by Paul Collett and Matt McHugh
The American Southwest is fertile ground for only a few specific things – cacti, rattlesnakes, and legends.
Twenty miles north of Cincinnati lies a town that’s never been large enough, either in population or legend, to earn a place on most maps. But Black Rock, Ohio, is where the legend of Martin Dixon and his Hell Hole Mine began.
Martin had two things – ability and determination. Even one of those is enough to take a man far in life. Both together practically guarantee one his fair share of experiences worthy of recalling around a campfire.
Martin’s ability lay not in figuring, nor in persuasion of men. Rather, it lay in the hard work of bending iron to his will – which, it so happened, was also to the liking of his clients, who rewarded him with minimal haggling and repeat business. At a muscular six-foot-five and with skin closer to the color of the rock the town was named after than to the pale sandstone complexion possessed by the majority of its inhabitants, saying Martin stood out would be an understatement
He and his brother, Solomon, had been born slaves. As teenagers, they escaped the plantation and made it across the Ohio River. They were lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Harold Townsend, a respected and sympathetic blacksmith. He hid them, and taught them how to read, as well as his trade – blacksmithing.
He was teaching his son, Eddie, both those skills as well, though more so the former, as Eddie was still a child. The Dixon brothers took to the trade quickly.
When the Civil War broke out, the Dixon brothers were some of the first to volunteer. While the war dragged on, Harold’s health was failing to the point that he was barely able to maintain his business – it was just hanging on by the time the war ended.
With their newfound, and hard-won, freedom, the Dixon brothers wanted to set up their own blacksmith shop. Though ailing, Harold was able to provide them what little help they needed.
When Eddie was old enough to help out with the business full time, Harold encouraged him to join the Dixon brothers – he saw their business growing, and it wouldn’t be long until he would be closing the doors of his shop and directing all his customers to the Dixon brothers anyway.
The brothers were more than happy to have Eddie as their bookkeeper – a task Solomon had been becoming too busy to continue to perform without help. And Eddie, whom they saw as something of a little brother, was well suited for the job.
The business grew. Knowing that Eddie used a good portion of his pay to help support his father, the Dixon brothers made him the best paid bookkeeper for miles around, figuring they owed Harold almost as much as Eddie did. Martin wed a woman named Amelia several years after the business began.
The brothers did good work, as did Eddie, and the business thrived. Time passed quickly, and, after twenty years of hard work, Martin and Solomon had accumulated a sizable savings.
“It’s time to go west. Time to make our real fortune,” Martin announced one day, confidently optimistic. Solomon, with nothing to tie him to the area, quickly agreed. And it didn’t take Eddie long to join up once the offer was extended to him, as well.
Thus the three of them left the shop and, along with Martin’s wife, Amelia, headed over 2,000 miles west, to a town just east of the California/Nevada border, bearing the welcoming name of Graveyard Valley.
“Graveyard Valley?” Amelia asked, as they passed the sign into town.
“I knew you’d be superstitious about it, is why I didn’t tell you,” Martin responded. “Even someone who’s regular-stitious would wonder about that name,” she said.
“Far as I can tell, it just used to be an Indian burial ground.” “My, it just keeps on getting better!” Amelia said.
“The important thing is, there’s gold here. It ain’t gonna do any good lyin’ in the ground. And us gettin’ it out sure ain’t gonna harm no one who’s already dead. You want, you can use your share to build a castle for those Indians ‘still remain.”
“Maybe I will!”
Solomon and Eddie laughed, and then so did Martin. “That’s my Amelia, always thinking of others.” Finally, even she cracked a smile.
Upon their arrival in town, the quartet was informed the sheriff was away on business, but that they simply had to apply with the county claims office to stake a claim.
For several days, they surveyed the area. One spot continued to pique their interest to such an extent that they wondered what they were missing – if it were as good as it seemed, it would’ve long ago been taken.
Since Eddie and Solomon were the more unassuming, they were elected (by a vote of Martin-to-none) to make inquiries regarding the fallowness of the area. The best they could ascertain was that the sheriff was a smooth talker who convinced people that area was not in their best interest to mine.
“Probably ‘cause that cunning fox plans to keep it available until he has the resources to stake his own claim.” Martin surmised. “It’s lucky for us we arrived just when we did, with him away.”
Then, in short order, the brothers staked their claim with the local office and set about acquiring supplies and employees.
When the sheriff finally returned, he went about trying to convince Martin to take his claim elsewhere. Though failing to offer specific details, he said it was “bad land” and that no one would work for them if he had anything to say about it.
Solomon, ever the peacemaker, agreed to accompany the sheriff to the county office and see what options existed.
However, when they found that there were none, save to leave their claim unused, and pay to stake an entirely new one, Solomon knew the matter would be settled in Martin’s mind, and the sheriff found himself without much viable argument at his disposal, and ceased his entreating.
After some prying from Solomon about the cause of his strong inclination that the brothers move their claim, the sheriff revealed that there was a local Indian legend associated with that hill – specifically, that a demon straight out of hell lived right inside it.
Although Martin laughed when Solomon related the news, it unsettled Eddie.
“If something should happen up there,” the sheriff said, “don’t expect me, nor my deputies, to come to your aid. I will not put my men’s lives at risk.”
Martin was no stranger to unequal treatment, so he only nodded – it had always been his expectation to remain self- sufficient, so the sheriff’s lack of support did little to change any plans he had.
So the brothers began their operation, often employing men who had staked their own claims in the area but had discovered a need for steady income before they’d discovered gold. Despite the valley’s name and the inherent hints of supernatural disfavor, the brothers were told by these experienced men that none knew of anything supernaturally peculiar or queer having occurred in the valley.
As the operation began in earnest, the area seemed to be proving as rich as Martin had hoped – as they dug, they found hints of gold early and often. As they went deeper, they entered a healthy period of sustained finds of both gold and silver.
However, this success did not come without some complications – mainly, that people began seeing things. Strange things. Impossible things. Just those things that those same miners had assured Martin, Solomon, and Eddie that they had never seen in the valley beforehand.
It was also at this time that Amelia fell ill. It began with a cough and achiness – nothing too abnormal. She took to bed for a few days’ rest, and no one was much concerned.
The miners would report certain visions – especially of an Indian warrior and of a blonde, pioneer woman in outdated clothing they nicknamed “Pandora,” because the unsettling feeling experienced by those who saw her made them fear they’d opened Pandora’s box.
Another oddity that occurred was that, as time wore on, it turned out that all the miners seemed to be digging in the same spot, which Martin found unusual and, as that spot seemed to be yielding nothing in the way of precious metals, inexplicable.
“You know miners,” shrugged Eddie, “they’re superstitious. They don’t want another guy getting to the gold they could be getting.”
“But they also don’t want to dig in a barren spot. They’re workin’ on commission. What makes them think that spot’s so bountiful?”
Though Solomon didn’t voice any objection, it was evident from his expression that it didn’t sit right with him, either.
Neither Eddie nor Martin could come up with a response to Martin’s question other than that was where most of the visions had been reported, or at least that was where those men who followed the apparitions usually lost sight of them.
Meanwhile, rather than recovering, Amelia was getting worse.
Which meant Martin was, too – Amelia’s illness had a terrible effect on his temperament. From being one of the better- liked mine owners in the area, he became demanding and intolerant.
The men, however, were getting both worse and better. Arguments broke out more frequently – Solomon and Eddie attributed that to delayed payments due to both Amelia’s illness and the decreased income the mine was producing. Yet, paradoxically, the men were also working harder than ever.
One of the itinerant miners, a man by the name of Mitchell Earnst, recorded an account of his experiences at the mine that well illustrates a miner’s perspective on this contradictory time.
Around the time it’d been nearly three months since any precious metal had last been dug up, Amelia succumbed to her illness. With the funeral costs following the medical costs, and the mine having dried up, Martin had to let everyone go, so that the work of the entire mine was left to only the three mourning men – Solomon, Eddie, and Martin – slogging through the mine, making what little progress they could.
They even found themselves digging in the same spot where the miners had concentrated. Martin seemed to have convinced himself that the men had been finding gold down there, but pocketing it, which explained their strong desire to stay on despite belated payments and decreasing rations, and their increased squabbles about digging in a specific area that they reported had yielded nothing.
He suspected them of still returning to the mine, at night, and digging, which explained why he, Solomon, and Eddie had yet to find any gold, and why they heard whispering and felt unfriendly eyes on them.
As things continued to get progressively worse, Martin’s digging revealed a cavern.
Eddie and Martin made quick work of the rock separating it from their tunnel, until the opening was large enough to permit access. With their pick axes and their lanterns, they entered.
What they found down there was the eternal blue flame, at which the Shakani was keeping a vigil.
The Shakani appeared to them in the guise of Elizabeth, the hearty pioneer woman Satinka had considered so self- confident and brave. The same woman the miners had nicknamed Pandora.
It seemed to Martin, Solomon, and Eddie that there before them sat a woman whose clothes were half-a-century out of date and who had somehow accessed a deep hollow it had taken their crew of strong, experienced men months to dig down to. A woman who sat before a flame that seemed to spring from bare, rocky ground, neither fire nor coals to fuel it.
Perhaps the possibility of a separate access point from this cavern to the outside world subconsciously occurred to them. Or perhaps they were so focused on discovering more about this woman that that logical question crossed not even their subconsciouses. Perhaps even the same impulse that led them to dig there pushed them to delve deeper without questioning it.
Sensing something terribly wrong, Martin reached for his pistol. Solomon, however, reached out and lowered the gun, then stepped toward the woman, who was sitting there, peaceful, still, eyes closed.
“Miss?” he asked.