Authors: Louis L'Amour
The door closed softly behind him and Sean sat down on his bed and pulled off a boot. He dropped it to the floor, then took off the second and held it in his hand, thoughtfully rubbing his foot. Then carefully he placed the second boot on the floor.
Would someone lie awake waiting for the second boot to be dropped?
Were there always two boots?
Was everything always and forever what we expect it to be? Or is that merely a way we have of looking at the world so it is comfortable to live in?
He lay back on the bed, blew out the candle, and closed his eyes.
LTHOUGH THE HOUR was early the heat was intense in the narrow canyon. Montero led the way, followed closely by Eileen Mulkerin and behind her, Mariana. They were followed by a couple of packhorses and then Sean.
The horses plodded slowly for the trail was winding and difficult. There was no breeze in the canyon. Several times they saw cattle, wilder than the deer. One magnificent red bull, head up, nostrils flaring, glared at them trying to decide whether to charge, but as they kept on their way, ignoring him, he snorted, threw up his tail, trotted a couple of yards after them, then tossed his head and went off over the hill.
All was still. They heard no sound but the hoofs of their horses and the occasional buzzing of bees. On the narrow, rocky trail they could move but slowly and by midmorning they were no more than ten miles from the ranch. Several times Montero had dropped back to dust over their tracks, doing so each time they passed a branch canyon.
Sean rode with his rifle in his hands. At this point he was expecting no trouble but was aware that it could come at any moment.
His life in the mountains, the desert, and at sea had sharpened his senses until alertness was a way of life. At sea he had learned to sense the slightest change in the movement of the ship through the water, the creak of the rigging, or the slap of a sail.
Yet having grown up herding cattle, riding the range in the rough desert mountains of southern California, one of the greatest cattle raising areas in the world at the time, he knew the wild country in all its moods.
Montero reached a widening of the trail and stopped to let the horses catch a breath. Sean rode to the head of the column.
“How much further?”
Montera shrugged. “Sundown…no sooner. It is not far to where the trail branches, a short distance only. We will take the left.”
“Isn’t that Saddle Rock Peak?” He indicated a clump of rocks atop a low peak some distance off to their right. “I have not ridden this way in a long time.”
“It is Saddle Rock…and as close as we come. We ride north and a little east.”
Sean dismounted and walked his horse back into the shade, seating himself on a rock near the women, who had also gotten down to rest their horses.
“Will he stop to eat?” Mariana asked.
Sean grinned at her. “Hungry? No, I don’t think he will…yet. He’s heading for a place where there’s water. Dry as these hills are, there’s water if you know where to find it. Montero has handled cattle in these hills long enough to know most of them.”
“Only the old Indians know all of them.”
He gestured. “Lobo Canyon lies yonder. I killed my first lion over there. Nine feet long he was and crouched on top of a boulder trying to decide whether I was dangerous or not. I was twelve then, and I guess he decided I was pretty small stuff. His tail was lashing…getting set to jump…so I shot him.”
Once more they started on, following a dim trail westward toward the highest peak in the immediate area, a blunt sandstone shoulder that was part of a long ridge that ended in another bold peak to the west and south.
Suddenly Montero turned north and began to follow a still dimmer trail that seemed to be leading up the sandstone peak itself. Several times Sean saw the tracks of sandals here, and recognized them as those left by the Old One.
He was alive then. The old man was not dead. He felt a curious excitement as well as relief, for all the way along he had been fearing the old man had passed on. How long since he had seen him? It had not been for a long, long time!
The growth thinned out, everywhere there was sandstone. How, he wondered, did the old man live? Where did he get water? What did he eat? Why had he not come down to the ranch where he would have been welcome at any time?
Suddenly they were in a nest of smaller peaks almost atop the ridge. There were some trees here and some brush that was suddenly of a deeper green. They rounded a boulder into a small clearing and there before them, built against the wall of sandstone, was a small hut of woven branches. Part of it woven from still living, growing trees.
On a bench at the door sat Juan, the Old One.
He looked incredibly old, unbelievably frail. He wore a straw hat, a worn serape of many colors, and handwoven sandals.
“How do you do, my friends?” His voice was low but resonant. “You have been long in coming.”
“You have been waiting?” Eileen asked.
“Of course. Your husband said that if anything happened to him I was to tell only you…or the boy.” He looked at Sean. “The boy is a man. It is good.”
He waved a hand. “Will you be seated? My home offers little.”
They dismounted. Montero led the horses into the shade, then returned and squatted on his heels and began to smoke a thin cigar.
Sean put a hand on Mariana’s elbow. “Old One, this is Mariana de la Cruz. She is from Mexico.”
The dark eyes turned to her. “Ah? Of course. I was there once…as a boy. A beautiful city, but not what I had expected. We were told it was an island in a lake, but there was no island and not much left of the lake.”
They sat around on stones and benches, and the old man went within. When he returned it was with a pitcher of something cold and he filled a small clay cup for each. “It is an old drink, made of chia and honey. It is cooling…and it gives strength to the muscles.”
“We are in trouble, Juan,” the Señora said gently. “Men would take the ranch from us if we do not pay. We thought you might know where my husband found the gold.”
“Yes. I know you are in trouble, and I know you came about the gold. I will tell you, and then you must go. You are followed. Eight men follow you. They would kill you, all of you.”
“You will come with us?”
“I will come. You could not go alone.” He looked at Sean. “And once we have gone, only you may ever come back for gold. Remember…only you.”
Montero rose. “I will get your horse, Old One.”
The old man turned to Eileen. “You do not change, Señora. You are as one of us.”
“Us?” she asked gently.
He smiled, amusement stirring the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. “My people are gone now, Señora, but once we were many. Never so many as you, never so many as most peoples, but enough.”
“Your people did not age?”
“All men age, as all men die. The thing is not to die too soon, Señora, and to live wisely. To live a long time is nothing, to live a long time wisely is something.”
“You speak well. You are a strange man, Old One.”
“I believe unfamiliar is the term, Señora.” He paused a moment, watching Montero come up from the rocks behind the hut leading a fine buckskin horse. “Until your husband came I was a lonely man. I needed ears to listen, a voice to reply. The Chumash were a good people, very bright and quick, but their experience was only with our land here. Your husband was a man who had traveled in ideas as well as upon trails and the sea. He listened well, he talked well. He understood much. His was a wide mind, given to acceptance where others might have denied.”
“You are an educated man, Old One.”
“What is education but a conditioning of the mind to a society and a way of life? There are many kinds of education, and often education closes as many doors as it opens, for to believe implies disbelief. One accepts one kind of belief but closes the mind to all that is, or seems to be contradictory.”
Sean was sitting forward, all his attention upon the old man, everything within him suddenly alive. What was it the old man had said to him, those times long ago? He did not remember what was said, only that it had made a difference. He knew now he had never been the same since, that he would never be the same again.
“You said something once about wisdom,” he said. “That it must be shared. I would share yours, Old One. If you will talk, I will listen.”
“Yes. I will speak. But it is important to listen with all the senses, and to feel. Awareness is a way of learning, too. In these days to come you must be alive and aware to everything. Let the days leave tracks upon your memory.”
Suddenly he turned away and walked to the buckskin horse. He gathered the reins, put a hand on the pommel and swung easily to the saddle. He motioned to the others to mount and follow him. Without another word he started along the ridge, then crossed over to the north side.
There seemed no trail beyond that point, but he led on.
He turned in his saddle and spoke to Sean, who now rode behind him while Montero had fallen back to the rear. “Do not forget the way. I am soon to die.”
Sean glanced at his mother. Her cheeks looked gaunt, a little tired. It was the same with Mariana. “Can you make it?”
“Of course,” the Señora smiled. “Can you?”
Sean laughed, and Mariana smiled back at him. “Ride on,” she said, “you will not leave us behind!”
The wind blew off the sea, and although the sun was hot, the wind kept them cool. At times they rode in the shade of sandstone cliffs, at other times under trees. Twice Sean saw the tracks of grizzlies, different from other bears by the long claws on the forepaws. Once he saw the track of a mountain lion and several times of bighorns.
The old man led them down a narrow, switchback trail. This was an old trail now, into which they had suddenly come. He led them deep into a canyon past huge boulders where water dripped. There were many birds, all chirping at once.
“Water here,” the old man said. “It is far.”
There were a few minutes of respite in the cool shade where the water fell, it was a lost place, a cool, pleasant place away from the hot sun.
Soon the old man mounted again. “How far?” Sean asked.
The old man merely said, “To the end. To where we go, and it will be like places you have seen, but unlike places you know.”
Sean dried his palms on his shirt front and looked down into the deeper canyon. It was nondescript, offering no landmarks. This was a trail that would be easy to lose. The old man was right. One must be aware.
Mariana rode beside the Señora at a place where the trail was wide. “He does not sound like an Indian.”
“What is an Indian? There are Aztecs as well as Eskimos. There are Toltecs and Iroquois.”
“I like him.”
“Yes.” They separated as the trail narrowed, drew together again when it widened. “Did you notice that he said nothing when he found we were coming along? He did not even suggest we be left behind.”
“He knew better,” Eileen said dryly, and then added, “but it is true. Obviously the equality of women has never been an issue among his people…or so it would seem.”
Topping out on a rise, Sean looked back, mopping the sweat from his forehead. He could see nothing behind him but sandstone heights and shimmering heat waves. Were Machado and his men following?
The Old One had said they were, and in his heart he believed it himself. Perhaps one did not always have to see or hear to know. Perhaps one just
. Was that how the old Indian did it? Even Montero, at times. Was there something on the wind? Did the motion and men and their thoughts create patterns in the air that traveled on until felt by someone attuned to them?
He shrugged. His hand went back to his belt where his pistol was. It was a new-style repeating pistol made in Paterson, New Jersey, and designed by a man named Colt. It was a good pistol, the best of them so far, and called a “long nine” by the man who sold it to him, a man who was broke in Panama.
At the same time Sean had bought his rifle, an eight-shot Colt revolving rifle, and a good one. He had himself tinkered with it a little, setting the sights a bit finer and improving the mechanism.