A threat is eliminated, but fear lingers... soon the past will meet the present.
Jeep sat in his truck in the Diner’s parking lot with the ignition switch off. He stared up at the sky as the sun began its shift to the western side of the range. The day’s over half gone and all I’ve done is act like a crazy old man scared of shadows …
A cluster of clouds began to bank up against the taller peak, shrouding it in a heavy gray mist. He sat in a stupor, his eyes fixated on the roiling of the darkening gray blanket of clouds. A dread set heavy inside him, deep down in that place where a knowing resides. He could almost hear the mountain whispering, ‘I know your secrets’, taunting, drawing him back to that place…waiting.
Fear gripped him squeezing his guts, the pain intense. “God Damn it.” He leaned forward, his hands massaging his temples as he fought the memory away; the one he couldn’t live with. “No… no, no.” His eyes moist, a lone sob escaped before he could get himself under control. Sitting up he took a deep breath and ran his hands over his face, glancing toward the diner where his brother remained inside. “I can’t do this without you; you son of a bitch.”
Outside the entrance stood a group that had just exited the diner. They stood in a cluster staring at the road beyond where Jeep was parked. Hearing the siren for the first time, Jeep looked up into his rear view mirror and saw the flashing blue lights. He watched as the County Sherriff’s vehicle flew by heading west. It was only a moment later that the rescue and ambulance vehicles followed, their own lights flashing with sirens wailing.
Following close behind on the heels of the emergency entourage was a gold Tahoe. Brake lights came on as it slowed and pulled off the road, coming to a stop beside Jeep in the parking lot. Behind the wheel of the Tahoe sat Cal David.
Lowering his side window Jeep looked into the smug face of Cal and asked the anticipated question, “What’s going on?”
“Stu Smithers place.” Cal David was always the ‘go to’ on any and all emergencies. He carried a police scanner around with him like it was a god damn cell phone. Didn’t matter if it was legal or not, Cal was tuned in. If something was happening, or about to happen, Cal was your man.
“You get a hint of what’s going on out there?” Jeep hated to submit to Cal’s pompous need for importance, but curiosity got the better of him.
Stuart Smithers was a cantankerous forty-something guy who lost his legs at age thirty to diabetes. Stu rode around in one of those electric wheel chairs spewing religious crap about the end of days. Grossly overweight and unkempt, most folks gave him a wide berth. Hygiene was not a habit the man subscribed too and within a mile you knew he was coming by the change in air quality. The one time Jeep had foolishly mentioned to him that he stank, Stu yelled; “Don’t you know there’s a drought? Gotta save water for drinking.”
All said and done, Jeep wouldn’t be surprised to learn the ass hole had had a heart attack.
Jeep leaned further out his window to listen as Cal’s scanner began to crackle and buzz. The transmission was full of static making it impossible to make out what they were saying. Cal played with the knobs, but the static continued to hamper any coherent conversation. Cal slapped the side of the console, “Damn interference!”
Jeep had a hard time concealing his smile. As curious as he was, it was always nice to see Cal lose some of his smugness. His family was one of the original homesteaders from way back before California became a state. His forefathers struck it big in the gold fields. They own over 100 acres of Butte property, but also hundreds of acres around the base of the Buttes. That land today houses orchards and brings in a hefty yearly profit. When Cal took over the family business, profits increased. Cal never tired of bragging about how hard he worked, driving to the bank to deposit checks. Jeep knew the truth was Cal underpaid his workers horribly. If the government tightened the border as they threatened and made it hard for the migrant workers to cross… Cal would be in a world of hurt. Deservedly so.
Most of the customers from inside the diner had joined the others in the parking lot when they saw Cal drive in. Jeep noticed Martin was now part of the group of onlookers. Cal was still furiously working knobs trying to tune the receiver in and cussing profoundly. This was a moment of adulation he was missing out on and he was growing more flustered by the minute. “It’s that damn cloud cover up on that mountain of yours.”
Jeep was about to respond with a sharp come back, but he was interrupted by Henry who was coming down the road honking. He watched as the Game Warden pulled into the parking lot and parked alongside his passenger side as Cal was still busy fiddling with knobs; not ready to give up being the one to update everyone on the news of the day.
Jeep rolled down the other window and nodded at the Game Warden, “Henry…”
“Looks like we got your lion.” He looked to the road as the ambulance swept past, lights on but no siren. He looked back to the questioning face of Jeep, “Stu Smithers… he’s going to be okay, a little shook up. They are taking him in just to check him over.”
The group of onlookers had moved over to hearing distance of Jeep and Henry. Jeep could hear the whispers work through the crowd, “lion… Stu Smithers.”
Jeep gave an audible sigh of relief, “That’s good. You say you caught the lion?”
“They caught a lion.” Cal’s voice carried across the parking lot.
A voice called out from the gathered interlopers, “Shut up Cal.”
Henry paused, looked past Jeep frowning at Cal. “I’ll take it from here.”
A red faced Cal sat back fuming at the obvious rebuff from Henry.
Henry returned his attention to Jeep and the crowd. “Actually, Stu shot it.” Henry smiled wryly at the murmurs threading through the group. “Out sitting on his porch in his chair. Sure enough he said he heard him, then he saw him.” Henry waited a second and let the group absorb the details. “He said it headed right for him.” He looked to Jeep, “Stu said it just so happened he had his rifle sitting right beside him, locked and loaded. He got one shot off; the lion was in the air when he got the second one off. Damn thing landed at his feet.” He called 911 and that’s where we found him. Sitting there with a dead lion inches away from him.”
Martin’s voice called from the group, “Henry, is the threat over? Do you think that was the lion doing the killings?”
“I’ve got it loaded in back and on my way to take it to be examined. But I think it is likely this is the guy that was causing all the trouble.”
Martin had moved up and was standing between the vehicles. “Mind if I take a look at it?”
Henry shook his head, “I can’t let you do that, sorry. I can’t let anyone touch him until the examiner is finished with him.”
Martin shrugged and gave a quick glance over his shoulder at Jeep. “Well, glad Smithers is okay and the threat is past us; everyone can relax now.” Adjusting his hat on his head; nodding to no one specific, he made his way across the parking lot to his truck.
Henry and Jeep watched a reticent Cal pull away and out onto the road heading back towards the way he had come. Henry looked at Jeep and winked, “Guess we took the wind out of his sails.” He checked his watch, “I have to get this cargo to its destination.” He started to pull away then stopped, honked and waited for Jeep to roll down his window again. “Say, tell Grace I’ll be by in a day or two for that promised cookie and coffee. I have to go out of town for a day or two…” He paused, “family matter.” Henry pulled out and headed in the same direction as the gold Tahoe a few minutes before.
Jeep watched Henry disappear down the road frowning, Grace…cookies? He reached down twisting the key in the ignition, “come on baby, don’t fail me now.” The engine coughed, then sputtered and died. Jeep leaned his head against the back window of the truck, “It’s been a day.”
The crowd had begun moving on to their own vehicles preparing to go back to their families. They would have something to chat about for a day or two, then they would lapse back into their normal routines with all thoughts of a threat forgotten.
Jeep fought the urge to call them back and tell them the danger still existed. Don’t let your kids and animals romp freely. But if he said anything, he would be viewed as a crazy old man. Jesus Christ, maybe I am crazy. But his gut was gnawing deep down in his knowing place… His foot pumped the gas pedal as he tried the ignition one more time; the engine roared to life.
As he pulled out onto the main road and headed for home the thought struck him; What family? I didn’t know Henry had a family.
Martin silently cursed himself as he exited the diner’s parking lot. He never should have stopped; but he got caught up in a moment of nostalgia seeing the Diner on his drive home from the coast. Truth be told, he wanted to see his brother, the only family he had left. They were both getting on in years… he wanted to set things right...
He lived over forty miles east of there in the foothills of the Sierra. He had made the move after the last encounter he had with Jeep. The one where they both seemed set on killing one another. Their altercation ended them both in jail where they spent the weekend in lockup. It was a long enough time for Martin to sober up and determine he needed to put miles between himself, his brother and the memory.
Jeep had accused him of cowardice. Martin supposed he might be half right.
Martin looked in his rear view mirror at the Range now sitting in the shadow of the setting sun. Damn you, just leave me alone… The truck’s tires spat gravel as Martin pulled to the side of the road and stopped. He sat there looking into his rear view mirror, fearing what he was about to do, what he knew he had to do.
The old pickup executed a U-turn as smoothly as if it were brand new. Martin’s foot pressed down on the gas pedal, determination taking over his good sense. No one was around to notice the old pickup as it disappeared back into the mountain. Martin drove as far as he could into the range, then parked. There was still light enough for him to make the climb safely, if he left right then. He grabbed a bed roll from the bed of his truck and began his climb…
Jeep parked his truck and opened his door to step out. He first heard the loud bang of the door as it slammed against the side wall of the house. He leaned against the now closed door of his vehicle, observing that a fuming Grace was standing on the porch awaiting his approach. Oh Christ…
He considered turning and leaving allowing her time to cool down before returning home. But he was tired, bone tired. He proceeded toward the house, his back stiff and sore. He stopped on the bottom step, his hands massaging his aching back. He looked hopefully at his daughter-in-law for a moment of sympathy; by the look on her face he realized the futility in that… “Grace…”
“Martin?” She spat the words out at him, bathed in accusations.
Jeep froze. God Damn it Mattie… He looked at her and tried a smile to convey she need not be worried. “It’s all good.”
“Good? You and that Gringo are never good.” Her hands on her hips; her internal tirade freed itself and sprung forth. “Have you forgotten the last time? Jail…” Her eyes moistened up. “You were bloody…”
Jeep tried another tactic, a more conciliatory one. “Gracie that was a long time ago.”
“Non…” Her hand swept up in the air, flat palm out in front of her face. “No, what are you thinking? You cannot be in the same room, you fight.”
He shrugged helplessly as he stepped towards the door to the house. “All we did was talk; there is nothing to be concerned about.”
She remained on the porch step, leaning against the railing. “What do you talk about?”
Jeep stayed himself in the doorway; he could feel her eyes burning a hole in his back. He tried to keep his voice nonchalant. “Stuff…” He turned slowly toward her, his eyes carrying the question. “So what is up between you and the Game Warden?”
She stiffened, her cheeks flaming. “What…?”
Jeeps face erupted into a wide grin. “Henry…”
Grace cut his words short, throwing her hands into the air she moved away from the house and a smiling Jeep. “I am not going to listen to this… you are a crazy old man. You and that brother of yours are loco.” She was halfway to the chicken coop when she spun once and yelled at him “loco.”
Jeep called out to her as she swung the door to the coop open and stepped inside. “You don’t have to worry about the lion, its dead.” He waited for a response, but none came… “It’s safe now.” He wished he believed those words.
He watched as she grabbed an old coffee tin and filled it with scratch from a bag. He shook his head as he watched her furiously throwing it around on the ground. He almost felt sorry for the feathered fowl… Better you chickens than me…
Jeep moved deeper into the house. “Mattie, son we need to have a man talk…”
A chill hanging in the air gnaws at his aching bones despite the heat radiating from the embers of the fire pit. It will be several hours before the darkness begins to wane as the sun begins its rise over the tops of the mighty Sierra to his east. For now a full moon hangs low in the black western sky, a blanket of twinkling stars its backdrop.
Somewhere below on the valley floor the Sacramento River courses its way to the delta, its path dotted with the grunge of humanity. Once pristine, the farm land has been ruined over the decades by housing developments and shopping centers. Little is left of the land that once enticed immigrants to this territory; erased over time by modern technology and population growth. As a shiver takes him, he stirs the embers, adding wood to stoke the flames. He was tired but sleep continued to evade him, his mind a labyrinth of thoughts.
Grandfather had brought him to this very spot when he was in his thirteenth year. They had sat, his grandfather telling him the stories and secrets of the mountains. He had listened out of respect, not quite understanding the importance of those stories. The old man with his thinning white hair and whiskers talked into the night, telling him of a sacred place few remembered or believed existed. He spoke of the way of the old that came before, those who believed in Earth Mother, who kneeled and prayed to the spirits. He spoke of Shadows and keepers of a sacred circle… As the moon had reached its highest arc the old man had suddenly risen and said, “its time.”
Martin had continued to sit and watch confused as the old man walked away disappearing into the darkness of the night. “Hey, where are you going?” Only the sound of stone scrapping against stone under the shuffling feet of his grandfather echoed on the night air. He hesitated before leaving the comforting light of the fire. “It’s too dark to be walking around out there. You’ll get hurt, come back here.”
His grandfather’s voice beckoned him. “The light of the moon is enough, come there isn’t much time.”
Reluctantly he relented and followed, he didn’t want to admit to the old man he was afraid. That was the night the course of his life changed forever. He had entered the secret cavern where they had stayed for two days, his grandfather teaching him the ways of those who had gone before. He drank of the sacred brew and visited the world of the shadows…
He had listened as the old man chanted,
“Our ears continue to grow to remind the young to listen.
Our skin wrinkles as our egos deflate with awareness.
Our bones shrink because we are less burdened.
Our hair has lost its color for lack of need to impress.
Our stride slows to allow others time.
Our health recedes making way for an end.
Our fears subside because we accept.
We die to make room for birth.”
The morning he left the mountain he was alone. The night before he had buried the earthly remains of his grandfather in the place the old man had prepared. He understood the secrets the rocks held. He had been chosen by The Earth Mother and the secrets of the sacred circle had been bestowed upon him.
Now, many years later, he wondered what their lives would have been like if he had stayed by the fire that night. If his younger brother had stayed home, tucked safely in his bed where they had left him. Jeep, God Damn him…he had to follow...
He was designated from a very young age… the night the shadow spirit had exposed itself to him… the night he became afraid of the dark.
His time too was growing near to join the shadows, but first he needed to bring tranquility back to the circle. A malevolent spirit was loose roaming the shadowy realm. He doused the fire and followed the light of the moon to the cavern inside the mountain…where he would sit and drink from the sacred brew and seek answers from the spirits in the rocks.