The Gold Mine - Chapter
Copyright© 2002. All rights reserved.
Notice: This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, organizations, or persons is entirely coincidental.
Sarah never thought that her devotion to the Earth might cause her death. She was in the mountains of southern Colorado where, she passionately believed, the land had been ravaged by man's greed for gold. She and her fellow members of the Sequoia Club had decided to put a stop to the plundering of Nature. Sarah was on a solo scouting trip to determine the worst offenders; then she and her friends in the club would bring the ravagers to justice. She had left her home in Albuquerque and driven to a trailhead north of Pagosa Springs, and after a few uneventful days on the trail she reached this mine, the first of many on her list.
The mine site was surrounded by a three-strand barbed wire fence. Every fifty feet or so there was sign attached to the fence that said: 'No Trespassing - Ishtar Mining Company'. Sarah ignored the signs. Nature's pillagers had no right to keep their destructive activities secret, and no sign would stop her crusade for environmental justice. She took off her backpack and crawled under the fence and onto a mound of mine tailings that was at least fifty feet high at this point. She scrambled up the steep slope to the flat top of the pile.
There was a lot of scrap metal scattered around up here, and Sarah walked over to investigate a large rusty metal object. It looked to be part of a hoist of some sort, because there was a tangle of wire cables attached to it and going over the edge of the tailings pile and trailing diagonally down the slope. She moved closer to the edge of the mound and stood on a sheet of rusting metal. Just as she leaned out to look down the slope the sheet of metal abruptly tipped under her feet. She fell and started to roll down the slope and into the tangle of cables. She managed to bring up her leg so that the sole of her boot hit the side of another metal object and the impact caused it slide a foot or so downhill.
Sarah was congratulating herself on her clever avoidance of injury when she felt something around her right ankle. A loop of rusty wire cable now circled around the top of her boot. This loop was held closed by another loop that was attached to the metal object that she had kicked; when it slid down the slope it had closed the ankle loop tight. It didn't cut her foot off because there was a corroded clamp still bolted to one side of the loop around her ankle and this had caught the other cable.
At first she was more annoyed than frightened. Sarah couldn't believe that she could really be trapped by just falling into a tangle of cables, but as she unsuccessfully tried to extricate herself she realized that it had actually happened. A loop of cable was tight around her ankle and she couldn't get it loose.
Sarah tried everything she could think of to free herself, but the fundamental problem was that she had to pull the metal object up the slope to release the loop, and there was no way she could do that. It must have weighed several hundred pounds, and she couldn't have moved it even if she wasn't trapped. After several futile attempts to free herself she screamed with frustration, and then continued to scream for help until her throat was sore. No one answered.
Sarah was on the south side of the tailings pile and there was no shade. The sky was clear and likely to remain so; thundershowers usually didn't occur until later in the summer. Luckily, she was wearing her jacket, and she used it to cover her face and hands. Sarah knew that she had to conserve the moisture in her body so she lay quietly on the dirt. She tried to sleep, but as time went by the pain in her ankle increased and it kept her awake. After the sun went down the air quickly cooled, and the ache and the cold prevented all but brief naps. It was a long night.
When the sun rose Sarah tried again to free her leg from the cable that trapped it, but she was no more successful now than she had been yesterday. She struggled all morning, and as the sun reached the zenith Sarah looked at the cloudless sky and finally admitted to herself that she could die right here on this pile of red dirt.
The heat from the direct sunshine was sucking the moisture from her body, and she hadn't had any water since yesterday morning. Her backpack with its precious water bottles was only fifty feet away, but it could have been on the moon for all the help it gave her. Sarah ignored the pain and pulled at the cables that held her right ankle in an implacable clasp. They flexed a little, but still she could not free herself. Despair overwhelmed her and she wept, her eyes squandering fluid that her body couldn't afford to lose. The sun dried her tears.
Sarah knew now that her only chance of survival was to have someone find her before she died of thirst. As the day dragged on she rested quietly, her head covered by her jacket. Late in the afternoon she heard a noise close by. A turkey vulture had landed a few feet away and she stared with horror at its bare red head and its dirty brown feathers. It flew off when she moved, and she watched it as it awkwardly flapped away. She looked up and saw almost a dozen of the hideous birds circling above. When Sarah realized that soon she was going to be nothing but carrion she broke down and sobbed.
* * *
Tom was running the processing plant and getting a better than average yield when the stamp mill ran out of ore. He had blasted this morning and there was a lot of loose ore, but shovelling it into the ore car, pushing it out of the mine, and dumping it into the hopper of the stamp mill was his least favorite task, especially since the main drift was over a half mile long now. Tom remembered that he was going to need some more rails soon, so he decided to go over to the other mine and see what was available for salvage.
It was less than a mile to the other mine and Tom decided to walk. It was a beautiful afternoon and he got outside all too seldom. He ruefully thought how ironic it was that since he started to live up here in the mountains and work the mine he spent less time outside just enjoying himself than he did when he had a job in the city and only came up on weekends.
As Tom got close to the other mine he noticed some buzzards circling over the end of the tailings pile and wondered what was dying. He walked in that direction. If it was a deer and still alive he might be able to salvage some meat. A buzzard landed and then took off again, so the animal was still moving. Tom was really curious now. He climbed through the fence, not bothering to open the gate, and scrambled to the top of the tailings pile.
Tom walked out to the end of the tailings and looked down the slope. He saw the body of a woman about half-way down, next to a tangle of cables and some other junk. Tom heard her crying; she was still alive.
When Tom slid down next to her Sarah removed the jacket that was over her head. She tried to sit up, but couldn't quite make it and fell back on her side.
She pleaded, "Please, give me some water. I haven't had any since yesterday."
"Sorry, I don't have any with he. Are you injured?"
Sarah shook her head, and then pointed at her backpack just outside the fence. "Water bottles. In my pack. Over there."
Tom retrieved the water from Sarah's pack and climbed back next to her. He opened a bottle and gave it to her. "Here. Drink slowly, but drink as much as you can."
While she was drinking Tom looked her over. She was dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt and appeared to be in her early twenties. She was of medium height and had a chubby body. Her face was dirty and tear-streaked, but Tom thought she might be pretty under better circumstances. She had short black hair and green eyes that were now red-rimmed from crying. There was a loop of half-inch cable around her right ankle.
Tom looked at Sarah's foot and remarked, "This cable couldn't have caught you any neater if it had been a snare somebody rigged up." She didn't respond.
Tom decided not to try to move the large steel plate that kept the loop closed around Sarah's ankle. If the cable slipped off of the old clamp it might take her foot off. He would have to cut her loose.
"I'm going back to my camp and get a hacksaw. I'll be back in about a half hour. Will you be OK until then?"
She nodded yes without interrupting her drinking. He scrambled to the ground and unlocked the gate in the fence.
Tom jogged back home and got his hacksaw from the toolbox. He decided to drive back in case the girl wasn't able to walk, and for once his old '82 Ford pickup started on the first try. He drove slowly over the rutted road that led to the other mine and parked the truck as close as he could get.
The hacksaw had a new blade and it didn't take Tom long to cut the cable around Sarah's ankle. He pulled the loop open and she extricated her foot.
She started crying again and said, "Oh, thank you. I was sure that I was going to die here; the vultures were just waiting."
Tom helped her to stand up and asked, "Can you walk?"
"I don't think so. My foot is numb."
"I'll carry you to the truck."
He picked her up and walked down to the truck, helped her into the front seat, and then went back and got the saw, the water bottles, and the backpack. The truck started again and he backed it around and got it out onto the road.
Tom drove back to his active mine and stopped outside the derelict Airstream trailer that was now his home. Before he helped Sarah out of the truck he went into the shed that housed the water turbine and opened the valve on the inlet pipe. It would be dark soon and the turbine would provide electricity for the lights in the trailer.
Sarah's foot had recovered enough that she could walk. She put her arm around Tom's shoulders and he held her around the waist while she went up the steps and into the trailer. He helped her to sit on the couch in the living area and removed the boot from her injured foot. There were some nasty bruises, but it didn't look like anything was broken.
"Your ankle doesn't look too bad. How long were you trapped?"
"Since yesterday morning. It was terrible. I was sure that I was going to die."
"I'm glad I found you before it was too late. My name is Tom Williams. What's your name?"
"Sarah Jenkins. Thank you for rescuing me."
"You need some food. I made some chili and there's plenty. Would you like some?"
"Oh, yes. I'm so hungry. Er, does it have meat in it?"
"Yeah, it's meat. Don't ask too many questions about where it came from."
"I don't eat meat. I believe it is wrong to sacrifice our fellow creatures just for their protein. Do you have anything else to eat?"
Tom was annoyed. Did she think he was running a restaurant? He rummaged through the cupboard.
"Here's a can of beans. Vegetable protein OK?"
"Yes, that would be all right if there isn't anything better. Can you take me back to my car after we've eaten? It's parked at the Pioneer trailhead."
"Not tonight. The road out of here is kind of bad and I don't like to drive it in the dark. Besides, that trailhead is quite a distance from here by road. Let's wait until morning. Maybe your foot will be in good enough shape that you can continue your hike."
Tom put the beans and the chili on the propane stove to heat. "I'll get your gear from the truck. The toilet is right through that door. You can wash at the sink."
When Tom got back with Sarah's pack she had cleaned up, and with the dirt washed off her face he decided that she was pretty. When the food was hot Tom brought the pans to the table. He helped Sarah sit in one of the two chairs.
Tom gave her a spoon and said, "Dig in. This is as elegant as it gets. Do you want some coffee? It's brewed fresh this morning and all I have to do is heat it up."
"No thanks." She yawned. "I'm very tired. Is there someplace I can sleep?"
"Yeah, you can use the couch over there. I haven't got any clean sheets, so you'll have to use your sleeping bag."
When Tom finished eating he put his pan in the sink. He said, "I'm going to be working outside for a while. We can talk some more in the morning, and if your foot isn't better I'll drive you back to your car."
Tom entered the mine and walked all the way to the end of the tracks, pushing the ore car ahead of him. A big pile of ore had been blasted loose and he needed to move it out of the mine. Tom shoveled until the car was full and pushed it out of the mine and dumped the ore into the hopper. This job was harder than it should have been because most of the track went slightly uphill going out; the original prospectors hadn't been too careful with their leveling.
Tom shoveled and shoved for several hours and then quit for the night. When he got back to the trailer Sarah was already asleep.
The smell of coffee woke Sarah the next morning. She looked around the cramped trailer and felt a wave of relief that she wasn't trapped and waiting to die. It was kind of squalid in here, but anything was better than the cable on her ankle and the vultures patiently waiting.
Tom was standing by the stove cooking something. This was the first time Sarah had a good look at him. He wasn't tall, but he looked strong, with thick arms and big hands. He had short brown hair flecked with gray and a neatly trimmed brown beard. The part of his face not covered by his beard looked pale for somebody who lived out here in the mountains. Sarah tried to estimate his age. Her father was fifty, and Tom looked like he was a bit younger.
"Good morning, Tom."
"Good morning to you. How does your foot feel this morning?"
Sarah got out of her sleeping bag and stood up. Her ankle hurt, but it wasn't too bad and she could walk normally. "It's much better. There are some ugly bruises but nothing seems to be broken. I can walk OK."
"I'm glad. That means that you can keep hiking."
"I would, except that I want to get back to Albuquerque as soon as I can so I can get the lawsuit started."
"What do you mean, lawsuit? Who do you plan to sue?"
"The Ishtar Mining Company. According to the signs, it's the owner of the mine where I was trapped. We can sue for negligence, distress, anything we can think of."
"Who is 'we'?" You're the only one that got hurt."
"I'm a member of the Sequoia Club, and we plan to eliminate all of the mines in this area. We can use this incident as a pretext to put Ishtar out of business, and that will put pressure on the other mining companies."
"But you were trespassing! The mine was fenced off and posted. You don't have a chance of winning your case."
"I don't expect that the case will ever get to court. We'll make it so expensive and inconvenient for Ishtar that they'll be glad to settle just so they won't go bankrupt paying their lawyers. The Sequoia Club has all the money it needs, because it gets tax exempt donations and doesn't have to worry about making a profit."
Sarah continued, "My fiance is a lawyer with a law firm that specializes in class action lawsuits. In most of his cases they get paid big money just to go away. The executives of a corporation really hate it when they get dragged away from their work for depositions and such. We'll file this case in Federal Court in New Mexico so they'll have to go out of town. That just adds to the aggravation."
"Don't you think it's immoral to use the courts like this to ruin innocent people? You know that it was your own fault that you got trapped."
"The ends justify the means. Ishtar has no right to rape the Earth like this. If some stockholders lose some money, too bad."
"You're looking at the Ishtar stockholders."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm the Ishtar Mining Company. I'm a geologist. I studied this area and I believe there is a lot of gold still to be found here. Five years ago some friends and I used all our savings and bought these two old mines. This mine is the most promising, and I've been working it ever since we bought it. I can recover enough gold to just about pay expenses, but so far I haven't found commercial quantities of ore."
"You mean you operate this mine by yourself?"
"Yes. For the first few years my friends helped, but they had to quit so they could find jobs to support their families. I work here alone from late spring until the snow shuts me down. I don't make any money here, so in the winter I go to Arizona or California and work in construction. It's been slow going working by myself, but I can't afford to hire anyone, let alone pay a lawyer."
This was awkward. Sarah was grateful to Tom for rescuing her, but she felt morally obligated to eliminate mining, and what he said told her how easy it would be to make an example of Ishtar. She decided to put aside personal feelings. The Earth was more important.
She apologized, "I'm sorry. I don't want you to be hurt, but I have to do what is right. When can we leave for the trailhead?"
Tom slammed a pan full of oatmeal down on the table. "Here's your breakfast. I have to do some things in the mine. I'll be back soon."
Sarah looked at the gray lump in the pan. She didn't like oatmeal, but it was probably all he had. She asked, "Do you have milk and sugar?"
"No. Put some salt on it." Tom stormed out and slammed the door behind him. Sarah found a spoon and a bowl and started to eat some oatmeal. Tom was right. It did taste better with some salt on it.
He was back about a half hour later. Sarah asked, "Can we leave now?"
"In a little while. I want to show you what I've done here and maybe you'll decide not to take away what took me five years to build."
Sarah hesitated, but then she decided she owed him that much since he did save her life. She put on her boots and they left the trailer. She followed Tom to a large metal building located between what looked like an old tailings pile and a newer pile.
Tom said, "The processing plant is in here. It's not very efficient, but I can run it by myself."
He unlocked the door and she followed him inside. Sarah had expected to see fancy equipment, but everything looked crude and homemade.
She asked, "What is that machine? It looks like it was made from an old truck."
"That's the stamp mill. It pounds the ore to a powder. It was built on the chassis of an old truck and uses the truck engine for power. All of this equipment was built by me and my friends from plans, using salvaged parts mostly."
He showed her the rest of the machinery and explained what it was for, but Sarah didn't understand what it did and didn't pay much attention. They left the building and climbed some stairs to the top of the old tailings pile. There was a long, narrow building up here that led from the side of the mountain to the processing building. Tom unlocked a door and they went inside. Running down the middle of the building were what looked like the tracks of a small railroad.
Tom said, "I built this cover so I wouldn't get rained on while I was moving the ore from the mine to the processing plant." He pointed at the track. "Those rails and that ore car are nearly a hundred years old."
They followed the track to the mine entrance, where a massive steel door was standing open. When they entered the mine Sarah was surprised by the small size of the tunnel. She could walk upright, but Tom had to duck under the beams supporting the roof. They walked a long way along the tunnel, which was dimly lit by widely spaced light bulbs. Sarah was glad she never had a problem with claustrophobia.
Every so often there was a side tunnel, and one of these had a door closing it off. Sarah asked, "What's behind the door?"
"Storage. I keep mining supplies in there, especially the explosives."
They kept walking. Sarah finally asked, "How much farther does this shaft go?"
"We're almost to the end. And this is a drift, not a shaft. Shafts are vertical."
Suddenly the tunnel got much bigger. Tom explained, "I found a rich pocket of ore here, and I made this cavern digging it out. The vein of ore went up there."
He pointed to the end of the cavern and she could see the end of a tunnel about six feet above the floor. A short wooden chute sloped from above and ended over the end of the track.
He said, "I shovel the ore into a wheelbarrow and dump it down the chute into the ore car."
Sarah wasn't very interested, and she hadn't changed her mind. She said, "I've seen enough. Can we go now?"
Tom led the way back out. He stopped at the side tunnel with the door and said, "Let's go in here. I want to show you the vault."
He unlocked the door and they went into the side tunnel, which was fitted out as a storeroom. Tom went to some shelves on the end wall and reached inside. The shelves were mounted on and concealed a door, which swung aside to reveal a small, empty chamber, about six feet wide by ten feet deep.
"My friends insisted that we build this secret vault to store all of the gold. Actually, all of the gold we recovered so far would fit into your backpack." He pleaded, "Now you've seen what it's taken me five years to build. If I lose this I'll have nothing. Please don't file your lawsuit."
"I'm sorry, but I have to do it. These mines have to be eliminated and personal feelings don't matter." Sarah did feel sorry for Tom. He was getting old, and she didn't think it was likely that he had any savings to retire on.
"I was afraid you'd say that."
Tom shoved Sarah into the vault. He pushed her against the back wall and held her there with his body while he picked up a chain and wrapped it around her waist. Sarah heard the click of a lock and Tom stepped back. She tried to follow but was stopped by the chain. It was bolted to one of the support timbers and gave her only about five feet of slack.
He said, "I'm sorry about this, but I can't let you take all I have. Maybe we can work something out, because I don't want to hurt you."
Sarah tried to reason with him. "Let me go now and I won't say anything about this. You can't get away with keeping me here. I told my friends that I would be back Friday, and they'll be looking for me if I don't return."
"I'm going to give you time to think about what your abstract crusade will do to real people. You should live in the real world for a while."
As Tom moved the secret door back into position Sarah cried, "No, please don't leave me in the dark!"
He didn't listen. With the opening closed off all she could see was a line of light around the door, and when Tom turned off the storeroom light that disappeared too and Sarah was left in the dark.
After the secret door was back in place Tom just stood there, stunned by what he had done. He thought, "Yesterday I was a poor but honest miner, and now I'm a criminal, guilty of kidnapping, assault, and probably much more besides."
He turned out the light, locked the storeroom door, and walked back to the trailer on autopilot. The pan containing cold oatmeal was still on the table and he ate automatically while he thought about what had happened and what he could do to get himself out of this fix.
As Tom got over the initial shock he got mad. He said to himself, "The arrogance of that ungrateful twit! I saved her life and she casually decides to take away everything I've worked for just because mining offends her sensibilities."
He briefly considered dropping Sarah down a mine shaft, but he knew he could never casually murder her. Tom decided not to decide. If Sarah wasn't due back until Friday he had a few days before she would be missed.
Tom spent the next few hours working in the mine. There was still a lot of loose ore near the face, and he had to clear it away to make enough room so he could start drilling new blast holes. He worked steadily until he got so hungry that he had to stop for lunch.
Tom reached the storeroom where he had put Sarah and unlocked the door and went inside. He bumped his head on a support beam and let out a yelp. Sarah heard this and started screaming for help. When Tom moved the secret door aside and she recognized him she shut up abruptly and her expression changed from joy to anger.
"Let me out of here!", she demanded. "You have no right to do this to me!"
"That's true. I'm an outlaw now, thanks to you. Another thing; I want you to stop screaming like that. If you keep it up I'll have to punish you."
Sarah didn't say anything, but the look of defiance on her face told Tom without words that she intended to do as she pleased.
Tom ordered, "Take off your clothes. I've got to be sure you don't have any concealed tools, and you aren't as likely to run down the mountain if you're naked. Besides, I like to look at bare female bodies."
"What! You can't be serious!" Sarah don't know which shocked her more, being chained up or being ordered to strip.
"I am serious. Take 'em off, or I'll do it for you."
Sarah knew he could do it, so she decided to avoid an undignified struggle. She turned her back to Tom and removed her boots, socks, shirt, and jeans.
She tossed them towards him and said, "There. Are you happy now?"
"No. Take off the bra and panties, too."
Sarah glared at Tom but he ignored it. When he moved towards her she squeaked in alarm and quickly removed her underwear. Tom smirked, and Sarah blushed from the humiliation. He collected the clothes and backed out of the vault.
Once back in the trailer Tom heated up leftover chili for his lunch and cooked some oatmeal for Sarah. When he finished eating he went back into the mine. This time Sarah didn't scream when Tom entered the storeroom. He was glad she decided to obey him until he realized he hadn't bumped his head this time, so she may not have known he was there.
When the secret door was open the first thing Sarah said was, "Have you decided to let me go? The longer you keep me here the worse it will be for you."
"Does that mean that you're no longer willing to forget all this if I just let you go? That will make a difference in what I decide to do."
"All right, I won't press charges. Will you let me go now? I'm cold and sitting on the floor is uncomfortable."
"Not just yet. You still don't understand what's real. But there's no reason for you to suffer, so I brought you some stuff. Here's a shirt you can wear."
Sarah was standing and covering herself with her hands. She dithered between reaching out with her left hand and exposing her breasts or with her right, which was covering her pubes.
Tom smirked and said, "I'll make it easy for you. Clasp your hands behind your head and keep them there."
"I will not!"
He shrugged. "OK, if you don't want to. But you won't get anything if you don't."
She hesitated, but then put her hands behind her head. Even in the dim light Tom could see her blush. He made a show of leisurely inspecting her body. She had large, firm breasts, and her pubic hair had been trimmed into the shape of a heart.
He pointed at it and said, "That's very artistic, Sarah. I never would have guessed that you'd do something like that."
Her blush deepened and she muttered, "My fiance wanted me to do it."
"He has good taste, and you must taste good."
Tom gave her one of his old woolen shirts and she quickly put it on. It was too big for her, of course; the shirttail covered her to mid-thigh and the sleeves hid her hands.
"Here's your sleeping bag and foam pad, the water bottles, and a bucket with a lid. You can probably guess what that's for."
He handed her a plastic bowl containing the oatmeal and a plastic spoon. "This is your lunch. I don't have any more canned beans."
She took the food without saying anything and started eating.
Tom said, "I'm going to make a rule about talking. You don't talk unless I'm next to you. I don't talk to myself, so if you hear voices it means somebody else is in the mine. If you do hear anybody what I want you to do is close your eyes and press both of your hands over your mouth. This will remind you that you are not to make a sound. I'm serious about this. If you disobey me you'll be sorry."
As Tom spoke he watched Sarah's face betray her thoughts. First outrage, then cunning, then an attempt at a blank mask. She certainly wasn't an actress, and he didn't think she had ever played poker, either. What he didn't see was any indication that she understood that he meant what he said. Tom was afraid that she was going to have to learn the hard way.
When Sarah finished eating Tom took the bowl and spoon and left the vault. She cried, "Wait! It's so dark in here. Can't I have a light?"
"Sorry, there isn't any electricity and the ventilation is too poor in here to let you have a candle or a lantern. I don't have a flashlight I can spare, either."
"Then wait until I get everything arranged."
"OK." He waited while she spread the pad and unrolled her sleeping bag. "Anything else?"
"I need my toothbrush, and a pillow would be nice."
"Fine. I'll bring them the next time I'm out this way." He closed the secret door and left the storeroom before she could demand a featherbed.
When the door closed Sarah was once again in the dark, both literally and figuratively. She couldn't understand why Tom didn't realize that this was no way to resolve their problems. Surely he understood that she wasn't acting out of malice towards him personally, but only for the greater good of the Earth. Sarah was still willing to forgive Tom for humiliating her and making her his prisoner, but she decided she couldn't abandon her principles and stop working to end the destruction caused by mining.
* * *
Story copyright© 2002 by Zack. All rights reserved.
I welcome your comments. Email me at [email protected] com
story continues in The Gold Mine