A Touch of Venom by Rick Stepp-Bolling

I first met Gandolf just outside Beggars Crossing, Arizona, where he saved my life . . . twice. I say Gandolf only because I never knew what else to call him since he never introduced himself and he’s exactly what I imagined Gandolf–the White, not the Grey–would look like, if in fact, Gandolf had actually existed and spent his time wandering the Sonora desert some fifty miles east of Tucson instead of roaming the mountains of New Zealand. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain.

​Beggars Crossing had the distinction of being the final destination of one Samuel Beggar in the late 1860s. Samuel had set out for California gold from West Virginia after the war. He made it as far as the Arizona Territory before he ran out of provisions, money, and desire. The vision he saw to the Westwas daunting—high red cliffs and a hurt load of white sand between him and the Catalinas. He made it as far as Rattlesnake Gorge at the base of the cliffs when the spirits spoke to him in a dialect only one from West Virginia could understand, telling him he would forever more be the inspiration for those seeking redemption. Samuel agreed to set up shop right then and there if the spirits would be so kind as to keep him alive a few more years. Apparently, it was a mutual agreement, for Samuel founded the town after his own ordeal and made his fortune selling water and whiskey to travelers heading west.

​Beggars Crossing has since become a pilgrimage for those seeking salvation from the wear and tear of modern civilization and all its supposed evils. Travelers from around the world come here during the monsoon season just to make the same trek Samuel did, hoping to be equally inspired by the spirits of the desert or those in Rattlesnake Whiskey, distilled to this day in Beggars Crossing.

​As an apprentice reporter for the Los Angeles Press, it was my job to follow up on the offbeatangles that no one else on the paper wanted—UFO, Elvis, or Miley Cyrus sightings. That’s how I wound up in Beggars Crossing, notebook in hand and without a need for redemption or sobriety. 

​“You say the town used to be over that rise?” I said to the man with the white beard and eyes of doom.

​“Used to be,” he said without an accent but withthe distinct odor of Virginia whiskey on his breath. “Used to be, but I can’t attest to that any more.”

​He held up his cane with the handle shaped like some wild bird as though he were about to lecture me. For a moment, I saw the same bird reflected in his eyes, but it was only a moment, and the weather being what it was, the image could well have been a thundercloud or glaucoma. “Where do the pilgrims go when they cross that expanse?” I asked pointing to the desert that shimmered like a watery grave.” There must be some kind of housing arrangement?”

​“Can’t say,” he said too quickly. “Maybe they carry their own houses with them?”

​He fixed his glare upon my notebook. “You mean tents,” I said trying not to stare at the folds of skin between his eyes. “They carried tents with them . . . not houses.”

​He shrugged his shoulders and a small dust storm arose from his shirt. “They carried troubles with them. Maybe tents, but mostly troubles.” Then he showed me his yellow teeth, sharpened like tiny knives, in a kind of grin that sent ice into my veins.

​I scribbled something unintelligible in my notebook until the feeling passed. The reporter in me gnawed, begged to be released, forcing another question I didn’t want to ask. “Troubles? What kind of troubles?”

This time he smiled. It was a toothless smile where the edges of the mouth rise like cracks in summer mud flats. “The kind you don’t want,” he said. The kind that haunt you every minute, every day of your life until the burden to keep carrying them bends your back and bows your shoulders, and the agony of that burden decays your whole being from the inside out until one day it explodes and evil erupts into this world.” Then he nudged me with the end of his cane so that I lost my balance and stepped backwards. “You got any of those troubles?” he hissed.

​“I . . . I’m just here to get a story.” Maybe I sounded too defensive for when he paused, his cane inches away from my chest, something like surprise filled his eyes.

​His hands trembled as he planted his cane into the white sand beneath him, his body sagging under the weight of time, and for the briefest of moments he appeared fragile, hollowed by the ravages of years and ready to blow away with the first strong wind. Then his lungs filled with the heated air and he straightened his shoulders and raised his head. “A story? There are a thousand stories to be told here. Just listen to voices carried by the winds. They’ll tellyou stories that’ll make the flesh fall off your bones.”

​I didn’t know how to respond to that. His use of hyperbole and concrete images elicited my demons of college literature, professors frothing up Coleridge or Milton, speaking in poetic tongues I didn’t understand. “I’m writing a story about the pilgrimages made at Beggars Crossing. It’s my editor’s idea. I just do the story or get fired,” I said.

​“The story you write will get you fired,” he returned.

​That made sense in a Machiavellian kind of way, because I was sure if I wrote the story about this funny man and his apocryphal end of the world, my boss would fire me or put me in drug rehab. The idea that sanity had not visited Gandolf for many a moon crossed my mind. “Well, I think I’ll get some quotes from the pilgrims themselves,” I said edging toward my VW Jetta. “Know anywhere around here that sells diesel?”

It was then that fate took a hand in the game. Rattlesnake Gorge was not a name chosen at random. The heat of the afternoon drove critters to find shelter in shady spots, usually underground or under large boulders. Apparently in the eyes of some snakes, my VW resembled the closest thing there was to a large boulder in the middle of this sea of white sand. When I opened the car door, my foot slipped beneath the car and woke a particularly nasty red diamond back. Evidently upset at having his sleep disturbed by a Converse tennie, he lashed out at the nearest warm-blooded appendage and sank his venom fangs into my leg. Neither one of us was too happy at what ensued. I stepped back and did my best one-legged hopscotch imitation, the rattler still attached to my leg and whirling around like a mad lariat. Gandolf, for his part, leaned upon his staff watching my death dance with bemusement. It wasn’t until the pain increased that my hopping decreased. Now this next part gets a little crazy and I’m not sure if rattlesnake venom had a part in my delusion or Beggars Crossing’s sun did. The old man slowly raised his cane and pointed it in my direction. A raptor, the size of an ancient roc appeared out of nowhere. The bird seized the rattler in his steely talons and ripped him from my leg. The last thing I remember was the bird and the rattler flying due west. Then I passed out.

When I awoke again, I was staring into blue eyes. Nothing else made much sense at the time, but blue eyes certainly helped put a proper perspective to the moment. “Can you hear me?” came the voice of the blue eyes.

​I was hesitant, groggy, hopeful. I was hoping that Gandolf didn’t have blue eyes or blue contacts. In addition, I wasn’t altogether sure that relatives greeting me in heaven weren’t blue-eyed. 

​“Can you sit up?”

​Well, that answered one question. If I were at the Pearly Gates, sitting up would not be something someone wanted to know. Wings, harp or halo, yes. Abs, no. I struggled to a sitting position.

​“Take a sip of this,” and a bottle of something much stronger than water passed my lips.

​I coughed, but let the liquid warm my throat until it sunk into my stomach and a rosy feeling like Christmas Eve made its way through my body. My mouth searched for more of the liquid, but there was none to be had.

​“I think he’ll live,” came the response from blue-eyes.

​Then the haze disappeared and I found myself looking into the face of an angel. Okay, a man, but angel is the closest description I can use without having to go into extended passages about the firm jaw with a set of white teeth that made Kilimanjaro blush with envy, or the nose that may well have led Augusta’s army into battle against the Egyptians, or the perfect ears that framed . . . well, you get the idea. “I . . . I . . .” I stammered.

​“It’s okay. We found you in the desert. Some of the pilgrims heard you moaning and called 911. Heat exposure.”

​I grabbed my leg, but all I felt was the thin hair that covered my skin. No bite marks, no oozing, no blackening of decayed skin. Then I remembered the wild bird with the angry snake in his mouth, the old man with the cane, and my Jetta.

​I looked around me. An ambulance with its lights flashing was the only vehicle. My Jetta, the bird and Gandolf had disappeared.

​“We usually get one or two calls every year,” the angel said. “People don’t hydrate properly, but by the looks of it, you were only here a couple of hours.” Blue eyes flashed my notebook in front of me. Every entry had a date and time. I was very methodical about that sort of thing.

​I tried my voice. It sounded like aluminum foil being crushed, but at least I could speak. “The old man,” I said, “there was an old man.”

Blue Eyes turned around hoping to find the individual I was referring to. Finding no one, he spoke to the other EMTs. “Anyone see an older man?”

A young woman in hiking boots with canteens attached to her at every conceivable spot spoke up. “He was alone when we found him. Alone and unconscious.”

Angel nodded his thanks. “Keep an eye out for anyone else around here,” he told his staff.” Then he turned to me and said, “What were you doing out here? Were you on the pilgrimage?” He was staring at my converse shoes, my khaki pants, and my very pale skin.

“I’m a reporter,” I said lamely. “I was doing a story on the pilgrims at Beggars Crossing.”

“The redemption thing?” he asked.

I nodded.

Then he leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Did you leave a trouble?”

It was so unexpected that I just sat there with my mouth open.
Then he broke into a perfect smile with his perfect teeth and said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m just glad you’re safe. Did you get enough material for your story?”

It all came back to me in a rush—Beggars Crossing, the raptor, the old man and our conversation. It was more than enough for a story, but it would be a story no one believed, especially my editor.

So this is the story of Beggars Crossing. Now that you’ve read it, you’ll need to decide for yourself what was real, what was imagined, what was sun or venom induced. My editor liked it, but fired me anyway. Said there was a very strict drug abuse clause in my contract with the paper. My Jetta? It never returned and so I bequeathed it to the old man. I hope he has more luck finding diesel in Arizona than I did. That just about sums it up. Wait. If you’re wondering why I said he saved me twice, well, you already know about the snake, and now you know about the angel who saved me—Sam

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