Western Short Story
The Salt of Vatcher's Mine
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Crusty Yancy “Yank” Palmer, “sixty if a day” he was always saying, was telling himself under his breath that a good dream never dies. He was riding down a long crest-line finger two days from Pikes Peak, looking for the site of the old Vatcher Mine. The continual awareness hit him that he was once again in a two-way discussion with a one-way mind. It made him snicker with small delight and his heart was keeping time with the excitement of the dream being uncovered again.

Enough signs were around him that he was nearing the right place, but as yet nothing specific had emerged; the color of the rock said yes, the three-finger lift of one mountain said yes, and the silence riding the air like a lost cloud said yes. But they were not really hard core facts of the matter. In front of him the evening sun, like a peach basket halved behind a counter top, shot its red loveliness into his eyes, and much of the valley he realized was indistinguishable. For years he had been sure the first view of the valley would fall comfortably into his eyes and fit the picture in his mind. Hell, it had only been 50 years since he dipped down this trail, or a similar trail, with his father.

Palmer, as he often did, played mind games to entertain himself and keep the old brain in shape. Looking around, listening, his eyes on alert, he brought to his mind the list of names the west had given to the mountain lion; puma, cougar, catamount, panther, or plain old cat. He brought up names of Indian tribes, some of them long gone, and the famous warrior chiefs, some of them gone into their private grounds. He loved to roll the names of old tribes across his tongue and strive to imagine what their villages might have looked like, such as the Mogollon, Hohokam, Anasazi and Zuni. It presented as much adventure as he could imagine out of his mind. In fact, some people did think him to be “crusty” or somewhat reserved because of these mind games, not knowing he was more pre-occupied than anything else.

A number of times he had repeated the list of supplies and gear the mules were carrying, almost reciting the total weight by item. It made him think about his father in the old days back in Pennsylvania, building houses, with a saw in his hand, saying, “Measure twice and cut once.”

And more than once, when his horse Chowder snickered and came ears-up, he put his hand on the rifle stock.

“Chowder,” he said a second or third time, “we got some explorin’ to do. I hope we’re in the right place.” Behind him, the two mules, loaded with supplies and gear of the miner, followed on the long tether line at a decent interval.

A week earlier, in his nephew’s saloon at Cripple Creek, the gang of cowmen at the bar were hooting and hollering about his promise to one day go back into Shorn Braves Valley to look for gold.

“Hellfire, Yank, them varmints in them days, they’s done salted most holes in the ground, never you mind an old mine site or claim, like that lost Vatcher Mine you’re been talkin’ about. The scoundrels drawed too many fools in there and plain lived off’n their needs, not what they found aground or dug for. My daddy was one of them fools, spent half his life leavin’ me and my mother to stir up his craze, ‘Just one more time,’ he’d say. Trouble was, we didn’t gather that he was leavin’ us first or lookin’ first. It sure ain’t Salt Lake, but they’s enough salt in every hole to save a lard of bacon, in a manner of speakin’.” The speaker held his mug up in a salute and drained it off, then banged the bar top like he had made his final pitch.

Yank Palmer had defended his small leaning into a big promise. “I ain’t been there in more’n fifty years, but the place curled my mind with the possibles. I smelt gold. I heard gold. I seen gold around every bend in that old cave. My daddy kept aholt of my hand all the time and I can remember how his hand shook every second. Maybe he was thinkin’ about them Chevrus brothers spendin’ ten years in there, maybe more’n that for all we know, and even left their bones in place when it was all over. Someone way back tied some ‘em bones right over the entrance to the mine, like it was an Indian buryin’ place… like it was sayin’, ‘Keep out,’ them bones was sayin’.”

Nephew Tyrus Kindly, when he found an opening, put in his own thoughts on the matter. “I bet a gold coin, you name the size, Yank finds enough to pay off his stake. Any takers?” Long and mostly lean, but with a barkeep’s gut starting to make way, Kindly counted three hands and slapped coins of various sizes on the bar top. All were matched and names put on a list and placed with the coins in a jug up high on the shelves of bottles behind the bar. A prominent, boldly hand-lettered sign, right beside the jug, said, “Is this worth being kilt for?”

Kindly added his piece of history. “We know how much them places was salted, like almost every one of them, ‘cause they had been dead for years already until the fake stuff showed off the possible. It was like a herd breakin’ for water. All the dreamers and fools in the mix and no holdin’ ‘em back. But Yank’s kept his dream while them others most like are dead by now, or damn near it.” He nodded at Palmer and noted aloud the older gent was still in pretty damned good shape. If anybody in the saloon at that moment tried to make the trip, Yank was a good a bet to finish.

In the back of the room, a voice said, “Hey, Yank, what way would you start out? Sure you won’t get lost on the way?” There was a small amount of laughter, and a few snickers. Kindly had a frown on his face.

Palmer, not disturbed by the speaker, said, “I go off to Pike’s Peak, then look for signs I remember.”

“Them signs do any changin’ in 50 years, Yank?”

“Well,” Palmer said, “the cholla don’t change or Devil’s Claw, or Bear Grass, or the mesquite itself, that’s for damn sure, so I’m ahead of the game.” The whole saloon crowd laughed and went back to drinking and card playing. Two customers came in, two customers left. Darkness filtered through Cripple Creek, owls asked questions, and once in a while a coyote made a statement.

Palmer was recalling the saloon scene and all the banter while his mind kept pace with his identification problem. It was apparent to him that the key would be an indefinite, shady element without contour; something with no definite lines, no true silhouette, and no stand-out color. There’d be a rock of an odd shape, a small hole where it ought not to be (if that was possible), perhaps a low whistle or moan from the center of the Earth. Full alert was in demand, yet he somehow measured again the weights in spite of his need. He heard saloon banter about this trip, a coyote announce his territory or his need, and then, apparently in nature’s concert, came a small rumble, a gathering of small noise, and a rock rolled downhill directly ahead of him.

Palmer noted three things; where the rock landed, in a sort of hollowed out place ahead of him, three black vultures moving in slow circles above him… and the place he figured where the rock had tumbled from, a small break in an outcrop of rock. His alertness leaped ahead of itself, and his hand slipped the rifle out of its saddle grip. The image of a bushwhacker, lying on the ground for a decent spell some place above him before dislodging the rock, would have drawn the vultures. The questions in the saloon made their way back to him.

“Got to be plain ridiculous, Chowder, for any fool besides me wantin’ the old Vatcher Mine, salted who knows how many times, less’n somethin’ else stinks in the mix.

When the shot rang out, the single round coming nowhere near him, the sign of a deliberate miss as well as a stern warning, he spurred Chowder toward the hollowed out place and leaped out of the saddle with his rifle in hand. There was an oblique opening into the mountain, one that he did not recognize as the Vatcher Mine opening, but horse tracks, debris partly buried, ashes from a campfire not two weeks old littered the area. Chowder, with the tether line still in place, lead the pack mules into another depression in the mountain finger.

Palmer was inside the opening with surprising quickness for a gent his age, fearing the next shot might carry a clearer idea of intent, like death.

Two more shots killed the mules, dead where they stood, and Chowder broke free and ran further down the incline. Now Palmer knew there were plans for him not to be digging in Vatcher’s Mine, which had to be very close.

He fired a single retaliatory round uphill, and knew immediately that he could not have hit a barn door with that shot. No retort of any kind came from above and Palmer saw the scraggly overhang of rock just above the small outbreak of rock where he figured the bushwhacker was hiding. He studied the formation, a cluster of rocks wedged in a small crevice. He pumped four quick rounds into the cluster and a torrent of stones broke loose and tumbled down with a quickening roar. Slightly above that another gathering of old stones and rocks broke free, a horse bolted, a man yelled and stood up looking up over his head, the rifle still in his hand.

Palmer shot him dead. “That’s for the two mules, varmint,” he said, “and then some.” Then he realized he’d not have to bury the man as the thunder of a small avalanche buried the backstabber. It came to a sudden stop and piled up again, as a wide edge slowed it and held it on the trail just ahead of him.

Spotting Chowder further downhill, Palmer decided to wait a bit to see if there was more unexpected company in the area. But all was quiet, and Palmer came up out of the crude opening of an abandoned attempt at a mine beginning that had run into solid wall. Stillness filled the air, and the vultures had gone from their high watch. He started down to get Chowder and the animal was standing at the opening of the Vatcher Mine. Palmer immediately identified the odd opening into the face of the mountain, the thick head lintel where the Chevrus bones had been nailed.

“There’s got to be some reason the bushwhacker didn’t want me pokin’ my nose into,” he muttered to Chowder as he wet down the horse’s mouth from a canteen. “Good old boy, Chowder,” he said as he patted the horse’s neck and gave him another handful of water, “you ain’t never run out on me, old boy.” He patted him again, and looked at the mine opening. “Now let’s to see what some snakes have hid here, or don’t want me to see.”

He walked into the long-abandoned mine, one that had been salted a number of times, as history or legend had allowed. The first things he noticed were two lanterns hung on a piece of timber, old stand-by oil lamps of more recent vintage. He lit one and began to walk into the mine. There was a quick departure from what he could recall of his visit with his father; another shaft had been dug and leaned down into the mountain, and at a different angle from the original. It only went about ninety feet of well-braced tunnel and broke into a long, narrow cave Mother Nature had formed unknown centuries before.

In an instant Yank Palmer’s dream had returned, not with a gold find, but one wall of the cave was splendid in its silver show. The illumination caught his breath. And he heard the jingle of a spur on rock and spun around as an unknown man came from further in the cave. He was swinging a lantern lighting up his way and said, “It’s about time you came back, Benbow, I been workin’ that new parcel down there and waitin’ for grub.”

He looked up to see Palmer’s rifle leveled at him. “What the hell you doin’ here, old man? If you’re the gent Benbow was talkin’ about, he never thought you could have found the place again. This is our place now, been that way for a long time. We got no room for you. This is our mine now.”

“I own the deed to this place, owned it ever since my father bought it off Chevrus people more than 50 years ago. It’s in his will to me and land claim says it’s so.”

“Land claim means nothing these days on old mines, old man. I thought you was Benbow come back with some grub, but he’s probably let you walk right in here and is standin’ behind you about now with his rifle up your backside.” He tried to look beyond Palmer.

“If your pal Benbow is a bushwhacker and shoots dumb mules just for the askin’, well, he ain’t carryin’ no more grub in here. He’s up on the trailside buried under rock about this time. He’ll never be seen again, not even by the Good Lord the way he passed out of this here world, shootin’ poor mules and tryin’ to put me in the grave he’s got to with a little help from me and this here rifle.”

He held up his rifle, pointed it at the other gent, and said, “I saw you around town one time. You come to get supplies or steal them? You the ones been getting meat from a few herds? You in the saloon the other night askin’ what way I was comin’ here? You the pair that was protectin’ my claim for me?”

“I wasn’t in no saloon. Never much got out of here. Is Benbow really dead?” His face was deep into sorrow and terror of what was coming down the tracks for him. “Is he really dead?”

“Dead as carcass, son. You ain’t never seein’ that gent again less’n you spend a week diggin’ them rocks offa him.”

“What now?”

“I hope you got horses hid near, or you got a long way to walk. I got my horse but your pal kilt my two mules just mindin’ their own business. So, if you ain’t got ‘em, you’re walkin’ a few days worth. We’re seein’ the sheriff soon’s we can. How’d you ever find this place in the first place? You don’t look like no miner. You look like a regular cowhand out of regular work.” He pointed the rifle dead at the man’s gut.

“Don’t shoot me, old man. I just did what he asked me ‘cause he’s my uncle, my mother’s brother, and he’s raised me since I was a lone pup and the injuns got my mother, just dragged her off and left me in the middle of the corn scared to death.” A real deep sorrow had moved over his face.

“What’s your name, son? But don’t go getting’ too soapy on me, ‘cause I don’t take no truck with bushwhackin’ or all out lyin’ to another soul to save your own skin. Be a man and stick to it. You come along this here path only this here time and no clock’s gonna keep windin’ for you. What’s your name?”

“Tally Dascombe’s my name, near orphan since I was seven years old, and just 17 now. I ain’t never known anthin’ but stealin’ and robbin’ and the like, all as Benbow taught me so’s I could have somethin’ to eat and a warm place to sleep.”

“And someplace to work yourself to death?”

“You goin’ to shoot me, old man? I guess I deserve it, but it ain’t been none easy even getting’ this far.”

He pointed back down the shaft he had come from. “I been down there about two years of my whole life. Benbow left me alone most days, sometimes with food and water and sometimes not, while he went off. There ain’t no horse near here for me to ride out, so’s I guess I’m walkin’, but I won’t do you no more harm. You got any grub? I ain’t had a bit of grub in two days.”

“C’mon outside,” Palmer said, and motioned Tally Dascombe ahead of him out the shaft.

Palmer gave him some grub they unloaded from the mules, Tally Dascombe doing all the work and the cooking. He ate like he never had food, nothing like the bacon and beans and biscuits right off the fire plate. Palmer noted the boy made a mean cup of coffee, and told him so.

“You cook well, Tally Dascombe. You dig as good?”

“Probably a might better when I’m plain hungry. Workin’ and cookin’ kind of leveled the day for me most of my life with Benbow. If I didn’t work, I didn’t eat. He said it was life in the only real way, ‘do for and do as,’ he used to say all the time.”

“So, stealin’ from folks is all part of that?”

“Benbow said it was. He said to look at the animals that God made and they all take what’s theirs, kickin’ the sick young outta the way, getting’ rid of unwanted ones, like I was, all alone in the world. Some animals or birds live on the young of other things, like it was what they was made for, like crops, like corn and beans, like bacon and steak. What else was I goin’ to do? Just starve on my way outta here?”

The next morning the two new acquaintances set out to visit the sheriff at Cripple Creek, after Tally Dascombe unloaded all the supplies from the dead mules and put them into the old Vatcher Mine. They looked overhead as the black vultures circled in the blue sky and both men knew the mules would be bare bones a few hours after they left the area. And Palmer noted how steadily that Tally worked, without hesitation, without false talk to gain a rest, as if he was born for laboring.

And the old man started to measure other options in his mind, and down the trail.

The sheriff at Cripple Creek said, “What do I do with the boy, Yank? He didn’t do no shootin’ at you. Could wrap him up here for a while while we wait for someone to say he was the one who rustled off a steer to get meat or stole food from a line cabin, or stole tools outta the barn, but the way folks is here, I don’t expect anybody speakin’ up real soon, seein’ as so much time has slipped through the glass.”

“Here’s the way I look at the whole thing, Cal,” Palmer said, “you dump him off on me, like parole or what they call it, like he’s my full responsibility and I’m his responsibility. Let him know, hard as you can and right up front, that he’s off to jail forever if he messes up one minute of his new lifetime. We know he’s been somethin’ played with his whole life. Maybe I can get some of it back for him. You willin’ to try that track with him?”

The sheriff smiled and shook hands with Yank Palmer, saying, “He’s your weight and your promise all in one, Yank. You and him gonna work that mine? You turn all that silver into gold? You die in the mine because of work or old age somewhere down the line? The boy gets rich and you get dead?”

“Why, Cal, you know that boy’s gone and done all the work already. I ain’t done nothin’ but hold that claim as mine for 50 years or so and the dream that went with it. It sure kept me goin’ some days, just like bein’ hungry kept Tally goin’. I sure am goin’ to get along without it wherever I go, and whenever I go. But I think life sure ought to get even with that kid, and I’m willin’ to be the one to help.”