Looking at my watch it was only quarter till five but already daylight. It still amazed me how early daybreak came in these northern territories. Montana was the most beautiful place I had ever laid eyes on. The sun not even visible over the ridge of the mountains yet was revealing her colors. Rose, purple, orange and many shades of each shining through the high clouds beat everything else I had ever seen. God sure used a different palate when he painted this country .
The twenty-one jewel watch I held in my hand was pretty much the only possession I owned in this world. Hat, boots, two 44 cal. pistols and a Winchester rifle doesn't say much for twenty eight years of living. With a little luck that was all about to change. Luck was not the right word for Pa had raised us to depend on the Lord and hard work to get by in this world. Those Carolina mountains were a hard place to scratch out a living.
This mining was hard work but I was used to that. Plowing behind a mule, logging timber, a cattle drive from Texas to Gallatin Valley Montana will toughen up a soft man and make a seasoned man hard as a fire burnt oak limb. No, mining the blue gems wasn't the question. The question was could one man hold onto a claim, hundreds of miles from the nearest law against lawless men
They had their chance, when the old Indian had come wanting to trade the blue fire. He was just another old Indian to the cow hands, someone to be laughed at and despised. The Indians by this time, the 1880s, were pretty much a shell of what they had been when white men first came to the west. It was before my time but I had heard the stories of the raids and the fear early settlers had of the Sioux and the Blackfeet. Raiding parties still occasionally came but the white man had done his work; the relentless army, disease, and liquor had taken its toll on the Indian race. The Indian who had lived the same way for thousands of years was not equipped to handle these things and it was decimating them. Some were fighting, some were being moved to reservations, and some were reduced to begging from the white man to meet needs that he didn't even have before the white men came.
He came wanting to trade "blue fire" for some fire water . The old Indian had taken the small stones, the largest one as big as a pinto bean, and put them in his mouth then taken them out to show the other men. To them it was a wet rock, like all the rest that are everywhere else you go in Montana. I happened to know a little more though. Pa, who had knowledge of such things, had found a pocket of these very stones back in the North Carolina mountains while digging clay for medicine. Those had happened to be yellow but he explained to us boys how the color was affected by the type of minerals the stone was formed in. That's how you could have the same kind of gemstone but different colors. He had taken the stones, shaped them on a small man powered grinding wheel and made Ma a beautiful broach. We Fitzpatrick's didn't have much but we had received much in the way of strengths and talents. Here I was, 2500 miles from home and had run up on Sapphires just like back home.
Six months had passed since that day. Five days through the mountains to the area the Indian said the stones came from, a long hard winter, and a passel of trouble from lazy men who want to be rich. The country through which I traveled was just like it was described by Shooteni the blackfeet Indian I had met in the Gallatin valley. Dry sagebrush filled valleys, high mountains with huge exposed boulders that looked like a pack of giant children had been playing with them and had suddenly just left. Huge stacks, mounds, spires, some stacked standing straight up some laying down but no stone standing alone. Then another valley but the soil had a different look to it, changing from a dry silty grey powder to gem soil. Gem soil is a crumbly type of material that looks like clay until you touch it. Crumbling easily in the hand it is like a rotten type of limestone and no matter where you are this is where a man is apt to find gemstones of all kinds. Small loose gems are sometimes found but the real prize in this type of area are small pockets of large gems clumped together in formations. Loose gems are found on creeks and rivers as they have been washed.
When I arrived at the creek the easy work began, finding and mining the gems. The hard work would come later, keeping them from no good thieves who were more than willing to kill a man for riches.
Gold was already being mined in this part of Montana but the treasures of gems was not yet widely known. Gold rushes has already begun and played out in places such as California. Men who left homes and families for the thought of striking it rich, men who had gold fever they called it. Easy money and an easy life they thought , but it seldom turned out that way. Hard work and some business sense is what it took to get rich at the gold fields and most didn't have either. The ones who did well were the ones who bought up claims and paid men to work their mines, not just individual claims. Those whose business it was to sell and provide the material needs of the miners also did well. Restaurant owners, mercantile owners, gold buyers all did well. It's hard not to do well selling your goods as fast as they come in at 1000 percent profit.
The average miner lost interest when the town settled down and the excitement waned. Hard work and investing money had no allure for these men so when things slowed down they would sell still valuable claims for pennies on the dollar and move on to the next strike. Fever is the right word, the love of gold interferes with right thinking.
First thing was to pan the creek for sapphires. The ones I was after would not be in the creek but the creek would tell where to find them. Rock creek happened to be the creek's name and it was fitting. Rocks of all sorts filled the creek, everything from boulders to marble sized rocks. The sapphires would be down in the pebbles in the bed of the stream. This creek, like most, basically had a bedrock foundation. The sapphires were denser and heavier than the gravel layer that held them. Rains and wind would batter the mountains and cliffs and as the rock and soil of the cliffs would give way the pockets of sapphires would be washed into the creek. They would then tumble along with the current and be busted into smaller pieces and polished by the never ending scouring action of the water until they settled into a quiet still place in the creek. There they took their place amidst the gravel finally settling down between the gravel and the bedrock bottom of the creek.
Panning for sapphires is similar to panning for gold. The main difference is the objective of gem panning is not to get the dirt and rocks out of the pan to get the gold but to agitate the gravel so the sapphires wind up in the middle of the screen down at the bottom. The gem screen is a box about four inches high and a foot square with a piece of hardware cloth for the bottom. Gravel is scooped into the box and the box is submerged in the creek until all the gravel is under water. The box is dropped slightly which suspends the gravel in the water then the box is picked up to catch the gravel again. Shaking the box from side to side loosens any dirt and allows it to leave with the water when the miner lifts the box. Several times of washing will remove clay or soil and if done properly the sapphires will be in the center of the box against the screen with the lighter rocks and gravel on top. Quickly dumping the box upside down will reveal sapphires on the top of the pile.
Rock creek ran through a tight valley, really more a cut than a valley. The orange, crumbly cliffs ran right down to the water in some places and was never more than a hundred yards or so away at its farthest point. The cliffs were worn and sloped so there was not much danger from slides but farther up trees clung to the mountain side. Trees that grew on such a steep slope that the trunks of the pines were almost parallel with ground that held their roots.
Working up both sides of the creek and keeping count of the number of sapphires found in each washing it didn't take long to locate where my mining should begin. Four, seven, nine, moving about 30 feet up stream with every washing it was easy to cover a lot of ground in a short time. Nine, nine, eight, fourteen sapphires in the outside bend of the creek but that didn't count for much as that's where most will naturally end up washing into anyway.
Two days of washings had allowed me to cover about a mile and a half of ground. Hard work, back breaking work, but good work. Cold creek water to drink, game to be had for food, cool nights with more stars in the sky than a man could imagine, and gems at the end of the trail. Then a box came up with twelve sapphires. Not many more than what I had been getting but the stones were much different. Large stones, one almost as big as the one I had got from the Indian. Cutting the distance down from thirty to twenty feet between washings the number steadily increased. Fourteen, fifteen, seventeen. For about two hundred yards the number increased and the size and quality of the stones stayed the same. Twenty two, Twenty three, SEVEN! There it was, the pocket I was looking for. Running five more washes to be sure, the number of stones stayed the same, around seven or eight small stones.
Backtracking to the place I had the washing with the most stones I started to carefully study the mountain side. Not much different than the rest of the creek: the cliff was about thirty yards from the creek, red soil that seemed to be hard like limestone but when picked up it could easily be crumbled in the hand. Scratching around on the sloping cliff face it soon became clear what was going on, a narrow band of white quartz rock running through the cliff. The band was about three feet wide and ran at about a forty-five degree angle out of sight both ways, up and under ground.
Two weeks and five pockets of crystals later the trip was proving to be worth my while. Large sapphires encrusted in other crystals: green, purple, and yellow crystals. I had been keeping a close eye out for any signs of people but so far I had seen only a small family band of Indians traveling down the creek who paid the "crazy" white man digging in the mountain no attention. But it was bound to happen then it did!
They saw me before I saw them and I scolded myself for my carelessness. Three men, dressed rough, fully loaded with pistols and rifles. The three looked down from their horses at me in the face of that cliff and I was just bringing out another pocket of crystal. I could see a sapphire cradled in the side of the purple crystal and what I could see exposed was at least thirty karats. Guess that's why I was distracted, riches had me not thinking right.
"Don't know what that is mister but I think we will be taking it. Been watching you for a week now, and didn't know what you were doing but any man working hard as you were had to be onto something."
It was a cool morning but sweat was trickling down the back of my neck. "I don't want any trouble so why don't you three just ride out and keep going where you was headed."
"No sir, we aim to have what you've been mining for and being that there is three of us and one of you I figure we are going to get it. Don't expect what you have is worth you dying for."
This was a rough country and not much law in it yet but If a man is willing to kill he better be prepared to be killed also. I figured talking time was over.
Two were up close but one of the men hung back a piece and I noticed he kept the man doing the talking between me and him. He was a cautious man, which many times—while not the leader—they are actually the most dangerous kind. I had the feeling these men would not let me ride out to tell the tale of how I was robbed.
The problem was solved for me when the second man up close reached for his pistol. Before he cleared leather I had dropped the crystal and put two .44 slugs into his chest. Pa always said, stay out of trouble but if a man forces you to shoot him put two into him for good measure. The leader was surprised by the second man drawing and this gave him an opportunity to do the right thing and sit pat. He wasn't that smart though. He drew and would have been dead in the saddle but for his horse rearing up. I am more inclined to shoot a bad man than a good horse so I waited for the horse to get his front feet on the ground before I put two into the front man.
This only left the cautious man. I had been fortunate this far. These three had found what they thought was a miner, who though were hard working men were often better with a pick than a pistol. They had assumed it was easy pickings so despite having time to plan had done no such thing. To fail to plan is to plan to fail. I had been shielded from the third man by his two friends but now that they were down I had to find some cover.
Diving back into the small cave I had made in the cliff I hunkered down into the small indenture in the floor my feet had made while working. It wasn't much, maybe six inches deep where the soft rock had been crumbled and packed down but it was sure better than being out in the open. The cliff was soft so there was no danger of him shooting into the cave walls hoping for a ricochet. Where was he?
Then I saw him. He had crossed the creek and was sitting on his horse about two hundred yards away just as casual as anything you have ever seen. He knew I only had a pistol and maybe could have hit him with a pot shot but it wasn't likely. I got the impression from him sitting there that he wasn't scared a bit, it just wasn't an advantageous situation for him. Then he did something that confirmed what I had been thinking about the man. He put a knuckle to his hat like I had done a thousand times to say I'll be seeing you later. There was no doubt I would. I just wondered would I see him before he saw me!