By Phil Bowie
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Phil Bowie
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-933836-43-0
Chapter One Snakes
, he thought.
It was late on a blowing gray day. There was a fitful rain not much more than a heavy mist. Dirty cold clouds were scudding low over the brooding ridge five hundred feet above the steep-sided gully he had found that morning, following a trickle uphill from a branch of Jonathan Creek. On some dim level he realized he never would have spotted the small black opening in the gully wall if the sunlight had not struck it just right through the forest trees that were fuzzed with the early growth of spring, and if he had not been in just the right place. The opening was naturally concealed among a jumble of mossy rocks by old deadfalls and tough-as-cable thorny vines.
There was something about those rocks.
Maybe somebody had piled them up there?
He had walked through the woods to the dirt road and had ridden his bicycle back home to drop off his pan and ragged backpack and pick up a flashlight, the skinning knife his daddy had given him so long ago, and his leather work gloves, figuring the gloves and knife would help him get through the vines.
He had a strong notion about that black opening.
By the time he made his way back to it, the sky had turned leaden as it often does in the Great Smokies, populating the dank forest with unsettling shadows.
Grabbing onto saplings to maintain shaky footing on the flank of the ravine and skidding on the damp leaves, he lowered his considerable muscled bulk down through a prickly tangle. The thorny vines plucked at his jacket, caught in his holed jeans, and raked his shin bloody. He picked his way through, hacking clumsily with the dull knife, parting the vines with his gloved hands. He slipped on a mossy rock and banged a knee hard.
He had a faint, icy feeling that something did not want him here, something old and musty brushing near and pushing at him. He looked around but saw nothing lurking among the trees.
That dark opening was drawing him closer.
He shivered like a wet dog, shaking the bad feeling off.
Ducking under a rotting, fallen birch that was braced across the gully, he thumped his head, but ignored the pain because the opening was directly in front of him now.
He tugged away the looser rocks, rolling them back clicking against each other. There still wasn't enough room for him to see much inside. A large rock blocked most of the opening.
One day when they were wrestling a stump out of a field together, his daddy had told him, "Mose, maybe God ain't give you the brains of a yard dog, but He sure as hell made you bull-strong. Don't you never turn it against nobody, boy, or you'll likely kill 'em without even half tryin'."
And Moses never had. He'd got mad at things that didn't want to work right and at some people, like a few who snickered at him, but he always just went off by himself until the mad went away.
He pulled hard at the boulder, but it would not budge. He scooped away some of the dirt at the base of it, starting to sweat despite the cool air. There was just room enough for him to put his back against an angled plane of it, bend his knees, brace his boots against the gully wall, and heave, grunting, the rock digging coldly into his back, his log-sized thighs starting to burn, until he felt it give a bit. He set himself in a fresh position, took two deep whooshing breaths, and heaved again, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth, and the rock slowly moved aside a few inches. He scraped away more leaves at the base of it and dug at the wet soil with his fingers, exposing a thin root, which he grabbed with both hands and yanked until it parted.
He dug some more, thinking of the old skinny hound that had passed away on him just a week or so ago, how it used to paw at mole runs out behind his cabin, getting its gray nose dirty and making him laugh. Every day since, he'd kept looking for that old deer dog to be at the back door, wanting food scraps, and he'd had to tell himself over and over it would not be back again. How could it rise up out of the hole he'd buried it in? No more than his old daddy could rise up out of that hole in the churchyard where they'd put him a long time ago.
He heaved against the cold stone again and again, his back starting to go numb, inching it aside until at last the opening looked big enough to let him get through.
He stood back, breathing deeply and wiping the sweat out of his eyes with the backs of his gloves. He looked at the dark shadowed hole and somehow knew it went deep.
Maybe snakes in there.
He had felt little fear in his forty-three years. Once he had somehow found himself in a thickening crowd at a country fair. He could sense the jumbled thoughts of all those around him. The whole world seemed to be closing in, and he lumbered out of there as fast as he could.
Another time was the day his daddy died and he suddenly knew he was all alone in this world and that made him cry hard and long.
The worst was that warm sunny day when, as a boy, he was sitting on the tilted front porch floor of the Georgia cabin with his back to the grayed clapboards. He picked at the paint flaking off of the warped floorboards, his mind filled right up to happy with the pretty summer songs of the birds all around in the woods. It was warm and humid, and his eyelids were heavy.
He fell asleep.
He awoke to see a shadowed, lumpy mass under his daddy's empty rocker. He sat up straighter, peering at it, and it shifted shape, rising up, weaving. It opened its mouth, which was all white inside and looked soft as a pillow. But this thing was bad, he knew down deep. Something very bad that could hurt him.
His daddy came out onto the porch, saw the thing, and said, "Mose, you stand up real, real slow and you just ease on over this way. Do it right now, boy."
But he could not. He was frozen with an icy dread in his hollow gut. The thing had small, shiny bead eyes, slitted like a cat's eyes, but steely-cold and unblinking. And fixed on him. Its body was thick as his arm, but it had a rat's tail. It closed its mouth, tasted the air with its tongue, and glided closer to him. He was scared he'd pee himself if the thing got any closer.
But it did.
"Okay, Mose, boy. You just sit there real still." Time seemed to slow way on down, and he held his breath. He was shaking, but he could not stop it.
His daddy ducked into the house, reached up above the door, and came back out holding the single-shot sixteen-bore shotgun loaded with double-ought buck. His daddy aimed it down at the thing and said, "Mose, boy, I hate to shoot it with a scattergun that close to you. Just maybe it will back on away."
The thing turned its head toward his daddy and then back at him, and he stared at it. The skin looked smooth and dry, and there were darker markings under the almost- blackness of it. His daddy had talked a lot about evil in the world and how we all ought to stay away from it, and that's what he thought now.
This thing is evil.
It moved like oil toward him again. There was a sound that stunned him. The thing exploded into a shredded red mist, part of it writhing sideways and rolling up against his bare foot. When he screeched and jerked his foot back to get away from it there was a searing pain just above his ankle.
His daddy knelt and looked at his feet and legs, wiping away the thing's blood with his big rough thumbs. He said, "It's okay, Mose. I creased you with one of them pellets. He didn't bite you. Sorry, boy, but that was a granddaddy cottonmouth. Meanest snake God ever made. Didn't think there was none left hereabouts. It's a nasty thing. Poison eats away at your skin so you can't hardly doctor the bite. Come on in, boy, and we'll clean that out with the peroxide and bind it up."
He trembled with the vivid cottonmouth memory, but told himself to stop it. He worked the gloves off, wiped at his face, and with the flashlight in his left hand and the skinning knife in his right, he got down on his belly and used his elbows and knees to crawl into the hole. It was tight. He had to twist his shoulders to fit himself inside.
He had discovered this place because the branch flowing into Jonathan Creek had run out of what he'd been looking for right about where this trickle tumbled down through the forest. He had moved up the branch over the last months, patiently panning, engrossed in the one thing his daddy had taught him that he knew he was good at doing all day long. And there had been steady color. Not a lot of it, only very light traces, really, not enough for anybody else to care about, but steady. Then suddenly it had run out. He ranged on up the branch for miles but found no more, so for days he worked back downstream and tried to find just where he picked up color again. For some reason he could never have explained, this steep trickle down through the rough ravine caught in his mind, so that morning he followed it up away from the branch. And found the small black opening.
There was a loud dry rustling and he thought, rattlesnake. The flashlight flickered off, leaving him staring into blackness that seemed to come right up against his eyeballs. He keened, shook the flashlight violently, the batteries made contact, and it blinked on again, but weakly. He was holding his breath, his skin prickling and his brain screaming for him to back on out of here, but the light calmed him enough so he realized the rustling was only old dry leaves that his arm was stirring. He blew out a big breath and panned the light around. He was in a space that opened out into a cave about ten feet wide and three or four feet high. It was hard to tell how deep it went because it curved away. The floor was littered with rotting forest debris. The first thing he saw was most of a cracked clay pot a few feet off to his right. He poked at the pot with the skinning knife, and pieces fell off of it. There was some kind of design carved into it like nothing he could remember. It was pretty. He picked up a shard and managed to work it into his shirt pocket and button it there.
To the left there was an overhead rock shelf that angled down to the right and disappeared beneath the cave floor maybe twenty feet from the cave opening. The glitter of quartz ran like the Milky Way through the shelf.
And mingled in with the quartz, there was color. Much, much more color than he had ever seen. A creek of color. A river of color.
He wriggled closer, and the flashlight blinked out again. He growled and shook it. The light came back. He just stared at the thick irregular streaks and splotches of color for a long time.
It was so, so pretty.
He reached out and probed at the color with the knife. His heart beat faster when the knife tip traced a nice scratch. There was a place where the quartz was cracked. He worked the tip of the skinning knife into the crack and pried until an inch of the knife tip broke off. His daddy would be mad. No, that wasn't right. Daddy was a long time gone now.
He sighed and forced the blade, thicker now, into the crack. He rested the flashlight where it would shine on the crack, and pounded the knife in deeper with the palm of his left hand. Then with both hands he pulled on the handle. It bent, close to breaking again, but a piece of quartz the size of his palm and an inch thick snapped loose, falling onto the cave floor in front of him, stirring up a moldy smell. On the back side of the quartz piece, the color was rich and dull, and he knew for dead sure it was real. And there was a whole lot of it. Maybe enough of it right here in his hand to get the cabin fixed up better. Maybe even enough to get tools so he could make a new cabin if he could find somebody to tell him how to do that. He grinned and let out a shout. He looked at the broken pot and the funny markings on it. He picked up two more pieces of it and dropped them inside, along with the quartz, which just fit. Holding the knife and flashlight in his left hand and the pot in his right, he started backing out of the cave.
There was a bad moment when he thought he was stuck in the cave opening, but he wriggled around using the toes of his boots to inch himself backward while he stretched out one arm, and he made it back out. The light was fading fast, but he stayed to roll loose rocks back over the opening, filling in with leaves and chunks of the dead birch until it looked right to him.
He would never tell anybody about this place.
It was going to be full dark pretty soon, and he knew there would be no moon or stars to help him. It was a good way back to the dirt road. And the woods would be black as the box his daddy was in. He had forgotten to put good batteries in the cheap flashlight or to bring some spares along in his pocket.
"Moses Kyle, you're dumb as a bobwire fence post," he told himself.
He forgot things all the time. But he knew he would never forget how to get back to this place.
He stumbled down the bank of the ravine to the main branch and began following it toward Jonathan Creek, the pot under his arm, the forest growing darker rapidly all around, the flashlight flicking off and then on dimly again when he would shake it enough. It was starting to rain now, drops pattering softy down through the trees, and the footing was increasingly slippery. With the sound of the rain all around, he would not be able to hear the creek to help guide him. A twig poked his forehead just above his right eye, and he rubbed his head with his fingers.
He fixed the place in his mind, going over and over it. Up Jonathan Creek to the big creek branch that ran for a way beside the long mountain. On up that branch into the valley a mile or so beyond where the dirt road stopped, past a creaky old bridge, to a stretch of slow water and the pool with a boulder in the middle that looked like an animal. A ways beyond the boulder a pine leaned out over the creek. Beyond that pine there was the trickle coming down a gully on the right. All he had to do then was climb up through a steep part of the gully and that would lead him right to it.
He shouted again at the thought of it.
The most magical place in the whole world.
Excerpted from DIAMONDBACK by Phil Bowie Copyright © 2007 by Phil Bowie. Excerpted by permission.
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