Elkhorn

Elkhorn

Two men walked side by side, carrying vacant expressions and heavy shoulders. Their shoulders, in turn, carried picks and shovels, swaying lazily with the rhythm of their clambering steps. The path they walked was of rough earth, turned over again this morning by the course tread of the big trucks that preceded them, but their weighty and miscolored boots pressed the loam evenly beneath the weight of the men, all the same.

It was an easy path to navigate. So long as they didn’t wander into the old growth standing guard at either side, they were sure to find their destination at the other end. The real danger lay in the drivers, whose vision was largely obstructed by the great orange nose that pierced the damp air in front of the vehicle. Anyone who had taken this path previously knew to look back once for every two times they looked forward; every so often, a fragment of clothing or a broken pick handle could be seen churned into the mud, a dark testimony to the encroaching weight of the ever-incoming haulers. It was reasonable to believe these were remnants of a fellow miner or logger. It was preferable not to.

The man on the right let an especially foul curse drain out of his mouth, if only to break up the monotony. The left man, loosed from his thoughts and suddenly aware of his surroundings, looked behind them; nothing. He looked forward.

“Gon’ be a river runnin’,” he said through his breath. The right man hummed an acknowledgement. A breeze, weak and imperceptibly cool, cut through the trees from a short ways behind them. They slowed their tread, giving the air current a chance to cut under their arms and carry off as much heat as they could shed. The diffused sky light, softly illuminating the ground ahead, grew a shade darker.

“No time in the low mine,” came the delayed response, a sing-song and matter-of-fact statement. The left man bobbed his head, though it was likely lost within his lumbering gate. The right man looked behind them, and spoke again.

“Gotta move.” The two laborers veered their momentum to the right, returning their feet to their original pace as they made a straight course for the sidelines. The left man looked back now as well, but was otherwise disengaged from the sight of the hauler rolling effortlessly over the well-beaten path. He stepped backwards, carefully positioning his boot at the edge of the uncompressed fringe of clumped earth that laced the road. He looked down the grade of the short hill and spotted a narrow stream of water pushing through the grass and into the woods. He grunted.

“Stream there,” he said, loosely gesturing with his elbow, his hand still balancing his tools upon his shoulder. The right man turned and grunted, moving his eyes from the water to the other man. The left man looked back at the hauler, still silent in the distance. He turned back again and moved for the stream, an awkward, sideways climb down the soft earth. The right man traded in his unimpressed glare for a scowl and a confused grin.

“The hell’re you doin’?” He shouted, throwing his voice like a stone at the other man, who really hadn’t made it very far.

“Hot as hell, man.” The left man clambered down the short and steep face, trying, largely in vain, to steady himself on the loose clods of dirty clay that ushered him down to the foliage below. “I want some a that stream. Just washin’ up.”

“Gon’ be washin’ away 'n the rain hits.” The right man’s scowl lost its good nature and passed judgement instead, but the left man wasn’t looking.

“Nah,” he called up to his colleague. “Got a minute.” The left man stooped over the water, scrubbing the salt from his leather hands. He cupped some in his joined palms and carried it to his face, pressing the cool water to his skin. On their third trip down, his hands followed his eyes instead, once more into the water but straight through to the bottom. He pinched a small stone with his thumb and finger, rubbing the algae from its chipped face and bringing it up to his tired eyes for a closer look.

“Got me an arrowhead,” he mumbled in surprise. Then again, but loud enough for the right man to hear. “Ey! Got me an arrowhead!”

“Ya got somethin’!” The right man watched the approaching hauler as he shouted his reprimand down to his suddenly adventurous coworker. “And it ain’t any good!”

“Come look!” The left man turned his head and squinted, a complete disregard for the lack of sunshine, but held the arrowhead aloft, barely visible from the right man’s point of view.

The right man shouted his refusal, even as the left man spoke over him, bidding him get some water. The right man looked back again for less than a second before hurrying down the muddy hill.

The left man grinned, a tease against his colleague. “Thoughtcha didn’t want any?” The right man flicked his hand up at the path, shaking his head as he pursed his lips.

“They see me standin’, lookin’ down? Radio that. Otta wanna be in that,” he defended himself as he moved to stand by the left man. “Otta want any a that.”

“Yeah, ya wanna see the arrowhead.” The left man corrected the right with a playful and condescending tone, and the right man swatted the words away with his own sour remark.

“Yeah, lemme see.” He leaned in as the left man uncurled his hand. It was definitely an arrowhead, the right man saw that now. A bit rounded at the edges, likely from the constant, soft touch of the creek it had laid in for God knew how long, but still a rare find nowadays.

“Alright, at’s pretty cool.” The right man watched its wet surface slowly dry up as the heat from the left man’s hand pushed into it. The sight reminded him why the left man had come down into the greenery to begin with, and he took the opportunity to wash and cool down in the stream as well. He was only a little disappointed by the task; there weren’t any more treasures up for grabs, at least none that were so apparent.

The left man moved the arrowhead through the air, slowly, a smooth and straight line reenacting the long decayed arrow’s forgotten path. “Ya think they killed someone with this?”

“Killed a deer with it. Or somethin’ like bear or a squirrel.” The right man mocked his fellow miner. “Ain’t just out killin’ each other.”

The left man grimaced. “Well, they coulda been.”

“Wun’t be any of ‘em left! Killin’ each other all the time.” The right man laughed at the left, then seemed to think better of it. “■■■■, maybe though. I dunno.”

The left man wet the stone again and held it aloft. “Got me an arrowhead,” he announced proudly, a miner that had struck gold.

The two men heard the rumble of the cyclopean tires up on the road, the static, breathy yell of the engine, and in a matter of seconds the hauler was gone. Had it not coincided with the urgently rising waters, the miners might have thought to climb the bank sooner. As it was, the bank itself was quickly eroding into the now gushing creek, no doubt a harbinger of the rainfall already scouring the higher altitudes.

The men hurried to action, attempting to scale the soft slope of earth, but it was all crumbs even before the anxious stream had carved out the bottom. The miners settled for the other side, hurling their tools over to a slightly higher ground amongst the ancient trees and underbrush, where the spiderweb of roots could still hold the earth together. In a moment, the men dragged themselves from the gush, while a flurry of water, mud and brush demised a line between the two men and their path, leaving them stranded at the forest’s edge.

The left man, soaked to his chest, recaptured his breath as he stared at the frothing rapids in silence. The right man filled it with a curse.

“■■■■ it.” He gripped at the earth and hurled a handful of grass a foot or two from his fingertips, a lackluster but effective gesture of discontent. The miner plastered a few vulgar labels onto his silent colleague, who in turn offered back nothing but a sheepish apology.

“■■■■ it, we shoulda stayed up.” The right man sighed his words, wiping a spot of mud from his forehead with his knuckles. The left man collected his tools as he got to his feet, resisting the magnetic draw of his heavy, waterlogged boots to the dirt.

“We should go in.” He nodded his head away from the current and the familiar road just beyond. “Matthostihl’s got roads all through for the troopers. Might find one.”

“Might get lost, too,” was the bitter reply. The right man hadn’t yet gotten to his feet, concerned as he was with his list of woes. “Might arrest us. Breakin’ the law just bein’ off road.”

The left man crouched and grabbed both of his colleague’s tool handles in one palm.

“C’mon, man,” he said, offering the right man his tools. “Can’t stay here. Lemme get ya to work, I owe ya.”

The right man accepted the gesture, albeit with an aggressive touch. He snatched the tools away from the left man and used them to push himself upright. The two men began weaving a new path through the thinning brush, eventually opening into a section of forest whose undergrowth was more moss than scrub.

“We tell 'em I stopped for a piss.” The left man mused aloud as they walked, fabricating his alibi. “Creek took the ground from under me n’ ya jumped in to help. N’ then we got cut off.”

The right man opted out of speech then, instead puffing a breath between his lips. It was a workable excuse, and a quick bounce of his brow would have given away his concession, had the left man been looking. Instead, he stopped dead in his tracks, the right man nearly colliding with the left as he glanced down quizzically at his tools. The left man held the expression on his face as he patted his pockets over, shaking his head as he blinked.

“What’re ya doin’?” The right man, thoroughly irritable, was nearly content to walk right past and continue on without his colleague. The left man shook his head more emphatically.

“Feels I’m forgettin’ somethin’,” he admitted, “but my pockets’re empty as how I left this mornin’.” He fell back into step along the imagined pathway before him, the right man following behind.

It didn’t take long for circumstance to prove the left man correct, or something similar. It wasn’t a trooper route they had crossed into, but a much broader clearing, filled through with low-roofed dwellings of mud and wood. Most were blandly decorated, and the loose debris and dried foliage scattered about them made them appear abandoned. A relative few had the surrounding area clean, and were adorned with a variety of items from textiles to wind chimes. Still, a hollow quiet governed the settlement, revealing without word the deathly nature of the ghost town.

“Hey there!”

The two men perked their heads, their eyes breaking from the foreign sight to chase the source of the sound. It was discovered in the form of a third man, one in uniform, approaching with one hand raised, a casual hello. The trooper, as it was made apparent he was by his dress and body language, kept squared shoulders and a light, confident gait, all crowned with the universally recognizable trooper’s hat. The two wayward miners returned the greeting as the trooper planted his hands on his hips.

“You boys doin’ alright?” A kindly inquiry, but a facade; both men knew what the trooper wanted to know: What are you doing here, where you don’t belong?

The left man was quick to speak, filling the trooper’s ear with a halting and choppy version of his earlier story. The right man stared absently in his colleague’s approximate direction, but was otherwise non-responsive. The trooper, for his part, nodded along. In his mind, it was apparent that the story told was not entirely accurate, but few of them ever were around here. The men clearly weren’t intent on any mischief, so he elected to take them at their word.

“Tho’ snap currents can get the best a ya sometimes, yeah.” He tipped his head toward his vehicle, a flat bed truck with the comically large wheels commonplace in this world. “Was just about to get myself up to the high ground, weather comin’ n’ all. Nothin’ left to see 'round here now.”

“This a camp?” Asked the right man, looking around for some sign of logging activity, but finding none. The trooper shook his head.

“Native folk. Well, used to be.” He quickly tacked the amendment to the end of his sentence. “All dead now. Was comin’ to start ‘em down to the Vauraug Reservation, but looks like they all took sick. Elmwood or somethin’ like. Hold on.” He scrunched his face and rifled in his back pocket a moment. He peered under his glasses at the scrap of yellow, crinkled paper he retrieved. “Elkhorn. That’s what they called themselves, Elkhorn.”

The two miners seemed at least a little perturbed. The left man asked, “What kinda sick they got?” The trooper raised and dropped his shoulders in dramatic fashion.

“Best guess is their well went sour from the mines,” the trooper mused aloud. “That happens sometimes. All the diggin’ stirs up some metal bits that poisons the water. Usually only to folks who live close by, though. Miner’s camp should be fine bein’ where it is.”

The trooper swiveled his waste to peer back at the village. “I think this was their only… ya know, place. Settlement. Last one for Elkhorn, I mean.” He wobbled his open palm toward the village as he spoke. “Kinda sad.”

“Yeah,” was all the left man could think to say aloud. The right man stared at the empty homes from beneath a disturbed scowl, but remained quiet, excepting one curse. The three stood and stared for what really was less than a minute, but the eerie quiet drew it out.

The right man let out another undirected expletive, a reliable way to fill a silence nobody wanted to occupy, but the single word faded with the moment, and the silence returned. The trooper, who had let his gaze fall to the ground, glanced up with raised brows and skimmed the scene one more time. He broke the silence with little hesitation.

“You’re off to the mine there?” He asked, a nonchalant tone that matched the nod he pointed with. The two men nodded in turn.

“I’ll drop you by,” the trooper offered, nodding again toward his truck. “Passin’ by there anyway.”

“'Preciate ya.” The three men broke formation at a lazy pace, one heading for the cab while the other two climbed the back wheels and settled into the bed, their picks and shovels secure in the crooks of their arms. The truck roared, lurched, and rolled forward, it’s oversized tires easily gripping the once pure soil. The three men rocked with the uneven terrain as they rode swiftly through the old woods and toward the main path, cutting across a shallow section where the current had meandered into the forest.

The truck rolled without resistance up the soft hillside when they found it, a ways down the road from the once-small stream found earlier, and at the top curved a path to the right. The trooper picked up his speed then, a small arc of black mud trailing the vehicle as it cut a straight path for the mine, just as a drizzle of rain started settling in. In a matter of minutes, they were gone from view, leaving the small Elkhorn village with no one but the unchecked foliage to call it home.

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Very interesting Wekua

It’s gait

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Not taking fault for this, Google’s keyboard has been doing that to me for a couple months now. Has no idea what the complete sentence will be but arbitrary replaces a word then tells me I’m wrong for using it. Smh at technology

Thank ya sir

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That’s very odd, idk why it would do that :thinking:

You’re welcome :+1:

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Ah, I use this trick in my writing all the time :sunglasses:

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Always blame the environment. Pro tip #1 right there

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