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…]
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 »