Terry's Curse

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2016 by Howard Faxon

Coming of Age Story: An orphaned boy is adopted by an old rancher and his retired schoolteacher wife, deep in the Utah wilderness. Nearly self-educated thanks to a huge book collection he discovers an abandoned platinum mine. Nobody ever told him there were no such things as ghosts.

Tags: Historical   Ghost  

I remember the snowstorms every winter. Sheboygan shuts down until the plows push the snow into the lake. Sometimes the ice gave way and the plow went under. Driving the snow plows in the ‘40s was a brave man’s job.

Dad worked for the railroad. He was a frustrated man, quick to anger and quick to strike. The police took him away for a summer after he broke my cheek bone. I was four.

When he came back, mom was pregnant. He beat her to death with his huge fists. I ran away because I knew I was next. I knew I was safe when I heard that he’d hung himself from the upstairs window.

After a couple months in really bad places I learned that I had an uncle Bob and aunt Jane. They were older, but agreed to take me in. The nearest town to their place was Price, Utah. They raised a few cattle and had a vegetable garden. The wind never stopped there.

They talked about money a lot after they thought I’d gone to bed. Aunt Jane had been a college teacher. When she retired she thought that she could depend on the four hundred dollars a month her retirement paid. The school was trying to re-write the contracts. She was one of several people with the same problem. They had gotten together to file a “class action lawsuit” against the school but it wasn’t going fast enough.

Uncle Bob was an old rancher that couldn’t do what he used to manage to keep up the ranch. I learned that they weren’t my real aunt and uncle--they were getting a check every month for my upkeep. When I learned that, I shrugged. I had a warm place to sleep, food to eat and clothes on my back. What more did I need?

I was six when I came to live with them. Aunt Jane taught me my letters and numbers. I got stronger fast, helping as much as I could. The weekends, though, were mine. The mountains fascinated me. I started tracing up the river bed, then spread out through the valleys. I almost froze to death once when a sleet storm came up out of nowhere. I learned to carry a pack with some rope, a small tarp, fire makings and a small axe. After a few months I started carrying a couple potatoes and a twist of salt.

Uncle Bob discovered me coming back to the ranch one morning and shook his head. He figured that he’d better teach me right or I’d get my fool hide killed out of ignorance. During that next winter he spent Sunday afternoons teaching me about how to survive in the mountains. He taught me how to stay warm, how to wear puttees to protect my shins, tricks for a wool blanket, how to build a fire reflector and why, as well as a lot more. He’d been wandering through the mountains since he was my age and had learned a lot.

I read a lot, too. Aunt Jane taught me to love reading. They sure had a huge library for an isolated ranch. Uncle Bob taught me how to read a map. A book on surveying taught me how to make one. The books on geology and mineralogy fascinated me. With the aid of Uncle Bob’s old army compass I started mapping out the valleys up the river, including the elevations. That’s how I found the old mine.

It was early July when I hit on it. The road bed was too regular to be natural. I tore away the brush hiding the adit, or mine face. The timber supports were dry but not crumbly, and there weren’t any gaps between the risers and the stretchers. I couldn’t see much inside as I didn’t have a lantern, or even a candle. I completed mapping the area and traced back the road bed in hopes of finding a path with easier access. I resolved to return with rope, a shovel, a lantern and five gallons of kerosene.

I told Uncle Bob about my find. He knew that there was no way in hell that he could discourage me from investigating the old diggings save tying me up and locking me in a box, so he did his best to instill the fear of God and bad engineering in me. He dug into the library until he found a book on hard-rock mining and MADE me read it. He made me swear on the bible not to enter the mine unless he was with me, at least until I’d mapped out the diggings and tested the trestles and scaffolding supporting the roof of the galleries. He helped me haul in the kerosene, rope and tools as I hadn’t come into my growth yet.

Each riser post and cross beam had to be tested to see if it was secure. Some had to be replaced, some just screwed into place. The diggings climbed into the mountain, reducing the chance of flooding. At last uncle Bob left me to my solitary exploration.

My compass readings made no sense underground. I had to map the mine using distance and angle calculations. Many I had to repeat due to my unfamiliarity with the complicated mathematics. I found several faces where bags of ore were being prepared for transit. A little acid, an alcohol burner, a blow pipe and a white ceramic plate showed me that it was a fairly rich vein of platinum.

Only through use of the map did I find the hidden chamber. Its face was covered by a wooden door, and that with a painted canvas cover which had stone dust pressed into the wet paint. It took me several days to discover the mechanism which would open the door.

Within I found a camp. A two-eyed pot-belly stove stood in one corner. The wreckage of bunk beds lay at the foot of the adjacent wall. Several decrepit barrels and boxes lay stacked beneath a counter to the other side of the stove.

The remains of a man’s body lay on an isolated bunk to one side of the doorway. I had one heck of a time finding a soft spot to bury him. I found a growth of pines that had filled in a crevice in the mountainside not too far from the mine. I carefully wrapped his remains in canvas and dragged him to the hole I’d dug. I figured that if it was nice enough that I wouldn’t mind being buried there then he’d have nothing to complain about. I smelled an odd, sour smell until I buried the man’s remains. Then it dissipated.

I found where the miners had hammered together an outhouse. I put it back into “production”. About a third of a mile away a small lake supplied my needs for drinking water. Down below the tree line, dead pines were common. I cut, trimmed and dragged several up to the mine where I built a new bunk, a bench and a table. What I didn’t use for carpentry was cut and stacked next to the stove. I sewed up a big canvas bag with a long flap to fill with pine straw as a mattress.

Finally I ran out of food. Before leaving for the ranch house I put together a pack frame like Uncle Bob used to bring in the kerosene. I lashed one of the bags of ore to it and hefted the thing onto my back. The weight made me stagger at first. I knew that I’d have to take it slow to get back home without injuring myself.

Aunt Jane was about to raise a stink when I flopped that bag down on the kitchen table. Then she saw my grin. “What’s got you so happy?” I patted the canvas bag that weight sixty pounds or so. “It’s from the mine. It tested out at about twenty percent platinum.” She slowly sat down, not taking her eyes off the bag. “Bob? Bob! Get in here quick!” She’d caught him on the toilet. He was still doing up his suspenders as he walked through the door. “What’s got you all riled up?” She pointed at me. “You tell him what you told me.” “Remember when I was reading all those books on geology and mineralogy? They taught me how to test an ore sample. One chunk of that tested out at just over twenty percent platinum.”

There were just under thirty bags of ore already mined. It took us about a month to pack them all down to the barn. They averaged about sixty five pounds. It was several miles between the mine and the barn. You sure knew it if you picked out a heavy one! I guessed that we had about eighteen hundred pounds of ore sitting in a pile. The old pickup truck couldn’t carry that much. We broke it down into four piles of about seven hundred pounds. All three of us piled into the pickup with a load of sacks in the bed and headed for Provo, north-west by about seventy miles.

We got a signed, certified receipt for the ore and promise of a three-day turnaround. I smelled that odd, sour smell again.

Uncle Bob got a phone call that the ore containe 1.3 percent Platinum. There was no way that my tests could have been that far off. Then I did a volumetric calculation on the other piles of ore bags, and figured out the average density. Yep, we’d been screwed. I called the state police.

I guess that mining fraud was prevalent enough for them to set up a team to address it. Within a few days two vans and a car drove down from Salt Lake City. By then the assayer’s confirmation letter and check had arrived in the mail.

I repeated my test in front of their field chemist. He agreed with my results. They took random samples from each bag, photocopied the documents we’d been sent and left us with the weights of each sample taken on a signed document.

The chemist gave me the name and number of a certified, bonded assaying outfit. We took the next batch there.

The check showing up in our mailbox said two million, two hundred and five thousand dollars. That sounded a lot better than the first check for one hundred thirty six thousand five hundred dollars. It was like Mardi Gras and Christmas together in the Benson household. Bob contacted a local mining firm to enter into a contract to mine the site. They agreed to pay twenty percent of the value of the ores mined with a minimum payout of sixty million dollars. All mining had to be done within EPA guidelines to cause minimal impact to the site.

That last condition became quite important.

I volunteered to guide them around. When I produced my hand-drawn map the helicopter pilot threw a hissy fit because there weren’t any GPS coordinates. He didn’t like it when I called him a a spoiled child. Nevertheless he found the trail and adit without any trouble. He dropped off a team of four mining engineers to do the actual site evaluation, along with a half-week’s supplies. It was late August so there wasn’t much chance of foul weather blowing in.

They set up tents on the trail since it was nearby and flat. I introduced them to the lake and the outhouse. They were a bit dissapointed with my habit of using club moss to wipe with. I’d gotten into the habit as it was one less thing to carry.

As usual, I laid out my pallet inside the bunk room inside the cave.

The next morning the real investigation began. Two miners went with me to explore and verify the extent of the cave. It wasn’t really a complex as there was one run that wormed back into the mountain face. The were careful to test all the cribbing as we progressed. I went to step over a ledge in the floor when one of the miners grabbed me by the collar and pulled me back. They carefully examined the floor, walls and ceiling at that point. One of them loudly whispered, “Slip face!” They were all goosey about it. I shrugged and jumped over the ledge, then jumped up and down. “If it lets go, you guys are going on a Nantucket sleigh ride, not me.” They quickly followed me. They verified the extent and proportions of the cave, then took some samples from the working face.

There was a long discussion back at the camp. The oldest engineer did a flame test on the ore they’d extracted to verify that the mine hadn’t been ‘seeded’ with higher quality ore. Nope. It was the real stuff.

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