Extraordinary America Part V

by: Chris Thompson

A chance encounter with a haggard wanderer sets the stage for the journey’s beginnings….

The lake shimmered brightly on the horizon below, a dazzling cobalt mirror reflecting the brilliance of the warm summer sun. And as we sped along the ridge-line roads the landscape began to change, the far-stretching vistas afforded us by the treeless highlands gradually dissolving as we descended into the valley, the surrounding hills rising up to meet us, rolling by in blurred hues of yellow-green and reddish-ochre.

Like a rising wave of greenery, the hills pressed in closer and closer, their sharply angled slopes dotted erratically with colossal boulders. Jagged, striking prominences towered feverishly above like blackened teeth thrusting upwards to devour the sky, battling with gravity’s pull, and threatening to come tumbling down upon us. The tendrils of long, darkened shadows cast by the hills fell across the dense forests dancing along their slopes, red maple and white cedar crowding the hillsides as they struggled to climb the slanting heights. Through this wild landscape we traveled, each mile carrying us deeper into its realm until eventually, we were swallowed whole by the dense splendor of the surrounding woods. The warm air of the open road was soon replaced by the cool stillness of the Lakeland Valley as we descended swiftly into its verdant depths. And although we could no longer see its iridescent waters, our excitement carried us the rest of the way to the lake with ease.

Hermes navigated the twisting valley roads with skill, like an Olympic skier racing through a downhill slalom. The truck creaked and moaned, whining in protest as its irregular cargo shifted about its battered frame, and every so often Hermes would offer a whispered ‘whoa now’ or ‘easy girl’ to the vehicle as if he were soothing a frantic horse. Waterfalls, borne of rainfall and runoff, thundered loudly down gullies cut deep into the close pressed hills as we traveled, their crisp, charged air adding to the cool humidity of the valley, mixing with the sharp odor of wet moss and fallen pine and the familiar damp smell of clay and decaying wood to create a deeply intoxicating aroma of Summer.

Upon reaching the valley’s floor the road leveled out, its contours unfolding along the rocky banks of a churning stream. The slow-moving waters were populated sporadically by fly-fisherman in chest high waders and thin flannel shirts, angling for steelhead and trout. Their wide-brimmed hats cast dark shadows across their pensive faces and Hermes would honk his horn at each angler as we passed, rousing them from their contemplative recreation, as he thrusted his meaty fist into the air and bellowed ‘Good hunting!’ at the top of his raspy lungs.

Eventually we reached the turnoff for the lake, a dirt access road that plunged straight as an arrow through the forest like a tunnel carved through a mountainside. Hermes pulled his truck off to the roadside, its frame lurching abruptly to a halt amid a cloud of billowing dust and protest from its aging brakes. The afternoon sunlight, filtering through the swaying branches of the towering conifers surrounded us, painting the ground in flowing patterns of shadow and light. And as the trucks engine sputtered to a stop, expelling its last breaths of air through a rattling exhaust, the vast silence of the dense woodland became perceptible.

A dry, weightless breeze blew in as we silently absorbed our newfound surroundings. It smelled of distant campfires and honeysuckle, and as its winds drifted across our path we watched it corralling yellowing pine needles and crumpled leaves into miniature dunes of delicate decay that danced erratically across the ground. Erica turned to me and whispered softly that she had never seen a place so quiet, and smiling, I nodded my head in agreement. She had a point I thought as I looked about, taking in the immensity of the surrounding wilderness, the silence was deafening.

The sanctuary of our muted world was interrupted sharply by a barrage of gasps from the truck’s front cabin and Cough, struggling to find some equilibrium with his newfound milieu, burst forth from its darkened interior, stumbling animatedly as he fought to find his breath. He had been having a rough go of it as we descended deeper into the valley’s world and his body convulsed as it was wracked again and again with spasms. With all the deft and elegance of a blind ballerina, he twisted and turned, pirouetting over fallen logs and twisted roots as he drifted further from the truck, struggling to pull his inhaler from his side pocket and fumbling through his steps as his body surfed through waves of gasps and sobs. Finally, with a trembling hand he brought the device to his lips, and leaning against the trunk of a sturdy pine for support, he breathed deeply of its harsh, medicinal air. Again and again he drew from the canister, each hollow draw sounding like a metallic wave crashing upon a beach of glass as he stared off wild-eyed into the distance, struggling to regain his composure and mindlessly running through his ritual of shake, pump, breathe.

Upon seeing Cough we spilled forth from Hermes’s truck like a throng of sailors abandoning a sinking ship, bending and stretching as we fell into position at the vehicles rear. I immediately went over to Cough to see if he was okay, offering him a drink from my dented canteen that he gladly accepted with trembling hands. He had secretly told me last Winter–as we had sat in my basement with nothing to do but watch the slot cars we raced go round and round a figure eight track, our eyes filling with excitement each time they sped toward the middle, hoping that they would crash–that he rarely traveled outside of town, except for once a year when went he went into the city to see a specialist or a doctor. That had stuck with me and I wanted to do all I could to make sure that Cough was able to see this trip through. To be able to carry with him a memory borne of excitement and adventure rather than of routine and necessity. This was bigger than me now and it wasn’t only about doing this for Cough, it was about doing it for Manny and Kimmell too. The whole lot of them actually. It was about breaking free of the monotony of our existence, of the expectations thrust upon us by adults barely able to hold onto their lives themselves. And it was about getting out of our small town for once on our own, and gaining some real perspective on the bigger world.

Simmons was still in the back of the truck, towering over us as I walked Cough back over to the roadside. With his long, gangly arms, he handed us down our bikes and packs, looking like a dock crane off-loading containers from a ship as he deftly maneuvered in the flatbed. I was thankful to be free of the cramped confines of the trucks bed and as I waited for my bike to appear I stretched out my achy legs by the side of the shadow-filled road.

Hermes stepped out of the trucks cabin and planted his feet wide before me, unaware of my presence as he tossed a bent Marlboro into his mouth. He struck a match and lit his cigarette effortlessly between close cupped hands, letting the glow of the match’s flame linger between his fingers. A man who found beauty in the simplest of circumstances, he watched as the flame fought to survive in the Summer winds, memories of youth and more primitive, visceral ponderings encompassing his thoughts. It was several moments before he noticed my presence and as he turned to face me he breathed deeply of his cigarette, exhaling its thick smoke through cavernous nostrils that wheezed like hissing pipes.

“You’re doing it wrong kid,” he chided me, the half-smoked cigarette hanging from his lip like it was glued there in place, the ashes falling about his face and adding to the greyness of his beard as he spoke. “What you need to do is stimulate the hamstrings!”

“The what?” I said, looking at him funny, unsure if he was telling a joke.

“The hamstrings! Don’t they teach you kids about these things anymore? Jeesh, when I was your age I could name all the muscles in the body plus tell you how to stretch them. It’s the most important way to start the day, stretching. It’s what keeps me so limber,” Hermes said as he took another stiff pull off his bowed cigarette.

“You need to cross your legs and bend at the waist son. Not at the knees like you’ve been doing. You’re not going to get anywhere doing it like that.”

“Oh, okay. Bend at the hips not at the knees. I got it. Thanks!” I said, adapting my stance to Hermes suggestions.

“And remember to breathe. That’s the most important part. Everyone forgets to do that. In through the mouth,” Hermes said, inhaling deeply of the last remnants of his cigarette. “Aaaand out through the nose.” he continued, another cloud of smoke momentarily obscuring his face before its white tendrils dissipated into nothingness around him.

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” I said noticing that Simmons was hoisting my bike out from the trucks rear, its freely spinning wheels flashing rainbowed hints of daylight as the reflectors caught the sun. “I have to get my bike.”

“Suit yourself,” Hermes said, a current of indifference running through his words as he lit another cigarette and proceeded to do a few stretches himself. “I’m only tryin’ to help.”

Once the bikes and packs were offloaded from the flatbed we huddled around its rear, sitting upon our packs as we shared cheese sandwiches and tropical Capri Suns. Kimmel and Tyler were engaged in an animated discussion trying to determine what was going to be left behind from Kimmel’s heavy, overloaded pack. Tyler wanted to toss everything, save the cooking utensils and the food but Kimmel wasn’t giving up that easily. He wanted to keep it all, every contraption and gadget he had stuffed or strapped to his bulging pack. It wasn’t long before Tyler had the contents of Kimmels pack spread out across the ground, like a backpack piñata he had batted open and he hovered broodingly above its contents, stooping down repeatedly to throw spools of wire and handfuls of bungee cords, a bicycle pump and a collapsible army cot into the trucks flatbed as he asked Kimmell over and over again ‘whatta we gonna do with this?’

I left them to their deliberations, figuring another voice would only add to the disagreement and I drifted over to Manny who was sitting calmly upon his pack. He had a book open before him, and I figured he was most likely reviewing some interesting fact he had gleaned from Encyclopedia of the Strange , a book his grandmother had given him for Christmas. Manny delighted in absorbing clever little truths about the world and sharing them with all who would listen. I imagined Manny had one or two lined up for Erica in her future. I could see the wheels spinning in Manny’s head as I walked up to him, his lips moving minutely as he rehearsed his lines, and I punched him lightly on the arm to foster his attention.

“Hey, oww!” Manny exclaimed, his arms going up to cover the pages of the book. “What was that for?”

“Which story are you fixing to tell her?” I asked with a grin as I sat down besides him on the grass. “Is it the one about the Indian origins of badminton? Or the one about the complete history of dental floss? That one’s my favorite you know,” I quipped sarcastically, trying to catch a glimpse of the pages of the book.

“Am I that obvious?”

“Nah, I just know you really well is all. Too well I think sometimes.”

And just as I was about to continue on, amusing Manny with one or two more ways in which I knew him too well, Hermes walked up to the group, a stern look to his face as he shepherded us together with waving arms. The assorted conversations ground to a halt, and fourteen eyes turned in unison to take him in.

“I’ll be back down this way in two days,” he said, his voice commanding and gruff. “After I’ve finished my deliveries up North. Make sure to be here. I have a schedule to keep and I’m not interested in having an adventure of my own trying to find the lot of ya’.”

“Sure,” we all said, seven heads nodding in agreement as we exchanged excited glances with one another.

Hermes walked swiftly up to Manny where he was still seated upon his pack, staring down at him with a penetrating glare. There was nowhere to hide from those piercing, deep-set eyes and Manny looked fervently around for help, his eyes alighting on mine, desperate for reassurance or some indication of what was next. He was only met with bewilderment and concern as I shrugged my shoulders and mouthed the words ‘I don’t know’. After a few tense moments Hermes smiled and extended a burly hand Manny’s way.

“And you are?” he said.

“I’m Manny,” he began. Then, reading the dissatisfaction across Hermes’s face, he caught himself and continued. “Uh, I mean I’m D-D-Don Juan del Fuego.” An uncomfortable laugh spilling forth from his mouth as he looked nervously around at us and awaited Hermes reply.

“Glad to meet you Don Juan,” Hermes said to Manny’s relief, shaking his hand and pulling him easily to his feet as if Manny was made of rags. “Don’t be shy my little friend. Be proud of who you are.”

As Manny flew onto his feet the Encyclopedia of the Strange fell from his lap, landing with a thud and a cloud of dust before Hermes’s feet, its ample pages fluttering about, coming to open at The Story of the Brother Bandits.

“Don Juan del Fuego.” Manny said again, continuing to shake Hermes hand, this time a little more enthusiastically, unaware that the book had fallen from his lap. Hermes released his grip and stooped down to pick up the tome as Manny waltzed backwards, puffing up his chest and beaming with the pride of knowing his persona was accepted. All the while he was looking in Erica’s direction and she smiled playfully at him as she shook her head.

“What’s this?” Hermes inquired, rising up to cradle the book between his brawny hands. “The Story of the Brother Bandits? Hmmm, I seem to remember hearing about this tale when I was but a small lad. Only the story was old then too. Who’s book is this?”

“It’s, it’s mine,” Manny answered. “I like to read old stories about unsolved mysteries and stuff. The stranger the better.”

We all shot each other nervous glances as Hermes fingered the pages of the book. The Story of the Brother Bandits was more than a story to us. It was the nucleus for why we were striking out on this adventure to the lake in the first place. What Manny didn’t say about the story, and the reason why he had the Encyclopedia of the Strange with him would have given Hermes pause.

It had all began last Summer, back at Simmons’s house as Manny and I had sat around his older brothers Cyrus’s room, slumped across the lumpy bean bag chairs that littered his floor and surrounded by black lights and gaudy hair band posters of Poison and Motley Crue. We had listened in intently, hanging on every word, as Cyrus described to us what he and his best friend Red had found at the lake as they camped around its shores.

The week that Cyrus and Red had spent outdoors had been action-packed, filled with endless hours of exploration and adventure as they slept out under the stars, fishing and swimming to their hearts content, and roughhousing when they got bored. They had drank deeply of Summers vigor and were nearing the end of their last day among the woods when they happened upon a chance encounter.

Red was coming back from the treeline, having just relieved himself against a trunk, and as he crossed the grassy field above the lake, to their campsite where Cyrus waited to begin the days adventure, there emerged from the woods a traveler. He had skin that was taught and weathered, with deep-set wrinkles that traced like lines the map of his life. His hands were gnarled like the limbs of an ancient tree, twisted and skeletal and weathered from a lifetime spent battling the world. He gripped a walking stick in his left hand with a falcon’s feather at its top, using it to support his weight as he slowly made his way over to Red.

The two of them shook hands and Red gestured over to Cyrus, indicating he should come their way. Red quickly learned that the travelers name was Timo, short for Timothy, and he was passing through the Lakeland, following the loosely interconnected logging roads as he made his way down to the coast and hopefully, to the prospect of a job.

Timo was a haggard looking man, prone to incomprehensible outbursts and sudden glances over his shoulder without warning. It took several rounds of offers and rebukes before Timo accepted a seat upon the fallen log Cyrus and Red had dragged before their fire. He lay his walking stick across his lap and leaned in to warm his arthritic hands above the smouldering coals of their dying fire, the glowing embers glimmering in the jet-black pupils of his stormy eyes.

“I found me sumethin’ out on the trail back ‘ere,” he mumbled from a mouth filled with too few teeth. Red was packing up the remainder of their food, canned peaches and the last of beef jerky that his dad had made, and Timo’s tongue slithered out from between dry, hungry lips as he watched Red pack.

“What’s that?” Cyrus had said.

“I said, I was walking along the ridge back there, followin’ the spur down to this field an’ I found sumthin.” Timo said again, his eyes locked on the can of peaches in Red’s hand.

“What is it?” the boys had asked the traveler in unison eagerly, excited for the possibility of one more adventure.

“Gimme the resta ya’ food and I’ll show ya!” Timo had exclaimed loudly, startling the boys as he flashed them a clever smile.

“Ain’t never seen nuthin’ like it before and I dun ‘spose I ever will ‘again.” he continued as Red handed him one of the tins of canned peaches. Timo tore the pull-tab top off in a flash and soon the thick, clear syrup was pouring down his chest as he held the can to his yawning mouth, his body making an odd sucking sound as he gorged himself on the sweet, syrupy fruit.

Wiping his face on the tattered sleeve of his overcoat, Timo let out a powerful belch. ‘Much obliged,” he said contently, toasting the lads with the empty can of peaches. “Now lemme show ya’ what I found!”

Cyrus went on to tell us that after they had made the deal with Timo he had taken them back up the spur that lead to the ridge above the field. About two-thirds of the way up its length was a massive pile of timber and earth, uprooted trees and tossed about boulders. It looked as if part of the hillside had fallen away and what it revealed was astonishing. There among the soaring piles of tortured limbs and tumbled stone, splintered underbrush and upheaved loam was the entrance to a cave. The mouth was tall enough for a grown man to stand in and about twice as wide, and as the wind blew by the entrance moaned, a deep and spectral sound pouring forth from its blackened, shadowy depths.

“This isn’t supposed to be here,” Cyrus had said as he pulled out the topographical map of the lake he had ordered from the Geographical Society that Fall. He kept looking at the map and then up at the gaping hole in the side of the hill as Timo sat on a tree branch beside him, munching hungrily on the bag of jerky given to him by Red.

“Where do you think it goes?” Red had asked excitedly, scurrying across the rubble as he pined for a closer look into its plunging depths.

“I have no idea Red. It looks like its man made. Like it’s an old mine or something that got covered up by the forest over time. See those marks there, at the corners and over there by the ground? They look like holes, like maybe there was once a set of doors that covered the entrance.”

“Oh, yeah! Hey, and look, here too,” Red said, pointing to a set of rusted metal tracks that protruded from the stone floor “These look like railroad tracks. Like the ones that carried those mining carts we saw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!”

Manny had picked up on the idea of the hidden mine and had spent the remainder of that Summer and a good portion of the Fall in the library, combing over old newspapers and history books of the area, trying to figure out why there was an abandoned mine on a hillside that didn’t show up on any maps.

Eventually, Manny’s sleuthing paid off. He had discovered that the mine was owned by the Southern Ore Company and had once produced some of the finest garnets money could buy, the whole hillside was peppered with them actually, and back in the early 1800’s, they were prized by jewelers around the world. But it took a Christmas gift from his grandmother, one Encyclopedia of the Strange, for everything to change for us. For one snowy Winter’s night, as Manny lay snugly under the covers, his brand new flannel pajamas wrapping him in a cloak of warmth, he found within its pages The Story of the Brother Bandits. And it was this story, about two bank heist brothers from the 1800’s, who had robbed more banks than they could count on their hands combined, who had been captured but their loot never recovered, that set the wheels of our adventure in motion. For the Bandit Brothers had been tight-lipped with the authorities, never giving up the whereabouts of their plunders. And they took their secrets to the grave, the only clue to the riches whereabouts the whisperings of one of the brothers, as his nurse leaned in close and he spoke to her his dying words…..‘garnet’.

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