The Mother Lode bu Susan Buffum
I woke with a start, having the feeling that someone had just passed close to where my sleeping bag was laid out near some low lying brush. The echo of the sharp crack of a branch breaking still rang in my subconscious mind as I turned my head, looking for the source of the disturbance that had awakened me. About five feet away was the dark elongated shape of my cousin James, and just beyond him, barely visible, the same sort of loosely lumpy shape of his wife Jennifer. Both of them seemed to still be sound asleep.
I could see very little beyond them, the campfire having died down long ago to a rosy glow of embers amid the ash. We were in the shadow of the cliff under which gold miners had dug a shaft around 1853. This had been someone’s claim back then, and it had most likely been worked by other prospectors and gold seekers into the early nineteen hundreds before being abandoned, the thrill of the hunt for gold nuggets having dissipated by then.
James and Jennifer had discovered this site while hiking in the rugged Nevada hills last summer. They had persuaded me to join them for a little treasure seeking, something I hadn’t been much interested in, but I was interested in the old mine shaft, my having a deep passion for abandoned places, ghost towns, derelict houses and barns, tumbling down, dilapidated structures. I was putting together a book about such places, so thought an old mining shaft would be a great addition to the book.
My cousin had had me down in the shaft with a small pick axe yesterday, chipping away at stubborn solid rock. He’d purchased headlamps from some spelunker’s catalog online, the LED lamp blindingly bright in the confined space. I’d retired just after sundown with a screaming headache and an uncomfortable tightness between my shoulder blades, not to mention the scraped knuckles from a close encounter with the flesh resistant rock when my hands had slipped on the shaft of the pick axe, my having removed my work gloves because they were sopping wet with sweat and chaffing painfully.
I let my head drop back down onto the tiny travel pillow that protected the back of my head from the ground. I was not the sort of girl who liked to be without the creature comforts for long. This was the third night we’d been here and I was fairly chomping at the bit for Friday to arrive so we could begin the trudge back to the road off of which he’d parked the SUV. I was more than ready to go home. I’d had enough of this already. But James seemed obsessed with finding at least a tiny nugget of gold. I wasn’t feeling any too hopeful about that. What was not blocked up by rock fall of the shaft seemed pretty unforthcoming with its glittery secrets, if it even held any. It all looked just like boring old rock to me with an occasional glint of mica or quartz.
I stared up at the stars, my nerves still tingling from having been startled awake like that. It had probably been an animal, hopefully not a wolf or a coyote or whatever prowled the hills and cliffs in this Godforsaken place. The only thing I’d found truly amazing about this whole misadventure was the simple fact that the stars actually did appear to twinkle in the heavens. I was a city girl, the closest I’d ever been to the country being the suburbs of New Jersey when visiting James’ parents, my Aunt Patty and Uncle Jim. I hadn’t camped out in their postage stamp-sized backyard. I’d slept on the foldout couch down in the basement rec room, trying to find a position where the metal bars supporting the thin mattress didn’t make me feel as if I was about to be severed into three pieces by a human sized bread slicer.
The stars were amazing!
I was reaching for my camera case, thinking that I’d shoot a dozen or so photos of the various constellations spread out across the midnight blue-deep violet canvas of the night sky, when a disturbance in the pattern made me pause and blink. Some of the stars had vanished as if a huge ink blot had spread to obliterate them. “What the….” I began to say aloud when a rough hand was laid across my mouth, stifling my words. I reacted badly, trying to grab my camera case and swing it, my city born and bred body already coiling in the defensive fight or flight reflexes inbred in those who face the human predators prowling the urban jungle on a daily basis. I’d been mugged one too many times in my relatively brief life.
“You come to steal my gold, young fella?” growled a voice that sounded dry and raspy as the ground I was lying on. “Who sent ya? Who ya workin’ for?” I shook my head. He had it all wrong. I wasn’t working for anyone. I wasn’t after any gold! “Tell me, or I’ll slit yer throat faster than you can blink an eye!”
“I’m a photographer,” I replied, my voice muffled, my words garbled by his hand still across my mouth.
The pressure eased up but he didn’t remove his hand. “I’m a photographer. I’m here taking pictures of the mine.”
“Who sent ya? You work for the newspaper?”
“No. I’m freelance.”
“I work independently. I don’t work for a newspaper.”
His hand moved away. “Yer a female!” he cried, sounding almost horrified.
“Yes. I am.” I watched as he rose to his feet and backed away. I thought he’d trip over my cousin and his wife but he kept backing up as I scrambled to free myself from my sleeping bag, feeling too vulnerable trapped in that sack like thing. I got myself up, shoving my feet into my hiking boots even though I didn’t have socks on. “Who are you? Do you own this property now? Are you going to throw us off for trespassing? Can’t you just let us stay and we’ll leave as soon as the sun goes up? When we can see the trail and make it safely back down to where the…”
“Who’s this we?” he demanded warily.
“My cousin James and his wife are right th…” I began to raise my arm to point toward where James and Jennifer were cocooned in their sleeping bags but my arm froze. There was nothing there, only the shadowy shape of the man. “Oh, my God, how can this be?” I wondered, my mind buzzing with confusion and wriggling in my skull as the worms of fear began rising to the surface of my consciousness.
“Ain’t nobody here but me and you,” he said. Goose bumps rose like a rash all over my body, up the back of my neck and around my scalp making my skin feel like it had shrunk and become too tight. “Ya want to take some pictures, girl? I’ll show ya my mine, but ya have to promise me you’ll never tell a soul how to find this place. I’ll show ya the biggest mother lode of gold you’ve ever laid eyes on, I will.” He nodded toward the dark lump of my camera bag lying near my feet. “That yer camera? Looks small.”
“It is small.”
“Had my picture taken once. Nearly blinded me it did with that big bright flash!”
“It’ll be bright but there’ll be no noise. It’s a new camera.”
“New? Well, I ain’t seen one since. Where do ya put the plates in that itty bitty little thing?” he asked as I lifted my digital camera from the bag. “What the devil is that?”
“It’s a camera. Trust me.”
He shrugged and turned away, shambling toward the entrance to the shaft. I clomped behind him in my unlaced boots, feeling kind of foolish in pink cotton shorts and a lime green tank top. “Ya don’t want to put nothin’ else on over them skivvies?” he asked. “I got some beans I can heat up. Ya look more ‘n half starved,” he muttered. “No meat on yer bones. Scrawny l’il filly.” He shook his head and then spat on the ground.
I looked down at the glistening glob and shook my head. I could smell the tobacco on him. Tobacco, sweat, and the fact that he hadn’t seen soap and water in happy union in a tub of water in quite a while.
He paused to light a crude torch, a rag of some sort knotted around the end of a gnarly bit of wood about fifteen inches in length. I heard the scratch of a match against rock, got a whiff of sulfur and wrinkled my nose because it was sharp enough to sting. The rag bloomed into a fiery flower atop the branch it was tied to. And I got my first look at the old miner as he turned his head, his face still half in shadow as he sort of leered at me over his shoulder. His face was a creased and shriveled as beef jerky, his bulging eye catching the torchlight. I caught a glimpse of a dark patch over his far eye. His lower face was lost in a snarl of salt and pepper whiskers sorely in need of a barber’s attention. His lips were thick and moist with tobacco spittle. “You afraid of the dark, l’il girl?” he asked, and I realized he was missing quite a few teeth. That was what was giving him the lisp and lack of elocution evident in his speech.
“No,” I lied. I was terrified of the dark, if truth be told. My co-op in the city was never truly dark due to all the ambient light from the street below and all the apartments where night owls roosted.
“C’mon. Yer gonna love this.” He turned and disappeared through the entrance to the mine. I hesitated, caught off guard by the fact that the timbers framing the entry were intact, not sere and brittle, slanted in defeat like the shoulders of a weary athlete leaving the field after a long and discouraging game.
Shaking my head, I flicked the switch to turn on my camera and shot a quick picture. From further in the mine where I could see the flickering torchlight against the rock I heard him muttering about heat lightning. I wondered what he’d say about the brightness of the flash in the confines of the mine shaft, if there was really anything for me to take a picture of, that is.
I carefully made my way through what I thought would be a minefield of fallen rock, but the shaft entrance was almost pristine. I frowned. Had he been working at clearing this up while the three of us had been sleeping soundly? I paused to glance back over my shoulder, but it was too dark to see anything behind me. I wasn’t sure how I’d become so disoriented that I hadn’t been able to see James or Jennifer, but reassured myself that I was only a scream away if this weird old timer did anything alarming. I was willing to play along with him. His brain was probably half baked from the desert sun. He seemed harmless enough, just delusional somewhat, if he thought there was gold in this disappointing rock cut.
I caught up to him and followed him, a little more apprehensive as he led me further into the shaft. I kept looking back over my shoulder, certain that James and I hadn’t come this far in before meeting a wall of tumbled rock that had blocked our path. I was trying to find the divots I had pecked into the rock with the pickaxe but had missed them, evidently.
“Lookee here, sister,” he said. I had nearly run into him because he had abruptly stopped and I had been looking over my shoulder. “You see it? A streak o’ gold as wide as your forearm!” He was tapping an area with his dirty forefinger while holding the torch closer to the rock with his other hand. He turned his head and looked at me, me now being on the eye patch side of him. “Go on,” he urged. “Take your picture. Ain’t nobody gonna believe you seen this if you don’t get a picture of it. But, I warned you, and I’ll warn you again, you can’t tell a livin’ soul where you seen this mother lode.”
“I won’t tell a soul,” I promised. I really couldn’t see anything. There was a shiny place but the torch was flickering wildly in some sort of draft I couldn’t feel. I raised the camera, aiming at the place he was pointing to and shot several pictures in rapid succession, earning a cussing out from the old timer. He’d dropped the torch to cover both his eyes, even though the left one was already covered by the patch. The torch went out, the rag having been nearly consumed already. This left us in pitch blackness, although I was seeing purple spots dancing in front of my eyes, even though one eye had been to the viewfinder of my 35mm digital camera and the other had been squeezed shut against the bright flashes. The light had still penetrated my eyelid enough to cause this purple spot phenomenon.
“You got an implement of the devil’s own design!” he cried as he shoved me against the rough rock wall of the shaft and pushed past me, his boots thudding as he retreated.
“It’s a digital camera!” I called after him. “It’s technology!”
“Stay away from me!” he cried, his voice sounding more distant.
I hit the review button and squinted at the brightness of the photographs I’d shot in the utter darkness of the mine shaft. But then my eyes widened as I made out the vein of glinting gold he had pointed out. “No way!” I muttered. “That’s not there!”
I spun around, disoriented in the dark before thinking to shoot the camera to create flashes of light to help me see. I held the camera out at arm’s length and slowly turned in a circle. I did it twice more, my heart beginning to hammer as beads of sweat popped out all over my body. I seemed to be surrounded by rock walls. The crude path ended at tumbled rock walls on either side of me. There were somewhat blurry photos with glints of gold in them. I had been in motion, turning in a circle as I’d shot the pictures. “No, no, no!” I cried. “This can’t be!” I rushed to the tumbled stone wall and began trying to move the rocks away but they were heavy and I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything but the hammering of my own racing heart in my ears. “Help!” I shouted. “Help! Come back! Get me out of here! Help!” My voice sounded flat and too loud in the confined space. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” I cried, trying to waken myself from the nightmare that I had literally become trapped in. But, I wasn’t really asleep, and I knew it. “Get me out of here!” I screamed again and again until my voice was nothing but a harsh rasp and I dropped to the rock and dirt path, suffocating in the grip of claustrophobia and blind terror, my camera battery almost drained of power.
And I knew. I knew right then and there, that no one would ever see these pictures of the mother lode that the old miner had shown me.
Copyright by Susan Buffum, May 6, 2017