Silver Fever (a story in a high country)
Up in the Snowy Mountains
He dreamed of impish voices speaking to him and awakened to humming mosquitoes and plaintive notes from spring peepers in clumps of alpine marshes high above hazy valleys. Grassy mounds bedecked with miniature bug-ridden flowers absorbed the strong sun outside his cabin window. If only those hissing mosquitoes would blow away to the snowfields of higher jagged ridges. Bugs were going to get the better of him, he knew, up at the mine. His partner busied himself turning gooey flapjacks and brewing some strong mountain coffee. They poured melted brown sugar over the flapjacks and ate like horses.
With his stomach full and his mind somewhat relaxed after a disturbing night of bad dreams, he and his partner trudged up the hill by a flower-lined creek to the mine shaft.
"Just a few more days, Jake, and we should hit pay-dirt."
"Well, I hope so. This place sort of gives me the willies--especially the past few nights. I aint been sleepin' right. Been hearin' little voices or somethin.'"
"Oh, its just because yer anxious to get that silver, Jake, that's all."
He heard them again. Those voices. Those impish voices.
"Yep, Jake. Ya take this here ore from the pit we've dug and then separate it out with our steam boiler, why..."
What was it they were trying to say? Something--no, it couldn't be--that we humans...
"Jake, I think we've got somethin' down there. Take a looksey, will ya..."
We humans are very much under the rule of insects, and those frog notes...
"Jake, for Christ sake stop lookin' so bug-eyed and take this here ore--look at it. See the silver specks??"
"What to specks prove?" he asked his partner Bill.
It doesn't take long for a man to lose what he thinks sets him apart--apart from the impish world that is controlling him.
"Jake, are you ill or somethin'?"
"Naw, Bill I just been thinkin.' Not thinkin'-thinkin' but some other kind--don't quite know how to explain."
A whole swarm of them came, and he left with them while Bill climbed out of the pit shouting, "Jake, Jake, come back here you damn fool."
How the partners met
Bill knew Jake wasn't the right partner for him long before they came to these snowy mountains in search of silver. Jake's heart never seemed to be in it. Still, he wondered where Jake ran off to. But no siree, he was too busy to look for his damn fool partner. He had those rock chunks to put through the steam-operated crusher. Then he had to examine all of the bright specks that would separate out.
Evening caught Bill unawares as he finished crushing rocks for the day. He hoped the specks would make him rich once he got back to an assay office in Laramie. His heart palpitated. Maybe he should never have mentioned to Jake that he had a weak heart. That Jake, what a fool to go running off into the woods. Was he still alive? Was he playing some trick? Who cares if a fool doesn't want his fair share.
Back at his cabin, Bill took out of the cupboard some canned lima beans and diced ham. He threw a lump of butter into a weathered pot, dumped the lima beans and ham into it and heated them up on a wood fire outside the crude cabin. "Yes siree, after I get my silver, I'll pack up the mules and wagon and head down the Libby Creek Trail to the Plains of Laramie," Bill said to himself. He dumped his steaming meal on to his plate and savored each morsel. He always thought limas had potatoes inside of them when he was a kid. He stared out the window to watch the cold snowy mountains darken in silence except for the snowfields; they seemed to give off a blue light under a crescent moon. As evening chill slithered into his cabin, he crawled under some horse blankets.
"What's the matter with that damn fool Jake," Bill asked himself. He wondered if there actually was something to his hearing little voices. But a man's imagination up here in a high country can take over if he doesn't watch out.
Bill rolled and tossed on his hard bunk with stars peeping through a glassless window. But his mind lingered in the bright daylight back in Nebraska where he had met Jake in the Union Pacific Terminal of Omaha.
"Where ya headed," Bill asked a stranger on a sunny platform.
"Laramie, partner," Jake replied as he noticed Bill rubbing his chest.
"Ya heard about the boom out in Centennial Mr....?
"Jake Brusher's the name."
"Bill. Bill Stewart here."
"Yes sir, Bill, I've heard about the boom and quit teachin' a bunch of Indians back in Carlisle and decided to do somethin' worth while."
"There ya are Mister Brusher. Me, too, I quit repairin' steamboat engines in Cincinnati. Thought I'd put my expertise toward good money, not just toyin around," he said rubbing his chest.
They smoked rum cigars as they raced across rolling Nebraska with its sparkling Platte River keeping them company going westward.
"What was it like teachin' a bunch of Indians?"
"Strange, that's what. Some of them never showed up to class cause they didn't like dissectin' frogs. Said they were sacred critters because they kept their bellies full of fly-in-the-sky demons."
Bill tossed on his hard cabin bunk at the thought of fly-in-the-sky-demons.Then he saw a thousand of them with little faces resembling Jake's.But he realized he was really looking out the train window and seeing Jake's face reflected on it several times from a mirror in the coach.
"Well, Jake, I worked with float-in-the-boat demons, a bunch of over-anxious bastards. Every time their engines got overworked haulin' coal upriver, they'd come whimperin' to me. Well if ya'd stop haulin' so damn much coal--more than the boat could take--ya wouldn't keep breakin' down!"
The train roared over dry land prairie with a few sod huts in the distance. God it was lonely looking country out there. Bill slapped a mosquito on his neck and woke up shouting, "Insects," Damn Insects!" He got up under the cold stars to fix some coffee to settle his nerves but it only caused a palpitation of his heat. Why so many mosquitoes? Isn't it too cold for them?
Since the sky never seemed to lighten, he returned to bed to his horse blankets and dozed off again thinking, half dreaming of their stay in Laramie at the Johnson Hotel. They walked over to the Union Pacific repair shop and bought an old engine to cart off to those glaring mountains west of town.Both of them invested their savings in this old engine, a pair of mules, an old steel-rimmed wagon, shovels, picks, axes, and staple food stuffs.
"God, this prairie's a lonesome place, Bill," Jake mused as they slowly inched their way across a vast space leaving Laramie behind to the east. "So damn much emptiness--a place fit for Indians, but sure as hell not for us!"
"Awh, Jake, wait till we get all that silver ore up there."
"Bill, I'm not sure "Up There" will be any better than this God-forsaken place. It looks like up there I'll get the willies or somethin.'"
"Jake, think of the silver!"
Bill woke up in the cabin slapping another mosquito on his forehead, but it was still pitch dark and he didn't want to get up again and be all by himself under those cold stars. He closed his eyes. He and Jake were winding their way up over Libby Flats toward Lake Marie when the mule team stumbled across some quartzite with glittering specks in it.
"Jake, Here's our spot! Let's set up camp and get a diggin.' There's plenty of trees to build our shelter. Won't be fancy but it will be shelter." Mosquitoes and other bugs swarmed all over.
"Don't ya think we should keep goin' higher to a cooler, less buggy area?"
"Naw, Jake, this is the spot."
As Bill peacefully re-lived their adventure of building a mountain-man cabin and digging a pit some six-feet deep, all of the sudden he heard a hideous shriek and felt tiny, clammy paws over his face and body. Crazy Jake had thrown a gunny sack full of little insect-eating frogs onto poor Bill who grasped for breath and felt a stabbing pain move up his arm to his chest. Just what Jake hoped for. He had the perfect excuse for coming back alone with all that silver ore--his poor old partner died of a heart attack. No one would suspect foul play!
But to Jake's dismay his loud shriek had frightened the mules away.
Silver mining started with a bang in 1876 with the founding of Centennial, Wyoming, a mining hub. This story was written on location in the Snowy Range of Wyoming.