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…