The Lost Mine Murders
Saturday, December 30, 1899
John Lansdowne Granville eyed the grimy old man standing in the middle of their new office, feet defiantly planted and rain dripping from the brim of his hat. He glanced at his partner, Sam Scott, and the big man gave him a wry grin.
“Why choose us?” Granville asked.
“You’re detectives, ain’t you?” Marty Cole ran a rheumy eye over them. “You look like you c’n take care of yourselves. And rumor has it you know a thing or two about mining. He coughed, a deep hacking sound, then stared at Granville. “And since you’re gentry, I figure you won’t try to cheat me.”
Which showed how little he knew about the English nobility. “Where exactly is this mine?”
“Out past Pitt Lake. I figure it’ll take us two, three days to get there. More if the snow’s drifted.”
“Why not wait ‘til spring?” Scott asked. He stood with one shoulder leaning against the wall, deceptively casual.
Cole shook his head. “I want to get that claim staked and registered before anybody else happens on it. No-one’ll be getting in ahead of us, not this time of year.” He chuckled wetly and spat.
Granville stepped back as the stream of tobacco juice barely missed his feet. He’d met Cole’s like before, prospectors who’d spent years chasing rumors of gold – and finding it wouldn’t breathe a word to a soul before the mine was safely registered. So why was he telling them? “And what role would we play?”
“You know something about locating mines. Plus you’re witnesses, ain’t you? And protection, in case anybody gets ideas. Specially since I’ll be bringing gold out.”
“This time of year? You’ll get nothing out of the ground or the streams now,” Scott said.
“Do I look fresh off the train to you? I’m not planning on digging it out. There’s a cache, ain’t there?”
Granville and Scott exchanged glances. If there was enough gold already out of the ground, why hadn’t a claim been staked? And who had mined it? But the unwritten rules of the miner, learned the hard way on the frozen creeks of the Klondike – don’t ask, don’t tell -- held them back.
“How do you plan to bring the gold out?” Granville asked.
“Don’t plan on taking much this time – just what a couple of pack mules can carry.”
Granville’s eyes met Scott’s, and his friend shrugged.
“Assuming we were foolish enough to sign on for this adventure of yours, what would it be worth to us? We’d expect adequate compensation for the hazards, of course.”
“Course.” Cole rubbed gnarled hands together. Granville noted he’d lost the fingertips on his right hand to frostbite. He obviously knew the dangers of undertaking a winter expedition, but gold hunger could trap even the wariest.
“You and your partner here will be entitled to as much gold as you can carry out between you. But only on the first trip.”
“The cache is that large?”
Cole nodded, but there was a furtive look in the old man’s eyes that Granville didn’t like.
It sounded too good, especially given the lies and half-truths the old man was trying to slide by them. Under truly bad conditions, they might be able to bring out almost nothing. He’d known miners lucky to carry each other out. Before he could speak, Cole smiled, showing long, yellowed teeth.
“Too smart to miss the problems in my offer, are ya? And not greedy enough to think you can overcome them. That’s good, that’s good.” He looked from Granville to Scott and back. “So I’m also offering five percent of the profit of that mine, for as long as I mine it.”
“What if you sell it?” Scott said, frowning at their would-be client.
“Said you were smart, didn’t I? If I sell, you get five percent of the sale.”
Cole had sweetened it too much. He had to be desperate to make such an offer. “If this mine of yours is as rich as you say it is, that’s a lot of money. Why are you willing to pay us so much?”
“Because without your help I might be lucky to get the gold out.”
“Why’s that?” Scott asked.
“Storms c’n be pretty bad up there,” Cole said, but his eyes shifted away from theirs.
Granville didn’t think it was weather the old miner was worried about. “Is someone after this map of yours?”
Which meant they were. Granville scanned Cole’s weathered face, but the old man’s expression gave nothing away.
“If we’re so important, maybe we should get more of the profits,” Scott said.
“You want to stay on, help me work it?”
Granville met Scott’s eye, raised an eyebrow. Scott’s grimace had him grinning. They’d both had a bellyful of groveling in the dirt and the cold. Gold fever had been frozen out of them long ago. “No thanks.”
“Then you get five percent. It’s good pay for a week’s work.”
Too good. “If we find this mythical mine of yours. If not, I assume we get nothing?” Granville said, curious to see how far the old man would go.
“See, I said you warn’t stupid.”
“Then why come to us with this job? You must have known we wouldn’t be foolish enough to take it on.”
“It’s just a week, Granville. And we have the time,” Scott broke in.
Where had that come from?
“I’ll need a moment to discuss this with my partner,” Granville said as he ushered their would-be client back into the waiting room Emily Turner had decorated for them. With walls papered in a soft cream with a faint blue stripe, a gently faded oriental carpet and upholstered mahogany chairs, the room spoke of the success they hadn’t yet achieved. Closing the door, he looked over at Scott.
“You really think we should take this on? Even if the mine is real, it may be impossible to find.”
Scott’s face took on a closed look. “We know something about looking for mines, and we’ve nothin’ better to do until we get word from Denver. If we do find it, that kind of money would give us a solid start. So why not?”
His voice had a reckless edge to it that Granville didn’t like. They hadn’t talked about their fruitless search through Denver’s back alleys for Scott’s baby niece, left behind by her unscrupulous father nearly three years before, but that failure and their fear for the child hung heavily between them. Hope for new information on the little girl’s whereabouts diminished with each passing day. “We haven’t a stellar record for actually finding mines. And Cole is lying to us. He’s worried about protection from more than the weather.”
“We’re both decent shots. And this beats the boring jobs we’ve been offered. I’m willing to risk a week on a gamble like this one. We’ve nothing to lose.”
“Nothing except our lives,” Granville said with a grin that covered his concern at the fatalistic note in Scott’s voice. He’d known anxiety over little Sarah’s fate was taking a toll on his friend, but he’d had no idea it was this bad. Perhaps searching for this lost mine would be a distraction.
“But we’ll do it, right?”
“Yes.” There was nothing either of them could do for little Sarah without more information and at least this job would give Scott something else to think about. “But only if this map of his is good.”
“Alright then,” Scott said, opening the office door.
Five minutes later, the three of them were poring over the map. Cole had put up an argument, but when Granville stood fast, he caved in.
Nearly illegible in places, the hand-drawn map was rain spattered and frayed around the edges and along the folds. It was dated 1889, or maybe it was 1896; the last digits were smudged. It was signed, too, but the ink had run and the scribbled signature was nothing but a blur. Fading blue lines showed what Cole said was Pitt Lake and a long funnel-shaped valley with a stream meandering through it some distance beyond. Gold deposits were marked along the stream at the narrow end of the valley for what looked to be a good fifty yards. The main landmarks on the map were a couple of steep mountains, the valley itself with the lake and the river beyond it and a formation to the west of the valley.
Scott peered at the yellowed paper. “Is that a hill?”
“It’s a triangular rock, ya fool,” snapped the old man. “Anyone can see that.”
“How do we know this map is authentic?”
“We’ll need more than that. How did you get it?”
“James, my late … partner.”
It was a very slight hesitation, but Granville and Scott exchanged glances. “Is James his first name or the last?” Granville asked.
“How’d he die?” Scott threw at him.
“Gut shot. Near dead from blood loss when I found him.”
“But he still had the map?” Granville asked.
“And no-one knew he had it?”
Cole looked at him like he was an idiot. “Folks knew, or maybe just suspected. Why d’you think he was shot?”
“Then how come he still had it?” Scott asked.
“Poor shot from a distance. He told me he crawled away, they couldn’t find him.”
“They couldn’t follow the trail left by a badly wounded man who was bleeding heavily?”
“I got to him first.”
“I see. So whoever shot your partner knows you have the map now?”
Cole shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. They didn’t see me, and I covered my trail.”
Right. Granville didn’t believe the old man for a moment, but this was clearly all they’d get out of him for now. “What makes you so sure the find is worthwhile?”
The old man looked from Granville to Scott, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a grimy, creased leather bag. Mutely he spilled a plum-sized nugget into his palm and held it out to them. Pure gold, with rounded edges and white quartz veins.
“Holy Christopher!” Scott exclaimed, bending closer. “How long have you been carrying this without cashing it in?”
“There were two. The other was even larger. That one I cashed to pay expenses.”
“James gave them to you?” Granville asked, extending his hand.
The old man closed his own hand protectively for a moment, then dropped the nugget into his palm, nodding as he did so. “Yeah. He’d… no kin.”
Cole’s words didn’t match his tone. Granville studied his expressionless face for a moment, then looked at the nugget, hefting it in his palm. There was no doubt it was genuine; soft, nearly pure gold. If there truly were a mine this rich, even five percent of it would be worth a fortune. For a moment, a vista of all the things he could do with that much money unrolled before him, and he felt gold madness grip him once again.
Then sanity prevailed. Cole was too eager to give away a fortune. How deep did his lies go? Whatever he was keeping from them, Granville suspected it would be a problem before they were done. They’d do better to stay in town and wait for a lead from the police in Denver.
Beside him, Scott reached to take the nugget, and he reluctantly let it go.
“So you’ll you hire on?” Cole demanded.
About to say no, Granville glanced at his friend’s tense expression and changed his mind. For Scott’s sake, it was worth the risk. “Yes, we’ll do it. When do we start?”
“If you have your own gear, then we just need to buy grub. We c’n leave tomorrow.”
“I’m afraid not. I have a prior engagement,” said Granville, with a flash of inner amusement as he thought about the New Year’s ball, and about Emily. “I'll be ready to leave Tuesday morning.”