opening and their animals and supplies which, luckily, were as they had left them. Even though the mountain had tumbled inward with horrendous sounds, the animals had not run free of their hobbles.
Lupalazo and the children welcomed them back with gaiety and clamor. As she looked upon the face of her husband, she saw no message of their successful search, but the look on Chico’s face was as open as any boy’s face. It could hardly hold back all the surprise and good fortune. He shrugged one shoulder and Lupalazo heard the click and grating of solid objects, and though she did not know what was in the quiver, she knew it was special.
With the children clustered around Jehrico’s legs, Chico slowly turned his back to Lupalazo so she could look into the quiver, then she ran her fingers down inside, feeling the fortune at hand.
The gasp was understood by all that the Western Conservation Society, Inc. would soon be off and running … and it might run forever, a Mexican junk collector’s gift to the future, from him and Chico, his adopted orphan from Ciudad verde pálido.