The Mad Miner

September 26, 2022

“Mind me now Jeb! Mind me what I tell you son!” Those words rang in Jeb’s ears as he snapped awake from an uneasy sleep. He laid there for a minute, breathing hard and looking around his dark cabin trying to get his wits about him. It took a minute, but his breathing slowed as did his heartbeat.

He wiped the sweat off his forehead and rubbed his eyes. He thought to himself that it had been a while since he woke up like that, and like every time before, he couldn’t remember the dream. The only thing he could remember from it was looking up at his father, standing over him as if Jeb were in a hole, and the old man uttering that phrase.

He laid there before telling himself, “Today is the day.” Jebediah “Jeb” Mathias Cobb was born into a hard-working farm family in an area of Ohio that was still growing, as was he. He would joke in later days that “We grew up together “.

Jeb and his family were not rich by any means, but they never went without, or wanted for much. The ground they worked was fertile, and always enjoyed high yields. The livestock thrived. Yes, the family farm always did well and provided not only for them, but the surrounding families, Jeb’s mother was a firm believer in giving unto others.

Growing up on the Cobb farm was good. Jeb sat at the edge of his bed rubbing his forehead relishing in the memories that just overtook him, but trying to remember the dream, which caused him restless nights. “Mind me now” he uttered to himself as he stood up. He looked around his modest one room cabin as the sun rose and broke through the window above his table.

Jeb shivered a bit and realized that the fire in the stove was almost done and needed to be stoked. He walked over, grabbing a piece of kindling and thinking as he bent over and opened the stovetop, “thank the lord my riches haven’t spoiled me.” Jeb chuckled, amused with his clever joke as the fire caught.

After finishing breakfast, Jeb hurried to get everything together for the journey, it was getting late in the season and the rains would be moving in. If he didn’t get started early, he’d be washed out before he could get started. He knew the wetter it got, the slower and more grueling the road ahead would be. God, how he hated the rain.

As much as he loved the farm, and as good as it had been to his family, Jeb dreamed of striking it rich. His father did not approve, and his mother was terrified at the thought of his leaving, but Jeb had finished his schooling and he couldn’t let anything stand in his way. He had grown physically too. He just knew that gold waited for him out there, enough that his fortune would rival railroad tycoons.

Jeb finished packing his bag with the few clothes that he owned, his mother’s picture and his bible. He drank in one last look at home from the porch steps, shook his father’s hand and kissed his crying mother. Jeb promised to write to her every week and vowed that the next time she saw him, he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams.

Jeb’s father didn’t have too much to say to him. Jeb didn’t have much to say to him either. He knew that promises meant less to his father than the gold Jeb was setting out to find. He would often say that gold was one of the many tools the devil would use to tempt a fool to his grave. The only real treasure to be found on this earth, his father would continue, was family and an honest day’s work.

As he walked towards the gate, Jeb stopped and glanced at the well. He stood still for a moment, almost frozen. He shook his head, snapping himself out of that little daze and turned back to the porch, to see his mother still there, holding out one last hope he’d change his mind. His father had gone back into the house. “Today is definitely the day!” He reassured himself before turning his back and setting out. It would only be a day’s ride to town and Jeb would catch the next train west. “Next stop, glory and riches!”

Jeb was concerned as the train pulled into the small, humble station. The rotted sign with bold letters but faded paint read “BRAVADO.” The rotted sign undercut the boldness of the name and of the letters in which it was written. He wanted to reach the coast, but this was as far that his money would take him, so “BRAVADO” would have to make do. Besides, it was destiny that led him here.

Jeb made his out of the crowded passenger car and surveyed the small but busy town that stood before him. He also cast a glance at the hills that stood silently behind the bustling town and grinned. “Now, where to begin” he said to himself.

There was a row of store fronts along the main road, mostly clothing and the standard daily sundries which held little appeal to him outside of their necessity at camp. He took note of blacksmith recognizing they would be the spot to find most of the tools he would need but did not already have. “I hope they don’t see to it I go broke before I can get rich!” He chuckled. Before he could afford provisions, he’d need to find means to afford them. That’s when he spied the Long Branch Saloon. “That’s where I need to be.” He thought.

Jeb walked down the boardwalk clutching his small suitcase and in it, everything he owned tightly. He was in search of a well to do and generous benefactor in the saloon, but he also knew that towns like this were home to more than their fair share of downtrodden souls desperate for one more crack, especially at a hapless newcomer’s expense. He paused and collected himself “I can do this” he muttered before walking through the swinging doors.

What greeted him inside was nothing like what he’d expected. No men in their best clothes sitting and discussing business, nor ladies in their finest tending to them. In fact, it was just the opposite. Instead of a vibrant, colorful painting depicting a hub of intrepid gentlemen, excitedly discussing their various and lucrative interests, he found a silent collection of scowls poorly drawn on dirty, sunbaked faces. Jeb had never felt so uncomfortable and out of his element as he did now. He stood quietly, surveying his new surroundings, and rethinking every decision that had led him to this place.

As the piano player started to slowly play, the scowling sunbaked faces realized the newcomer wasn’t there to collect a debt, or start a fight, and returned to their business. At first, Jeb didn’t realize that he was slowly being drawn to a small two chair table in the back, where two older gentlemen were sipping their beers and quietly talking. “Could be the biggest strike in these parts. Hell, could be the biggest strike anywhere for that matter” The first one said as he hit the spittoon and the took a drink” His friend concurred adding “Could put this town on the map.” Jeb could barely contain his excitement; this is what he’d come here for!

“Excuse me gentlemen, but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I am new to town and looking for work. For a stake in your claim, I’d be willing to work for you.” They shared a glance and nodded for Jeb to grab a chair from a neighboring table.

“And what exactly would we stand to gain in exchange for giving you a stake in our mine?” The elder of the two men asked.

“I don’t have much’” Jeb answered emptying his pockets, which produced the last five dollars he had. “But what I can offer you is a long day on a strong back. I’d also be willing to take nothing more than enough money for food and supplies and a modest share of the mine’s production for my work.”

The two men consulted silently before the younger asked “and what do you consider a modest share?”

“How about $10 for initial supplies, $5 a week for food and 20% of the mine’s production? I’d be doing all the work and you gentlemen could reap the lion’s share of the reward without lifting a finger.” Jeb offered.

“A bit stiff for my taste” the younger man rebutted before the older of the two raised a finger interrupting him.

“What else you got in that bag kid?” He asked.

“Not much” Jeb replied. “A change of clothes, a picture of my mother.”

“She’s pretty “the second man said. He must’ve caught Jeb’s expression at that statement, immediately straightening up and clearing his throat before putting it back.

“What do we have here?” The older man asked digging under Jeb’s clothes and producing a tattered, yet well cared for bible that still carried its leather wrap and bookmark.

“My bible. My mother said to read it everyday day and keep it close. Said it will be my salvation.”

“Indeed, it would” the man said as he gently unlaced the leather wrap and opened it up. He felt around the cover and smiled as he pulled out a note, which Jeb’s mother had put in there for him to find for his “salvation “. “Tell you what” the man continued. “We’ll pay you $5 for supplies, and we’ll give you 10% of the mine’s proceeds. I’ll pay for your meal here tonight, but you’re on your own from there. In exchange, you’ll work that hole every day for the next month.

“10% for 100% of the work?” Jeb protested. “Mr., no disrespect, but if I was interested in working my fingers to the bone for nothing Id” …

“You’d what?” The old man snarled. “Listen here son. If you had a better offer, my guess is you’d have taken it. If I’m right, you came to me with nothing less a picture of your mother and not a day’s experience working a mine, asking me for something. Now, pretty as my impolite partner here may find your mother to be, I’m willing to wager I could pay any of the bums in here with experience mining a claim less for a day’s work than 10% of what that mine is going to yield. So, if you want to call yourself “partner,” you’ll take my offer of 10% for the next month. If you produce like I expect you to, my partner here and I will discuss increasing your share. If you do not, you’ll load your ass back onto that train with nothing, run home to that lady in the picture, and tell her you couldn’t cut it.”

Jeb bit his lip, he didn’t like the man’s offer but he had to admit, he was right. “You have a deal Mr., but I’ll want your word that you’ll increase my share if I make good after 30 days.”

“You have it.” The man replied. “But you’ll leave me that bible as a deposit for that $5 advance on supplies. I imagine its worth more to you than anything else you have on you. You make good, and you’ll get it back in addition along with your increase. Besides, that bible ain’t going to do you a bit of good down there.”

“Agreed” Jeb nodded. He wasn’t quite sure what the man meant by his remark about the bible, but Jeb got what he was after and he knew soon enough, he’d have it back. The men quickly handed Jeb a five dollar note for supplies, another dollar to cover his meal, and a map to the mine.

The next morning, Jeb made the short walk from his camp to the mine. The sky was dark and threatened an afternoon storm, but the weather did not match his spirits. After such a successful first day, Jeb was surer than ever that he was on his intended path. In thirty short days, he would have a pocket full of money and a 20% stake in a real gold mine.

As he familiarized himself with the exterior of the mine, he found that his run of good fortune seemed to continue. A pickaxe lay just outside the opening of the main shaft, dirty and well worn, but in one piece! A man could never have enough equipment, especially when he only had five measly dollars to get him started, so Jeb looked to the sky and gave the good lord a nod of thanks for his continued kindness. As he did, a fat drop of rain landed directly in his eye. Jeb figured this must be the lord telling him to get his ass down in that hole and get to work. “Say no more, dear lord” Jeb smiled before turning into the mine.

As the rain steadily increased its pace outside, Jeb set to work lighting his candles and torches just inside the mouth of the mine. He could see plainly now, but he didn’t have any idea how deep his work would take him, or how quickly the gathering storm would blot out his natural light. Staring down the throat of the mine also gave him the chills. Between that ahead and the thunder behind, he wouldn’t mind the company of a warm glow.

Jeb had about finished with the candles when he was startled by a deep groan emanating from the belly of the mine. The hair stood tall on the back of his neck. He’d heard stories of folks becoming disoriented and imagining things in mines, but he was barely inside, and this sounded so real.

He didn’t know what it was, but Jeb figured it wouldn’t hurt to take a few steps out of the mine, clear his head, then return to begin work. He began to ease his way backward, toward the mouth of the cave, careful to keep an eye out for the source of that groan just in case it was not his imagination after all. When he finally felt foolish enough, Jeb turned on his heel to walk the last few steps from the mine when he felt something kick off his boot. Jeb looked down and found two sizable pieces of gold laying at his feet.

Jeb was elated. He hadn’t yet swung an axe or moved so much as a shovel full of dirt, and he’d already found gold! His adventure must truly be blessed! Jeb danced there alone in the mouth of the cave and howled at the top of his lungs for joy. He held those two pieces in his hands and dreamed about all they could do for him. He smiled at how proud his father would be.

Jeb stared down the shaft as he had every morning for the last three years since he’d arrived. Three years and those two nuggets he found that first day with no work at all, were still the biggest he’d ever pulled out. He hated that mine… and he loved it. “Goddamn worthless hole in the earth” he cursed under his breath as though he were afraid the mine might hear him.

His stake in the mine had grown to an equal share over those three years, not from any degree of good fortune in the mine, or good nature on the part of his partners, however. The older of the two died just days before they were set to meet to discuss increasing his share after his 30 days. Jeb hadn’t found much more than those two nuggets, but it would have been just enough to earn him his bump he figured.

Jeb assumed the old man’s death would be a bad break, that now he would be unable to keep his promise and the younger of the two would take advantage. Instead, the old man left a note saying that, in the event of his death, he’d left instructions to be buried with the bible Jeb’s mother gave him. The letter went on to say that it had been his salvation, and that an equal share of the mine was the least he could offer Jeb in exchange. At the time, Jeb thanked his lucky stars, and blessed the old eternal soul for his kindness and generosity. It was only now that Jeb realized his initial inclination to have been more accurate.

The mine groaned up at Jeb as it did most days, “At least I know I’ll find some gold today” Jeb shrugged as he started down the shaft. Jeb had come to the belief about a year ago, that the mine was alive or at least in some way conscious or possessed. He’d even had a little too much bourbon and swore it out loud to those who would listen a time or two on a few occasions when he’d come to town to gather supplies. “It’s true damn it!” He would exclaim loudly, to the laughter of the patrons around him. “I walked up to that mine with the clothes on my back. First day I find enough gold just lying there to help me get supplies and get set up. Just enough to keep me alive. It’s done the same ever since! Always just enough, and never a grain more!”

The rain was now a steady downpour, and there was a small clap of thunder as he entered. He stopped immediately inside the mouth and grabbed the lantern off the wall. It was full, and the wick was dry. Jeb scowled at his “good luck” and began his descent.

Another groan erupted from its belly, but this time a strong wind followed. The wind was strong enough to Knock Jeb off his feet and he dropped his pick and his lantern in the process. Jeb sat up and tried to gather his senses. He groped around and found his pick. Grabbing at the wall, Jeb righted himself and waited for his eyes to adjust, they never did. “I always told people that I knew this mine so well, I could work it with my eyes closed!” Jeb clucked. Now he actually had to do it.

Jeb tried to estimate about how far down he was, “couldn’t be that far” he though to himself. He wasn’t happy about hist situation, but he was sure that he would be out soon. Then something happened that deeply concerned Jeb, water. He could feel it running down the wall and pooling at his feet.

Panic began to set in. He had walked this path countless times in the three years he had worked this mine, but now it was different. The water obscured the path beneath his feet. It poured down the wall as he tried to feel his way back up. What had been familiar only minutes ago, now bared no resemblance to the mine he’d worked in for the last three years.

Jeb’s breathing started to quicken as the water started hitting his hand more forcefully. He paused, his world was spinning, instinct pulled him to go right. “That can’t be, I need to go straight. I can’t be more than one hundred yards from the entrance!” He followed that thought and ran directly into the rock wall ahead. He was lost.

The world around him went silent. He tried to keep his composure and relocate a familiar path. The pouring water ran down faster still. Jeb gripped the pick in his other hand and swung it wildly, hoping it would gain purchase so he could pull himself ahead. Then he heard the words “Mind me now.”

Jeb stopped dead. Why now? Why was he returning to this memory that he thought he put behind him. Looking over his shoulder as he was leaving to see his mother crying, the sound of the door closing as his father went inside. Then again that phrase, “that worthless hole in the earth.” The phrase finally struck a chord in Jeb! He began to remember; the well!

Memories of a time when Jeb was just a boy began to return in fuller detail. He recalled that a drought, a specifically terrible one had hit their town. All the old wells were choked and dried up. The family scoured their property for a new source close to home but to no avail.

Jeb recalled a particular morning in which he arose to find his father digging right outside in the front yard. His father was a man possessed. “I know its here, now get your lazy ass out here and help me” he screamed at Jeb (something his father rarely did) before that drought.

For days, Jeb and his father worked that hole. Jeb’s father dug deep down into heavy clay; deeper than they had on any of their other exploratory holes. His father would fill bucket after bucket and Jeb would climb up and down the ladder, emptying every bucket that his father filled. Bucket after bucket, rung after rung on the old ladder. Each bucket heavier than the last, and every climb one more rung on the old ladder. They were working themselves to the point of exhaustion and then one day, Jeb’s father simply gave up.

It had been days since they last worked the well in the front yard, or any well for that matter. They had enough to drink for now, barely, but Jeb knew the crops and cattle wouldn’t last much longer if things didn’t change. One morning, he approached his father cautiously. His father sat at the table clutching his coffee cup. “Father, are we digging today?” he asked. His father writhed his hands, stood up and yelled “There ain’t no water in that worthless hole! Damn my wasted time!” before storming out the door.

Jeb didn’t know what to do, he went to the window to see where his father would go and was surprised to see him frozen in the front yard staring into the well. “Boy, come here, do you hear that?” Jeb approached cautiously, “hear what father?” “Water! There’s water in the well!” Jeb peered over the well but couldn’t hear anything. He turned to tell his father but before he could get the words out, his father grabbed the scruff of his shirt and tossed Jeb into the well!

Now, Jeb worked his way along the wall, just as he remembered clawing his way up the wet clay walls. His father had been right, there was water in the bottom of that well. In fact, after he came to, Jeb recalled that he nearly drowned in that dark well. Jeb would never forget the image he found, looking up at his father as he uttered that phrase “How about that worthless hole in the ground now!” It haunted him.

Fortunately, in that nightmare, Jeb now found strength. He remembered searching the floor of that well for a rope, a piece of timber, anything he could use to climb or claw his way out. He remembered finding his father’s pick. He remembered swinging it into the stiff clay overhead to create a foothold. He remembered climbing onto the newly created ledge before reaching back overhead to create a new one. Jeb climbed his way out of one worthless hole that way, and now he would do it again.

Jeb finally found a natural shelf and caught his breath upon climbing onto it. His fingers searched in the darkness for his next move but could only feel the passage start to narrow. He pulled up the pick and clawed at the wall in front of him. At last Jeb either found or created (at this point, in the darkness, he could not tell) a small opening, he could feel it.

Jeb swung his pick feverishly at that small hole. He struck at the wall ferociously, gaining hope as began to feel the water that he hated splash against him. He had to be getting close to breaking through to the surface.

Suddenly, each swing began to come more easily. The narrow passage he had been in suddenly didn’t seem so strangling. Then he saw it. Small at first, but there it was. Light.

Encouraged, Jeb plowed forward. Each swing slung water back on him. Warm water. Thick, sticky water. The light got brighter, and the ground grew softer. With one last might swing, Jeb broke through; and emerged from the hole into blinding sunlight.

Jeb breathed heavily as his mind raced. The world seemed to spin faster than he’d known it to. He was surrounded by voices he was only beginning to comprehend. He heard a woman scream and another sobbing uncontrollably behind him. Jeb dropped to his knees, overstimulated by it all.

Jeb’s soaked hands fumbled around him on the ground, hoping to offer balance. As they did, he surprised to find boardwalk and not dirt beneath them. He looked down puzzled as to how it could be the boardwalk he felt when only moments ago, he had been at the bottom of a deep black mine. He threw up at the site of them.

The sheriff and two deputies yanked Jeb to his feet and roughly clasped shackles onto his blood-soaked wrists. Jeb looked over his shoulder as they began to drag him away. There he saw the doors to the tavern covered in blood and broken to pieces. As what remained of the swung open and closed, he caught glimpses of the carnage inside, and in the middle of it all, his pick. The lucky find he found waiting for him outside the mine his very first day.