Chapter XVII.

8 Apr

Beryl was first to spot a red sign hanging over the entrance of a corner building. There was a wire receiver inside playing old Landian love songs. This was the Pyrope Bar, named for the deep red garnet known by that name.

She stopped and pointed at the opened door. Her companions instantly understood what she meant.

“Let’s go in and see if there are any miners who might help us,” proposed Dey with desperation in his voice. The Founder and Bato said they would wait outside and explore the area in the meantime.

Beryl followed Dey into the drinking establishment. They entered a long, narrow room with a liquor bar on the right side. Small round tables filled the remaining space, all of them empty at the moment. Only two patrons on high stools and the barkeeper were visible. The latter called out to the strangers who had just come in.

“Why don’t you take a table, both of you?” the small man in white apron suggested. “I’ll be with you at once.”

Dey led the way to a table near the back and pointed to two seats. Beryl sat down on the chair he pulled out for her, while he took a position from which he could view the front of the place as well as the bar.

Within seconds, the short bartender emerged from the lower end of the long plainwood bar and approached his two new customers with a shining smile around his mouth.

“You people are not from Celestite, I would be willing to bet. Strangers passing through our beautiful village, then?” His yellow eyes glowed with a weirdly hungry light.

Dey gave the man a cryptic smile. “We have experienced some difficulty and are unable to proceed on a journey we are making. There does not appear to be any alternative means of transport available to us. For now, we must remain in Celestite and wait for something to turn up for us.”

“That’s too bad,” said the barkeeper. “Can I get something to drink for the two of you?”

Beryl was the one who answered. “We are both out of breath and would appreciate some piping hot theaceous drink.” She gave the aproned little man a friendly grin.

“Very good,” he replied “I have some chamaimelon always brewing in my kitchen. I will bring you some.”

As the proprietor moved to the rear, one of the men sitting at the bar got off his tall stool and approached the two strangers. He was a towering, stringy old man in faded mine fatigues of dark green. His thick hair and bushy moustache were an icy bluish white.

Dey and Beryl watched as he inspected first her, then him.

“You must forgive me for having listened to what was just said over here,” he began in a deep, low voice. “It appears that though you two have business elsewhere, you are at the present time stranded in our little village. Let me introduce myself, first of all. My name is Jasper, an old and common one here in this part of the Minerals. When the mines were busy, there was a lot of jasper being taken out of the ground. That is how my parents chose my name, but that was many decades ago, when our local mines were busy working all the time. Conditions are completely different with us today.”

The journalist decided to take the initiative. “Please sit down at our table with us,” he softly told the old man, who proceeded to do that. It took only seconds for the retired miner to take a chair.

“Our village is no longer what it once was, before the rich deposits ran out. Long ago we were prosperous and happy. But the situation is completely different now. Hardly anyone has any work to do. The days pass by without activity. We wait for what will never return. A boundless emptiness has taken over in Celestite. There is nothing to look forward to, unless it is visitors from elsewhere, like yourselves.”

His face took on the appearance of a hopeless mask.

“It is the same story in many places,” remarked the Founder’s aide, Beryl. “We have had a considerable decline from the heights of production once seen here in the Mineral Mountains.”

Jasper’s face reddened. “And now there is this repression of our miners’ union. I have not been in a mine for over fifteen years, yet I still maintain my membership. It is like a sacred cause for me. I will never leave the M.O. ranks as long as I am alive. Our movement is the only hope left to us. Beyond it, there is nothing else at all.”

Beryl and Dey glanced at each other for a fleeting second. Yes, they silently agreed. There had to be an attempt made to reach out to this old man for help. But how was that to be done? What should one of them say to the old man?

The barkeeper appeared, carrying a small wooden tray with a kettle and two teacups on it.

As it happened, he was the one who brought up the topic weighing on the two travelers.

“Our friends have suffered vehicle trouble, Jasper,” the short man said, placing the tray on the table and serving first Beryl, then Dey. He poured a steaming cup for each of them, then turned to the white-haired miner.

“Can’t you help these unfortunate people get on with their journey, Jasper?”

As the owner returned to the bar, the fugitives from the secret official authorities looked at each other. Before either of them could say anything, Jasper himself addressed them.

“If you wish, I could have a look at your locomobile and see what is wrong with it. If the trouble is simple, my skills might be adequate to repair the engine. I know something about loco battery systems.”

Beryl took the initiative in replying to him.

“There is a greater difficulty involved in all of this,” she said in a low whisper. “It may be that our loco has been confiscated by now.”

“Confiscated!” burst the old man in his surprise. “Do you mean by the police? Is that what you fear?”

It was Beryl who gave him an affirming nod and then an explanation of the situation.

“We are companions of two high officers of the Miners Organization, on their way to safety to the south. It is important that our trip continue without any interference. Can we depend on you for assistance, Jasper?”

The latter’s catlike eyes seemed to explode.

“Of course. Have no concern about my loyalty to the cause. It is my sworn duty to aid and protect my brothers in the movement.” He thought fast about what he owed to the pair and their comrades. “I shall go and get my son-in-law. He is a wagoner who drives an electric truck through the countryside to scattered farms and hamlets. He has practical knowledge and a lot of experience with all kinds of engines.”

Dey asked him an important question. “Could he take us to Glucinum?”

All of a sudden, Jasper sprang out of his chair. “I am sure that he will, but first it is necessary to find the lad. You will excuse me if I go looking for him right now. There is not a moment to lose.”

“We will drink our tea and wait here for your return,” said the journalist.

As soon as Jasper was gone, the two looked at each other with wonderment.

“Could he possibly be a traitor who intends to inform on us to the local authorities?” muttered Dey under his breath. He gazed deeply into her brown eyes, searching for some sign of what she sensed about their circumstances and its potential perils.

“We are at the mercy of this miner,” said his companion from deep inside her throat. “I think that I would trust him more than any postman, though.”

They studied each other briefly, then started drinking their mountain tea.

“Do you know why there was such great demand for pyrope and other garnets in the past?” asked Beryl after a spell of waiting.

Dey shook his head no.

“In earlier generations, it was believed that certain stones had beneficial effects against physical ailments. People with these illnesses would wear the minerals as amulets for medical problems. Health and good fortune were supposed to be the final result of nearness to pyrope. Such gems were highly prized for what they might bring to those who owned them. Many placed their hopes in them.”

“But aren’t those beliefs relics of the past, Beryl?”

She crinkled her lips.

“Here in the Mineral Mountains, nothing is ever lost for good,” he mused aloud. “I would bet that many inhabitants of this village are carrying medicinal minerals on them even today. They are only perpetuating the customs of their ancestors.”

Dey took a swig of his tea. This land had not changed as much as he had imagined that it might.

He wondered about the old hatred for anything Xartic.

Would a Xart be safe here today? he asked himself with trepidation.

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