The Other Side of the Bar
All around me twisted, black rock stretched out for miles on end, contorted into tortured forms and treacherous holes, heat radiating from its tar-like surface. There were only a few tiny, unreliable water holes, half of which seemed to be alkaline, and the other half seemed to be infested with rattlesnakes. It was a harsh and inhospitable land where death seemed to hover just below the surface of the jagged stone. Suddenly, an arrow whistled out of the barren land and shattered on a rock near my face, shards of obsidian embedding themselves into my cheek.
And then there were the Shoshone.
They had pursued us since we witnessed them massacre a group of pioneers on the bank of the Snake River. From there we had headed east from the abandoned remains of Fort Boise, with the Shoshone trailing not far behind. They seemed to be a young band of warriors, out to earn their scalps or do whatever it was Shoshone do, I did not know. I was simply a bartender from Oakland, California.
I was out here on a wild goose chase, following the crude map a miner had given me to pay his tab, though in retrospect, it would have been wiser to rough him up. He claimed he had found a fortune in gold on the Snake River, and had buried it out here in this living Hades when he wandered here searching for more gold and his mule perished from thirst. He claimed that at noon on the autumnal equinox, the shadow from the stone marked on his map would point towards the location of the hidden treasure.
"What do we do?" John Heinold asked me. He was a friend who I had brought along to help me pack the gold out once we found it. Coincidentally, he also ran a very high tab.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead with my kerchief, squinting at the map as John searched the landscape with his rifle, hoping to find the ghosts that pursued us relentlessly.
"I think we are close. We need to get over that ridge." I jabbed my find towards a ridge to the north.
And then with a scream a Shoshone warrior vaulted over the rocks in front of us, tomahawk raised, but John fired from the hip and managed to hit him, the shot echoing over the seemingly empty landscape. The acrid smell of black powder filled the air.
"Are you crazy?" He whispered. "There are a dozen braves out there waiting for us to move so they can pick us off like shooting fish in a barrel!"
"We could wait here while they scalp us like white men in a hole," I pointed out.
"Good point, let's go." He quickly jammed another round into his rifle, and then we started running.
As it turned out, we should have stayed in the hole. The moment we were ten yards from it they were on us, whooping and screaming. A warrior sailed out of the blackness and tackled me. We hit the ground and rolled a few yards, and then we were falling. I landed on top of the brave with a sickening thud. Groaning, I rolled away from him, only to find that he was either unconscious or dead. We had fallen fifteen feet through a hole in the ground, and now were in some kind of subterranean tube. A glance around revealed that the tube stretched on for a dozen yards before turning right. I looked back up at the hole in the ceiling. I wish I could have gone back help John, but he was probably dead now, and there was no way I could scale the steep walls of the tube. So, I walked down the tube, hoping to find a way out. After almost an hour I discovered a side tunnel that eventually ended, and I found myself in the hot sun again. It was here I found the remains of the miner's mule. It was past noon, but not by much. So, trusting my luck, I scrambled hastily down the rocks, figuring that I couldn't be too far off from the gold. As I tumbled over yet another small ridge, I found myself staring down the barrel of Colt revolver, sticking out of a hole in the rock.
"Bill?" Rasped a voice from inside the dark recess.
"John?" I asked, astonished.
He crawled out from the small cave in the rock, a thin line of blood trickling down his scalp, and cut in a dozen other places.
"How did you escape?" I asked, helping him to his feet.
"Luck," he replied. "I got off a few lucky shots with my revolver and killed three of them. After that they just disappeared. You got any water?"
I handed him my canteen, which only held a few more mouthfuls, and he sipped from it.
"I found the mule down there. We are getting close." I pulled out the map and studied it more. "I think it's just right down there."
John looked at me sadly. "I got bad news for you. I found the old cuckoo's chest. It was in that cave I was hiding in. Someone else beat us to it. The lock is smashed and all that remains of the gold is a few flecks of gold dust in the grain of the wood. We're out here dying for nothing."
My heart sank. That gold was going to be a new start for me. I quit my job as bartender to go find it, and it was unlikely that I would get that job back. And to boot, we were probably going to end up with a tomahawk haircut, too. Though I suppose that would solve my unemployment problem.
"We gotta get out of here," I said, studying the map. "If we head out north, that's the shortest route out of this bit of hell."
John just laughed this dry crazy laugh. "You think we're gonna make it out of here? Not with those Shoshone following us."
"Well, you can stay here if you want," I snapped, "but I'm leaving and keeping my hair."
I turned and started walking. I could hear John crunching along behind me, stumbling every once and a while. In the meantime, I pondered the whole situation.
Why had I even bothered to come out here? Taking the map for payment was a dumb idea anyways. The miner who I'd gotten it from must have been a hundred and three and completely out of his mind, though I guess he was telling the truth, and I could see why he hadn't gone to get the gold himself. But who was I to go pursue it? I was just a bartender— the guy who watches life from behind the counter. I don't go and find gold or fight Indians or climb mountains; I serve whiskey to the guys who do and rough up the ones that get too drunk. Truth is, it just wasn't my place in life to do this kind of stuff. I kicked a rock angrily, and watched it as clattered across the volcanic landscape.
And then I regretted that even more than I regretted coming out here.
I could hear voices speaking excitedly, but not in English. John swore up a storm.
"Why did you do that? You just got us killed!" His face contorted in rage. "I should never have come out here with you. I'd rather have the hundred dollars of debt hanging over my head rather than no head at all." Then he drew his pistol and took at aim at my head. I grabbed for mine, but he fired first, and then again and again. I waited for the bullets to hit, but realized he wasn't shooting at me—he was shooting behind me!
I spun just in time to see the Shoshone braves crawling over the rocks like spiders. An arrow caught me in the shoulder and knocked me to the ground. I sprung to my feet, searching for my revolver, when a brave came at me with a knife held low. Years of calmly dealing with angry drunks and miners took over, and as he lunged, I deftly caught his hand and twisted it, fighting the pain in my shoulder. He cried out and dropped the knife, and then I dropped him with a swing of my fist. Another one sprung at me, but I kicked him and he tumbled away on the volcanic landscape.
John grabbed me by the shoulder, and I winced.
"Sorry," he gasped, "let's get out of here!"
And then we ran, as best we could. We stumbled across the landscape, falling and cutting ourselves on just about every rock we found, my arrow wound bleeding the whole time, but we made it out. It was night when we finally left the lava fields, but the moon was high and full, and led us to a small water hole that tasted like it was clean. We didn't light a fire for fear of the Shoshone finding us, but it was a warm night. After setting out our bedding, dressing my wound, and assessing our supplies, we settled down for the night, exhausted.
"You know what?" John asked me.
"You're dumb as a rock and ugly as a buzzard, but you sure know how to have a good time."
I chuckled a bit. "So you're not that mad at me?"
"Shoot, I'm mad as heck! You almost got me killed a dozen times. I'm just too tired to beat you to death right now." I couldn't see him, but I could tell he was grinning.
"You silly codger," I leaned over and punched him. "You couldn't beat me to death even if I was already half dead and had one arm."
He was quiet for moment. "Well, I suppose you're right about that. So, we got no money, almost no food, no jobs, are half dead, and stranded out in the middle of nowhere. What do we do next?"
I paused at that. He was right. What now? I suppose I could go back to Oakland and beg another bartending job. I had a good reputation and probably could find a job somewhere, but that just seemed so... dull? I didn't know. It just didn't seem right any more. After this, the Indians and the fighting and the almost dying, standing behind a bar year after year watching men fight and drink and rot in their whiskey just didn't feel right. Was that really how I wanted to live my life? And then to pass away, maybe married, maybe not, probably ill from years of drinking my own whiskey, assuming an angry miner didn't stab or shoot me?
All of a sudden I found myself questioning which side of the bar I belonged on. Did I really belong as a bartender, watching men-adventurers large and small—pass through Oakland, or was I one of them? I didn't know. But maybe that was part of my grand illusion. I knew deep down I hadn't come out here only for the gold, but what else I came out here for I wasn't sure.
I knew no man who had been shot with an arrow, and only one man who had come out this far from San Francisco and returned. I knew no man who had fought the Shoshone or walked in that strange land of rock. Could I really go back to the life I once led after this adventure?
"Well?" John asked.
I grinned boyishly. "You heard of Alaska?"