Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Chapter IV

It all came to an end a week before Christmas, when he awoke in his room in the Hotel. He vaguely recognized the young lady in his bed as Bernadette something-or-the-other from the General Store, where she worked as a clerk. She was not the usual sort he found in his bed. Much more proper and churchy. He wondered how he had managed to maneuver her into his bed.
“Wake up lass” he said as he nudged her “And what is it you are doing in me bed?”
She rolled over and looked at him and said, “Do you not remember any of it Seamus? As to what I am doing, I am saving you from yourself. Say hello to your new missus”
As she said this, she held up her left hand and showed him the ring on her third finger. This was going to take some thinking through. But first he needed a drink. He headed for the nightstand, and was shocked to see that there was not a bottle there. He always kept a bottle on the nightstand for mornings like this.
A voice behind him said “You’ll not be finding a bottle on the nightstand, not this morning or any other, now that you are a properly married man. I’m not saying you can never have a drink, just that if you overindulge you will not be using the bottle as a way to avoid the consequences. And you’ll be getting no sympathy from me. I saw me own Da’ drink himself into an early grave, and won’t see any husband of mine do the same.”
And that was the first conversation he remembered with my great-grandmother. This story was related to me by my grandmother, as told by her father-in-law, as he was apt to do after having a few drinks on an evening. The details might change from time to time, but the essence of the story always remained the same.
He awoke to find himself broke and down to three possessions: a defunct mine a brand new bride, and a section of land a couple of miles outside town. He was pretty hazy about how he had come into possession of items two and three.
The Hanson brothers were long gone. They had given up on finding an ore deposit, had been paid off and went to strike it rich on their own. So Seamus and his new bride moved into the cabin over the claim. Bernie didn’t like the arrangement, as sitting the cabin over a hole in the ground made it cold and drafty, although it would make for a dandy root cellar. And so it was for the first couple of years of their marriage. Bernie kept her job in town, and Seamus went back to the mines. In his spare time, he worked at sinking the shaft towards what he was certain would be the mother lode. He never did find it, but his relationship with Bernadette did indeed prove to be the saving of him.
The section of land he had accepted as collateral on a loan that went bad. Although he hadn’t really thought about it as an investment (in fact he had no recollection of it at all), it turned out to be the soundest thing he had done in his life. The railroad came through headed for the west coast soon after he came into possession of the land, and although they didn’t want his land, it held a good bit of fine old timber, a mix of pine and cedar that would be just the thing for trestles and train depots. He contracted with the Northern Pacific Railroad to supply them with timbers and boards. He had some up-front money from the railroad, and bought a steam donkey engine and the makings for a small sawmill. If you ever visit La Grange, you can still see his timber, in the trestle over the slough just north of town. This was an exceptional opportunity for a couple of different reasons. Of course there was the immediate influx of money into the family coffers, but it also provided the impetus to develop a road to haul the timber on, and since he intended to stay in La Grange, was the means of clearing the land in preparation for farming. There were three different streams running through the property, which was almost perfectly flat. That in itself made for many hours of speculation on the local’s part. There were the hills, which were pretty much straight up and down, and in between the hills were the flats. The soil was extraordinarily rich, and thank the Good Lord, practically free of rocks. In a land mostly dominated by rocks, why was such a large area practically rock free? Seamus really didn’t care, he was just grateful to be the beneficiary of whatever circumstances had brought it about.
Seamus made out pretty well on the timber. With the money from the Railroad, he was able to build big farmhouse with a veranda and lots of Gingerbread. That house stands today. I suppose it was in a way because of that old house I ended up in this pondering mood. Although none of the family has lived on the place for years, the family lawyer, Rod Green, had called to ask if we were interested in selling the place and the quarter section it sits on. We had been renting it out to the Beauchene boys for several years. They grew hay on the flats and ran a few cow critters, raised pigs, did whatever it took to get by. They figured that between the two of them they should be able to buy the place in partnership rather than give my sister (Elizabeth Jones nee O’Neal) and me all that hard earned money. It had set up a family tussle over whether to sell or not.
“Patrick Frances O’Neal, you know mom and pop would roll over in their graves if you even contemplated such a thing” she shrilled. “Besides just what the Hell is wrong with the current situation? Ron runs things. We each get a monthly check. The land keeps going up in value. They are talking about putting the farmhouse on the National Historical Register, which will up the value even more.”
“Lizard Breath,” I shot back “You know the place needs a new roof, and there’s some dry rot in the underpinnings, and the taxes keep going up. If we do the maintenance, it is going to cost a bundle and we won’t make a cent profit for a bunch of years. If we sell out now, all those headaches go away. We could take the money and invest in something that could actually return some money for our trouble. Besides, you aren’t using your head; you are using your emotions.”
No one knows how to push each other’s buttons like family. We have learned exactly where and how hard to push to get just the result we are looking for. Liz likes to think of herself as the ultimate rational person, and I had just effectively hit below the belt. It worked. She spluttered and hissed for a few seconds before she strangled out “The answer’s still NO!” and hung up the phone with enough enthusiasm to keep my ear ringing for several minutes.
All this fuss and tussle had gotten the farm and family on my mind, and dumped me out at the end of a train of thought that led to Star.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Chapter III

Seamus went back down into town and wandered through the saloons looking for a couple of hard rock miners in need of a job. After visiting several places and having a drink in each, he heard of a couple of Swedes that were currently residing in the jail for disorderly conduct. It seems they had a disagreement with a couple of gamblers about a possible fifth ace in a poker game and had busted up a saloon, the gamblers, and anyone who took an interest in the situation. It had taken the Marshal, a couple of deputies and a quite a few of the bars patrons to subdue them. His inquiries told him that they were good miners and hard workers; they just took their card playing real seriously.
He used the little money he had set aside to bail them out of jail. They turned out to be brothers, Jon and Ron Hansen. As alike as two peas in a pod, they had thick Scandahoovian accents, and a whole lot of bruises and contusions. He proposed that they come to work for him. They needed to build a cabin at the mine site and then could live at the site for free, and he would pay them ten percent of the taking from the mine. They had heard about the ore sample he had used to finance his little toot the night before, and it sounded like a good deal to them. When Jon asked if that was 10% each, Seamus replied he was the boss and owner, not a charity. The brothers talked it over and decided it sounded like a good deal. Free housing and a share in the profits was good. The only real drawback was they had to build their own accommodations.
They liked it a little less when he showed them where he wanted to build the cabin. He wanted it built right smack dab over a hole in the ground up next to a cliff. He explained that the hole was where they would be working after they got done building the cabin. He had never told anyone exactly where on the claim he had found the gold, and if he could get the hole covered up before the curious came calling, hopefully nobody would know except for himself and the Swedes. Nobody could raid a claim they couldn’t find. They got to work with the axes and the two man misery whip, and in a couple of days had the walls built up I took a little longer than they had figured, because Seamus insisted on making the only entrance to the hole through a trap door in the floor of the cabin. Seamus was a handy man with tools, and not afraid of a little hard work, so they set up a sawpit and made flooring. Seamus fashioned the trap door himself, and when it was done, you could hardly tell it was there. An appropriately placed knothole was used to lift the trap. He had counterweighted the trap so it could be lifted with ease and placed it against a wall to keep it out of the main traffic flow. Stairs went down into the hole. Using an old ratchet mechanism and the hand off an old clock, he made a primitive counter and tied it to the trap door. If the trap door was opened, it would move the clock hand a couple of teeth forward. He marked the intervals and mounted it on a round of wood. He would now know if anyone had entered or left the mine. Unless you knew where the hand was and how many turns it took to complete a revolution, you couldn’t reset the counter.
He had thought about just giving the brothers some money and sending them down the road when they were through building the cabin, but decided he would do better if he kept them on and kept his part of the bargain, but maybe not exactly as it was originally proposed.
The brothers were confused when he explained their new duties. They were to go up on top of the slab and start sinking a shaft along the face of the cliff to see if they could find where the slab had originally mated with the cliff face. He would handle the work down in the hole. They were not to ever enter the hole unless it was with him, or on his specific instructions. The top of the slab they were working was a couple of hundred feet tall, and the deposit was maybe forty feet from the bottom of it. It may have made more sense to start from the bottom and go up, but for right now, Seamus just didn’t want anyone down in that hole but himself.
The crumbly rock and quartz could be easily worked by one careful man, and Seamus was being as careful as he knew how. His life had never been anything about careful, so this was new territory for him, and all the thinking gave him a headache worse than a hangover. He was a doer not a thinker.
The next month was pretty uneventful. They all three lived in the cabin. In the morning after their morning coffee, the brothers would go up the slope and Seamus would go down the hole. They would meet up again for supper. After supper they would rough refine the gold Seamus had brought up from the hole. Seamus had a piece of railroad rail that had been cut off about a foot long, and a single jack. He would hammer the ore down, pick out the gold, and pan what was left. There were a couple of reasons for doing this. One was to make it easier to pack in to town; the other was to eliminate as much speculation about his claim as he could. Anyone bringing gold into a mining town is going to be the object of considerable speculation. He figured that the less they knew, the better off he was going to be. Friday he would take the ten to fifteen pounds of semi-refined gold into LaGrange to the mill and have it refined. The results were a net profit of around $4,000.00 a week. Giving the brothers their 10% left him $3600.00, which he mostly banked. The brothers were pulling in $40.00 a week which was good money, and if the Irishman was crazy enough to pay them to drill holes in ordinary rock, they weren’t going to complain.
Saturdays they took the day off and went in to town to buy supplies and let off a little steam. It seemed like everyone around them was sitting with their heads tilted, trying to catch their conversation so they could figure out what was going on. The Hansen boys were of no help, because they knew very little, and for once in his life Seamus was keeping his mouth shut. Each week, there was a little more interest, until finally it got to the point that none of them could have a drink in peace and quiet. Some people wanted a loan. Some people wanted a piece of the action. Some wanted to take it away from him, and some wanted to buy him out. But nobody but Seamus knew what he had, how big it was, or anything about it. They knew the Swedes were sinking a shaft, and someone had snuck up in the dark of night and grabbed some rock from the tailings, Not only were there no traces of gold, it wasn’t even the kind of rock in which you would expect to find gold. The gold was coming from somewhere, but they couldn’t figure exactly where.
After six weeks the quantity tapered off some. Seamus had taken the easiest and best ore and now was working out towards the edges of the deposit. The quality of the ore fell off pretty quickly at the edges. The take each week started going down.
After twelve weeks, the pocket was mined out. There was enough left to make wages, but Seamus had over $40,000.00 in the bank and he was tired of keeping everything so tightly under control. Rob and Jon had sunk their shaft almost a hundred feet along the interface of the slab and the mountain, and hadn’t found a thing. The damn deposit had to continue on somewhere, but they were having no luck finding it.
They finally cane to Seamus, hats in their hands and scuffing their toes. “Seamus” said Jon, “Ten percent of nothing is nothing, and we need to make a living. We need to rearrange the terms of the deal, or we will have to leave you. You’ve been a fair man to work for, although sometimes you see boogers in the night when there ain’t none.”
Seamus asked to have a couple of days to think things over, and that he would pay them $20.00 a week out of his own pocket until he decided what to do. They allowed that they could tolerate that for now, but if they continued to sink the shaft and came across the rest of the deposit, things would go back to the original agreement. They shook on the deal.
Now that the ore pocket had been mined out, there was nothing for Seamus to do. He would just be in the Swedes way sinking the shaft, and there was nothing worth doing down in the hole. He moved into the Hotel in town. So he began to hang around in the saloons. He played atrocious poker, drank outrageously expensive wines, ate the best food. After a while it all became a blur, and still the Hansons had not found a thing. The pressure was getting to him, and he began to drink more and more heavily. He loaned money on questionable mining ventures, made personal loans to individuals of questionable character.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Chapter II

We were from the same small town, LaGrange Idaho. LaGrange was settled in the late 1800's as a part of the mineral explorations of that time. There were deposits of all kinds of minerals in the area, some all mixed together. The major discoveries had happened in the 1860's with occasional small discoveries later. Mostly silver, but occasionally mixed with gold, or very rarely deposits of gold. Some placer mining was done in the streams around town, and a few men made enough to move into town and settle down but for the most part it was hard rock mining, a difficult and dangerous profession. I hear that the population during the boom years was over 10,000, but after the inevitable bust, the population stabilized at about 2,500. It never has wandered very far from that number. People come, people go, but that part of the country just seems to have a natural level of population it can support. People come into the area for the skiing, the fishing, the hunting and the hiking. They take a deep breath of that crisp mountain air and tell themselves: This is where I want to spend the rest of my life, or retire, or raise my kids, or start my business. They sell their house in the suburbs, and buy a little place in town, completely unprepared for what living out here really means. Mostly it means fixing what you have, jerry rigging equipment, and doing it yourself. They last about five years, go broke, sell their little Boutique or Shoppe and go back where they came from. If you haven't been here for ten years, you are still the new guy in town. If you don't quite click, it could take a lifetime. People are slow to trust, and loyal to the end.
The town got its name from a mountain just outside town known locally as "Old Baldy". When viewed at a certain time of day someone thought it resembled New Grange, in Ireland, one of the oldest buildings in the world. Older even than the pyramids and Stonehenge.
My great- grandfather, Seamus O'Neal, came into this country a little behind the main wave of immigration out of Ireland. A Paddy in the company of a band of Cousin Jacks, he hired on at the largest mining operation in town, glad to have steady work. By all accounts he was a loud, opinionated, fiery little Irishman who never met a man or a bottle he didn't like. He worked hard in the mines, played hard in the taverns and cribs.
When he had a day off, he would occasionally head off into the hills prospecting. It had been a couple of years since anyone had found anything of significance, so people didn't take his prospecting very seriously. The area he was going over seemed pretty barren, and the formations didn't quite "look right". But Seamus had noticed a fold in the rock that was only visible from across the valley at one particular spot. Although he had noticed the fold from afar, finding it was another thing when you were up on the mountain fighting the buckbrush.
Finally, one day as he rounded a corner on a ridge, Seamus saw the formation he had been looking for. The area here millions of years a go had been the bottom of a vast sea. The current mountains had pushed their way up through the deposits left by that ancient sea, cracking them and pushing them aside, where they weathered away. Very rarely the sedimentary formations remained intact in small blocks. The volcanic activity percolated up through the porous and fractured stone, depositing whatever minerals were in the magma into the holes in the stone. Usually they deposited quartz (some in a beautiful purple color, some a nice smoky tone) mixed with pyrites. Occasionally, gold would percolate up and form spiderweb traces in the crumbly rock. Here on the back corner of the ridge, a portion of and old sedimentary chimney had slumped off from the cliff behind. Right at the base of the cliff where it had separated was a hole in the rock, but a very likely looking hole. It went straight down, and it was impossible to tell how far it was straight down. He dropped a rock, and it almost immediately hit stone, although it rolled downhill for a quite a while after that. It couldn't be more than ten feet to whatever solid rock was down there.
Like most prospectors, he carried a hunk of rope with him. There wasn't a handy tree anywhere close to tie off to, so he took his pick and jammed it sideways in a crack in the rock, then beat on it with a rock until it was wedged. Tying off to the rope, he lowered himself down the hole. He landed on a sharply sloping pile of scree, which went down and forward for about sixty feet. From there he couldn't tell if it continued. Throwing rocks down the slope wasn't real conclusive. It was just too dark to really see and the echoes made it just about impossible to determine the extent of the hole. He decided to go back to town and get his miner's lamp and return.
He climbed up the rope and out into the daylight. As he dusted himself off, he caught a slight glimmer on his pants where he wiped his hands. On closer examination it appeared to be flakes of gold.
Seamus went in to town and very quietly filed a hard rock claim on the area he had been prospecting. Understanding his own proclivity for drink, he wanted to nail things down as quickly as possible, just in case he had a few and just had to tell someone. Besides he really didn't know anything at this point. That didn't keep him from sharing with his friends that he "had something going" on a hot new prospect. Since Seamus was known for telling creative versions of the truth, in which he figured prominently, people didn't take him very seriously.
The next time he had a day off, Seamus loaded up his mining gear and headed up into the hills. He took an indirect way to his claim, checking his back trail occasionally just to make sure no one was following him. Two years before a couple of unsavory characters had attempted to hijack a claim by shanghaiing the owner and trying to file on top of his existing claim. He thought they were maybe remnants of the old Plummer Gang. You had to be careful when it came to gold. People got crazy around the stuff.
When he arrived at his claim, he carefully marked the "corners" and put a rock pile close to the hole with a brief description of the claim with the registration information on it in a can in the middle of the pile. He wanted to make sure things were all up to snuff.
When he was done marking his claim, he lit up his miner's light and went down in the hole. It seemed to be about sixty feet long, sloping sharply to the north. It was not a cave as such, just a big crack between the rocks. He very carefully climbed down the slope to see how far it extended. It pinched out at the North end and there was no indication there was anything more to it. As he turned to climb back up the slope, the beam from his miner's light splayed across the east face of the rock. It returned a gleam of golden wires across a large section of the wall. In a vein of quartz, the wires of gold were easy to spot. In a game where gold content was measures in ounces per ton of ore, this was unbelievably rich. But since this was a chunk broken off of the hillside, it couldn't be more than a couple of feet through. Maybe the piece of what it had broken off of was above somewhere. There would be enough time to figure that out later. Using a single jack and a drill, he loosened a piece out of the cliff face about the size of two big fists, put it in his pack, collected up his tools, and climbed out of the hole.
When he got to town he headed straight for the Assay Office to get his sample assayed. It was, indeed gold, and the one chunk he had in his hand was worth about $150.00. It was some of the richest ore he had ever heard of. Given that the area of the face of rock he had seen was a bout 10 feet square he figured a little math in his head and thought that he should be able to take about $25,000.00 out of there, and that was a conservative estimate.
Jack Langston was tending bar at the Passtime Saloon like usual when Seamus walked in. Seamus walked up to the barkeep and said "Jack I've done a lot of business with you, these last couple of years, and I've always thought of you as an honest man. Well tonight I am going to test that honesty a little." With that he plunked his chunk of rock on the bar and said, "First off, I'd like to buy a drink for the house. Then I want the best beefsteak you can stir up, and the best bottle you have behind the bar. Not the stuff on the shelf, but the stuff I see you bring out from under the bar when the rich folk are visiting. I'll be wanting a room for the night and a companionable lass. I want to drink until I've had me fill, and I expect someone to take me up to my room. You can keep a reasonable fee for yourself, but tomorrow I'd like to know what I paid for.”
The next morning he woke up with a big head, and it felt like his nerves were more or less on the outside of his skin. It hurt to think. There was a bottle of the good stuff on the night stand, and a couple of stiff shots took the edges off of the morning.
He went up to the Glory Hole mine where he had been working and told the foreman he was quitting, and they could keep his pay. He was now a self-employed man with his own business concerns to take care of.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Chapter One

There are certain smells and sounds that become hardwired in our brains, associated with a certain time or place. The smell and sound of bacon cooking hits me that way. No matter where I am or what I am doing, the splatter and hiss and the smell transport me back to The Farm. It brings along with it a tumble of associated memories.
The day always started the same. Winter, Summer, Spring or Fall. It made no difference. The mornings on a dairy farm proceed with an almost metonymic regularity. Uncle Fred was a little hard of hearing, so he had one of those old Big Ben alarm clocks that ticked so loud you could hear it clear upstairs when things were quiet. The alarm was sufficient to awake everyone in the old two-story farmhouse. The first business of the morning was to get the old wood stove fired up, and the coffee on. The sound of the opening and closing of the firebox of the old cast iron kitchen stove is so distinct, I can hear in my head just by thinking about it. When I was young, it was such a comforting series of events. I would be tucked away in my portion of the upstairs, knowing that I had another half an hour of so to lie there and drowse. Once again it was morning, and all was right with the world. Later in life things did not always start so comfortably, but I always had those memories as a kind of stable base around which the currents of everyday life flowed.
There were times when I cursed the sameness of it all. Life done to a metronome, everyone knowing the dance and keeping perfect time, but under the frustration was unshakeable belief that there would be a tomorrow, and it would be pretty much the same as today, and it wasn't such a bad thing.
Once that tumble and roll of memories start, you have to just ride along with it, not knowing exactly where you are going to end up. Sometimes it might be picking Huckleberries up on Grouse Creek, the next it might be bucking bales in the gawdawful hot tin-roofed whore of a barn, or when that same barn finally fell over on the bull, a couple of calves and a couple of suckling pigs.
I don't often eat bacon any more. The grease is hard on my digestion, and it is likely to give me heartburn for half the day. I don't order it in Restaurants because there is so much that I like better. But this morning had found me in front of the stove with a fork in my hand, listening to the sizzle and spit while I took a tumble through my memories.
This morning they landed right smack in the middle of Star Parker. That was a subject that covered a considerable amount of territory. Living in the country, you get to know everyone, or at least get to know ABOUT everyone. If you don’t know what you’ve been up to lately, just go up the road a piece and ask the neighbors. They’ll be able to tell you things about yourself that you never even knew. I had known of Star, then known Star, then didn’t know her at all. We have been in and out and crossways of each other’s paths for most of out lives. Sometimes we were on the same path, sometimes we were in collision. The ride could be as smooth as the glide of a canoe on a quiet mountain lake, or it could be a real trainwreck. Our relationship had been both. At least we never had the lack of good sense it would require to go and get married or anything. One or the other of us would always gain our senses before things went that far, although there were times when it was a close thing. I’m not saying we were never Lovers. I’m not saying we were never in love. It just always seemed that when she was in love with me, I was in love with someone else. And when I was in love with her, she could look right at me and never even see me. An Astrologer would probably say that our stars were not in alignment or something.
Star was in the grade behind me at school, so although I knew who she was, I didn't pay much attention to her. She was just another part of the landscape, until a bunch of us went ice-skating out on the slough one night. I suspect that she had arranged the order of loading into J.B.s old Buick so that she could end up in my lap. Anyway, that is where she ended up. I had never really noticed how nicely rounded her backside was, nor how well she had filled out upstairs. I had plenty of opportunity that night. She found so many reasons to twist and turn and put parts if her anatomy in my face that I was in quite a state by the time we got to the slough. A teenage boy is in a constant state of turmoil anyway, and after the provocation I had, I had to get myself under control just to get out of the car. I can't swear for sure, but it sure looked to me like she checked to make sure she had the effect on me that she wanted. I may have been under control, more or less, but it was still evident that I wasn't entirely under control. I could almost swear I caught sight of just a little "I did that ' in her grin.