Today I’m posting Chapter 13 of High Pocket. In this chapter, Jake sneaks into the Homestake, finds the boarded up entrance to the abandoned level and nearly loses his life to the very real dangers that surround this story.
It took me about two weeks to get all my gear together. I couldn’t carry more than a 100′ of rope to climb part way down the shaft if there wasn’t a ladder. I brought machine wrenches, a set of drivers and sockets, various channel-locks, and other small tools to help check out the engine. Of course, I couldn’t risk trying to start it, but at least I’d look at the carburetor and gas lines and radiator and see if the crank was frozen. I also brought a can of fluorescent paint and planned on marking my trail like Hansel and Gretel.
I left my house just after 5:00 pm and parked behind a low ridge near 6:00. The East side of the mountain was in deep shade and cooling off quick. Since the first shift gets off at 4:00 and the second shift doesn’t come on till 8:00 so the blasting smoke can clear, I figured I had a good two hours to get in the adit and over to the No. 3 winze and climb down to the 3800′. There wouldn’t be time to come back up and out during the same shift break. I’d have to wait until next shift break a 4:00 am, a full eight hours. But there was plenty to keep me busy once I got inside.
I hauled the tool satchel over my shoulder, put on my cap and climbed down off the road and made my way fast through the thick brush to the adit entrance blocked by a six foot cyclone fence. I checked my watch. It was 6:20. I didn’t dare try to cut the big old Yale Standard lock off the gate, but I could see about a one and half foot clearance at the top. I was able to push my satchel up over it and then climb the fence and squeeze through myself. I was inside, kneeling close to the tunnel wall listening for machine or man. I couldn’t hear a thing, except the warm air rushing out from somewhere deep in the mine. It was like some great animal exhaling, the warmth of it coming at me. It had the stale smell of sweat and heat and exhaustion.
It was dark inside the adit and I turned on my cap lamp and started walking as fast as I could chance it. I had to be careful. The level was new to me and the cap lamp was the only light in the place. It made a small beam in front of me like a flashlight so I had to watch out for a pipe or low rock or anything. Until you try it, you can’t know how much you depend on seeing hundreds of feet in front of you for all sorts of things, not only balance, but looking into the distance makes you feel sure of yourself. Without that, you can feel lost pretty damn quick.
I knew that the abandoned drift that led to the No. 3 Winze should be coming up soon if what Sandy had told me was right. I wished I had more light to help me find it. It was supposed to be no more than a quarter mile inside the adit. Shit, I thought to myself, I’ve walked more than that already. Who knows how long it’ll take me to get in once I do find it, and the second shift wasn’t too far from coming on.
The mine was quieter than I’d ever known it, no blasting or drilling or slushing or cars rolling, nothing to listen to except the echo of my footsteps, my breathing and the ventilation system, breathing for the mine. I couldn’t help but think I was walking into the bowels of some animal and it was beginning to give me the creeps.
I started worrying now that I’d passed the drift. I looked at my watch and it was damn near 7:30. I decided to turn around.
Maybe Sandy was wrong about where it was. After all, he was nearly dead when they wheeled him out. Maybe his memory was playing tricks on him. Then my mind took the next step. Maybe there wasn’t a No. 3 winze at all. I sure never heard of it. And if there wasn’t one, how the hell could I believe that the gold ever existed. I couldn’t doubt that the accident happened. My dad had confirmed that. But how about the rest of what Sandy said? And then the whole idea of the gold and what we were planning on doing seemed as crazy as could be. What the hell were we thinking?
I was going on and on like that, and I swear it was just like in the movies when you’re on the point of giving up when my lamp reflected off of something glinting on the side of the adit. I rushed over to it and saw a small “DANGER” sign covered up with dirt except for one corner. I ducked down, thinking as soon as I’d found what I was looking for, someone was going to find me.
I took care in wiping a little bit off the sign and saw: “UNSTABLE ROCK BEYOND THIS POINT.” I could see that they’d boarded up the opening with 4″ X 12” lumber about ten feet long fastened with lag bolts drilled into the rock. I lightly tapped the boards with a wrench. They were as solid now as they ever had been, but goddamn it, it was hollow behind them! I’d found the drift entrance.
I looked at my watch. It was 7:45. The 8:00 shift would be coming on in minutes. I’d no sooner thought it when the lights came on in the Supply Level and I was suddenly standing in light as bright as somebody’s living room. I dropped to the ground, rolled into the drainage ditch and waited. It was then I noticed a set of tracks curving off the main rails of the Supply Level and disappearing under the wood boards. Hell, Sandy was right. Those tracks would lead to the hoist room and No. 3 winze. I just hoped someone wasn’t going to come along and find me before I could get a board loose and disappear behind them.
By the time my eyes adjusted, I could hear drilling starting up and slushing somewhere. Pretty soon I started feeling more comfortable and dug out my wrenches and went to work on the lag bolts on the lowest board. The bolts were near frozen so that I had to jump on the end of the wrench to get them to budge. After I cracked all of them loose, I got back down on my side and slowly started backing them out. It took me nearly an hour from the time I found the entrance to the time the last lag came out.
And still the board wouldn’t budge. I had to hammer in a small crow bar between them, worried the whole time the banging would bring someone running. Finally, there was a loud crack that echoed through the adit as the board broke free and fell to the floor. I rolled through the opening into the abandoned drift.
I’ve never been to Egypt, of course, but crawling into that drift was like entering some Pharaoh’s tomb. It was dark and still and dead silent. All the noise of the mine stopped on this side of the wall like I was in another world. There were giant cobwebs and I expected to see bats flying around. There were square timber sets supporting the opening and a center post we’d have to cut out if we planned on brining an ore car this way along the tracks. I took a couple steps forward and saw the tracks heading off to the right into solid darkness. I’ve been a miner for quite awhile, but I am not ashamed to tell you that staring into nothingness like that made me uneasy to say the least. I had no choice, though, but to head into it.
I took out the can of spray paint and left stripes of yellow every so often. The tracks were in pretty good shape considering, and there didn’t seem anything unstable about the drift. It’s hard to say exactly how far I’d walked, maybe a few hundred yards, when I came to a fork. Sandy never mentioned there being another drift off this level so I had nothing to go on. One direction seemed as good or dark as the other. I took the left one, which came up against a dead-end pretty quick with a wall of rock in front of me. I took out my biggest wrench and banged on it. It was dead solid.
When I started heading back, I heard the rock start talking, creaking and swooshing and what not. It isn’t anything unusual, even at this shallow depth, but where I was, the sounds spooked me some, afraid soon the walls would be coming down. Then there was a BOOM above me, and I started running down the tracks only to fall and ding up my knee and arm pretty good. I stayed on the ground until the sounds trailed off and my breathing got under control.
By the time I got back to the main line, I checked my watch. It was stopped and busted at 12:09. Shit! That could be a big problem, and I only had about four hours to get to the winze, check the motor and shaft, and get back to put up the board. It would be near dawn by then, and I was sure they started bringing in supplies when there was light enough to drive up the adit road. Without my watch, I knew I’d never be able to tell how long I’d been down here.
I started on again as fast as I could, walking and painting, painting and walking and keeping my eyes peeled for any sign of a shaft or head frame. Soon, there was a little rubble showing up on the tracks, a busted ore car plate then a beat up oil can. As dark and dangerous as it was in here, and as spooked as I felt, I was getting excited since the debris meant I was heading in the right direction.
Then I spotted something about twenty feet ahead that stopped me cold. It was a barricade with signs plastered all over it: “CAUTION–UNSTABLE AREA,” “DANGER–DO NOT PROCEED,” “ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY.”
I walked right up to it and stuck my head though. There, in the spot of my cap lamp, was the No. 3 winze and the engine with the cables and drum still attached. I could hardly believe it! I shouted out loud, “Goddamn, this is it!”
My hollering ended as fast as it began as I followed the cables with my cap lamp from the engine to shaft and saw them disappear into a solid concrete slab that sealed the shaft opening.
The level had been backfilled like I worried about.
I felt like somebody had just kicked me in the gut. I wanted to throw up. And I realized for the first time how much I wanted to go through with Sandy’s plan, just how much I wanted to get the gold for him and for Mary and for me. That was no longer possible. That dream was over now that the shaft and 3800’ level below it was filled with solid concrete.
I thought about just turning around and walking out. Instead, I broke down enough of the barricade to crawl through into the hoist room. I shone my light on the hoist and engine. It wasn’t the 1000 diesel Sandy thought it was. It was a great big straight-8, gasoline, probably a GM, not that it mattered now. We wouldn’t be using it no matter what it was. We wouldn’t ever be coming down here again.
I reached up and grabbed onto the cables and walked a few feet right up close to the concrete slab. Then I stepped out on it. The moment I did that, I heard a creaking and groaning beneath me. I instinctively stood dead still, afraid to move. Suddenly, the concrete cracked and split open with a tremendous ripping sound collapsing into the shaft below and plunging me down after it with concrete showering all over me!
I thought I was dead for sure, but luckily I managed at the last second to latch onto the cables that cut deep into my hands as I jerked to a stop, swinging and hanging there in the shaft like a dangling in a church bell tower. My cap flipped off my head, falling past my feet and bashing into the shaft walls as it clanged its way into darkness, finally going out so that I could only hear it bounce softer and softer, until I could hear and see nothing at all.
It was a terrible, disorienting darkness that enclosed everything around me, a blackness so complete my eyes could never adjust to it. I was in the “black curtain” that all miners fear. I told myself to hold on, just hold on, and I started to get myself swaying from side to side on the cables, reaching out with my feet to feel for the shaft ladder on either side of the shaft, and hoping like hell there was one there like Sandy said.
And there was. My feet finally gripped a rung, and I was able to pull myself over to the ladder and let go of the cables with one hand and grab onto the ladder, and then grab on with my other hand and foot. The cables settled back into position in the center of the shaft as I clung to the ladder, out of breath and trembling with fear. They had capped the shaft, but apparently not backfilled it. Why? I couldn’t come up with an answer.
When I calmed a little, I reached into my pocket and found my Zippo. I lit it, and a circle of light showed the rusted safety ladder I was clinging to and ten feet of shaft above me and ten feet below. I’ve had close calls before in the mine, but nothing like this. The idea of falling down an abandoned shaft where no one would come looking for you shed a pretty bright light on the dangers the of what we were planning. I shook the thought out of my head and started climbing for the hoist room.
I hadn’t fallen more than twenty feet so it wasn’t far to crawl back onto solid ground. I stood up, brushed myself off, and decided to take a quick look at the motor and controls as best I could in the brief light of my Zippo. The radiator looked sound enough but it was hard to tell much with the water long evaporated. The battery had split and was long dead so I couldn’t test any of the electronics, like the generator or starter, but we could replace them pretty easy along with the points and plugs and fuel lines and whatnot.
Most important was to check the engine oil to be sure there was no sign of water, and there wasn’t. Then I managed to get leverage on the flywheel and make sure the crank shaft was free, and it too seemed okay along with the clutch. All in all, it was in better shape than I could hope for. I got the ID numbers off the engine block to help us find the right parts for it. I was feeling pretty good.
The big thing, of course, was the condition of the 3800’ level at the bottom of the shaft. It’s really the main thing I came to find out and the main thing I failed at. But there was no time now to get down there in complete blackness and back up before the shift came on. I had to get out of there.
I headed back to the supply level as fast as I could, flicking my cigarette lighter now and then, following my paint marks back out. I reached the fork to the dead end drift, and from there it was quick to the boarded up entrance. I listened carefully for some sound of blasting going on. There was nothing I could hear. That meant they’d already come off shift and hadn’t started up again. Either way, I wanted to get out of the mine now before someone noticed the loosened board.
I was just about ready to push my tool satchel under the boards when I heard boot steps walking close to the tracks down the adit. Then I heard talking, two of them it sounded like. I froze on my knees. I didn’t dare try from my side to pull the 2″ X 12″ back into place. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I figured I’d wait until they walked past.
Well, goddamn it, they didn’t pass. They stopped right smack in front of me on the far side of the tracks. I bet you if I’d gotten down on my belly, I could have looked under the boards and seen their boots.
“See? Right here like I told you,” one of them said.
“Yeah. OK. You’re right. I see it.”
For a second I was sure they were talking about the board I’d loosened.
“About twenty feet of it. No more…maybe fifty,” the first one said.
“Fifty, easy,” the other said. “Means all new track through here. Seventy-five feet to get it right.”
Then I could hear them messing with the track, kicking it and such.
“It’s loose enough to move with your foot.”
“Yeah. Yeah. All right. Let’s write it. No time to do anything about it now.”
They walked away and I waited a good while before crawling under the boards. The cooler air in the Supply Level made me shiver at first with all the sweat I had on me. I tightened the lags and smeared them with dirt and mud, taking time to do a good job now that men would be working here. I picked up the tools and ran out of the adit, climbed the fence and raced up the embankment to my truck.
The sky was just showing pink so it must have been about 5:30. I’d been lucky on this trip, no doubt about it. Lucky that I didn’t get caught, lucky that I didn’t fall to my death, lucky that I’d gotten as much info as I got. As I drove away, I realized now just how much I believed in the whole thing. I was as much hooked on it as Sandy was. My getting this close to it made me want to pull the gold out of there and get away with it clean, to beat them at their own game.
Yeah, I’d found out lots of stuff and had my notes and numbers and all, but I knew right then that we’d be crazy to go down to the 3800′ without knowing a hell of a lot more about the level itself. Was it flooded? Caved in? Was there even a cage hanging at the end of those cables at the bottom of the shaft or had it been taken out when they closed of the level?
I knew Sandy was going to ask me to get those answers from my dad. What I didn’t know is that he’d been waiting all along for me to go to my dad. Sandy had planned that, too. It took me awhile to figure out his reasons, and then I could have kicked myself for not seeing it coming a long way off.
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