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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Thirsty
Thirsty
by Paul Silverman

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In Isaac's back pocket were sweat-blurred notes he had scribbled from a third-rate metallurgical symposium ages ago, a discount deal strictly for the trade, conducted over stale donuts in a motel auditorium. It had been about silver-mining techniques dating from the Conquistadors. More insignificant minutiae from a lifetime filled with them. But that hole in the side of the hill did strike his fancy.

Isaac scratched in his shirt pocket and unrolled three green Tums tablets, which he nibbled like bar snacks. Then he ordered a glass of Olympia and a buffalo jerky.

He bit on the jerky, chewed it and liked it. For smoke and leather it went down the gullet well, and felt damn healthier than the near-bleeding condo pork chops he and Aimee had squabbled about back in the KOA. The last battle of a too-long war.

The way the bartender, a big guy, loomed over the taps when he pulled the Olympia made Isaac think of those taxidermy bears up on their hind legs, the ones they put outside those trading-post stores. As it turned out this tank-sized local didn't need much coaxing to start flapping his mustache about the hole in the hill.

"Believe it or not, there used to be a town here," he said. "But years ago the town pretty much disappeared down that hole."

"Times change."

"That they do. Times and the price of silver. Need another Oly?"

"If times change, they can change again." Isaac nodded yes to the beer.

The bartender slid one over and said, "But donít hold your breath waiting for that hole to open again. Won't happen unless silver hits twenty-two bucks an ounce. That's the profit point."

Isaac had his facts stored in his head, because he had done his homework. $4.40 per silver ounce at yesterday's close. Time had a long way to go - although a killer app - say the discovery of the next electricity - could move the decimal point in a heartbeat.

And the bartender had his facts too, enough to earn him a finder's fee for the mine if Isaac was an interested buyer. He laid out the specs. A hundred sixty acres in all, eight unpatented mining claims, assays up to eighty ounces of silver per ton, several shafts and drifts, every one of them caved in.

Did Isaac want him to make the call? The owner's family had worked the site for a near century. Yes there could be a showing tomorrow; the bartender swore to it.

Isaac listened, pondered and calculated, trying to figure the price on his own, using the $4.40 as the basis for some multiple factoring in risk versus reward. As if he could even afford to get a backhoe up there.

Then there was the problem of locating the next T. A. Edison to discover the next electricity.

He drained his Olympia down to two fingers and asked, "How much they want for it?"

The question hung in the dark cool air - this tavern had ventilation that worked - while the bartender frowned and spun his inner wheels, wiping this and mopping that. When he finally started his answer some fracas in the alley cracked the silence - and the question - to smithereens. Sirens screamed down the main drag, swerved around the front booths and wailed outside the long alley-side wall; men ranted and swore, and one or more beasts erupted in an earsplitting, murderous racket. Isaac thought of fighting bears. In a backwater dustbin like Rainbow who knew what they practiced as sport?

One shit-damn shame, this interruption. Isaac was just getting into it; smelling and tasting it; the chill of mystery and the thrill of alchemy; the joy of buy-low, sell-high; of snagging a warren of worthless dirt and silverdust just as world silver demand was about to turn on its ass and skyrocketÖif only it were, and if only he knew. But he didn't know, how could he?

The bartender dropped the subject along with his rags and squeezed himself out from behind the dark wood. "Shit, this is serious," he said. "I don't want no holes in my wall." He barreled for the entrance and the pus-white light of day. Isaac hung back on his stool, his brain burrowing like a mole through the deep tunnels of the silver trove, but you can only resist real, live chaos for so long. He took a last wash of Oly, slid to the grit-grouted tile and trotted in his simian way after the hulking tavern man. Eight feet of sidewalk took him to the corner of the saloon building, and a blind left turn into the alley brought him to near collision with the fat ass of a bellowing Rainbow lawman. Isaac screeched to a halt as the cop's fisted forearm, its girth equal to that of a normal leg, thrust down to the holster on his right hip and seized the hardwood butt of a pistol. The barrel long as a billyclub.

"Watch yourself," yelled the bartender, who hadn't left the sidewalk. "Get the hell back here."

The cop drew his weapon, pointed it straight down the alley and lumbered forward. Isaac had a choice: go back on the sidewalk with the bartender or sneak forward in the shadow of the lawman's barreling ass. His body voted with its feet, and they were advancing in lock-step with the cop's.

Isaac looked out from behind his wide-bodied shield and got a quick scan of the field of battle. The alley gave way to a vacant lot, an expanse of sweltering dust and heavy scrap. Strewn around was everything from ancient washing machines to rotting truck fenders. In the middle of the wreckage was a half-collapsed shed jacked up on blackened beams, under which was the only patch of shade in the whole desolate scene. This was where the big pistol pointed. And when Isaac peeked out a second time he saw that it was only one of three drawn weapons. Two more cops were already through the alley and well out in the open dust, advancing from both flanks on the dark space under the shed.

The officers were all different but the same, the way offensive tackles are the same. Each had a belly like a barge and standard-issue sheriff's wardrobe: five-star badge, ranger hat, RayBans, tan short sleeves and neck-stomping brown-boots.

Big as they were, the lawmen inched ahead as though Godzilla himself were under the shed. Isaac stuck his neck out and saw nothing in particular, but the snarling was monstrous. In the dead, torrid air of the scrabbly lot the crawl space had dynamic acoustics; it blared sound like concert speakers. But there was no mistaking what species was creating the uproar.

Ursine, no way. This nightmare was canine.

But wolf or dog? - that was another story. And when the creature first poked its foaming snout into the light and the oncoming blitz of cops and pistols Isaac felt it could be one or the other or both. The height and eyes and ears were all wolf-like; but the pelt was stringy and haywire, reflecting the input of such a Babel of breeds the color was all the melded mud tones of a dirty swamp. Given the rack of teeth flashing, and the number of guns aimed its way, there could even have been alligator genes in the mutt too.

Whatever the mix - dingo, cougar or jackal - if ever there was a junkyard dog, this was it. No collar, no tags. Mangy and crazed. Saliva thick as suds hanging off its lips and fangs, shooting white gobs into the air with each new snarl.

At least that's what Isaac thought he saw, and now he could not contain himself. He jumped out and joined the posse, the only unarmed man in the fray.

"You," thundered the cop. "That your dog?"

Isaac shook his head to the negative and even half-raised his hands. "I'm just a tourist," he said.

"Then get your ass out of here. This bitch could be rabid."

Isaac felt the effect of the heat and the dust on his own throat, only five minutes after downing the Oly. "What if she's just out of her mind with thirst?"

"I said, get your ass out of here."

The dog was now playing hide and seek with her attackers. Ducking into the depths of her lair, then slashing out, then ducking back again before anyone could get off a clean shot.

Isaac stepped back a few feet, just out of the cop's field of vision. But he went no further because he didnít want to leave the lot or the alley. Things were coming back to him - little factoids from the all-day vet session he once attended, Common Dog Behavior.

Isaac remembered the instructor playing a tape of every conceivable menacing dog sound, then snapping it off dramatically and putting up a sound-free slide on the subject of aggression. The only time a dog is 100% aggressive is when itís totally silent and moving straight at you.

So when the cops screamed at him again, he acted deaf. He stepped into the line of fire and plodded towards the shed and the demon below it.

When he got down to the last yard, Isaac slipped his belt out of the loops, rolled it up and stuffed it in his pocket. In the dogís world, this could have been like hanging a "bite me" sign on his pants. Because the wolf-head shot out, clamped down on the left cuff and tore out a good hunk of chino.

But no skin. The teeth didn't hit a shin hair.

Instinctively, Isaac reached for his ankle, and the head shot out again, fangs aiming straight for his hand.

But instead of a bone-crunching chomp the assault took the form of a warm, wet, thrusting slab of meat - a long goddamn tongue. It slid out like a hungry reptile and glommed onto Isaac's fingers, licking wildly.

The fingers of his left hand, the hand that had held the jerky. Nothing else explained it. As a test, he yanked back his left hand and offered the right one. But the head and tongue spurned it.

Isaac knelt down, and just as he did the tongue sprung out with a fresh round of slobber, doing a car wash on his face.

There in the dust on his knees he remembered the meal in the trailer and the incinerated corn and the dirty smoke and the dripping pork chops. He remembered mopping his face with the charred rag, streaked with pork grease.

Isaac had stormed out and never looked back. Not even for a Kleenex to wipe his chin.

And as the thermal sky hurled killer rays on the parched lot, the junkyard bitch lapped away, doing the job for him. Meanwhile, Isaac snuck his belt out of the pocket, uncurled it and slipped it around the monster neck.

Now that the dog was out in the open, Isaac got a look at the rest of her - at the ribs, which stuck out like the staves of a ship.

"Water," Isaac shouted. "Bring her water."

From the posse over his shoulder came a collective mutter as they watched Isaac cinch the belt. Sheepish curses. Opportunity lost. Haul in the side-arms and clomp to the station.

"Another day of Judge Judy for them," said the bartender. He set down a bowl of Oly in the steaming dirt, plenty big for two, and said no charge. Isaac stroked the dog as she drank. Instead of a silver mine he bought a beefsteak.

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