Today I’m posting Chapter 22 of High Pocket. In this chapter, Jake, Sandy and Mary lock up the house, load the truck and head for the mine, and Jake’s risky plan to get them past the Olner crew is set into motion.
Finally, the day was here, the day we’d been planning for months. It was nearly impossible to sleep, and I’d been long awake when the morning light started leaking into my bedroom. I got up, made myself some coffee and eggs, which is all the food I had left after cleaning out my refrigerator. I sat there eating and thinking and thinking some more. The snow had been falling all week and before it could melt much, the next load fell on top of that. It was 8:00 now, and I didn’t know what the hell to do with myself until 4:00 when I was locking up my place and heading over to Sandy’s.
I cleaned my dishes, emptied the trash, took a shower, laid out my clothes and it was still no more than 10:30. It went on like that for hours. The time was creeping by. There wasn’t anywhere for me to go and nothing left to do in the house, so I turned on the TV. The reception was bad because of the weather, all I could get was Christmas carols. I turned it off and laid back on the couch and went over for the 100th time the plan I’d come up with for the cyanide vats to get Olner and his crew out of our way so we could get down to 3700’ level. Now, in the light of day of my living room, that plan seemed pure crazy to me. But it had to work. If it didn’t we’d be running out of the mine with our tail between our legs before we even got started.
All of the sudden, I jumped up from the couch and realized I’d fallen asleep and been dreaming about the plan, not just thinking about it. Holy crap! I frantically searched for the mantle clock in the near dark. I found it and it said 2:30. What a relief! I didn’t even want to think what I do if it had said 7:30 or 9:30. I could have ruined the whole plan, missed it all.
I made some strong coffee, turned the TV up real loud and started getting dressed to go. I could see out the window there was freezing rain coming down. I turned on the porch light so I wouldn’t kill myself on the ice. Wouldn’t that be a sonofabitch, I thought, to fall and break my fool neck right here on my front stoop. That made me laugh like hell. I guess it was nerves or something, but I laughed like a crazy man over the thought of it. Then, finally, I was in my Bronco and heading down into Lead with my windshield wiper ripping away.
When Mary opened the door for me, I could feel the warmth of the house come through the screen. “Hi,” is all she said, with a sort of sigh, and she reached up and hugged me tight before I got in the door.
Before she could answer, Sandy hurried in from the kitchen fully dressed in gear, including his new miner’s cap with the damn light on. He walks right passed me mumbling, “Snowing now. Rained some. Now snow.”
“Hey, Sandy, slow down there,” I call over to him, but he walks on past me to the back bedroom intent on something.
“He’s been like this for hours, waiting for you, preparing, searching…” Mary says.
“Searching for what?”
“A flashlight, a drill bit, knife, blasting caps, rope, wire. I heard him poking around all night, hasn’t slept, won’t eat…” she seems like she might start crying, “I don’t think he’s up to this…maybe we should…I don’t know, postpone it, call it off, something…”
“Okay, okay, take it easy. I’ll talk to him.”
I follow him into his bedroom. He’s got his back to me, rifling through a drawer.
“What’cha looking for? We got everything taken care of.”
He keeps searching so that I have to come right up behind him.
“Sandy,” I say not too loud not wanting to spook him. He keeps on search so I yell, “Sandy!”
Now he stops and turns to me, his eyes not focusing, not saying a word.
“What the heck you doing, man? I’m counting on you. You know that, right?”
He walks away from the bureau, turns on the bedroom light, but stays silent.
“Tell me now, Sandy,” I say hard, “are you going to be all right down there? This isn’t no practice run. This is the whole thing, and you got to be sure.”
“I’m sure!” he barks at me.
He turns and sees his reflection in the mirror, an old crazy-looking miner ready for some kind of battle. He reaches up, turns off his cap lamp. Rubs his hands over his face, still fixed on the mirror.
“I’m ready…been ready a long time.”
I shake my head, I’m really concerned, but I just say, “All right, then. Let’s go.”
And we are ready. There’s not much to do but lock up the front door, hurry across the frozen lawn, lock the camper shell and climb in the cab of the truck, which is warm with the engine running and the heater on high. I’m at the wheel as planned, Mary in the middle and Sandy at shotgun. We all look straight ahead, a long, silent moment, running with our own thoughts of the night ahead. Through the windshield the snow blows hard across the headlights as the wind begins to gust.
“What’re you waiting for?” Sandy snaps, “Let’s go.”
Mary and I see each other in the rearview. We both look worried, no denying it. I shrug, put the truck in gear, and slowly pull onto Siever Street, the house lights behind me soon lost in the howling storm.
By the time we reached the Oro Hondo Spur, which is a road where the Main Supply Level comes out to the surface, the snow was dumping on us. That was fine with me because our white truck was invisible just a couple yards out. The Ball was set to go on at around 7:30 and the only people on the outside of the mine would be a couple of old watchmen up at the top of the main gate and parking lot. There wasn’t much to worry about us ever being spotted getting in, at least not until morning, and that gave us close to twelve hours. The only thing on my mind right then was getting to the cyanide plant to start this whole thing off.
I could see the mountain through the snow as we pulled to a stop, just the outline, but there it was, looming out of the night. I knew Mary saw it, too, looking like it was hanging in mid-air, like it was almost ready to fall on us. But it was more than the way it looked that was impressive, it was that we were here, damn near ready to get out of the truck for the first time and cut open the lock on the gate.
“You’ll be able to see the gate and the cyclone fence any minute,” I said to Mary.
Just when I said it, the truck lights shined on the fence.
“There it is,” Mary almost yelled out. “Look, there.”
“You got it,” Sandy said, then to me, “Pull up close and see if you can turn the truck around, heading out back down the road.”
I had the same idea since I didn’t want to be backing out of the drive or turning the truck around with a ton or more of gold in the rear end. It was crazy to think a thing like that but that’s why we were here. I pulled right up against the gate and then backed up and did a three-point turn and headed the truck away from the gate. I stopped about three feet away from it. The gate opened inward so there was be plenty of room to load from where we were.
“That’s it,” I said, “no more waiting.”
Sandy put on his gloves and Mary and me did the same. I looked at her, and she looked cute as hell with her miner’s cap on and the gloves and all. But it didn’t seem like the time to say much about that, so I just leaned over and kissed her and kept quiet.
“Let’s go,” Sandy said, and he sounded good, sure of himself.
We jumped out of the cab and right away the cold came over us. It was probably well below zero and going down fast. The snow was whipping, too, by the side of the mountain. I could feel it bite into my face and I had to nearly close my eyes. I cut the padlock on fence and the three of us hurried inside to the adit entrance where the ore car was exactly where Sandy said it would be. We huddled behind it, and in the silence of the adit, I could make out the soft thudding of what must’ve be Olner’s crew working along through the night. He said he was going at it twenty-four hours a day and he sure as hell was.
I pulled out three gas masks from the ore car and passed them to Sandy and Mary, keeping one for myself.
“Wait about 20 minutes, then get ore car moving, wait for…”
Sandy cut me off frustrated, “I know, I know…if we don’t hear an alarm by 25 minutes, get back to the truck, et cetera, et cetera…
“That’s right…” I fired back at him, “et cetera, et cetera!”
I left them and ran ahead through the adit to an intersecting passage that led to the outhaul of the cyanidation plant. It took me a little bit longer than I thought, but finally I made it into the outer hallway of the plant. I stopped in front the glass door entry to the cyanidation plant where a Warning Sign read: Cyanide is a deadly gas. Do not enter without authorized gas masks in place.
Like I said at the start of this story, the gold produced by the Homestake is embedded in other rock, quartz mostly, and to get it free, the Homestake first crushes it, then breaks it down smaller in ball mills, then beats it some more until the rock and gold are all about the size of sand. To get the gold free of the sand is where the cyanide process comes in. Huge vats holding nearly 800 tons of a slurry formed by mixing the sand with water and cyanide that is spun around and around until the gold particles get leeched out. If you look at all the steps to creating gold, it’s no wonder how precious it is on a lady’s finger or man’s watch.
I pulled on my gas mask and pushed open the glass door to enter the massive room where the huge cyanide vats were churning in slow circles. The vats we locked behind a narrow corridor fronted by security bars. Every twenty feet or so, there was a one foot by three foot opening in the bars to allow equipment to be passed to men inside. I looked through one of those openings now, searched across the vat closest to me, to the far side where a red Release Button was positioned. Above the button was a caution sign: DO NOT FILL VAT ABOVE SAFETY LINE.
A Red Safety Line circled the rim of the vat. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a handful of stones. I could see my hand shaking. I could feel my heart starting to race. I could feel a panic beginning inside of me, a panic I couldn’t let take hold of me. I took some deep breaths. Then a couple more. I told myself that I could do this, that I was going to do this. That Mary and Sandy were counting on me and I wasn’t going to let them down.
I selected a stone. I stepped back a couple feet from the opening. I looked at the Release Button. I took a breath and held it and tossed the stone through the opening. I watched it skip across the surface of the cyanide slurry…one, two, three, four times it skipped and then just flew over the far edge of the vat, missing the Release Button and bouncing off the wall.
“Damn it!” I yelled out loud and then shut up fast afraid someone might hear me.
I took out a second stone and tossed it fast thinking that not thinking too hard would be best. It whizzed right off the surface of the slurry in the vat with just a couple of skips and then clanged against the far edge of the vat.
I took out a third rock, whispering to myself to calm down, that three times is a charm. Then I thought back to me showing off with Mary and telling her I could count the skips and still hit a target. I even blew on the damn stone this time for luck and settled on four skips as my lucky number. I wound up like a pitcher and let that stone rip! It sizzled across the cyanide solution in four skips just like I planned and it smashed into the arm holding the Release Button, but it missed the button itself!
Oh shit! I felt desperate! Stupid desperate! As I stood there now I felt like a dumb son-of-a-bitch! I was sure the whole idea of skipping a stone to activate the Release Button to let slurry rush in and overfill the vat was the stupidest idea possible. And without the disturbance of the flooding slurry would cause rushing into the Supply Adit, there’d be no way we’d ever get past the Olner crew and make it to the 3700. What the hell was I thinking? Was I crazy to think I could hit that button? Or was I just choking now that it was in front of me like I’d choked many times in the past?
Well, shit, I couldn’t choke now, I said out loud. I had Sandy and Mary waiting on me. I couldn’t let them down and I couldn’t let myself down. Not this time. Not tonight. I couldn’t let Olner beat me at this.
I yanked out another stone. “Do it, Jake,” I said to myself, “six skips. C’mon, bottom of the Ninth, two outs, full count, all of it on the line…Toss it!”
I let if fly. On the first skip, I knew it was headed straight for the button, no doubt about it. And goddamn…2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and the stone struck the very center of that damn button with a WHACK! The funneled chute flopped open and a gushing stream of the thick gray cyanide slurry rushed into the tank.
“Yes!!” I said under my breath.
Within seconds, the slurry started rise fast to the Safety Line circling the vat. I didn’t wait for it to get any higher, but took off running for the Supply Level. I didn’t have to wait and see what that heavy slurry was going to do when it started to crest the vat and begin to spill gray sheets of cyanide-rich sludge over the floor. I knew that it wouldn’t take more than a few minutes before the vat would get off-balance and tip fully on one side, releasing thousands of gallons of slurry against the glass wall.
And sure enough that’s what I heard first was the explosion of that glass wall, shattering on impact, and not long after that I heard alarms going off as the slurry breached the hallway. I ran even fast to get back to Mary and Sandy, but I could picture the slurry wave racing to the Yates Shaft. More sirens went off, and then I could hear men yelling, “What the Goddamn is that smell?” It was cyanide fumes of course, and everyone on Olner’s crew would be running now for the exits. Oh boy, there were going to be some pissed off people with this mess to clean up. I kind of wished I could stay around and wait for Olner to get called up and to see him barreling over to the plant with putrid, poisonous cyanide mud everywhere.
But I had something more important to do, which was to get back to Mary and Sandy and to help them get the ore car rolling fast down the Supply Level before the maintenance and safety teams could get the blowers going long enough to clear out the cyanide fumes and bring in the clean up crews to the level.
As I came bounding out of the passageway back to the Supply Level, I could see the ore car rolling toward me with Sandy and Mary with their gas masks on pushing that heavy car for all they were worth. I caught up with them and put my back into it, too. We were in a race against time now, and with the sirens blaring, the red safety lights flashing, the noise of the slurry rushing into the shaft, it felt like we were in the race of our lives.
Soon we were past the Abandoned Level where the Olner team had left all their gear behind and run off. We kept pushing the car, steering it off the off the main line and onto an adjoining set of tracks that feed to the supply shaft and supply cage. It was this smaller cage that would take us down the 3700’ where we’d find the parallel bore hole my dad told me about.
We reached the supply cage quickly, which was good since I didn’t know exactly how long before maintenance would get there. The cage was smaller than we thought and we had wrestle to get ore car in and then all of us had to climb on top of the gear in the car before we could get the gates closed.
“Hit it!” Sandy yelled, “Let’s get going!”
It wasn’t even worth answering that kind of yelling, so I didn’t. I pulled hard on the release lever and then hit the Down Switch. The cage lurched and then stopped and for a moment it didn’t more. I felt sure we were too heavy, but no, it started again with a jerk and began to lower us to 3700′ Level.
And the ride down went pretty smooth and fast. So far, so good I thought. We were able to push and pull the ore car out of the cage which wasn’t so easy since all that weight took some real heft to get moving. But it was moving now and we had flashlights shining on every nook and cranny searching for the cutoff that had to run to the bore hole. But we couldn’t find it. And we’d gone far enough we thought.
“Where the hell is it!” Sandy boomed. “Your dad better know what he’s talking about.”
“Keep looking, keep looking!” I yelled back confidently, but inside I was worried, ready to retrace our steps, ready to have my head examined. Then Mary yelled out, “I see it…there!”
She pointed to a narrow tunnel up on the left. We pulled up close and a new problem immediately showed it’s ugly head.
“Ain’t got not tracks,” Sandy said, “No fucking tracks for the car. Who the hell knows what now?”
I got pissed then, “Hey! All right. Knock it off. We’re going to haul the gear. Remember that part of the plan?”
And it’s true we did have a backup plan to carry the gear if we had to, and we brought along a collapsible dolly just in case. But man I hoped we’d never have to use it considering how heavy the gear was and how much extra time it would take. There was no choice, though, and to his credit, Sandy pitched as best he could haul the gear down the narrow tunnel in the absolute blackness ahead. Mary and I hefted the Honda 200 onto the dolly. It was just about the most important part of our gear since it was going to run the skip bucket up and down the bore hole.
“You start looking about a 100 feet ahead on the left,” I yelled to Sandy, “We’ll catch up.”
Sandy, cable and whatnot over his shoulder, limped ahead of us into the tunnel.
“I’m worried, Jake,” Mary said when he got some distance from us.
“I’m worried, too,” I said to her, “I won’t deny it. But like you said that day at Pactola, sometimes you got to believe things will work out.” She half nodded to me. “We got to keep going, that’s all we have to do, keep going,” I said with a forced smile.
And so we did. We trudged on forward into the dark. Sandy’s lamp was soon out of sight and that got me a bit jumpy, but then I heard a banging going on in the darkness ahead of us.
“Sandy, where are you?” my words echoed all around us. There was no answer, then Mary yelled.
“In here!” Sandy answered and Mary’s flashlight found an even narrower passageway off to the left and we could see Sandy’s lantern bobbing in rhythm with the banging he had carrying on.
When Mary and me got far enough into the passageway, we could see it opening into a small skip room, a shallow chamber with maybe a seven foot ceiling, with a series of pulleys and cables hanging from it, leading under a padlocked metal plate that had a white cross painted on it, the white cross my dad had painted all those years ago.
Sandy was banging on the padlock with a hammer over and over again. I rushed up to him and grabbed his arm.
“Stop it! You’re sending a signal bell through the whole mine! We gotta keep quiet.”
“This is it!” he yelled trying to yank his arm free.
“Daddy, quit it!” Mary yelled with real force and he settled down.
“We brought a torch for that, remember the plan, the plan…”
“Alright, give me the torch,” Sandy reached to take it from me.
“No! I’m doing that. You start hooking the engine to the pulleys. Mary’ll help you.”
Sandy gets up reluctantly and goes over to Mary, who’s doing exactly what we’d planned for her to do, getting the cables greased up, ready to move again after these years.
It took no time at all to cut through the lock. I grabbed the cast iron cover plate and tugged it slowly off to the side. When I did that, the rush of warm air coming up from the 3800’ down below and washing over me gave me the creeps. It felt like a breath being released from depths of the mine. I didn’t say anything. I gently settled the cover plate on the ground next to me. Then I shined my light into the bore hole, and watched it travel down deep into the darkness where I knew Sandy and I would soon be heading.
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