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March 20, 2023

Operation Rainbow

By Timothy B. Barner

This is the story of how I found the end of the rainbow.

The location of the land, between mountains and ocean, perfectly suited rain in the Oregon town where I grew up. Clouds from the sea would rush in, hit those mountains, and bawham! The water would fall, dampening the world and turning the forest into the lush greens of summer and spring, and the deep white of winter. Everything about our world was soggy, from the muddy driveway of our small, drafty cabin to the rubber boots Mom made me wear most days. She even made me slip on old plastic bread bags between my boots and socks, in a vain attempt to keep my feet dry, but there was always a hole, and my socks became a squishy mess. I got used to it, and oftentimes took them off and ran barefoot through the woods, through the constant rain, exploring deep, as far as my young legs, and time, would let me. When Mickey Mouse's hands pointed to the nine and the five, it was time to head home for dinner. I had the keenest sense of direction, and never got lost, save once.

On that day, the hottest of the summer, there was no rain. I delved deeper than I ever had before, running through the trees and brushing aside the underbrush with my homemade walking stick, like an explorer in the jungle. The vegetation was thick and unyielding in places, and thorns tore at my arms and legs. I had never met up with such a malicious swath of forest, and I suddenly realized that I was hopelessly lost. I uttered a quick, frightened prayer that I would soon be saved from starvation, or being eaten by a wild animal. There, where the growth was thickest, I broke through onto a paved road I had never known before, fall-stepping out of the forest, and grabbing a branch to swing to the side like Tarzan. Of course the branch didn't hold and I fell to the pavement, landing on four limbs like a jungle cat.

From somewhere there was laughter.

I stood up from my crouch, on the hot asphalt. I wasn't used to being someone's entertainment. In all my wanderings through the Oregon woods I had been alone, with no more than a scurrying sound or a low-flying bird to keep me company. I never had an audience, and I glanced around to find out who this girl was, for she had a high-pitched giggle which sounded young, like me, but I couldn't place where the laughter had come from for almost as quickly as it began, it stopped. Where was I? To my left, the road rounded a bend and disappeared, surrounded by forest. To my right, the road rose up, then disappeared beyond a small hill. On the opposite side of the road from where I stood, shortly before the rise, began a high chain-link fence, lined on the inside with a thick, blue plastic, so I couldn't see within. Piles of metal and wood behind the fence revealed a junkyard. The fence ended at a low and long, cinderblock building. On the small stoop of this building sat a skinny, malnourished waif, with stringy, dirty-blonde hair, and eyes sunken into her skull. She looked directly my way, so I raised a nervous hand. She raised hers, as if connected to mine by a marionette string. It was little more than skin over narrow bone.

"Hi," I called.

"Hi," she called back, sounding more like a chipmunk than a girl.

"I'm Joe," I managed.

"Amy," she managed back.

I closed the distance between us, as Amy slurped lazily on her green freeze pop and watched me draw near from behind those deep, dark eye sockets.

"You're funny," she said, without a smile. "Are you a forest monster?"

"No, just a boy."

"My dad says that the woods are full of monsters," she said.

"Well I'm not one of them." I then said the next thing that came to mind. "He just said that to keep you from wandering off and getting lost."

"And what did your dad say to keep you from wandering and getting lost?"

"I don't have a dad."

Her eyes raised up in wonder. My accepted state of being was a new concept to her. "How can you not have a dad?"

"Easy," I answered. "I only have a mom."

"Oh. I guess that could be possible. Me? I only have a dad."

Now it was my turn to gawk.

"That means I don't have a mom."

"O-kay. How is that ..."

I did not know about the birds and the bees yet, I was too young, but it still seemed like an impossibility to not have a mom. Now not having a dad? That was very possible. It's all I ever knew. Mom and I only had each other for all our ten years. I would learn years later about my dad, or at least all Mom knew about him. He met her at a party, things happened, and she never saw him again, except in the color of my eyes and the length of my arms.

"My mom is dead."

It was as simple as that. Amy would never tell me how her mama died, in all of our years as friends. I would imagine all sorts of ways. How her mama fought off the Iraqis in the gulf war and lost her life overseas, or how she jumped in front of a stray bullet meant for Amy, or perhaps was hit by a meteorite or abducted by aliens who were not aware that humans could not breathe in space. Oops. I would even imagine more sinister things, involving her father and a meat cleaver. But all I would ever find out was that her mother was dead.

On that hot, summer day, when the mighty rains of the Pacific Northwest had momentarily stopped, I knew nothing of the many years Amy and I would be friends. I only knew that an ill-looking waif sat on the stoop in front of a long, concrete building, eyeing me and questioning the fact that I didn't have a father, even as she had no mother. We did the only thing two bored ten-year-olds could do. We changed the subject.

"Hey, about these monsters ... I've been living in those woods all my life, and I never saw no monsters."

"Dad says they're there," she answered. "He says they'll pounce if I ever walk in them woods."

"What kinds of monsters?" I asked.

Amy stood up. "Oh, many kinds. Ogres and goblins and bears. Dragons and leprechauns and big foots."

"Nope, never saw any of 'em. Um. What's a leprechaun?"

"A little guy with red hair and green clothes. He guards a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

"A pot of gold?" Now she had my interest. Thanks to the incessant rain, I had seen many rainbows in the woods. As long as there was light enough to see, and water around, a rainbow could appear. To imagine every one of those rainbows hosting a pot of gold was a very nice thought indeed. Just one of those pots could buy us a larger shack, or perhaps keep Mom from having to work so much. But then I thought of something.

"Now wait a minute. I've seen the end of the rainbow and there was no pot of gold."

"Where was it?" Amy asked. "Over at Brindle Falls. There's always a rainbow there. It starts in the pond beneath and goes up to disappear in the mist. I could show you it right now, but there ain't no pot of gold."

"Oh. No. No leprechaun would hide his pot there. It's too easy for people to find, and wouldn't the gold rust?"

"Does gold rust?"

"I don't know. But why take the chance?" Amy smiled, satisfied with her answer.

"Well we have to find that pot of gold," I said.

Amy continued smiling. "What about the leprechaun?" she asked.

"There ain't no leprechaun. I would have seen him."

"If there's no leprechaun, how can there be a pot of gold?" Amy asked.

"That's easy," I answered. "There just is one. Don't you think it would be easier for a pot of gold to stay hidden than a leprechaun? So don't worry about your dad's le-pre-chaun. Let's just go find our pot of gold."

With that statement, I sealed our fate in stone. The light in Amy's sunken eyes revealed it. She had been languishing away on that stoop for too long, afraid of monsters and bored of life at the tender age of ten. I gave her the excuse to leave that stoop and explore the world. Not that a ten-year-old boy would stand a chance against dragons and big foots and bears, but that didn't much matter.

The following day we struck into the woods, searching for rainbows, and those rainbows proved decidedly elusive. First I brought her to Brindle Falls, to see what a real rainbow looked like, but Amy assured me that she had seen rainbows before. She hadn't spent all of her life on a stoop. But our day at Brindle Falls proved eventful anyway. We built a dam out of rocks in the stream below, backing up the creek until it was deep enough to reach our knees. Amy knocked me down in the water, so I grabbed her legs and pulled her down as well, and we rolled and tumbled and laughed, soaking wet, then sloshed all the way back to her place. Amy's dad waited on that stoop, stiff-necked and scowling.

"Where have you been?" There was a meanness in his voice. Amy stammered through her explanations, leaving out any mention of rainbows. Her father had wrinkled skin, reddened from years of work outdoors. He was not a big man, but he was severe in appearance, and that struck unwarranted fear in my heart. I would learn that he ran the junkyard behind that long, chain-link fence. The older man quickly softened to her explanations. When he turned my way, his scowl made way for a smile.

"Who might you be, and where are your parents, young man?"

I told him the whole story, including the part about the rainbows. Something in his way would not allow me to tell him less. Amy's father nodded his head and listened with rapt interest. Our story must have seemed crazy to him, but he never let on. "Well, we need to see how I can help you in your endeavor, young ..."

"Joe," I offered.

"Young Joe. I may have a few things in the junkyard that could help."

Over the course of that first year, I would grow to call this man Dad, because I had no one else to use that name on. Amy would call my mother Mom, for the same reason, although she would rarely see my mom. Dad led us into the expansive yard, between canyons of trash, picking out odds and ends as he went along, a metal pipe here, a makeup mirror there. We wound up in a hidden workshop in the back of the yard, where he tinkered with his items and a number of tools and tape. I picked up a four-leaf clover that sat on the desk, but he batted my hand and I dropped it. "Those are rare," he warned.

After an hour, he presented us with a long, collapsible conglomerate he called a periscope. He showed us how it worked. "See, you raise the pipe like this, then look through the mirror here, and you can see above the trees, because that's where rainbows like to be."

We thanked him and left for more adventures. The first thing we did was test out the periscope, and it proved problematic. Dad's invention was bulky and failed to open with enough height to see over anything. So we found a spot on a rise where we could permanently tie the periscope to a lower pine tree in such a way that we could see for miles in every direction. We called that hill "Periscope Ridge." The next thing I did was show Amy all of the wonderous valleys, hills, and hidden spots of my forest. It was so nice to have someone else to share them with.

The short dry period of summer soon ended, and the rains resumed with a vengeance. Amy and I ran among the raindrops, laughing like hyenas. We spotted our first rainbow on the second day of rain, but it dissipated before we could locate the end of it. We would have many more experiences like that over the summer. Our rainbows would prove to be elusive animals, appearing and disappearing at random, like a magician's apparitions. But search we did, in our anoraks provided by Dad. Yet still we became soaking wet.

Amy and I experienced many different types of rain that summer, and we made up a name for each one. There was horizontal rain, which seemed to fall sideways; flash rain, which fell in violent bursts; Misty was Amy's name for a foggy rain, the best for rainbows, and many more.

As the summer continued, we still failed to locate the end of a rainbow, and school days soon knocked hard on our door. The freedoms of summer ended, and the world of books and classrooms resumed. Amy and I would get out into our forest on the weekends, but it wasn't the same, and our sweet, rainbow world, soon gave way to falling leaves, and the snows of winter.

Over that terrible winter, I saw just how much we needed that pot of gold. Mom took sick, but kept going to work, because we couldn't survive without it. I tried to get work myself, but I was too young, and didn't have much time after school. Dad let me work a little in the yard, but in the winter there weren't many customers, and I couldn't earn much. We barely made it through that winter. When the snows melted, and the rains began, I was more than ready to go searching for rainbows.

Amy met me on the first Saturday in April in my own driveway. She rode in on an ATV, told me to hop on, and rode me the miles to her place. In front of the stoop was a second ATV. Amy said it was for me to use. We were going to hit the ground running, our two ATVs racing along the trails between the trees.

Through the month of April we spotted many rainbows, and we were able to reach the end of one, but there was nothing there but the ground. "We must be at the wrong end," Amy explained, but it was too late to find the opposite end. The sun was going down.

The following day Amy carried something new, walkie talkies. She gave me one and said, "Now we can split up and find both ends of the rainbow." That pot of gold no longer had a chance of escaping our grasp. We were all over that forest, as we rode through the horizontal rain. Hooved and furry forest creatures bounding away from our motors.

As fun as it was, though, something about our motoring seemed unfair and invasive to the primeval forest, as if we were clear cutting the trees, or hunting wildlife with rocket launchers. We had tipped the scales in our favor, yet nature would have the last laugh.

On a dark and dreary June day, we stood up on periscope ridge, surveying the landscape through our metal pipe and mirrors, and an added attachment up top to keep off the rain. Any passing aircraft would wonder at the sight of an umbrella poking up over the tree line. The constant drizzle failed to clear long enough for a colorful bow to appear, yet we kept turning and checking the periscope, switching viewers between myself and Amy, hoping. Our moods were as black as the skies. Amy kicked at the moss on a nearby tree and I picked at a scab on my arm. Mom was working third shift now, sleeping most of the day, when she could, yet we had received an eviction notice. The electricity had already been shut off. Who were they hoping to replace us with in that shack? The closest neighbor lived five miles away, and it was Amy and Dad.

"You never told me about your dad." Amy broke the silence with a piercing question. "You never told me about your mom," I fired back.

"Yes I did. She died."

"But how did she die?" I inquired.

"Nunya business."

"Then nunya about my dad." I stuck out my tongue.

But Amy wouldn't let it drop. "Did he die, like Mom?"

I was silent for a moment, as the rain finally slowed. "I wish he had. We don't know where he is. Ma doesn't even have a picture."

"He couldn't be too bad, with you as a son."

I smiled, as Amy stepped over to the periscope and peered through. "Thank you," I said. "But ..."

Amy wasn't listening. Her mouth was wide and she began hopping up and down with her eyes hidden by periscope. "It's big, it's bold, it's beautiful," she stammered.

"What?" I moved closer.

"The biggest, brightest rainbow I've ever seen."

Now I was excited. "Let me see. Let me see." Amy stepped aside and I moved up to the periscope and peered through the glass. The biggest, brightest, boldest, most beautiful rainbow I had ever seen met my gaze. It was violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red ... Yes, all the colors of the rainbow, in a huge arc from miles to the left to miles to the right, all in the valley below.

"You see it? You see it?" Amy shouted.

"I sure do. It's hard to miss."

"Well get your eyes off the scope, then. We don't have the time!"

I backed away from the periscope. "How are we gonna do this?" I asked.

"Don't think, just do." Amy flew into business mode. "It looked to me like the left side was somewhere near Brindle Falls. I'll go that way. The right was harder to place, but I'd say Aspen Grove. Sound right?"

"Uh, I guess so."

"You'd better know, because that's where you're going."

Amy was off and running to her off-roader before I could think. I heard the motor trailing off before I jumped and ran to my own. In the two months I had been riding the vehicle I had only rolled it twice, and both times hurt but didn't maim me. I was eleven years old and indestructible, so both times I had flipped the vehicle back over with difficulty and gone my merry way. It was the first motorized vehicle I had ever driven, and I learned fast. I could speed through the trees, along forest trails known more to wildlife than men. I knew the direction I was going, and which trails to get there, because the Aspen Grove was close to my house. I raced faster than ever, veering left around a thorn bush, then right past a sheer cliff. Soon I found myself among the towering white trunks of the aspen trees, yet saw no rainbow. But I was unsure if a rainbow could penetrate this dense section of forest. Once I reached the end of the grove, I stopped the engine and sat for a moment, collecting my thoughts and listening, as if a rainbow could make a sound.

Rain fell light and soft, dripping from the hood of my anorak. Birds chirped and the wind blew, but something felt different about the sounds to my right, something I could not place. I climbed off the ATV and looked around, but noticed nothing unordinary, so I stepped in the direction where I thought I should go, following instinct, because it was all I could do. I walked for five minutes through that forest, pushing my way off the trail, through deep undergrowth, until, finally, I pushed aside the thickest of branches and suddenly saw what looked like a Disney cartoon scene. Or perhaps that's just how I remember it. Birds flew in circles in a clearing surrounded by thick growth, and deer bounded away beside rabbits and chipmunks, revealing the bright hues of the rainbow, coming down from the sky to rest, right in the center of a big cauldron full of molten gold, bubbling with heat.

My walkie talkie came to life. "Joe, Joe," Amy's voice crackled.

"Yes?" I answered.

"Joe, I found my end, and it's empty. Nothing but ground beneath the bow. Where are you?"

"Searching still," I lied.

"I don't hear your motor. You must be close."

"I'm not sure where to look. You know you can't see where these rainbows are when under the trees in the brush."

"Well don't take too long, that rainbow's fading. Who knows how much longer before it's gone."

The walkie talkie shut off and Amy's voice was gone. I don't know why I lied when she first called. I believe I only wanted time to think, before dealing with someone else. A bad thought began playing in my mind. Why should Amy even know? She and Dad seemed comfortable in their concrete bunker by the junkyard. Ma and I were struggling to stay in our home, a week away from being homeless. If I never told Amy about the pot of gold, glowing and bubbling nearby, then she would be none the wiser, and we would be all the richer. Ma and I could move far away, perhaps to a city, and make a better life. There was no need to tell Amy a thing, right?

I had to move. I didn't know the rules of rainbows and pots of gold. The cauldron could disappear with the rainbow. I had to move, but what could I do? We carried burlap sacks on our ATVs to put the gold nuggets in once we found them, but there were no gold nuggets in this cauldron. This gold was boiling hot, with a glow of yellow light, refracted by heat vapors. I couldn't put that in a sack. I grabbed a stick off the ground and creeped up on the cauldron, as if it would run away if I moved too fast. Carefully, I reached the stick over the edge of the pot, slowly lowering the bent end towards the bubbling gold, but the stick caught fire and I dropped it in, watching helpless as it was swallowed by the golden lava.

No, a stick wouldn't do. Then I looked at the burlap sack that I had dropped on the ground beside me. What if I dipped it in and coated it in the metal? Wouldn't the burlap melt? Probably, but I had to try.

Once again I crept up to the cauldron, ever so slow. I could feel the heat singeing the hairs on my arms as I lowered the burlap down towards the melted gold. Surprisingly, it did not catch fire, and the burlap was submerged, then pulled out dripping with gold. I threw it aside, spilling some gold drops on the grass.

The walkie talkie crackled and I jumped. "Joe? Joe? Did you find it? Joe?"

"Yes, I found it," I said once I recovered my wits.

"You did?" Amy was full of excitement. "And the gold?"

I hesitated, then, "No gold."

"Excuse me?"

"No gold," I lied again. "There's no gold. I guess the rainbow story is a myth, because there's no gold."

The line went silent. I used the silence to get more done. Who knew how much longer I had before the gold cauldron would be gone. But what could I use? The burlap was used, sticks and logs would burn up. If I returned to the ATV I was sure the pot would not be there when I came back. What else did I have? I put my hands in my shorts pockets and ... quickly took them back out again. I would use my clothing. Quickly I pulled off my anorak, draped it from a stick, and rushed up to the cauldron. There would be no creeping now. I dipped it in the gold, and pulled it out, dripping gold. Yes, this would work. Second I pulled off my T-shirt, draped it, and dipped it for more gold, then threw it aside with the anorak. I pulled off my shoes and did the same, then my socks, and finally my shorts. A pile of golden clothes hardened in the rain, but the pot of gold still held bubbling yellow metal. I considered pulling off my briefs but, no, they would not make much of a difference. The rainbow was disappearing and I feared the pot would do the same. Then I noticed, the pot actually moved a little, as if on shaky ground, and I had another idea.

I grabbed a large stick and a good-sized rock, stepped back for a second, then ran headlong for the cauldron, stooping low, so my shoulders faced it like a linebacker, my hands tight ahead holding the stick. The stick and rock smacked hard against the black side of the cauldron, it tipped, then fell sideways, spilling hot golden liquid on the grass behind, before the cauldron suddenly disappeared.

"Joe, Joe, come to the junkyard!" came Amy's voice from the walkie talkie.

I rushed back to pick it up from the ground.

"Amy! Amy!" I yelled into it. "Amy get down here! I found the gold and I need help getting it up."

"What do you mean?" She called.

"Just get down here!"

By the time Amy arrived, with her burlap sack and a questioning look, I had collected up my clothing and dug up as much golden grass as I could without burning my hands. She stood silent for a moment probably trying to figure out which question to ask first.

"I thought you said there was no gold."

I had been working out my answer to this question. "Um, I didn't think there was, at first, but the pot of gold was over here," I pointed to where I had been digging and gold still covered part of the ground. "The rainbow was over there."

"You seriously didn't see the gold over here from over there."

"Well I did, just after you called."

Amy looked confused, but she waved it off. "Never mind. What is that mess?"

"Gold. The gold was hot and melted in the pot."

"Really? Wow. Where's the pot?"

"It disappeared."

She nodded. "O-kay. So why are you in your underpants?"

"I dipped my clothes in the gold." At this I pointed at the golden pile. "I didn't know what else to do."

"Why the mess again?" Amy asked.

"I tipped over the pot to spill out the gold just before it disappeared."

"O-kay." Amy nodded her head again. "Guess all we can do now is pick it all up and carry it home, right?"


She didn't move for another minute, then suddenly began jumping up and down and shrieking, "We're rich! We're rich! We're rich!"

We spent the rest of that afternoon collecting up the golden grass and transporting it to my house first, then her house. We weren't even careful to figure out how much was half, just dumped it behind the house and went back for more, then headed to Amy's place. All the time I hoped she would not figure out that I had first lied, but she was too ecstatic about the gold.

As we reached the stoop where I had first met her, Dad opened and stepped out the door. He looked up at us and waved, then noticed the gold we were hauling. Dad smiled, but he didn't act surprised. Instead he stepped up to Amy and said a few words in her ear that I couldn't hear over the sound of our motors. She drove away towards the garage, and I was about to follow, but Dad motioned for me to shut off the engine.

"That looks like half of it, Captain Underpants," he said, once the motor quieted. "Where's the other half?"

In all the excitement, I had forgotten to put on some clothes at my house. I was suddenly embarrassed and ashamed.

"Yep, you're redder than a beet. It's okay, son, I know where the rest of the gold is, and you can keep it. Now if you hadn't told my daughter the truth, and kept on lying to her and trying to keep all of that gold, then I'd be demanding it all back."

Who was this man to be demanding random gold back that I had worked hard and found fair and square?

"Wha --? How did you know I lied?" I blustered.

"Because I was watching you the whole time. Now I guess you'll be using it for a good cause, right?"

"Well yes. Ma and I are a week from being evicted."

"Thought you needed it."

"Okay, but do you mind if I ask what you'll be doing with it?"

Dad laughed. "Why no, not a t'all. I'll just be melting it all back down and refilling my pot."

"What?" I shouted. "Why would you do that?"

"Because I'm the leprechaun."

Article © Timothy B. Barner. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-06-06
2 Reader Comments
09:33:52 AM
A surprise ending. And a story that transcends legend.
Joy Harris
09:33:52 AM
What an engaging story, Tim! Thank you. I enjoyed it a lot.
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