Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Upstream

by Stuart Plotkin


Downstream

"Do you expect the gold to just jump out of the stream and into your pan?" shouted Jelan over the bubbling water.

While lazily sunning himself on the bank, Clark raised his voice to span the brook and said, "This is supposed to be a vacation, not a work detail."

"If you want to get the gold, you have to move the dirt," Jelan replied.

Clark was a recently-graduated family physician who had not yet been jaded by the health care industry. He was in his late 20's, in good shape but had to work hard to keep off the pounds. Jelan was an operating room scrub nurse, a very high pressure job, perfect for a high energy lady. She too was in her late 20s, with a perky expressive face and strikingly thin figure.

Both were amateur gold prospectors. They did it for exercise and relaxation, neither ever expecting to "hit it rich." They lived in Eugene, Oregon, a small city perfect for a family practitioner and close to Sacred Heart Medical Center with an active OR. They frequently spent a weekend hiking up some trail listed in the Gold Prospectors magazine, often trying to find an overlooked spot to "dip their pans." They usually carried their gold pans, a sluice box, various picks, shovels, prybars and a brand new two inch dredge small and light enough to haul deep into the woods. Clark joked that Jelan supplied enough human energy to probably run the dredge, but they brought a five gallon can of gas anyway.

They had decided to check out Bear Creek, a tributary to the Rogue River. Bear Creek starts in Ashland and ultimately empties into the Rogue. There were pockets of small towns around the area so it was not completely rural. On one old library map they came across a tributary to Bear Creek intriguingly named Old Yellow Gold Creek -- or "Old Yeller" to the locals. Bear Creek was easy to find but they had a devil of a time finding Old Yeller. The locals knew of the place but at best, just vaguely pointed them in the right direction, which could be north, south, east, or west depending on whom they asked. Jelan finally saw a landmark that was pictured on the map, three large boulders all pointing skyward. There they found the origin of Old Yeller. The Old Yellow Gold Creek wasn't named for the color of gold, but was named for an explosion of wildflowers, all yellow, and all presently in bloom. A lucky sign, they thought.

There was one other accompanying them on their trip but this requires an explanation. Many years ago, Clark had owned a dog named Mrs. Peel. She was a beautiful Golden Retriever whose only goal in life was to be petted by Clark and his friends. When it was her time, she died and he grieved terribly and vowed he would never own a dog again because it hurt so badly when they died. But a few years earlier, Clark and his previous girlfriend had been attacked and kidnapped by a lunatic murderer. She had been killed by a blow with an axe and he was locked in a room with her body for four days. Finally, Clark decided to make a stand or die trying. When the door to the basement finally opened, he jumped on the murderer. At first he was getting the upper hand, but the tide turned, and the killer was beating him back. Out of the corner of his eye, Clark saw Mrs. Peel's ghostly form. She positioned her body just behind the killer's knees. Clark pushed with all his might and his attacker went down. The dog jumped on him, holding him down until Clark could escape. Mrs. Peel, the ghost dog, had been with him ever since.

Clark finally had the dog that couldn't die on him. If that wasn't enough, Mrs. Peel had another unique talent. When Clark touched her, he could see through her eyes and see human ghosts that walked among them. Jelan certainly knew about Mrs. Peel despite the fact that she is invisible to everyone but Clark.

Jelan again shouted, "You know, I think there is enough color in these pans to try the sluice box and maybe even drag the dredge here."

Clark, whose head was resting on Mrs. Peel -- to Jelan, it looked like he was holding his head a few inches above the rocks in a position that would surely lead to a sore neck -- got up and checked out Jelan's pan. Sure enough, there were plenty of gold flakes in her pan.

"I'll get the sluice box and we'll see what we can find," he said. After an hour of shoveling dirt into the sluice and letting the force of the creek separate the gold from the dirt, they started their cleanup. They removed the miner's moss from the sluice and gently washed it into a small pail. Miner's moss looks like outdoor carpet. It catches any gold flowing down the sluice and traps it. Gold is so heavy; once it gets down into the miner's moss, it is not going anywhere.

"Careful," she said humorously, "you don't want all our riches slopping out the side of that pail."

Again, they found plenty of gold for an hour's work. This was getting exciting. It was near dusk and they decided to go back to the car and bring the dredge to the creek. Tomorrow, they would dredge.

They took their sleeping bags out of the tent, soaking in the splendor of the stars. Clark gently turned to Jelan and whispered, "You know, you're just about the most perfect person I have ever met. I love you."

"What do you mean 'just about'?" she retorted. "What, you want me to grow bigger breasts?" she laughed.

"No, I just wish you could really relax and enjoy the stars. You work too hard." He gave her a kiss and she snuggled close resting her head on his shoulders.

The next morning they were up with the sun. The two started to put the dredge together when they noticed a lot of old wooden structures in the high grass. They looked like they had been standing for 100 years, all warped, cracked and slowly breaking up. Clark petted Mrs. Peel on the head and he immediately saw a score of men, ghostly images, dressed in ancient clothes working with picks and shovels moving rock. Some were building the wooden sluices and rocker boxes Jelan and he had just stumbled across. Sometimes, if she held Clark's hand, Jelan too could see what he saw. "How terrible, those poor souls," said Jelan.

Clark had a different opinion. "I don't think this is a punishment; look how happy they all seem. I think this was their final reward for some selfless act. These are the lucky souls, doing work they enjoyed -- for eternity."

One of the ghost miners looked at them and politely tipped his cap to the lady.

They finally fired up the dredge and the sucking began. The dredge created a vacuum that sucked water and rock through the two inch hose. Two inches is a very small dredge and you have to be careful a large rock doesn't get wedged in the hose. It usually helps to keep a well-gloved finger in the dredge's intake hose to prevent a clog. It is a royal pain to unclog a dredge.

Jelan was excited. She could already see some small "pickers" in the miner's moss. She shouted over the noise of the pump, "I think we found paydirt, there's already a lot of color showing and we've only been at it for an hour."

Clark looked up for the briefest second. In that second, he saw a torn piece of clothing get sucked into the intake. "Crap!" he exclaimed, as he went to shut off the pump.

After fifteen minutes of fiddling, he retrieved the cloth. He was about to toss it when Mrs. Peel started to bark. Startled, because Mrs. Peel rarely barked, he looked from her to the cloth. That was when he noticed there was writing on the cloth, writing in blood.

"Come here Jelan, what do you make of this?" Smeared in blood were the words "UPSTREAM COME HELP."

Clark said, "No way of knowing when this was written."

"Doesn't matter, let's climb," answered Jelan.

Upstream

Bob Baylor and Tom Stewart were loggers. They worked as if their two brains were linked. Both operated the heaviest machinery, Bob, the Prentice log loader and Tom, a huge Western Star log truck. Tom would position his rig at the end of the skid trail and Bob would lift and place the giant logs perfectly within the bunks, like they were toothpicks.

They were both good friends and often spent the weekend out hunting, fishing or prospecting, that is, when their wives would let them out. Bob was affectionately known as "Smokey" because of the huge cigars he enjoyed. Tom was known as "Whiskey" because of the huge volume of Scotch he could put away. They were both powerful men with iron muscles. The two friends seemed to be competing for a beer-belly competition and Tom was winning.

Bob was a church-going man when he was in town, and Tom, while not too religious, was a good family man and a good friend. Both of them were people you could always count on.

Whenever a new road cut was made to haul out the timber, they always scouted the area for potential gold fields. Of course, gold, whiskey and cigars were not mutually exclusive and all three were an integral part of their weekends.

A few weeks ago they had come across this creek that looked fairly pristine. One Saturday, they both took their gold pans and started some test panning.

After only a few minutes, Tom had some good color in his pan.

Bob was chewing on the end of his cigar when he heard Tom call. He raced down to where Tom was panning.

"Take a gander at this," Tom said, showing Bob the pan.

Bob and Tom then tested the area carefully, always coming up with a nice showing of gold. They were looking for the source, and they found it near a small cave entrance that was well hidden by the undergrowth. They both started clearing the entrance and they took turns sticking their heads in. What they saw was a natural bench with a long quartz vein. Both knew that quartz often meant gold, and since there was a lot of quartz, there must be a lot of gold.

The pair knew they made an important discovery. They shook hands and Bob said, "Partners all the way -- we got it made."

Tom was a bit more animated. After a few whoops and hollers he said, "I reckon for all this money I can put up with an ugly puss like yours," and heartily laughed. There was a genuine tear in his eye.

They became co-owners of the cave and eventually named it the Smoked Whiskey Cave, after themselves, of course. Over the next two weeks, the partners worked the site shoring up the entrance to the cave. Water trickled out the cave mouth and joined the small creek that ran only a few feet from the entrance.

Smokey jibed, "There ain't no way I'm as dirty as you look."

Tom countered, "If I put you up next to a pig, the pig would shine next to you." He continued, "We're damn lucky to have this creek so close. Man is it hot. I'm a sweating like that good looking pig standing next to you."

They worked at mucking out the cave to get to the large quartz outcrop. But how to get to it, and how to get it out were the questions. They had no access to blasting material so it was pick-and-shovel work. The two built a human-powered ore crusher that pounded the ore so they could separate, or at least concentrate, the gold-bearing ore. They started pulling out about four ounces of gold a day. "Not bad for a day's hard labor," laughed Tom.

Then they found the bones. That sobered them up rapidly. There were the remains of about a dozen men. Skulls and long bones lay together in a small pile. Tom noticed a cracked skull and some broken long bones. A few had gnaw marks on them. Bob saw that there was a patch of ceiling missing. "Must have given way and caught these poor miners. Looks as if some were crushed instantly, but a few survived in this lightless death chamber, at least for a few extra days."

Tom lamented, "I think I'd rather have been the ones crushed to death than to live out my last days like these poor devils."

Since both continued their logging jobs, they often could not get to their claim for weeks at a time. Then they got lucky. Tom got his hands on some Solid Pack Electric Blasting Caps. "My friend said they were low yield and relatively safe."

Bob looked a bit uncertain. "Gosh Tom, do you know how to handle them things?"

"Sure, piece of cake."

The next week they were back at the Smoked Whiskey Cave with some drilling equipment and the blasting caps. They failed to notice that a small trickle of water coming out the mouth of the cave had eroded the base of their wood shoring. Bob was inside drilling; Tom was just outside the cave mouth when all of a sudden the timber shifted. The supporting beam dropped and the cave mouth was shut closed by a ton of rock. Inside, Bob was hit on the head with a good size rock. Outside, Tom was not fairing much better. His leg was pinned under the large timber that was supposed to be holding up the roof.

Tom shouted to Bob but heard no reply. After a few minutes, Bob regained consciousness with a growing lump forming on his scalp. Some blood trickled down his cheek but he was OK. Tom was actually worse off, his leg being crushed under the weight of the timber. The pain was intense, however, at least he was on the outside.

As Bob's head started to clear he felt a cold shiver up his spine. Then he felt this euphoric feeling of well being. This may have been due to the sparkling gold nuggets reflecting off his flashlight. That amount of gold would make anyone feel good, even the dead. Bob noted that in the rockfall, a small outpocket was revealed. There was a reflecting pool of water that was the source of the small rivulet flowing out the mouth of the cave. Bob screamed in delight and Tom was able to hear him through the rock.

"You son of a bitch, you're alive!" yelled Tom. "Get out of there and help me move this dead weight off my leg."

Bob replied, "In case you hadn't noticed, there's a wall of rock between us. Whiskey, you gotta see this, we're rich, this place is full of gold, nuggets the size of golf balls, and here's one the size of the knot on my head."

"Yeah, but we're in a lot of trouble. I can't move, I think my leg's broke. It sure looks somethin' awful Smoke. I'm a worried."

Bob tried to calm his friend. "Not to worry, I'm sure someone's around, just do a bit of hollerin'. Besides we can't die here, there's so much gold we have to spend."

For the next two hours Tom yelled for help until his voice gave out. It was to no avail. He was panicking, but inside the cave Bob was in his glory. Luckily for him, the men had already placed a kerosene lamp and some emergency supplies in the cave in order to keep them dry. Well-equipped, Bob was pulling out the larger nuggets and spent serious thought as to what he would buy first.

Bob felt something kick him in the head. He assumed it was his brain telling him it's time to worry about getting the hell out of there. He set to the task of prying out the rocks blocking the cave entrance. He was surprised at the amount of energy he had. Blessedly, outside, Tom had lost consciousness which relieved him of the pain.

Inside, Bob ultimately succumbed to sleep. It was a fitful sleep full of bizarre dreams. When he awoke he came to a decision. He felt that since he found the gold, he should be entitled to a larger share. In fact, he gave up prying out rock from the collapse and started hoarding the largest nuggets he could find. He hid them in a small alcove so he could come back alone and claim them. There was a small gnawing sensation at the back of his mind reminding him that his friend was injured and that he was stuck on the wrong side of a cave.

Tom awoke as soon as the first streams of sunlight hit his face. He started yelling for help again but only Bob heard him.

"Tom, I can see daylight at the top of this rockpile, we'll get out of this yet. Jest you wait and see," Bob said, reassuringly. But was he being overly optimistic, as he wasn't sure he could move the heavy boulders by himself. Bob had a momentary flash but quickly squashed it; what if Tom didn't make it? Wouldn't all the gold be mine? Bob cringed at the thought and was angry at himself for even thinking of it.

As Tom lost blood he also lost hope; he was starting to fade. He made one last desperate effort. It was a long shot but he had to try. He had hoped there may be some people downstream, but they couldn't hear on account of the noise from the water. He tore a large square of cloth from his shirt, pulled out his knife, clenched his teeth and made a deep cut in his left index finger. Using the blood, he wrote on the cloth UPSTREAM COME HELP. He let it dry for a moment and let it go. He watched as the cloth and his hopes were carried downstream and out of sight.

####

Jelan and Clark had no idea what they might find, an injured man or a corpse. Mrs. Peel led the way and continued to pick up the pace, with the two humans dragging behind. They worked their way up the creek, sometimes having to fight a fairly strong current. No other messages or signs of people emerged from the creek. They had only the one bloody cry for help, and they were coming.

Mrs. Peel had the advantage of four feet on the slippery rocks, Jelan and Clark, only two. Once Jelan slipped, and the current swept her downstream a few hundred feet. Fortunately, she suffered only a few bruises and one bruised ego.

An hour later, Clark and Jelan turned a corner and found Tom trapped under the log. Using a heavy branch as a lever, Clark made quick work of moving the log just enough so that Jelan could pull Tom out. He asked for whiskey but the couple gave him water instead. That helped perk Tom up. They wrapped him in his sleeping blankets to dry him out and warm him up.

After they were told the story, Clark started working on the rockfall. Jelan reassured Tom by saying, "You look the worse for wear, but you'll be OK. I'll splint the leg and we'll carry you out in no time." Jelan told Clark she was going back to their camp for supplies.

By the time she returned upstream, the men had cleared a hole large enough for Bob to squeeze out.

Tom was sitting propped up against a rock when Bob ran and gave his friend a bear hug. Bob exclaimed, "Smokey, when you see what I found you'll know all this was worth it!"

Tom responded, "We owe these folks our lives. I think they deserve part of our gold. I'd like that, Whiskey."

Unexpectedly, Bob jumped on his friend's words, "You ain't givin' away any of my gold! I found it and it's mine." His face contorted in anger as he spoke.

Tom was abashed and apologized for his friend's behavior. Jelan said, "Don't worry, you've both been through a lot and we didn't do anything for the money. You know that."

Tom replied, "Yes I know, but I still want you to have some of the gold."

At that moment, Bob reached for the shotgun they had ready in case of bears and Mrs. Peel began to bark. Then something amazing happened. Bob looked directly into Mrs. Peel's eyes. No one had ever done that because no one had ever seen Mrs. Peel before. Yet, he stared right at her. Clark was aghast; only other ghosts could see Mrs. Peel.

"Why don't you two just back off nice and slow like," Bob said, as he raised the gun barrel to point at Jelan. Immediately, Mrs. Peel bolted and jumped up on Bob. She may have been invisible but all her weight and the force of her jump pushed the startled Bob back. Clark grabbed for the gun and threw it into the woods. For a split second, Bob, Mrs. Peel and Clark were all in contact.

Clark almost fell over when he saw Bob now covered with a second skin. It was a transparent green slime that seemed to move independently of Bob. In fact, Bob had turned his head, but this second face remained pointed at Clark. There were eddies in the slime as it seemed to circulate around Bob's body. Its malevolent eyes remained fixed on Clark. Bob seemed unaware of his encasement, yet it appeared to be controlling his actions.

What happened next was even more shocking. Clark was holding Mrs. Peel when the apparition spoke boastfully for all to hear, "You are looking at Avaritum and I am the embodiment of Greed. I am Greed. And I want to thank your friend here for releasing me. The greed you see in the present world is only a shadow of myself. I will spread across the globe, fomenting the avarice already within all humans. Before, humans had balanced greed with charity and generosity. That balance has now been tipped."

Jelan thought that this apparition sounded as pompous and arrogant as it looked. Aggressively she challenged "My, we're feeling awful superior and self-important, aren't we? Perhaps our self importance is compensating for something?"

Avaritum's voice was coming from Bob. Luckily only Clark could see his amorphous form turn from mucus green to deep red.

Clark rapidly explained to Jelan and Tom what had just happened. Tom didn't really understand -- ghost dogs and possession by the spirit of greed was a heavy load to dump on a logger with a broken leg -- but there was no time to waste. Clark became aware of something that was occurring around them. Some ghosts were released from the cave following Bob. These ghosts were clearly miserable, not like the ones he had seen downstream. Clark looked in the cave and saw other wretched souls toiling inside, forever digging, shoveling, pounding and dragging rock.

One ghost noticed Mrs. Peel and Clark staring at him. He quickly floated over to them and spoke in Clark's ear, "We've been trapped here for over 100 years. We discovered this mine in 1899 and started pulling gold out hand over fist. Too bad we didn't take the time to properly shore up the ceiling. If it wasn't for our own greed, I reckon we would have noticed the rock wall becoming unstable and escaped before it collapsed on us. We all died in here, entombed, our souls destined to spend eternity mining this cave, until the Earth itself crumbled. Our only companion was our greed.

"We all have only one way out," he continued. "You have to separate your friend from the demon, Avaritum, and there's only one way to do that. You have to convince him to leave all the gold here, walk away from it and never have misgivings or regrets. It's the only way; he has to give up the gold, and with it, his greed."

Tom had thought everyone around him had gone nuts. It only took a touch of Clark's hand for him to see the ghosts and understand what needed to be done. "This is my job," said Tom. He propped himself up with a branch, grabbed his close friend by the shoulders and shook him. "Smoke, listen to me, you have to let it go. You have your wife, good friends and a good life; don't let greed poison your soul."

Clark had seen Avaritum swell with evil, and then he contracted even tighter around Bob. Avaritum stared at Clark making his blood run cold and declared, "I'm free and will be free until time ends, and I'll brush you puny little things aside like gnats." Bob was fighting back. He had heard both the ghost's lament and his friend's pleas.

Bob started to shuffle away from the cave's entrance. It was clear that he was locked in a titanic struggle. Tom had grabbed his friend's hand to help pull. Then Clark and Jelan added their strength and their will, but it wasn't enough. Unwisely Jelan taunted the demon "Listen Big Boy, we're all going now and I believe you have an appointment with a deep dark hole."

Abruptly, Bob/Avaritum reached for a nearby shovel and swung at Tom, connecting with his midsection. Tom dropped like a rock, stunned. Luckily his muscled abdomen absorbed the blow, saving his life. Bob/Avaritum then took aim at Jelan. The arc of the shovel was just about to make contact when Clark tackled the duo to the ground. This action forced Bob/Avaritum away from the cave. For an instant, Bob regained control of his body and took another step away from the cave, separating himself from the evil force.

Without a willing body, Avaritum was tied to the cave. As long as Bob truly felt liberated from the desires of the gold, Avaritum could not hold on. Only Clark could see Avaritum being pulled back away from Bob. It looked like he was being torn away, detaching himself from Bob, forcibly splitting off and molting. His green slimy body shredding as Bob moved step by step, away from the cave. Avaritum's face contorted in frustration; no, that was too kind a word. Not frustration, but a complex mixture of all wicked, malicious emotions. He would not let go. The demon drew on all his strength and re-exerted his will on Bob. Avaritum took hold of the last remaining fragments of greed lingering in Bob. He forced Bob to stagger backwards. For Avaritum, eternity was on the line.

The ghost woefully pleaded "your friend has to give up the gold. His greed is the only way Avaritum can take him over and flee the cave. Break the attachment and the demon will be forced back into the bowels of the earth where he belongs. Fail and you release Greed and sentence humanity to darkness."

Tom pleaded with his friend to conquer his emotion of greed, to let his generosity fight back.

Avaritum realized that Tom and Jelan were no match for him, but Clark's strength was his real enemy. A small part of the demon jumped from Bob to Clark. He immediately grabbed his throat as Avaritum cut off his windpipe. Clark's eyes bulged, his lips turned blue and he started to sag. This strengthened Avaritum. Mrs. Peel intuitively knew what was happening to her "master." Being a ghost dog, she was also the only one who could physically touch Avaritum. She locked her canines around Avaritum's leg. This so surprised the demon that his hold on Clark was broken. Mrs. Peel used her powerful hind legs to pull the green slime back toward the cave. Clark's strength returned and he pulled Bob with all his might forward. Finally, like a rubber band Bob snapped free from Greed. Avaritum was sucked back into the cave.

The entrapped ghosts, freed of greed, were finally able to leave the cave and floated away, each to their own destinies.

Bob, recovering, quickly pulled out the blasting caps and sealed the entrance to the cave. A piteous moan was heard coming from inside, but it fell on no sympathetic ear.

Bob had snapped out of his trance with the full memory of what had happened. "I shudder to think of what I was becoming. I almost killed you. I'm afraid we have nothing to give you for your help in saving our lives.

"How about a cigar?" he said, to finally break the tension.

Clark and Jelan both replied, "We could not, nor would not, have done anything different. It was our great pleasure."

Then, to Jelan's surprise, Clark responded, "Sure, is it the extra aromatic type?"

"With a cigar this big, you can count on it."

Tom asked Bob how he felt in those last minutes of the fight. His friend was quick to reply, "I knew it was impossible to get ridda' all the greed in me, we all have a bunch of emotions churning insides' us. All I hadda' do was put it in its proper place. Then it was like I was covered in lard, the bastard couldn't hold on."

The five of them walked slowly out; Jelan in the lead, Tom was propped up between Clark and Bob, and Mrs. Peel followed behind, well behind, due to the smoke erupting from the two cigars.

The four of them each left with one small nugget of gold in their pockets.

There is a little greed in all of us.

THE END


© 2009 Stuart Plotkin

Bio: Stuart Plotkin lives a boring life as a Podiatrist in New York hence all his pent up imagination has gone into the dark side. His wife Paula, college senior daughter Elyssa, and favorite dog Halley fill up the rest of his life. He does get out once a year digging for dinosaurs which coincidentally is the name of his most recent book, DIG The Search for Dinosaurs. (Apparently, fossils are not the only thing he looks for while digging...) He has also published articles in scientific journals, and is the author of the book The Hiking Engine. Dr. Plotkin's story of ghostly revenge The Allies appeared in the December 2008/January 2009 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Stuart Plotkin

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