Elby sat at the café waiting for Uncle Marsh. Each time the front door jingled she looked up, but only tourists came through. No locals. She wrapped her hand around her warm mug of coffee and people-watched out the picture window. A sullen teenage girl walked with her hands in her pockets behind her parents. Elby smiled and remembered her first time coming to Pagosa.
After her parents died in the wreck, Uncle Marsh took early retirement from the university and promptly moved here with Elby. She hated it and did everything she could to make their lives miserable. She ran away and hid in the woods all night. Started hanging out with Hispanic guys who blared Mexican music from their car speakers. She wore push-up bras with short-shorts and high-heel shoes. Her parents would have died if they hadn’t already been dead.
But Uncle Marsh did things entirely differently. After the overnight runaway, he bought her a better parka so, he said, she would be warmer next time. When she began wearing outrageous teen fashion, which only the questionable girls wore in Pagosa, he found catalogs of even more outrageous clothes and told her to buy what she wanted. She quickly spent $150, then tired of the whole thing and went back to blue jeans.
One time she threatened to get a tattoo and he asked around to find the best tattoo artist, at a shop all the way to Farmington. Elby watched a girl get started on a tattoo, and changed her mind. They drove back past Chimney Rock and Uncle Marsh told stories about it. He had just become a tour guide there, and he loved making up and telling Anasazi stories. She realized he hadn’t told any lately. He’d become more quiet and tired. And depressed? Had he become a sad old man?
After her rebellion, she settled down and made peace with Uncle Marsh, became friends. Because he always treated her like an equal, she came out of childhood easily. She developed a grace all her own. Uncle Marsh had gently restored her faith in men.
When she saw his skinny, energetic body walking up the river walk toward the café, she smiled. How could a man who walks like that be depressed? She sometimes tried to categorize her feelings about Uncle Marsh, but he sprawled over several: beloved grandfather, gentle parent, best friend, crazy old man. The perfect man? Hardly. He’d never married. Never seriously been involved with a woman (or a man, she thought with a tiny involuntary snort), which made him evermore alluring in her mind. If she could find a younger version of Uncle Marsh, she would do her best to latch on.
“There you are,” said Uncle Marsh when he walked through the front door.
Elby beamed at him.
Marshall waived at the waitress and gave her a signal for coffee, but she already had it in hand, coming toward him.
“Elby’s a cup ahead of you,” said the waitress with a wide smile for Uncle Marsh.
“Well then, you drink slow and I’ll drink fast,” he said to Elby. “And you don’t let the well run dry, young woman,” he said to the waitress.
“Oh, I know all about you heavy drinkers,” the waitress said with a laugh.
Elby made a “yikes!” face. The waittress’s husband was one of the town’s most notorious drinkers (and a taxidermist, which Elby found not only disgusting, but possibly immoral).
“Got news,” Marshall said when the waitress left.
Elby focused her attention on him, her hands still wrapped around her warm mug.
“New fellow in town. Baxter. Know that name?”
Elby wrinkled her forehead. She said it sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it to a face.
“Old-timers recognize it in a snap. Anyway, this fellow’s great-great-granddaddy founded this town. Charles Baxter.” Marshall took a few gulps of coffee, compared his level with Elby’s, and gulped some more. “Dammit! That’s too hot to drink fast.” He puffed through his mouth. Elby shook her head at him.
“That’s why I never married me a woman like that waitress there. Not even thoughtful enough to let it cool a bit before serving it to a man. If she were a McDonald’s, I’d sue her.”
Elby smiled and laughed at his old-crotchety-man routine. She’d learned long ago his favored form of humor involved parody and sarcasm, delivered in a dry white-trash old-man accent.
“So what about this Baxter fellow?” she asked.
“Says there’s an Anasazi rock art symbol up beyond Fourmile. I told him he’s crazy. Showed him the maps in the books and everything, and he says it’s up there. He’s got a journal from this Charles Baxter that says so, though he wouldn’t show it to me.”
“He came to our house?”
“Melba at the association pointed him to me. He went up to Chimney Rock looking for a rock art expert.”
“Melba said you’re a rock art expert?”
“Well I am and you know it.”
“So what does he want?”
“Wants me to go up there with him and find it.”
Elby studied Uncle Marsh’s face. He seemed animated in a new way. He’d always had an almost nervous excitement about him, an energy always working frantically on something new. But this seemed more. He had his eye on something big.
“You think it might really be up there?” she asked.
“No way. Rock spalls off up there too much. I guess it could’ve been at one time. I mean, if I were one of those Anasazi guys, I would’ve climbed up in there and I probably would’ve banged out a pattern or two on the rocks. But it wouldn’t last. Too much erosion, freeze-and-thaw, all that. Besides, I’ve hiked that country like a man dragging a comb through it, and I never saw anything like that.”
“So why are you excited? I can see it. Are you going with him?”
“He said he’d give me a share.” Marshall lowered his voice and winked because the waitress approached with a pot of coffee.
Elby leaned across the table after she’d gone. “Share of what?”
“Gold,” Marshall said. He leaned over the table so their heads were close together. His eye had a look she couldn’t place. She suspected him of making fun of people who got gold fever, more of his dry, mocking humor. But she couldn’t be sure.
“Gold,” she whispered.
“Charles Baxter hid bags of gold from original placer diggings, back when they did it all by hand. As much as two mules could carry, the tale goes.” Marshall stopped and looked at her. “You sure you don’t know about the Baxter Gold?”
She nodded. “I’ve heard of it. Like a fairy tale. Nobody really believed it.”
“People have looked, though it’s been a while. This is the first time since I’ve been here, but the real old-timers said the last they remember was just before the government locked up the Weminuche. Early Seventies. But it’s different this time. It’s a Baxter. It’s never been a Baxter before. He says he has his great-granddaddy’s journal. Maybe he does. And if he does … well, it just seems worth looking, that’s all.”
“You believe him?”
Marshall nodded. “Enough to go up beyond Fourmile, I do.”
Elby couldn’t believe it. Uncle Marsh with gold fever. Not that he would admit it. But she sensed it. And it left her feeling cold. Her father had endlessly chased riches — gambling, crazy business deals, smooth-talkers. Uncle Marsh had always been so different.
She felt that old familiar revulsion from before her parents died. The feeling of unworthiness because she recognized herself as the burden that prevented them from finding their own treasures of gold.
For the first time, when she looked at Marshall Garvin, she saw a man she didn’t like.
This post was inspired by the book Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass, page 77, part of a “Scenes That Can’t be Cut” exercise.