It was night, and he was alone upon the desert. It had been over an hour since he had seen another car, a Navajo family in a pickup.
He shivered. What was the matter with him? Ever since leaving the highway he had felt a growing uneasiness. Had he not traveled hundreds of lonely roads before this? Or was it that old memory, haunting him still?
Yet why should that be so? It was only a story told by an old man at a lunch counter, and he had heard many such stories and spent a good part of his life proving them to be illusions, fabrications, or misunderstood phenomena. Why had that one story clung to his memory? Was it the old man himself?
He drove slowly, watching for the turnoff he had been warned would be hard to find. The road was a mere trail among low sandhills, with the dark outlines of square-edged mesas looming against the sky.
Of course, Erik Hokart's letter was a part of it. That letter had come from a badly frightened man, and no man he had ever known was more cool, concise, and self-sufficient than Erik Hokart.
He leaned forward, peering into the night, trying to see the turnoff in time. On impulse he pulled over and stopped, shutting off the motor and the lights.
He sat very still in the darkness, listening.
How rarely, he thought, can modern man experience a total silence! Yet the desert had it to offer, as well as the high mountains.
Opening the car door he stepped out into the chill night air, but he did not close the door behind him. The sound would have seemed like an obscenity in this all pervading stillness.
To the westward lay a long mesa, stark and black against the sky. That would be the one Erik had mentioned in his letter. It was also the one he himself remembered. Almost ten miles long and some two thousand feet high, the last three hundred to five hundred feet sheer rock.
As he turned back to the car, something flared at the corner of his eye. Turning quickly, startled, he stared at the flare on the mesa's dark rim.
For a space of what must have been thirty seconds it flared, changed color slightly, then vanished.
He stared at the end of the mesa where the light had appeared. A campfire was unlikely at that height, and in that location.
A crashed plane? He had heard no sound of motors, no explosion, seen nothing except that odd flare.
Puzzled and more than a little disturbed, he got back into his car, and a half mile farther he found the turnoff of which he was watching. He turned down a sandy slope and drove along the bottom of a dry wash. From here on, he had been advised, it would be rough going, even for a four-wheel drive, but he had a shovel in the back of the car and some steel mesh he could unroll ahead if necessary.
Leaning forward, he peered at the mesa rim, but all was dark. The track he followed now split into several and he chose the one most followed. He swung around a big, old cottonwood and drove down the narrow alley of light, then to the crest of a low, sandy hill. Getting out, he stood beside the car and listened into the night.
Irritably, he reflected that Erik could at least have met him halfway. He was tired and in no mood to prowl through this lonely country in the night.
Erik had suggested they meet on the Canyon road--which was so indefinite as to be totally unlike Erik. He himself had suggested they meet at Jacob's Monument, a monolith of stone they both knew and unlike any formation close by.
"No!" Erik had said. "Not there! Especially not there!"
That was during there last telephone conversation, at least a month ago, when they had first talked of his coming for a visit. Three weeks later had come the letter, hastily scrawled, a desperate plea for help.
He glanced around uneasily, then backed up against the car. It was a lonely, eerie place. . . No sooner had the thought come than he brushed it aside. Odd, how that old story stuck in his mind, always lurking in the shadows of his memory, demanding to be recognized yet repeatedly brushed aside.
The trouble was, the story would not be dismissed, and no doubt a good part of his career since then had been influenced by it. Mike Raglan had been nineteen when he first heard the story, and only two weeks later he had seen No Man's Mesa for the first time.
He had been employed in the old Katherine Mine near the Colorado River when the decision was made to cease operations for a while. They were eating their lunches with small appetite, as they would now be out of work and jobs were scarce. He had commented that he did not know where he would go.
"Why not ride along with me?" Jack had suggested. "I've some claims up on the Vallecito and I must do the assessment work. There are mines around Durango and at Silverton and you might find a job. With nothing better in sight, Mike Raglan agreed. Jack was a machineman and had been running a stoper on the same shift with him for several months. He was a congenial, easygoing man of sixty or more with memories of the great days at Goldfield, Tonopah, Randsburg, and Cripple Creek.
They had driven to Flagstaff and then to Tuba City. Farther along somewhere they had turned into an old trail for Navajo Mountain.
There were few places Jack hesitated to go with his old car. Its high center enabled it to straddle rocks that would have disabled a later model.
They had been eating supper in a greasy spoon restaurant in Flagstaff when they met the old cowboy. He was an acquaintance of Jack's from years past.
He peered at Mike. "You're young. Years ahead of you. You prospectin'?"
"I'm rustling a job. Jack an' me worked together down Arizona way."
"Remind me of m'self when I was your age. Full o' dreams o' what I'd do if I struck it rich. Well, I never got rich but I did make a good livin'. Found me a good woman, too. Still got her. Got enough to last our years." He sized Mike up. "You got nerve, boy? You easy skeered?"
"About the same as most."
"He's got sand," Jack interrupted. "Seen him in action. He's a scrapper and a damn good one." Jack got up. "I'm turnin' in, Mike. We'll pull out at daybreak."
"I'll finish my coffee," Mike said.
The old man filled the cups, then leaned back in the booth and looked at Mike. "Boy, I'm eighty-eight m' last birthday. I can ride as good as ever but I can't climb. Don't want to, anyways. Like I said, we got enough put by, me an' my woman. We lost a boy. Never had no others.
"Never told my story to anybody. Never felt no call to, an' didn't want to be called a liar. Folks always figured I'd struck me a pocket an' I surely did. He chuckled. "Only it weren't raw gold but ree-fined gold. Pure! I found some all right an' there was plenty where it came from if'n you aren't skeered of ha'nts and the like.
Never told nobody until now an' I'm fair itchin' to get it off my chest before I go. But I'm warnin' you, boy--git you some gold an' git out. Don't try to stay, an once out, for God's sake don't try to go back!
"They never knowed what I found. They hunted me, but believe me, nobody's goin' to trail this here coon across no desert. Nobody!
"That's wild country, boy! Wild! There's places yonder you see one time an' they never look the same again. There's canyons no man has seen the end of, nor ever will, either, unless they get through to the Other Side."
"The other side?"
"That's what I said, boy. the Other Side. Folks are forever sayin' there's two sides to everythin'.
"Well, why should there be only two sides? Why not three sides or even four? I don't know nothin'. I don't even claim to know, only I stumbled onto somethin' mighty strange out yonder. I figured on it some an' I spent some months just a-watchin' an layin' low. I ain't claimin' I know how it works, but I know when! I don't know what causes it, or how such things can be, but it worked one time for me. Trouble is, they knew! Somehow, they knew. Only by the time they got there I was gone, an I stayed gone!"
He took a swallow of coffee, wiped the back of his hand across his mustache, and said, "I'm goin' to give you a map. It's on canvas an' I made it my ownself. Only part of it was copied from a gold plate on a wall. That part I know nothin' about. I copied it, figurin' it was the key to somethin', I don't know what."
"You found pure gold? Was it high-grade? Jewelry rock?"
"It was ree-fined gold, boy. Discs, like. Size of a saucer. An' there was cups, dishes an' the like o' that, besides."
Mike Raglan remembered the evening. He liked the story but he was a skeptic. The West was filled with stories of buried treasure and lost mines. If even half the stories were true, a large part of the population must have been engaged in burying treasure and losing mines.
The old man was silent as he filled the cups. "I got to warn you about that country, boy. "Nothin' even feels the same. When that country seems all catty-corner-wise, you stay were you're at. Don't you move! Don't let nobody get you down into that crazy, twisted-up country."
He reached into an inside pocket and brought out a piece of canvas, opening it on the table. "There she be. This here is Navajo Mountain. Nobody's goin't to miss that. Biggest thing around, an settin' right in the middle of some of the roughest country you ever did see.
"That squiggly line? That's the San Juan River. Empties into the Colorado. Most of the time she flows in the bottom of a canyon. There's a trail leads from Navajo goin' east. Mighty rough."
"That's the way we're headed."
"Keep goin', son. Just don't stop. You keep a-goin'."