Joe, Early April 1987
God, old people, could be annoying, I said to myself, before I realized that I myself was old now, and had better stop talking like that. I took a long sip of the hot black coffee in front of me, using it to cover my frustration. I often visited with Old Sandrew, my dad's cousin on his mom's side.
It was funny how I always called him by his last name. I guess it was because he had the same name as the family mine, which had always been held high in our family like a rare coin, with one side a curse and the other a promise. But then, wasn't a promise unfulfilled just another kind of curse?
He was much more like an uncle than a cousin, and we had always got along okay, but he was as stubborn as hell. Guess it ran in the family. He had been a tough bastard in his day. But getting him to do anything only assured you of his doing the opposite. It was turning out to be a real pain in the butt. Swede shifted in his chair and stared at his coffee. Old Sandrew's place smelled like an old man's life: decades of tobacco smoke, the acrid smell of sweat, last night's supper, his dog, old clothes and papers, and strange smells that I recognized, but could not place.
It was quiet and we three sat in silence around the Formica table, sipping the coffee Sandrew had brewed in the battered enamel pot on the stove. He got around pretty good for an 80-year-old one-legged man in his walker. Swede was staring at a calendar on the wall that had hung there apparently since 1964. Then the silence was broken by Sandrew's grumbling and clearing of his throat, as he prepared to beat the dead horse once more.
"There ain't nothing left down there but bad luck. I don't know why you are so set on going down there, Ellis. It's a goddamned bad hole. It nearly got me." Old Sandrew stared ruefully at his leg stump, then looked up at me again, staring me hard in the eye. "Three men died down there. One died from a bad air pocket. The other was slabbed when the drift collapsed and never was found..or at least all of him wasn't. And my granddad, no one knows exactly what happened to him. But we been over that before." Sandrew looked at his hands. "He was last seen working on the third level driving a heading into rotten rock, and no matter how much we dug, we finally had to accept he wasn't coming back. It's a goddamned bad hole, it is."
I didn't say a word, but let him go on. Sometimes you have to let a man say what he needs to say if you are going to have any chance of changing his mind. I sure as hell wasn't going to change mine. I was here to get his signature, a damned scribble on a line that was my last chance at setting everything to rights. At making my lousy excuse for a life right. If my lungs didn't kill me first.
He went on. "And you know them people from Chimera offered me a lot of money to sign over the claim to them just last week. I told ‘em I'd think about it. I could use the money you know, since Social Security don't pay enough for a pot to piss in. I told ‘em I'd think about it you know, and I can't go back on my word. And what do you got to offer? Hell."
"You know I don't have a goddamned thing you old pissant. I've known you all my life, we've been on a few busts and more than a few hunting trips-" and here I played my ace, "and if you don't think I have as big a right to the family claim as you, as my dad did, then I ain't got nothing else to say. Hell, Swede, we're just wasting our time."
I made a point of downing the rest of the lukewarm coffee. He knew I'd be back to try again, just like he knew that I didn't have a whole lot of choice. Old hands like us never had much choice in many things. It was a matter of sucking it up and doing it anyway. Sandrew just sat there staring at me with his rheumy eyes, and rubbing his nicotine-stained fingers on the handle of his coffee cup.
I just returned his look in the same steady way. "Well, if you're not interested, just say so, and we'll be on our way." I turned to look at Swede, who nodded, then returned to study the old calendar hanging on the wall, letting blood talk to blood. I just sat there, staring at the papers on the table. I looked at his old hands, holding a cigarette, and then at my own, and saw the family resemblance in the square shape of them. We sat there silently, our jaws set, our eyes staring hard into the other's.
His eyes flickered and then he broke the silence. "You are one hard-headed Cousin Jack. Well it ain't like I'm going to do anything with it." He gave another disgusted look at his stump. "And my kids sure as hell ain't."
Sandrew looked hard at the paper in front of him and took the pen. "What the hell. It's your funeral." He scrawled his looping signature. And, just like that, Swede and I were partners in a gold mine again.
Old Sandrew sat there, quiet, and mad, but justified in the fact he had done right by blood, and in the end that was what mattered. He was quiet, his jaws working against each other to ease the irritation of his ill-fitting dentures. I guess he figured now that we had what we wanted, we'd be out the door soon enough, because he knew how depressing it was to be in that apartment with its pulled yellow shades, cracked ceiling, and piles of boxes. The bedroom off to the side had its door still shut securely, because that had been his wife's room, up until she died three years ago.
I got up and poured some hot coffee. I felt bad for him, and it would be good to get his mind off things. He looked up me, surprised, and despite himself, a little grateful. He took the coffee and sipped it.
We sat in the little kitchen. Sandrew cleared his throat, signaling a new phase to the conversation. "I am not kiddin' you, Joe, the mine is a bad one. Your dad was obsessed with the place. He talked about it all the time when he worked up at the Mike Horse. If it had a been up to him, he would have been working at the Sandrew, but he needed the steady paycheck for your family."
I sipped the coffee coolly and said nothing.
Sandrew mumbled, "Sorry."
Again, we sat in silence, this time a heavy silence that sat like a sour fog in the dim little kitchen. I didn't like to talk or even think about my dad. The son of a bitch was one of about three or four things that I never talked about. If it would have been anybody else I would have either knocked Sandrew's butt off the chair or at least walked out. Swede knew the story, so he sat there like a stuffed squirrel, all bound up and uncomfortable, and really looking hard at that calendar again.
But Sandrew was a lonely old man, and he had been close to dad, and slips did happen. And so we just sat there, drinking our cups nice and slow, letting the mood recede like a cloud's shadow.
I broke the silence. "So, tell me about when you worked there. About where you think we ought to start."
Sandrew rubbed his jaw. "Well I had just finished up retimbering shaft number 4 so I could get down and reopen the stope, when I had my accident. But that was an awful strange day, and I wished I would have listened to those old superstitions, because I swear if I didn't hear the knocking not ten minutes before the air blast hit. The country rock is rotten as hell, so you might need to get a lot of rock bolts in there before you can do much."
He settled in his chair and rolled out the map. "Let's see. Now tunnel number one flooded pretty bad, and we could never afford a big enough pump to do much with that one. Tunnel number two run about four hundred feet and we pretty much had stoped the ore out of that one, before it collapsed and killed Jimmy. Shaft one was driven down from the first glory hole, and shafts being so expensive in the first place, it was the only one we ever really developed. It about drove the family bankrupt." He chuckled.
"But you know we did all right once we got it into production. Seems like that's how it always was. Get all fired up to get another part from development into production, get it producing enough so you make it pay, and then you find another vein you throw all that money into development, so that you end up broke anyhow. And that's not even accounting for the market's ups and downs."
He smiled. "But there was always enough to keep us going, to keep us together and fed, even in the Depression. I mean even if you cleared ten bucks a day that was enough to keep us fed and working. That worked pretty good until the mine caved and took my leg. That shut us down all right. With me out of it, and Jimmy dead, your dad went off to work for the Mike Horse operation, though he never did get the Sandrew out of his mind."
That was it for me. I felt sorry for the old man, but I felt sorrier for myself. The old bastard was senile, he didn't know any better, but I didn't feel like hearing anything more right then, so I stood up. Swede knew I was pissed, but Old Sandrew had that unfocused look he got in the afternoons, and there was no point in getting mad. So I stood up and folded the papers carefully before I put them back in the ratty manila folder. "I'll be back in a few days, Sandrew, and I'll bring some donuts for our coffee."
He grinned and nodded, and looked dreamily at the calendar, as Swede and I left.
In the truck, Swede turned to me and said, "How many men died in that mine again?"
"Two that we know of, Jimmy, Sandrew's brother that he mentioned. A hired man named Carl who got poisoned, maybe a year earlier. He got into a bad gas pocket and there wasn't much they could do in those days. We don't know what happened to Sandrew's grandpa, because by the time they found him it was the following spring and his body was pretty much messed up by wild animals. And of course that ain't counting the eleven Snake Indians, the ones whose skeletons Sandrew's grandpa found when he bought the rights to the mine back in 1905. Nearest anyone could tell, some rancher had his cowboys round them up, shoot them, and dump them in the gloryhole we later developed into shaft one, probably sometime in the 1880s."
Swede whistled. "Jesus that does sound like a horrible place." He was quiet in his seat. I knew what he was thinking, because he had always been kind of a spooky customer when it came to bad luck.
I let him sulk, because I had to get down to the courthouse, and file the paperwork before it closed. I drove down the steep hill on Broadway to Last Chance Gulch. I was constantly amazed at all the changes I saw in Helena. So much of what I remembered as a kid in this part of town was gone, a victim of Urban Renewal in the 1970s. I especially missed the Marlow Theater, where I had gone to matinees and eaten popcorn and Flicks candy, and the old YMCA where I swam sometimes in the winter. So much gone, so many of the old buildings and dark tight alleys vanished, like the opium smoke from the Chinamen's dens hidden under the streets. Here and there when you walked downtown, you could still see the purplish bottoms of bottles that sat in squares, and had served as skylights to the tunnels below; when they were put in, they had been clear, but the sunlight had changed the chemicals in the glass so they became as purple as the evening skies. I wondered how many of the increasing numbers of tourists that tromped downtown knew about the history beneath their feet. But then, I'm a miner, and I always wonder about the darkness beneath my feet.
It was getting late and I wondered if I would make it, but then I realized I hadn't had it notarized, and I cussed and slammed my hand on the wheel, startling Swede, who had sat there quietly since I had told him about all the dead folks associated with the mine.
"Well hell," I said, "I forgot about having to get it notarized. I guess it's a lucky thing Rose is the notary for her office, so we can get that done tonight."
Swede nodded glumly. I had to get his spirits back up, because when he was down, he was a real wet blanket.
"I tell you what," I said, "I'll treat the first round at Hap's if you're game."
There was nothing like beer for a turn around in Swede's moods, or for that matter, mine as well.
Well now that would be just dandy," Swede grinned, and he took off in his inevitable comparisons of Coors, Bud, and Hamm's. I let him, because it is an awful thing for a dying man to have a glum companion in his last endeavor.