Jim always thought that wetting the desert must be mother nature’s last minute chore before running out the door to more interesting activities. It’s no slow beautiful drizzle, like in the rain forest, or fat drops spread evenly like in the northwest. No, the desert gets a bucket quickly poured over it. Water flows where it may.
The sandy grit washes out of Jim’s long beard when he looks to the heavens. He smiles and sighs with pleasure from the sudden reprieve of the sweltering desert heat.
The plan for today was to search the area just past the Painted Desert Reserve for mine leavings. Small tidbits of gems and crystals are all that is left. Rocks that tiny were useless to larger mining operations, but for Jim’s jewelry making they are perfect. Slivers that when joined together, make beautiful mosaics.
He stands in the canyon between two heavily mined mountains, watching the rain carve small rivers into the hillsides. His eyes are constantly scanning the sand for glimmers of light.
By the abandoned crystal mine to the right, Jim sees movement and looks just as a jack-rabbit disturbs a precarious mound of rocks; it breaks away. Stones slide and skip down to land a few feet from him. Walking over, he finds a boulder split cleanly in two. A vein of something runs through the granite. Hoping for amethyst, he bends to get a better view. A wave of shock runs through him, it’s all gold!
Picking at the nuggets that are easily loosed, he puts them in his overall’s front pocket. Jim figures he will need his F150 for the rest. It has all the larger tools. Parking the truck as close as possible, he gets to work breaking the stone into manageable chunks. It takes repeated smacks with a hammer just to get a crack.
The rain stops as suddenly as it came and now the sun has dried his clothes too quickly. Carrying heavy stones in the high humidity is torture. But it’s work that’ll be greatly rewarded.
While he hammers, Jim imagines all that he could buy with his fortune in gold. Then he thinks, “Maybe it would be better to keep it all a secret. Especially from Sheila.” His wife burned through money, usually faster than he could make it. Jim’s two bankruptcies proved that. It also proved that she couldn’t be trusted with a credit card. Yes, he would keep it secret.
Two hours of rock breaking have worn Jim out. Things began sagging around his fiftieth birthday and he’s just not the work horse he once was. Hearing a vehicle approaching from the south side of the canyon, he begins throwing larger portions of the rock into the back of his truck. Odds are they’re trail riders, or maybe employees of the working mine that’s a couple of miles up the dirt road. Jim tries to appear cool and uninterested. Not an easy task in the steamy weather.
Four men stare curiously at him as they pass in a four door, red Jeep. He appreciates the make of 4×4 and has had his eye on a similar model, but didn’t have the credit to buy. Jim smiled a bit knowing that maybe he could get it after all. The blonde man in the passenger seat smiles and waves, as is the custom. Jim greets him back and they move along slowly, as to not dust him out. They’re almost around the curve when he sees the brake lights flash on. They begin reversing towards him. “Dammit!” Jim turns his head and curses.
The Jeep stops and the man who waved gets out, “Hi Sir, my buddies and I were just curious what you were doing out here?” The thirty something man peers over the edge of the truck before Jim is able to block him.
“It’s nothing to concern yourself with. You can just head on down the road and have fun. I’m fine, thanks for stopping.” Jim directs him back to the ruby Jeep.
“That looked like gold in those rocks, was it?” he asks. The man’s green eyes have become too intense. The other men tensely await Jim’s answer.
Jim laughs loudly and pats him on the back, “No way man, It’s fools gold. I use it to make tourist baubles, you know, like souvenirs.”
“Oh right. I see. Well, have a nice day.” The younger man gets back into the Jeep and the group of men drive slowly out of the canyon.
Jim lets his breath out in a whoosh, and hurries to finish the loading of the stone. A half hour later, he is drenched in sweat but the job is done. Just to be sure he didn’t miss anything, Jim decides to hike up to the spot from where the boulder fell. It’s tough with the thick humidity, but he takes constant swigs of water to stay hydrated.
From the hilltop, he can see for miles. Jim sits for a minute on a large rock, catching his breath. A cloud of dirt sprays up from the ground to his left, immediately followed by the sound of a ricochet and a rifle shot. Before he’s able to process what’s happening, another bullet hits the rock to his right and the sound echoes through the canyon. Jim ducks and scrambles along the side of the mountain, trying to find a shielded place to hide. Someone was aiming for him. A third shot echoed and Jim felt a sharp burn in his left calf. He kept on moving around to the backside of the mountain. He couldn’t afford to stop. With the pain blossoming in his leg, and fear driving him fast, Jim failed to see the gaping hole of the mine shaft.
Down, down, down, he fell. Bouncing along the rocks as he slid further into the pits of the earth. Out of nowhere, he was struck in the stomach with a huge wood post that jutted into the shaft. Jim clung to it for dear life and wheezed until his breath returned. He crossed his fingers that the old timber held.
Shimmying himself atop it, he pulled his body along until he found the wall and an opening in the rock. A tunnel. He prayed it wasn’t going to be a dead-end. Sitting in the tunnel opening with the shaft to his left and god knows what in the darkness to his right, Jim pulled up his pant leg and felt the groove that a bullet had left clear across the back of his calf. He used his bandana to wrap his leg and staunch to flow of blood. Jim didn’t think he had lost much, but again, in the dark it was all a guess.
“My cell!”, he yelled out in excitement and it echoed many times back to him. He felt around and found the familiar lump at the bottom of his right pocket. Jim cried in relief, he’d been fighting morbid thoughts that said there was no hope of survival. Now he would report who ever shot at him, get his leg fixed up, and cash in his gold if it was still there, anyway. Jim was sure it had been the men in the Jeep. They must’ve not believed his lies and circled back to steal the gold. Who else had motive.
The phone gave off light and it was nice to see what was surrounding him. Rock, rock, and more rock, but the blue glow was comforting nevertheless. Jim dialed 911 and waited for a voice. Three loud buzzes went off, then the message that said there wasn’t enough signal to put the call through. Try again later.
“Shit! Shit! Shitty Shit Fuck!” he screamed out and had a mini-tantrum in the four-foot wide tunnel. Stopping when he jostled his leg and it made him cry out in pain.
Jim calmed down and looked at the battery, it was still half charged, enough to call if he got to a good spot. He tried holding it out into the opening of the shaft, but the same voice told him it wasn’t going to happen. He hated that woman’s voice, so smug and happy. He decided that the phone company needed to make her sound even a little upset that she was ruining his life.
In his other pocket he had a crumpled plastic bottle with only three inches of water. He was going to have to conserve it. Knowing there was only a little left made him desperate for a drink. The adrenaline rush, being shot and the fall all gave him a craving for it. He tried 911 again. Nothing. “Dammit!” he said and it was again echoed back. A deep voice called, “Do you know nothing but swear words?”
With tentative excitement, Jim yelled back, “Hey buddy, someone must have thought I was a mountain goat and shot me, then I fell in here. Please call someone to get me out. I’ll give you anything. All the gold is yours, no questions asked. Please just get me out!” He tried to keep from sobbing as he begged, but failed towards the end of his plea. This guy was probably the one taking the shots and wasn’t going to go out of his way to help. They were the ones attempting to murder him in the first place.
Deep and gravely the voice answered, “Gold huh?, sure I’ll help you. I’ve been starving down here forever. What you need me to do?”
“What?!” Jim said, before fear drove the breath from his chest.