What happened at Hell Hole Mine? Well, I suppose I know, better than most – but I still, to this day, ain’t got no idea why. It seemed a good opportunity – Martin was payin’ good wages, and you kept a percentage of everything you dug. I’d worked on my own, but you gotta be rich to do that for very long without findin’ nothin’, and if you was rich, well, then, hell – you already got yourself enough anyhow.
So, guys like me, we’d take hired work when it’d come along. Especially when it paid as good as Martin did. He was a pretty nice fellow. I don’t mean he was like a parson or nothin’, but, out in those mining towns, you find someone who treat you fair and ain’t always got a scowl on his face and lookin’ for a reason to dock your pay – you got yourself a good boss.
It weren’t like him at all, what eventually happened. I think he just snapped. Or, you wanna know what I really think – I think the mine got ‘im. There was something wrong there. Everyone knew it, after a while. Martin just didn’t want to believe it. Everyone out here, they’re always telling themselves, “Just one more month.” “Just one more loan.” Hell, in the saloons it’s “Just one more hand.” “Just one more…” – it a way of life out here. So no wonder he was able to deny what was happening. “Just one more whatever,” and the gold’d come. And that’d make it all better. Or, ‘least, he’d grab enough and high tail it outta there, and that’d make it all better – gold has a way of doing that, I hear – wouldn’t know for myself. Well, not yet – just one more year…
Speaking of Martin, his brother Eddie was even nicer. But he was almost too nice. Too nice to be this far west, I fear. Think that probably explains what happened to him. Well, really, again, it comes back to the mine – it affects different people different ways. Eddie weren’t no killer. Neither was Martin, but you knew he could if he had to. Eddie – you got the feeling that, even if he had to, he’d likely take a beatin’ before givin’ one. But he trusted Martin – Eddie’d do whatever Martin said. And when Martin sold his mighty fine blacksmith shop back east, and he asked Eddie to come along, maybe help him out – maybe to talk for him better than he could. Yeah, I reckon that’d’ve been more than enough to get Eddie to go out west.
Anyhow, so, everything started off fine. It was a normal work-for-hire job. A good one, really. But then…I don’t know if the feeling started first, and then we started thinkin’ we were hearin’ things, or the feeling started ‘cause we’d heard things.
Like, a guy come up to me one night, he ask me if anything weird ever happened when I’m down in the mine alone. Now, maybe something had, but nothing major, and I’d just discounted it. Maybe I still would’ve after what he said, but the way he said it – the look in his eyes, it weren’t idle speculation, it were frightened suspicion – I started approaching things with keener senses. All kinds of sounds and shadows down there. But, from then on, they took on a queer air.
As you’ll have in these parts, there was an Indian legend about them hills bearin’ some kind of curse. And maybe that’s why we stopped findin’ gold. But I don’t know you can pick a good two acres of land out here that don’t got some kind of curse on it or legend about it. I wasn’t told it right away, but, by and by, I ended up hearin’ about it. The particular variety for that mine was something about an evil spirit livin’ in that hill. And it would tempt you, lure you in so’n it could take your soul or somethin’ - like one of those sirens on the rocks.
So, normally, you wouldn’t pay no mind to such prattle. Least, I wouldn’t. But the way fear was pervadin’ the whole operation, you start to wonder. You know it makes no sense, but you start to wonder.
You’d get a fair bit of depth into the mine, and, I don’t wanna say certain directions was callin’ to ya, but…’less you never hit gold – or, I suppose, ‘less you always do – every miner has a superstitious feeling they can kind of divine where the gold is. But in that mine, that feeling was stronger than anywhere else I ever dug. And I don’t know if it was some magnetic force we was sensin’, or what, but – if you know guys who’ve mined a bit, you know they like to disagree on most everything has to do with mining, so it was all the more peculiar that, in that mine, after a while, seemed everyone got the same idea – everyone was diggin’ in the same direction. I thought it was weird, but I also figured, too, maybe there was somethin’ to it.
As we got closer – or, well, as we got deeper – the feeling got stronger. It was the strangest thing. I don’t know how to describe it – like a kind of strong intuition mixed with hunger mixed with temptation.
You could tell the boss man was feelin’ it, too, ‘cause where he’d been fair and none too miserly with a nod or a smile now and again, he became cantankerous and broodin’.
Also around that time, his wife, pretty, young thing, who’d been ailin’ for a while by that point with powerful headaches, up and died. So, I suppose his change of behavior makes sense.
What gold had been comin’ out the mine began dryin’ up, so commissions got scarce, and then sometimes payment would be late. Now, can’t do nothin’ with a generous salary if it’s all in the theoretical – all in promises. It was just a poor confluence of circumstances to be sure.
Now I think about it, I can’t rightly recall one man who quit the whole time. Martin was pushin’ us harder, and we resented him for it, but there was also a kind of “all in” mentality. Each of us wanted to be the first to strike the gold we could feel was just beyond our reach. Just one swing of the pickax away. So that I think men worked longer and harder then, than they even had when pay was good and gold was a more common sight.
Near as I can recall, only ones who left were fired by Martin, usually ‘cause he claimed they was pocketin’ his gold. Boy, none of us believed that – none of us had seen gold for a good while by that point.
And all the time, there was that kind of taboo feeling – like some kind of forbidden thrill – as we dug. It’ll sound weird, but, well, frankly, it felt like you was diggin’ to free someone from bein’ trapped, but, like, the person trapped was some kind of demon. Some started sayin’, since it was the Hell Hole mine, that we was diggin’ a hole all the way to hell, and if’n we didn’t stop we’d come face to face with the devil himself.
Some guys tied it back to the legend. I have to admit, first time I heard that theory, it kind of frightened me a bit. But then I thought of how many times I’ve seen a guy twist the facts to fit some story, so I put it out of my mind.
But soon enough, really crazy things started happenin’. Men’d swear they’d seen a little blonde lassie in the mine, dressed in old-time clothes – like a bonnet. I swear I saw her myself once. Only thing is, I know it’s not possible. Sure, normally, the sight of a woman there would be cause for celebration, but it was so strange that it was offputtin’. And you’d call to her, but she’d never come. Or you’d follow her, but you’d never catch her. And, sure enough, she was usually leadin’ down that same way our instinct had us all diggin’.
But she weren’t the only one you’d see. Sometimes it’d be a man. People started callin’ them the Mister and Missus of the Mine. And sometimes you’d see an Indian brave holdin’ one of them tomahawks. That right scared us – what in blazes would he be doin’ down there? But, again, it was the same with everyone else as it was with the girl – they never responded. You could never flag ‘em down. Never catch ‘em.
As that started happenin’, tensions got real high. Now it weren’t just Martin claimin’ his stuff was bein’ taken. It was the miners fightin’ for position. I remember one fight, guy nearly swung his ax at the boy who was tellin’ us lunch was ready – claimed the boy was distractin’ him when he was on the verge of strikin’ gold. I gotta admit, I knew what he meant. That feeling.
Not much later, violence did break out. The next day, I think it was. Over the same ol’ thing – “You’re crowdin’ me outta my space.” Fisticuffs. Martin fired both men, and I swear even before he was out of earshot, another fight almost broke out over who’d take over those spots.
‘Fore long, we was calling that blonde girl – the Missus of the Mine –Pandora, like in that story of Pandora openin’ that box, ‘cuz seemed like she’d let loose a bunch’a’ trouble.
So, yeah, anyway, people got angrier and angrier, and pay got later and later…eventually, food got less and less, and so that’s when things got real bad. Bunch of underpaid crazed miners on empty stomachs – finally, those that hadn’t already been kicked out for fightin’ – or complainin’ ‘bout the food – were all told to go, but not by Martin. By Eddie. Eddie was always the sensible one, and he didn’t want to promise them nothin’ he and Martin couldn’t provide. They was out of money. Said he and Martin’d just stay on and do what they could, ‘long as they could.
I survived till that last batch. It weren’t but about a week after that that Martin and Eddie took their murderous tour o’ the town. I’d gotten a job workin’ a mine down south a ways by then, so I wasn’t around, thank goodness, but it was one of those things – it was terrible, and horrendous. I couldn’t right believe men I knew could’a’ done something like that. But it also…to those of us that’d been there, it kinda made sense. If’n you dig deep enough and come face to face with Ol’ Nick himself, it’s bound to change a man.
And I suspect that might be just what they did.