A Short Story By Luis A. Mendez
It’s of no real importance as to the exact date and time that the event occurred, the one that threw all of mankind into what some had called “a post-apocalyptic hellhole” for the last half a century or so. It’s also of no real importance to know the exact details surrounding that event, such as what lead up to it or what it was at all. No one needs to know the chain of events during the aftermath, the ones that caused the problems of scarce food and water, rarely obtainable power and electricity, and disorder of the human species into various divisions of small regional tribes that replaced the once powerful and wealthy large countries and empires.
All we need to know now is that, during this tough state of affairs for life on Earth, human beings had once again found a way to survive. The worldwide population had shrunk considerably, and the survivors had to hunt for food instead of going to a local market. They returned to a life mostly without electronics or gadgets, thus leaving the conveniences of past generations as a plausible goal for their own future. Worse, they had to live without as much prior knowledge as to what their fellow man was up to halfway across the world now that they lacked global communications.
Humans were, however, still alive as a species, and they were going to fight to regain what they once had, even if it meant having to re-teach themselves what their ancestors had accomplished in past centuries, no matter how long it took. Their rationale was, “If it had been done once, it could be done again.”
One survivor called a cave his home in the rolling hills of what was once the great state of Montana. He enjoyed the companionship of his best friend, a German Sheppard named Ike, who kept guard over the open-air crevice through which a large car from an older age could barely fit. Ike, a weary old beast who had seen plenty of life, suddenly barked as he overlooked the welcoming sight of the blistering summer sun starting to set behind the hills. His companion hurried to the entrance to see why his friend had caused such a stir. That’s when he saw the distant figures of two men walking towards the cave in the summer heat. They were still a couple minutes away from reaching the cave.
The cave dweller, a tall, skinny, bald black man in his early forties with a well-groomed goatee, smiled at the sight.
“Business comin’ this way, Ike!” he exclaimed in his deep baritone voice and southern accent as he patted Ike and then retreated into his rocky home. Ike whined a bit in distress as he realized his master was turning his back on what could be in-coming danger, but he eventually followed him back inside.
The cave dweller rushed to the back of the cave, bypassing the many relics of the past he had stashed away, including a couple old desks and cabinets, each probably built during better days for mankind. Bare-chested, he opened a cabinet and put on an old worn and faded red shirt that fit him just fine. It had a logo: Coca-Cola. He quickly unlocked a cabinet using the key on a necklace to get the holster with a loaded handgun. He grabbed the holster and attached it to his torn khaki pants so anyone could see he was armed. Then he put on his white ten-gallon hat and walked to the entrance of the cave to meet the two visitors.
One was a stocky and overweight brown-haired white man in his thirties carrying a backpack and the other was a scrawnier dark-haired Asian in his early twenties carrying a smaller bag. They stopped when they realized the cave dweller was carrying a weapon.
“You boys here for business?” asked the cave dweller, who was skeptical and intimidating, with Ike at his side barking a warning.
“Yes, sir!” the Asian replied nervously. He put his hands up as sweat poured from his greasy hair to his sticky shirt and cut-off jeans.
We’re not here to cause you any trouble, man. Just came here to trade,” the stocky man said with a southern drawl. He kept his hands up while sweating from his peculiar hat that had Atlanta Braves signed on to it and through his shirt and shorts.
The cave dweller smiled at the two men, after deciding they were not robbers. With a reassuring laugh, he then welcomed them.
“Well, you boys come on in. It’s much cooler inside.” He motioned for them to follow him along with Ike. They obeyed.
Once inside, the two men felt more at ease. They looked around the cave at the wonders of so many ancient items. Carefully laminated signs of all types were on one side of the cave walls. Shelves of ancient and incredibly well-protected books were on another side. Next to a full-size bed were desks and cabinets littered with relics of old non-working gadgets from a prior technological age. This cave was a treasure trove of things of the past — a museum of sorts.
After they all walked to the back of the cave, the cave dweller sat on his only chair, one with small wheels and comfortable padding — a rare item.
“My guess is you boys know who I am and what I am,” he said as he lit up a stockpiled cigarette and tossed his hat on the natural jagged hanger that poked out from the cave’s inside.
“They call you ‘The Collector,’” answered the Asian man.
“Is that what they call me out there where you boys live?” asked the chuckling cave dweller.
“Isn’t that who you are?” the stocky man replied, as he removed his hat and twirled it in his hands.
“I mean, there’s a bunch of fellas’ like you all over the world collecting relics and trading others for money, but you’re the one who tribes around these parts send almost everyone to because you have the best items around.”
The cave dweller smiled and stood up still smoking.
“That I do. No one a hundred miles from here compares to what I have in storage. I’ve had chiefs of tribes themselves travel over to ask me for things. Entire tribes have built their way of life through relics they’ve traded from me. I’ve given away a lot of knowledge and power — mind you, for the right trade or the right price, of course.”
“Well, that’s just exactly what I came to do,” replied the stocky man. “My local tribe asked me to take the long walk up here from the South to trade for something the tribe’s chief desperately wants.”
“And you?” the cave dweller asked the Asian man.
The stocky man answered for him, once again showing he was the leader.
“Oh, he comes from the west, and his tribe sent him to trade for something. We met up a couple miles from here and decided to partner up for the long journey. Can’t be too careful with so many robbers running around and attacking us traders in the wild when we’re alone. Two is better than one, I always say.”
Alright then. If we’re gonna’ do some business, I’ll need to know your names,” the cave dweller asked through his cigarette smoke as he pulled out a small safe with a heavy lock from under the bed.
“I’m Lee,” the Asian said.
“Jeffrey, but call me Jeff,” the stocky man said.
The cave dweller to set the safe on a desk. He turned to introduced himself and his dog.
“Call me ‘The Collector’ if you want, or call me Old Hermit if you prefer, but my name is Leon, and this right here is my best friend and partner Ike.”
“Ike? I’ve never heard that name before,” Lee replied.
“I got the name from that sign I found way back,” Leon said, as he pointed to an old and worn-out but still well-laminated sign above his bed which read — I LIKE IKE. EISENHOWER AND NIXON, 1956.
“Who’s Ike? Eisenhower? Nixon? What kind of names are those?” Jeff asked chuckling with amusement.
“Not sure.” Leon replied with a shrug as he turned away from them to put out his cigarette.
“So, who’s first up for trading?” he asked as he took out his keychain.
The two men looked at each other in silence, and then Jeff shrugged, “You go first, Lee.”
“Okay, Lee is first,” Leon said as he unlocked the safe and opened it carefully so as to not reveal the contents.
Lee pointed to the bed as he put his moderately heavy tote there.
Leon nodded yes.
Lee started searching in the tote and found something.
“My tribe has been working on this device that can help re-establish communications across other tribes. The history books we obtained call it a computer. Supposedly, it can perform all sorts of functions, including communications and has access to a learning device called the internet that can transform everything we know about working with each other.”
Lee opened a small metal box.
“We’ve successfully found some power and built a prototype for this machine and it worked great in our tests — but something is missing. We need to know more to take the machine to the next level and add functions to it other than just typing texts and graphics.”
Lee then showed Leon some gold coins from the metal box.
“So, knowing of your reputation as the best collector around the area, my tribe sent me to trade for a book about these computer machines. I’ll pay all I have to get it. Do you have any of the information I’m looking for in your library of old books?”
Leon paused until he realized he had what Lee and his tribe needed. He smiled, nodded, and put Lee’s coins into his safe. He then pointed to the bookshelf.
“Second row on that shelf right there; those are some books on those old machines. I’m sure I have at least one on the machine you’re talking about.”
Lee glanced at the bookshelf and took out three worn but well-preserved books on computers, and one offered information on things he’d never heard of before regarding this technology. He smiled at having this treasure.
“This is exactly what we need. How many of these can my money buy?”
Leon waved his hand and smiled, “Just go ahead and take all three of them. You may need them all to finish that your tribe is working on. I’d like to try out one of those machines sometime soon. I hope your people can make that possible in the near future.”
Lee thanked him and placed the heavy books into his tote. All three had some of the missing pieces for his tribe’s project, even the one that referred to the reader as “Dummies” could hold a clue.
Leon turned to Jeff, “How about you, boy? What do you need?”
Jeff quickly dropped his backpack onto the bed, zipped it open, and took out a small metal box of coins. He gave a significant amount of money to Leon without even asking if he had what he came for, and then closed the box and put it into the backpack.
He turned to Leon and explained what he wanted, “Well my tribe didn’t ask me to find a book on machines, but they did ask me to obtain a certain book.”
“What kind of book?” Leon asked with a raised eyebrow, a suspicious look, and stress in his voice.
Jeff explained, “My tribal chief told me about rumors that you have in your possession a very rare and old book — one that tribes across the ocean have access to because they didn’t burn their copies like we did. They have been using this book to get answers to the Universe, reduce crime, and establish better economies than the local tribes here.”
“What exactly is this book?” Lee inquired, suddenly curious about how such a simple written collection could be such a key factor in a tribe’s ability to function and grow.
“It’s not a real book.” Leon suddenly snapped with a booming voice. “They been telling you lies, boy, it’s just a rumor. I ain’t got no book like that.”
Jeff pleaded with him, “Are you sure, because….”
“There ain’t no such book in my collection, boy!” Leon interrupted. “Tribes from all over have come asking me for that same book you’re talking about and I don’t have it. They think I do because everyone talks about its existence, but I don’t. I just don’t have it. Period. Now you can ask for something else or I can refund you and politely send you on your way back home.”
“You sure seem defensive about this,” Lee commented, “if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Leon calmed down a bit. “Sorry, it’s just I don’t have any book like that here. It’s just lies and rumors. I have the best of the best. At least I try to, but I don’t have rumors and legends.”
Jeff seemed distraught. “My tribe is not gonna be happy if I come back empty-handed, as that’s the only thing they sent me over for, so I guess I’ll have to ask for a refund.”
Leon nodded and, without any protest or any attempt to sell anything else to Jeff, refunded him. After Leon locked his safe and put it back under the bed, he looked over to the opening of the cave. The tension from the awkward exchange on the rumored book was subsiding quickly and so Leon offered some hospitality to his guests.
“Looks like it gotten real dark outside since we’ve been talking things over and that sound of thunder means the weather won’t be too nice soon either. I think you boys should spend the night here and be on your way back tomorrow.”
“I’m not going to lie, the idea of walking back in the dark and rain isn’t too appealing,” Lee said as he looked outside.
Jeff zipped his backpack up as he surveyed the situation. “But there’s no room here for us to stay.”
Leon looked around and then went over to the cabinets. He opened one and pulled out a stash of blankets for his guests.
“No, there’s some room alright. The blankets ain’t much, and the floor’s still gonna’ feel hard, but it’s the best I can do.”
Lee and Jeff looked at one another and basically realized they could not protest. They were stuck. It was an uncomfortable night’s sleep in safety or a night out in the wild under bad conditions with possible danger everywhere. The choice wasn’t hard for them.
“But first you fellas may wanna’ take a bath,” Leon said, as he pushed a cabinet against a back-cave wall.
“How exactly are we supposed to get a bath inside here?” Jeff asked when it became clear this cabinet was hiding a small gap to another part of the cave.
Leon rubbed the sweat from his brow as he showed the hidden entrance to them.
“You two boys should fit in there just fine. Get a nice bath, wash up, and then come back up for dinner before bed.”
“What’s in there?” Lee asked.
“You’ll see.” Leon replied, as he grabbed their bags without asking them first.
“You boys got clothes in here, right?”
Both nodded, each keeping their eyes fixed on their bags.
Leon threw the bags inside the opening.
“Alright, I’ll see you two in a few. Wash up real good so I don’t have to smell you anymore.”
Leon laughed at his little joke and ignored them as he began moving things around to start dinner.
The two guests tentatively headed into the secret passageway. Inside, they found a nice space with a pool of fresh water. Near their bags, they found soap and shampoo — some unopened, some opened, and some completely empty. To help them see, makeshift oil lamps were lit.
“Well, look at the bright side. At least we get a much-needed bath,” Lee said as he undressed and prepared extra clothes to change into later.
“I guess a little bath won’t hurt,” Jeff replied, as he began to undress.
Bathing in front of others wasn’t anything abnormal for this generation, and both men quickly washed up and changed in a timely matter. They gathered their things and returned to the Collector. They saw Ike standing at the opening to the cave and watching the rain storm.
They found Leon cooking by his own makeshift lamp and using metal bowls and a large flame to heat up strangely dark water and the food.
“You boys finished up in good time,” Leon said as he finished his work, with a new cigarette in his mouth. “Dinner’s about ready.”
Lee and Jeff put their things down and spread out their borrowed blankets as beds. Then they joined Leon near the entrance of the cave where Ike took a break from his guard duty to eat dinner as well.
Leon laid out the food and drinks. Dinner was small boiled chunks of what he claimed were chicken and undercooked but still edible rice. Drinks were an exotic concoction of hot black water and plenty of sugar.
“Drink up,” Leon said happily as he took a sip and gave Ike a bowl of food along with a bowl of fresh water — no dark drink for him.
“What is it?” Jeff asked as he held up the hot drink and smelled it.
“Isn’t this what they call coffee?” Lee replied. “I’ve heard about this drink. It’s supposed to be really good.”
“Yep, it’s coffee alright,” Leon confirmed, as he took another sip.
“Tastes like sweet nectar to me. Wait until you try it. I ground up a couple beans I traded for with another collector, then filter the water through the pot. Woo, boy! Better tasting than boring plain water to me. Needs sugar to give it a nice kick, but damn what a nice kick it is. Even better if you dip some sweet bread into it, but I ran out of that.”
Lee liked the drink, though he thought it was a bit sweet for his taste, and Jeff played it safe and just drank some plain water.
The tension from earlier was basically gone, but Lee sensed Jeff was still mentally contemplating not ending up with what he had come there for.
“So, what’s up with the cave?” Jeff asked as they ate. “I mean some collectors, especially ones with this large of a collection, live in actual homes. You could be living large.”
“Homes ain’t for me, boy.” Leon replied, as he chewed a chunk of meat. “I live just fine here. Ike and me have been doing okay just the way we are going on over a decade now.”
“Aren’t you scared someone might try to sneak in and cause some trouble?” Lee asked. “I mean anyone can just walk in and attack or rob you, especially if you’re asleep.”
“That’s what I got Ike for. He’s a good guard dog,” Leon replied, as he finished off his dinner.
“Well, then where did you find all this stuff as you live way out here?” Jeff asked.
Leon stood up and motioned for Ike to follow him as he smiled at the question. “That’s for me to worry about. I’m gonna’ go take a quick bath now with Ike. You boys finish up and go to sleep.”
After Leon had vanished into the secret entrance with extra clothes in hand and Ike at his side, Lee and Jeff finished their meal. They both laid down on their separate weak attempts at bedding and prepared their bodies for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.
“Lucky guy, getting a bed all to himself,” Jeff commented as Leon shuffled on the floor trying to figure out which sleeping position would be the least uncomfortable for him on this rocky surface.
“Well, that’s one of the perks that come with being the one who owns the place,” Lee replied, as he tried to find his own most comfortable sleeping position.
“Own the place?” Jeff replied with a chuckle, as he pulled up a blanket to shield against the growing chill from the heavy rains outside. “It’s a fucking cave.”
“Just as good as home to him,” Lee replied, as he covered himself up as well. “Okay, he runs the place more than he owns the place.”
After pausing and realizing how little sound transferred to and from the small passageway that lead to the secret bathroom, Jeff sat up and faced Lee.
Whispering, he commented, “That guy sure seemed mighty defensive when I brought up that book they sent me to get.”
Lee looked at him and whispered back, “I know what you mean. That seemed real strange. It’s almost like you hit a nerve with him or something on that subject.”
“Yeah, like he’s hiding something,” Jeff replied, looking over at the passageway to where Leon and Ike were bathing. He looked almost paranoid, a look that Lee had seen in their traveling together to meet this collector. It was the same look that scared Lee enough to be a light sleeper during their nights together. There was a darker side to Jeff that scared Lee and that look was a small reflection.
Lee decided to use logic to drive away Jeff’s paranoia. “What would he have to hide? It’s just a book. He didn’t have any problem letting me take three of them for the price of one for God’s sake.”
“This ain’t just any book though. No offense to your tribe’s interesting project with that computer machine, but those books have nothing on what this book supposedly has in it.”
“Can one book really have that much influence?”
“This one does. I mean, if the rumors are true, it does. No one I’ve talked to knows what’s it called, but it’s really done wonders for those across the ocean. We’re dealing with chaos, and there are stories of law and order over there. I think that book may be why. I’m telling you, it has the answers to the Universe and that guy has it. He’s supposed to be the best collector around, so why wouldn’t he have it? He’s hiding it. He wants the answers all to himself. All that power….”
Now Lee sat up and gave Jeff a skeptical look.
“You know, it could just be that he really doesn’t have this book like you think he does. Maybe the guy doesn’t even believe it exists. He said as much.”
“No, I think he’s bullshitting us. Nobody gets that defensive over something they don’t believe in.”
“Well maybe the book is dangerous and he doesn’t want it in the wrong hands. I mean, supposedly the copies were burned over here, right? Maybe people over here thought it was dangerous?”
Jeff shook his head and laid back down.
“If it was so dangerous, it wouldn’t be helping people. Whatever it is, my tribe asked me to come find it here, and I intend to do just that.”
“And how do you suppose you’ll do that?” Lee asked as he laid back down.
“The guy already said he doesn’t have it. He doesn’t even believe it exists. And even if you’re right and he’s hiding something, why would he just change his mind? What do you plan to do? Pester him to death about it?”
“Oh, I’ve got a plan, don’t you worry about that. I could just put that heavy cabinet back over that little entrance there and hold him and the dog hostage until they give me the book.”
“Oh, geez,” Lee replied with a laugh.
“You think I’m joking…,” Jeff replied with a scoff as he finally shut up to go to sleep.
Lee fought with his conscience and his need for a better and more comfortable surface on which to fall asleep. As he did so, he continuously pondered what it was exactly that Jeff meant about having a plan. He himself thought the Collector acted strange when the subject of Jeff’s wanted book came up, but Jeff couldn’t seem to accept “No” for an answer. That look of paranoia and suspicion on Jeff’s face, coupled with his desperate pleas from earlier, scared Lee. Just how badly did Jeff want this book, a book that may not exist, but if it did, he seemed hell-bent on getting it for his tribe?
A couple minutes later as Lee’s eyes began to grow heavy, he heard Leon and Ike coming in as he realized through the near silence around him that Jeff had fallen asleep.
“A good night’s rest should help cloud any paranoid plan he had to get his hands on that book”, Lee thought. The worry and stress of Jeff’s behavior went away as Lee fell asleep — an uncomfortable sleep but sleep nonetheless.
Hours later, Lee was awakened by noise and the rising sun’s rays. He was shocked as he noticed blood running near him. He quickly got up and followed the trail of blood, which lead to the bed where he found to his horror, sadness, and confusion — Leon crying and rocking back and forth and wailing as he held on to poor Ike who had been shot in the head. It was then that Lee realized that Jeff was running by with something in his hand right and fleeing from the cave.
“What happened?!” Lee shouted. His first instinct was to chase down Jeff, but since Jeff had already vanished and the devastated Leon was right in front of him, Lee attended to him first.
“Leon, what in God’s name just happened?”
Leon took a while to calm down, stop wailing, and gather his thoughts. He held on to his now lifeless best friend as he explained through a mix of sadness and anger.
“Your friend woke me up, and he had my gun in his hand. He demanded to know about the book. I told him I knew nothing about it. I don’t even know how he got the gun. I swear I locked it up.”
“But, Ike!” Lee replied, as he looked over at the cabinets and surveyed the situation.
Leon gently let go of Ike and put his limp carcass on to the bed. The despair and sadness of his dog’s death was now almost all gone. The anger was taking over.
“Ike woke up and knew the danger. He went to attack and defend me, but that little shit shot him!”
Lee found something significant.
“Look Leon, it looks like he took a key from your keychain necklace. You left it on the desk and he took one key that helped him get the gun. But what did he run off with? He left his bag over there.”
Leon got up.
“I thought he was gonna’ shoot me next. So, I finally admitted the book was in the safe where I keep my money.”
Lee paused to gather what that meant and then reacted, “Are you saying that the book he was looking for is a real thing?”
Leon nodded and looked around, obviously trying to plan what to do next.
Lee carefully approached Leon with a look of disbelief in his eyes.
“But why Leon, why lie to him about it? I was talking to him about that book last night. He was obviously obsessed with getting his hands on it. Now we know he was obsessed to the point of being dangerous!”
“I know, I know,” Leon replied, as he began to put some clothes on.
“It’s a long story, but I was gonna’ be real careful about who I sold that book to. If it gets in the wrong hands, someone could use it to hurt people. If it gets into the right hands, it could bring back hope to these parts.”
“Well, the guy is obviously sick. He killed your dog and now he has the damn book! I mean, if this book is what you claim it is, he sure isn’t the person to give it to. What are you going to do?”
“What are we going to do,” Leon replied, as he finished dressing.
“Yes, we. You brought that boy in here and he took my best friend away. You owe me.”
“I didn’t bring him here. We met up half way and realized we were both heading here. So, we came together.”
“Yes, but still, you’re just as knee-deep into this mess as me now.”
Leon grabbed one of the blankets and wrapped his dead friend in it, instantly bloodying it. He then grabbed a shovel and a box of tools.
“You go get ready for a little trip. I’m gonna’ give Ike a proper burial. When I come back, we’ll both go and head out to find that murderer. He has the safe with the book, but the dumbass doesn’t have the key he needs to open it. He forgot his bag, too, so he’ll have no necessities with him to help him survive out there. We’ll catch up to him real quick, you’ll see, and take back that book.”
“But the guy has a weapon, and he’s obviously jittery enough to use it,” Lee mentioned.
Leon, carrying the wrapped-up body of Ike and heading out to bury him simply replied, “We’ll bring our own weapons.”
Leon returned with blood and dirt on his hands after doing the hard work of burying Ike. He went to the locked cabinets to unlock one with another key on his necklace keychain. Leon revealed he had other handguns. He offered one to Lee, but Lee felt too uncomfortable to take it, given he had no clue how to use it, so Leon agreed to be the sole weapon carrier.
When they headed out, Lee was surprised by the large bag of survival items Leon was willing to carry. Leon then led Lee to a small path around the cave to another cave. This one had to be revealed by clearing some brush that hid it well.
“Not many people know I got this place right there,” Leon said, as they entered.
This cave was even more spacious than the one where Leon lived and traded relics. It was so big he had built a small makeshift barn for two horses.
“So, this is how you travel around?” Lee commented as he realized the horse would be their rides.
“We’ll catch up to that coward real quick. What did I tell you?” Leon said as they began to let the horses loose.
As they rode the horses, with the large bag of items comfortably stored on a sidesaddle on Leon’s horse, Lee was able to get the hang of his horse fairly quickly and just followed Leon’s lead.
The two men had been riding for a couple hours when they finally thought they had found Jeff. Someone was down and curled up among large rocks on a hill. He was clutching something and seemed to be in danger of severe dehydration.
“I think that may be him,” Lee said, as they slowed the horses and began approaching the man carefully.
“It is him,” Leon replied.
It was him. Jeff was clutching the safe. It was dented a bit from his obvious attempt to break the lock. He was sweating from the sun’s heat, looked parched for water, and was obviously starving. He was hurt, too, with a bloodied face and a twisted foot. His clothes were ripped apart, as if he had been attacked. In fact, he was probably dying by now.
He opened his dried-up eyes when he realized someone was approaching, and he spoke fearfully when he realized who they were.
“Where did you get those horses?” he asked weakly, spitting out some blood.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Leon replied, as he and Lee finally halted their horses and stood over him, purposely intimidating him.
“What the Hell were you thinking?” Lee angrily confronted him. “You killed his dog, all over a book.”
Jeff tried to get up, but his twisted foot faltered.
“It’s not just any book. I told you, man. I was gonna get my hands on it one way or another. I promised my tribe’s chief.”
“You should’ve just taken my word it wasn’t real,” Leon said.
“Your word?” Jeff replied. “Your word doesn’t mean shit. It’s because you lied that your damn dog got shot.”
“Fuck you!” Leon shouted back, grabbing his gun to shoot, but stopping when Lee spoke.
“Just give us the safe, Jeff,” Lee said.
“And what about Ike?” Leon asked with a turn to Lee.
Lee paused as to what to say about Jeff’s fate, but then came up with an idea.
“We’ll leave him here. If God wants him to live, he’ll go and make sure someone finds him and rescues him. If not, you should’ve left the dog alone. He looks like he’s dying already anyways. I doubt he’d survive the trip back with us.”
Leon smiled and nodded his head in agreement. “That’s poetic justice to me.”
“Hand over the safe and we’ll leave you alone.” Lee said, as he reached for the metal lockbox. “Or keep resisting and we’ll have no choice but to use force.”
Jeff handed it over, though his barely opened and dried up eyes showed pure anger at this defeat.
“What happened to my gun?” Leon asked Jeff before they left him to his fate.
“I dropped it somewhere away from here. It was getting too heavy to carry along with the safe,” Jeff explained in between shortened breaths.
“Shortly after that, I fell and twisted my foot. Some robbers came by and did a good number on me. Guess I should’ve kept the gun. They tried to bust open the safe but couldn’t, so they just left me out here with it.”
“Here; I’ll leave you with this,” Lee said, and he tossed his canteen of water to Jeff. “That should help you out here more than the book did.”
Lee and Leon then began to head back, as Jeff continued to cuddle up to the rock with the sun unmercifully baking his fading life force away.
“It was just a dog!” Jeff shouted in a wailing of despair as they rode away.
“It’s just a book”, Lee thought to himself as they headed back to the cave.
Lee and Leon got back to the cave by nightfall. Leon kindly allowed Lee to spend the night until he could head back to his western tribe the next day. This simple trip for a trade had led to one of the strangest days of Lee’s life. Part of him was guilt-driven by leaving Jeff alone during what was surely his dying moments, but the man had made his decision when he threatened Leon’s life and killed his dog.
“What’s the name of the book?” Lee asked Leon over dinner.
“The book that Ike was killed for?”
Leon hesitated about revealing too much, but he got up and went over to his safe. He unlocked it and took out the small thick book with a blank black cover. He handed it to Lee who then turned through its thin pages.
“This is amazing. What’s the origin?” Lee asked as he continued searching through it.
“Don’t know,” Leon admitted, as he lit a new cigarette.
“There used to be copies all over here, but someone or some people burned them at least from what I’ve been told. Very few copies are still around. This is one of them. Some people across the ocean tried bringing some more here, but word is those people on the East Coast don’t want them coming here. If the information in there is true, the wrong people can control a lot of people with that knowledge.”
“But imagine the right people,” Lee retorted. “When do you plan to finally get this into a tribe’s hands?”
Leon politely took the book back, obviously playing it safe now that Lee was becoming more interested in it. “I’m a collector. I’ll decide when I can let this one go.”
That night, Lee had some nightmares about leaving Jeff alone in the wild. He imagined what he was going through right now if he was still alive.
The next morning, Lee was all set to leave.
“When do you expect your next customer?” he asked the collector.
Leon shrugged with his hands in his pockets.
“They come around when I least expect it. Maybe they’ll be here in a couple minutes, hours, days, or months.”
“Well, I’m off.” Lee said, as he extended his hand to Leon.
“Thanks for the books, and I’m really sorry about what happened during my stay.”
“Collectors should be ready for all possible dangers,” Leon replied. “That book was bound to give me trouble.”
After giving his respects to Ike’s grave, Lee headed out with Leon following. He was surprised to find one of the horses waiting for him. He looked to Leon.
“I thought it may make the ride safer and easier,” Leon explained.
“Thanks,” Lee replied with a gracious smile, as he boarded the animal and placed his tote into the side saddle pocket. That’s when he noticed a wrapped-up box.
“What’s this?” he asked Leon.
“Oh, that’s just a little present,” Leon explained. “I thought you could use it. Oh, but do me big favor and don’t open it until you’re back home.”
Lee smiled and waved good bye. He rode the horse towards home and kept looking back at the collector and his cave until he couldn’t see them anymore.
Lee couldn’t stop ignore his mixed feelings about what he and Leon had done to Jeff. So even though he told himself not to, he headed towards where they had left him. His heart sank a bit when he neared the spot. He saw what looked like a couple of stray dogs. They quickly cleared out when the approaching horse scared them off. The sight of what they were leaving behind made Lee sick.
Jeff’s dead body had been chewed up by the dogs. Lee liked to think he and Leon weren’t the direct cause of Jeff’s death, after all they did find him dying of his wounds. It was almost as if God had truly decided Jeff’s fate after all. Poetic justice as Leon called it.
Just as Lee neared his tribe about a week later, his guilty conscience about Jeff’s fate still wouldn’t leave him alone. Yes, Jeff had terrorized the collector and brought him into this whole mess, but still maybe there was another way? Whatever the debate with his conscience, Lee decided this would be the last time he volunteered to meet with a collector.
After saying his greetings and settling back in to his small hut, he laid down and opened the present. His eyes widen as he realized what it was: the little black book with thin pages that cost Jeff his life. The book that Leon feared would get into the wrong hands.
“Why, Leon?” Lee asked himself as he looked for a note to accompany the gift. There was none.
Just then, his girlfriend walked into the hut. She was an attractive, slender freckled-face western native brunette in a red tank top and short cut-off jeans.
“Lee, you didn’t tell me what else you got from the collector,” she said, as she sat down next to him.
“I was just supposed to get the books on the computer machine project,” Lee explained, as he continued to marvel at the book that was said to have the answers to the universe. “But the collector gifted this to me,” he said, as he showed it to her.
“What is it?” she asked, with an unimpressed look on her face.
“It’s supposedly a rare book. A really rare one,” Lee explained. “It’s been said to have some real big answers inside it. Some say it could be used for good or evil.”
“Oh, give me a break!” she laughed.
Lee looked to her. “No, I’m serious. I know for a fact someone died trying to get their hands on this book.”
After some awkward silence staring at him, she started taking him seriously. “Then what does it say?”
“I’ll read it to you,” Lee said to her as he began to get comfortable and opened the book. “It’s apparently divided into parts. So, this first part is where I’ll start.”
She pointed out, “It says here it’s a book, not a part.”
Lee noted that point. “Maybe it’s a book of books?”
“Well, start reading it. I want to see if it’s worth the trouble.”
Lee began to read aloud from the first page of this strange book — “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth….”
Back in the cave, days after Lee received the powerful and rare book, Leon was adjusting to his new life without such a powerful and legendary item in his possession and harder yet to a life without Ike. He had bought a new dog, a Black Labrador puppy, from another collector and named him after a character in a book the same collector had given him along with the dog. He was in the middle of reading it when the dog began barking at the cave’s entrance way — perhaps another customer.
The collector looked out, petted the dog, and smiled as he saw a caravan of travelers heading his way. “Business comin’ this way, Victor!”