Parson’s Fortune (complete story)Posted: August 27, 2014
I put this story up in four parts a while back. Because of that, the last part shows first–not a good thing if you intend to read it from the beginning. So, I am re-posting the entire story here from the beginning. If you have already read it, thanks. If you haven’t, you might want to take a few minutes to find out about–
Charlie and Pete straddled a pair of wood crates and listened to old Buck spin his yarn. They might have been hearing it for the first time the way they hung on every word. Truth is they knew it well enough they likely could tell it themselves. That was how good Buck was at his storytelling. He would lean forward in that big old catalpa rocking chair–the one he carved out of a huge catalpa tree that fell on him in a lightning storm back when he was driving a mule team for the Blackjack Mining Company. Trapped him under for two days until a flash flood washed him out–the way he tells it. He went back the next day with an ax, cut that tree up and hauled it home. Most of it ended up lumber for his pump house, but after he retired from the railroad in ’32, he turned the rest of it into a rocking chair. Carved the rockers in the shape of railroad rails, but bent up, of course. It had been sitting there at the Frisco depot for four years, Buck in it most of the time, and him telling tales to any soul who’d sit still long enough, which was mostly young ones like Pete Reilly and Charlie Wicks.
Every time Buck would lean forward to convey a critical part, the boys would lean forward to catch it. As he talked, Buck’s snowy eyebrows arched and frowned, wriggling like caterpillars marching across his forehead.
“Them raiders used to come across that Missouri border in packs looking to rob and pillage folks on this side of the line, on account of how they disagreed on the subject of slavery,” said Buck.
“But that was before you were born,” said Charlie, contributing to the story.
“‘Course it was. That was back in the ’50’s. I was born in ’61, the same year Kansas got her statehood. Anyhow, most of them border raids was up north of here. That’s where Parson Mull come from, up around Baldwin City, I believe it was.”
“He’s the one hid his fortune around here somewhere,” said Pete as the rumble of the Frisco locomotive drew his eyes down the track.
Buck nodded and leaned in. “Parson came down after the first big payloads of lead and zinc was struck just south of here. When the mines started bustin’ out everywhere is when the town sprung up. It was plenty wild hereabouts in them days, let me tell you.”
The noise of the arriving steam engine halted conversation as the Frisco squealed and hissed to a smoky stop at the platform. Buck leaned back and set the heavy rockers in motion. He watched the people make their way out of the cars and across the platform, eyeing the scene with a kind of alert resignation. As the platform cleared and the train settled into an idle state, he pulled the pillow from behind him and fluffed it. It was square and blue with gold braid around the edges, a gift from President Harding back when he came through on the train after a visit to Hutchinson in ’23–the way he tells it.
“And Mull got rich in the mines,” Charlie said to prime Buck into taking up the story again.
Buck stopped rocking and pointed to the big house on the hill above the station. “And he built that house yonder.”
“Your house,” said Pete.
“Well, I come by it later. At the time, I was working mule lifts and had a shack down by Short Creek. Mull, he made his money buying land and selling claims. He figured out early that striking deals held a lot more profit than swinging a pick forty feet down a hole.”
“But he was scared of raiders,” Charlie said, coaxing like.
Buck waved his hand in the air, the one that was missing part of a finger. “‘Course, there wasn’t any raiders anymore. That mostly ended when Quantrill’s bushwhackers disbanded and the war was won. That was years before the mining boom. It didn’t commence until about Eighteen and Seventy-eight. But Mull had lost one fortune to border ruffians, and he was bound and determined not to lose another.”
“So he buried it and nobody ever found it,” Pete put in with a good bit of enthusiasm.
“You’re gettin’ ahead of me,” said Buck. “Mull didn’t trust banks. They say he was in a bank up in Iowa once when it was robbed by the James boys. I reckon that put a caution in him.” Buck pulled a gold watch from his vest pocket and held it up to check the time. Before returning it, he shined the back on his shirtsleeve and checked his reflection in the worn inscription: IN HONOR OF 30 YEARS FAITHFUL SERVICE – ST LOUIS-SAN FRANCISCO RAILWAY CO. – JOHN R. BUCHWALD – JULY 4, 1932. “Train’s late leaving again,” he said aloud to himself. To the boys he said, “Now where was I? Banks. Well, the richer Mull got, the scareder he got about keeping all that money safe.”
“So he buried it,” Pete tried again.
Buck said, “They say ole Mull only dealt in gold. And after Iowa, he never darkened a bank’s doorway.” Buck leaned toward Pete. “But when he died, they didn’t find no more that four $20 gold pieces on his person and another twenty-five or so in a strong box under his bed. Not another nickel of his fortune in the house anywhere.”
“But there was talk, right?” said Charlie.
“Sure, there was talk,” Buck said, waving that hand again. Mostly, folks figured he tucked it away down in a mineshaft. Saints and sinners, there ain’t but about a thousand of them hereabouts. I reckon half the miners around here stopped digging for lead and started digging for gold back when Parson Mull gave up the ghost.”
“Did you ever dig?” said Pete, taking the story into new territory.
“I poked around some, sure. But me, I never figured he put it in a mineshaft. I figured he hid it in a cave. There’s caves run all through this area. Many a mine has cut a shaft right into one. There’s one runs all the way under the town, so they say. Goes off in all directions under there. But the only way you get to that one is by boat.” Buck raised his caterpillar eyebrows and jabbed a finger toward the boys. “And that there’s the thing.”
Charlie looked at the smaller boy and winked. Pete took his cue. “What’s that, Buck?”
The wiry old-timer started to answer but was overruled by the wail of the train whistle. He turned a scowl toward the engine as if admonishing a rude child.
Charlie drew him back. “What’s the thing, Buck?”
Buck swung his eyes back to his audience. The scowl curled into a wry smile. “The thing is,” he paused for effect, “old Parson Mull had himself a boat.”
The platform got busy with passengers filing onto the train. A few minutes later the whistle gave a long blast and the engine began to growl into motion. Charlie hit Pete on the arm and stood up. “We got to get. It’s late. That was a swell story, Buck.”
Pete nodded agreement. Buck gave them a mock salute and set his rocker to clomping back and forth on the uneven wooden platform. “I’ll see you boys later and we’ll finish it.”
As they walked off, Charlie saw Buck checking his watch and yelling something to the conductor, who waved from the last car. The rumble of the moving train swallowed up his words.
Jack Olson had been sweeping out the depot while Buck told the story. He had kept near the doorway so he could follow what was said. Like the other boys, Jack had heard Buck tell about Parson Mull’s treasure before. When Charlie and Pete walked away, Jack followed them around the corner and hailed them.
“You fellas believe old Buck?” said Jack still holding the broom.
Charlie turned and looked at the boy. Jack was bigger and had a couple of years on Charlie and Pete. He had quit school and got a job back when the last miners’ strike put his daddy out of work. Jack would’ve been in the mines, too, but his momma said no to that right off. His job at the depot kept food on their table. That was more than a lot of folks in a town full of miners could say at the time.
“I ain’t no lamebrain,” Charlie said, glancing over at Pete for confirmation and trying to figure if Jack was being serious or not. Pete hung back and kept shut.
“I don’t mean about stuff like when he says he took President Roosevelt fishing or how he was taken captive by the Cherokees and had to steal the chief’s horse to get away. I’m talking about the gold.”
“It’s just another yarn as far as I can tell,” said Charlie. “You think different?”
Jack stepped up close and looked around to be sure no one was within earshot. “I’ve thought on it a lot. I even read up on old man Mull in the library from old newspapers and such. Folks never did find his fortune.”
“That a fact?” said Charlie, curious now.
“Yeah, and I’ve heard my Uncle Beau talk about how his crew sunk a shaft right into a cavern one time. Darn near lost a man when the floor gave way. He says the same thing as Buck about there being a cave runs under Main Street. He says you could float into it from that pit west of town. You can see the opening when the water is low like it is now.”
“If that’s so, how come it ain’t something everybody knows about?” Charlie said, sounding skeptical.
“Old folks know,” said Jack. “My uncle says when he was a kid he knew of two fellas went in and never come out.”
Charlie snorted. “Now you’re sounding like Buck.”
“Honest Injun.” Jack with his hand in the air. “I bet old Mull hid his fortune in there somewhere. I figure he found a safe way in and out.”
“I don’t guess we’ll ever know anyhow,” said Charlie.
“Well, we just might,” said Jack.
Charlie gave a look at Pete and then narrowed his eyes at Jack. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means there could be a whole lot of gold in that cave, and I’m saying we could go get it.”
Charlie told Jack if he wasn’t joking he was crazy and that even if he wasn’t, after all this time how was it nobody ever found it? Pete seemed to be studying on the issue but didn’t offer an opinion.
Jack said he was on the level. “I’d go in there by myself only it’s a two man job.” He looked at Pete and said, “Or maybe three. I know how to get in, and I got a boat.” He caught Charlie’s eyes and said, “Unless you’re scared, of course. I could get Wendell Logan to go with me if you ain’t up to it.”
“Wendell Logan?” Charlie said, kind of spitting out the words. “That weasel is scared of his own scrawny shadow.”
Pete gave Charlie a “don’t fall for this” look and started to walk away but stopped short when he heard Charlie say to Jack, “If you got a plan, I’ll listen, but I ain’t saying I’ll go along.”
They set up to meet at the west end of town the next day, that being a Saturday. It took some convincing to get Pete to come. The smaller boy was used to tagging along after Charlie, jumping the ice truck for a ride down Main Street or walking to the drugstore for a root beer after school. They didn’t always have permission, like when they explored the chat piles around the old abandoned mines looking for fool’s gold in the chunks of flint rock, or when they hiked down to the river to swim and search along the rocky shore for arrowheads. Pete always went along as if maybe he didn’t know where else to be.
Charlie finished chores by noon and told his ma he was going fishing. He met Pete on the north side of town. From there they headed west to meet Jack at the foot of Cemetery Hill. They picked their way through the rugged landscape of crushed rock and fractured timber trusses that marked the barren holes in the ground. Jack was perched on a rusted ore bucket in the shade of an abandoned derrick when they strolled up, cane poles on their shoulders, Charlie saying, “Well, here we are.”
Jack stood up and rested his forearms inside the bib of his overalls. He stood a foot taller than Charlie. The bill of his flat cap was frayed and cocked back high on his brow. At his feet lay a coil of rope and two flashlights. He frowned at the fishing poles and said, “I never said nothing about going fishing.”
Charlie flushed a little and grabbed the pole from Pete. He fairly tossed them against a timber where they came to rest at a careless lean. “I know. Are we going or not?”
Jack handed out the flashlights and hung the rope over his shoulder. The water-filled pit was a short hike away. He led out. Pete brought up the rear. He looked at the flashlight in his hand with a question on his face. The sun was bright and warm. As they neared the pit he could see the water, an unnatural opaque green, made so by the minerals in the stone that formed its steep walls. Jack knelt at a lump of canvas weighted down with boulders near the water’s edge. He shifted the stones and peeled back the tarp to reveal a small canoe.
“This is your boat?” Charlie said.
“It’ll do the job,” Jack said as he tugged it toward the lowest spot on the bank. “Yonder is the opening. Not the one on the left. That one over there. I got enough rope to let you float in a good ways to look around. Then I’ll pull you back and we can see what’s what.”
“You talking about that low cut right there?” Charlie said, pointing to a dark opening no more than three feet above the level of the pale water. We’d have to almost lay down to slide in there. That’s no good.”
“Only a ways,” said Jack. “It opens up high after a few feet.”
“How do you know that?” said Pete, speaking for the first time and drawing a look from both boys.
“It’s what the old-timers say. And anyway, if it don’t open after you’ve gone in a ways, all you got to do is yank on the rope and I’ll haul you out.”
“So you reckon old Mull went in like that?” said Charlie.
“I figure back then the pit wasn’t as full as now,” Jack said. “And if he went in, then it has to open up, don’t it?”
Charlie and Pete agreed to the short excursion after gaining Jack’s solemn, hope-to-die swear that he’d pull with all his might if they tugged the rope. Charlie paddled while Pete kept a grip on the line tied to the stern. The wall of the pit rose in front of them but Charlie’s eyes were fixed on the cave’s mouth, where slaps of water echoed against its sides. A faded, tin sign hung over the opening. It was held by spikes driven into the rock and said KEEP OUT in hand painted letters. Charlie took one look back at Jack for reassurance before ducking his head and holding his breath as the canoe glided into the darkness.
A light shined on the rock ceiling where Pete had turned his flashlight. Charlie heard a long moan. It echoed around him and caused his knuckles to go white on the gunwale until he realized it was himself breathing out his fear.
“You got hold of the rope, Pete?” Charlie whispered loud.
“I got it,” came the reply in a similar fashion. “You want me to–” Pete stopped talking as the roof sloped away and the canoe drifted into a cavern. The flashlight showed the roof to be some twenty feet above them. The walls were rugged, fifteen feet to either side. All they saw in front of them was darkness, and they drifted into it.
Charlie switched on his light and studied the closest side. The flint rock receded into a low ledge that climbed upward. “Over there,” he said to Pete and dipped the paddle into the water to pull for the spot.
“Saints and sinners,” Pete said, borrowing Buck’s favorite oath. “This is really something. Don’t you want to go back and tell Jack, figure out what to do now?”
Charlie kept paddling, gaining speed. “Let’s just take a look over here. Looks like a good landing spot. Shine your light over there while I–”
The canoe checked up with a thump, jumping a bit at the bow. The jolt threw the boys forward. Charlie grabbed for the gunwales to catch himself and dropped the paddle in the water. He heard Pete yell behind him.
“Holy smokes! What was that?”
Charlie reached down to retrieve his flashlight from the bottom of the canoe and pulled his hand away with a cry. “Lordy, Pete we’re sinking.” The water was already over their ankles, pouring in through a rent in the bottom of the old canoe caused by the jagged edge of a submerged rock.
Pete was grunting, yanking on the rope for all his worth. The line tightened, drawing the canoe out into the middle of the cavern toward the opening, but it was sinking fast. Both boys bailed with their hands as the ever heavier vessel slowed and sank.
“It ain’t no good, Charlie,” yelled Pete. We gotta swim for it.”
“I ain’t swimming in this water,” said Charlie, still bailing. “It ain’t safe. There’s bound to be creatures in here. Maybe one hit the boat.”
“We’re going down. We gotta. Make for the side. It ain’t far.” Pete didn’t wait for Charlie’s response. He shoved the flashlight in his pants and lowered himself over the side, splashing his way to the ledge. Charlie followed, slapping the water with his arms to ward off any underwater predators. He felt sharp stings on his legs and arms as he kicked his way after Pete. They pulled themselves onto the ledge and watched the outline of their vessel drifting just below the surface. As the rope tightened and slacked, the boat moved in slow, almost imperceptible jerks and bumps toward the glow that lit the mouth of the cave thirty feet away.
Charlie drew his legs up away from the water and felt his injuries. “I told you. Lord amighty. We could’ve been eaten alive. What do you reckon is in there, giant gar fish?”
Pete shined his light on his own arm. A long cut ran watery red. He winced at the sting and examined Charlie’s legs. “It ain’t nothing but sharp rocks. There must be flint ridges cropping up just under the surface all through here.” He shined his light into the water, but the milky green undulations threw the light back at him.
A faint yell came from outside. The cavern mouth soaked up the sound they knew must be Jack having figured out the boat had sunk. They yelled out for help, but their cries just came back in a chorus of echoes.
“You reckon Jack will go for help?” Charlie said after they stopped to listen.
“Sure he will,” said Pete. “And we’ll have hell to pay when they come get us.”
Charlie said, “Lord amighty. We’re in for it now for sure. My pop will wear me out for a month.”
Pete shined his light up the sloping ledge. “Well, maybe we can get out somehow before they come for us. All these mines and caves around, don’t you reckon maybe there’s a hole somewhere up there we can crawl out of?”
Charlie dragged a wet sleeve across his nose and shifted to follow the beam of Pete’s light. The ledge was a foot wide in most places. It climbed ten or fifteen feet and disappeared around an outcropping. “Worth a try,” Charlie said, getting to his feet.
Charlie took the lead, testing each step and using his free hand to grab at what handholds he could find. His wet clothes clung to him and held the chill of the dark cave. He felt Pete’s hand on his belt and heard the boy’s heavy breathing as he concentrated on the climb.
Charlie reached the outcropping and saw that the ledge narrowed to a few inches. He turned to face the rock and inched forward until he could see around the bend. Pebbles dribbled over the ledge and plinked in the water below as he sought better footing.
“What do you see?” said Pete.
“Looks kinda like a tunnel or cave,” said Charlie. “Come on.” He scooted around the rock and disappeared from Pete’s view.
The opening was narrow but tall enough for a man to walk through upright. Charlie stepped in with caution. He swept the flashlight back and forth like a blind man’s cane as he walked. Pete came up behind him. The beam of his light moved erratically as he brushed cobwebs from his shirt and hair.
They followed the cave inward, up the gently sloping floor to where the passage split. One tunnel went left, the other bent to the right.
“Now what?” said Charlie. He heard Pete banging on the side of his flashlight behind him.
“My light’s played out,” said Pete.
Charlie turned around to see the boy staring into the faint yellow beam as it flickered like a dying candle. “Probably got wet,” said Charlie. “I guess that rules out splitting up.”
Pete shoved the spent flashlight into his back pocket and stepped around Charlie to study the tunnels. “Wish we had us some rope,” he said into the left passage.
“Which one you thinking, Pete?”
The smaller boy rubbed his close cut hair and squatted on his haunches to think. He picked up a stone and tossed it into the left tunnel. It skipped and clattered on the rock floor until the sound faded out beyond the reach of Charlie’s light. He did the same with the right tunnel and got the same result.
“I say go left,” Pete said as he stood up. “The floor looks to slope up some. Up is the way we need to go.”
Charlie wasted no time re-taking the lead and pushing into the left tunnel. They hadn’t gone more than forty feet when the light caught something on the floor. “Look here,” he said, settling the light on a rusty animal trap, the steel jaws clamped shut on a bit of bone. “Somebody’s been through here before.”
“Play your light over there.” Pete nudging Charlie’s arm to the left.
Just beyond the trap was another opening in the side wall. The light showed it to go back only six or eight feet, but in the middle sat a rough wooden crate, and on the crate was a coal oil lantern powdered with dust. Pete shook the lamp, but the reservoir was dry.
“What’s all this, you reckon?” said Charlie.
Pete didn’t answer. He was squatted down again looking at the crate. It was upended, the open side facing them. The slats cast bar-like shadows on the rock walls as Charlie’s light swept over the crate.
“Whoa, hold up. Give me the light.” Pete held out his hand behind but kept his gaze on the crate. As Charlie leaned over him, Pete focused the beam on the slats that rested on the floor. It reflected something shiny, a sliver of something under the crate. “Lift this thing up and set it over a ways,” Pete said.
Charlie shifted the crate and stood back as Pete brushed his hand over the dusty rock beneath. “What are you after?” Charlie said.
“This,” said Pete, turning to Charlie with his hand open. The light gleamed on three gold coins cradled in Pete’s grimy, bloody palm.
Charlie grabbed one up and turned it over in the light. “Twenty dollar double eagle. Lord amighty, Pete, we found Mull’s gold.”
The two boys jumped around and yelled out their excitement for a minute and then hit the floor to search for more coins. They crawled over every inch of the floor, kicked at the rock walls, checked for other alcoves–nothing, no more gold.
“He must’ve moved it somewhere,” Charlie said finally.
“Or he spent it all before he died, more likely,” Pete said, brushing his hands on his backside. It don’t matter right now. We gotta get out of here.”
“Damnation,” said Charlie. “All right. Let’s keep going.”
They abandoned the alcove, taking the passage until it closed down to a crevice neither could fit through.
“Damnation,” Charlie said with a kick at the small hole. “We gotta go back, try the other tunnel.”
The flashlight began to flicker as they retraced their steps to the fork and ducked into the other tunnel. It was tighter at first but opened into a tall passage. The direction wasn’t taking them closer to the surface, but they had no other choice than to follow where it led. It was slow going. It felt to Charlie like hours of walking. The flashlight was fading. And then the hole began to shrink.
Neither boy had spoken for some time. The seriousness of their situation grew heavier on their minds. Charlie stopped. Pete bumped into him in the dimness.
“This ain’t looking so good, Pete,” Charlie said, slumped down to avoid the low ceiling.
“You feel that?” said Pete. He stepped around Charlie and sniffed the musty air. “Something’s changed. The air’s moving.”
He took the flickering light from Charlie, walked forward twenty feet and disappeared with a yell.
“Pete!” Charlie held his hands out to protect his head and rushed forward into the darkness.
The faint light reappeared, and Pete’s voice called out. “Hold up. Watch your step.”
Behind the beam of the flashlight, Charlie could see Pete’s head on the floor looking up at him. As he got closer he realized that their tunnel emptied into a bigger room, the floor of which was four feet lower. Pete was standing in the other room looking back into the hole at Charlie, who came forward and jumped down beside him.
They swept the light around the walls. The hole they had come through looked small now.
“This ain’t no cave,” said Pete. “It’s a mine. Look there at the timbers.”
“Well then it’s got a way out, don’t it?” Charlie grabbed the light from Pete and started through the new tunnel. The walls sparkled with the shine from bits of galena and pyrite reflected in the beam. After a good ways, the floor sloped upward and ended at a shaft flooded with light from the clear day above.
The boys were too exhausted to celebrate. They squinted up to where the rock turn into bright sky thirty feet above them.
“Where you reckon we are?” said Charlie.
“Question is, how do we get up there?” said Pete.
Charlie searched the rough walls of the shaft. “Here’s something.” He pulled a rusty wire cable from a crevice and tested its strength, his eyes following it upward. “I think it goes to that derrick up there, or what’s left of it. We can climb it easy.”
The two tired boys, caked with flint dust and striped with rust from the cable, lay on their backs on the rocky ground fifteen minutes later. The sun soaked into their damp clothes as they caught their breath.
Pete was the first one up. “We gotta get to Jack.”
“What if he figured we’re dead and just lit out,” Charlie said, struggling to his feet.
“Well, we gotta find him anyway.” Pete shaded his eyes and looked for a landmark. The underground march had taken them north and west about a quarter mile from the pit and around the side of Cemetery Hill. “Let’s try the pit first. He might still be there.”
They crossed the rocky flats taking care to avoid abandoned shafts.
“Who’s that?” Charlie pointing to someone walking toward them.
Buck picked his way over the broken ground. His long white hair spilled from a worn miner’s cap affixed with a carbide lamp. He stopped when he spied them and let the boys close the distance.
“Saints and sinners. You ain’t drown nor otherwise dead after all. Young Jack was sure as Sunday he’d sent you to a watery grave. You boys injured any?”
“No sir, just chewed up a bit,” said Charlie. “Where is Jack? Did he go tell everybody?”
Buck looked them over from toe to crown. “He came and found me first, seeing as how I know you and why you were out here in the first place. I told him to hold up and let me see if I could find you before setting off the whole town. He is sure enough scared to death.” He shook his head and squinted out the sun with one eye. “You boys got no idea how lucky you are. Hells bells, there ain’t one in a hundred could get in and out of there in the water. By the looks of you, you didn’t come that way.”
“We found a cave,” said Pete as he shoved his hand in his pocket. “Seems old Parson Mull didn’t have no fortune after all. This is all there was.” He held out the three gold coins in his rusty palm.
Buck picked one up and held it by the edge, his stubby finger pointing straight up. He examined it closely and set it back in Pete’s outstretched hand. “Well, would you look at that,” he said, and then he leaned toward them. “And here all this time I been thinking I had got it all.”