In my last post, I started a story that will be posted in parts over the next several days, serialized as was once common in newspapers and magazines. The story takes place in a small Kansas mining town in the mid 1930′s. Pull up a crate and read the next installment about–
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.”
“Just another yarn 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.
[to be continued…]
Over the next several days, I will post pieces of a short story, serialized as was once common in newspapers and magazines. The story takes place in a small Kansas mining town in the mid 1930’s. Pull up a crate and hear 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 old 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.”
……….to be continued…
I set the heart of The Falcon Dirk in the small town of Galena, Kansas because it was my hometown. From the time I thought about writing a novel–which was a long time ago–I thought about including that town. It was more about paying homage to my roots than anything, but the interesting history surrounding the old mining town provided good bones for a story. I think it will not be the last time it will appear in my writing.
Galena sprang up out of the gently rolling vastness of southeast Kansas to become a mining boom town in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The rich veins of galena (the chief ore in lead) and zinc drew prospectors and opportunists from the hills and plains to seek their fortune by carving holes into the flinty landscape and grinding out the important minerals. There was a lot of wealth and a lot of destruction created then, both to the landscape and to the lives of many associated with the mining process. The town was known in those days for its frontier roughness. As with many boom towns, the real boom came to those industrious individuals and companies in their pursuit of relieving the miners of their hard earned cash once they had been paid. Gun play was so common that it was said there was almost as much lead being shot into the miners as they were able to dig out of the ground. Read the rest of this entry »