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Drawing by Russell Morgan (UK) (www.kdas.co.uk)
"Jake and Russell Take A Peek"
© 2009 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved
© 2009 by Wayne Faust
"I tell you, Jake, it's darker than the bottom of a coal mine out here tonight. I think we're gonna get mighty wet real soon. Yes sir."
"Could be, Russell. Could be."
Jake didn’t listen much to Russell any more. His words went in one ear and out the other, to be lost in the wind that howled down from the high Colorado peaks. After being together night and day for ten years, they’d pretty much exhausted every subject known to man. But that didn’t stop Russell.
“Remember that howler in '72? Darn near blew off the top of Loveland Pass, it did."
“I remember, Russell.”
Jake blinked back tears as the icy wind raked across his face. Is this what he had come out here for? Once he had been full of piss and vinegar. He had come to Colorado from Indiana after the war, trying to shake off the horrors he’d seen at battles like Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor. He was still young then, at least in years, and a dream of gold had shone in his mind like a beacon, pointing him west. But now here he was, draggin’ his mule up from Georgetown to Silver Plume ten years later, with nothing to show for it but an aching back and a partner who wouldn’t shut up. And worst of all, a dark cloud had taken up residence inside his head, draining the color from everything, turning his world a lifeless gray – or black, like it was tonight. He had even been thinking the unthinkable, that he might actually give up and go back to Indiana with his tail between his legs. Or maybe it would be better if he just jumped off a cliff.
Russell looked up at the black night. "Yep, we should have left a lot earlier. We were just gonna get supplies and be back before dark. I wish you hadn't dragged me in to see them girlies dancin’ around. I’m gettin' too old for that, yes sir."
Jake knew it had been Russell’s idea to go into the Red Garter in the first place. It usually was. But somehow he couldn’t even muster up the energy to say so. He simply grunted and kept on trudging up the trail.
Russell stopped walking and set his lantern down on the rocky ground. “You okay?” he called out to Jake, his breath coming out in puffs of steam around his white beard.
Jake pulled up his mule and sat down on a boulder, his long, skinny legs stretching across the trail. His face was like cracked leather and stone. He sighed and looked at the ground.
“You sick or something?” asked Russell.
“Can’t you stop talking for once in your life?” answered Jake through clenched teeth.
Russell recoiled as if he had been punched in the face.
“I mean, I can’t even think,” said Jake. “How am I supposed to find us a glory hole when I can’t even get a moment’s peace to figure it out? Aw, what does it matter?”
Jake picked up a stone and threw it as hard as he could against a boulder. He felt a twinge in his shoulder and grimaced. “That figures,” he muttered. He couldn’t do much these days without straining a muscle.
Russell ran his fingers through his beard. Then he stepped quietly over and sat down on the boulder next to Jake. The two men were quiet for a few minutes.
“Got the melancholies?” asked Russell.
Jake gazed down the hill toward Georgetown. Then he threw another stone. “It ain’t gonna happen,” he said, his voice quavering. “Not ever.”
“What?” asked Russell.
“We’re never gonna strike it rich. It’s all been found. And we ain’t found it.”
“What about McCabe?” asked Russell. “He hit a strike last week. Twenty miles from here.”
“So he said, “answered Jake. “But I think he was talkin’ through his hat.”
“Maybe,” answered Russell. “And maybe not. Why you talkin’ like it’s time to give up? You used to be so fired up all the time. That’s what got me out here with you in the first place. Without you, I’d probably still be shovelin’ manure back in Dyer. Don’t you think this is better than that? And besides, there’s still a chance. There’s always a chance. And if we don’t strike it rich, so what? We still come out here with nothin’ and managed to find enough to eat all these years, at least most of the time. And we didn't get frozed to death, or gobbled up by a mountain lion. I call that success.”
Jake spit air through his teeth. “We’re a success all right. A couple of dandies. Can’t you see, Russell? I’ve had it. It’s all for nothing. Those guys who struck it rich knew something we’ll never know. Some kind of magic or something. Nothing like that will ever happen to guys like us. We’re just a couple of bummers, scratching in the ground all day.”
A great gust of wind howled down out of the darkness of Loveland Pass. The first specks of stinging rain hit them in the face. It almost felt like snow, which would not have been unheard of in July at eight thousand feet. The mules shifted impatiently.
“Well,” said Russell, “I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time to get up to the camp. It’s turning nasty fast.”
They grabbed the mules and headed back up the trail, heads down, plodding their way ever higher in the swirling sleet and rain. Soon it was clear that this was going to be the kind of storm that could kill a person out in the open in mountains like these. Lightning flashes lit up the clouds every few seconds and crackling thunder echoed around the high peaks. Rain fell in icy sheets, turning the trail into a stream, covering their boots. Their lanterns were nearly helpless against the black night.
“What did I tell you, Jake?” shouted Russell over the wind. “It’s a real barn-burner all right. Just like that one in ‘71, down in Idaho Springs.”
Jake muttered to himself. The man truly never shut up.
A tremendous flash of lightning struck the mountain about fifty feet ahead, dislodging a large boulder and sending it rolling down the trail toward them. Jake squinted into the darkness but could see nothing. He heard a deep, rumbling sound and yanked his mule off to the side of the trail, just in time. Russell did the same and the boulder bounced by, inches away. It deflected off a rock wall on the high side of the trail and crashed down the mountain into the dark.
“Whoa!” said Russell. “That was close. Maybe we should head back down and spend the night in Georgetown.”
Jake was thinking the same thing when another lightning strike hit the ground right in front of them. The white hair of Russell’s beard stood on end and Jake’s hat flew off his head. Both men instinctively put their hands up, dropping lanterns and mule halters. The animals whinnied and galloped back down the trail toward Georgetown.
Neither man spoke for a few moments. Russell picked up his lantern and looked into Jake’s face. “You okay?” he asked.
“I think so,” answered Jake, his voice shaky. It was suddenly quiet, and it seemed that the storm had left as quickly as it had come.
Russell’s eyes opened wide. “Look at that!” he said.
Russell pointed at the ground.
In the light of Russell’s lantern, the trail beneath them looked shiny black. It was smooth like shale, and drops of rainwater ran evenly over its surface.
Russell kicked at the black with his boot. "Well I'll be,” he muttered. “It looks like a road. A really smooth road.”
Jake picked up his own lantern and stooped down, holding the light against the black surface. He duck-walked around in a circle, checking to see how wide it was. There were dashes of bright, yellow paint at even intervals, right down the middle of it, and there was crushed gravel on both edges.
Jake reached down to touch one of the curious, yellow lines. It was strange enough to make him forget all about that dark cloud in his head, at least for the moment.
"What’s it for?” he asked. “We been this way a million times and there’s never been a road here before. And it’s smoother than any road I ever saw. We ain’t lost, I know that. We were just on the trail a few seconds ago.”
Russell held his lantern high. “It’s coming down from the high mountains.
Who would make a road way up there? Railroad tracks maybe, but not no road. And
what’s it made
"Nothin' I ever saw,” mused Jake.
Russell rubbed the back of his neck and looked around. “Where did the mules go?” he said.
“The lightning spooked ‘em.”
“Helen won’t go far at least,” said Russell. “I got her trained. Why, I think she’s probably...”
"Shhh!" interrupted Jake. He stood with his head down and to the side, very still. "I can feel something coming. Maybe a train."
"A train? The tracks are up over..."
Now Russell felt it too. The hard, black surface was vibrating under their boots, ever so slightly, but the vibrations were getting stronger every second. He instinctively looked up the valley and squinted his old eyes against the rain. There was a light up coming down the hill toward them. No, that wasn't right. There were two lights, side-by-side, coming on fast.
Jake gave Russell a hard shove and the big man fell into a puddle on the far side of the road, rolling over and sputtering. Jake went the other way, diving into the mud on the other side just as the lights were upon them. A piercing sound, like a high-pitched foghorn, blasted their ears as something shiny and silver raced by. The horn lowered in pitch as it went past, sliding down the scale like a train whistle. Jake and Russell, both on their knees, looked up in time to see two red lights on the back of the silver thing, getting smaller and smaller as they faded down the hill toward Denver. Within seconds, the lights were swallowed up by the night and the storm. Then there was nothing.
Russell got up from the puddle and shook himself like a wet dog. On the other side of the road, Jake pushed himself to his feet. Just then, another flash of lightning, bright as day, touched down between them. The road surface hissed like a snake and both men shielded their eyes. Thunder crashed a second later, a harsh, deafening sound that rumbled down the valley floor and echoed all around them. The storm was back, blasting them with sleet and rain.
Both men stood where they were, weaving slightly. Jake pulled his hands away from his ears and shook his head. He found the lantern by his feet, miraculously still lit. He held it high. Where the black, shiny surface had been, now there was only mud and gravel. It was the old familiar Georgetown-Silver Plume trail, just like before.
Russell stood still, breathing like an old bear.
Jake looked both ways, up and down the trail, as if expecting to see more lights coming. He dashed across the trail to where Russell stood.
"Did you see that Russell?” shouted Jake over the sound of the storm.
"I'm not sure what I saw."
"Tell me. Describe it to me."
Russell grimaced. “Well...” he said, “it wasn't no damned train, that's for sure. But I think there must have been somebody riding in it anyhow. Or driving it. And it was fast. Awful fast. And it wasn't on no track. Just that black road. And there was a lit up sign on the back, in between those two red lights. A green sign with white letters.”
Jake’s eyes flashed. “That’s what I saw too,” he shouted. “That’s exactly what I saw.”
“What was it?” asked Russell.
Jake set the lantern down and rubbed his hands together. “Let me think on this.” He began to pace, his boots splashing in the river of water on the trail.
Russell knew enough to finally shut his mouth. This was the old Jake, the one who had talked him into coming west in the first place.
Jake stopped pacing and cocked his head. “The question is not what it was…but what does it mean?” A hint of a smile creased one corner of his lip.
“I don’t follow you,” said Russell.
“Remember what we were talking about just now? What did I say - something about how nothing amazing will ever happen to guys like us? Remember that?”
“Well, what would you call that?” An involuntary laugh forced itself from Jake’s mouth.
“But what was it?” asked Russell again.
“Who knows?” shouted Jake. “Who cares? I think it was a miracle, Russell! An honest-to-God, dyed-in-the-wool, miracle. And we saw it!” Jake began to hop around on one foot.
Russell watched wide-eyed as Jake jumped around like an Indian doing a war dance. Jake tripped and fell with a splash into a large puddle. Instead of getting up, he rolled around in the muddy water, laughing like a maniac.
Finally, Jake sat up and wiped off his face, taking deep, sighing breaths.
“I still don’t get it,” Russell muttered.
Jake stood up, brushing water off his clothes. "This is what I think,” he said. “What we got tonight is a peek. A little peek at something bigger than both of us. Maybe bigger than anybody, I don't know. But whatever it was, we saw it. We probably weren't supposed to see it, but we did. There's something out there, Russell. Something magic. And if a couple of bummers like us can stumble on something like that, we can stumble on anything.”
“Like what?” asked Russell.
“What do you think?”
Russell scratched his head. “Gold?”
“Maybe, Russell. Maybe. We been lookin' for gold for ten years and we ain’t found any, at least not enough to strike it rich. And I stopped believing it was even possible. But if something like this can happen, well, I guess anything can happen. Anything at all.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Russell, still not sure what had gotten into Jake.
“I don’t know about you,” answered Jake, “but I’m gonna find those mules. And then I’m gonna head on up to camp so I can get a good night’s sleep. I’m getting up early tomorrow. And I’m gonna go scratch some dirt.”
With that, Jake picked up his lantern and wandered off down the trail to find the mules. Russell followed doggedly behind.
"You know, Jake,” he said. “We should get somebody to write some of this down next time we go to Georgetown.”
But Jake didn’t answer. He was lost in his dreams as they gathered up the mules. They were the dreams of a young man.
"So you reckon we'll hit the mother lode soon, Jake?" asked Russell a little later.
"Could be, Russell. Could be."
The storm finally blew itself out as Jake and Russell wound their way up the trail to Silver Plume, their lanterns bobbing gently, shining a small bit of light into the darkness.
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