Today I’m posting Chapter 10 of High Pocket. In this chapter, Jake learns about his father’s involvement in the cave-in that nearly killed Sandy. It’s a disturbing and confusing disclosure of possible complicity.
I thought it was near to impossible that Sandy’s story could be true. Sure, the nugget was real all right, but he could have put it in the cap lamp sometime after the accident, though I couldn’t think of reason why he would and I’ve got to admit he looked surprised as hell when it fell to the floor. So let’s say he didn’t fake it, that he really did pick it up in the cavern. Well, what if he picked up the only chunk of gold in the place? But that seemed less likely than to think the cavern was solid gold like he said. Could there really be that kind of gold down there? It kept eating at me, but it seemed like I didn’t have much choice. Either he’d put the nugget of gold in his cap to fool me or there really was a treasure of gold sitting down there and nobody but us to know about it.
Yet even if it was true, I didn’t see what we could do about it. First of all, the mine is a monster of a place and a dig that old would be hard to find and nearly impossible to get to. Then there was the problem of getting into the mine without someone seeing you. The Homestake never closes. There’s always someone above ground and below, guards, too, in some places. And let’s just say we could find the cavern and there was gold inside. Then what? The idea of trying to bring gold to the surface without power machinery was just too impossible to consider.
All this went through my mind on the drive back from Sandy’s to my house. I ran in, took a quick shower and jumped back in the truck with a cup of coffee in my hand. I was late and I was supposed to pick up Tom. When I drove by his house, I could see his car was gone already. I knew he’d be wondering, and the last thing I needed was to have to explain my whereabouts.
“Where the hell were you?” he said when I walked up and opened my locker.
“Sorry, man. I overslept.”
“Then maybe you can tell me why your truck wasn’t in your driveway. I went by your house on my way in,” he said with a smile on his face, like he’d caught me.
“Hey,” I said pissed, “Drop it, okay?”
Getting angry seemed the best way to get him off the subject.
“I already dropped it. I’m on to other things by now…like your dad was here a minute ago looking for you.”
That shook me up.
“What did he want?”
“Just wanted to talk to you.”
I sure didn’t want to talk to him. As far as I was concerned, we had only one thing to talk about, and I wasn’t about to get into that. I saw him again in my mind in Rapid City. No, I didn’t want to talk to him this morning.
Me and Tom finished changing and headed down the ramp when I heard my dad calling out.
“Yeah,” I said without turning fully around so that he had to hurry to come up beside me.
“I’m sorry I missed you at dinner at the house Sunday. Business. You know how it is sometimes.”
I searched his face for any sign lying. I didn’t see it, but that burned me up even more. I mean, if he could lie like that to my face, what the hell couldn’t he do?
He was dressed in a suit and looked out of place on the ramp with all of us in overalls. I was embarrassed for him to tell the truth. There isn’t the greatest feeling between us miners and the white collar guys. We think they’re all a bunch of duffs who don’t do much, and though we know that’s not completely true, it does feel like we’re the one’s making their money.
“You know the picnic’s coming up,” he smiled.
He meant the Company Picnic at Pactola Dam next weekend. I just nodded.
“I want to sign you up for the baseball team. My team. We got to get even after last year. Boy, they skunked us good.”
I always had a hard time playing for him. His team was made up mostly of management types. Either I played for my father or I joined the miners and played with the guys I worked with. I was pretty good at ball, played on the High School team and whatnot. I don’t me to brag, but I could turn the tide sort of speak.
“What do you say? Are you going to help out your pop?”
That “pop” just about made me want to puke. Lucky for me the cage came up and I started moving away.
“Let me think about it,” I yelled back to him over the noise of the gates opening.
“Go on think about it. But I’m counting on you, Jake,” he kind of laughed.
It was an empty feeling I had in my stomach when the cage headed down. I wasn’t going to be able to go on long without having it out with him. The way it was, I was only half there. I wasn’t really listening and not really answering either. I had a whole other conversation in my head all the time he was talking to me.
Mary and I had already made plans to go to the picnic, and by the time we got there Saturday morning, the place was packed with game booths for kids and sign-ups for just about everything from three-legged races to treasure hunts and boat races. There was food in the air with whole sides of beef bar-b-queuing and pigs roasting with an apple in their mouth. There was enough fried chicken and corn on the cob to feed an army, and all kinds of music, too, country groups and banjo pluckers and fiddlers walking around or sitting in the shade whooping it up.
While we looked for my mom’s green-striped umbrella, Mary was on again about the gold, was it real or not, and if it was real how we’d go about getting it, pretty much the same thoughts I had but which I didn’t say out loud. Then she always got back to one issue.
“How dangerous is it down there, Jake?”
“Plenty,” I said as I’d said many times to her in the last week. “Let’s not go on about this. I haven’t even decided yet I’ll do anything about it.”
“I know, I know, and I’m not saying you should. Not at all. But I know he’s making plans after seeing that nugget again.”
“What kind of plans?”
“I’m not sure. He’s just buzzing around, in and out of the shed out back.”
“Well, he can’t do much by himself. That’s certain. So let’s just not get ahead of ourselves.”
I spotted the green striped umbrella. My mom had used that thing since I was a kid. It was on a small rise right near the baseball diamond. I guess my dad had some part in deciding they’d set up there. I mean, winning that ball game was a lot more important to him than playing the game as the saying doesn’t go.
“Do I look all right?” Mary asked.
“Course you look great.”
My mother caught sight of us first and waved and I waved back. I could see Gena putting food out on the picnic table.
“Hello,” my she said, taking the basket out of Mary’s hand. “You found us all right, then?”
“Couldn’t miss you with that,” I pointed to the raggedy umbrella.
“Lets more sun in than it keeps out,” she laughed.
Gena came over and introduced herself.
“Sit down,” my mom said. “Here out of the sun. It’s always the hottest on the day of the picnic.”
“I swear the weathermen and the soda companies are in cahoots,” Gena laughed.
All their small talk was a way of getting around the hundreds of questions the two of them really wanted to ask Mary. I mean who cared about the heat? My mom couldn’t wait too awfully long, and after she got both of us some iced tea, she got to it.
“Do you have family that works at the mine?”
“My dad works there. Has for a long time.”
“Well, you probably know that Jake’s dad, Robert, works there, too. He’s a manager over in Safety. Used to be underground but not for over ten years.”
She wasn’t bragging exactly, but she was proud of her man.
“My husband, Ben, is a motorman, but I’m sure Jake already told you that,” Gena offered.
“My dad’s a bitman. He’s been doing that for years,” Mary said.
I think my mom and Gena both knew enough to know that meant something was wrong with him or that he was old, and they let the subject drop.
“Ben on the diamond?” I asked.
“Yes, with your father, either playing ball or getting ready to play ball. Why don’t you see if you can find them. I want your father to meet Mary.”
I didn’t want Mary to feel uncomfortable being left alone. I looked over at her and then my mom said, “Go on. We women will do all right without you.”
Mary nodded and I left them to themselves. I looked back once and Mary was taking out the chicken she’d fried and I could hear the chatter coming on.
It didn’t take long to spot them. They were over by home plate in a kind of huddle, with them were two of my dad’s old friend, Ralph and Bill, from the days when he was a miner. These guys stayed friends with him when he moved up on top. Lots of other guys he knew didn’t. Bill usually played second base and he could whip the ball to first for a double play about as good as anybody.
Anyway, Bill and Ralph were there and some other guys I didn’t know too well who were managers or office guys. One of them I’d heard about, Bud Johnson, who was a senior manager in New Projects Development.
My dad looked up as I came over.
“Here comes the star pitcher to save the day,” he yelled out.
They all said their hellos and shook my hand and said how glad they were to have me on their team. Even though I didn’t want to, I started to feel pretty good.
“Did you bring Mary?” Ben asked. I nodded. “She with mom and Gena?”
“I guess they’re talking her ear off by now,” I said.
“I want to meet her before she’s running for the hills,” he said.
“You will. Plenty of time for that,” said my dad.
“Yeah right,” said Bud, butting in. “We’ve got strategy to plan and games to be won.”
I just looked at him cold.
“You better believe we do,” my dad added seeing my glare.
“I knew you’d come through for us, Jake,” Bud tapped me on the shoulder.
Man, this guy was rubbing me the wrong way. I didn’t come through for him, but for my dad, who started asking me what I thought about the positions they’d assigned. It could have been the World Series the way he had everything planned.
“The way I see it,” he went on, “we have our good points and our bad ones. We’re going to be strong in hitting and with you pitching, Jake, strong in that area, especially. That means, naturally, they’re going to have some trouble getting on base. We’re also good in the infield. Ralph at first, Ben on third and Bud catching.”
“I played some in high school myself, so I’ll be signaling pitches…” Bud said looking over at me, then backed off a bit when he caught my look. “…if you like…” he added.
Our team was called the “Stakes,” and last year the miners, called the “Diggers,” beat us 6 to 3. It wasn’t much of a surprise to me. Usually the miners won. Hell, they were in better shape. They didn’t need to sit down after innings and they didn’t get out of breath sliding into home plate.
“We going to kick some butt this year, Jake?” Bud tapped me again.
“Hard to say,” I barely mumbled.
“That’s not the spirit,” he said.
“Of course we’re going to beat them,” my dad laughed, trying to lighten everything up. “We’ll get them for sure this time.”
“You bring your glove?” Ralph asked. “Got an extra if you didn’t.”
“Mine’s in my truck, but thanks.”
“Well, then, you better go get it,” my dad said. “I’d like to get some practice in before we start. I want to get a feel for where we’re strongest.”
“I’ll walk back with you,” said Ben. “I want to meet the woman in your life.”
“That’s a good idea,” said my dad. “Let’s take a break and get back to it at, say, 1:00. How’s that sound?”
Everyone agreed, and the three of us started walking back.
“What’s her name, again?” he asked.
“I know that much. Your mother told me that. What’s her last name?”
“Stennis,” I said like it didn’t mean a thing.
My dad almost stopped in his tracks, but Ben paid no attention to the name.
“Her dad’s not the bitman…Sandy…?”
Ben looked over at me.
“Yep,” I said flat as I could, “he is.”
My dad nodded, thinking, taking some time to respond.
“I knew he had a daughter. Didn’t know her name. But I knew he had one.”
“How’d you know that?” I asked, suspicious of what he wasn’t saying.
“I know him, or I mean I know about him enough to know he had a daughter.”
“What of it?” I was ready to fight.
“Nothing. I’m not saying anything by it.”
“What gives?” Ben asked. “I mean, shit, everyone knows what a bastard he is, but even he’s entitled to a daughter.”
“You’re damn right,” I added, “and he’s got one.”
“Does he know you’re seeing his daughter?” my dad asked.
“Yeah, I went and told him.”
“You did? I see.”
“Bullshit,” I said because he seemed like he was hiding something.
“You know about his accident, then?” he finally asked.
I had to smile about that.
“Yeah, I heard about it.”
“What accident? What the hell’s going on here?” Ben was saying. “I feel like I’m on the sidelines.”
My dad looked to me, but I kept quiet.
“Sandy was in a cave-in long before your time,” he said softly. “That’s what happened to him, why he limps and all.”
Then he stopped walking, and we both waited for more. I was kind of looking forward to hearing the story from another side. I guess I was hoping he’d say something that would make the idea of going after the gold impossible.
“Did you know him back when it happened?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, not close or anything.” He stopped for a second, like he was deciding to say it all or not. Then he said it, “I was there. I was part of the rescue team that pulled him out.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was too much of a coincidence.
“You pulled him out?”
“This was before I went upstairs to Safety. The area was very unstable, treacherous. They asked for volunteers to go down and dig them out. There were five of them in there.”
“What happened?” Ben pushed for more.
“Sandy’s the only one we got out. The place just collapsed behind him. It was like the mouth of a shark snapping shut.”
“What happened then?”
Again it was Ben doing the leading. I kept quiet.
“What do you mean? We ran like the devil out of the place. It all could’ve come down any minute.”
“Wait, let me get this straight,” Ben said. “The other guys…you left them there to die?”
“They were dead already.”
“You don’t know that!” I burst out now.
At first he looked like he was going to jump down my throat. Then his face changed. He took his time.
“It wasn’t our decision. The office upstairs called off the rescue. Called it off and closed the place down permanently.”
“But what did you think!” I was pissed. “What did everybody think about doing that?”
He looked at me for a long minute before answering.
“They thought what you’re thinking right now. That we should’ve gone back for them…but they’re wrong.”
“The Company left them down there to die,” Ben said.
“Ben,” my dad turned to him, “you should have seen Sandy. He’d been there for three days. His head all bashed in. He was nearly dead, himself. That last cave in finished them for sure.”
“You can’t know that for sure,” I said again.
“The decision was already made. There wasn’t any point in thinking different.”
“Sandy’s best friend died down there. Did you know that?”
“Look, Jake, I don’t know what Sandy’s been saying. He had a bad break, I’ll give him that. But he’s not alone. The mine is a dangerous place. You know that. What do you do? You pick up the pieces and you go on with your life.”
“Yeah, sure, go back to the bottom of the pit and wait for it to cave in on me,” I said.
“Don’t talk like that,” he said flatly.
“Yeah, man, that’s not cool, you’ll spook yourself,” Ben was serious.
“What happened to Sandy happened a long time ago,” my dad said.
“Yeah, well he ain’t forgot it,” I snapped.
“Maybe it’s time he did,” he said and walked up the hill to the green umbrella.
We stood there quiet. Thinking our own thoughts. For me, it was pretty clear he was asking us to let him off the hook. But I couldn’t help wondering if there was more he wasn’t saying. And it gave me the creeps to think about the men left behind in that cavern. I hoped he was telling the truth about one thing at least…that those miners were already dead when the mine gave up on them.
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