Miles from Town: Chapter 9

The night, though cold and moonless, was most uneventful. Again Gil heard the coyotes pad’s gently following at some distance to either side, but this time he welcomed their company, whistling the lullaby, not as a comfort or warning for himself, but for them.

A some point in the dark of the early morning hours, Gil heard a noise he’d not heard in months. After so much time alone and away from the sound of the civilized life, his hearing had grown remarkably stronger.

It was a jet engine, a passenger aircraft high above the desert landscape. Gil stopped and looked skyward until he saw the faint flashing lights of a plane as it rocketed its way in a westward trajectory.

The sight caused an unexpected catch in his throat as he wondered, “Maybe I ought to settle down for a while. A town with a library, a job, and a clean bed.”

The thought held him spellbound long after the aircraft faded from sight. It was enough to lift his spirit, that and the knowledge that he was getting closer and close to his destination with each step.

Before he realized it, the sun was finding it’s way above the eastern crags of the mountain behind him. Another hour of walking and Gil clearly heard the sound of a vehicle someplace off in the very far distance.

Deciding not to stop, Gil gulped down the last of the water in the tin and pushing the empty can under the flap of his rucksack, picked up his pace. He was certain that jus’ beyond the horizon lay his ‘yellow brick road,’ and salvation from the grit and heat of the desert.

It was slightly after noon, when he came to the black top road of U.S. 50. He wanted to sit and rest a spell, but he knew somewhere south of where he was standing was a piece of pie and a soda waiting for him to order.

Another hour passed before he finally spotted the lone roadside diner, a hole-in-the-wall really, but a sight for Gil’s sore eyes. He pull on the door and stumbled to the counter. “A soda, please. Anything wet.”

Wide-eyed, the young woman behind the counter looked at Gil, “Where in the world did you come from?”

“The desert – out that way,” Gil motioned randomly.

She quickly got him a glass, filled with ice and cola, asking “What were you doing out there?”

“Working,” he said between gulps. She refilled his glass.

“So, how far is it to Carson, from here?” he asked.

She smiled, “About 10 miles or so.”

“Good,” Gil said, adding, “Can I trouble you for a piece of pie? Any kind will do.”

Quickly, she cut him a large wedge of cherry pie and placed it in front of him. Gil pulled the last few dollars from his sweat stained shirt pocket and placed it on the counter, “Thank you, ma’am.”

She refilled his soda glass, adding more ice before suggesting, “You can go out back after finishing your pie and wash up at the spigot. Then I can give you a ride into town, if you’d like. Save yourself having to walk.”

Gil returned her smile, “I’ll take you up on your offer. By the way, my name’s Gil,” as he offered her his hand.

“Nancy,” she returned.

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Miles from Town: Chapter 8

He rolled through scrub and over heavy, sharp gravel, finally coming to rest against a large boulder. Gil slammed head first into the rock and laid, dazed, staring up at the constellations, than now included a few that moved when he blinked.

Sitting up after a few minutes, Gil cursed his clumsiness and felt for the small cut to the side of his head. “A fall like that could’ve killed me,” he concluded as he scrambled to his feet then up the embankment to the road.

As he returned to his steady stride, he could hear an odd noise coming from his pack. He knew instantly what it was, but there was little to nothing he could do about it until dawn.

Sunlight could not come fast enough for Gil as he stopped at the first rays and pulled his sack from his shoulders. Opening it, he dumped the contents out onto the side of the road, revealing what he’d knew in his heart-of-hearts all along – both water jars, smashed from the fall.

Looking around in the vague morning light, “I need to find water or else.”

Happily, he’d held tight to the tin from the can of pears he’d eaten the day before, so he knew he had a way of holding water, if he could find it. He waited for morning to come fully awake before assessing his location from the nearest spring.

As they drove to the mine, Smith pointed out cross-roads, where a person could find water. The question was, in Gil’s mind, did he pay close enough attention to what cross-roads were where or how far apart were they?

It was the first time he felt doubt. Gil knew he had to push the feeling out of his mind if he were to think clear enough to figure out his location.

Trekking an hour further, he found his answer, a cross-road with a bullet riddle and rusted sign reading ‘Gopher Springs.’ It was four or so miles out of his way, but Gil knew he had no choice but to head in that direction.

The road to the spring was less used than the main one Gil had been traveling. It was fairly flat and laden with loose, dusty sand that swirled around every time a breeze crossed it.

The mid-morning sun was beginning to heat up the dust and sand, the hotness radiating in the soles of Gil’s boots. He could feel his feet swelling and though he wanted desperately to pull them off, he knew that should he, he’d never get his feet back in them.

Trying to ignore his discomfort, Gil pressed ahead towards the watering hole. He felt his heart skip a beat when he saw the cluster of aspen, a sign of fresh water, in abundance.

Not only did he have water to his fill, Gil had ample shade in which he could rest without having to bodily move himself from time to time. “If only I could stay here,” he chuckled, knowing that he wasn’t about be that fool-hardy.

Sleep came quick and easy. He hadn’t had a full nights sleep since leaving the mine and the idea of rest was a comfort and he folded his hands behind his head and fade in a dreamless slumber.

The sun was beginning to set, when he opened his eyes. Something had awaken him and somewhere in his subconsciousness he knew that something was wrong, that danger was close at hand.

Gil laid still, listening, then feeling. He gently lifted his head and saw that along his left side was a rattlesnake, stretch out, hugging his body from beneath his arm-pit to near his ankle.

The snake had tucked its head under his shoulder and the thought of moving and being bitten sent a wave of fright through Gil’s body. Deciding to risk it, Gil rolled to his right several times, placing some distance between himself and the poisonous reptile.

Much to his surprise the snake hardly moved. Gil knew in an instant what he needed to do next.

Over a small camp fire, Gil roasted the last of his former bed mate. It was the first time he’d ever had a truly close encounter with rattler, preferring to avoid and not confront.

But necessity dictated the rash move on Gil’s part, as he knew the one can of pears remaining would not be enough to stem off the pangs of hunger later down the road. With one more long drink from the spring, and his tin filled with water, Gil hiked back to the main roadway.

Miles from Town: Chapter 7

Gil didn’t worry, did not think. Instead he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as he mentally counted cadence and held his destination in mind.

The road trended roughly southwest, then abruptly cut back in a southeast direction. More than once Gil found himself back tracking to the road, having lost it where another, older road cut through the newer one, the one he was following back to town.

The evening was cool and pleasant, it was the night and early morning hours that were hard to bare as the cloudless skies failed to hold the daytime heat. Gil when from sweating to shivering within hours, still he kept his pace.

Eventually his shadow rejoined him on his right as the moon and the stars gave way to the sun and the coming warmth of morning. Gil knew that soon he’d have to hunt shade and then he could have a bite of canned pears and some water.

Mid-morning, about ten, Gil guessed, it was becoming hot and he decided it was time to find cover. All he could see for some distance was low-lying scrub and creosote bushes.

Because he knew that the roots of the creosote plant poisoned nearby plants as a survival measure guaranteeing the creosote would get the what water came for the sky or ground, Gil decided to select a bush and drape his canvas over it and use it as a form of shade. He’d have to move with the sun, and into the shade to avoid it’s affect.

It wasn’t the most effective technique, because it didn’t allow for a solid period of sleep, but it would keep Gil cooler, than if he laid down with no cover. For the next few hours, he nodded on and off, ate another pear and drank some water, conserving his energy as much as possible.

Soon, the sun was lingering in the west and Gil’s shadow had drifted to his left. Shortly after dark the road angled back towards the west, a sign that told him he was walking in the right direction.

It was the last major shift in the road, though the ruts remained a constant presence, made harder to navigate by a moonless night. The darkness was vast and discomforting due to the stranger noises it offered.

From time to time, he thought he heard the soft foot-fall of a coyote or two as they skirted the brush, keeping an eye on the lone man. To warn them off, and to make himself feel better, Gil whistled a Scottish lullaby he’d learned as a child.

It always made him think of home, a place he’d not seen in a year and a half. As he walked, whistled and listen, he thought of his folks and imagined them comfortably asleep in their bed.

The chill of the night was coming and he discovered another use for the piece of canvas he’d brought along for the journey. Using his pen-knife, Gil slit a space wide enough to fit his head through and after taking his rucksack off, pulled it over his head like a poncho, pulling the rucksack on after.

It wasn’t as warm as a down-filled jacket, but it did cut the cold enough to allow Gil to not feel it’s sting as badly as the night and morning hours before. As he pressed on, Gil continued to count his steps and hold tight to the vision of the town somewhere in the far distance.

Lost in reverie, Gil failed to notice the large drop in the rut ahead as he marched on. Suddenly, he felt himself toppling over and down a rocky embankment, having stumbled into the tire-deep chasm.

Miles from Town: Chapter 6

The end of the month came and went, and no Smith. Gil wasn’t concerned as he still had supplies enough to last another week to ten-days if need be.

Instead of wandering about though, he decided to stay close by, if the old man suddenly showed up. To while away his time, Gil sat on the porch or inside the shadow of the doorway reading.

Ten days had passed, and as he finished up the alternative history, “Aristopia: A Roman History of the New World,” written by a fellow named Castello Holford in 1895, a book Gil found dissatisfying, he understood he was not going to be able to wait any longer. He was going have to walk out of the desert and 80 miles to civilization.

He spent that night tidying up the shack and packing what necessities he felt he would need. Gil also filled two large lidded jars with water and stowed them in his rucksack for the journey ahead.

That night and for much of the next day, Gil slept. He planned to make the hike in the cooler hours of evening, nighttime and early morning, seeking shelter from the blaze of the late morning and afternoon sun. He had found a large piece of faded canvas to use as a make-shift tent if he were unable to find a bush or rock to find shade in.

Before shouldering his sack, Gil scrambled up the rocky slope to where he’d seen Blue Stone break the ridge. He stood looking out over a semi-flat expanse of sage, creosote and sand, but no where did he see the old Indian.

Even with more rest than normal, Gil felt exhausted simply thinking about the long hike. He’d walked lengthy distances before, especially in the Army, but never across such unforgiving land and for so many deadly miles.

Sighing, he picked the rucksack up, slipped his arms through the straps, and turning his back on the mine and what civilization it offered, started down the yellow-white, rutted road of hard packed sand. Gil figured that it would take him at least three days to finally reach the paved roadway.

Miles from Town: Chapter 5

After three months, Gil had established a pattern for himself. He chopped wood and gathered water in the hours just after sunrise, then he spent the rest of his day, exploring his surrounding, including walking back to where he’d followed the horses.

The last time Smith had brought around supplies, Gil hadn’t been there. He had left his boss a note saying he was off looking around and that he’d be back for sundown.

When he returned, the supplies were neatly stacked up on the porch, but Smith was gone. Again the thought of why the old prospector turned city-folk continued to hang on to the claim, found it’s way into Gil’s mind.

“Perhaps, it’s the nature of the man.” He spent the rest of the evening putting away supplies and tidying up the place.

Come the following morning, after completing his chores, he decided to search around to see if he could find a certain sized wire. Gil planned to finally see if he could make a fish-hook, so he could do some fishing.

After combing through a nearby pile of scraps, Gil felt he had a perfect piece of wire to be manipulated into a hook. Through the morning he carefully, shaped and crafted the length of wire into a barb, sharpening it on a stone.

He’d already been hard at work on fashioning pieces of reed into fishing-line following the step-by-step instructions he’d found in one of the older magazines. With around thirty feet of line, a solid hook, an old cork he’d discovered under the counter and some fresh meat, Gil headed to what he’d come to call, ‘Mustang Hole,’ the next morning.

With long shadows falling behind him, Gil stood along the bank of the reservoir testing his skill against some rather large trout. He could see their huge, shiny bodies as they approached the surface, but none had bothered to test his bait.

One hour, two hours and three, with nothing to show for his effort. By then the sun was up and it had grown hot and with no shade nearby, Gil knew he had to return to the mine or risk heat-stroke as the temperature reached the point of unbearable.

Sighing in defeat, he drew his line in, wrapping the hand-made thread around a stick he’d found. That’s when he heard a laugh come from behind him.

Turning he saw Jack squatting some distance away. “How long have you been there?”

“Long enough to be entertained and amused.”

“Well, they’re jus’ not biting today.”

“Don’t have to bite.” He stood up and approached the area near where Gil had been standing.

From a pouch he had tucked in his waist band, Jack withdrew what looked to be finely ground leaves and he spread it across the top of the still water. “‘Totsimatasukwi’ in my tongue. No idea what you call it.”

Suddenly, and if by magic, several large fish floated to the surface. Though amazed, Gil quickly pulled them on shore.

“You get one. I take others. My totsimatasukwi.”

“No complaint from me.”

In silence the two men walked back towards the mine where Jack broke the quietude, “My real name is Sago Ti-bi-chi, not ‘One-eyed’ Jack.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Father named me. Said I was blue and still — like a stone when born.”

“Does that mean you’re White name would something like ‘Blue Stone?’”

“Perhaps. Better than ‘One-eyed’ Jack.’”

“Well, you do only have one eye.”

“Young boy threw rock. Knocked out eye.”

“When did that happen?”

“I can not remember how old.”

“Any idea how old you are now?”

“No. Long forgotten. Old, though.” Blue Stone laughed.

Once back at the mine, Blue Stone continued without a word up the steep grade and out of sight. Gil went to work cleaning his trout, grilling it in the large cast-iron frying pan on the stove.

It was the first time in over a year, Gil had fish for dinner. And he savored every morsel of it.

Miles from Town: Chapter 4

Three days after Smith’s hit-and-run visit, Gil was sweeping out the dust that had accumulated on the floor in the last 24-hours, when a shadow crossed the uneven wooden planks. It was ‘One-eyed’ Jack.

The old man stood there watching as the younger man swept the floor. “You won’t find me doing women’s work like that, beside my floor is dirt.”

Gil looked up and saw Jack smiling at his comment. “Come in, coffee’s on and I’m about to burn some beef in the pan.”

“No thank you, come to trade for eggs.” Joe held up a large rattlesnake that he’d already skinned.

The sight was less than appetizing to Gil and he tried not to show it as he quickly turned to retrieve the brown chicken eggs. “How many?”

“Two.”

“Sure you won’t stay for some coffee?”

“No. Maybe one day soon.”

Gil handed the two eggs to the Indian and watched as he deftly scaled the trail over the berm and onto the hillside, then down to where his claim must me situated. He then turned his attention to the snake that Joe had left setting on the porch.

Not only was it skinned, but he had boned it as well. “Maybe a little flour, some salt and pepper and I might be able to stomach it.”

Gil poured himself a cup of coffee, grabbed Eugene O’Neill’s four act play ‘Gold,’ written in 1923, and headed outside to enjoy the coolness of the morning air. The book with it’s brittle spine and rough, cracked binding about a sea-captain who thinks that a bangle he has found on a Pacific Island is of gold, encrusted with precious gems, although it is obvious to others that it is only two-penny trash, fit Gil’s mood perfectly.

There had been times in the last 72-hours where he’d begin to wonder what it was that caused Smith to cling to this particular mine. From what he’d seen, there wasn’t much in the way of color, nor had the shaft seen work to any extent in the last few years.

The thought lingered, drifting in and out of his mind until he had to ‘put it away,’ as his father said. He decided that the next time Smith arrived, he’d have a letter ready to mail to let his folks know that he was okay and doing fine.

Gil was the oldest of three children; a sister, who was a year younger than him and a brother three years his junior. Each were out in the world making their way as any good child, grown to adulthood, should be doing.

He was doing the same, just not in the traditional sense as he disregarded returning to school after having done poorly as a child-student. Nor did he simply want to work the rest of his life on the farm, preferring instead to travel around the country taking various jobs here, picking up work there.

“Besides, I’m doing alright.” Yet there was a sense of longer for his distant family – a longing he had to also ‘put away,’ as the prolong thought would serve to do nothing more than drag him down into a sadness.

With the door shaved and reshaped so that it closed smoothly and perfectly, and the window sill refitted in the wall, there was very little for Gil to do, other than roam the hillside, the desert and to chop wood. And if he were honest with himself, he preferred knocking about the wilds, not staying close to the cabin and mine.

Soon, he found himself hiking further and further from the encampment. He found wild horse tracks, wild because they showed no sign of horseshoes in their prints, and followed them for nearly four miles.

Eventually they lead him to a smallish body of water that the Mustangs would visit. Upstream was a hot springs, while further south the water was cool, and drinkable.

“If I can figure out how to catch me some fish, that would be great.”

As he walked back, he saw a figure in the far distance. It was Jack.

Gil quickened his pace hoping catch the old man. Unfortunately for Gil, the younger man walked into a slight dip in the earth and by the time he came up on the other side, the old Indian had vanished.

It was the first time Gil had felt the pang of loneliness. He pressed on, arriving back at the shack before sunset.

That evening he had a visitor – Jack came walking down the hillside. “I take that cup of coffee, now.”

Smiling, Gil quickly got a second cup and filled it to the Indian. They sat in silence, watching the stars and drinking their coffee.

“You are a different White man,” Jack offered.

“Yeah? How’s that?

“I saw you today on the flats and I know you saw me. Most White man would have shouted. Not you. You stayed quiet. Make’s you different.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“More good than bad.” With that the old man set his cup down and headed back up the hillside into the darkness.

Miles from Town: Chapter 3

There was no sound. Occasionally, during the day, a magpie might cry out or a loosened rock rattle down the hillside, otherwise nothing – not even the sound of a high-flying aircraft that seemed so common in Death Valley.

At night, Gil was certain he’d heard someone prowling about. It would take nearly two-weeks before Gil would see the lone figure wandering along a trail higher above the camp – an old man in a well-worn leather beaded vest, a floppy, lifeless looking sombrero, leggings made from strips of faded OD-green canvas and rather large six-shooter hanging from his bony frame.

He’d been warned to stay clear of the old Indian because of his unending suspicion of others living or visiting the high desert. However, Gil, being curious didn’t think there could be much harm in finding the old man’s trail and seeing where it led too.

Night after night, he watched the ghost-like figure wander east along the upper ridge, then return a few hours later, heading back the way he’d came. Gil had found the rocky path the Indian traveled, though he could find no foot prints to support the fact that indeed the old man had ever walked that way.

He was scouting the ground, looking for any trace of a foot-fall, when he heard a subtle sound from behind. Startled, Gil turned to see the very ancient looking Indian walking up the ridge towards him.

Gil noted the gun tied to the man’s hip as he approached. He stepped back off the path and allowed the Indian to pass.

He felt for his pistol on his hip as he watched the old fellow continue up the trail without a word. Gil studied the man as he passed, seeing he had only one good eye, the other being an empty socket – thus the name ‘One-eyed’ Jack.

Gil would see the man a half-dozen times before the two spoke a word, then it was One-eyed Jack who asked, “You seen an old goat go by?”

“No,” Gil answered.

“She’ll be back, I guess. She’s old, forgets like me.”

The next time they met was the same day that old man Smith returned as promised. With him he brought more supplies, including some dried beef, canned beans, more canned pears and coffee beans, something the mine-site had been lacking.

The old Indian saw the dust kicked up by the truck first and quickly but quietly slipped over the ridge top out of sight. It would be another three days before Gil would see the man walking the path above the mine again.

Smith got out of the truck and pulled the tailgate down. “You gettin’ on okay by yerself? Was afraid you might have lit out too. Pleasant surprise to see yer still around.”

Gil tried not to let the comment get to him. He might have been a tramp, but he was also a man of his word and when he shook hands on something, he aimed to see the thing through.

Rankled by Smith’s comments, he unloaded and halt the supplies in to the shack while Smith refilled the trucks’ radiator. Gil noticed that in one of the boxes were a number of Reader Digest paperbacks, newer in date than some of the magazines still resting on the shelf in the back of the hovel.

With the radiator filled again, Smith grinned at Gil, “Looks like yer doin’ fine. See you in 30 days.”

Smith wasted no time in firing up the truck and returning to the rutted roadway. This time Gil didn’t stand around watching as the vehicle disappeared – he wanted to go through the supplies, putting stuff away and seeing what else might be in them as a surprise.