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--- W I L L I A M K . C A R L S O N
Never written much but head's full of this and want to get on paper. First will tell how met Old Man. Looking for minerals in high desert southeast of Guachochic in the Sierra Madre Occidental, elevation 2500 meters, 30 kilometers off road, 4:30 p.m., jeep's driveshaft busted, ran off road into small bushy canyon. Seatbelt on, OK except for bruises. Cellphone busted, decided to camp overnight, hoof it to road next day. Had water, grub, sleeping bag--no problem. Built piņon fire, listened to desert, coyotes, slept good.
Coffee, tortillas, beans for breakfast, packed knapsack, checked map, compass, took off. Walked most of morning, spotted malachite stain, scrambled up slope to check for cuprite, chalcopyrite, slipped, fell to talus, broke leg.
Left leg, blood, compound fracture, fibula. Didn't hurt for minute or two, then felt like going through ore crusher. Took off boot, slit jeans, stopped blood with bandanna, bound up wound. Nothing to use for splints, tied both legs together. Checked pack and canteen. Battered, but rations and water OK. Two days' worth, maybe three--with luck, be found before ran dry. Hank Lustigan in Chihuahua knew was out prospecting, unfortunately not where. Nevertheless if not too drunk might miss me, get search plane going. Main problem, jeep almost invisible in brush back there. Looked around for signal-fire wood, none within reach. Despite pain scooted around backwards, found rocks, spelled out ragged SOS.
Next day saw plane. Good old Hank. Pilot didn't see SOS or waving shirt. Second day saw plane further off. Waved. Nothing. Third day saw no plane, wondered how far could scoot. Not far.
Dozed or passed out. Woke to outrageous pain. Old Man working on leg, rigging splints. Couldn't talk--if opened mouth, would scream. He finished. When could, said, "Thanks."
"Nartargsh." Something. Looking me over.
I him. White hair, beard, mustache--roughly trimmed. Leather face, hawk nose, hawk eyes, all somehow--familiar? Buckskin breeches, multi-patched shirt, moccasins, ancient sombrero, small pack, waterskin. "What did you say?"
"Nah-tog-mush." Pointing to mouth.
Finally got it. Believed him. Voice harsh, croaking. Still studying me--look not hostile, not friendly. Discovered later looked at everything same way: piece of basalt, cactus, lizard, rhodochrosite crystal, coyote, me. Impartial. "Name's Thompson," I said. "They call me Tom. Or Tommy. Free-lance geologist. Prospector."
"Right. You live around here?"
Pointed southwest, near Cerro Chorreras, tallest peak in these parts. "There. You'll--shee."
"What's your name?"
"Ushta call me--Charlie."
"I'm right glad you came along, Charlie."
Smiled. Transformation. Again that glimmer of--recognition? Charlie built travois, strapped me down, hauled me to cave. Pain intolerable, bit lips bloody so wouldn't scream. Screamed. Passed out.
Charlie gone next day, returned with silent Indian who gave antibiotics, set leg. Had plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl worked in beads on pouch, old Toltec maybe? Good job on leg but couldn't be real doctor, refused fee.
Few days, began to feel better, get used to cave, settle down. Old Man fixed up cot in alcove. Charlie's cave home, fortress, library, workshop, storehouse. Had windowed living room built out from entrance, barn for animals, shed for storage, little shower rigged up by spring. Raised beans, corn, squash, onions, potatoes, greens, fruit, had saddle horse, pack mule, chickens, half dozen goats, two cats, no dog. Shot rabbits, occasional deer, polished gems. Self-sufficient.
Stayed with him rest of summer. Indian posted letters to mother, Hank, other friends, saying all right, giving Charlie's town box number. Couldn't notify Rick and Tony, no idea where lived. Charlie's voice back in three days--was intelligent, well-read in science, knew every wrinkle of country, track anything anywhere, knew individual animals, lairs, habits, held desert, mountains in palm of hand.
Old Man uncommunicative about self. Put off questions. Told him story of own life, raised Montana, college Utah, work Farallon Resources, marriage Lorna, birth Rick, Tony, then free-lance prospecting, divorce, loss of contact, bitterness for woman who stole sons. Told whole miserable story, hoping would reciprocate. Didn't.
Looked at him sometimes, couldn't help it, couldn't shake notion, had seen this man before. Mentioned it. Golden, brown-flecked eyes blazed, went blank. Never mentioned it again.
Charlie not silent, talked about Sierra Madre minerals, plants, animals, about old Toltecs, Aztecs, but about himself learned only that he owned 100 hectacres here, 80 wild, 20 fenced pasture, all inaccessible except by foot or horseback. Nothing more.
Apparently not anti-technology type, not woman-hater, not mystical hermit. So--what? Why? Woman trouble? Beef with law?
As got better, stomped around with crutches, then cane, fed chickens, horse, mule, milked goats, did some cooking, gardening when able. Charlie basically self-sufficient in food but still rode horse to town once a quarter, brought back mule-load of flour, sugar, salt, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, whiskey, kerosene, radio batteries, ammunition, books, mail. Sold polished and unpolished gemstones, cassiterite, apatite, azurite, garnet, occasional opal, mostly unset, a few set in silver.
Fall came, began to hobble farther afield, take samples, help Old Man harvest winter supplies, stored potatoes, carrots in sand, canned fruit, vegetables, dried venison. Evenings helped cook tortillas, beans, rabbit, vension, tried some lapidary, jewelry making, read books on geology, mineralogy, gemstones, biology, zoology, anthropology, paleontology. No history, philosophy, poetry, fiction in Charlie's library. OK by me, never cared for soft stuff. Occasional talks about mineralogy, Indians, hunting, tracking, nothing personal. Should have been bored out of mind. Wasn't. Should have made arrangements to get back to so-called civilization. Didn't.
Solitude. Independence. Freedom from the whole kaboodle.
Told Charlie how had it all once, job, wife, kids, salary and stock options, five bedrooms. Had it. Lost it. Good riddance, Lorna-slut. Discovered what she was, started sleeping around myself. Bad to worse. Bitch took them finally, Ricky, Tony, visited once a month through divorce. 125K settlement. Now nothing. Got her money and gone, God knows where. Rick. Tony. Old Man listened, nodded, grunted.
OK during day, gardening, chores, later tramping around, sampling, bit of hunting, bird watching, naturalist stuff. OK most evenings, learning to shape silver, nodding over book, occasional talk with Charlie, copper and aluminum ores, the incredible 4200 carat topaz crystal found in Zacatecas three years ago, cougar mating habits, best way to set an opal, such things.
Sometimes at night, though, lying in alcove, listening to cave whisper, to coyotes howl, not so good. Tossing, turning, wondering. About self--E.H. Thompson, geologist, sometime husband, sometime father. Who was he, what was he doing here?
About old Charlie, snoring gently over there--who was he? Why this sense of familiarity--surely could not have seen him before. Why living out here, edge of nowhere, couple of Indians only friends, unbelievably close-mouthed? Why? Woman trouble? Law trouble? He could be anything, saint, sinner, murderer. Who knew?
Images, inner voices, drifting, floating, ghostly rider, sleepier, images, dreamlike, who? who? who? hate it, shadowy, unclear, uncertain, no boundaries, no borders, no precision, no clarity, ghostly rider, hate it, hate it, but finally, at long last, sleep.
So went on into winter, leg healing well, high desert cold but cave warm, snug, getting into rhythm of wilderness, caw of raven, howl of coyote, snort and stomp of horse and mule, sun up, sun down, moon up, moon down, march of clouds, nighttime sky confetti of stars.
Early spring, leg healed, no reason to stay except--didn't want to go. Go where, do what? More travel, sampling, prospecting, maybe find a vein or two, take a little mining company money, move on? More one-night, two-week stands? More weekend binges with Hank? More hopeless attempts to find Ricky, Tony? Even if succeeded, what? Snatch them? Change our names? Go underground? Former life, supposedly normal, now seemed pointless, cockeyed, ludicrous.
Summer beginning, almost year now, leg fine, settling into life, ranging farther afield, sampling, observing, sketching, camping out some nights, evenings at home reading, doing lapidary, bit of jewelery setting, mail once a quarter, just about right.
Well into summer, lots to do, becoming content with oddball turn life had taken. Never talked about future, thought about it much, just hung out with Old Man. Seemed a good place as any, better than most. Then it happened.
Old Man began to change. Became even quieter, didn't speak day, two days running. Happened gradually, barely noticed at first, finally had to. Wasn't sick, appetite good, tireless as ever. Knew didn't want to be asked but after six weeks couldn't take it anymore. In cave one evening, looked up from book. Asked.
Old Man put down book, looked at me for long, long time.
Finally dropped my eyes, studied his silver belt buckle. Could feel something going on, didn't know what. Hate it, things going on without words. Knew him now, said no more. Waste of time. Would speak or wouldn't. Waited. Spoke.
"This is a talk I didn't want, Tommy." No psychologist but recognize sad sigh when hear it. "I think you know how much I've enjoyed our time together."
Oh oh. "So it's ending then?"
After another long pause, "Let me tell you a story. I haven't told it for fifty years. You remember the day you said you thought I looked familiar? You were right."
Nodded. Throat suddenly dry. "Jesus! You're not a--relative?"
Fleeting smile. Head shake. "No. Sorry. But if you've ever watched old western movies on--what do they call 'em, uh V--video something?"
"Right. On VCRs, you may have seen me. My screen name was Larry LaRue. I was also known as the Cross-Draw Kid."
"Good God." Looked at him, hard. White hair, bronze face, hawk nose, hawk eyes. "Yes, now I--as a kid, even before VCRs--they loved old westerns in Shelby, Montana--I believe I remember. You looked something like--ah, who was that--oh yeah, I remember now--Randolph Scott."
"Occasionally noted in the film magazines of the day. However, Randolph was already big in the '40s and I was only a young bit player before the war. Young and wild, I'm afraid, always getting into fights. Unlike Scott and the Duke and a few others, I had no career to protect so I looked forward to some action. I found it--Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. Maybe my medals helped but Republic Pictures was ready to take me on again when I mustered out in '45. In one year, 1947, I made four pictures."
"You made four pictures in one year?"
"Yep. Westerns, you know. B pictures. Turned out to be my high point." Long silence.
"You, uh, fell from favor?"
"Sure did. End of '49. But not because the public didn't like me."
"Ah. Something happened."
"You got it, Tom. There was this director, Frank Rouse? Not a bad guy but short fuse, foul mouth. We were making a picture called Desert Wind in the mountains east of LA. One day on the set I made a simple mistake and he called me--something he shouldn't have. Especially since I had a rifle in my hands."
"You shot him."
"With blanks? No, but for a second there I think I flashed back to Iwo Jima or something. I flipped the gun around and hit him so hard I thought sure he was dead--I had killed Japs that way, you see. Blood spurting. Script girl screaming. Assistant producer and grips and everybody else standing around with mouths open. I got out of there fast. Never looked--well, that's not true. But I never went back."
"And he was--ah, did he . . ." I couldn't quite say it.
"No. Frank Rouse did not die. Hard head, I guess. Matter of fact, he didn't even press charges. I was long gone, of course."
"Ummm. So you could have gone back?"
"I doubt it. Who would have hired me after that? Also, I'd broken my contract. But the real reason was more--personal. You see, the thing I discovered in myself that day--or rediscovered--the thing that men had admired in me in the war and that had saved my life more than once, I knew that thing would never leave me. All the fights I'd gotten into, before and after the war. And now this. Maybe the war didn't put that thing into me, but it sure as heck nurtured it. Most men could just leave it behind when they came home but I knew I couldn't. I knew, sooner or later, that I would kill."
Let out long breath. Hadn't realized had been holding it. "So you disappeared into the desert. More or less."
"More or less. It's a little more complicated because I realized ten or so years ago that the thing had shriveled over time and that I probably could go back. But I'd been here so long and what little I'd seen and heard of the world out there didn't attract me all that much. Still doesn't."
"I'll buy that."
"I know--which brings us to your story." Another long pause. "This is the hard part."
"Oh, just say it, Charlie. You want me to leave."
"Yes, but not because I don't like your company. Since I found you on that scree that day with your legs tied together--well, it's been quite a year! But you've got your career, Tom. And your boys."
"Wherever they may be."
"You'll find them sometime, some way. But not if you stay here. I look at you and I see myself, fifty years ago. It was lonesome at first but then this high desert just--just sort of took me in. And here you are settling down in the same way. For me perhaps it was right--for you it isn't. And the longer you stay, the harder it's going to be to leave. I speak from experience. Though I must say--I'd sure appreciate a visit every couple of years."
Shook head. "Every year."
Smiled. Transformation. "Thankee, Tom. At my age, that's appreciated. And just so you know, I've got no kin left to speak of so this place will be yours when I'm gone. You'll have to leave me a forwarding address."
Nodded. Tried to speak. Couldn't.
That's it. Eight months since left, heard nothing. This week paid first visit, found Old Man dead, two, three days. Coyotes. Buried what was left.
Sitting here, Old Man's chair, head full, thought writing might help.
© crossconnect 1995-1999
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania kelly writers house |