SUNDAYS WERE ALWAYS HARD on the old man. It was only the beginning of the week and already he felt empty and drained, like rain barrel in a dust bowl. It had been that way for the last forty years. Lately, it seemed like time was passing him by; and at his age, time was becoming a very valuable commodity. He was old and tired; but he still had one more adventure left in him. And so, he went to bed early that night, thinking things might soon take a turn for the better and hoping for the best. He was feeling lucky. He said a prayer, and then tried to get some sleep
It wasn't the sound of the whippoorwill that had him pacing circles on the floor of his bedroom that night. Nor was it the frightened starling that flew in through his window scaring his wife half to death and sending her down the stairs to sleep on the sofa that tormented him so -- No. That wasn't what was keeping him awake. It was a toothache. Well, not really a toothache...But damn it! That's what it felt like.
He'd had them before, and it really didn't have anything to do with his teeth; the old man had actually lost all of his years ago, either naturally or at the hands of some sadistic dentist. And still, it hurt like Hell. The symptoms were all there: the throbbing, the soreness, the irritability, the restlessness, the sleepless nights, constant frustration, the nagging helplessness… and the pain, of course.
You name it! They were all there. Well, maybe not physically; but they were there mentally. It was a toothache, and if you ask anyone who'd had them, like the old man for instance, they'd tell you it hurts just as bad, maybe worse, just like it had for the last forty years.
He'd sometimes wished it would just go away; the pain, that is. It never did, of course. Sometimes he would forget about it for while; but it always came back, usually on nights such as these; and then, it would hurt even more. And there was nothing he could do about it. At one time the old man thought he might eventually get used to it. That didn't happen either. The pain came back. It always came back, like sin.
Well, it's about time..." said the old man, dragging his tired feet across the hardwood floor of his own bedroom the following morning.
He was in the winter of his life by then and his teeth still hurt; but he was alive, and that was enough, for now. And it was a good morning after all, one of those mornings that somehow reminded him of younger years when the pain, the yearning, was only just beginning and he didn't seem to notice it that much. Sure it hurt, even back then, like a needle piercing a raw nerve at times, the pain being temporarily mitigated somehow by the sheer exuberance and wild-eyed wonder-lust of youth, the joy, the delightful and desensitizing detachment that we are mercifully provided, if only for a few fleeting years, in those golden salad days of our yesteryears that can never be reclaimed or rekindled. And quite frankly, under those circumstances, he'd hardly noticed the pain at all. But those days were long gone. They didn't last forever, as he once thought they would, or should, and had long since passed away into mere memory. Since then, the pain had only grown worse.
Time has a way of abating such natural anaesthetics, rather cruelly, it seems, and without pity. But time also has a way making the pain more bearable, less sensitive. Recently, the ache had become dull and steady, like a dry hangover that that never went away. It drove his wife crazy sometimes, especially at night when it was most pronounced. It was burdensome, just like everything else in the life when two lonely old people were just trying to look out for each other in the Autumn of their lives.
He rarely complained anymore; he knew it wouldn't do any good. At the ripe old age of seventy-two, one might've thought that any sensation, even a painful one, would be better than none at all. But don't tell that to an old man with a toothache; if fact, don't tell that to anyone.
The years had passed by quickly for him, too quickly, as they do for most old men with aching teeth that aren't there anymore. He could hardly believe it'd actually been forty years since he'd first discovered the gold mine up in Wainwright's mountain. Sometimes it seemed like it happened four hundred years ago; other times, like these for instance, it felt like it happened only yesterday. Sometimes he wondered if the gold would still be there, after all these years. Did anyone remember? He'd told the story often enough, which he now regretted. Maybe they'd simply forgotten. Maybe they never really cared. Perhaps they weren't even listening; they never seemed to believe him anyway. And what the hell, it happened such a long time ago.
Whether or not the old man had actually found the mortal remains Cornelius Wainwright, the gold, or anything else pertaining to the failed expedition, was always a subject of debate. The members of the original posse could never agree on exactly what had happened that day up in the mountains; and most of them were dead by now anyway.
The tale the deputy had told them was just too unbelievable, even for the old man who had a talent for stretching the truth now and then, and just as fantastic. There was really nothing to substantiate the incredible story of golden caverns and man-eating cannibals except for the words of one old and lonely man; and we know how unreliable they can be at times. And considering the source, even if there was truth, who would ever believe it? Where's the evidence? Show me the proof!
Nothing was ever brought back from the mountain that day, certainly not any gold. And the claims he'd had made at the time were simply too outrageous, too incredible, especially the part about the flesh eating Ferals and the shrunken head of the lost gold miner with the bottlebrush moustache. He could never prove it. There was simply was no evidence. Nothing! Not one once of gold did he return with; not even a single hair from dead man they had gone searching for in the first place. There was nothing to show for his efforts, or his courage in the face of danger and certain doom, other than a tale of woe that remained dubious at best and a lie at worse. It was still hard to believe after all these years. All that remained was an old yellow piece of paper he'd kept tucked away in his pocket for the last forty years. It was the map.
But the question remained: What about the gold? You know, 'The Mother-lode!' as the old man so eloquently described it many years ago, along with a hidden Temple of the same yellow substance inside the mountain. And didn't the deputy also mention something about a mysterious black stone he'd found there, inside a...golden tabernacle? Those were his exact words. That's exactly how he had described it. Could it be? Well, legends being what legends are made of, you decide what is true…and what ain't. And whatever you do, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The old man never did. He was known to spin a yarn or two, and, over the years had become quite proficient at it. But that was then and this is now. He only hoped he hadn't said too much, even if he had exaggerated the tale more than he should have, or waited too long. But this time he was telling the truth, albeit only to a select few. He had to. He had no choice. It was the only way he could get Red-Beard and the four horsemen to believe him. And even they were sceptical. But they all came, eventually; and they were all there that morning, watching and waiting in their tired saddles, with a few aching teeth of their own.
Time has a way of changing things, he reckoned; it changes minds, too. People forget. They move on. They die. Eventually they get buried and become, as the diplomatic philosopher once observed: 'food for worms'. They turn to dust and are forgotten. But not gold! No one ever forgets that; not anyone I know of at least, and not for very long. The old man never did. Iron rusts and the days grow shorter with each passing year. But gold survives.
The map he'd sketched out forty years ago was now as thin and wrinkled as the transparent skin on back of the old man's wrinkled hands, the capillaries of which were visible and clearly defined as the thin lines on the parchment itself. If held up to the slightest breeze, the map would surely disintegrate as if blown away like a dandelion in the wind. He kept it in his pocket, all the time, even in his sleep, and after all these years. He was still afraid that someone might try to steal it.
And that's what had kept him alive all these years -- the gold! That familiar yellow spectre that for so many sleepless nights haunted the old man like a grinning and glowing ghost creeping through his bedroom long before dawn, climbing under the covers and whispering into his ear the sad and simple secret that he still, after all these years, refused to believe: 'Thems that want don't get.'
Of course, it only made the toothache worse; and it made him want the gold that much more. It was a tooth, a golden tooth that had him pacing circles on the bedroom floor like a goddamn fool all night, making him do what in his own natural mind he knew was a sin. But there was something else besides the gold, something dark and round, black and evil, perhaps, as dark and evil as his own mercenary heart, and as secretly hidden.
And what about the Ferals? You know, the bloodthirsty flesh-eating cannibals the old man claimed to have found at the end of a long and dark tunnel that day, sitting cozily and comfortably by the fire, and picking their defiled teeth with bones of the dead man. Were they really the same wild savages, the illegal slaves brought over from the Islands by the greedy prospector to mine the unholy hill known to this day as Mount Wainwright? Or, did the old man just make that up too? And was poor Cornelius really 'boiled alive' like he said? Did the cannibals really partake of his ill-fated flesh in the manner prescribed by their own barbaric and aboriginal custom? Well, that's the way he remembered it. He was there. That was his story, and he was sticking to it; and so were the four horsemen and the others.
But there was someone missing that day. His name was Elmo Cotton, a young man from Harley whom the old man had grown very fond of lately. He was still at home in bed with his wife…but more about him later. There was one other person involved in the events about to unfold, someone the old man wasn't even aware of, although he sometimes had his suspicions.
His name was Tom Henley, an aging but agile old prospector who lived up in the hills with his only son, Zack, not far from where the old man was headed that day with Red-Beard and his band of treasure hunters. Some say Tom was crazy, 'teched' as they say, 'not right in the head'. Others claimed he was the last real mountain man left alive. Both were right. But Tom Henley was more than that -- much more! He was what you might call an 'educated hillbilly'. He'd lived the city and been to the mountain, although he'd always preferred the later; and he'd even been to college. He was at home among kings and counsellors as he was with bears, beaver and wolves. He believed the old man when no one else did. He was the last of his kind.
The old man rarely spoke of the gold anymore, not as much as he did forty years ago when the tooth first began to ache. He had his reasons for keeping silent on the subject, which may or may not be apparent by now. But that didn't stop him from talking, especially when he'd been drinking, which, for whatever reason, he still enjoyed from time to time in the company of those he knew, or at least imagined, he could trust. Like all old men with invisible aching teeth, he still liked to hear a story now and then; and he liked to tell them, too; and he had many. It was something he just couldn't resist, no matter how hard he tried. Lately, however, he was a little more careful about what he said and to whom he said it.
There were so many stories surrounding Cornelius Wainwright and the lost gold mine, that everyone knew it was only a matter of time before someone tried to proved them right or wrong. Nobody expected it would be the old man himself who would finally do it; after all, he was so old, so tired, and so...
But that's just what he wanted them to believe. That was the way he'd planned it, the way he wanted it. The gold was his, and that's all there was to it. He'd found it, no one else. It belonged to him, even though he never officially staked his claim. He had the map to prove it, and that was enough. Now all he had to do was go back and find it.
But time was no longer on his side. He was getting old, just like everyone said, and he knew it. Gold, like time and tide, wait for no man. His only hope was that it would still be there when he arrived to re-claim the long lost treasure. As for anything else he might find there...well, the old man just didn't think about it anymore.
He no longer thought about the cannibals he'd once spoken of in such horrific detail, or the mysterious black stone he'd found inside the cave, the one that prayed on his mind for so many years. Surely, they were all dead by now, just like poor Mister Wainwright. There was only one way to find out, of course. He had to go back, back to the mountain.
The old man knew he'd go back. He had to. Come to think of it, he really had no choice in the matter. He was sure the gold would still be there when he returned. It had to be. The tooth told him so. It still ached and the pain was almost unbearable. And there was only way to make it stop. He had to go back to the place where it all began. The old man had to back to the mountain. He had to go a'minin'.
It was the only thing left for him to do; and he wasn't just doing it for himself. No! He wasn't doing it for his wife, either; although he knew she would benefit as well if everything worked out according to plan. He was doing it for a friend. He was doing it for Elmo Cotton. He was doing it for the Harlie. That's what it was really all about. Somehow, that made a difference. It seemed to make it all worthwhile…even if it didn't stop the pain. Besides, it was something he'd been meaning to do all along.
And so, Homer Skinner had finally decided: It's about time. Cornelius Wainwright was dead all right, his bones long since buried along with those of the flesh eating Ferals. All the old man needed now was time, just a little more time. He had the map. The mountain was still there, and so was the gold.