by Dot Star
Around the morning fire Venus and Mars discussed their previous night’s coincidental dream.
"Do you think we’ll ever have the kind of sex we have in these dreams?" Venus asked staring into the crackling fire.
"I hope not." Mars laughed, without hesitation. "It might kill me." He thought for a moment, his chin resting on the fist of an arm propped on his knee, then added, "What intrigues me is that the places in our dreams are always real places, at least up until last night anyway."
He leaned forward, moving closer to Venus and said in a low voice. "I’m particularly interested in what was mentioned, in last night’s dream, about a mine. Do you suppose it could mean that mine up on the hill where we met?"
There was a long silence as they pondered the question. There had been too many coincidences in their history to ignore this one.
"I’ve been wondering about the scene I discovered when I first entered that mine." Mars finally thought out loud. "I kept asking myself, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’. Since the scene may have been destroyed by fire I’ve had to reconstruct it from memory."
"What was strange about it?"
"Well, initially I went into the mine to investigate the source of a howling sound I’d been hearing ever since I arrived in this valley. As we were fleeing the fire in the mine I discovered that the howling sound was caused by a crate of bottles in the narrow passageway out of the mine. I’ve since also wondered if that howling sound might have been the reason for the desertion of the valley’s inhabitants. The town of Mirage was not a mining town and that mine is the only one I’ve ever found in this valley. Maybe they didn’t even know there was a mine up there. Perhaps everyone thought the valley was haunted."
"Besides the mysterious sound, what was strange about the mine was, first: it was hand dug, probably by one person. The tunnels weren’t any bigger than they had to be. There were no obvious signs of mine tailings. Secondly, the guy lived in the mine. There was a white-washed ‘room’ with furniture in the mine. It was obviously lived in. Nobody lives in the mine, they build a shack outside. Unless . . . whoever lived there wanted to keep a real close eye on it. Most likely he was the man lying near the crate of bottles at the entrance to the room. I remember seeing a revolver on the ground near the entrance to the room as well. Thirdly, who was the second man, sitting at the table with a gun in his hand? Judging by his clothes he was no miner. What happened up there in that mine? Did the miner come home to find the man at the table? Did he put down the crate of bottles and draw on the man at the table? It looks like they shot each other dead. Was it a robber? A claim-jumper? A double-cross? And lastly, just what kind of mine is that up there anyway?"
"So, now you want to go back up there?" Venus asked, half hoping for a negative answer.
"Uh-huh. he nodded."
Venus decided to go because she didn’t want to stay down here by herself. They packed enough gear to keep Venus in relative comfort in the camp on the hill. They also took along a couple of lanterns, a folding military shovel and a geology book from the disappeared Karl’s tent. By noon they were at the mine entrance. The lanterns were lit and Venus and Mars entered the tunnel.
Upon reaching the miner’s living space the lanterns were hung and turned up bright. It appeared that the fire that had previously chased Venus and Mars out of the mine didn’t do much damage. It had been mostly smoke. All around the room there were little black dots burned into things that the flying sparks landed on. The mattress on the bed was the cause of most of the smoke. The smoke damage was mostly on the upper half of the room and ceiling.
As Mars looked around the room he saw that, yes there was a revolver on the ground where the miner had fallen and there was one on the table next to the face-down skeleton. The revolver on the ground had two rounds fired, the one on the table had three rounds spent. The miner’s shirt and vest had three small hole in the back, the skull of the man at the table had a hole in it’s forehead. It looked like the man at the table shot the miner in the back three times, and the the crate of bottles was dropped at the entrance to the room. The mortally wounded miner, given up for dead, then managed to shoot at the perhaps unsuspecting villain twice: one missed but the other was deadly.
There under the table was what he was looking for. A small balance scale. Mars took down one of the lanterns and got down on his hands and knees and crawled around in the thick layer of powdery dirt around the table. There, shining in the lantern light were little glints of gold. He brushed the dirt with his hands and discovered that this wasn’t gold dust. These were gold nuggets, ranging in size from peas to popcorn. Mars couldn’t believe his eyes. He scooped up a handful and rose to his feet.
"Venus! Look at this." He said spilling the nuggets out of his hand and onto the table.
Venus gasped, whispering, "It is a gold mine!" She looked around, suddenly feeling very paranoid.
"Nuggets of this size are extremely rare." Mars explained. "Look how many there are. There must be a large vein somewhere in this mine." Venus and Mars gathered up all the nuggets they could find on the ground around the table and wrapped them in a piece of cloth. They then went back outside to set up camp and think about their find. Once camp was set up the two sat down to think of what to do next. Mars figured the thing to do was to find the end of the most recently dug tunnel and that’s where they would find the gold. Venus didn’t want to go exploring in the tunnels but she said she could search the living space for a place where the miner might have hid more gold. They both agreed to try to stake a claim and acquire this land as soon as possible.
The next few days were spent with Venus rummaging about the living space in the mine looking for hiding places and Mars exploring the tunnels of the mine. The tunnels weren’t very long and there weren’t many of them but Mars searched every inch of them for some sign of gold or gold-bearing rock. On his hands and knees, with the brightest lantern, he found nothing, not even a hint of gold.
Mars found nothing but Venus found a box under the bed about the size of a large suitcase buried level with the floor. It was filled to the top with gold nuggets the size of popcorn, some as big as walnuts.
Where did they come from? How could all this gold be here but no sign of it in the tunnels? You’d have to dig up an entire mountain to get this much gold. Was this mine dug as a decoy?
Mars asked himself as he absent mindedly chipped at the flaking white-wash on the walls. Occasionally some of the dirt from the wall came off with it. The rock strata that this room was dug from was of a different type than the surrounding harder rock layers. That’s probably why he dug it here, the earth was crumbly, like compressed gravel.
"Wait a minute!" Mars thought out loud. "Ancient river bed, yeah, that explains the nuggets! You don't get nuggets from veins in rock. Nuggets come out of the river beds. This is part of an ancient river bed pushed up with the mountains!"
He began stripping the white-wash off the walls as fast as he could, scraping gravel out at the same time. It wasn’t long before a nugget fell at his feet.
"Yes!" Mars exclaimed. "This room is the mine! It only took an area the size of this room to yield all those nuggets. This must be the richest mine in the world!"
"And we’re the only one’s who know about it." Venus added ominously.
They closed the lid on the box under the bed and covered it with dirt, then placed the bed over it. Then they went back outside and concealed the mine entrance with branches, debris and living vines. Then over a meal, they discussed plans for their next step. Venus suggested they buy the land. They had enough gold wrapped in cloth in front of them to afford it, just from what was on the floor around the table in the mine. Mars didn’t care about the money, he just wanted to live out his life here in this forest. If he owned this land he could make that possible.
Two weeks later they were back in civilization. They cashed in some of their nuggets with coin and jewelry merchants to acquire a haircut and shave for Mars, wardrobes and a car, then a little legal advice before they set off to the county seat to look into the ownership of their hidden valley. It turned out to be a very easy affair. The land was owned by a very old man, a Mr. Courtney, who was in a convalescent home right there in town. He was a well known ‘character’ in these parts. Venus and Mars went to visit him. The nurses, after some pleading, finally allowed them in but only after stressing that they shouldn’t stay long. Mr. Courtney wasn’t expected to live much longer. He was very ill and confined to bed but he was coherent and receive his visitors as warmly as he was able. He was happy to have visitors even if they were total strangers. In due time Mr. Courtney was shown a map and confirmed that he did indeed own the land and that since he would never live to see it again, and since he had no living relatives, yes he would sell it. In fact he was happy to give it to Venus and Mars if they promised to keep it intact. If he wouldn’t live to see the land, he wouldn’t live to spend the money from the sale. Venus and Mars insisted they couldn’t accept the land for nothing, so a deal was made. They could have the land if they would promise to make Mr. Courtney’s remaining days enjoyable. The next day Venus and Mars brought in a deed of sale and a doctor was brought in to verify Mr. Courtney’s sanity and to act as a witness and the paper was signed and witnessed and hands were shaken. The deal was done.
The first thing Courtney wanted was to get out of this ‘elderly care unit’. It was as simple as pushing him out the door in a wheelchair. Then of course, he wanted to see on more time this land he had given up. Venus and Mars complied with his wishes and they drove back to the valley. Along the way Courtney, who revealed his first name to be Buck, began to tell the tale of the valley’s history. It was the story of how his great-grandfather, a trapper/farmer came to this valley in the 1830’s and prospered. It was said that he did a little prospecting for gold but never found any. He’d set up the first trading post, then the first saloon and then the first bank in the town which came to be known as Mirage. At it’s high point the town and the rest of the valley had a population of several thousand. Courtney’s father, James, became the town’s first newspaper editor and it’s first mayor. He his wife Cloretta, died giving birth to his only child, Buck. The town of Mirage got it’s name from the strange sightings around the town. People claimed to have seen all kinds of things including people who appeared out of nowhere only to disappear again and visions of strange beasts and machines. The town and the whole valley gained a reputation as being haunted. This didn’t bother Courtney’s father, who was the valley’s largest landowner and wealthiest man but it did bother most of the other inhabitants of the valley. Even as the population started to think about moving out, Buck’s father would take week-long camping trips into the upper valley alone. Buck’s father was considered a little eccentric by the townsfolk though they secretly admired him for it, being the wealthiest man in the valley yet forsaking the trappings of wealth. He dressed as a common man, in the most comfortable clothes he could find, and though he didn’t need to, he did manual labor almost every day of his life. He actually helped to physically build the town’s buildings and it’s streets. He actually wrote the newspaper he published. When he loaned people money at the bank, he was loaning them his own money. The townsfolk never thought it strange to see their mayor walking out of the woods after one of his ‘camping trips’ looking like he spent the week building a road by hand. After James retired from the political and financial life, he spent more and more time in the woods, and this was at the height of the hysteria of the haunted valley. For the people who’d seen sightings there was no explaining them away and for those who hadn’t seen them there was nothing to convince them. Then the howling started. It usually came at sunrise or sunset. It’s a spooky sound and it fills the valley. Nobody can tell what direction it comes from and nobody ever found it’s source. They say it goes on to this day. The howling started and Buck’s father never came home. The people of the valley were terror stricken, they moved out as fast as they could. There was a run on the bank, all the loans defaulted. Within two weeks there wasn’t a soul in the valley, except for Buck. That was 1910 and Buck was 15 years old. He spent the rest of his life as a ranch hand and day laborer in the next county. Even went to sea working on a steamer once.
"Wait a minute", interrupted Venus. "You mean to tell me you’re 110 years old?"
Mars broke in. "Your dad was the richest man in the valley and you spent your whole life as a pauper?" Venus and Mars snuck a guilty glance at each other.
"Say, you two must’ve heard that howling sound." Buck asked. "And you still want this valley? You plannin’ on livin’ there?"
Mars and Venus decided to level with Buck. They told him about the mine and what they had deduced from the evidence at the mine. They said they thought one of the men must’ve been Buck’s father. They told him about the case of bottles in the passageway that was responsible for the howling sound, now gone. They told him too about the gold, breaking it to him gently so not to strain his 110 year old heart. They were just finishing their confession when they arrived at the valley.
Buck took it all rather well, laughing heartily at the news that he’d actually been an extremely wealthy man all his life but didn’t know it. He laughed so hard Venus and Mars thought he might die laughing. They tried to calm him down but he only laughed harder, curled up on the back seat in the fetal position. Tears ran down his cheeks as he coughed, convulsing with laughter, pounding the seat with his fist.
Venus and Mars couldn’t watch, it scared them. He was laughing too hard.
"To think of all the times I thought the only buck I had was my name."
Again he burst into uncontrollable laughter, hacking, coughing and gasping for air until no more sound came from the back seat. Venus and Mars turned around and saw Buck curled up on the back seat holding his arms wrapped around his stomach and a big beaming smile on his face . . . dead as a doornail.
"Oh no." moaned Venus. "Not another one." At that moment the car began to rock violently back and forth like some giant was pushing it. Venus and Mars looked out the car windows, then at each other and intoned together.
"Earthquake?!" They held on and rode it out. In the back seat, Buck rolled onto the floor face down. After a few moments it stopped and they got out of the car, aimlessly walking around it confused.
Mars was thinking, Here we go again; me, her, disasters and dead people.
"Guess we better bury him, huh?" Venus said solemnly.
"How are we going to bury him without a shovel?"
Mars thought for a moment. He remembered that there was a landslide not far from this spot. They could put him at the base of the slide and easily push more dirt on top of the body. Eventually the mountain would cover the body with much more. Being 110 years old, there wasn’t much of ol’ Buck Courtney and it wasn’t a hard carry to get him a couple hundred yards to the slide. Mars noted that the slide was much larger than he’d last seen it. In fact parts of it were still coming down, probably from the quake. Venus said a few words over the body before they caused a mini-slide which quickly covered Buck’s smiling face forever.
They were very near the notch in the valley where Mars and his friends, following the river, first entered this place. Mars looked around. Something was different about this place. He quickly scrambled up a tree to get a better view. Now he could see it; there where the river flowed out of the valley through a narrow gorge, a huge landslide had blocked the river. Landslides on both sides of the gorge came together and filled the entire gap. There was no longer an outlet for the river. Mars came down out of the tree and broke the news to Venus.
We’re soon to be the proud owners of a lake.
Way Out West ©1993 Martin Scherer. Venus & Mars © 1995 Martin Scherer. E-mail: Scherer@tesserak.net