CHAPTER 1: THE CONNECTION
As she walked the ridge looking down at the ground, like she always did, she saw it ― just laying there next to the old twisted pinion pine. It was like whoever made the thing left it there the day before. Last night’s rain was over, but the wind was still blowing strong. Of course at 6500’ elevation there would be days like this. Alex had walked the same path countless times in her never-ending quest. She wondered for a moment if the object was just made or if somebody recently lost it. After all, how could she miss the gleaming find? As she bent down to get a closer view, she looked for the footprints of the poor fool who lost it. Then she remembered, they had been at the cabin for the last four days and hadn't seen anyone except the old Shoshone logger driving his beat-up F150 down the dirt road past the spring. Maybe it was his, and his footprints were washed away by last night’s rain. Anyway, it was on her property, so it was now hers. The thought made her laugh. She reminded herself of Gollum from the Lord Of The Rings, “My prescioussss.” This might be the best one yet. She approached the object cautiously, with a crime scene investigator’s mindset. She was always amazed at the skill of the ancient sculptors, but this one was exquisite. The obsidian had a depth to it that she had never seen. She still hadn’t yet picked it up.
Looking down from the ridge, toward the corrals, Alex could see Matt and her grandson, Thomas, nailing up some loose boards that the gelding had kicked down during last
night’s storm. They bought the ranch so they could have somewhere to relax on the weekends, but it seemed like there was always something to build or fix. Alex never understood, but Matt always said he found the never-ending work and projects somehow recuperative. And the place was perfect for Tommy, too. He could dig, get dirty, mess around in the pond, and do all of the boy stuff that a nine-year-old boy should do. The younger grandkids would find it to be the same as soon as they were old enough.
“Wo! OO!” “Wo! OO!” Alex cupped her hands and signaled “the boys” from on top of the ridge. The overture was a tribute to her longtime deceased special aunt, Aunt “Duck.” She used it to call the cows in at their Ohio dairy farm many years in the past. It had been at least twenty years since she had died and Alex still mourned Aunt Duck. She probably would for the rest of her life.
Matt did his best “Wo! OO!” back, but he was weak in that department. Oh well, at least he gave it his best shot. Tommy just thought Papa and Nana were kind of funny in an old people sort of way, but he loved them anyway, just the way they were. Matt knew that she must have found something because she hadn’t been gone that long and a “Wo! OO!” wasn’t warranted at this point. Thirty-five years of marriage had taught him something about her. And now he chuckled to himself. She motioned for him to climb up on the ridge. Easy for her, she took the trail from the cabin that they had made a couple of years ago for when they got really old and wouldn’t be able to climb the steep terrain. If he was going to join her, he had to take the steep route over near the cottonwood trees next to the spring.
As Alex knelt next to the object, the sun was now positioned in such a manner that she could see the center ridge running the length of it from the perfectly chiseled cutouts to just above the area where the sculptor started the elegant thinning leading toward the all-important point. This is where most failed. Her pulse quickened. She still had not touched it. By all accounts, the relic was a cascade: an ancient design so flawless that it remained virtually unchanged for ten thousand years.
It took about ten minutes for Matt and Tommy to climb the steep incline and get to the spot where Alex stood.
Matt loved the westward view from here. This time of year snow came early to the Sierra Nevada, but it was still Indian summer at Pigeon Spring. The snow-capped peaks in the distance stood in stark contrast to the cloudless brilliant blue Nevada sky. Thomas started to jog toward Alex; “What’d you find, Nana; another Indian rock?” He’d been on countless backcountry hikes with Alex looking for artifacts since he was five years old. Matt was more content to stay behind and tend to the ranch work, which really meant messing around, rather than tramp around the endless hills, gullies, and meadows in her never-ending obsession. She still had not yet picked it up. As Thomas drew near her, he started instinctively to reach toward the black masterpiece. Even at his tender age he knew it was something special. Alex reached her arm out in front, stopping him just short of the object.
By now Matt joined them and Alex pointed to it. He wondered why she had not yet picked it up. She looked at her husband and he knew immediately what she was thinking. The connection. She remembered when they visited the “Wall” for the first time, when she saw Matt tenderly touch the names of his fallen comrades from so many years ago. Somehow it made him connected to them once again. She thought for an instant that this was the true beauty of their long-term marriage and friendship. The connection. Thomas was fit to be tied, and tried his best to get between his grandmother and the object, but Alex held her ground. Matt called for his grandson to back off, and when he did, she picked it up. The connection had been made.
Now she was part of it. The sculptor, the warriors who used it, the flesh of the animals it had pierced. Those who had possessed it ― All of them. Now she was connected.
The serrated edges of the spearpoint were still as sharp as any of her best Chicago cutlery. How masterful the sculptor was. What a great artisan he must have been. How was it possible that such a beautiful object could be crafted with such archaic and primitive tools? If he were born in a different time and place, would he be a Michelangelo or a Picasso? Was he a great leader of his people, or just a highly respected craftsman? What happened to him? Who was he? Did a wounded mule deer carry the spearhead in his rib cage until he outran his pursuer and then died? Where has this masterpiece been for the centuries? The questions were endless and impossible to answer. This is what fueled her impossible obsession.
CHAPTER 2: THE RANCH
The pond was dredged out last year by Raymond and was now stocked with large-mouth bass and pan fish. The state fish biologist Matt conferred with had suggested this combination. The smaller pan fish would feed the bass, and both would feast on the ever-present insects. Alex, always the animal lover, was totally against Matt stocking the pond, unless he promised not to catch and eat the fish. Catch and release was the best he could get out of her. In fact he had made a wooden sign in his work shop that was posted up at the cabin site that read, “Alexandra’s Hunting Lodge ― Where Animals are Never Killed and Only Rarely Eaten.”
Raymond, however, was another matter. Alex and Matt had met him a few years ago when he wandered in on horseback. He was rounding up wild cattle that were the offspring from several generations ago when their place was part of the Lida Ranch cattle operation. The pond then was only a couple of feet deep, and was used to water the livestock. Over the years the debris from the cotton wood trees and sagebrush, along with the weeds and watercress, had turned it into little more than a swamp. Raymond, a rail thin cowhand/wildlife expert/tree trimmer/handyman/heavy equipment operator/folklore expert and philosopher was one of those rare breeds you almost never see anymore. When Matt and Alex were growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Ohio, there seemed to be many such people. Matt always admired these men, both for their independence and their versatility. They made do with what they had. He missed them. Raymond lived with his wife Linda, the female version of himself, over in Gold Point about twenty miles away. Gold Point had all of seven residents, no store, no gas station, no church, but they had a saloon.
Down the stagecoach road about a half a mile from the pond was the prize, the wooden monolith that first caught Matt and Alex’s eye and piqued their pursuit in acquiring the ranch. From the main road, you could see it if you knew it was there. Otherwise the structure blended in with the rising hills, sagebrush, and pinion pine. Men’s fortunes, dreams, and sweat were all right there. The timbers were enormous and obviously not from around the area. They towered above the ten-foot carved stone block wall and were at least four feet in diameter. They must have been harvested from over near Mammoth Lake or Lake Tahoe well over a century ago. What a feat it would have been just to get them to this site.
The Pigeon Spring Gold Stamp Mill was located here. It operated throughout the 1890s until 1907. The accompanying settlement had a saloon, store, and a roadhouse. If he closed his eyes and imagined, Matt thought he could still hear the faint sounds of the machines, the grunting of the workmen, the clinking of whiskey bottles, and the laughter of the whores and men they entertained.
The Pigeon Spring Stamp Mill was typical of the old gold mining camps of Nevada and California that sprung up out of the dry deserts and wild mountains of the old west during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The camps and towns literally appeared overnight. The discovery of gold and silver, and in some cases, just the rumor of the precious metals created a fervor that spread like a wild fire with a back wind. People from all walks of life flooded into these boomtowns. It was an eclectic mix of businessmen, prospectors, gamblers, hustlers, thieves, and loose women. Even a preacher or two made the trek, just in case some poor soul needed savin’. They all came with a lust this country had never before witnessed. The mining camps were harsh. The men and women were hard. These were not places for women and children or the weak and timid. Instead of wooden houses, they lived in tents and makeshift one-room stone hovels with dirt floors.
Matt was reminded of when he first saw the outskirts of Quon Loi in Tay Nin Province, Vietnam, just outside the 1st Cavalry compound back in January of 1969. The makeshift bars, hooches, and vendors … the Saigon “tea girls” all hustling a buck. “Hey G.I., you give me ten dolla, I love you long time.” It must have been much the same here back then. Under the dense sagebrush Matt saw the signs of their lives. An old rusted out baking powder can … the broken neck of a whiskey jug … a worn out mule shoe. Over by the mill site the place was littered with unnamed and forgotten metal thingamajigs that must have been essential to the operation of the mill.
About a hundred yards east of the mill, nestled among the sparse sage about twenty five yards on the north side of the logging road was perhaps the most intriguing and thought-provoking site of all. A headstone, stated simply: NANCY WALKER – BORN 1884 – DIED 1906. Matt had checked the Esmeralda County records in the county seat at Goldfield, some sixty-five miles to the north, a couple of years ago to no avail. Back then Dee Hunter was still alive, and Matt had even run him down to see if he could shed any light on the mystery. After all, Dee had made and placed the headstone on the grave. Back then the only thing Dee could enlighten Matt on was that he remembered seeing the original gravestone some fifty years earlier when he ran cattle for the Lida Ranch with a bunch of other cowhands.
Dee said he was about twenty-two then, the same age that Nancy was when she died, and he had always felt sorry for her, even though she had died some sixty years before, and he had never even met her. Dee wondered then, as Matt did now. “Who was she?” “How did she die?” “Was she pretty?” “Why was she here?” One night in Goldfield at the Santa Fe Saloon after three shots of Hiram Walker, Dee told Matt that he secretly fantasized about her. He sheepishly revealed that he might have loved her if he had known her back then. He stopped back at the grave about twenty years ago when a group of rich fellas from either New Jersey or New York were lookin’ to bag a lion, and he was their guide. He was givin’ them the grand tour when he noticed that the old grave marker was washed away by one of those one hundred year flash floods. It saddened him. He felt as if somebody had insulted her and he needed to come to her defense. So he made her a new headstone, and every now and then he stopped by just to say hello and to straighten things up. Although he tried ever since he first came across Nancy Walker, Dee was never able to get any of his questions answered. Matt suspected he wouldn’t get any answered either. Matt thought it ironic. Just like Nancy Walker, these camps and towns died before they even had a chance to live. They were ― and then they weren’t. They were gone!
Pigeon Spring could have been different if the compelling yellow metal had not been the calling voice that made them come. There was water here. It was why the ancient Timbisha came here. It was because of the water that the pinion pines and their life-sustaining nuts were here. It was because of the water that the Nummu lived here. Water was why first Wadziwob and later Wovoka performed their sacred Ghost Dance here. Water was the reason that the mule deer, the jackrabbits, the red tailed hawks, and the feral cattle were here. It was why the cowboys came and went. It was why the U.S. Cavalry came here. It was the water. Matt and Alex were here for a different reason. They were here because of it all.
Ten miles in either direction, it was a very different land. To the east and south the mountains gave way to the lower elevations of the brutal Mojave Desert with its creosote and yucca. The same distance to the north put you on the road toward Silver Peak and its barren rocks. Another ten miles to the west past the Last Chance range was a steep plunge into one of the most inhospitable places on earth … Death Valley. It was no wonder that the cool elevation, trees, abundant wildlife, and water propelled mankind and animalkind to this place.
When Matt and Alex were looking for a weekend retreat and eventually a summer spot to live when they finally really retired, they almost passed it by. Alex said that if they were going to stay in Las Vegas, they had to get out of town during the scorching summers. It wasn’t for her. It was for her horses and her dogs. Alex never really meant to have four horses and two dogs. They just sort of happened.
She never forgot her childhood roots growing up on her father’s dairy farm. She remembered the animals too: Manard, Cow-Cow Boogi, and her palomino, Whiskey. They were long gone, but the memories were not.
When Matt joined the FBI over twenty-seven years ago, new Special Agents weren’t sent to the countryside. New agents were going to the nation’s largest cities, where the real problems were. Places like New York, Miami, Chicago, and LA. After a short stint in Pittsburgh, Matt got assigned to Detroit. At the time, the city held the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the United States. There weren’t many dairy farms there. So Alex’s roots and any chance to get back to them had to take a rear seat to Matt’s assignments. At least her career as a registered nurse was in demand everywhere. No matter where they were transferred, she always could find work. And with the kids, she could work different shifts to accommodate their school schedules along with Matt’s.
Looking back, it seemed hectic, but at the time, they just seemed busy. Pittsburgh, Detroit, and finally Las Vegas, and all of the special assignments in between; it all seemed to fly by. The long-term and short-term undercover projects that took Matt to places like LA, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Seattle, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Portland all seemed wound up together like the rubber bands inside a golf ball. The work that seemed so important at the time, and it was, he was sure of it, was all now behind him. He remembered when he was a new agent attending the obligatory retirement parties, and some old fart would get up and talk about how they couldn’t believe where the time went. But it was true! Where did the time go? The old farts were right, and now he was one of them. An old fart. If he said it fast, it didn’t sound so bad. Except for the couple of years he was assigned to work undercover in the mafia sting with “Fat Tony” when he first got sent to Las Vegas, at least he had taken good care of his body. He still did his three-mile jog every morning. Alex still looked good, too. She started working out even before Matt joined the FBI and she had kept it up. That, along with riding and shoveling the ever-present horseshit kept her looking years younger than she was. People were always amazed when they found out she had four grandchildren. Matt always jokingly said that he “over-married” and she “under-married.”
Three years ago, after he retired from the Bureau, Matt took a job as Chief of Security at one of the larger hotel/casinos in Las Vegas. They always made a good living, but with his full retirement benefits, and Alex’s salary, along with the salary of his new position, it was a chance to buy a few toys before they “retired-retired.” One of the first things they did was buy the ranch. Now, finally, Alex could get back to where she wanted to be. Her well-deserved roots.
So here they were. Pigeon Spring, Nevada. The place was a constant reminder of how fleeting life really is.