Belching clouds of smoke and steam, the iron horse of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad wheezed to a stop alongside the platform at Silver Cliff. The billowing vapors shrouded the arriving passengers in an ethereal gray fog.
The slender young man stood with a leather valise at his feet—the one he'd monogramed with the initials for Jacob Worthington before he left on this misbegotten mission. As he looked around, he immediately felt out of place. His tailored frock coat and vest punctuated by a small bow tie and a bowler hat set him apart from the disheveled mine workers awaiting the next departure. Grabbing his valise, the young man set out for the town—a scattering of clapboard buildings and canvas tents flapping in the prairie wind. The muddy street soiled his new lace-up brogans.
By all accounts, Silver Cliff was booming. The Geyser mine was the deepest in Colorado and the richest strike in recent memory. The U. S. Treasury gobbled up the extracted metal and minted the coins that paid for everything from bullets to bonnets. The rush was on. A cacophony of jangling buckboards, pounding hammers, braying mules, and shouts from saloons filled the dusty air. The clatter, however, was primitive compared to the cosmopolitan hum of Philadelphia, a metropolis of nearly a million people and host to the Centennial International Exhibition where Jacob had marveled at the latest inventions: the typewriter and the telephone. Most of all, he missed the sublime delight of a Sunday afternoon watching the regattas on the Schuylkill with his betrothed—the lovely (and wealthy) Amelia Pennypacker. Whereas in this godforsaken dump of tailings and sludge, the entire populace of Silver Cliff seemed entirely consumed with digging a hole in the ground. "Bunch of damn chipmunks," he muttered.
* * *
A deep and resonant voice cut through the commotion and pulled him to a tent wedged between a brothel and a blacksmith. Pushing aside the flap, Jacob saw a barrel-chested man with flowing white hair and an untamed beard pacing in front of a meager congregation of men seated on rough-hewn planks of pine. The preacher exhorted the men to forsake whores and whiskey and turn their eyes heavenward. "Brothers, by the sweat of your brow, I know your trials and tribulations. I, too, was a miner once. Worked the Diablo silver mine. Some of you may have heard of it."
A murmur rippled among the men.
"We dug so deep I smelled Satan's sulfurous stink. Then a dang fool brought a candle into the mine." The preacher's hands flew apart. "Ka-Boom! Thirty-six miners blown to smithereens. God bless their souls." The preacher bowed his head and his right hand made the sign of the cross across his broad chest. After a moment of silence, he added, "I was one of the lucky survivors. And I tell you men, as I lay buried in rubble in that pitch black hole, I swore to the heavenly Father that if I survived that I would devote the rest of my life to bringing His Word to the less fortunate among us. And that's why I am here today."
The preacher walked over to a table and lifted up a bible for all to see. "Isaiah the prophet knew what it was like in the mines. The eternal darkness in the shaft is like our souls mired in ignorance and sin, waiting for the lantern to show us the way to the sweet air of heaven and home." He pressed the bible to his forehead and closed his eyes. "The Lord will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known. And I will turn the darkness before them into light. Isaiah, chapter 42, verse 16."
Something was off kilter about the preacher, head tilted askew, as if he was looking over the heads of the men or searching the heavens for inspiration. The preacher turned on his heels, then stumbled on the uneven ground of the dirt floor before regaining balance from a helping hand in the first row. "Aye, we all need a helping hand now and then, don't we men?" It occurred to Jacob that the preacher was blind.
Pathetic fools, Jacob mused, praying for heaven to rescue them from their hellish lives. The sermon was a far cry from the philosophy of Ben Franklin, a man whom Jacob much admired. One of Philadelphia's most renowned citizens, Franklin believed in reason and science rather than divine intervention in the affairs of men. When the coal bucket came around for a collection, Jacob withdrew from the tent and walked across the street to the Excelsior Hotel. He rented a room, stowed his luggage, and shouldered his way into the adjoining saloon. His eye was immediately drawn to an extremely large bear with cinnamon-colored fur propped in a corner. The beast stood on its hind legs, towering nine feet in height. Teeth bared; the powerful jaws gaped as if unleashing a silent roar on the assembled patrons. A sign identified the stuffed attraction as Ursus arctos horribilis.
At the bar, he ordered a beer, then turned to survey the roughnecks and gamblers in the smoky room. Hardly the enterprising businessmen his father had told him to seek out a few weeks ago in the parlor of the family brownstone on Chestnut Street. "Go west, Jacob," he said. "Visit every mining town you can find. That's where the money is. Find new markets for Worthington Tool & Die. Make us a fortune, son." Then he threw an arm around Jacob's shoulder and drew him close. "Don't come back without a briefcase full of contracts." Judging by the reprobates in the Excelsior saloon, there was little likelihood of that happening on his first foray into the wild west.
A ruckus from outside the saloon interrupted the din of conversation and piano music. Men gathered on the boardwalk to ascertain the cause of the disturbance. Curious, Jacob joined the throng and saw a tall skinny man in the street, clad only in long underwear and boots, shouting and staggering in circles.
"The lights! They're back! The lights!"
Jacob turned to the fellow next to him and asked what the man was raving about.
The old-timer eyed Jacob's city clothes and removed a cigar from his mouth. "A few years back, a dozen miners died in a cave-in. Some folks claim the lights are the souls of the miners come back to warn us. Other say it's the Will-O'-the-Wisp. I say swamp gas."
The skinny man pleaded with the men to follow him to the cemetery. As a lark, Jacob joined the group running toward the north end of town. When they arrived at the graveyard, a collective gasp arose from the men. An array of bluish white globes of light danced and bobbed among the tombstones.
Bemused, Jacob watched as the men shouted and laughed and tried to grab hold of the globes, but their hands just passed through the light. One man threw his coat over a globe and wrestled it to the ground, only to find when he lifted the garment that there was nothing underneath.
More damn fools, Jacob thought, chasing swamp bubbles! After a few minutes, fatigue set in from a long day of travel, and he left the rubes to their folly and retired to the hotel. Perhaps the morning would bring more auspicious prospects. Back in the room, Jacob placed a photograph of Amelia on the night table before his head hit the pillow.
* * *
After breakfast in the hotel, Jacob strolled the boardwalk to confirm his first impression of the town in bright daylight. Nothing had changed. Silver Cliff was sprouting like mushrooms after a rain—a fever dream of construction and industry fueled by the Geyser strike. Jacob, though, was bored by the prospect of looking for new business for tools and machines. He was not a slab of Worthington sheet metal to be molded and stamped into the image of his father. If he was going to roam the western frontier he would do as he pleased and bring back a story that would impress Amelia and the regatta boys.
He wandered into a dry goods shop and was greeted by a clerk with muttonchops and a smile. " Good morning, sir. What can I do for you?"
"Well for starters, you can tell me what else there is to do in this town besides drinking and digging dirt."
The smile on the clerk's face widened into a toothy grin. "That's easy, sir. For a newcomer such as yourself, I suggest you go see the Continental Divide. It is said to be the grandest sight in the land. The very backbone of the country. Yes, indeed! Folks say that to the east, you can see the Atlantic Ocean, and to the west, the Pacific Ocean, and all that lies in between. If the Greeks had known about it, the Great Divide would have been the eighth wonder of the world. Yes sir, that's what I would do."
"Have you seen it?" Jacob asked.
"Me, sir? Oh no. I run a store and have a family and can't run off on such an adventure. But I've spoken with prospectors who have seen the Divide. And they say it is breathtaking. Not to be missed."
"Well, where is this Continental Divide? How do I get there?"
"It's not a trip to be taken lightly sir. I can outfit you with the needed supplies. But there is only one man I know that can guide you to the divide. Knows the mountains and valleys like the back of his hand. Yes sir. He can get you there."
"What the name of this guide? Where do I find him?"
"I don't know his Christian name. People just call him the old scout. Lives in a shack, out by the cemetery. Can't miss it."
"Get my supplies ready. I'll be back." Jacob said and headed out the door toward the cemetery.
The shack was easy to find as it was the only structure within sight of the same graveyard he'd visited last night. A man sat in a chair by the front door whittling a long stick. As Jacob drew closer, something about the man looked familiar. The white hair flowing out from under the broad flat brim of a sombrero, the wild beard. The blind preacher!
"You lost, brother," the old man said.
Puzzled, Jacob hesitated. "You asking me?"
"Wasn't a question."
"I'm looking for the old scout, but you're . . . "
"Blind? Right you are, sonny boy."
"I heard you last night, in the tent."
"Yep, and I smelled you. Those new leather shoes you're wearing and that soap on your skin."
Reflexively, Jacob raised his hand to his nose.
The old man continued whittling the stick with a buckhorn knife.
Jacob kicked some dirt. "Well, uh, a clerk told me about the Continental Divide, and I thought I might take a look. Said you were the best guide to get me there. But I don't . . . " his voice trailed off.
"Understand how a blind man can be a mountain guide? Let me tell you something, sonny. I may have lost my sight, but the Lord made my other senses sharp as a tack. I can smell a coyote turd a mile away. I can hear a jackrabbit scratch its arse ten feet under the ground. And I can drink a glass of milk and show you where the cow ate the grass."
"I didn't know . . . "
"What you don't know son would fill the Geyser mine shaft." The old scout spat a stream of black juice in the dirt. "The trail up to the divide ain't no picnic. And you're gonna have to cross the Phantom Terrace to get there. Think you got what it takes?"
"Phantom what?" Jacob stammered.
The old scout chuckled. "You're new around here, so I 'spose you haven't heard. The story goes that the Phantom Terrace was once a sacred pathway over the mountain to buffalo hunting grounds. One day a chief sent his son Kuruk to guard the pathway against intruders. Raven flew up to the mountain and became a princess and lured the boy off the pathway to his death. Since then, Kuruk's spirit is said to still warn off intruders. I should know. It was Kuruk who done this to my eyes." The old scout spat again. "Still want to go, son?"
First his father's ultimatum not to come home without a briefcase full of contracts, now this old man was challenging him if he had the guts to hike up a damn mountain. And he wasn't going to be scared off by some fairy tale. Just more hog wash like the salvation he'd peddled to the miners for a few coins.
"Look old man, will you take me up the damn mountain or not?"
"Sangre de Christo."
"The name of the mountain range where you want to go. Means Blood of Christ. Meet me here at sun-up tomorrow. And don't wear them city clothes. You might get a bit chilly up there." He laughed, then loosed another stream of tobacco juice, and disappeared into the dark interior of the shack.
* * *
The new boots pinched his toes and the heavy rucksack chafed his shoulders. The dry goods clerk had stuffed the bag with a bedroll, tent, blanket, coffee pot, canteen, and enough food to last a couple of days. The gear rattled and clinked with each step he took.
As he trudged toward the shack, sunrise peeked over the Sangre ridgeline painting the underbelly of the clouds in shades of pink and purple. The old scout was already mounted on a large Appaloosa when Jacob arrived. The scout wore the sombrero and a pair of blue-tinted round spectacles. Pointing to a mule tied to a lodgepole pine, he said, "Saddle up, son. Ain't got all day."
Jacob untied the beast and struggled to get his boot in the stirrup as the mule refused to stand still. He danced around on one leg before he was able to hoist himself up. Cursing the jackass, he caught up with the old scout where the trail wound through stands of aspens and spruce. Cool broken light spilled upon mosses and ferns. They passed the gray weathered timbers of an old homestead listing crazily on its foundation like a shipwreck in the forest. After an hour of easy riding, the old scout reined his horse beside a large cottonwood. "This is it," he announced.
Jacob twisted in the saddle, looking over both shoulders. "This is what?"
"Where you get off Ol' Betsy and walk the rest of the way" the scout gestured to a barely discernable patch of flattened grass. "Follow this trail up to the lake. Camp there. In the morning, you'll see the Phantom Terrace that leads you to the great divide."
"Wait a minute," Jacob protested. "I thought you were going to take me up there."
"It's Sunday. Gotta get back to my church. Don't worry, son, the path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day. Proverbs 4." The old scout spat in the dirt, and when he spoke again all folksiness from his voice was gone, the tone now stern, no nonsense, "Just be careful at the Phantom Terrace. It's a narrow ledge, son. Don't take any fool chances with Kuruk. Seek God's grace and mercy with every step and you'll be fine."
Grumbling, Jacob dismounted the mule and pressed a few coins in the old scout's hand. Maybe it was best to be on his own than have to listen to more bunkum about Kuruk from a bible thumper. He was going to prove something to his father alright, but it wasn't going to involve a briefcase of contracts.
"Hold on a minute," the scout said. From a rifle scabbard tied to his saddle, he retrieved the long stick the man had been whittling yesterday and handed it down to Jacob. The stick was adorned with intricate carvings of forest animals, birds, and snakes. "Here, take this." the old scout said. "Might come in handy." Incredulous that a sightless old man could craft such an elaborate design, Jacob ran his hand over the carvings as if its true origin might be revealed. He mumbled thanks and fumbled with the rucksack and by the time he looked up, the Appaloosa was heading back to the shack. Without turning around, the old scout raised an arm and hollered, "Adios, amigo. Look out for the grizz!"
Jacob froze in place. Thoughts of the nine-foot horribilis in the Excelsior saloon sprang to mind: the five-inch claws and massive canines. A flutter of movement in the shrubs, then an explosion from the underbrush as a grouse took frantic flight almost caused Jacob to evacuate his bowels.
Mustering what little courage he possessed, he forged ahead on a path that quickly gained elevation with each switchback. After several strenuous hours he arrived at the alpine lake with bleeding blisters from the ill-fitting boots. He made camp and built a small fire. Supper was coffee and hardtack. Toward dusk, the sky clouded and pelted the landscape with pebble-sized hailstones. Jacob sought refuge in the canvas shelter and trembled with each thunderclap echoing in the canyon walls and reverberating in his bones. The wind roared down the slopes and shook the flimsy tent like a cougar tearing at a carcass. Curled under a blanket, he pledged eternal love to Amelia if he should survive the tempest. Fortunately, the storm's fury was brief, and soon a crease of blue sky reappeared with a rainbow arching over the valley below. The planet Venus was visible over the spine of a nearby ridge and a full moon rose in the east like a white poker chip on a table of black velvet. Seeing all of this as a sign of good fortune, Jacob dismissed his silly fears of a moment ago and slept soundly the rest of the night.
Shortly after dawn, Jacob shouldered the rucksack and picked up a semblance of trail that skirted the lake, cut through a field of loose rock, and ended at a steeply slanted slope of low meadow growth and boulders. Now where? Jacob stared intently at the slope, searching for a way across. He squatted on his haunches to get a level view, and that's when he saw it. A narrow ledge, barely the width of his foot, cut into the side of a sharply angled hillside. The ledge meandered across the slope and led to a saddle in the upper ridge. The traverse had to be the Phantom Terrace.
Surveying the final approach, he understood that the exposed ledge would not be without risk. No margin for error. No forgiveness for a stumble or a misstep. Thoughts of tumbling down the slope, crashing into boulders, breaking bones, filled his mind with dread. Or he could simply turn around right now and no one would be the wiser and he could make up any story he desired. Except the wind was at his back, pushing him forward, as if the matter was already settled. He stood for what seemed an eternity, pondering the consequences of a slip, swallowed hard, then placed his right foot on the path, and felt the ground tilt precipitously toward the ravine hundreds of feet below. Almost immediately, the shakes started in the knees. He concentrated on the careful placement of his boots on the terrace when a bright light caught his eye. It appeared to be coming from the upper saddle, white and radiant. The elevation on the ridge too high for swamp gas—but maybe not for Kuruk.
But right now, Jacob could not afford to be distracted by such thoughts. He averted his eyes and focused on the sharply angled slope. Step-by-step he made way across the knife edge. But that damn light in his peripheral vision grew more intense, disorienting. What the hell was it? Surely there must be a rational scientific explanation for the phenomena. Now within a few yards of completing the traverse, the enveloping light flashed whiter than a dying star, his retinas aflame as if threaded with a hot needle. Dark spots clouded both eyes. Panic seized him on the ledge. Any second, he might perish down the ravine. Damn you, Kuruk! And for the first time in his life, Jacob cried out for salvation, "Lord, have mercy on my soul. Show me the path of the righteous." As he tapped the ground with the walking stick, his mind's eye imagined the narrow terrace. He ventured a small step. Would his next step be his last?
* * *
Three days later, Silver Cliff gossip was all about the city boy who'd staggered down main street and collapsed in front of the Excelsior Hotel. Men from the saloon had helped Jacob to his room and summoned the itinerant doctor employed by the mining company. An examination revealed an assortment of contusions, a bad case of dehydration, along with an occlusion in both eyes, the size of a small yellow disc. After sipping water, Jacob regained coherence. "What on earth did you do to yourself, son?" the doctor asked. "You been staring at the sun or something?"
A warm damp cloth covered Jacob's eyes. He'd heard the question but did not respond. No one would believe the answer. He didn't believe it himself. Instead, he asked for someone to bring the old scout to him for a visit. The walking stick had saved his life during the precarious descent. The doctor scratched his stubbled chin and delivered the bad news. The old scout had been preaching to the congregation the other day when he grabbed his chest and keeled over.
"Get plenty of bed rest and liquids." The doctor turned before leaving the room, "You're lucky to be alive, Mr. Worthington."
* * *
Several days passed, and when Jacob felt sufficiently revived, he ventured out of the hotel and experienced an amazing awakening. Other than impaired vision, his other senses were as fine-tuned as a Worthington lathe. Every moment brought a new sensory revelation unlike anything Jacob had ever known. A northeasterly breeze carried a bouquet of distinct flora: larkspur, columbine, and prickly rose. The trills and chirps of distant chickadees filled his mind with an exquisite musical composition. Yes indeed, he was lucky, and thankful, to be alive on such a magnificent Colorado morning.
Wearing spectacles with dark lenses, he tapped the walking stick on the boardwalk to identify steps and obstacles on his way toward the telegraph office where he would send two messages: one to his father, and one to Amelia. He would not worry them about his accident— the doctor had said vision loss was often temporary—but simply assure them that he was safe and that plans were proceeding, although truth be told, he had no plans as to what he would do next.
His attention was drawn to the sobbing and sniffles of a woman. He tapped his way over to edge of a crowd gathered in front of the sheriff's office.
"I found his shirt by the creek. What if he went swimming and . . . " The woman couldn't finish the thought. "We've got to find him."
A man's voice broke in, "Alright, calm down, ma'am. He probably just wandered off. Don't you worry. We'll find Will, you'll see."
"May I have the boy's shirt for a moment?" said Jacob.
Grumbles of consternation over the intrusion by the city boy rained down on Jacob. Finally, a hand passed him the shirt.
Jacob thrust his face into the rough cotton shirt, inhaled deeply. "I smell the bacon he ate for breakfast, a chicken coop, three dogs, and a cat." The boy's mother gasped and nodded. Jacob cocked his head like a bloodhound in hot pursuit. "I think I know where he is and if I'm right, we don't have much time."
The sheriff mounted a horse and decided. "I don't know if this young man is right or wrong, but he found his way down from the Phantom Terrace, alone and blind, and that counts for something. Half you men ride out to the creek and search there. The rest follow me." He reached down and pulled Jacob up behind him. Jacob's enhanced olfactory sense led the search party to an abandoned mining camp—a ghostly slag heap littered with rusted machinery, ramshackle buildings, and enormous piles of exploded rock. The surrounding hills had been stripped of timber to stoke the smelters, leaving behind only jagged stumps like the rotting teeth of a monstrous reptile. The entrance to shaft was boarded-up—except one board had been pried off, exposing a gap wide enough for an eight-year old boy to crawl through. The deputies got to work and managed to strip off the remaining boards.
"Maybe we should send someone to get the map and safety lanterns," said a deputy who had worked the mine. "It ain't safe in there. A cave-in a few years back. A man could get lost, or worse."
Ignoring the deputy's warning, Jacob dropped his walking stick and plunged into the shaft, navigating the labyrinthian darkness by the scent of the boy's shirt. Water in the tunnel filled his boots. Though sightless, Jacob sensed the coffin-like closeness of the narrow shaft. He shuddered at the thought of being buried alive, when a tingling sensation prickled the back of his neck. A vibration in the air indicated a presence, not heard so much as felt, like a cold hand laid upon the heart. Perhaps the souls of the lost miners that had danced in the cemetery.
He brushed against an ore bucket used to transport miners down vertical shafts and almost toppled into a bottomless chasm. Fresh air blowing in from a ventilation shaft seemed like a good bet as to what direction the boy might have headed.
"Will! Will!" Jacob called out. "Can you hear me, Will!"
From deep inside the blackest depths of the mountain, a small frightened voice ricocheted off the tunnel walls. "Help! Help! Over here!" Jacob turned in a circle desperately trying to locate the direction of the cry. "Keep shouting! Keep shouting, Will." Using the heightened sensitivity of his inner ear, Jacob traced the echo of Will's voice down one tunnel, then another, until he found the trembling boy huddled in a fissure.
"Take my hand," Jacob said, and together they backtracked out of the confusing maze. A breeze ruffled his hair and signaled to Jacob that they were getting close to the entrance. Outside, he heard the deputies discussing plans for going into the shaft. One man had fashioned a torch from a tree branch and pine resin. Jacob sensed the heat on his cheeks. Then he detected something else. Gas.
"Get back!" Jacob shouted. "Don't bring that torch in here!"
"Mama!" Will cried.
Jacob dropped the kid's hand. "Run, Will! Run!"
The boy sprinted ahead like a frightened deer through the last stretch of tunnel and into his mother's arms just as the deputy with the torch stepped into the tunnel. The deafening explosion shattered the walls and beams framing the tunnel. A plume of smoke poured out of the entrance, driving the search party back, coughing and hacking, and sealing the shaft in a jumble of rocks and timbers.
* * *
A week had passed since the funeral, but Will had not been allowed to attend. I'm probably gonna get another whupping, Will thought as he slipped outside the cabin after midnight and made his way to the north end of Sliver Cliff. He'd scared his folks to death when he'd gone exploring the mine shaft and if they discovered him missing again there's was no telling what punishment they might inflict.
Will carried the walking stick that one of the deputies had handed him after the rescue. It was the only remaining possession of the man who'd died while saving his life. He rattled the stick against the wrought iron fence that encircled the graveyard. In the darkness of the new moon, it would be near impossible to find the right headstone. Standing at the gate, he saw a lantern. Maybe a caretaker. His first instinct was to hide, but then the lantern seemed to hover above a single tombstone located in a corner of the cemetery. The luminous manifestation now appeared spherical and radiated a bluish white glow. The glow brightened as Will crept closer to the marker, making it easier to see the inscription on the stone tablet:
1855 - 1876
Note: Reported sightings of dancing blue lights in the cemetery on the outskirts of Silver Cliff, Colorado are factual and date back to the 1870's. A story on the lights of Silver Cliff cemetery was featured in National Geographic Magazine, August 1969.