Hermit, 2015 First Place Winner’s Circle

By Bruce Bash

“Adam, hurry up. We can see all the way down to the ranch from Buzzard’s Beak.”

Adam clung to a prickly branch of a juniper tree, his left foot balanced on a small rock lodged in the slope. He looked across the steep mountainside and saw his cousin scrambling over boulders and brush with the ease of a collared lizard. Arms raised for balance, Jesse tiptoed across a narrow bridge of limestone jutting from the mountain and plopped down on the point of a jagged outcrop. Adam wished he had taken the jeep trail up to the mines instead of climbing straight up the mountain slope. The soles of his basketball shoes weren’t made for climbing mountains. But Jesse never did anything the easy way.

The bucket-size stone beneath Adam’s foot began to slide. His stomach filled with feathers as the rock came loose, tumbled to the bottom of the slope, bounced across the two-track dirt road, and splashed into Champagne Creek. Adam sucked in a breath and dug his toe into the cavity where the rock had been. He was trying to pull himself up to the edge of the foot trail an arm’s reach above, when Jesse flew over his shoulder and landed beside him in a scrawny sagebrush bush.

“Quick, Adam, hide. Someone’s coming.”

Adam swung behind the trunk of the juniper tree as Jesse flattened himself in the sage. A moment later he could see an old man with a thick beard walk by on the trail above and the brown tip of a dog’s tail. “That’s the hermit,” Jesse whispered when the intruders had passed. “He has a mine shack around the point of that ridge.”

Jesse rolled out of the sagebrush and scrambled up to the trail. “Come on, Adam. Let’s go see what the hermit was doing.”

“We can’t, Jesse.” Adam clawed his way up the gravelly slope and lay exhausted on his stomach. “Your pa said these old mines aren’t safe.”

“We’re not going in. I want to look, that’s all. Hurry before the hermit comes back.”

By the time Adam could struggle to his feet, Jesse had disappeared into the boulders. He followed a well-worn path to a sagging mine entrance and peeked inside. “Jesse? Where are you?”

“In here. I found a swimming pool.”

The mine smelled of something dead. Adam stepped into the room-size cavity and found Jesse straddling a thick beam that stretched across a water-filled pit. A narrow mine tunnel curved off into the darkness on the right.

“Look, Adam, there’s a rope hanging down from the ceiling. I’ll bet I can slide out on the beam and grab the rope.”

“Don’t, Jesse. Who knows how deep the water is. Let’s get out of here before your folks come by with the horses. They’re bringing the wagon and a picnic, remember?”

“This won’t take long. I want to touch the rope, that’s all.” Jesse inched his way out to the middle of the beam. He grabbed high on the rope with both hands and pulled himself up to his feet. “Hey, Adam. I’ll bet I can swing over to you.”

Adam’s heart slammed against his ribs. “No. We have to get out of here.”

“It’ll only take a second.” Jesse pushed off the beam and swung toward the far mine wall. He started back pumping his legs to gain speed. “Hey, look, I’m flying.” He came to the edge of the pit where Adam was standing, but instead of letting go of the rope, Jesse bent his knees like a spring and shoved off of a support timber.

“Jesse!”

Jesse shot across the flooded pit a second time. Small pebbles dropped from the ceiling, hitting the water with tiny kerplunk sounds. “Geronimo,” Jesse cried as he reached the end of his arc and headed back again. But just as he came to the weathered beam, the rock bolt attached to the frayed rope pulled loose. Adam heard a dull thud as Jesse bounced off the beam and disappeared into the black water below.

“Jesse!” Adam crept to the edge of the pit and stared into the blackness. “Jesse, where are you?”

“What are you doing in here?”

Adam spun and stared into the face of the old hermit. “M-my cousin. He fell into the water.”

“Go. Get help. Hurry.”

Adam tripped over a broken shovel and gouged his hands on the rock floor. He sprang up again and caught a glimpse of the old miner reaching for a coil of rope moments before he dashed out into the blinding sunlight. Sticks and prickly weeds scraped at his legs; rocks seemed to sprout up in his path. He half-slid down the neglected jeep trail to its junction with the access road and sprinted to the juniper tree where they had stashed their bikes. Then he was pedaling, standing on his bike pedals and pumping, heading toward his uncle’s ranch. The mountainside rose on his left like a giant wall; Champagne Creek tumbled toward the valley floor on his right. Half way around a blind bend in the road Adam screamed and slammed on his brakes. His bike skidded off the road and crashed into the thick willows growing at the road’s edge.

“Whoa,” Uncle Jake hollered as he pulled his team of horses to a stop. Babe and Rex strained back on their haunches, hooves digging into the dirt.

“Uncle Jake.” Adam scrambled out of the brush and rushed toward the wagon. “It’s Jesse. He got hurt in a mine.”

Uncle Jake reached down, grabbed Adam’s hand, and swung him into the back of the wagon. “Show me where,” he shouted as the team bolted forward.

The wagon bounced and jerked over ruts and through pot holes. Adam clung to the back of Aunt Betty’s seat and ducked when her hat flew over his head. They passed Jesse’s bike, skirted a boulder along an inside curve, and came to the junction of the jeep trail. An old man struggling to carry a heavy load lumbered down the trail. The man was carrying Jesse.

Again the team strained to stop the wagon. Uncle Jake jumped to the ground and raced around the horses to take his son. Aunt Betty slid into the back as Uncle Jake lifted Jesse into the wagon and placed his head on a blanket in his mother’s lap.

“Go, go!” the old man shouted.

With a slap of the reins the wagon lunged forward, the team struggling to gain speed. Thirty yards up the road they came to a meadow beside the creek large enough for the wagon to swing around. Now they were racing back, the horses pulling as if sensing the urgency. Adam could see the old miner sitting on a large rock up ahead. He felt the wagon begin to slow, but the old man waved them on without looking up and they charged forward again.

It seemed forever passed before the ranch house came into view. The horses’ backs glistened with sweat and foam. “Adam, can you water the horses when we get to the ranch? And cool them down like I showed you yesterday?”

“Sure Uncle Jake. I can do all that.”

They turned into the ranch lane and rolled to a stop in front of Uncle Jake’s truck. It took only seconds to transfer Jesse to the pickup seat beside his mother. With a grinding roar the pickup shot to life and started down the lane. It turned right at the Champagne Creek Road and headed east, toward the highway and the clinic in Arco.

Adam watched the pickup until it was out of sight and the dust had settled. In spite of the August heat he began to shiver. A high-pitched whinny from Babe told Adam she was thirsty. He glanced to the east once more, climbed down from the wagon, and hurried toward the tool shed and the water buckets.

Somewhere near the fringe of his dream a screen door slammed. Adam sat up, teetering on the edge of the middle couch cushion, his mind thick with fog. He watched his uncle cross the living room and plop down in a worn leather recliner. Droplets of sweat trickled down his uncle’s face.

“Jesse’s going to be OK, thanks to the old miner.” Uncle Jake took off his hat and tossed it onto the coffee table. “He’s got a broken arm and a gash on his head, but he’ll be fine.”

Adam wiped his eyes still trying to focus.

“Tell me, Adam, what were you two boys thinking to go into that old mine?”

Adam’s mouth fell open, but nothing came out.

“Never mind. I can guess.” Uncle Jake blew out a long breath. “Asking Jesse to stay out of trouble is like asking a creek not to run downhill. Your Aunt Betty will stay with Jesse tonight. I’ve already called your parents. Tomorrow we’ll head back to town and bring Jesse home. And then I think we all need to pay a call on the old miner to give him our thanks.”

The wagon swayed and jolted as it headed up the Champagne Creek Road toward the mines. Adam sat in back staring at the picnic basket supporting Jesse’s arm and new white cast.

“Does your arm hurt much, Jesse?”

Jesse looked down at his cast. “Some. Mostly my head hurts.”

The wagon thumped over a tree limb and passed the juniper holding Jesse’s bike. Around the next bend they came to the two-track jeep trail. Uncle Jake eased the horses to a stop and set the hand brake.

“I’ll go see if Mr. Anderson’s at his cabin. Come on up when you’re ready.”

Uncle Jake was out of sight before Adam and Aunt Betty could help Jesse out of the wagon. They hiked up the narrow jeep trail and crossed a trickle of water before coming to a weathered mine shack tucked back into a stand of aspens. A three-legged stool and dog’s water dish decorated the cabin’s tiny porch. Uncle Jake came out of the shack, stepped off the porch, and slowly shook his head. “I’m afraid Mr. Anderson won’t be working his mine any more. I’ll call the sheriff when we get back to the ranch.”

A horned lark landed on the three-legged stool. It flew off when an old spotted dog waddled out of the shack and lay down on the porch.

“This was on a table inside, Jesse.” Uncle Jake handed Jesse a yellowed piece of paper. “I think it was meant for you.”

Adam peeked at the paper over Jesse’s shoulder. “Jesse, that’s you. That’s the shirt you wore yesterday.”

Jesse stared at the crude drawing of a boy wearing a wide-striped shirt. A thin line stretched from the boy’s hand to a spotted dog.

“That looks like a leash, Jesse. I think Mr. Anderson wants you to take care of his dog.”

Jesse felt the stitches at the front of his scalp. His lips quivered.

“Why don’t you all head back to the wagon and I’ll get the dog.” Uncle Jake brushed back the hair from Jesse’s eyes. “I don’t think he’ll walk down to the wagon by himself.”

The old dog lay in the wagon between the two boys, head on his paws, as they headed back to the ranch house.

“What are you going to call him, Jesse?” Adam asked. “We don’t know his name.”

Jesse ran the fingers of his good hand through the dog’s matted fur. “I think I’ll call him Hermit.” He pulled a burr from the dog’s neck. The dog didn’t move. “He sure needs a bath. We can work on him when we get home.”

“Hermit. I like that name.” Adam stroked the dog’s front paw. “I like it a lot.”

It took the rest of the afternoon to get Hermit cleaned up. His hair was so matted, thick clumps had to be cut out. They soon decided he would have to be shaved. Hermit tolerated the primping with no complaints. But he wouldn’t eat and all he wanted to do was lay in the grass with his head on his front paws.

“What are you going to do if Hermit doesn’t eat, Jesse?”

Jesse scratched his arm above the cast. “Pa said it might take some time for Hermit to adjust to a new home. He misses Mr. Anderson. And everything here is strange to him.” A fly landed on Hermit’s nose. Jesse quickly brushed it away. “He’s got to be getting hungry. Maybe he’ll eat in the morning.”

Two days later Jesse sat cross-legged on the front porch rubbing the old dog’s back. Hermit’s eyes were closed, his chin on his paws. “I don’t know what to do, Adam. Hermit hasn’t eaten anything since he got here.”

Adam pushed a dog treat closer to Hermit’s nose. “Listen. What’s that noise?” Adam looked across the horse pasture and saw Uncle Jake’s pickup coming down the road. Farther back on the mine road he could see a flatbed truck and a yellow backhoe. The pickup turned into the lane and stopped in front of the house. The two boys ran up to the driver’s side window.

“What’s all the noise, Pa?” Jesse pointed across the pasture. “Who’s coming?”

Uncle Jake turned off the pickup engine. “Well, Hermit didn’t seem very happy here, so I talked to our neighbor about bringing his shack down from the mines.”

The driver of the flatbed made a right turn into the ranch lane.

“I talked to the BLM manager over in Idaho Falls. He said the old shack was on a mining claim and would have to be burned. Said it would save a lot of government time and money if it just disappeared.”

The boys heard a yelp and turned to see Hermit standing on the porch staring at the approaching truck.

“Pa. Hermit’s tail is wagging. He knows his house is coming.” Jesse bumped his cast on the pickup door and cringed, his excitement fading. “Pa, did I cause Mr. Anderson to die? I know I shouldn’t have gone into that mine.”

Uncle Jake got out of his truck and draped his arm across Jesse’s shoulders. “Mr. Anderson was getting up there in years, son. But he lived the way he wanted to live. And he trusted you enough to give you his only real possession, his dog.”

The boys shuffled back to the porch to wait on the flatbed. Adam noticed the doggy treat was gone. “How long do you think Hermit has left, Jesse? He’s awfully old.”

Jesse looked into the dog’s cloudy eyes. “Maybe not long. But with his house here Hermit can lay on his front porch all he wants. I’ll give him treats and plenty of food and water. And I’ll brush him every day. I want to do that for Hermit. And I want to do that…for Mr. Anderson.”