Silver and Gold

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
Winner of the Regional Heat of the 2005 Real Writers Short Story competition and published in their anthology.

Submitted: December 04, 2012

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Submitted: December 04, 2012

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SILVER AND GOLD

This story begins in a small town called Matison which acts as the gateway to the Candar Mountains. For centuries the men of the town have spent hours arguing whether the Candars mark the end of the world or if there might be another town at the other side. Of course times have changed and we know now that there is a world beyond the Candars but few in the town know much about it. We live in Matison and that is enough for us.
Matison isn’t much of a town. I speak as someone who was born here and will almost certainly die here. I can just remember when we were little more than a village, populated by the families of those who tended the surprisingly fertile fields outside. Not a night goes by in The Bear’s Bait when at least one old man doesn’t lament the decline of Matison.
Old men are fools. If a river’s banks are widened by the volume of water rushing through is the river in decline? Every great river was once a small stream and I believe that one day Matison could be a mighty city, built by the hands and watered by the blood of fools.
To summarise then. Matison at the time of my birth some twenty five years ago, a village with a single dirt road, two small shops, the tiny cramped houses where we all lived  and of course The Bear’s Bait. Matison today, a small town slowly expanding. We have two roads now, both are paved. The shops are now two of many and if they operated the way they did twenty years ago they would soon be out of business. Even the houses are better than they were because we can now afford to pay for improvements.
The Bear’s Bait is little changed but I suppose there is such a thing as tradition.
But enough about Matison. We’re nothing more than the gateway to the Candars, but that’s the thing about being the gatekeeper. You’re the one who pockets the toll.
***
The Bear’s Bait, an evening in March. I should maybe explain that winter always hits the Candars hard, the constant storms and floods making them almost inaccessible for those months. There were people who tried, of course. A fool will try anything.
But generally winter was a quiet time in Matison. That’s why they attracted more attention than they otherwise might have done.
There were two of them and the similarity in their faces showed that they were brothers. They both had the same light brown hair and wide hazel eyes. The only thing that was obviously different was their height. At first you saw that one was tall and one was short but on closer study you understood the reason for this. The tall one had long adolescent limbs, his kid brother hadn’t reached that stage yet.
So they entered the Bear’s Bait and before the door had even shut behind them every eye had fallen in their direction. I was seated in the corner at that moment, my girl watching me at cards, but I saw that the staring bothered the older guy more.
But they had entered and there was no easy way for them to leave. They went to the bar and the older guy ordered beers. The state governor would probably have felt that they were too young to be drinking beer but that sort of thing was never a big deal in Matison.
Then they took their beers to a table and sat talking. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with a curiosity in what they were saying.
I dealt my next hand. My opponent grimaced and pushed his cards aside, conceding the game. I shook his hand and took his money. `Take over if you like,` I said to one of the guys watching. Then I kissed my girl and told her I’d be back shortly.
The kids had sat at a table near the bar and I’ve got good hearing so I was able to order a beer while listening to them talk.
`We’ve been through this about fifty times already,` the little guy said, `I thought you’d finally made up your fucking mind.`
His brother appeared stung. `It was a tricky decision,` he said, `And you talk about everything as if it’s going to happen. As if it’s going to be easy.`
`It’s belief though, isn’t it Adam? You’ve always  told me that. And I believe.`
An observation I made at this point. The younger guy had almost finished his beer  but Adam’s glass was only half empty. My own was full so I rested on the bar and continued listening.
`Yes but that’s no excuse to start believing the impossible,` was Adam’s reply.
`It’s not impossible. If it was then we wouldn’t be here, right?` The little guy drained the last of his beer. `Fancy another?`
Adam shook his head. `I’m not ready yet.`
`I am.`
For the first time Adam seemed irritated. `Get it yourself then Cal.`
`But you’re the one with the money.`
`I know.`
Cal glared at him before reaching into his coat pocket and taking out a cigarette. `Can I have a match then, or is even that asking too much?`
`They’re at the bottom of the pack,` Adam replied, `And I’m not getting them out now.`
That gave me an opportunity. I took out my lighter and approached the table. `Allow me,` I said.
Cal guided his cigarette to the flame. `Thanks mate,` he said before leaning back and releasing a mouthful of smoke.
I pulled a chair over and sat at their table. If they objected to my presence they would have to say so. Neither did, although the suspicion in Adam’s eyes was clear.
`I guess you’re headed into the Candars,` I said.
For a few seconds neither answered. Then Cal began to nod and Adam did the same.
`And I think I know why you’re going there.`
This time Adam was the first to nod. `Is there anything you can tell us that might help?`
`I don’t know,` I replied, `I’ll tell you what I can but at the end of the day I’m just a guy from Matison. We don’t interest ourselves in the mountains.`
`We’ll listen to anything you can tell us,` Cal said loftily. He leaned forward and blew smoke across the table. This was clearly intended to annoy his brother, who closed his eyes in disgust. I might say here that I don’t smoke, I never have done. I’ve just found that it’s often useful to have a lighter in my pocket.
`I’m not sure I’ve even got that much to tell really,` I said, `There are things I’ve seen. Men have gone into the Candars as beggars and returned as princes.` Cal’s eyes grew rounder as I said that. `Of course there are those who didn’t return.`
I spent the next half hour telling them what they wanted to know. I told them about the five Matison boys who had gone hiking in the mountains some forty years before. Four were never seen again but the fifth stumbled back into the village, feverish and delirious but with a rock of solid gold gripped in his hand. He died that night without being able to tell his story, fated never to enjoy his treasure but to change Matison forever.
I told them about the silent man who arrived one day and went straight into the mountains, returning two days later, the whole time without a word. And how he returned some five years later, now extravagant and garrulous, showing off his collection of coins minted from Candar silver.
I also stressed that for every tale of riches there were those who had vanished into the Candars and never returned.
During this time the glasses had all been emptied and Cal had smoked his way through five cigarettes. Now Adam stood up and excused himself. A minute later I did the same.
I found him standing at the basin washing his hands. We nodded at each other as I entered and he waited as I did my business. It was obvious that he wanted to talk to me alone, so when I finished I went to the door and leaned against it, waiting.
What he said, after almost a minute’s hesitation was, `This was my idea, but I wish I hadn’t said anything now.`
`Because your brother’s become obsessed with it?`
Adam nodded. `Our Dad’s been in prison almost all our life. Mum died just over three years ago and since then I’ve had to raise Cal by myself. And I’ve struggled. He’s always had too much of his Dad in him. One of the reasons I suggested coming here was to stop him getting into trouble.`
He finished and immediately looked guilty, thinking I didn’t want to know that. It wasn’t true, but I decided not to let him know. I spent a few seconds looking sympathetic before saying, `I’ll come with you tomorrow and show you the best way into the mountains. There’s no danger as long as you’re careful. If the ground gets tough or the weather turns bad just go back. After all, your life is worth more than silver and gold.`
Adam nodded and we returned to find Cal absently drawing imaginary circles with an imaginary cigarette. I offered to buy another set of drinks but they declined. We arranged a meeting place for the morning and they left the bar.
I wasn’t the only one whose curiosity had been aroused and once they left I had many questions to answer. My reply was that they were just treasure hunters and there was nothing more to say.
***
I kept my promise and met them the next day. What little talking took place was done by Adam. Cal’s eyes were black and he frequently grimaced as if in pain. Adam was right, he was too young for alcohol.
A narrow path led out of Matison and climbed a short slope which then dropped into the Candars. I led them that way and stopped at the point where the path began to descend.
`The mistake a lot of people make is to go straight on,` I said, `You need to go left until you reach that cluster of rocks.` I pointed. `It takes slightly longer to get there but the going’s nowhere near as steep.`
They thanked me and walked on. It may seem logical for me to have remained watching until they had vanished from sight, but I didn’t. I just turned and made my way back to Matison.
***
I’ve not talked much about the Candars yet. I guess that’s because there’s not much I can say about them. Like I said, I’m just a Matison boy and mountains don’t interest me. I can tell you this though, the Candars are constructed of red, sandy rock. Only a few plants occasionally sprout through the cracks but they provide enough sustenance for some small creatures, which in turn serve as prey for the larger occupants of the Candars.
That night the streets of Matison were deserted as its citizens took shelter from the storm that raged above us. I was in the top room of my house with my girl and when I rose from the mattress to cool down my window offered a clear view of the lightning as it flickered across the jagged horizon of the Candars. Adam and Cal did enter my thoughts briefly but I pushed their images aside. I did not think that my questions would ever be answered.
***
Matison has always had a conscience and in the cool, fresh morning that followed a rescue party went into the mountains. They returned late afternoon with Adam who they carried on a stretcher. His ankle was badly sprained and he was suffering from exposure and dehydration but there was nothing a shot of whisky and the attentions of the Matison doctor couldn’t sort out.
What comes next is Adam’s story. I made sure I was there when he began talking and some of this is what he told us. The rest is stuff I’ve worked out for myself, with speculation used to fill the gaps.
For two hours Adam and Cal walked without talking. They travelled slowly at Adam’s suggestion, so as to conserve energy for later. Both kept their eyes alert, scouring every crack for any unusual glimmer.
`I’ve not seen anything yet,` was how Adam broke the silence.
`That’s because we’ve not gone far enough.`
`Or because it’s all a myth and there’s nothing to find.`
Cal shook his head. `I don’t believe that. Besides, we both heard what that guy said.`
After another hour the ground became steep and uneven, frequently forcing them to scramble from rock to rock. Cal was more athletic than his brother and on more than one occasion was forced to stop and wait, which he did with increasing irritation.
They had just pulled themselves up a steep wall of rock when Adam started and froze. `I thought I saw something.`
Cal followed his gaze eagerly. `What? Where?`
`I saw something move. Over there.`
Cal slapped his thigh angrily. `I thought you were going to tell me you’d seen gold.`
Adam shook his head. `I just saw something move.`
`I don’t see anything,` Cal said shortly and looked away.
`I’m sure I did.`
`Then it’s just your fucking imagination.`
The hours passed but the steepness of the terrain meant that they made little progress in terms of distance.
`The gold’s here, I know it,` Cal muttered at one point, `And I’ll find it, even if I have to turn over every stone in the Candars.`
Three more times Adam thought he saw movement on the horizon but he said nothing to Cal.
The day began to fade into evening. `It’s going to rain,` Adam said, `I can feel it in the air.`
`So?`  Cal replied, `It’s only water.`
`There’s nowhere for us to shelter, that’s what I’m worried about.`
`Then we just keep on going. You got the torch?`
The first drops fell almost the same instant that the last ray of light vanished. Adam had already switched on the torch and their past was lit by a trembling circle of light, distorted by the streaks of water falling through it.
By the time the thunder began to sound in the distance the once dry and dusty Candar rocks were sodden and slippery and Adam found himself having to take each step very carefully.
`Will you get a fucking move on,` Cal yelled, the echo of his voice drowning out the latest roll of thunder.
`I’m going as fast as I dare,` Adam shouted back. He tried to increase his pace and that proved a mistake. His left foot hit a particularly slick patch of ground and shot away beneath him. He fell backwards and rolled for several metres, his right foot cracking as the ground twisted it at an impossible angle.
Then Cal was at his side. `You alright?`
`I think I twisted my ankle.`
`Can you stand?`
Adam began to rise but as soon as he put weight on his injured ankle he screamed and fell back.
`Give me the torch,` Cal ordered. Before Adam could respond Cal’s fingers were pressing into his and the torch was removed from his grip. `I’m sorry Adam,` Cal said coldly.
As lightning flashed overhead Adam realised what his brother meant. `You’re leaving me here?`
Cal nodded. `Silver and gold are worth more than blood.` He walked away without looking back.
The storm continued its assault and both Cal and Adam heard the detonation when the lightning hit the highest peak in the Candars. By then Cal had left his brother far behind. The water in his eyes was blinding him and his clothes were little more than sodden rags.  It was some time since he had last scanned the ground for traces of gold. He continued to push himself across the rocks only because there was nothing else for him to do.
Finally the thunder grew fainter and the rain began to subside. Cal sighed with relief but the feeling lasted for the briefest of moments, as he became aware of a sound previously buried by the elements. Somewhere in the Candars an animal was hunting.
Cal desperately wiped his eyes dry and looked around. At first he saw nothing except the shadows and silhouettes of the Candars but eventually he was able to make out hound like shapes prowling a short distance away.
He began to run as fast as the wet surface would allow, throwing desperate glances behind as he did so. At first he thought he was putting them behind him but then he heard a gleeful baying rise up and he knew they had his scent.
Cal reached a steep wall and began to pull himself up, hoping that his pursuers would be unable to follow. By the time he reached the top the baying had grown to such intensity that it seemed louder than the thunder had ever been.
He could see the animals clearly now, although it was impossible to count how many there were. They stopped at the cliff bottom and for a moment he thought they would not follow. Then one of the hyenas put its paws on the first foothold and began, catlike, to ascend.
Cal was now in the very heart of the Candars. The surface he knelt on as he watched the baying pack flow up the cliff like a waterfall in reverse was the end of a narrow walkway that gave way to a gorge on either side. Cal began to run again and, despite being over three miles away, Adam was sure that he heard his screams.
No man is swifter than a hyena and within a few seconds Cal felt teeth dig into his leg. He writhed in terror, trying to free his blood covered shin from the jaws that held it. In his desperation he didn’t realise that his struggle was bringing him to the very edge of the precipice until he went over and plummeted to his death.
***
Adam had managed to pull himself and his injured ankle to the relative shelter of a cluster of rocks. When the rain ceased he had the intelligence to remove his wet clothes and wrap himself in a towel that had been kept dry within canvas in his pack. That was how he managed to stay alive until the rescue party found him.
***
Six months have passed since Adam and Cal paid their visit to the Candars. For another year the long stream of treasure seekers have passed through Matison and again many of them have perished.
In Matison we plead ignorance of the Candars and when our backs are turned they laugh at our innocence. Maybe they don’t realise that one of the reasons the treasure doesn’t interest us is that we are satisfied with the coins they pour into our businesses, behind the bar at the Bear’s Bait and at our feet when they ask for information. Finding silver and gold isn’t always hard work.
Maybe this is the time to tell you something previously unmentioned. There are those of us in Matison who know the Candars better than we will ever admit to those fools. And I am one of these, maybe even the greatest of them all.
That is why I know what happened to Cal, something that will always be a mystery to his brother. I was out in the mountains a few days ago. I have no reason to fear the hyenas as they eat out of my hands like adoring puppies. On my excursions I often discover skeletons and on this occasion I found his.
A dying Matison boy did once emerge from the Candars clutching a gold rock. That much is true. However it is also true that since that day not a trace of gold has been seen in these mountains. I know I told Adam and Cal about the silent man and his pockets full of silver and gold coins, but I lied.
A few dead bodies only adds to the allure, that’s what I think. And more than a few people in Matison agree with me.
Sometimes when I’m in the Candars I turn and look at the town beneath me. At first I just see a backwater mountain town, with dirty streets and ugly grey houses. But then I see a vast city, its frontiers extending beyond the reach of the eye. And I know that this city is under construction as I watch, its foundations being laid by the eager hands of fools, fools who will give their lives for a mirage of silver and gold.
 


© Copyright 2019 Andrew Zigmond. All rights reserved.

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