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Into Dirt by Felix Perez
For a long time, ‘maybe tomorrow’ got him to the next day. But time had slipped by and a procession of missteps had spiraled into failure. Food was now the concern—that, and an open wound that refused to heal itself.
Water sloshed along the wooden railing as dirt and rocks rattled over the grate. He stared into the silt, his eyes focused—as though by doing so—the result might differ. For a moment, he thought he saw something, but light from a setting sun had a way of playing tricks on the brain. He struck at the Earth with a pick, then bent down and scooped another shovelful into the feeder. His hands were raw beneath the black.
In the back of his mind, he wondered who his wife might be fucking. He had gotten her letter asking for a divorce a week earlier, but he knew it was long before that, she had broken her vows. She was nothing to him now. Just another misguided person, incapable of possessing the patience needed to let ‘potential’ run its course.
It was moments like that, Buck liked to remind himself he lived only for himself. That his future would be a result of his strength of character—his resolve for greatness. He felt it was an atrocity of justice that others didn't see him for what he was capable of, but the concern was temporary. It was only a matter of time until his effort would yield the proof needed to prove the world wrong.
He stood in the sun and welcomed the heat against his face. His strength overcoming what the world was capable of throwing at him.
Someday he'd be someone. But as it stood now, back home he wasn’t anything to anybody. He had come here looking to become the person he deserved to be, but in the hunt, he was losing himself and his mind was fighting a battle his body couldn’t win.
He knelt down and lowered his arms. The water’s reflection returned an image of a man—some stranger he didn’t recognize—sick and atrophied. The cold of the river washed over his hands and beneath the surface, his fingers morphed into someone else’s. A cloud of soot bloomed around them as dirt and grime trailed down the river—a day’s labor in the pursuit of a dream, washed away in mere moments. Is that all he had to show for a fourteen-hour day?
The sun cast shadows along the ridge, mocking another day’s failure. Hope was once a dream, but now his only lifeline—the thread that traced his sorrow back to light. He was sinking fast, too proud to rid his pockets of the want for gold to buoy his chance of survival. Who was he, if not an adventurer? If not the hero from his hometown who had risked everything to make it?
Tanner tapped the side of the sluice box. “Call it?” he asked.
Buck nodded. “Sun’s settin’. Let’s close her down.”
He had known Tanner only long enough to know their dreams were the same. That a life beyond their own could be found in the soils of California. That one cut of the shovel or till of the dirt could change everything.
Buck had met Tanner the first day he arrived—discovered him while shopping for supplies at the trading post. Buck was thin on money, so when he saw Tanner buying much of the same equipment he needed, he jumped at the opportunity to arrange a partnership. That was business and smart business at that.
Time had proven Tanner a good partner. He kept to himself and worked hard. It had been almost ten months now since they had chosen their site and began mining the Earth. Every week or so, a larger than average fleck of gold would sift through the dirt and tantalize them enough to push onwards, but it wasn’t enough to brag about, let alone live on.
Buck caught Tanner out of the corner of his eye staring at him as they washed alongside one another in the river. There was something in his look, that gave Buck pause. He turned to Tanner, “What’s eating you?”
Tanner dried his arms, rifled through his bag, and then put his hand to Buck’s shoulder. "Here," he said, handing him a short stack of coins. "We’re going to town tonight. You need to eat something."
"I don’t want it.” Buck looked at him as though he had dug a dagger into this chest. “I appreciate the gesture, I do. But I don't need your charity."
Tanner looked away for a moment as if thinking and then looked back at him. "You're sick Buck. And I need a partner who's not going to give out on me. It’s going to be your hands that discover the gold that feeds my family for years to come. I need you healthy."
Buck shook his head. "We made a deal. You fronted the money to buy the machine and most of the supplies. We agreed to split everything we found seventy-thirty until I could pay you out for my half. Then we’d be equal partners.” He lifted his pants up around his waist. “If my thirty’s not covering my food, it’s my own predicament to figure."
Tanner stared off into the distance. "Buck, you know as much as I do, with what we're finding, you’ll be figuring long after you’re dead in the ground.” He lifted the fistful of coins back out to Buck, but didn’t look at him. “Come now, your face looks more a skull than a man."
Buck pushed it aside and ran his fingers down the brim of his nose. "I'm standing aren't I?"
Tanner drew a sniff in, but didn’t say anything.
"And I'm pulling my weight too. You don't see me slowing down like some slant-eyed chink, do you?”
Tanner looked back toward Buck, his voice firm. "Go to town Buck. Get yourself healthy. Some dried pork, beans, something. When we find the big one, no one's going to laugh at you for having taken a little handout."
Buck felt his stomach curl in on itself. For a moment he imagined the taste of fats and salts and oils, but then the bile came and the illusion washed away.
"We’re almost there Buck. You're going to be the king of that little town you're from. Our riches will come and when they do, you'll feel the wind on your face from all the bows of the people who laughed."
“No one laughs,” said Buck. “And that’s not what this is about.” He saw his wife's face—the disappointment in her eyes when he had first told her his plans. He ran his hand over his shin and winced. The flesh was wet and rancid.
"You'll ruin us," she had said.
He pushed into the wound with his thumb but could still hear her words. He looked at Tanner, whose arm was still outstretched in his direction. He was tired and weak. “Okay,” he said. Reluctantly, he stretched his fingers out and waited for his handout. The coins clinked like the sound of a beggar and in the noise he felt the shame from his childhood rise up. He felt his father’s hand leading him to the corner.
“Just for a little bit,” he heard him say. The memory now closer.
He felt ashamed for the sign his father made him hold and remembered the laughs as the children he knew from school, walked passed. A good father would not let his failure extend to his kids. A good father would have found some other way.
“Listen,” Tanner started. “I’m going to stick around here a bit, take a shit, and get my stuff in order. You go on ahead of me and get to town. The general store should still be open if you go now.”
Tanner’s insistence was a kind gesture, but he didn’t want the help. He nodded, but didn’t say anything.
Tanner collected his wash supplies and gave a languid salute as he walked off towards the river bank. When Tanner had gone around the edge, Buck went to his bag to return the coins. He untied the leather strap and lifted the flap. Then, he dug his hand into the bag and reached deep so the coins wouldn’t make a sound when they fell. As he was releasing the coins, he felt his fingers bump into something—something he had imagined feeling since the idea to come to California had first risen.
He peered into the bag and saw it. The unmistakable glitter. He felt his face flush and then the world blurred. The stone was massive. It must have been the size of a pregnant field mouse, if not larger.
Suddenly, Tanner was standing in front of him. “What are you doing?” Tanner snatched the bag from Buck.
Buck’s vision, still blurred, tried to read Tanner’s face. He felt his face grow hot beneath his skin and he clenched his fist until it would no longer tighten. "When did you find it?” His words were ice. “Take it out of your bag. I want to see it."
"Take what out?"
"You know goddamned what." His voice guttural and strained.
Tanner's eyes fidgeted.
"You fucked me, you mother fucker." He worked to settle his breath but an avalanche of emotion had come loose. "I let you in and you fucked me."
"The hell are you talking about? Your hunger’s getting to you." His voice was calm but his face was washed in fear.
"All this time, I’ve been wondering why this site hasn’t yielded shit. You’ve pocketed everything, haven’t you?” Buck took a step forward. “I'm not some idiot. Nobody fucks me. Nobody makes me into a fool."
Tanner's hand went for his calf. A glint of steel caught the purples of the setting sun.
The illusion of free will presented an option, but the decision had been made long before. Buck's stomach tensed and in the motion, he prepared to become someone. He flung his pick side-armed and heard the crunch of bone before he felt the impact reverberate through his arm. A splatter of warmth clung to his skin. He released the handle and watched as it arced to the dry Earth below—still protruding from Tanner’s skull.
Blood spurted out against the dirt as Tanner convulsed.
He stepped over Tanner and reached into the bag. He felt his fingers wrap around the nugget. It was cold and needed to be held. He withdrew it and grasped it tightly in his hand, rocking his fist back-and-forth to feel the weight.
Tanner’s body twitched and wriggled beneath him.
He scanned the horizon to make sure no one had seen him—that no one was coming. He was somebody now and he wasn't about to let someone take that which he had been given.
He looked down at Tanner and shook his head. “All I ever asked was that we were fair to each other—that my dream meant nothing less than yours.” He rolled him onto his back.
Tanner’s eyes were lost in the fading light of the sky.
“But you fucked me. They always fuck me.” He pulled the pick from Tanner’s head and raised it high above his shoulders. His silhouette, a tree in the valley. When he returned the pick to the Earth, he sent Tanner with it—back into the dirt.
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