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He bent over the clumps of spent bear grass and mats of flowered heather—as springy and dense as his own curly head of hair, streaked now silver-white—and heaved into the dusty ground, each thud of his shovel echoing hollowly in the high-mountain earth. The mule deer came each night, hungry for the salt left from the men’s urine, and when one of the three of them shifted in a bedroll, or the dog growled, or the campfire let out one last sparking hiss, the deer would startle and bound off, the thumps of their spring-loaded hops making the same hollow echo as his shovel strikes did now—as though there were an excavated world somewhere beneath them all, a world which Billy Rhodes hoped was full of the rich silver ore they’d come here for.
Only these Idaho mountains sounded like that, smelled like that: pitch and hemlock, dampened mineral rock and wetly thrashing trout. Only the mountains took and gave in equal measure, uncaring of what the rest of the world said—mulatto. Black Billy. Blackie Rhodes. No place for your kind around here. But he’d made his own place for himself—staked the richest placer gold lode claim there was to be had in Pierce’s 1860 goldrush heyday, Rhodes Creek named after him now, twenty-five years later and all those pay-outs long gone—California, Arizona, then back to Idaho again, flat broke. Something that felt as much like home as anything ever had.
When he got the hole dug down far enough, he planted the snow pole—a limbed and narrow-tapered spruce—and tamped it in solid. It towered two times over his big-man bony height, measured and scored every foot, as scarred and marked as he was. Tall enough, he hoped, to keep track of the coming snow load. Hard to imagine now—baking dust-hot summer, mid-August—but come another few weeks and the first flurries would blow down the rock-barren ten-thousand-foot-high slope of Rhodes Peak and Blacklead into their basin and Goat Lake would freeze over, its surface going from deep azure to iced silver overnight.
He called the dog back from its hunt, stood to admire his work, walking around the planted snow-pole as if it were a maypole—just attach some ribbons to its top and call Frank and Hass in with their eighteen-year-old’s enthusiasm, tell them it was good luck to dance for gold, to dance for silver, to dance for plentiful game and a light oncoming winter. Just the thought of “the boys” as he called them—even though they were legally men, even though they were white, even though the term, for him, was fraught with enough weight to last a lifetime—weaving and twirling with colorful ribbons grasped in their blackened miner’s hands, adorned with their newly-grown stubble, heavy work boots, and tin pants made Billy laugh out loud to himself.
He considered going back to the tunnel again to check on their work, but he knew they were already doing his bidding, digging exactly where he’d directed—the spot he’d determined was most likely to lead to a body of ore—hauling out bucket-loads of rock scrap and dirt like the good little gophers they were, even if they didn’t know a goddamned thing about mining. Without him giving them direction, they were as helpless as a couple of overgrown puppies still bouncing after their mama’s teat. All thoughtless, bodily-driven instinct. No finesse. But he was lucky to have any hands at all, to find backers still sure of his instincts, still greedy for gold.
Down in Lewiston, Risse and Silcott had been eager to furnish him a grubstake and equip him for prospecting, hiring the boys—Frank, Risse’s brother-in-law, and Hass, one of Silcott’s family friends—to help him develop the mine after Jerry Johnson and Zachery pulled out, saying it would take too much money to get a mine going in such remote country—especially for just silver ore. Everyone still only interested in gold, even if silver was the only thing left.
Instead, Billy and the dog went back to the cabin site and kept laboring, the dog hunting pikas as they gathered their sun-dried summer grasses while Billy fit one hauled stone after another into the square of the cabin’s foundation, readying it for laying the logs—each wrestled stone, each felled tree, each chinked gap another step toward shelter, another step toward security and warmth in country made solemn with snow.
A moose and her yearling dropped by again in the night, their feet suctioning in the lake’s muck, their great long faces streaming water and reeds, wary of the dog’s barking. But now, in the last of the day’s light, it was the cutthroat making themselves known, leaping high after their flying insect quarry, their bodies fatly slapping against the lake’s surface. Enough to make Billy’s stomach growl. Another cast-iron fish fry for supper, another stretch of evening hours spent fishing from the house-sized rock that rested half in and half out of the lake, clumps of heather in dark pink bloom and stunted alpine spruce growing out of cracks, the cratered ring of high sharp-peaked mountains in every angle of view.
His daily pilgrimage—crossing the log-studded outlet, walking the wildflower meadow, filling the water bladder from the spring seep he’d dug out at the bottom of the steep, rocky mountainside sloughing shale into the lake—water that tasted like snow, icy enough to numb your mouth and throat, to leave you forever wanting more. He called the dog in close as he wandered the inlet’s winding flow—one bend after another doubled on itself, the water clear enough you could see each individual pebble, each grain of sand—frogs, garter snakes, and water skippers swimming by undisturbed. A little paradise of their own making.
He and the dog climbed the rock and went to his favorite fishing spot—a stony chair on the far ledge where they could watch the cutthroat darting through the lake’s green-blue depths, shadows shifting along its glassy surface as clouds scuttled past, catching and bunching on the surrounding peaks.
They were still there when the boys came back, their voices carrying across the water as they complained over each other’s broom-beating, the dust cloud they’d sent aloft from their clothes visible through the trees. Soon they would be washing up at the shore—something he had insisted on as some measure of civility, even though their cabin still had a dirt floor and no roof, windows, or doors. They slept and stored their hard tack, beans, rice, and flour inside its open log walls, happy for that much shelter as the temperatures dropped lower each night, skins of ice forming on the lake’s edges, all the highest peaks already gone white.
The tunnel was deep enough he’d thought they would have found ore by now, but as of yet it was nothing but a poor-quality mix—scrap metal in the making. Still, there was nothing to do but dig and haul, brace walls and floor, crib their way back into the mountain with the snow fall—three feet in one night, two the next, coming without stop, the trees bent low under the load, the pikas and marmots hidden deep in their burrows, stashed with dried grass that still smelled of summer.
He had only just finished securing the roof shingles when the first storm had hit, snow blowing in sideways, banking up against the planked door, making its way in past the lowered window hatches despite all his efforts at chinking. Now, November, the cabin was buried in snow, tunnels branching off from the front door like the exposed mazes left by an intrepid mole. They had snowshoed a path to the mine, brown muddy rivulets flowing from the dark hole of the cave’s mouth, heaps of shale and chunks of quartz piled to the side with not even an ounce yet to count.
But despite his youth, Hass had a good eye, a steady trigger pull, the big mule deer he’d gotten enough to take them through another month. Roasts and chops and stews and bones Billy seasoned with the black pepper and cayenne he’d secreted away, laughing in the evenings as the boys’ faces grew red and beaded with spice-sweat, as they poulticed handfuls of snow onto their burning palettes and foreheads, streaks of dirt-melt running down their Adam’s-apple necks.
Finally, after a Thanksgiving chili hot enough to sweat them all for hours, in a rare fit of teen rebellion, the boys threw a “cayenne coup,” confiscating Billy’s spice stash and dumping it into the mine’s depths—for luck, they said. Even though luck wasn’t on their side—their supplies already run short, the mountain still holding onto its secrets of silver, the mule deer—both dead and alive—long gone along with all the other game. Smarter, it seemed, than they were—abandoning the high country for lower ground. Snow up past the twelve-foot mark already, the lake as buried as they were. Billy imagined the cutthroat resting there in their cold-water stupor, waiting for the spring melt, waiting for the bear grass and heather to come back to life, waiting for the flight of fat mayflies, mosquitoes and ticks calling out for warm blood.
It was just before New Year’s when it first hit. He told the boys it was nothing more than a bad case of cramps, jokingly blamed it on their cooking—always prone to underdone beans and rice if left to their own devices—but even then he knew it was something more, something with jaws, something trying to eat him from the inside out, though he wouldn’t tell them that. Two boys gone to the wilderness, wishing for their mothers, wishing for soft beds and warm pie, wishing for home.
For Christmas he’d carved them slingshots like he once had for his nieces and nephews—before the gold, before the jewelry and dresses, before the high-backed coaches and papered ponies and dogs they so adored. He made the boys antler-handles for their forks and knives—presents they opened eagerly, whooping and yelping around the cabin, the dog barking and jumping joyously as they sling-shot each other with dried beans, these high-mountains making a family out of them despite everything they thought they knew, despite everything they’d always been told about each other.
He stayed in the next few weeks—weeks that turned into months—leaving off the tunneling work they’d been undertaking together since the first snow flew. Did all the cooking instead, swept the frozen dirt floor, boiled pot after pot of snow, washing their utensils and clothes, washing himself—trip after trip to the privy, his insides bent on escaping the confines of himself.
Made himself into a useful housewife, the boys goading, “Honey, I’m home,” each night, grinning with their dirt-caked faces as dark as his own. But it wouldn’t let up, wouldn’t let go of its grip on his guts, his nerves sparking with heat and electricity with each systolic wave of cramping, as if he were short circuiting, his body and mind both in equal distress. He and the dog—always following him now—wore the path to the privy into a deepened groove, his knobbed bones grown as distinct as they’d been as a Missouri child raised in a tassel of hungry children, his body gone hot and writhing with sweat, his hair gone as white as their buried world.
March first, he sent the boys off to work on the tunnel, said he would cook them a hot lunch. Another pot of snow set to boil on the wood stove, his guts clamping down so hard he had to hobble-run for the outhouse, his knees gone wobbly, his insides roiling, his body tilting and on edge—as though he were on a snow-tossed sea, preparing for his own sinking, all the agony he’d pushed away making up for lost time, coming in like a thundering avalanche that over-swept him, burying him in its blue-white depths.
He was glad nobody was there to witness his guttural cries, grim with the fact of his own purging, his body emptying itself with such violence that there was nothing more to expel, nothing more to shed. The snow-pole a mere twig now—over fifteen feet and counting. He’d had nightmares about it—being buried alive, the mountains above them curled over with avalanches ready to release. Enough snow to melt into a silvery sea of ice. Enough snow to sink a city. Enough snow to sink them all.
Weak with nausea and pain, he curled into a fetal position on the bed, his guts twisting with cramps, each one seeming to build in strength and intensity, the dog whining and nuzzling his hand until he closed his eyes and thought of this: dram after dram of gleaming silver ore, a world gone green, sweet water and fish jumping, as hungry and alive as he was.
They found him in bed—a skin-bound skeleton stretched like a father, palms up and open, his mouth gaped as if in awe, his chin sunken, his body the color of clay, of soil, as if he’d painted his skin with the mine’s earth—all of them one and the same now.
They lovingly combed his white hair, tidied his tattered clothes, laced his boots tight, wrapped him in their warmest coat. The dog yipping and howling, they buried him down, but the snow kept melting, his body floating to the surface like a silvered ghost bent on its own unearthing.
They left the mine. They cut wood, they played cards—hand after hand after hand until the colors bled black and red, black and red. Hass shot a lynx—winter-thick coat, sharp teeth, stringy meat that lasted them a week. Nothing but flour and beans.
In April they found and killed a bear in its den, but the dog refused to eat it, grown as lank and bony as his master had been in the end. May Day, the snow pole at eight feet, June first, at four feet, bare ground in the path of the previous winter’s snow slide. And there they buried Billy Rhodes in the dark earth, marking his grave with a pile of silvery stones drawn from the depths of the mountain.
Dreams of Silver is a work of fiction based on deep research that incorporates social/cultural anthropology, including the author’s investigation of the material artifacts, textual records, and oral narratives involved in the story of the 1800s African-American miner, Billy Rhodes, as related to his gold and silver mining in the mountains of north-central Idaho—the same place where the author was raised backpacking and llama packing. Dreams of Silver works to illuminate the changing articulations of identity along with the historical dynamism of landscape/place, social/cultural relationships, and the area’s gold and silver mining.
Annie Lampman’s works of short fiction, narrative essays, and poetry have recently been published or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as The Normal School, Orion Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and Women Writing the West, among numerous others. Her work has been awarded the 2020 Literature Fellowship special mention by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, the 2019 Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction, a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, first place in the Everybody Writes poetry contest, an Idaho Arts writing grant, and a national wilderness artist’s residency through the Bureau of Land Management. She lives with her family in Moscow, Idaho where she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Idaho. She is a professor of honors creative writing at the Washington State University Honors College.