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Young Traveler

Summertime in East Pecos, for George, Sadie, Trini and me was exciting and full of adventure. We were getting so good at choza building that I bet them all I would finish first. [A choza was a hut-type house]. Once we finished them we would pretend each one of us had a house and visit each other like the three little pigs in the storybook.

The woods behind my parent’s house provided us with hours of fun and games. We knew all the paths not to take, the pitfalls and dangers we had all encountered at one time or another, but even so, we had never been all the way through the woods.

As we gathered to play one hot summer day, a young traveler appeared. Staring into the darkness of overgrown weeds in front of him, the young man asked us, “Can you tell me the best way into the woods?"

I replied, “I cannot.”

He asked, “But haven’t you lived here forever? Surely you have been in and out of the woods many times?”

“Yes, and I can tell you many things about my woods but I have never been all the way through them. You have to experience that for yourself.” I replied.

The young traveler moved on, we continued with our choza building, and other projects the woods demanded of us.

A couple of days later the traveler appeared again. This time he had a different question for us.

“Can you tell me the way El Indio Calabasas takes when he visits your house?” the stranger asked. I pointed east and told him we only knew he went towards La Mina de Otto. Otto’s mine had been mined by almost everyone we knew and was full of empty dreams. It made for a good story come evening time. We had walked to the mine many times but were told not to ever go inside. The traveler continued to ask about the mine and who Otto was.

I didn’t know too much about Otto other than he was always searching for some treasure that Pecos Indians had buried when they were forced to leave their pueblo because of smallpox. He was German and had been taken in by a local family in the community. He was a short little guy, almost bald. I had heard mi papa describe him as being abstract. At the time I had no idea what that word meant. He became Catholic and learned to speak Spanish by living with that family who had taken him in.

I told the young traveler exactly what daddy said about Otto. “He was a man placed in space and time-molded by his river and his mountain, molded by his rhythm and his culture, his geography and his roots.” I stopped long enough to catch my breath and to let the stranger ask another question.

“What do you mean,” he asked. Was Otto different from all other people in the valley? I continued speaking of how daddy spoke of the surroundings becoming one’s music, dance, and melody. I continued to inform the traveler that man takes not only from the earth his breath, but also his form of speaking, of communicating, of extending his troubles, his joys, his sorrows, and his loves, his hope and his anxiety.

“You have to restore yourself so you can be in Communion with all of nature,” I said.

“Just how old are you?” Asked the young traveler, “Can you take me to this Mina de Otto; can you find your way there?”

I gave him a quick “Yes” raising my arms up in the air as if it were no big deal and actually got excited about this new adventure.

“I am ten years old and I will be here tomorrow early in the morning before it gets too hot,” I muttered.

He walked back into the woods and we continued with our game.

“You’re really going to take him there?” my cousin

George asked me. “He looks kind of creepy to me.”

Next day I hurried to meet him en el arroyo. I sat watching the shadows being cast by the sun against the juniper tree berries.  I was about to give up when he appeared.

“I’ve been watching you for a few moments trying to figure you out,” he said. “I slept in your choza last night.”

I didn’t say anything only because it was too early in the morning to get philosophical. We walked in silence for the first fifteen minutes and finally he broke this silence by asking me if Otto was really all I had said he was yesterday.

“Not just Otto, but every other hombre, including you,” I said.

“You are not from the valley maybe that’s why you question me. You have to produce the marvel of the spirit that would permit you to feel inside.” I said.

“What are you talking about?” he yelled. “I don’t understand what you are telling me and you are much too young to talk like this.”

I told him I wanted to walk more rapidly and perhaps he would get the picture. I told him to think of the point of union between himself and the land around him. He didn’t say anything but was very aware of the path we were taking. It seemed as if he were marking the trail just in case we got lost.

We walked for what seemed a long time. He stopped to take a drink of water and offered me some. I drank and thanked him. I asked if he had bread or something better to eat. He took out a piece of dry meat, but it didn’t taste like deer jerky to me. I ate it only because the mine where we were going was a ways up the mountain. We had good views of the valley from that place so he begins to ask me what certain points were.

We walked another couple of miles and there in front of us was “La Mina de Otto.” “I leave you here,” I said. “I won’t go inside because it’s too dangerous and dark in there.” He looked at me and laughed, telling me that all the bull I’d fed him would keep me safe if I truly believed it.

“Go inside with me. Show me how to find the hidden treasure that El Indio Calabasas buried.”

El Indio Calabasas was a Native American Indian from the pueblo of Jemez. He came to the village of Pecos every summer. He would spend the night at my parents’ house and head out into the mountains early next morning. He claimed he came for purification. Upon his return he would always bring us a fossil, spend the night again, and leave for Jemez. Rumors of a treasure being buried close to La Mina de Otto were always being discussed by young and old.

“I don’t like the dark and I am not supposed to go inside,” I said. “Daddy would never understand why I disobeyed him.”

“It’s called fear,” the traveler said, “and all those things you talked about don’t mean nothing unless you challenge yourself.”

I looked at the moss growing in the rocks that he was sitting on and I was overcome with admiration for its symmetry. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of this one but encountering this wonder in the middle of my small crisis, I reflected.

“You are not going to find anything in there but bats, lots of them,” I said. “The mine is at least seventy-five to one hundred feet long and is shaped like an L. You need a pitch wood torch to find your way in there.”

“I have all that is required and more,” he said as he took out a long black flashlight. I had seen a similar flashlight when the cops had come to pick up my uncle for being drunk one evening. The young traveler turned it on and flashed into my face. In daylight it wasn’t too powerful and I was not that impressed.

“Okay, I will walk you half way and then I will have to come out I don’t think it is safe for us to be in there.”

“Oh, I suppose now you have a local ghost story to prove your point?” the stranger mumbled.

“Not a ghost story exactly but there was someone who fell in there and was injured and he stayed there two days before they found him.” I said.

“Come on, you are just trying to get out of going in—admit it.” He teased.

I quickly took a second look at the moss growing on the rocks and decided that the Being who planted, watered, and brought to perfection, in this obscure little patch of the world, such beauty would watch over me as well.

“I will hold the flashlight and you walk behind me,” I ordered. His face lit up as we both took the first steps into the cave. It smelled damp and was darker than I had imagined it would be. Bats were hanging upside down, looking at the intruders. I signed myself with the sign of the cross and prayed the bats would not bite us. The dampness of the cave had a smell similar to decay. I wasn’t having trouble breathing yet but realized that the young traveler had become very quiet.

“The men who had tried to mine this cave always carried birds into the mine and if gas overcame the birds, the men were warned,” I said.

“Don’t start talking like that-you don’t know a thing about mining and besides you’re too young,” the stranger yelled at me.

"I know about chokedamp and blackdamp. They are carbon dioxide that gathers at the bottom of pits and valleys in the mines. They shut off fresh air everybody knows that.” I said in a rather proud tone.

He took the flashlight from me and looked around and we saw a shadow as if there were a third person with us. We both turned around quick, but didn’t see anyone. The shadow remained quiet.

“Move the light and see what happens,” I whispered. As the light moved so did the shadow. “Turn it off for a second see if it moves,” I whispered again.

The light went off and I heard the traveler struggling to turn it back on.

“Why did I listen to you?” he cried.

I reached for the light and could not get it to come back on either. We both became very silent listening to the sounds of the bats above our heads.

All at once, the young traveler was yelling! “What do we do now? Got any more ideas as to how man deals with darkness? Got any secrets that you forgot to tell me?”

I pulled out a piece of pitch wood and struck a match to it and immediately this produced enough light for us to find our way out. The shadow had disappeared.

"I am turning back with or without you," I said, "and you won’t be able to stop me." The stick of pitch wood would not last forever, and it would also burn my hand if I didn’t hurry.

My torch made enough light for us to see the shadow again! This time it moved its arms and it looked as if someone were walking towards us. Then we heard a voice asking,

“¿Quién dices que soy yo?” “Who do they say I am?” The young traveler poked me to answer.

“El viejito de la buena suerte,” I said as brave as I could. The little man of good luck. “¿El spiritu de Otto?” I continued.

“Too many have come here seeking my gold, but no one has ever guessed who I am,” said the shadow with the voice.

The pitch torch was getting hard to hold. I tried the flashlight again and now it worked! I dropped the pitch torch to the ground and watched it burn out.

“Too many get scared and run out just like you were getting ready to,” echoed his voice.

“Is that why no one ever strikes it rich?” asked the traveler. “Is that why so many dare to return only to be frightened away by you?”

The shadow became silent for what seemed forever and finally spoke, “Go and tell the people in the Pecos Valley that El Indio Calabasas continues to guard the treasures of his ancestors.”

“But are you El Indio Calabasas—or Otto?” I asked. The shadow did not answer me, and disappeared before I could ask another question. I reached for the flashlight and flashed it all around the cave. No signs of the shadow could be seen.

Now the young traveler took the light from me and began walking out.

We found our way to the opening of the cave and once outside we sat in complete silence.

“Had you ever seen the shadow before?” the traveler asked. “Have you heard of a shadow before?”

I was too confused to try to explain to this man perhaps it was Otto’s spirit.

 “Let’s go before you get any more ideas of going back in there,” I said.

We walked, along not saying much to each other until we reached the arroyo where we parted company. The traveler quickly wandered into the woods and as he walked, I could see the same shadow that I had seen in the cave. I watched it until he disappeared into the woods. I went home half scared but way too hungry to think of anything else.

At home, I thought about what had occurred in the cave. Should I tell someone about it? The shadow had told me to tell the people that the treasures of the ancestors were safe. Should I risk telling daddy, would he be very upset? Nobody knew where I spent most of the day and nobody was curious enough to ask me. I thought about the shadow, and how our influence is like a shadow, it may descend even where we think we’ve never been.

I never saw the traveler again but he did leave his flashlight in the arroyo and I claimed it for myself. The lesson taught that day was to stay on track with what you know is right. One thing continues to puzzle me: was that Otto’s spirit in the cave and were the young traveler and the shadow one and the same? I suppose I’ll never know. I did look for the shadow to appear in the choza I’d built but it never came.