The gem seemed at first to be a kind of mirage. It stuck out of the ground, the size of a sleeping mule, and Nehemiah and his son stood over it, tilting their heads to see the infinite varieties of iridescence. By the way it broke the light, he could tell it was more than a geode, more than a product of chance. Nehemiah thought it held a purple hue, as if it had captured the dawn above the hills, but his son saw the blue-green of an ocean he would never visit himself.
Nehemiah stuck the blade of his shovel under one flat face of it and pushed the handle toward the ground in an attempt to pry it out, but it was too large or too heavy to be moved immediately. His son put one soft hand on the top of it and removed it quickly, leaving no imprint, no smudge, no sign of itself, just as the shovel had not left a scratch.
“Papa, it’s cold,” said his son, though the sun cooked them and the cracking wind drank their sweat as it roared through the buffalo grass. And it was cold. Nehemiah touched the gem and felt it cool him at first, then try to cling to his skin in the manner of frozen metal. He withdrew it and poured some of the water from the pail onto the surface, but it simply shrugged off the hardness and disappeared into the wheat.
Nehemiah and his family had moved out here from the pines in the eastern part of the state, which had always felt like prison bars. Their farm was perched where the hills began to coalesce into oceanic prairie, which fell away to the north and west to imagined horizons. It was further than they had been advised to stop by the smooth-skinned inhabitants of the towns with roads, who darted their eyes and whispered of utterly degraded women and men driven mad by poisoned rivers. They had managed for what was now three years, learning to sharpen their ingenuity to fix the unforeseen calamities of their isolated life. Every autumn, when Nehemiah took in the harvest to sell, the townspeople wondered at his awkward, rarely used speech, and dared not to guess at what dark tricks he used to survive in a place to which they could not even navigate.
He could not tell them about the gem, not even to estimate its worth, which was surely more than he could imagine. In his mind, he saw himself setting its shards in precious metals, charging even priests and kings great sums for a taste of its crystalline innards. Of course, if he could ever get it out to be presented in front of wise men behind counters and desks, they might turn it this way and that and weigh it on the scales and proclaim it as a priceless phenomenon, a unique oddity, and thank him for his discovery as they imprisoned it in a museum with white walls and record books. For now, it was safest here, submerged in the neatly plowed field.
After his wide-eyed son vowed with vigorous nods to never speak of the gem again, and they returned silently to the house, Nehemiah spent that entire night covering it with dirt, building a tomb for the sacred mystery.
The sound of thumps, dull and final, woke Nehemiah one morning in the next spring. He walked outside into the chill, wearing boots and underclothes, and saw two men a half mile to the northwest, silhouetted darkly against the rising sun. One was bent over, raising a long hammer over his head like a deity to pound something into the earth. He slung his rifle over his back and walked to meet them, cursing as he stumbled over the still sleeping ground. When they glanced back at the house and saw him, they stopped what they were doing and walked in unison to meet him. The men were smiling with a graciousness that made Nehemiah uneasy.
“Is there something I can do for you gentlemen?” He was trying to keep his back straight, his face still, and his voice low. Even if they were angels, it would be better for them not to find weaknesses. The men had nearly identical outfits, both looking very professional in suits and pocket watches, though one’s tie was a deep blood red and the other’s was gold. They were of the same height and had the same facial structure, and with quiet and clear voices explained that they were surveyors, and brothers with the surname Fitzhugh. They were visiting his land to mark the path for the forthcoming San Antonio-Santa Fe Railroad. This morning they were placing stakes. The Fitzhughs pointed to a wagon laden with what seemed like thousands of short pieces of light wood and apologized for waking him.
Nehemiah looked over their shoulders at his field, bare and unplanted, still and damp in the cold. The mound was covered with the decaying and damp skeletons of the twisted and foreign plants that had sprung up on it in the autumn. Though tempted, he had never unearthed it since the hot day he found it, and he explained the mound to those neighbors who asked as a burial site left behind by the Indians.
“Railroad? I haven’t heard of any railroad.”
But the notices had been posted on every building in town since before winter, though the Fitzhughs were sorry for any confusion. The workers would be coming through in the next months to set the ties and lay the tracks, but they would not trouble his family or land, they assured him. They were clean men, and in the orderly worker camps you wouldn’t find a single drunkard or convict. The men took turns speaking, one picking up after the other every couple of sentences, as if they had rehearsed it in the dark on their way to his farm.
“I never gave permission for you to come through my land. Isn’t there an alternate route?”
As the men smiled beatifically and explained the complexities of deeds, the superiority of public declarations, and the diverse benefits it would bring for his family and income, Nehemiah knew that we would not win, that he would have to accept this intrusion. He felt as though he was lying on the ground and the Fitzhughs and their well-fed superiors in Philadelphia were slowly piling the dirt on top of him while discussing logistics and terminals. His property would shrink in the coming years and even beyond then, he knew, in increments until he was another dead-eyed townsperson. It was the inevitable cost of westward momentum, placed on him by those looking out for his best interests.
When the men had finished explaining, they led the wagon and the sturdy mule to the north and placed the next stake.
Nehemiah and his family were eating dinner one summer night, and the rain was falling outside like they had never seen before. They had been waiting for it since May, but they didn’t think it would come until the days started decreasing again, until the sun was closer to the horizon. There was no lightning, no thunder that reverberated for miles without any barrier to absorb it, no ghostly cyclones carving through the grass, just the same rain as the days before, tired but unstoppable.
Nehemiah had been planning every day as he tended the fields how he would finally redeem what he had found. When the time came for him to take his harvest into town and sell it, he would unearth the gem and place it in the wagon underneath the wheat, and he would go all the way to Houston if he needed to, and the gem would be out of his soil, out of his sight, out of his dreams. But first he would smash it into pieces, and each one would make the geologists question everything they knew, and make the industrial tycoons salivate and contact their bankers.
After they had rewarded him justly, he would but not only all the land for miles around, including the full rights, but even the railroad and the towns, and they would realize that he was a man of a certain destiny.
As Nehemiah raised the venison to his mouth, he was awakened from his dream of the splintered gem by a knock at his door. Because of the rain, they hadn’t heard any kind of approach as they usually could, and before he could stand up, the knocking hand had pushed open the door and two Indians were standing in his house. They closed the door, to keep the cold rain out. They surveyed the small house in a glance, and looked at him.
“No hurt,” they said, seeming calm but unpredictable. “Food. No hurt.”
Nehemiah judged by their markings that they were Comanches, the last wild tribe in this part of the world, hanging on to their Stone Age lifestyle, kings of the trackless plains. If they had not come from the reservation, they were some of the scattered remnants hiding in the canyons, which meant they hated the settlers too much to give up and accept the Indian agents’empty promises. They existed now as a sort of last stand.
Nehemiah looked above them, where he had hung his rifle over the door, foolishly. They looked at him with bored confidence and made no effort to hide the stolen revolvers that gleamed in their belts. He motioned for his family to get up from their seats, and they huddled around him while the Comanches replaced them, eating with the ravenous opportunism of nomads.
Though his family quivered with the fear of the dark men, lean and constantly aware, Nehemiah was not at all afraid of the visitors. Constantly he heard stories of horses being stolen and having to be bought back, of men scalped and left in burning houses, of children left to wander through the tall grass alone, though these never happened to people they knew, only to families two counties over, a few years back.
No, Nehemiah knew why they were here. They had counseled with their medicine men and come to take his gem without even a fight. He could see them pulling it back to the camp on their ponies and worshipping it as a new god or as a kind of divine egg. They would carry it into battle and mesmerize the federal dragoons while the braves hollered and drove the white men out of the land. But Nehemiah was more cunning than all of the supposed adventurers, all the former preachers and lawyers from out east who had come to claim a piece of free land. The jewel had revealed itself to him solely, and he would not be stopped.
He made a dash for the rifle, and a week later the men from the town buried him next to the mound.