Today I’m posting the last chapter of my novel, High Pocket…a modern-day gold mining adventure story I’ve been serializing for nearly two years.
For those of you who have been here from the beginning, I want to thank you for your interest and persistence. I hope the journey has been worth it. Please do let me know.
For those of you who may not have read a single chapter but would now like to start from the beginning and read straight through, simply click the High Pocket Novel link under the Site Content heading at the right-hand side of my home page. This will let you easily locate all the chapters of the novel.
So now, with no further delay, here is Chapter 25, the final chapter.
I don’t know how much time went by with me unconscious. Truth is, I wasn’t sure where I was or if I was asleep or awake. It was too dark to see a thing. I heard booming and crashing like a thunderstorm in my head. I reached up and found my cap lamp and pressed the On button. Nothing happened. I pressed it again and again. A light flickered on, then off, then on again. It held On, and the world came back to me in this tiny cavern.
I crawled around searching for the opening. My cap beam bounced from rock wall to rock wall. There was no opening. I started breathing hard, panicking. “Calm down, Jake, calm down! Hold it together…” I said out loud over and over like some kind of crazy chant. I had to push the darkness and fear away if I had any hope of getting out of here.
Then I could feel a vibration and hear the engine noise from the skip room and in the background Sandy yelling out to Mary to haul him up. I frantically pulled out a blasting charge and had to guess where the opening had been. It was a gamble, a gamble of my life, but I thought the rock pile nearest to me was the cavern entrance. I jammed in the blasting cap and tried to run a fuse to the other side of the cavern but my hands were shaking too bad. “Jake, no bullshit now!” I screamed to myself. “Hold it together, hold it together!” I was in a battle with myself that I had to win. I took in deep breaths, opened and closed my fists, forcing them to work. I stripped the wires, inserted the raw ends into the blasting caps, then crawled to the far side of the cavern, laid myself flat against the ground, and attached the wires to the plunger.
This was it, life or death it seemed to me. And a calm suddenly came over me. I breathed in easy now and blew out long deep breaths. “Okay, man, here we go…3, 2, 1…” I pushed the plunger in and a BOOM! blew through the cavern, rocks and gold chunks flying through the air.
I stayed where I was, my hands covering my head, expecting the ceiling to collapse, but it held. I forced myself to stand and shined my lamp through the dust-filled air. There it was, a small opening at the top of the rock pile! I crawled and clawed my way to the jagged hole in the wall of rock. I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I could find my cargo bag of gold and somehow push it through the small opening; but now I could clearly hear Sandy yelling, “Haul me up! Haul me up!” and I could hear the engine revving toward him and I knew there was no time to lose if I planned on getting out of here alive.
I pulled my way through the opening and slide down into the drift. Now I could really feel the shaking of the mine, the damn place was like a carnival ride, the ground rolling and fissuring under my feet. I ran toward the shaft yelling, “Sandy, goddamn it! Sandy! Wait! Wait!”
But he didn’t wait, and of course Mary had no idea I wasn’t in the skip bucket when she started hauling it up. By the time I got to the shaft, the bucket was beyond my reach. “Sandy! Sandy!” I yelled up to him, but even if he could hear me above the roar of the engine, what would he do or even want to do?
There was no safety ladder in the shaft, of course, and there was no other way out. Maybe I could wedge myself against the walls of the shaft, back and boots pushing hard, and shimmy myself upwards. I managed to get a couple of feet up, but then I slipped back down. I tried it over and over again, barely gaining any height. And then the roar of the engine sputtered, choked, and stopped dead. The shaft filled now with the screeching of the cable drums straining under the weight of Sandy’s cargo bag of gold in the skip. Sandy was yelling crazy, “Didn’t believe me! But I’ve got the gold! They didn’t believe me!” and I could hear Mary’s voice and the machine-gun pops and stutter sounds of the engine as she tried desperately to restart it.
I yelled up to her, but she couldn’t hear me above the engine and the cables screeching and Sandy’s yelling. I struggled frantically to get up to the bottom of the skip so I could grab hold of the mesh bottom and hang on. But there was no way I could climb that high, no way I was going to make it before Mary got the engine re-started.
Then the mine shook violently like an earthquake had hit it, and the goddamn cable drums howled and trembled and slipped their gearing so that the skip bucket started dropping down the shaft toward me ready to crush me death. I tried to unhinge myself from the walls fast as I could, but thank God the cables suddenly held at about five feet above me. Sandy was howling, scared the death, blowing his safety whistle over and over again. “Sandy!” I yelled up to him, but he didn’t answer. I strained with everything I had left in me to shimmy up to the bottom of the skip bucket and I latched onto the mesh bottom. The bucket sagged some with my weight, but the cable drums held.
I couldn’t see Sandy because the cargo bag of gold filled the bottom of the bucket, but I could hear him mumbling to himself, “All the gold…all of it! Mine! Just for me you bastards…” Then the roar of the engine restarting filled the shaft and drowned him out. Come hell or high water, I said to myself, I wasn’t going to let go of this thing. It jerked when Mary shifted into gear, but I held tighter to the mesh. The cables screamed and groaned, but I clung on, and it started to move up the shaft. “Pull! Pull!” Sandy was yelling and thrashing about, making the bucket bang against the shaft walls. “Stop it, Sandy!” I yelled up to him. That was a mistake because he came to his senses enough to know that somebody was below him, threatening him and his gold is the way he looked it.
He tugged at the cargo bag to look through the mesh floor, and I caught eyes with him. He looked like a crazed animal, trapped in the cage. I don’t think he knew who I was even when I yelled up to him, “Sandy it’s me, Jake! It’s me!” He started stomping on the grating, stomping on my fingers, “Too heavy! Let go! Too heavy! Let go!”
I held on and kept my mouth shut as we gained height. He could stomp all he wanted, break my goddamn fingers if he had to but I wasn’t letting go. Then there was a horrible wrenching sound echoing down the shaft, and I knew it was one of the pulley’s ripping out of the rock. The skip bashed into the side wall knocking Sandy on his butt, and nearly knocking me loose, but I held on and the engine kept running and we kept rising, dragging the skip against the shaft wall.
And finally, sonofabitch finally, I could see the light in the skip room just above us and Mary did exactly what we’d planned and kept the engine pulling until the skip bucket and me hanging onto it came bounding into the hoist room like pulling in laundry on a clothesline!
I let go with my bloody fingers and dropped to the ground and Mary came running up.
“Jake! You all right? What happened!”
Before I could answer, Sandy rolled out of the skip bucket yelling like a madman, yelling to no one but himself.
“I’ve got the gold! I got the goddamn gold now!
Then he came at me, jumping me before I had even stood up. He was on my back yelling and ranting, “Get the hell out of here. Let go of my gold!” Mary was grabbing him, trying to pull him off, “Dad! Stop it! What are you doing?” But there was no sense talking to him. He was out of his head. I bucked him off and he banged onto the ground pretty hard. That didn’t stop him for long. He hobbled over to the skip and started tugging to get the cargo bag of gold out of the bucket. He couldn’t free it, though, and then the mine let’s loose violently shaking and Sandy lost his balance and fell away from the skip, collapsing backward toward the shaft, but managing to stop himself from tumbling into the black hole by latching onto the skip cables.
“Dad!” Mary ran over, trying desperately to keep her own balance as she reached for him. But before she got there, the ground broke away from under him at the edge of the shaft so that he fell backward into it, barely hanging onto the skip cable with his good hand. I ran over, “Don’t let go, Sandy! I’ll get you. Don’t let go!” But he’d already slid down the cable below the floor level and I had to get down on my belly reaching out for him. All the while the mine was coming apart. Sandy was quiet now for the first time. Scared quiet as I reached for him.
“Take my hand!” I yelled, “reach out and grab it!”
But he was too afraid to move, and I leaned out even farther, half my body into the open shaft. I managed to grab the cable and started hauling Sandy up, hand-over-hand, like a bucket out of a dark well, but then the one remaining pulley tore out of the wall with a crash, and the snap of the cable shook Sandy’s hand free and he plunged down into the darkness of the empty shaft.
“Noooo! Dad!” Mary cried out, charging forward recklessly so that I had to grab her as the mine raged on, sending more debris down the shaft. I held onto her tight, trying to calm her as she clung to my shoulder, sobbing and trembling. “He was right, Mary,” I said softly, “everything he said. You should’ve seen it. Glittering all around him. It was all his this time, just like he said. Just the way he wanted…”
“The way he wanted what?”
I knew the voice instantly, and it didn’t surprise to see Olner standing there, pointing a gun at us.
“It’s not too hard to figure out what you’re doing here,” he said with a laugh motioning to the cargo bag of gold. “Drag that bag over here!” he yelled. When he came over for it, I jumped him, and the gun went off.
That’s when everything seemed to happen like it was happening in a movie. A picture here, a photograph there. All in bits and pieces. We were rolling and punching on the ground. He hit me with something, a board or rock, and I just tore into him and would’ve killed him maybe, but then the gun fired again. I saw Mary was above us. The gun in her hand, pointed at the ceiling. “Get off of him!” she screamed.
She fired the gun again, and the exploding bullet turned all hell loose in the mine. The place started to disintegrate, ceiling, floor, walls, all of it crashing down around us. Olner fell back. I took the gun from Mary. Threw it down the shaft. And that’s when I first heard it, a low rumbling coming from deep below. I knew what it was right away. It grew louder quickly. “Run Mary! Run!” She didn’t move. I screamed again “Run!! Water! Water’s coming!” Now she turned and ran down the tunnel. I frantically dug as much gold out of the cargo bag as I could and jammed it into my shoulder bag. I pulled Olner off the ground, though I was tempted to leave him to what he deserved. I swung his arm over my shoulder and we hauled-assed out of there, the three of us running for our lives.
But it was too late. The water was gushing from the shaft, already flooding the hoist room, rushing after us in the tunnel. I saw the tide of it swallowing everything in its path, timbers, rocks, tracks, everything. Rocks were crashing down in front of us, making it harder and harder to move. Then, a huge boulder seemed to come out of nowhere about forty feet ahead, completely blocking our path. The water smashed up against it, sweeping us all off our feet. I struggled to keep my head above water with the weight of the gold dragging me under. The surge swept us along, breaking us apart. “Mary! Mary!” I yelled into the noise of the flood. “Jake!” I heard her somewhere to the left of me and I lunged for her, but Olner grabbed me, fighting to pull the bag of gold off my shoulder, dragging us both under. I punched him, pushing him to break free of me.
“Let go of it!” I heard Mary scream. “Let go, Jake!”
I saw that Mary had pulled herself onto a narrow ledge, a few feet above the water swirling. I tried to swim over to her, still clutching the gold, dragging Olner with me when a huge wave of water took us both under. I was swallowing water, choking, damn near drowning. I had to let go of the gold, I had to or I’d never have made it back to the surface. I managed to get to the ledge and Mary pulled me onto it. I looked for Olner. He surfaced for a second or two, the bag of gold clutched in his hands. “Help me! Help me!” he yelled. “Let go of the gold! Swim over!” I reached out for him, but he wouldn’t release the bag. “Let go!” I screamed over and over, as more and more water gushed into the tunnel. Olner was sucked under again, longer this time, but managed somehow to come up again, red-faced, bleeding from the nose. “Let go of it!!!” I screamed one last time and Olner, barely conscious, made eye contact with me, and finally did let go.
For a moment that seemed to last forever, the bag of gold swirled in the turbulence, suspended just out of reach, and then it disappeared under the water.
“Help me! Help me!” Olner screamed over and over, slapping at the water reaching for my hand as I leaned from the narrow ledge. “C’mon! Swim!!! Swim you sonofabitch!!!” But before I could grab his hand, a solid wave sucked Olner beneath it. And he never came up again.
The same wave nearly knocked me and Mary off the narrow ledge. We stood up, the ledge quickly disappearing as the water rose higher and higher. “There! Over there!” I pointed to a rough-hewn pipe way, like a chimney rising up from the ledge. “Hurry!” I pushed her along in front of me, up into what must’ve been a hand dug shaft from another century of mining. We clawed and slipped and fell and clawed some move, inching our way higher and higher up the shaft as the water chased after us. “Keep climbing! Don’t look back!” I yelled up to Mary, who stayed quiet but strong ahead of me.
I had my cap lamp tilted up to give her light ahead and I saw old candle holders still fixed into the rock face from miners long ago. We started passing busted tools, hammer handles, spikes, even an axe head or two on our climb up. I wondered where we were, in what part of the mine, some ancient claim probably, maybe the Manuel Brothers themselves. It was possible I guess. I looked back just once and saw that we were barely a few precious yards ahead of the rising water. And then I saw something else…the water was sparkling at our feet, filled with flecks of gold so that it shimmered like a golden river rushing after us.
Mary screamed, “Up there! Look!”
I shined my cap lamp up and saw nothing.
“Turn off your cap! In the dark you can see it.”
I shut of my lamp, and sure enough, about thirty feet above us as the shaft narrowed, there was just the barest haze of light, like a dim lamp shining through a curtain from outside.
“Climb, Mary! Climb to it!”
As we climbed faster for it, the water gained speed in the narrowing shaft, becoming pressurized in the tighter space, but also pushing us faster up to the light. “It’s ice!” Mary yelled out, and she started pounding on it. It was too thick to break through even though I was next to her now, pounding until my fist turned the ice red. The water was at our waist, then our chest. It was going to drown us in gold. Almost made me laugh. “Goddamn it! Goddamn it! Goddamn it…” Mary was saying and sobbing over and over as she smashed her own knuckles against the ice.
I dove under the water, fought my way back down the shaft, feeling along until I found one of the axe heads. I pounded the ice cap with it, chipping it, breaking it open with chunks of ice falling around us so that we had to duck. But when we looked back up, the sky, the red dawn sky lit the way for us. I climbed with the last of my strength, pulling myself out into the frigid air of a Black Hills morning, and reached back and pulled Mary out, both of us sprawled on the mountain of snow.
But it wasn’t over yet for us. We could feel the ground rumbling beneath us, and behind us a kind of hissing and gurgling sound was getting louder and louder.
I stood up, pulling Mary to her feet, “Run! Run!” I yelled, but we slipped instead, sliding down the icy slope as the sound of a raging river filled the air and we saw a steaming geyser blast out of the narrow chute we’d just escaped, but not a geyser of water, it was a shower of gold…specks of it, then larger flakes, next came nuggets and then solid chunks of gold sailing down on us. “Cover your head!” I yelled and dove on top of Mary as what seemed like the heart of the Homestake Mine blasting out.
Who knows how long the shower lasted? Forever and just seconds it seems to me now. The next thing I do know for sure is that the two of us were screaming, “Look at it! Gold everywhere! A mountain of gold!” We were laughing and snatching up gold as fast as we could from the golden carpet at our feet. We stuffed the pockets of our jeans and shirt, we took off our coats and tied them together at the arms to form a kind of cargo bag of its own and stuffed that until it was so heavy with gold we had to slide it down the hill like a sled of treasure.
And I had a good idea where we were on the mountain, not more than a quarter mile from our truck, tucked around the bend and probably under a few feet of snow. I’m not going to say that dragging a heavy jacket full of gold along a frozen path is easy, but the glittering booty did give us plenty of reason to keep our pace up and get to the truck, start it, and make our way off Homestake property before the bright morning brought the town posse after us.
The city of Lead was still asleep when we reached Main Street. And why wouldn’t it be? To most folks in town nothing amazing had happened while they slept in their beds. To them it was just another Christmas morning. But up ahead, a truck turned onto Main, a truck I recognized as a Homestake Safety Truck, its red lights flashing. As we got closer to each other, we both slowed until we were stopped, window to window in the middle of the street. The truck window came down and I lowered mine.
“There’s some kind of emergency at the mine,” my dad said with a barely hidden smile on his face. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“Nope,” I said flatly with a smile of my own.
“Didn’t think so. My duty to ask though.”
He looked past me and saw Mary had been crying. I could see him weighing whether to ask her a question, but then he thought better of it.
“I’ll tell your mom I saw you. Let us know when you two settle.”
The way he hit the word, “two” answered all the questions he might have asked.
“We will Pop,” I said, and he rolled up his window and drove off.
Before I rolled my window up, though, I listened to the strangely silent town. Silent for the first time I could remember. Silent now that a mine emergency had shut the rock crushers down.
Mary put her hand over mine on the steering wheel.
“It’s a good day to be above ground,” she said, managing to find a smile.
“Yeah it is,” I said, “one hell of a beautiful day.”
I eased the truck into gear and we took off slowly, the four leaf clover gently swaying from where it hung on the mirror in front of us.
We drove most of that day and crossed the border into Canada like we planned. We spent some time traveling around. When we saw a pretty spot, we just pulled over and camped out awhile in the truck, like we joked about doing with Sandy. It’s a beautiful country, all right, and by the springtime, we had seen a good part of it. We bought some land and settled there. It’s real nice, even has river running through it. But it isn’t the Black Hills, and they keep coming into our minds from time to time.
We say we’re going to make plans soon to visit Lead. We talk about driving into town and up Grand Avenue on a Sunday afternoon for dinner and knocking on my folks door as natural as can be. Or maybe we’ll have a pack of kids of our own by then, and they’ll run up ahead of us and rap on the door. My mom will open it and she won’t know what to say she’ll be laughing and crying so hard. And Ben and Gena and their kids will all be there, and my dad will walk up, put out his hand, and I’ll shake it good and hard, and he’ll tell us to sit down and stay a spell.
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