My pops and I came to Stunner to find gold. We left Kansas City when I was 12. We traveled by train for hundreds of miles, across flat plains and into the towering Rocky Mountains, winding our way to La Jara, Colorado. From there, we hired a wagon for the last grueling leg of our journey. Getting here was hard, but it was worth it. I swore I had reached paradise. There were mountains everywhere, the tallest of which were covered in snow, even in the summer. To the north, I could see a peak called Lookout Mountain which appeared to have a smooth sandy face. It looked like a giant slide into the creek below, and it always seemed to be beckoning me to play.
Our first summer in Stunner, we built a small log cabin near the big Alamosa river that runs through the valley. The river was full of fish and we’d see all types of animals stop and drink from it — elk, moose, bear, and bighorn sheep took turns. The first winter was cold but the snow was like nothing you can imagine! It got so deep that if you saw me walking you’d think I had no legs. It wasn’t hard to wade through though, it was light, and sparkled in the sun like a frozen desert of diamonds.
A few other prospectors had come to Stunner around the time we did. We banded together to take chunks out of the mountain and pray for gold — or any precious metal really. A rich man by the name of Horace Tabor grubstaked us all, meaning he gave us each 60 dollars and some equipment to find a fortune and give him a hefty cut. Some years before, a man named Aemon had found a whole mess of gold here and before we came he found a bit more, so we knew there was money to be made. We just hadn’t found much of anything yet so we worked and worked and worked. My job was to get the rock out of the mine. I spent just about every day doing that. Every day but Sunday.
On Sundays, I’d go visit the Aemon fellow. He lived just a ways up the valley from where the rest of us built our cabins. My pops and I had started raising bees in Stunner, as we had back home, and so I’d bring him honey every couple weeks. He liked to use it in his daily coffee, so he’s a good customer. Still, he always complained it wasn’t maple syrup — which he used to make from tree sap back in Vermont, where he came from.
One day, at the end of my second summer, I went over with a little jar of honey and found Aemon on the porch as he usually was. The summer had been hard, and I was glad fall was coming The magic of the valley was beginning to wear off. My mind was elsewhere. I missed home. I wanted to be around people my age, not miners who worked all day and drank all night. I wanted friends. I wanted to do more than move rocks and read the bible. I was tired.
Aemon sat in his chair, his long grey hair falling about his face that looked like it could have been hewn from the mountains around us. His eyes were closed, which wasn’t unusual, so I put the honey by his chair and sat down on the porch next to him with a sigh. He commented without opening his eyes,
“I’ve never been in so much pain. I don’t want to lift another rock. I’m going home.” I said, knowing I wasn’t really, but wishing I could.
“You won’t make it far boy!” Aemon opened his eyes, looked down at me with pity before looking out at the trees. “But, I don’t blame you. I want to go home too. I’ve been out here too long, my old bones long for those soft valleys of clay soil I left so long ago.”
I continued like I hadn’t heard him, preoccupied with my own fatigue and frustration. “I’m tired of all these stupid, old men. I want real friends, and at this rate, I’m never gonna kiss a girl!”
Aemon chuckled, “Oh boy, you don’t worry about that, you’ve got all the time in the world.”
“No offense, but I don’t want to end up out here all alone like you….I mean, why did you come out here in the first place?”
“Well, it was because of a girl actually. I married this remarkable woman named Adeline. But I didn’t have much to offer her and my cousin Horace Tabor had come out here and done quite well for himself.”
“He’s the one my dad works for, you’re his cousin?!”
“I am, and when I heard about how well he was doing out here, I thought I ain’t got much to lose anyways, why don’t I go out west and make myself a tidy, little fortune so Adeline and I can settle down and raise ourselves a family without a care in the world.” He paused and sniffed stiffly, adding, “It never happened though. No fortune and….no Adeline. She never even got to see the mountains.”
I was taken aback by this turn of events. I’d never thought of Aemon having a wife. “What happened?” I asked hesitantly.
“She got a fever along the way.” Aemon replied shortly, before willfully continuing through the memory. “So, anyway, Horace had told me to come on over to Leadville, where the gold is flowing. But when I got to Leadville, the gold was gone. Tapped out. All dried up they’d say.”
“So what’d you do?”
“My cousin had quite a good business running the general store there. He’d settled in and didn’t like the idea of moving after investing so much in the town. Gold or not. While everyone else left looking for the next run of ore, we set about sifting through the endless dunes of black sand down in the mines. I figured I’d follow his lead. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I didn’t have tools of my own or any familiarity with the area. He was the only person I knew and the only one I could trust. And trust is everything. From the stories I’d heard, it wasn’t uncommon for a man to run to his partner with a fistful of gold and a big smile on his face just to be shot on the spot, his gold grin frozen forever. So I ran the sand through the sluices as the days got shorter and the nights got colder. I told Horace what we really needed to do was allay the sand, find someone who could give it a litmus test. It wasn’t just sand, there was something to it even if we couldn’t quite see it.”
“Did he do it?” Now, I was genuinely interested in the prospect of a true tale of the West.
“He did nothing but ignore me. He’d gotten conservative since folks had started to leave, and his general store didn’t have the patrons it used to. But I was impatient. His wife Augusta did the accounting, and with the bit of knowledge I’d picked up about allaying and testing I convinced her to give me the money to see what the sand was really made of. I knew he wouldn’t be pleased, but I took what I could from his wife, the little I had, and put the sand to the test. Horace didn’t know a thing about it. He didn’t pay much attention to the books. Still, each day I spent down in that dark foreboding mine, I sweat a little more than the weather warranted. I knew if the test failed his wife would tell him, and he was a man with a temper. I used to spend summers at his farm in Pawlett, Vermont, helping him out, and when I dozed off one day, letting the sheep go out of my sight, I woke to the sound of him bellowing out at me across the pasture. Before I could say a thing he was on me with his switch, beating me till I bleat like one of the sheep, which had wandered beyond the knoll. I hadn’t lost a single lamb that day, and still he beat me like a bad dog that had got a chicken in its teeth. I didn’t want to think about what would happen if he found out I wasted 20 dollars of his….”
Aemon fell silent for a moment looking out into the subtly swaying evergreens. It seemed like he was once again imagining what his cruel uncle would have done to him. I timidly brought him back to the story, quietly asking, “Then what?”
“Well, I’d just about given up all hope when Augusta brought me an envelope. I opened it, and oh my heart soared when I saw those numbers.”
I felt a bit of tension release in my shoulders, realizing his uneasy silence had made me uneasy in return. He continued to excitedly retell the tale of his triumph.
“We were sitting atop sands of lead and silver, we had a black grainy fortune just beneath our feet and there wasn’t a soul there to dispute. With everyone gone after the gold was spent, we would be rich men. The night I got that letter, I ran up the stairs to where Horace was taking a bath waving it about, and he just about had a fit yelling at me to get out. But I managed to explain to him what we had found, and he grabbed me, still naked as a fleeced yew, and lifted my scrawny ass up in those big arms of his hooting and hollering. More than a bit of whiskey was drunk that night.
Boy, I tell you the next year was a whirlwind. We hired a few good men and did our best to keep it all amongst ourselves. The worst thing you can do when you’ve got a herd of deer in sight is holler for the whole hunting party to come and see. We were trying to make sure that black sand was ours and no one else’s. We did good until the spring when one of the hired hands must’ve written a few of his brethren elsewhere, and before you know it, more and more folk with a glint in their eyes were riding into our once flourishing, once deserted town. Horace was no fool though. He had his general store, and we had established the richest mine in the county. It was different for me. With all the new men, he didn’t need me and definitely didn’t want me claiming what was rightfully mine. Trust is an easy thing to have when you got nothing but hope. But it all dries up like a plain spring when someone’s had a taste of fortune. He owned the land, I owned nothing.”
“But you were the one that figured the land was worth something! He just thought it was worthless black sand. You deserved it as much as he did.” I was indignant, but he just shook his head slowly.
“It meant nothing to him. All I was was cheap labor and a fool who could lead him to treasure. Guess he was right.”
He took a pinch of tobacco out of a foil pouch that was lying on the pine round by his chair and continued as he packed a lip.
“That’s how I made my way here. Here to Stunner. Word was, there were prospects ‘round these parts, and I figured I’d make my own way rather than live under the command of another man. I didn’t have much, but I had earned enough to set myself up in a tent and start building this here cabin. And I found gold! I tell you, after striking solid here I’d swear I was destined to be the world’s wealthiest man. Not many come West and get lucky like me.” Aemon chuckled dryly to himself, “That’s what I thought at least as I broke, pushed, rolled, and carried those granite boulders away so I could get my hands on the gold. But once the gold was out of the mountain, I still had to get it out of this damn valley….”
He spat into the spittoon next to his tobacco pouch and turned his eyes up to the tops of the trees and the steep valley sides not far behind them.
“You know I’ve never been happier than I was when I first found gold here. This whole western world is strange and foreign to me, but this valley almost made me feel at home. I miss the cozy hollows of Vermont. The soft, rolling hills and lush woods of maple, beech, and oak. This small winding valley, with the Alamosa drawing the deer and elk from the glades, felt like a place I could breathe and be safe. Nothing was more terrifying than crossing the great plains, with the wide expanses drawing the imagination into oblivion. Nothing more claustrophobic than a pit of black sand, and a town where everyone wants to cut your throat for a flash of rarity.”
As he spoke, his eyes slowly fell to the porch boards as if they were pulled down by the weight of his memory.
“Of course, I came to this gentle valley and bore into its veins of gold like a bullet into flesh. The gold flowed out in torrents, but I didn’t feel the joy I expected, I felt an increasing sense of dread. The valley was remote, the pass to Platoro was steep, and the weather at those altitudes was temperamental. The trek out the valley took days, and there were no ruts for wagons like there are now, just footpaths. As me and the few other prospectors who had come to Stunner started to amass a small stock of gold, Summitville just north of us had a rush as well. They were much better equipped to transport it all out. We had to pay a hand and foot to get ours out while folks were able to get Summitville’s ore much cheaper which meant we were left with half of what it was all worth.”
“That was the summer of 1883 we made our fortune. But it wasn’t enough to sit pretty on, so we kept blasting, kept digging, kept excavating, kept sifting, kept swinging our pickaxes praying we’d find more gold. But cold hard granite was all we got. Our hands rang from the vibrations shooting up the handles of our pickaxes. Aiming for a streak of quartz was our craft. Finding the weakness in a nearly unbreakable armor, trying to get to the heart of the mountain as our arms shook with fatigue, and our backs screamed with strain. Quartz looks precious. If we were all still children, the shimmering, milky crystals would be worth as much as any gold or silver. But it’s weak, in a forge it shatters. So we relish the chance to pierce it with our steel, as it winks up at us with disdain and indifference in the weak autumn sun, coldly reminding us of our dwindling prospects.”
I shivered, acutely feeling his metaphor of hopelessness in the cool air and looked up at him searchingly, “But you found gold again, and there’ll be more right?”
“Yea 5 years later I sure did, and now you and your daddy are down there looking for more. There’s always more gold, but what good is gold when you spend your whole life chasing it? What good is a field of silver when the man next to you is willing to bury you so he can call it his own? What good is any of it if you have no one to keep you warm when the nights are cold and the snow starts to fall? You and your pops might find gold son, but you better worry ‘bout more than just gold. Back home, I had a good wife and a blacksmithing trade I could have taken on when my pops couldn’t swing the hammer anymore. But I thought I had to be a man of fortune to be a man at all. I was wrong. Life showed me I was a fool through and through, chasing shiny things like a little child, not knowing the worth of nothing.”
He spat and I could see his regrets accumulated between his furrowed brows and the longing for home in his grey eyes. I felt myself feeling his sadness in my own heart and it jolted my awareness back to my own story, and my own loneliness. I could never tell my pops how I yearned for our old life but I could tell Aemon.
“I wanna go home. I’m so alone here. Not that I don’t like seeing you Mr. Aemon but I miss my ma and my little sister. All I do is work all day! I want to do more than just mine my whole life. I like to think about why the stars move like they do, why they twinkle the way they do. I want to know why God put us here, why he makes us work so hard if he loves us so much.”
Aemon looked at me sideways and raised an eyebrow but I kept going.
“Why does my pops make me work so hard if he loves me so much?” I didn’t wait for an answer, I shared my own conclusion instead: “I think its cus he thinks that’s what God wants him to do. But ain’t that wrong? It don’t make me happy and I don’t think it makes him happy either! He’s only happy when he drinks his whiskey. Then in the morning, he says he’s a sinner and he shouldn’t have done it! What’s the sin in being happy? I woke up once and saw him finish a bottle and run down to the river, taking off all of his clothes and splash about like a mad man, hitting the water and howling at the moon like a wolf after fish. He wasn’t washing or doing anything sensible like that, he was just having a good wild old time, and it made me laugh. I loved seeing my pops like that. He’s so serious all the time I’m just right scared of him usually, but when I see that I just wanna go splash about with him….I don’t like God. The only reason to like him is he doesn’t make me work Sundays.”
Aemon pushed himself up in his chair and twisted his body towards me. He raised a finger and brandished it before my face.
“You be dammed careful with what you say about God! In these mountains, God will bring an avalanche down on you while your sleeping or have a bear eating your guts out when you wake up in the morning. God will run away with your gold, and you won’t be able to catch him with those scrawny legs of yours. You think you hurt now after moving rock all summer you wait till he puts the weight of this dreadful planet on your shoulders and kicks you in the back of the knees. That will make you kneel, boy, that will make you beg forgiveness and pray for a savior. You may not like God but he’ll ruin you just the same, so you best make nice while you can.”
I cowered beneath his berating but when he finished I straightened back up and retorted, “That doesn’t make want to like God anymore! I’m not gonna praise someone like that. Why hasn’t God treated you better if you like him so much?”
“I’ve had the rotten life I’ve had because I stopped believing in the Lord. All this bad luck has made me realize where I went wrong.” He sat back in his chair with a sharp sigh. “I just don’t want you to have to go through what I’ve gone through to realize that. You’re a good boy, you’re strong and you care, you give a damn about other people, you wouldn’t kick the ladder out from under man as he reached for his dreams, you’d hold it steady for him. You seen the way I walk? You see the way I’m sitting here? I’m bent over because I was beaten down by the Lord for not believing in him. Who knows if I’ll survive this winter. I want you to walk straight and tall, proud to walk hand in hand with the divine. You gotta be a man with a purpose and a man with a purpose has gotta step in the shadow of God.”
I didn’t know what to say at this point. I bit my lip for a moment — realized I was doing it — and decided I needed to leave. I didn’t know what to say. I got up from my spot on the porch and without looking at Aemon, said “OK Mr. Aemon. You have a good day”.
He watched me silently as I stepped off the porch down onto the path. I walked on the flattened grass, not well-tread enough to be completely dirt, and picked my way between the rocks that jutted out of the ground. I went down through the lodgepole pines that had been spared in the building of Aemon’s cabin. Among the needle laden ground, the air was cooler and I realized I was moving quickly, agitated by our conversation. I had never talked like that with Aemon before. Now I felt I knew him, and it made me sad. He had always seemed like a kind old man, but now I pitied him.
The dark pine tunnel gave way to the brightly lit aspen grove that led down towards our cabin deeper in the valley. Their leaves fluttered in the wind, murmuring in their familiar way, but this time I felt they were whispering secrets I wasn’t privy to and could never understand. It occurred to me that their brilliant gold crowns were maybe the only gold I would ever see again.