Today I’m posting Chapter 12 of High Pocket. In this chapter, Sandy reveals his plan for getting into the mine and reaching the abandoned cavern. As Mary and Jake listen to him, the weaknesses of the plan underscore the real dangers that lie ahead for all of them.
When we pulled into Sandy’s driveway, it looked like he wasn’t home. Mary unlocked the front door, and the living room was like an oven. She called out his name. He didn’t answer. She opened the windows in the front of the house and offered me a beer that I took gladly.
“Where do you suppose he is?”
“He said he wanted to get a couple of things. But that was hours ago,” she was a little worried.
She told me he’d been buzzing around since the night he told us about the gold. She would talk to him and he would only half answer.
“Let’s check out back in the tool shed. He sometimes goes out there.”
“To do what?” I asked.
“I don’t know, really. There’s no tools or anything out there. It’s just filled with old junk far as I know.”
They had a small backyard like most of the homes in Lead. There was a tree or two and some sorry-looking grass no one was taking care of. The tool shed was off to the left of the back door. A small brick path led to it covered in weeds that we tripped over. The door to the shed had a padlock on it, but I could see by the time we got halfway there that the lock was open. There was a four pane window covered from the inside with an old blanket. The shed had once been painted white. Now, it was weathered gray wood. When we got right up to it, we could hear scraping or sanding going on inside. Mary looked over at me, then tried the door, but it was locked from the inside. She tapped on it.
“Dad? You in there?” There was no answer. “It’s me and Jake. Are you there?”
The sanding or whatever stopped.
“Yeah. Hold on a minute.”
I could hear shuffling coming to the door. Then we heard the door being unbolted.
“No one with you?” Sandy poked his head out and gave the backyard a quick once over.
He was blocking the doorway with his body and didn’t seem about to move until he was sure nobody else was within a mile of the place. I could feel the heat pouring out of the shed, sweat all over Sandy’s face.
“It’s just us,” Mary said.
“Okay,” he slowly opened the door still looking around.
The shed was larger than it looked from the outside, filled with old mowers, one power, one not, spider-webbed and rusted. There were some fifty gallon barrels of who knows what and old pipes and tools and a lamp without a shade. There was a drill press and grinding wheel and some other tools and machines and boxes of junk. All of it was pushed to the back and to the sides of the shed to make room for a long, newly built table in the center with a neon hanging above it. The top of the table was covered with a canvas drape with something bulging out. I wanted like hell to know what it was.
“What happened to the picnic? It ain’t raining outside is it?” Sandy said with a nasty little laugh.
“Just felt like leaving,” I said.
“The ball game ended,” Mary added, without saying who won.
“Baseball,” he said with a shrug. “Can’t see why people get so all fired up about a kid’s game.”
“What’s under the tarp?” I said straight out.
“Been working on something,” he said with a smile.
“What is it?” Mary asked leaning in to take hold of the tarp.
“Hold on now, just wait a minute.”
He walked over to the door and bolted it again. Then he came back, took hold of one end of the tarp, and looked up at us.
“This is for no one else to see or know about,” he said and Mary and I exchanged a glance. Then he rolled back the canvass carefully.
The first thing I thought of was my model of Lead for the Science Fair, except this was a model of the Homestake Mine. Man, he would have won first place. The hoists were there and the shafts, set up on a mound that I guess was made of real dirt and rock. He had ore cars and lines and vent bags, stopes, drifts and tunnels, the whole damn thing.
“What the hell!” I said.
“It looks real enough to dig in,” Mary said.
“It’s perfect in detail and scale,” he said proudly, “watch this.”
He turned on a transformer, like for a Lionel train, and the ore cars started moving on the track. They stopped at the skip station.
“Now get a load of this,” he said excited as a kid.
He flipped a lever on the hoist and the cage went down from the mountain to the level that the rest of the mine was built on.
“This right here” I pointed, “is this the 3800′?”
He just nodded, busy watching the ore cars move over the tracks in one direction, then he’d send them back the other way.
The whole thing, the idea of the gold, the model, the ore cars, all of it seemed crazy to me all of a sudden. To see Sandy sitting there, like a kid with a new Christmas toy, watching the cars and the cage go up and down, made me almost want to laugh, except I got little spooked instead.
He switched off the power and the cars rolled to a stop.
“This is to plan from. This is exactly what it’s like down there. Exactly!”
He waited for us to react. I didn’t say anything, and neither did Mary. I guess she was thinking the same thoughts as me. Then he took a cigarette out and put it in his mouth and lit it. He took a deep drag and blew it out. When he spoke, he was different somehow, serious, all business is the best way to describe how he sounded.
“Are you afraid of it?”
I didn’t answer.
“It’s all right if you are. That don’t matter none. Might help, as a matter of fact.”
Mary looked at me. I stared back at her.
I had to be honest with myself. I was scared in a way, but what I was feeling had more to do with what I said at the start of this story, about facing up to something. It was facing up to myself more than anything else. That’s about as clear as I can put it. Getting the gold if it was there would be incredible, sure. But just the fact of going after it was equally important. It was shaking my fist at the Homestake owners. It was saying I deserved some of my own. I knew then I’d always wanted it. Now, I had the chance to go for it. It was right here in front of me.
“Yeah, I’m scared some,” I said. “Who the hell wouldn’t be? But all mining is dangerous anyway, right?”
“This time you’re doing it for yourself, for the three of us.”
Mary took my hand, but stayed quiet.
“There can’t be no fooling each other about this anymore,” Sandy said. “I been dreaming about this long enough. It’s time to wake the fuck up. There’s a shit load of gold down there, and that ain’t no goddamn dream!”
That last part he yelled out and then drew back when he realized how loud it came out. He took a folded piece of paper off a shelf behind him.
“Come closer, I want you two to see this.”
And it happened just like that. We walked over to the table next to Sandy as he unrolled a set of plans, we leaned over with him, and the three of us were now partners in this thing together.
He had drawn a detailed picture of the 3800’. It was like a pirate’s map. He even marked the spot where the gold was supposed to be with an “X”. There were arrows down the center of the 3800′ through a haulage way. He’d drawn an ore car at one edge of the paper and a miniature truck beyond. The toy truck might have made the drawing seem a little foolish, but this wasn’t a kid’s game. It was for real now. I mean, we were talking about going into the largest mine in the country, blasting our way into a cavern and pulling out the gold and then getting out of the mine and riding off into the sunset. There were lots of questions to ask and answer before we got started.
“You don’t see how we’re going to do it. Right?” Sandy said.
“Well, since you asked. I don’t. I’m worried about getting into the 3800′ with no one seeing us.”
“First off,” Sandy said, “this isn’t the 3800′.”
“What is it?” Mary asked.
“It’s the 3200′,” he said proudly, “the supply level.”
“The supply level?” I shook my head.
The supply level was the main supply point for the entire mine when trucks loaded things like ANFO, timbers, metalwork, and who knows what else. It was the busiest level in the whole mine.
“How are we getting in there without being seen?” I asked.
“I told you I got a plan.”
“You mind telling me what it is?”
Sandy pulled over a couple crates for us to sit on, and went around to the other side of the table.
“Have you ever been on the 3200′, Jake?”
“Been by it, you could say, on my way down in the Yates cage.”
“Been on it?”
“I haven’t either,” Mary said trying to lighten things up.
“That puts me in the company of none. I’ve been on it a thousand times. Before there was a 3800′ or a 3500′ or anything deeper. And after the bottom of the Homestake got opened up, we all used to stop there to climb into a smaller cage to take us down to the next level. This was before the Yates cage went down anywhere near as far as it does today.”
“Was it still the supply level back then?” Mary asked.
“That’s a good one,” he said. “And the answer is yes. But the reason why it’s always been the supply level is even better for us. Near perfect you could say.”
He looked over at me, teasing almost. He was happy with himself about something.
“Can you guess?”
“I’m listening,” I said. “Get on with it.”
“You know where the Supply Level comes out?”
“What do you mean, ‘comes out’?” I said.
He roared, like it was the jackpot.
“What surface?” Mary asked.
“You know what I mean, now, don’t you Jake?”
“Come on,” I said. “Give it.”
“All right, don’t rush me. I’m just having a little fun. Shit, it is hotter than hell in here.”
“Dad, hurry up,” Mary said, “tell us.”
He leaned forward and tapped the paper where the ore car and truck were.
“The Supply Level comes out on the goddamn surface of the mine! 3200′ feet down from the top of the mountain that the Yates sits on. That’s why it’s always been the supply level. You can drive right up and unload anything you want and wheel it right deep into the mine. It’s built for easy loading for Christ sake! They tunneled right out to the sunshine halfway down the side of the mountain. I got a picture of it right here.”
He pulled a couple snapshots off the shelf behind him and set them down in front of us. He must have gone out himself and taken them himself.
Seeing the photos, I realized the 3200′ Supply Level was at the Oro Hondo Spur on the east side of the mountain. It’s called an adit, a tunnel that comes out at the surface. You can enter it by walking in or riding an ore car into the mine. The mountain was covered with snow in the pictures that we were looking at. He told us he took them a few years ago near Christmas time. The opening is protected by a chain-link fence with a gravel road leading up to it from Mill Street.
“That’s where we’re getting in,” Sandy said to me as calmly as could be. “Like it was made for us. We drive up, hop out and walk right in to claim out gold.”
“Oh, is that right?” I said, “We just walk in with nobody seeing us or so much as asking what the hell we’re doing there?”
“Late at night?” Mary asked.
“Late at night, early in the morning, makes no difference at all,” I snapped. “Somebody’s working down there all the time. The mine has around the clock shifts. Even today, the Company Picnic, I bet there’s sandmen down there at the least.”
Sandy didn’t look shook at all when I said that.
“Today, sure,” he said. “Not many, maybe, but too many for us. But there is one day a year when the place is shut down. Old man Mckern will be up top in the parking box. But that’s it.”
“The Christmas Ball,” I said suddenly
“Sure…the Christmas Ball. You hit it on the head. They close down the whole damn place on that night,” he said ‘bout patting himself on the back.
“Okay, go on,” I said, “maybe we could get in unseen; but getting in is one thing, reaching the gold and hauling it out is another.”
“Yeah, but tell me this…you didn’t think we could get in at all a bit ago. Not till I told you. It’s all planned out, all of it.”
He reminded me of a little kid, wanting to hear that he was doing great. Mary told him what he wanted and I went along with it, but I got the feeling there was something he wasn’t telling us.
“Go on with the rest of it,” I said.
“How far is the gold from here?” Mary pointed to the No. 3 winze, which is a small underground tunnel. “I mean from the 3200′ to the 3800’?”
“About 600 feet from 3200 to the 3800,” he laughed.
We let him have his laugh, then I asked, “How far is the cavern from where the cage lets off?”
“No more than a thousand feet the way I remember it.”
“A thousand feet! That’s one hell of a way to haul heavy gold.”
“We’re not going to carry it,” he said. “There’s tracks…some track. We’ll take an ore car down with us. That’s the only thing to do.”
Just the way he said it I knew this was the problem part of his plan.
“We blast out the mouth of the cavern, load up the ore car and push it back to the cage and up we come and out the tracks on the supply level to the truck.”
“It could work,” Mary said eagerly, wanting everything to be fine. “Right, Jake…couldn’t it work?”
“Anything could work with a plan this vague…”
“What are you saying!” Sandy roared.
“What am I saying? Let me make it clear for you. Here’s a few of things we don’t know. This cage down from the 3200’ to the 3800’…is it still there? Does the engine still run to lower it?
“I’ll bet it does,” he said.
“Yeah, you’ll bet? Well, I’m not the “betting” kind,” I said. “It’s been over twelve years, Sandy. Who knows if it’ll run? And how’s it driven anyway, gas or electric? If electric, I’m sure the lines have been cut.”
“Gas,” he said quickly. Then changed his mind, “No, diesel. It’s got a small motor, a GM 1000, probably five-hundred horsepower. No more than a couple of gears. Two belts, I think. It’s running on cables. You know, on a simple tumbler.”
“Could you drive it with less if you had to?” I asked.
“Sure. There you go,” he tried to smile again. “That’s what I was thinking, bringing in a new, smaller engine.”
Mary asked how we could carry an engine down there and Sandy told her that we could haul in an engine in the ore car on the tracks off the supply level.
“Are there tracks from the supply level to the cage, and how about tracks down there on the 3800′?” I asked.
“There’s tracks, there’s tracks,” he hollered, “they rolled me out in a car down those tracks.”
“Shit, Sandy, that was then. What’s down there now?”
“What could’ve happen to them?” Mary asked.
I could see Sandy kind of wince when she said that. He knew, like me, a hell of a lot could’ve happened to them. The ground could have shifted and uprooted them. They could have rusted out if there was any moisture down there. Hell, the level could be under two feet of water right now for all we knew. There might have been another cave in destroying all of it.
But there was something even more important to think about. We needed to know if the level was backfilled.
“It ain’t backfilled!” he shouted.
“You can’t know that!” I yelled back.
“Stop yelling,” Mary shouted above us both. “What do you mean backfilled?”
I explained to Mary that standard mining practices call for closing down a level that’s no longer under production by pumping concrete slurry into the open area that was mined. The slurry hardens like rock and fills the cavity so that it’s as solid again as if it never was dug out. If the 3800’ had been backfilled after they hauled Sandy out, there was no way we could ever get back to the cavern of gold that was supposedly waiting down there for us.
“We got to find that out if the level still exists. No sense doing any further planning until we know that,” I said.
“It exists. It’s got to!” Sandy stood up fast, knocking over his beer so that foam ran all over the model.
Mary started wiping it up. The beer didn’t hurt the model, but seeing all that foam rushing down the 3200′ shaft, pouring into the 3800’ level, submerging it, said a lot about the dangers of our plan if you know what I mean.
“Course, you’re right,” Sandy said, “we need to know what’s down there.”
He said like he’d known it all along, like he’d led me to it, and maybe he had, maybe that’s why he was showing us this model to begin with.
“But we have something, don’t we? A plan to start from?” he asked almost humbly.
“Sure we have plan,” Mary said. “A good one, dad.”
It’s what he wanted to hear, and the smile that came to his grizzled face was a strange one. I didn’t speak for a minute. I remember taking my time lighting a cigarette and blowing out the first puff. I knew what we had to do and I knew I was the one going to be doing it. I could feel Sandy’s eyes on me.
“All right,” I said looking first at Mary and then over to Sandy. “I’ll go down and take a look. That’s the only thing that makes sense.”
He didn’t say anything.
“What happens if the hoist doesn’t work?” Mary asked. “How will you get down the shaft to the 3800’?”
“I’m not going to go by the cage even if I could get the engine started. I can’t operate it and ride in it at the same time. I’m going to climb down. There’s a ladder inside every shaft in the mine. Safety valve, you could say.”
I looked over at Sandy.
“Yeah, there’s a ladder,” he said.
“Hell, six hundred feet isn’t an easy climb. But I could do it in an hour or more.”
“Sure you could,” Sandy said. “It’s the best thing to do. Then we’d know for sure what we’re up against.”
“What about someone seeing you?” Mary asked.
“I’ll be careful,” I said. “But me alone, with no equipment, I think I could manage it through the supply level.”
“Yeah, sure you could,” Sandy whispered, staring off into space, no longer looking at the map. Maybe he was wishing it could be him who was going down there instead of me.
The truth is I wished it could be him, too. I was in no hurry to put myself in an abandoned shaft, climbing down to an abandoned level that already claimed the lives of miners and was permanently shut down as a deathtrap over a decade ago. No, I was in no hurry at all.
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