Western Short Story
At Silver Creek, on a lengthy local branch of the Wyoming-Idaho-Montana Pacific Railroad, which too many people for too long had called the Wimpy Line, the last train ever to come to Silver Creek, in the Territory, and the local mine operation, gave off its whistle and started the transfer of steam power to its wheels. A Cloud of black smoke rose from the engine and climbed into the morning air. Not a soul stood on the station platform to witness the last train to be sent there, a train whose engine was preceded on the tracks by two flat cars loaded with dynamite, packed to the hilt with dynamite bound to explode on impact, as designed.
The plan, devised by mine owners and their engineer, was to destroy any access to the mine so nobody could get inside “ever again,” where two collapses in a week had claimed the lives of 17 men. To be honest, the mine had petered out earlier and was not worth any further investment, and the deaths of 17 men had infuriated the small town and all its neighbors. Every nickel’s worth of silver had long been found and extracted. It appeared to all interested parties that the last futile efforts searching for silver were the hopes of a few hungry men looking for one more pay-off.
The mine engineer had ordered a spur track on an existing slight downward grade to be laid right into the entrance of the mine, as deep as they could go in the old “as wide as two oxen in traces” concept upon which railroad widths were constructed in narrow spaces. The two blast cars would roll downhill, once freed of the connection to the engine, until the second was set off and the first car would then expand the thrust, and the damage, deeper within the mine.
He kept talking about the responsibility, and dangers, of setting off a simple pile of dynamite at the entrance or just inside; he didn’t want any part of more deaths if something happened during such an exercise. A cache of dynamite near the entrance might allow entrance later on; a cache deeper in the mine might lead to another cave-in. So, with all that in mind, he developed the plan to use two old flat cars, practically from the rust pile, to support the effort. Talk kept coming from him about setting off the second car first so the first car, further into the mine, would then set off a deeper explosion, with attendant thrust to insure the collapse of the mine’s interior.
The engineer’s voice kept advising, and hoping, “And never again can this mine cause deaths,” so with that admonition he left town once his plan was accepted and deployment staged.
But things went wrong right from the start.
It was evident with the mine gone that the town would die a slow death, fade at its roots. Everything in Silver Creek, of token or substance, was moving. Many people had already left. The signs could be read easily if one looked about: few people were in the main street, shop doors were closed or boarded up, signs taken down, and the livery, usual hub of a town’s activity, was empty. Those who were still in town were packing up their property, preparing to leave.
Silver Creek’s outgoing sheriff, Colin Grafton, who had been summoned to Spottsville in two weeks to discuss a new assignment, sat on his mount on the start of the downward grade when the two cars were cut loose from the engine. Inertia, never to be messed with, sat dumb and inactive on the tracks as the two flat cars did not move. The train engineer and the fireman gave an inept push, turned around and looked back at the one official who had stayed behind, a clerk, who shook his head and walked away, already on his own way out of Silver Creek, severing all ties.
From off the side of the newly-laid track, a spur into Hell as one man had called it, came a tall and gangly man with his horse and a rope. He tied the rope to the front of the first car and urged his horse to “Lay it on, Bessie! Lay it on!”
The horse, a good-sized animal, strained, caught an edge of inertia, and the cars started down the grade. The man gave the two-car unit time to get going. When the gangly man tried to untie the rope, the horse stumbled, he fell from the saddle, and the horse, regaining its stride, ran alongside the two cars picking up speed. The man screamed that his leg was hurt and he couldn’t get to his horse to release her.
Grafton, back up the spur, saw the rope coming taut between the horse and the lead car as the cars, though lumbering along, picked up more speed. Grafton loved his own mount, Catdance, a six-year friendship between the two. The understandable cries of Bessie’s owner came to him and he wondered what kind of a knot the man had tied on his horse’s pommel. The cars continued to increase their speed and the horse, now caught up taut by the rope, and ran alongside the lead car, dangerously close to getting pulled under the wheels.
Grafton suddenly spurred his horse and took off down the short length of track. The clerk, well behind Grafton, and well out of dynamite blast range, screamed at him: “Look out, Sheriff. It’s going to blow up when it hits.”
The sheriff didn’t hear him yelling and kept racing after Bessie, now alarmed by the strange force pulling her. Grafton knew there was not much time. He pulled his pistol and started shooting at the taut rope. He did not hit it until his third shot, the tension finally making the break in the rope.
But the freed horse continued down the tracks. Grafton made one more rush, caught up with the animal, grabbed the reins, turned her around, and headed back up the spur.
The blast behind him was a horrendous sound and he feared he would die from fragments thrown through the air with enormous force, or Catdance would get killed or Bessie. Low in the saddle he went, the way he’d seen Indians ride on raids, when a piece of rock flew past his head with a rushing sound in its wake. It was a frightening sound, a frightening thought, and he kept as low as he could. A glancing blow on his shoulder told him some piece of rock or other debris had hit him, and he felt lucky it had not been slammed at his head.
Shards and pieces of debris of all kinds moved through the air with whistles and moans attached, a frightening mixture of danger and noise eternity riding between each pellet-like missile. He imagined pieces of steel or iron from the flat cars were now part of the flying mixture. Noise was power and power was speed was a rush of air. The mountain shook and he swore the whole ridge beyond him moved in the burst. Catdance, aware of some odd circumstance taking place, went faster, even as the air became filled with more pellets of various sizes. Bessie, by fortune, kept pace, already having run one race for life.
The clerk, taking a deep breath of relief as he saw Grafton and the two horses get back to the top of the incline, suddenly spun round as a huge piece of the mountain off to his left blew open and dust and noise and debris were blasted out through a new opening in the mountain, as if making up for the shutting down of the main entrance. He quickly understood the enormous pressure that had been created inside the mine and how it had gone looking for release, for the weakest deterrent to movement, and found it in the side of the mountain.
Debris from the new hole in the mountain rained down on the train engine as it sat still on the tracks. A sudden spurt of steam revealed a break of some sort in the steam line or the boiler, and the engineer and the fireman ran away from the engine as volatile live steam started to pour with a great rush from an undetermined part of the engine.
Grafton got the gangly man to get up on Bessie and the two riders went away from the mountain and the debris in the air and the threat of the steaming engine. He wondered, immediately, if the engine would be abandoned in its place. Would it be worth a massive salvage effort out here in a town soon to be dust, beside a mine that had gone dead flat in its yield? He had no answers, but could not envision the owners spending more money.
The gangly man said, “You saved both me and Bessie, Sheriff. I can’t say enough for that, ‘cept I’m breathin’ and I guess you are too.” He pointed at the clerk, now on his horse, riding away from the collapsed mine, the town soon dead, and an engine running out of steam. “Don’t that all look like the damned end of the world, Sheriff? Him ridin' off like that?”
Grafton said, “That’s the last train in here and the last mine man out of here. Sure does look like the end. Where are you headed, and what’s your name? I know your horse’s name is Bessie. I saw you come in on the train about a week ago and haven’t seen you since.”
“Oh, I’m not leavin’, Sheriff. I’m stayin’. I bought the mine from the owners ‘cause they bought it from my father. He made’ em write up in the agreement that they had to sell it back to him or to me if they was ever goin’ to sell it. And my name is Spruce Therrien and my father was Alfonse Therrien and he found the first bit of silver here and opened up his claim and mined it for a couple of years, small stuff, until they bought it from him, the way I said. He always told people, and those who wanted to buy it, that he didn’t think they’d be enough silver for more than a family, but they believed he had hit a big one. They got enough to make a few of them rich, but they ran out when it ran out. I own it now. You interested in bein’ partners with me. No man I’d rather share it with than you.”
“Oh, I’d have to give that a heap of thinkin’,” Grafton said, “’cause I’m no minin' man and I guess I got a new job waitin’ on me if I want it.”
“You don’t have to be no minin’ man, Sheriff. I know it all. My pa taught me the whole rope, and then some. ‘Don’t ever let go what you own like I did,’ he said. So that caution is mine now. I just need company for a while ‘cause it looks like the whole shootin’ match is leavin’ town, but somethin’ my pa said about this mine not yet bein’ itself has stuck in my craw since the day he died.”
Grafton, thinking about the old days when words and promises ran true to form, kept hearing the words of the elder Therrien. And he found himself putting a lot of faith in them. “Maybe I’ll dance on your ticket for a while, Spruce. Can’t hurt me none if I don’t have to go down inside that almighty fearsome thing.” He pointed at the mine, and the smoke still sitting above the one-time entrance like a black cloud in a bad sky.
The pair caught up with the mining clerk, who turned to them and said to Therrien, “I hope things can be pleasant for you and you find a little bit of silver here and there, but don’t get your dreams in a big lather. The big boys don’t exactly walk away from a two dollar bill if they can help it. They just figure it’s not worth their fight to keep going. Even had a hard time among themselves springing for the cost of the dynamite.”
Everything must have shot through his mind and he finally said, “I’m glad I’m shuck of the place, as they say out this way. I’m heading back to Illinois and the big city. I’m going to open up a men’s shop. Always wanted that. Sure did.”
He spurred his horse and said, “The agreement is nice and clean, so don’t worry about anything. Good luck.” He was on the dead run in seconds.
Therrien, looking all over the terrain, seeing the state things were in, kept nodding his head. “I think my pa was right on this thing. I’m goin’ to give it my best shot. I’d sure like to have you with me, Sheriff. I’m the kind of guy who likes company, and you’re about the best company that’s come along for me in a long while. Sure is.” He patted the neck of his horse, and said, “Ain’t that right, Bessie? Ain’t I plumb right about all that?”
The two potential new partners in an old holding sat on top of a higher grade and kept looking at the scene in front of them.
Grafton, musing to himself, finally said, “Up in Spottsville they have a mine too. Keeps the place going like this mine did for Silver Creek. But who says it won’t go the same way and fold in on itself like this one did and then dry up the whole town. I’m not one for repeating mistakes. Maybe I will take a run at it with you.” He put out his hand to shake Therrien’s hand and said, “Does this make it a deal as good as the written one you got from the mine owners?”
“It sure does, Sheriff. Now I’d like to call you by your name proper, ‘cause I don’t figure you to be sheriff here much longer than today by the look of those wagons marchin’ out of here amid all this ruckus.”
He pointed to a line of wagons slowly on the move, putting distance between them and Silver Creek and the dead mine.
Grafton said, “My name’s Colin and you’re Spruce and that’s how we’ll handle it from here on.”
They shook hands again, and Therrien said, almost as an aside, “Bein’ the minin’ man in this here new partnership, I’m goin’ over there where that mountain got busted loose and take a look at what kind of innards it has that were tossed out at that end.”
Bessie stepped off and entered ground that a bit earlier had been deluged with a torrent of debris from the new hole in an old mountain. Therrien guided his horse gingerly through the mass of debris, alighted from the saddle, picked up the first hunk of rock he touched, studied it, and looked over his shoulder directly at Grafton. His voice rose with a certain ring to it, a certain clarity, but there was only one listener.
Therrien, with an added sense of pride in his voice, yelled loudly, “My pa was not wrong for a minute about this claim, Colin. Look what we got here,” and he held up the object in his hand, waved it in the air, and yelled again, “Gold. Gold as pure as I ever saw it.”
The new partnership in Silver Creek, as could be seen, was on solid ground, while the engineer was gone, the clerk out of sight, and the previous owners already down the trail a long stretch.
Silver Creek, as the story goes, just had to have a new name.