The Golden Thing
by John W. Steele
They were on their way to find out once and for all if the damn thing existed, or if it was only a hallucination. The all-terrain vehicles were loaded with a hundred yards of eighth-inch stainless steel aircraft cable, a half dozen titanium double tuna hooks, a tire inner tube, a cowbell and a dead pig. A big fat fifty-pound chunk of rotting meat bought at the slaughterhouse.
It was another ten miles to Devil’s Spring, and darkness comes early in the Sierras in late September. Nick maneuvered his ATV around boulders the size of a truck as he and his old Mohawk Indian buddy Moses made their way up the steep rutted trail. There was enough light left in the sky, and Moses felt confident they’d make it to the spring before nightfall.
The trail was getting narrower. Moses eased off the throttle of his bike and stopped for a moment. He got off his machine and removed his goggles. Nick pulled up behind him.
The turquoise sky shined like an opalescent portal that seemed to stretch into infinity, and a myriad of red and orange earth tones reflected from the face of the canyon walls. Moses reached inside his leather jacket and pulled out the topographic map. He gazed at the line he’d traced in black along contours of the ancient trail. “If I remember correctly, Devil’s Spring lays at the end of this gully at the top of the ridge.”
Nick got off his bike and started to pace slowly along the footpath that was no wider than a sidewalk. “Yeah... I guess. Some of this terrain looks familiar. But these boulders ain’t got a lot of personality, and it’s been a long time. We were so stoned last time we were here, it all seems like a dream anyway. Them peyote buttons do strange things to your head. I still ain’t sure what I saw that day. That stuff just ain’t natural.”
Moses looked off into the canyon and smiled. “Naaah... that was the real thing, man. That’s what natural is. Peyote opens your mind, that’s what it’s supposed to do.”
“Opens your mind! I saw a red and yellow cricket as big as a stallion, and I thought I was gonna fall off the earth! My mind was gutted that day.”
“That cricket was Mescalito, dude. That’s what I mean, those buttons were righteous, the real thing.”
Nick pulled a bag of chewing tobacco out of the chest pocket of his denim jacket and stuck a large wad of chaw in his mouth. He stood at the edge of the precipice and spit a spray of brown saliva over the cliff. He watched the trail of slime soar out towards the river far below. “When that thing leaped out of the water, it looked like a friggin’ Orca. I still think we were just tripping.”
A shimmering white column of water cascaded down from a hole in the rock on the other side of the canyon. Mosses admired its beauty for a moment. “I remember that day like it was yesterday,” he said. “Even after all these years it’s still a powerful image. It’s like the first time I saw a naked woman, I’ll never forget it. I thought about that thing the whole time I was stationed overseas. Whatever it was, it glittered like pure gold. I’m gonna find out before I die, just what we saw.
“Besides, I doubt we’d see the same thing. The wave the thing created when it jumped out of the water surged up to our shoulders and set us both right on our tail; that weren’t no hallucination. Something awesome happened up here seven years ago. And I won’t rest until I know for certain what it was.”
Nick laughed deeply. “If the thing is still there, I got other plans for it. That monster is my ticket to fame and fortune.”
Moses fixed Nick with a cold eye. “We ain’t killing it.”
Nick glared back at Moses and he didn’t answer. The wad of tobacco in his mouth inflated his cheek like a squirrel with a mouthful of acorns. Nick was a powerful built man, with long arms and a thick neck. He was normally quite jovial, but it didn’t take much to darken his sunny disposition.
Moses was tall and solid as a rock inside and out. Nick didn’t scare him. They’d known each other a long time, and they didn’t always see eye to eye. Moses knew if they caught the thing, Nick would probably try to kill it, and Moses wasn’t about to let that happen.
“Well, I reckon we ought to get going if we’re ever gonna,” Moses said. “Won’t be long before night arrives.”
They mounted their ATV’s, turned and headed up the gully.
* * *
A while later they emerged at the bluff, near the top of the canyon. Before them sat the crater-like hole called Devil’s Spring. It looked like something gouged out of the mountain by an avenging deity. The spring was nearly as big as a football field, and the walls of rock surrounding it were smooth and even.
The caldera was filled with water that was a color of tourmaline and was so clear you could see a hundred feet into the abyss. From the surface, the spring appeared bottomless, and there was no way to determine its depth.
“Well it doesn’t look like much has changed,” Nick said. “I wonder if that thing is still down there. You think we can get it to come callin’?”
“I reckon we’ll soon find out,” Moses said. “We got another hour of daylight. What do you say we do some fishing?”
“Yeah, it’s time,” Nick said.
They unloaded their gear from the bikes and inflated the inner tube. Nick mounted the cowbell on a hanger they’d devised. “If this bell goes off we’re rich.”
Nick slid a tuna hook through the rancid pig and attached it to the cable. He ran the cable through the steel cargo racks of the ATV’s. They wedged large rocks in front of the tires and locked the brakes on the vehicle. Nick hoisted the heavy carcass to his shoulder and carried it to the rocky shore at the edge of the spring.
“Well, I guess it’s time to separate the men from the boys,” Nick said. Who’s gonna swim the bait out to the middle?” Moses sensed a note of apprehension in Nick’s voice, and he smiled.
“Are you afraid?” Moses asked.
Nick squinted his eyes and glared at him. “Damn straight I’m afraid! Do you remember the teeth on that thing? I’d rather stick my head in the mouth of a lion. I suppose the idea that whatever is down there could swallow your ass whole, like a flathead minnow, doesn’t scare you?”
The last hour of sunlight was burning low, and long shadows were beginning to form in the creases of the mountains. Moses looked into the spring. “I don’t see anything in the water. The baits only got to go out a few dozen yards. I figure it will only take a minute or two to get the job done. But if you’re scared, I guess I’ll have to do it myself,” he said. Moses untied his boots and stripped off his clothes.
A gob of tobacco juice sailed from Nick’s mouth and landed on the rock with a splat. “Wait just one damn minute there, hotshot. If you think I’m letting you take all the credit for capturing the thing, you’re dreaming. I told you: if it’s down there, and we hook it, we’re famous. We’ll do it together.”
Nick kicked off his cowboy boots and tore off his tee shirt. “When we hit the water, I’ll put the pig on the tube, and we’ll paddle it out to the middle. We got a plan?”
“We got a plan, bro,” Moses said.
“Banzai,” Nick yelled, and he leapt into the water. Moses followed him in.
“Sweet Mother of God! This water’s colder than a well-digger’s ass in the Klondike!” Nick yelled.
Moses paid no attention to him. Nick threw the pig on the tube, and Moses started swimming frantically toward the middle of the spring. He kept his head submerged looking for any sign of movement in the abyss below. His arms and legs pumped like pistons as he dragged the inner tube out into the deeper water. Nick could see he wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.
When they arrived at the center of the spring, Moses was out of breath. He clung to the innertube and said, “Quick toss the swine into the water so we can get the hell out of here.”
A defiant smile formed on Nick’s face. “What’s a matter, are you sensitive? What’s your hurry?”
“Okay, you made your point, dude. Let’s get out of here quick.” Moses said.
The cold smile on Nick’s face disappeared; they dumped the pig and swam back to shore as fast as they could.
When they made it to land, they climbed out of the spring and stood on the smooth rim of rock.
“Looks like Orca’s not very hungry right now. Maybe his appetite will be better at breakfast,” Nick said.
Moses didn’t say a word. He panted hard and gazed out at the tube, his face expressionless and his eyes as big as saucers.
* * *
The dark spirit of night emerged, and mystery spread its cloak across the sky. The light of a silver moon flooded the peaks and illuminated the heart of the canyon. Moses built a small fire from some dried mesquite they found in the area. After a supper of jerky and cornbread, Moses reached into his pack and pulled out a plastic bag filled with joints. He lit one up, took a long deep hit, then sat back and rested on a rock. “It’s starting to get chilly. I hope the thing waits until morning to feed,” he said.
“We’re in a world of hurtin’ if it doesn’t,” Nick said. “Ain’t no way I’m gonna wrestle with that thing at night.” It had been a long day and they were tired. They passed the joint back and forth for a while without speaking.
Nick gazed into the fire. “Where the hell would something that evil come from anyway?” He asked.
Moses reached into the bag and pulled out another bone. He licked his fingers, snatched a tiny coal from the fire and lit the bomb. “I did a little research about that,” he said.
“It seems the Indians used to call this place Aryoga, the word means golden dragon. The Blackfoot thought a powerful spirit lived here, and they revered it. I read about the springs that dot this area. They say there are rivers far underground here. A lot of them flow deep inside the mountains and caves. Some of the passages were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago.
“Geologists have been trying to determine for decades where the rivers come from, but no one seems to know. The scientists call the springs juvenile water, because it’s never been to the surface of the earth. The thing could be some ancient species of life that thrives on the water here. Something man hasn’t discovered yet.”
Nick took another hit on the cigarette, he was wrecked now, and he stared off into the distance. “Something that ugly just ain’t natural,” he said. “For a while I thought the thing was some kind of weird spore that fell here from outer space, or maybe an alien abortion that got dumped in this place, but now I ain’t so sure. If what you’re saying about the underground rivers is true, it all makes perfect sense now... yeah... the whole idea is coming into focus,” he said.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Moses asked.
“Yeah... I see the big picture now, man. Here’s the thing, see. There were a lot of underground nuclear tests in this area back in the sixties. The monsters got to be a mutated piece of genetic garbage. Yeah... something that crawled out from beneath a rock and somehow got doused with all that radioactive pollution, there ain’t no other explanation for it. If we hook it, I’m fixin’ to cut its ugly head off.”
“I knew this was coming,” Moses said. Why do you insist we have to kill it?”
“Because we’ll be famous, man! We’ll be on the Discovery channel.”
“I don’t care about being famous. I’m content with my life the way it is,” Moses replied.
Nick took off his baseball cap and scratched his head. “You know what your problem is dude, you ain’t spit and you ain’t never gonna be spit,” he said. “You don’t care about money, or being somebody important. You’re content to live in a trailer down by the river and weld those things you call sculptures for the rest of your life. Not me, man. This thing is a chance for me to be somebody. Who knows where an opportunity like this might lead? Chances like this come once in a lifetime, and I’m not going to blow it. If it rises to the bait, I’m taking it out. What good is it anyway?”
Copyright © 2007 by John W. Steele