The Riches of Way-So Roto.
I eased off the gas. "How did we get suckered into this fool's errand?" I said. "There's no gold here. Gus spun us nothing but fairytales from the get-go."
"You don't know that. Besides," Alivia flashed a mysterious little smile, as though she already had access to some greater truth that escaped me, "there are more important things than money. Can't you feel the potential--the dormant possibilities lurking in these mountains? I'll tell you what I know: we were meant to come to this place. Discovery awaits us."
Calling the surrounding hills "mountains" seemed generous, but I bit my tongue and kept driving.
Not far beyond the saloon, the pavement ended, and signs of habitation became more and more spaced out. The whole valley was dark with scrubby pines, a welcome change from the baked desert flats we'd spent most of the day driving through. In anticipation of this adventure, we'd picked up a second hand camper-trailer for almost nothing. Its body was pocked with rust, and its interior was several varieties of mismatched plaid, but the price had been right. I still found myself surprised every time I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw its yellow-white shell trailing so close behind us.
Following the directions Gus had given me over the phone, I kept on the road for another mile or so before we found him bivouacked in a clearing surrounded by stunted trees and bunches of cholla. He'd come out maybe a week ahead of us to set up camp.
We pulled in and climbed out of the car, stretching our stiffened legs and backs.
"Hey, tough guy. See you all finally decided to show up," Gus called to me from the fire ring where he had a good blaze going. Though Gus and I were the same age--we'd gone through high school together--most people would take him to be a good decade older than me, partially on account of his having gone fat and prematurely gray, partially on account of his limp. His appearance wasn't helped by his new grizzled prospector look: what hair he had frizzed in all directions, stubble covered his jaw, and you could tell the dingy gray shirt he was wearing was supposed to be white.
I shook Gus's hand and prepared to start into the normal pleasantries, but before I could get going, Alivia said, in voice that shaded toward unnatural brightness, "And who might this be?" It was then that I first noticed the girl sitting on a tri-fold vinyl lawn chair to one side of the fire. Lost in a sweatshirt at least two sizes too large and chewing at the chipped polish on her thumbnail, she looked to be all of sixteen. In no way did she acknowledge our arrival.
Her name, Gus told us, was Yolanda, and he figured with her he'd finally found true love.
I figured she'd lately been, or maybe still was, a prostitute. Couldn't see otherwise why a stringy thing like her would latch on to a sort like him.
There was an awkward pause. "Now hold up," Gus said. "I can tell what you're thinking. And let me say. Never would I involve you all with anything statutory or otherwise untoward." Here he blew a kiss at Yolanda. "I couldn't stand for you to think ill of me. This lady has reached the age of majority and just like the rest of us is doing what she can to make her way in this world."
Alivia and I traded glances but said nothing. Sidestepping further awkwardness, we turned our attention to our new digs.
You had to hand it to Gus, he'd put together a decent spread. In addition to his truck and a small motor home, he and Yolanda had pitched a tent big enough to sleep six. Behind that stood a row of five drums the size of oil barrels--I guessed they held food and other supplies. A pair of clothes lines snaking between tree trunks put the final touch on the camp.
"You stop at the graveyard on the way in? They got a man there was shot by Billy the Kid," Gus slapped the leg of his pants.
At the moment the living played larger in my concerns than the dead. "It isn't going to bother anybody, us staying here like this?" I asked. "There seem to be a lot of people around."
"And every one of them a dreamer," Gus said. "They come following whims and whispers, each to their own ends. Isn't a soul here will bother us."
As Alivia bustled about, putting order to our fledgling life as adventurers--taking inventory of foodstuffs, unpacking, organizing our things, reorganizing some of Gus and Yolanda's--I sat on a rock listening to Gus describe the current citizens of White Oaks: the artists and ascetics who came to be alone with their visions, the hermits who could neither abide the noise of the world nor the quiet of total isolation, those who preferred to make their homes out of history's bones and keep ghosts for friends, the gold seekers such as ourselves. He pointed out Baxter Mountain which had produced most of the gold and was located back the way we'd come from. With the feverish conviction of a prophet or a madman he said, "For two decades every day they pulled forty tons of gold ore out of that mountain. And here's the thing. That's just three mines. Maybe ten vertical shafts. Geologists say less than twenty percent of the gold in the west has been recovered. And there. There's most of a mountain. Just waiting." While he jawed on, the sun fell over the edge of the world, leaving the sky to bleed away its colors. Bats began zipping overhead. From nowhere, a great loneliness set upon me. I should've been prepared for it, seeing as how this feeling snuck up on me whenever I ventured into the kind of outdoors that reminded you the earth was wild once and still in places could swallow you whole. But here I was, as unprepared as ever. Somewhere not far off a coyote started in with its weird yips. Even with the road in view and Gus' yarns about the people we shared the valley with, you could start to fool yourself into thinking you were the first people to ever set foot just here.
Meanwhile, having finished her chores, Alivia unfolded a canvas chair and settled in next to Yolanda. Alivia's cheeks had turned rosy, and the firelight caught and danced in her eyes to magical effect. Even after twenty-three years of marriage, I was at odd moments stricken anew by my wife's beauty. I watched her for a while as she leaned over and tried to talk with Yolanda. The girl tugged the strings of her hood until only her mouth and the tip of her nose showed, tossing out occasional one word replies when she bothered to answer at all. The more distant Yolanda got, the friendlier Alivia was toward her. Sometimes my wife was as foreign and mysterious to me as the Spanish explorers must have been to the Indians when they came marching through the Southwest in their polished conquistador helmets.
"Tomorrow," Gus was saying, "we'll get up early to Way-So Roto. She's just been waiting for another pair of hands or two."
Somewhere I'd lost the thread of his monologue and suddenly found myself unsure what he was talking about. "Way-So Roto?" I asked.
"The gulch we laid claim to. I'm telling you, you never seen such a thing as her. She's as soft and full of secrets as any woman you could want. And dirtier too," he winked. He went on from there, waxing poetic about this glorified ditch of his. I couldn't decide if he was trying to sell me or himself on its promises. I looked the camp over again. There was no evidence that Gus and Yolanda had had any success in the days ahead of our arrival. The only tool I spotted was a shovel lying in front of the tent; otherwise the operation appeared sadly underequipped for any business like prospecting. The way I saw it, we'd spend a week, maybe two, playing in the dirt. Then, when it finally became clear that we weren't going to stumble into wealth or anything else worthwhile, we'd all pack it in and head for home. I'd just have to be patient while things played out.
When Alivia had announced that she was quitting her job at the school so we could follow Gus and his tales of gold to New Mexico, I talked myself blue in the face trying to dissuade her. "If there was a fortune just lying around those abandoned mines, waiting for someone to claim it, don't you think someone would have claimed it already?" I said. "You know Gus is full of nothing but hot air and crazy schemes. We'd be more likely to strike it rich playing the lottery." I said a lot of things. None of them shook Alivia's conviction. Finally, I leaned on my most basic refrain, arguing that we simply couldn't afford to give up our only source of income. At that point I'd been maybe two weeks out of work myself, corporate having cut my position at the warehouse distribution center, and our finances foremost among my worries.
"You're missing the point," she said. "This isn't about making it rich. Can't you feel how out-of-whack our lives have gotten? Just look at all this stuff," she waved her hand to indicate our modest house and all its contents. "I mean, who needs it? It isn't healthy."
I tried another appeal to necessity. "We still have to eat," I said.
She scoffed like I'd told a bad joke. "Don't be silly. No one is going to starve. This will be good for us. Think of it like this: if there's always a net under the tightwire, we'll never perfect our balance." When I didn't respond she took my hand and sat next to me on the couch. For a long time neither of us spoke, and all I could think about was how much I loved this woman, despite her reckless disregard for money.
And that had mostly been that. I couldn't stop Alivia from quitting her job, so I did my best to swallow my concerns as we packed up the things we needed, left our house in the care of an elderly aunt of Alivia's, and took off on an adventure that Alivia was sure would lead to spiritual balance and that I was sure would put us several steps closer to the poorhouse.
Turned out though, I was wrong on multiple accounts. For one thing, there was actual, honest-to-God gold in that gulch of Gus's. We saw for ourselves the next day when he led us into the hills that passed for mountains around here. We started out, him and Yolanda in his truck, me and Alivia following in our SUV, on a route that took us back into the heart of White Oaks. But instead of continuing on toward Baxter Mountain, we turned north about midway down Main Street onto a good dirt road that went up past the old brick schoolhouse. The valley and all signs of its inhabitants dropped away behind us almost immediately. When Gus turned again some minutes later, it was onto a less well-kept dirt road. Before long we found ourselves on a pair of barely discernible tire tracks that cut up and down steep inclines, winding through tight stands of pine. Several times we had to stop to undo wire gates, and more than once I thought we were going to bottom out and get stuck.
Finally, we scraped past a brambly outcrop and came down to a ditch where Gus had stopped. I pulled in beside him. A blue 55-gallon barrel was tethered to the pine next to his truck, and three shovels and a pickaxe leaned against it. It wasn't much, but it was enough to prove I'd underestimated his resolve and preparedness. We all got out and gathered on the ditch's bank. It was a dry, shallow cut through the earth, maybe three or four feet at its deepest. Small divots pocked its bed, apparently where Gus had been turning up one or two shovelfuls at a time.
"So this is it," I said.
"Yes sir," Gus said. "And if you do her the right way, she'll treat you better than you deserve."
The right way, according to him, was panning the dry bed. Because Way-So Roto held no standing water, he had to haul in his own supply, which was stored in that blue barrel. Gold was heavy, he told us, so the key was to dig in low spots, for instance under large rocks where it would catch when rains washed through. He produced a gold pan for each of us, demonstrated where to dig and the right amount of dirt to put in the pan. Next it was over to the barrel where he showed us how to swirl the pan in the water, gradually losing all but the heaviest of sediment. At the end, all that was left was black grit. And gold. Not so much as to make your heart jump. Not even enough to pull a low, impressed whistle from your lips. Just two bright, unmistakable flecks glinting in the bottom of that pan.
"There's your placer gold," Gus grinned.
Alivia leaned in and tried to fish out one of the flakes with her fingernail. "How do you get it out?" she asked. "Tweezers?"
"Best save it all once you get it down to the black sand. We'll separate the gold out later," Gus told her.
"Placer?" I asked.
"That's your gold washes down from the hillsides. You find it in good concentrations, then you follow the colors to where it's washing down from. That's where the money's at."
"Colors?" I asked. But Gus was sorting out shovels and didn't explain.
The rest of the day we spent in the gulch--all of us but Yolanda, who'd wandered off into the trees before Gus had finished his demonstrations--toting pans of dirt out, dumping black sand into mason jars, returning to repeat the process. At first we clumped together, digging within a few feet of each other so we could chat as we worked. But as the hours passed, we moved farther and farther apart, sinking into our own thoughts.
Those moments at the barrel were my favorite part of the cycle. The little circles I made in the water with my pan, the sun's heat radiating off the fenders of Gus' truck, the sight of Alivia's head ducking up and down as she dug into one of Way-So Roto's nearby bends. Plus, there was something satisfying about the way the top layers of dirt swept away in the water, leaving darker and darker material behind until only black sand was left in the pan's ridged sides. All told, we filled almost two mason jars with black sand that first day. We called it quits about four in the afternoon. Yolanda strolled out of the woods on cue, like she'd been lying in wait, watching all our moves. Then it was tidy up and head back to camp where Gus showed us how to extract the gold.
The trick involved mercury, which Gus had another mason jar full of. Apparently he'd spent some time buying up old thermometers at garage sales and flea markets, breaking their stems and collecting their contents.
Gold, for whatever reason, took to mercury the way iron takes to magnets. Which meant the rest of the evening we spent rolling drops of quicksilver around trays covered with thin layers of our black sand, watching as the drops swallowed up bits of yellow flash and brilliance. Once you were sure there was nothing left to pick out of your tray, you transferred your mercury into a glass vial and moved it close to the fire so it evaporated, leaving only grains of gold behind. In the end, we produced just enough gold that day to coat the bottom of an empty medicine bottle.
From there out, that pretty much became the routine we settled into, with only a few adjustments. Probably the biggest change had to do with Alivia's decision to stop coming up to Way-So Roto with us after the second day.
It was early morning, dawn just breaking, and the smell of coffee filled our camper. "So now you're a prospector that doesn't prospect?" I said, continuing a conversation that had dropped off earlier.
She didn't answer from her spot on the narrow floor where she sat cross legged in her stretchy pants, concentrating on each individual breath.
I was at the table with a map spread open, aiming to get a better grip on my bearings. Though I could follow the roads and paths we used no problem, I had a fuzzy handle on how we sat in relation to the rest of the world. Fuzzier than I'd suspected, it turned out. As I followed the hash marks and dotted lines I discovered that Way-So Roto was not on the backside of Baxter Mountain as I'd originally thought, but was instead located one mountain beyond, on Lone Mountain. Also, Way-So Roto was not the gulch's name. I had to look several times before settling on a waterway in the right place, neatly labeled Hueso Roto Gulch.
It was just a few letters difference, maybe a slight shift in pronunciation. Still, I didn't know quite what to do with this information. Somehow it felt I'd been duped.
When I got up to rinse my cup, Alivia unfolded herself and stood, shaking out her arms and legs. She leaned into me and kissed my jaw, a move that caught me off guard. Though she didn't weigh much, with surprise on her side she was able to trap me briefly against the counter. "Have you ever felt with absolute certainty that you're exactly where you're supposed to be?" she breathed into my ear. Then she stepped back, her face breaking brighter than the sun rising outside.
This was one of those times her beauty struck me dumb.
"This is a clarity that will come to you too," she said. "It might take time, but you'll feel everything coming into alignment, I promise."
I didn't know what to say. Nothing came to me, so I said, "Okay," and stepped out the door to go panning with Gus.
But that promise of clarity stuck with me for days. At odd moments I'd find it bubbling up through the loose thoughts in the back of my head, and there I'd be, wondering just what was supposed to be falling into alignment for me.
Eventually I stopped trying to figure it out and for the most part was content to let my days unspool, each one like the last. Gus and I went up to Way-So Roto, Alivia kept her mysteries and her days to herself, and Yolanda followed a logic all her own, sometimes accompanying us, sometimes staying back with Alivia.
Gus had started carrying wire marking flags with us to the gulch, which he planted in spots where placer traces seemed heaviest. From there he did weird, jerky crabwalks up the hillside, looking to strike pocket gold. I'd offered to tag along, but he told me we couldn't afford to lose what production we had in panning. And so I usually found myself trekking alone along the gulch bed, choosing my spots.
It'd taken awhile, but after the first week I managed to make a peace of sorts with the loneliness these hills inspired in me. Never could shake the sensation completely. But I came to appreciate its stark quality, the kind of quiet you could find sitting on a rock while listening to insects hum around you. Also, it helped that the wilderness wasn't quite as unmarked as I'd first thought. Especially after rains you'd find things in the gulch: a button, a corroded beer can with a cone shaped top, chucks of green and brown glass that had worn smooth like river rock. Once I even came across a zinc lunchbox.
The sky was overcast that day, flooding Way-So Roto with a flat light that put sharp edges on everything in sight. I'd been poking around all morning, not really in the mood for serious panning. Just ahead, a nice sized rock with a concave top sat overlooking the gulch, as inviting a chair as nature ever created. Deciding it was time for a break, I laid my shovel and pan against the bank and took hold of a braid of exposed tree roots that offered a means to haul myself from the gulch. But when I pulled to see they wouldn't come loose, I felt something foreign lodged behind them. Brushing at the dirt with my fingers brought out the corner of something metal. I worked at it some with my hands, but finally had to get the shovel. When the thing came free, it went rolling down the bank with a hollow clatter. It was a lunchbox with that old-fashioned barn shape, a solid rectangular base with a pitched roof on hinges.
As I picked it up for a closer look, something small inside slid and rattled against the box's walls. The metal was dented and discolored, and it was hard to tell exactly where the dirt ended and the powdery white and red corrosion began. In front there were places for two clasps to hold the lid closed, but both were missing. At first I thought I'd broken them off prying the box loose, but a second glance showed the damage wasn't recent. For all its wear, the box remained solid. However long it'd been tangled behind those roots, the years hadn't managed to eat holes in its walls.
I tried the lid. Even without the latches, it was stuck fast. Oxidation must have sealed it to the base. So I gave the box a shake, listening to the thing inside bounce around. Didn't weigh much, whatever it was. Judging by the thin tink tink sound it made when it hit the metal, I guessed it probably wasn't much bigger than an acorn.
I set the box on the floor of the gulch and considered. Possible, of course, that a flash flood had carried it down from higher up, lodged it there and buried it. But its position behind the roots seemed deliberate. For one thing, it was unlikely the lid would have settled closed so nice and tight after being battered about by floodwaters. For another, the box had been almost perfectly level in place, sitting just as pretty as if it had been left on a table. No, someone had to have hidden it there.
Ear to the box, I gave it another shake. Couldn't be a cache of any kind--a thief wouldn't bother with so slight a haul, a hunter or a trapper would require more sizeable supplies. And even if it was something like a gold nugget stolen from one of the old mines, its value wouldn't be worth the effort of concealing it like this. More likely it was some personal trinket or souvenir. I set the lunchbox on the ground again and put myself to another round of considering, wondering if I'd have more luck getting it open by hitting it with the shovel or with a rock.
Startled, I stepped back and lost my footing, coming down hard on my tailbone. On the rim of the gulch above, Yolanda crouched, arms hugging her knees to her chest. That girl could move like a ghost when it suited her. I picked myself up, wincing as I rubbed out the soreness.
"What's that?" Yolanda nodded toward the box. Her voice was as flat as the light that filtered through the clouds.
"This? Nothing, really," I said. "Just a lunchbox." I thought she would pry some, seeing as how the lunchbox was obviously beyond its time of use. But she didn't. She just sat on her heels and looked me over. Some minutes passed while I waited for her to make her intentions clear.
The situation had outstripped uncomfortable and was well on the way to awkward by the time she spoke again. "Your wife?" she finally said. "She can be a little bitch sometimes."
This caught me like a sucker punch. Yolanda's voice had stayed flat, as though she was stating a simple fact we could agree on. No indication she was trying to get a rise out of me. "What makes you say that?" I asked.
"I don't know," Yolanda rocked back and forth on her heels. "She's got these books? And they're full of pictures of birds and trees and stuff? She's always trying to get me out in nature so we can compare stuff we see to the pictures. Like I should care how cedar needles are different from ponderosa needles or what kind of chipmunks live here. And the whole time it's like, it's just another tree. You know? It's just another stupid mountain mouse."
"Well. She used to be a teacher until a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it's just habit. You're not much older than her students," I said. "Try telling her you're not interested."
Yolanda's face showed splotches of red, as though her cheeks and forehead had been exposed to winter weather. "I did. I told her. But now she wants me to go meditate with her and her girlfriends. And it's like, why can't she just leave me alone? She's not my mom."
Girlfriends? I hadn't realized Alivia had met anyone in White Oaks. I watched the tips of Yolanda's sneakers rise and fall as she flexed her toes, thought about asking her for details. But then I decided it would be best to play like none of this was news to me. I shrugged and said, "Sometimes it works best if you just go along with Alivia. She means well. Why not try it out, and if you really hate meditating, she'll let you off the hook." I took up my shovel and started scraping down toward bedrock.
Yolanda watched me work for a while.
"Do you like it here?" she asked suddenly.
I stopped and leaned on the shovel. The smell of dust and rock filled the gulch, and a songbird picked that moment to let out a few bars of melody. I turned to look up at the sky, at the curves of the hilltops standing against it. "It's all right," I said, surprised to find I meant it. "How about you?"
No answer. When I looked back, Yolanda had disappeared.
The rest of the day I spent sitting in the bottom of the gulch, trying to get the box open. With a rock the size of a softball, I pounded on both the hinges and the place where the latches used to be. I pounded on the corners and on the long seams between the base and the lid. When that didn't work I tried to wedge the shovel blade into the seam and pry the halves apart. The box dented and its corners crumpled, but it didn't give. It could have been welded together for all the success I had. In the end, I was left holding it in my lap, my thoughts echoing thin and tinny against my skull, as undefined as whatever was trapped inside the box.
That night I approached Alivia after dinner while we were washing silverware in plastic tubs outside our trailer. "Yolanda tells me you're trying to rope her into a meditation group," I said.
Alivia laughed. "You make it sound so organized. Every couple of days I get together with some of the ladies in White Oaks, and we do a little bit of yoga. That's all."
I took a fork from her and dried it. "Yolanda doesn't seem much taken with the arrangement."
Alivia pursed her lips.
"Why don't you leave off?" I said, "She feels like you're mothering her."
Alivia lowered her voice almost to a whisper though neither Gus nor Yolanda was in earshot. "I'm worried about that girl," she said. "She isn't engaged in anything. All she does is mope around and sulk. And no wonder. She has no friends here her own age, she has no outlets for her energies. She needs boys and parties and gossip. I'm just trying to give her something to do."
We finished washing the silverware in silence before moving on to cups and mugs. I pretended to slip and splashed some water at her. She put on an expression of mock outrage and twirled the dishtowel into a rope that she snapped at my backside. And that was pretty much the end of our discussion about meditation groups.
It wasn't, however, the end of our discussion about Yolanda. At Alivia's insistence, I started paying more attention to what the girl did with herself. And truth was, as far as I could tell, she didn't do much. She didn't read or draw, she didn't take Gus' truck joyriding or turn the engine on just to listen to the radio, she didn't sunbathe or thumb through old fashion magazines. She ate with us at meal times, and she would sometimes accompany one of us on errands. But otherwise she mostly kept to herself. The only time I saw her taking an interest in our activities was when we used mercury to take gold dust from the black sand. But even then, her interest was pulled back from us. She'd sit to one side, chasing a bead of mercury around an empty tray with her finger, occasionally breaking it apart to watch the liquid fragments scoot around finding their way back to each other.
Once I came back to our camper around midday and found Alivia mopping something gooey from the counter and floor. Her face was tight, her eye lids puffy in a way that said she was upset but hadn't been crying.
"What's all this?" I asked.
"Nothing," she said. Then, "A peach cobbler."
I dabbed my finger at a glob running down a cupboard door and lifted it to my tongue. "What gives?"
She braced both hands against the counter and leaned into it like she was deciding whether or not to tell me the story. "Yolanda was... helping me with it."
I didn't press for details. Everything I needed to know was there in the mess as we wiped it away.
Whatever passion had flared in our kitchen that morning, I never myself witnessed a flicker of it in Yolanda. In fact, as distant as she seemed in all regards, I sometimes wondered if she slept nights either in the tent or Gus' motor home while he slept in the other. It was hard to picture her staying close to anyone for any extended period of time. I tried to ask Gus about their relationship, tried to get an idea of what it was they had together, but he always mistook my meaning. He'd wink and say something like, "Won't get details from me, tough guy. A gentleman don't tell."
And so there was nothing to do but step back. If things were indeed going to come into alignment and clarity, hopefully they'd do so for all of us. We continued as we had, Gus and me panning, Alivia meditating, Yolanda being indecipherable. From time to time I snuck off to pull my lunchbox from its hiding place and daydream about what its contents might be. I made a couple more unsuccessful attempts to get it open. Probably the thing inside was nothing but a spare button or a cherry pit left behind from some lunch long ago, maybe a worthless pebble that had gotten in unnoticed. Still, I couldn't keep away. Days we went panning, I found myself slipping off to take the box out and examine it for a few minutes at a time, drawn to the sound of untold possibilities rattling in its belly.
Of course, as it eventually had to, the issue of money came to the forefront. Alivia and I had been in White Oaks about a month, using savings to pay for our share of camp supplies, and our financial situation was edging toward desperate. So we had a sit-down. Gus produced the little medicine bottle that held our gold dust, and we marveled at how little had accumulated in its bottom. The gold rose to a height of maybe half a finger width. "Don't worry," Gus told us. "I'll have you know. A little of this stuff goes a long way. One ounce. Just a single ounce brings more than a month at minimum wage."
"About how much do we have there?" I asked.
It turned out none of us had a much a concept of what an ounce of gold looked like.
"An ounce isn't much," Gus said. "Not much at all. We got at least one ounce there for sure. I know it. Probably more."
We all looked at the bottle and thin layer of wealth it held.
After a minute, Yolanda spoke, "No one even thought to bring a scale?" She looked straight at Gus. "That's genius."
For the first time I saw him show irritation with her. He lowered his voice, as though to avoid drawing even more of our attention, and said, "Don't let's fight in public." Then, in a brighter, louder voice he said to me and Alivia, "Not to worry. I know a guy in Santa Fe can take care of us. He'll get us assayed and smelted and squared away."
It was too late in the day to get underway, so we decided Gus and I would head north in the morning while the ladies stayed behind. By way of preparation, Gus threw a bottle of water into his truck and tucked the bottle of gold dust into the glove compartment. "Well, tough guy," Gus clapped my shoulder, "now that that's taken care of, how about we head down to the No Scum and get us a beer. My treat."
Given my concern about the bottom line, I hadn't yet set foot in the White Oaks saloon. But if Gus was paying, I was willing to go along. We set out walking at a leisurely pace. Even on ground that was mostly level, Gus couldn't move all that quick. You'd think with all the stomping we'd been doing up around Way-So Roto, he'd at least be in shape, but halfway into town he was getting short of breath. Beside the road we found the remains of an old adobe wall where he could sit for a bit.
While we were resting there, the dull roar of a vehicle began to grow back in the direction we'd come from. "Who do you suppose that is?" I asked. Gus didn't answer. Out where we'd set up camp you didn't see a lot of traffic going either way.
We waited and watched. The sound of the engine mounted, and the vehicle crested a high spot on the road, bursting into view with a plume of dust billowing behind. No mistaking it, it was Gus' truck. And the slight figure behind the wheel could be no one but Yolanda. She had the windows down, and her hair was loose, flying wild. The truck was coming on at a good clip, much faster than you were supposed to drive roads like this. If she saw us, she gave no sign, not so much as a glance in our direction. She tore by, the sound of the engine and the tires against the earth suddenly deafening. Then she was past, the furious noise of the truck fading off down the road. We blinked in the dust.
Gus was too stunned at first to do anything. After a moment, he said to the air, "She's got our gold." He hopped up, skipping on his good foot. "Hey!" He stooped to grab a stone and hurled it in the direction Yolanda had driven. "Come back here," he yelled, scooping up and throwing more stones. "Come back here, you worthless whore!"
When we got back to camp, Gus jumped straight into the driver seat of his motor home, brought it sputtering to life, and took off after her. It was something to see, that big ungainly thing lurching down the road. Even if he knew which way she went when she hit pavement, anyone could tell he'd never match the pace she'd set, no matter how he pushed it.
I found Alivia sitting on the floor of our camper in front of the kitchen sink.
"Yolanda's gone," I said.
"I know," Alivia said. She looked down to one side. Half a red handprint showed on her cheek.
We sat for a long time without saying anything.
"If there was any place left in America where you could cut through the noise and find your true self, I thought this would be it," Alivia finally broke the silence. "I thought everything was clear before us except for one final, unparted veil. You could feel it, couldn't you? The sense that things were coming into balance and we were walking right on the edge of enlightenment? But then--" she snapped her fingers in place of finishing out the thought.
I thought she was going to cry, but she didn't. She just sort of deflated, her shoulders rounding forward. I took her hand. After some time passed, I gave it a light squeeze and she squeezed back. "Why don't we take a quick drive," I said and helped her up from the floor.
Once we were in the car she kept shooting me quizzical looks, but I played coy, not letting on where we were going. Of course, it didn't take her long to figure out I was taking her up to Way-So Roto. Even though she didn't say so, I saw the recognition in her face when we turned past the school house in White Oaks. Always before when we'd come this way it was in the company of Gus and Yolanda. Turning onto those rough Forest Service roads without either of them now felt somehow clandestine. I went slow, taking the steep ups and downs all the way to the foot of our claim where the blue water barrel still waited. From there I led Alivia on foot along the bed of the gulch, stepping around large rocks and over the occasional fallen branch. It was getting late in the day, but there was still plenty of light to see by. Alivia kept pausing to take in the hillsides, her eyes tracking up to find the sources of birdcalls. With all the weeks since she'd last set foot up here, it must have seemed almost new to her.
We finally reached the place where I found the old zinc lunchbox. The signs of my activity were hard to miss: boot prints, scars where I'd dug in the gulch bed, a wash of new dirt spilling down the wall where the box had been stuck. I reached behind the braid of roots and took my discovery from its hiding spot.
"A lunchbox?" Alivia said.
Glad my attempts to get it open hadn't dented it beyond recognition, I grinned at her, then turned and used the roots to pull myself up to level ground. I helped her out of the gulch, and we made our way over to the chair rock with the concave top. Alivia sat, and I handed her the lunchbox. As it passed between us, the thing inside rolled, pinging against the walls. Much like I first had, Alivia held the box to her ear and gave it a small shake. "What's that?" she asked.
"I don't know," I answered.
She gave it another shake, harder this time. The rattle it made hung for a few seconds in the air. With both hands she held the box out at arm length, considering. After a moment she started shaking it again, slowly at first, then with greater and greater abandon, producing a strange metallic music that jangled among the trees and bounced off the banks of Way-So Roto. As you listened, you got caught up in the ebb and flow of the rhythm, in its anger and frustration and release, in the way you could almost hear the past--and maybe the future too--knocking from inside that lunchbox. It was a sound that jarred you loose from yourself.
Above, the sky was gradually losing its blue, paling to near nothingness at its edges, and for maybe the first time since I was a little kid, I started to feel like anything was possible. Like I could take Alivia by the waist and carry her to that razor line between the earth and the heavens, and we could part that veil, letting everything else drop away behind us as we stepped across the threshold.
In the blunt grasses on the other side of the gulch a grasshopper whirred, then whirred again, like it was trying to harmonize with the beats of the lunchbox. Lightly I put my hand at the base of Alivia's neck. I could almost feel her bones pulse and vibrate with this music she made. Somewhere far off a coyote howled, its high and lonely voice carrying over the top of the song. "Listen to that," I said. "Just listen to that."