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A Story About A Boy and His Dad Working The Family Mine


Jed's Sand By Dr. Ralph E. Pray
Jed lowered the three smoking sticks of dynamite, tied together on the end of a rope, into the mine shaft.

His hands were trembling as the line slithered through his fingers. His father was in the bottom of the 17-foot vertical shaft, dropping the tools into the steel hoisting bucket, making so much noise he couldn't hear the hiss of the burning fuse.

The powerful explosive was meant to be lit after being packed in the holes they had taken turns drilling with hammer and moil in the vein rock. And then skedaddle up the ladder! When the small sputtering bundle of dynamite was six feet down from the rim of the shaft, Jed quickly tied his end of the rope to the surface hoist crank.

He grabbed the ladder and used his powerful arms to yank it up before his father heard the clatter or could do anything about it. There was no way out, no place to hide, and no protection. Jed pulled the ladder the rest of the way out of the shaft and set it on the ground.

He looked down, pale-faced and slightly shaking, at his wide-eyed father. "You crazy kid," his father yelled up at him. "What do you think you're doin'? Are you trying to kill your old pop? Pull that dynamite up right now, and drop the ladder." "No, Pop," Jed shouted. "I wanna talk."

They were near Gold Point, Nevada, about 25 miles out of Goldfield, and tough old Buck Johnson, with the help of his 20-year old son, was sinking a small shaft on a gold vein in the high desert. They had been in the area for almost a year, working seven days a week except on the Fourth of July. On that day they had gone into wild, violent Goldfield, and Jed couldn't stop talking about those sights. He begged his father to let him visit the many stores, wrestle the bear and talk to the women. "You're not goin' to town 'til this mine is paying, and that's the end of it," his father said every time Jed mentioned Goldfield. "Pop, if I'm only gone two days, while you're sharpenin' the drill steel, you'll never miss me," Jed pleaded over and over, as the months rolled by. "Stop your yackin' and maybe someday you can do what you want," was his father's stock answer.

Every time Buck took Jed with him into the Gold Point settlement for food, water and supplies, the boy would hang around the Floozie House, waiting for a look at a woman, any woman. His long blond hair and lengthy stride attracted glances every time Buck let him loose for a few minutes. Jed smiled and said howdy to everyone within speaking distance. In the store, while his father was dealing with the merchant, Jed spent his time staring at the neat shelves of goods in cans, stacks, jars and layers. He walked slowly along the aisles studying the items and their clean labels. He decided he'd like to be a storekeeper and wondered how to ask about it. He needed to get loose from the mine first. He knew all he wanted to know about drilling, dynamite and blasting. It was the same old stuff every day.

Another gambit Jed tried was, "Pop, if you don't trust me to come back from town, how come you trust me to help you in the mine?" On any morning, before coffee, Buck would answer with a grumble, "You're too dumb to leave my sight." Later in the day, it was, "I can't do this alone. I need your help. Trust don't matter here." "Talk? You wanna talk? You're gonna blow me to hell and you wanna' talk?" Buck shouted. "You got a lotta sand, Boy."

"Pop, take it easy," Jed yelled back. Buck looked up at the unreachable bundle of spitting death. To throw something at it would be be a waste of seconds. There was one foot of fuse showing, about a minute's worth of life. But Buck didn't know how many seconds it had burned before he had looked up at the noise of the disappearing ladder to see the smoke curl up from the black fuse cord. "Pull up the dynamite," he said without yelling. "I will, Pop, soon as you say I can go to town," Jed said in an even voice. "Either way, I go. If you let me go, I'll come back." "Your mother's boy, you are. Always making a deal," Buck scorned.

There might be 20 seconds of fuse left. No time for lessons. Jed knew he held all the cards. "I been askin' you, Pop," Jed explained. "Okay, I give up. Now you pull that widowmaker outta here," Buck rattled off. "Pop, I want you to swear it," Jed said. "You keep comin' up with excuses every time we make a deal. You never keep your word." "Okay, okay, I swear," Buck pleaded. "I been too strict." "When?" Jed asked. "Now. Today. You win," Buck moaned.

Just then the fuse stopped smoking, having reached the end buried in the bundle of sticks. It should have set off the blasting cap on the end of the fuse, which would then detonate the package of dynamite in a blast lethal to anyone nearby.

Father and son looked at each other silently, the boy standing on the rim of the well-like shaft in the sunlight, leaning forward to look over the edge, holding his mane of long hair to one side. His father was standing against one wall in the dimness below, the whites of his uplifted eyes appearing like twin lights. "A misfire, huh?" Buck said. "We're both lucky." Jed pulled the rope up, and set the sticks on the ground.

He lifted the thin wooden ladder off the ground and slid it carefully down the shaft, until Buck grabbed the lower end and slammed it violently on the shaft floor. Buck scurried up the ladder and seemed to regain a portion of his composure. He was smaller than Jed, but toughness stood out in his face, his slightly bent shoulders and the way he leaned into everything in front of him. He was always moving forward, pushing his way through the muck with a shovel or the mine timbers with a saw or the biscuit dough with quick fingers. Jed admired him. Buck looked good beside other men, even if his shirts were torn and faded.

Holding his beat-up safety hat in one hand and running the fingers of his other hand through his gray hair, Buck spoke in an agitated tone to his only son, "I trusted you." "Pop," Jed argued, "you said trust don't matter here." "Well, this is different. How come the powder never went off?" Buck asked, as he untied the rope around the three sticks.

"There's no cap on the fuse," Jed answered proudly, smiling at his father. "It couldn't go off." "Well, it's still dangerous," Buck complained as he hefted one of the dynamite sticks in his work-gnarled hands. "This don't feel right to me," he said.

Buck peeled open and unwrapped the heavy wax paper around the dynamite. Sand poured out on the ground. He opened the other two sticks. Sand. Jed laughed, "It's just sand, Pop. I took the powder out." Buck grinned, "You wasn't really after your old man then?" " No, Pop. I just wanna go to town."

 

Published in Adventure West Magazine, May, June 1996.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Dr. Ralph Pray, Mining & Metallurgy
805 S Shamrock Ave
Monrovia, CA 91016
Telephone: 626-357-6511
Fax: 626-358-8386