They had found the secret cave, Jehrico Taxico and Chico Vestra, 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, bear back at Jehrico and Chico, 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 sputtered 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 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 Italians 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 Palido 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 his missus 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 Jchrico 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 were 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 Apache’s, 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 Apache 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 awav.
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 coring new recovery.
Weeks later, they found the cave entrance gained by a niche in the mountain wall that led 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 Italians 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 four 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 comers 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 chose 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”
This is one of the 11 stories in a collection, “The Collector’s
Collection,” all about a character named Jehrico, a Mexican boy who comes
over the border and makes his way in the old west.
Bio note: Sheehan, in his 95th year, (31st Infantry, Korea 1950-52; Boston
College 1952-56) to be saluted as Saugus Man of the Year on 9/10/22, has
multiple works in Rosebud, Copperfield Review, Literally Stories (UK 200+),
Frontier Tales, and Green Silk Journal, etc. He has 18 Pushcart nominations,
6 Best of Net nominations (one winner). Latest books released are The
Townsman, The Horsemen Cometh, The Grand Royal Stand-off and Other Stories;
Small Victories for the Soul VII; Jock Poems and Reflections for Proper
Bostonians, Ah, Devon Unbowed, and The Saugus Book, among others. His book
count is now at 58.