Getting By
Chapter 7

Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B

I was a bit surprised by the lack of ore cart rails in the mine shaft until I examined the timbers shoring up the tunnel a little more closely. They were roughly cut from the spindly local piñon trees, suggesting a one- or two-person operation, rather than a large commercial one. As such, instead of ore carts on steel rails, they had probably used wooden-wheeled hand carts or mule drawn sledges.

As I made my way into the tunnel, I watched carefully for branch shafts and drop shafts. To my relief, there were few of the former and none of the latter. At each juncture, I took the right-hand branch after stopping to chip a numeric designator and an arrow indicating the path back to the surface. These marks chipped into the stone of the walls were my 'bread crumbs' to help me find my way out on the return trip. The numbers would help find my way back to anything that might need revisiting later.

I had made my way to the ends of three branch tunnels, having to retrace my steps to the main tunnel each time, without finding anything more interesting than some old miner's tools and ancient kerosene lanterns. The general slope of the mine was downward from the entrance in the valley, and I figured I was probably a mile or more from that entrance when I came to a tunnel where the air had a different smell. At first, I worried that I might have stumbled on a pocket of gas, before I realized that the smell was familiar. In fact, it had been a constant part of our existence for several days before we made it to the oasis of the valley. It was the smell of the desert and its plants and animals, combined with a faint odor of rotting flesh that permeated the air even this far from civilization. I wondered how long it would take Mother Nature to dispose of the flesh on all those bodies so the air would no longer remind us of those we lost. I had gotten accustomed to it, but hadn't realized until now that it wasn't as strong here in the mine, or even that the mine's air had a different scent than the air outside, until the air flowing from the side shaft reminded me.

I hurriedly made my marks with the rock hammer, and then started down the tunnel. About a quarter-mile in, I had to work my way around a pile of debris where one wall of the shaft and part of the roof had collapsed, then, negotiating a sharp bend, I began to notice shadows pointing toward me that disappeared when my headlamp swung in their direction. I turned off the lamp, and sure enough, from somewhere ahead, a faint, reddish light was filtering into the tunnel.

For safety's sake, I turned my light back on until the tunnel suddenly leveled off and became a broad, low ceilinged, man-made cavern, illuminated by the light of the late afternoon sun that filtered through some brush and a sagging wooden door.

It seemed that our little fortress had a back door, and I was determined to see where it came out.

The old wooden door was held shut by a loop of rusty chain and a padlock. A few blows from my rock hammer made short work of the lock. I looked back as I prepared to step outside. Inside the chamber, there was another tunnel mouth north of the one from which I had emerged. My curiosity about this cavern was aroused, and I really wanted to take time to find out what was down that other tunnel, but it was getting late and it was more urgent to my purposes to see where this shaft came out of the mountain, since it could serve as an escape route, or a way for others to sneak up on us.

While the wood of the door had weathered and dried, it was still essentially solid, and though the bottom sagged to the dusty floor of the cavern, it was relatively easy to lift the free end and walk it a couple of feet back into the cavern. With this done, I stepped out and found that while a thick stand of brush overgrew the opening, there was a relatively open space between the brush and the rock to the right of the door.

I paused to give a Sidewinder time to make good his escape, and then pushed through into a rocky ravine. Judging from the angle of the sun on the rocks, I estimated that I had come out somewhere on the southeast side of our mini mountain range. I walked out to the nearest bend of the ravine and found that I was perhaps a hundred feet above the desert floor, and the way down the ravine was relatively open. Certainly, people would have no trouble negotiating that path, and I figured horses could probably do it in both directions without too much trouble.

I was just turning back to the opening, when some movement caught my eye. I knelt behind a boulder and watched as a lone horseman walked his mount around a spur of rock, moving slowly northward. A rope led from his saddle to something that followed along behind. Slowly, one by one, a string of eleven horses followed docilely along, daisy-chained behind the rider. Wishing I had brought binoculars, I studied the rider as he approached. Something looked familiar about him, but my mind couldn't make the connection between his clothing and posture and the memory that would tell me where I had seen them before.

As he passed almost opposite my position, the horseman removed what appeared to be a campaign hat and ran a hand through sweaty hair. That was when I realized where I had seen him before - going up the face of the cliff next to the waterfall in the valley.

"Matt!" I shouted through cupped hands as I rose from behind my rock.

An M16 appeared and the former stuntman turned his horse to face me, movie style. This made a smaller target of the horse, but a bigger target of him. I made a mental note to talk to him about that.

"Don't shoot!" I shouted, as he squinted into the setting sun, trying to make out who I was. "It's Gavin!"

"Gav? What the hell are you doing way the hell and gone out here?"

I made my way down the dry wash, occasionally dropping a foot or so down what would be small waterfalls in the rainy season, until I was on a level with him.

"Got a spare mount?" I asked. "I was doing a little exploring in the mine and found another outlet. What are you doing all the way over here, and with a string of horses?"

"Found these horses in the upper valley with about a hundred head of cattle, and thought we might have a use for 'em, so I strung 'em along. At the southern end of the valley, I found another trail down the mountain. Thought I'd swing back around and see how far it was from the 'main entrance' when all of a sudden I run into somebody that, by all rights, ought to be about six hundred feet higher up, and a couple of miles westward," he grinned and continued, "I figure all of these horses are saddle-broke, but if I was to pick one out for the supreme leader of human civilization, I reckon it'd be that gelding on the end, back there. He'll need a firm hand, but he's forgotten he was once a stud. Got no saddle or bridle, though, unless you want mine."

"I've ridden bareback before. If you could cut me off enough rope for a halter, that ought to be sufficient."

The gelding was skittish, and I took a few moments to let him become familiar with my scent, petting him and speaking low, soothing words to put him at ease. He was, indeed, a fine specimen, and soon calmed down enough to let me handle him. When his eyes had stopped rolling, and he began to nuzzle at me as I ran my hands over him, I scratched behind his ears. Like a dog, he leaned into the scratching, and nodded his magnificent head up and down against my fingers. Taking the ten foot length of rope that Matt handed me, I quickly fashioned a halter that looped behind the horse's ears and around his muzzle, leaving a long loop of rope whose ends attached at the muzzle loop. This loop would serve as reins.

"Watch him when you mount," Matt cautioned. "This one'll test you. He won't mind being ridden, as long as you don't mind showing him who's boss."

Still keeping contact with my palms and speaking soothingly, I grabbed the reins and a fistful of mane, and vaulted onto his back, coming to rest just behind his withers. I kept a tight grip on his mane and clamped my legs around his body. As I had expected after Matt's warning, the gelding tried a few stiff-legged jumps as I hung on for dear life. Finally, I got the reins in my left hand and pulled his head up, making it difficult for him to buck. Still keeping my grip on his mane, I laid the reins against the left side of his neck.

I had expected that we'd find cutting horses where cattle were being run, and I wasn't disappointed. Now that he was convinced that I wasn't going to be unseated easily, the animal's training took over. As soon as he felt the slight pressure of the rein on the left side of his neck, he started walking his front feet around toward the right, shifting his hind feet only enough to keep his stance stable as he pivoted. I shook the reins and made a clicking sound at the side of my mouth that I had been taught as a child.

The gelding started forward at a walk, answering every touch of the rein as if it was attached directly to his steering. As I shifted my weight a little forward and nudged him with my heels, he took off at a trot. A bit more urging and he began to canter - a much more comfortable gait since I had no stirrups in which to stand to cushion the jolting of the trot. I was sorely tempted to urge him into a gallop, but it was getting late, and we needed to get up the trail to the valley before night fell. I didn't know who was guarding the trail, but it was a safe bet they weren't very disciplined yet, and I didn't want anyone shooting us by mistake. That kind of mistake is a lot easier to avoid in daylight, and the sun would go down more quickly on the eastern side of the mountain.

I briefly considered simply walking the horses back up the mine shaft, but discarded the idea when I remembered the cave-in. Matt and I could scramble over it, but the horses wouldn't make it.

The sun was just going down behind the mountains to the east when we were challenged by Colby. I didn't see him until he rose from his position, and made a mental note to congratulate Ramon on his choice of guard position. From that location, the guard could see, and shoot, a long way down the entrance trail, without exposing himself to return fire.

"Halt! Who goes there?"

I was tempted to not answer and see what he would do, but figured I'd better be ready for the consequences if I did, and my butt and legs were sore from their unaccustomed marriage to the horse's barrel, so I decided to save the test for another day.

"Matt Dryer and Gavin Thompson," I sang out.

"Advance and be recognized!"

We slowly walked our horses up the trail, and Colby, looking very military in his own unmarked desert fatigues, stood and gave a passable salute.

"At ease Colby," I told him, and to my astonishment, he snapped into an almost perfect parade rest stance. "Damn, Colby, you've been spending way too much time with the Gunny!"

"Gunnery Sergeant Garcia has simply been teaching me the value of military discipline, sir!"

"Very well, Colby. Carry on."

We got another challenge, this time from Smiley, as we approached the top of the trail, just before it spilled over into the valley.

"Halt! Who goes there?"

"Matt Dryer and Gavin Thompson!"

"Advance and be recognized!"

It was almost a repeat of Colby's performance.

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