Fantasy Horror Historical cthulhu Colorado mining racism mythos

The Invisible Empire

By James Van Pelt · Jun 8, 2019
7,760 words · 29-minute reading time

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger via Unsplash.

From the author: Here's a story of Colorado gold mining in the late 1800s, racism and Cthulhu in equal measure. There are men who are monsters, and then there are monsters.


What the beginning of my tale must do is to convince you that a man of science like myself could do what I did at the end of it.  I don’t know if I can.  Some actions are too hard to explain.  Maybe it was the fever born of living in a foreign land.  Maybe Charlie Crumb and his superstitions affected me.  Perhaps I became insane for a moment.  All I can tell you is that the events are true, and for what it is worth, I did what I did.

It started with young Colonel Montgomery Thomas, eyes bleary with drink, sitting on the edge of the vertical shaft into the Epitome, facing me as I cranked the windlass that lowered four Negro miners in a bucket to the tunnel a hundred feet down.

When I’d arrived in the Colorado territory two weeks earlier, Montgomery had squinted at me from under his hat.  “What kind of black boy are you?”

“I’m mulatto,” I’d said a bit stiffly, and quite a bit better educated than you, I thought.

“Neither fish nor fowl, eh?” 

In a few days the Colonel seemed to have forgiven me for my African mother.  I believe he found in my English accent a sign of kinship not present in my American cousins.

“Jonas, those are surly bastards,” he said, gesturing toward the men, now vanished below.  “Before I surrendered with the Western Army in North Carolina, they were properly scared of me.  Hell, Charlie Crump served as my house boy.”  Charlie Crump was the crew chief, a likable man of twenty-five or so, about my age.  He’d tipped his hat at a jaunty angle and grinned at me as I lowered the crew.  Montgomery rolled a whiskey bottle between his palms.  Only a swallow or two remained.  I concentrated on holding the bar against the cable’s tension.  If the bucket jerked, it could spill the miners. 

Looking into the shaft, he said, “I should have become a raider.  There would be glory in that.”  He pulled a drink from his bottle.  “For my service, the Confederate government gave me one Mexican dollar for food and a mule to get home on.  You know what I found there?  Do you?  Surly, superstitious, brown bastards from pantry to parlor.  No Klan then.  I should go back, you know.  Give them a bit of the white sheet.  Give them a bit of the ghost.  You can scare a man into better behavior.  Nothing like a little terror to keep him awake at night.  Better than guns.  Better than nooses.”  He sounded introspective suddenly.  Very quiet.  “Plant an imp in a man’s head, and he’ll walk always in darkness.”

I nodded.  Some variation of this story came whenever he drank, and he hadn’t missed a day since I joined him.  He was worse than usual, swearing more, slurring his speech. 

Keeping the bucket ride smooth was my job now, not listening.  They didn’t warn me at Oxford’s School of Mines about drunken, southern ex-patriot owners who knew nothing about hard rock mining.  He tunneled on whims, overworked his crews and stored blasting powder too near the machinery.  Reading the American authors, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe had not prepared me for this land either.  Well, perhaps Poe, who said, “There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of Hell.” 

Across the canyon, a puff of smoke billowed from the Daedelus.  A few seconds later the explosion echoed sharply.  Up and down the gulch, yellow tailing piles marked the slopes.  Powder blasts resounded regularly, and when no wind rattled through the trees, the sound of hammers on drills filled the air.  Below, tents and rude log structures occupied nearly every flat spot, and in the middle, Clear Creek oozed like muddy soup.

I wasn’t thinking about the Colonel, though.  In my mind’s eye, I pictured the shafts and drifts and crosscuts underground.  One-hundred-and-eighty feet down, we had hit water.  If we were to go lower, we’d need pumps or a drainage tunnel. 

More troublesome, however, was the cavity in Bernice, the middle of three coyote tunnels Montgomery had extended.  A miner lost a hand drill while setting a powder charge the day before.  He’d placed the drill, whacked it twice, and the third time it disappeared into the hole.  He’d fled, blubbering about witches and demons.  Now none of the men would go into Bernice.  I went down by myself and widened the cavity until it was large enough to extend a lantern into.  Light reached no walls or ceiling, and when I pitched a rock through, it clattered once against something, making no other sound as it fell.  Suddenly I’d felt nauseous.  My light dimmed, and I backed out.  Bad air.  How could there be a natural cavern in granite?  This was a conundrum more interesting than any story I’d heard from the Colonel.   

He droned on, “I didn’t have a home to go to.  That damned Sherman gave the land over for slave occupation.  Camp followers, the whole cursed lot.  I could see the Atlantic from my porch, you know, the clipper ships.  I remember their sails, full of the sea breeze.  It’s been two years, now.  You think they’ve grown a decent crop yet?  You think they can care for themselves without proper direction?  Might as well have burned the building to the ground.”

“You did well with your dollar, sir,” I said absently.  The bucket would be nearly to the new shaft now.  I waited for the signal.  One bell meant “stop,” or “lower the bucket.”  Two meant, “bring it up.”

“Investors,” he said, leaning over the hole.  From where he sat he would be able to see the men’s candles eighty feet down, if the air was clear.  “Not everything ended in Yankee banks.”  He flicked a pebble over the edge.  I cringed.  If it hit one of the men, it could sting.  They were runaways who’d fled west during the war.  That’s all Montgomery hired.  At first I thought it was because he paid them less than white miners, but I think it was his hatred of them and the chance to make their lives miserable. 

He swung his feet out of the shaft, and stood.  “The air’s too dry here.  Too damn thin.  The work’s dangerous, the gold, what there is of it, is impossible to dig out, and what I ship to the stamper mill is stolen.   I can’t get a decent breath that doesn’t smell of Chinese, Yankees and darkies.”  He paced around the shaft, the empty bottle dangling from his hand, a dangerous scowl in his eye.  “Did you see how they looked at me before they went down?  Insolent.  Pure disrespect.  In Atlanta white women walk on the street because the Negroes won’t give way, and the law, Northern law, protects them.  Used to be they knew their place.”

I watched the bell, a hammer strung next to a panning plate.  When they tugged on the cord, the hammer struck the metal.  They were working the new dig, and I didn’t have the cable marked for the proper depth.

After I’d explored the odd cavity within Bernice, I’d spent most of the afternoon collecting samples from the shaft walls.  Before I’d arrived, the Colonel had found the main vein, much thinner than he hoped it would be.  Several tunnels followed it through the mountain, the coyote tunnels, so named because they were exploratory, not like the engineered shafts I was used to seeing.  The support timbers gave me nightmares, roughly hewn beams jammed haphazardly into place.  A good nudge would knock any one of them down.  My first day in the mine, while Charlie gave me a tour, a foot-wide support timber fell over, nearly smashing my foot.  Neither of us had touched it.  Charlie grinned and wedged it against the floor and ceiling.  I’m not claustrophobic, but the Epitome gave me shivers.  The mountain’s weight hung over me.  The ore was low grade, too.   Colonel Montgomery hoped for better luck at other levels, which is why he’d hired me.  “Expertise,” he said, “Solves problems.” 

I’d noted the promising spots.  The assay numbers were posted on a beam by the windlass.  I studied them.  The rock was thick with quartz, but it was difficult to tell with small samples what bore gold thread and what was worthless bull quartz.  I ignored the Colonel as he continued his rant.  Work went better when he stayed in his tent farther down the mountain, or rode his horse into Blackhawk where there was a proper saloon, with wood floors and glass in the windows.

The hammer clanged once.  I leaned against the bar, stopping the bucket’s descent.  The Colonel stood on the shaft’s edge again, his back bent, looking down.  At first I didn’t realize what he was doing, his posture seemed so odd, as if he were praying.  Then I saw: he held a rock the size of a human head.  He swayed a little, from the weight or the drink I couldn’t tell.  I opened my mouth to speak–I have no idea what I would have said–but he lurched forward and pitched the rock into the opening before I spoke.  Whatever I might have uttered stayed frozen in my throat.  The Colonel stood perfectly poised, his hands empty, while the rock–it must have weighed fifty pounds–hurtled down the shaft.

The retarding bar jumped out of my grip.  I didn’t hear the rock hit.  Everything seemed silent, but I felt it in my hands, the vibration leaping up the cable and through the bar.  The windlass spun a half turn before I grabbed the bar to stop it.

Stunned, I looked at the Colonel.  He never raised his eyes.  If he had, the spell might have been broken, but he stood like a dusty statue, head down.  Behind him the mountain rose steeply.  Pine spotted the slope, clinging to gaps between dark granite outcrops.  A lone bird, a hawk, glided overhead at a level with the ridge’s top.  I held the bar, the vibration no longer alive in my fingers, the metal, a deadly still, cold weight against my hand.

Two bells.  I watched the hammer, not believing it had moved.  Two bells again, insistently.

I started the laborious process of bringing the bucket up.

The Colonel stepped back, dusted off his hands, then strode past me.  “I’m getting a drink.  You tell those men I don’t pay salary if they’re above ground.”  His voice was absolutely steady.

Time crept as I turned the windlass.  They didn’t ring the bell again, and they made no noise.  I’d almost convinced myself that the rock must have missed.  Maybe it clanged off the bucket’s rim.  They were just scared.  The walls weren’t steady if rocks were falling off, they’d be thinking.  They wouldn’t suspect the rock had been dropped intentionally.  Who would toss a stone down a mine shaft on purpose?  They were frightened and coming up to tell me we needed to stabilize the walls.  The buckle holding the bucket to the cable appeared, then the men.  Three held one like a broken toy.  Blood soaked them all.  At first I didn’t recognize what I was seeing.  They’ve covered his head, I thought.  Why would they do that?  But his head wasn’t covered.  That was his head, not head shaped anymore, and his shoulder hung awkwardly.  They didn’t move, the three men, they just held him, as if by supporting him they could put him back together.

I shifted my gaze down.  On the bucket’s edge a deep dent bent the metal.  A single bloody drop and a clump of hair marked the dent.

“We need a mortician,” Charlie Crump said.  All the Negroes spoke with thick accents, but this was clear.  He didn’t ask for a doctor.  He didn’t ask what happened.  He just held his dead companion.  “We have to be burying,” Charlie said.  They carefully lifted the dead man from the bucket and laid him beside the shaft.  I covered the corpse with a tarp.

One of them said to another, “It’s dat debil man, Montgomery again.”

“This has happened before?” I said, unable to take my gaze from the lump under the tarp.

They nodded.

There was no constable in Veronica Falls, which wasn’t a full-fledged settlement yet like Idaho Springs or Central City, so I walked along the cart trail to the jailhouse in Idaho Springs, about a five-mile trip.  The air shook with explosions and smelled of blasting powder.  Sawing, hammering, cursing.   Enduring their looks, I stepped aside for men on horseback or leading mules hauling supplies in huge baskets draped over their backs.  The farther west I’d gone from Boston, the worse this country had become.  Boston, at least, had a sense of civility.  A man wearing a jacket over a white shirt with starched collar would be considered properly attired.  Here, I couldn’t tell if it were the color of my skin or my dress that attracted so much attention.  It cost fifty cents a shirt to have them laundered, which was what I paid for them new, but a person must keep an appearance of dignity about him or be reduced to the barbaric.  Men lying in open tents, waiting for their shifts, stared at me.  Signs advertising tools and dry goods hung from log buildings that weren’t even chinked yet.  I could see tables and chairs through the cracks.

“You’re that fancy, European mining engineer Montgomery’s hired on, ain’t ya?  Heard you were a bit of a dandy.  Didn’t know you were a black fella, not that you’re all that dark,” said the sheriff, sitting on a stool outside his cabin that also served as a jail.  “What are you, some kind of Arab?” 

“I’m British,” I said.

Like everyone else in the camps, he was desperately in need of a bath.  Grease and dirt stained his shirt so heavily, I couldn’t tell what pattern it was.  I don’t know why I thought I would get justice from a man such as this.  “Did anyone else see this happen?  How ‘bout the colored boys.  They see it?”

I shook my head.

He rubbed his hand down his beard.  “I’ve been out to Montgomery’s claim before.  Heard a rumor, but the darkies wouldn’t answer questions.  You being foreign, I reckon you don’t understand how things work around here.  We need proper, believable witnesses to make an arrest.”

“I saw it,” I said.

He rubbed his beard some more.  “There is that,” he said, “but it’s just you.  One witness won’t do.”

“That’s outrageous!  If Montgomery came to you saying I dropped a rock down the shaft, would he need a corroborator?”

The sheriff laughed.  “Of course not.  He’s white, even if he is an ex-Confederate.”

My mind reeled at this turn of events.  “I thought the war between the states was to emancipate the Negro race.”

He seemed to think that over, then said,  “We freed them.  That doesn’t make them the same as everyone else.  I hear the plan is to round them all up and ship them back to where they came from.”

“Are you going to arrest Montgomery or not?”

“Look, I don’t like him any better than the next man, but there’s no use in me going up there if there’s no case.  You could be mistaken.  It’d be your word against his.  If he’s stupid enough to kill his own crew, then he won’t last long out here.  Anyway, miners die all the time.  If I’d had any sense, I’d have bought a hearse instead of a mining kit.  That way I’d be one of the few to make money from digging holes.”

I left his cabin.  By then the day was nearly done, and the tree stumps cast long shadows behind them.  When I got to Veronica Falls, night had fallen, stars glittered in the dark blue.  Lanterns lit mine entrances in the slopes above, while silhouetted forms sat in glowing tents along the creek.  Woodsmoke filled the valley, carrying the smell of cooked beef and vegetables.  It had been six months since I left London, and I missed the rain-washed streets, the pubs, the way boat lights reflected on the broad Thames, waiting for the tide to turn.  I missed an enlightened city where even a street urchin’s death deserved an investigation.

I made my way toward my quarters in Brown Town, where the Negroes, Chinese, and Mexicans pitched their tents.  Montgomery’s crew tent might have been built for ten men, but twenty-four slept there.  Generally eight-man teams worked the Epitome, so we weren’t stacked on top of each other all the time.  It made even the primitive conditions of the Pakistani gold dig, where I’d worked with my Oxford mentors, look palatial in comparison.  No native servants taking our laundry in the evening here.  No break for tea in the afternoon, even if field rationing meant boiling the leaves twice.

Somewhere in the dark, a gunshot echoed.  Then two more.  I shuddered and drew my coat closer.  Americans! 

I’d spent nearly all my money to get to Montgomery’s mine.  He’d promised to reimburse my traveling expenses in our correspondence, but now he said I needed to “earn it out.”  If I quit his employment, I would have no way to get home again.  But I swore to myself then, as I wandered up the darkened cart path, Clear Creek gurgling in my ears, that I would stand in harm’s way rather than let him hurt another miner.  Accidents can happen both directions.  There are many ways a man can be killed in the Colorado mine fields.

A strange scene greeted me in the crew tent.  Rather than the still forms of men bedded down for the evening, a circle of heads bent over an oil lantern.  They chanted low, deep words that made no sense to me.  They might have only been nonsense, but it sounded like language.  The lantern lit the faces nearby, serious, white eyes, flashes of teeth.  Charlie Crump saw me.  He pushed his way out of the circle, grabbed my arm and took me from the tent.

“I must ask you this question,” he said.  Of course, it was in his southern dialect that sounded to my ear like, “I mus’as’ ya dis question.  What kind of person is ya’?”

This confused me.  “I’m an academic, an educated man,” I offered.

The men in the tent still chanted, and I could not shake the sense of unreality.  He said, “No, I mean are you for Master Montgomery, or are you for us?”

I didn’t have to think to answer.  “He must not kill again.”

Charlie nodded.  “Master Montgomery is a devil.”  Charlie’s voice dropped, and he moved closer, as if he was afraid to say the words loudly.  “He is in league with the ‘Invisible Empire.’  He boasts of it.  If we are not respectful, if we forget that the white man is master, then we will be punished.  He took tokens from all us and made evil signs so we could not leave. ”

In the darkness outside the tent, I looked around.  The stream still gurgled, and pans rattled against pans in another tent down the hill.  Rough laughter came from the opposite direction.  Everything still appeared real and definite.  Even Charlie’s hand grasping my arm felt solid, but it seemed as if I’d entered another world, where Satan and madmen coexisted.  I shook my head in sudden understanding and said, “No, no.  That’s the Klan.  Montgomery is part of a group that terrorize freedmen so that you will be slaves again.  There is no invisible empire.”

Charlie whispered vehemently, “I have seen its messengers in Carolina.  Ghosts on horses with fire in their eyes and lightning at their hooves.”

“Men in sheets,” I said, wondering if it were true.

“He means to kill us all.  The mine holds no gold, so he is returning home.  Before then he will make a sacrifice to the empire.  He’s told me when he was drunk.  He’ll seal the mine with all the men in it.”  Charlie squeezed my arm harder.  “We have his book of spells.  He collects witchy papers that he keeps locked in a trunk, but I have the key.  I’ve always had the key.  If we are to beat a devil, we must use his magic against him.” 

Charlie looked around us, and he spoke so nervously I thought Montgomery might jump out from behind a bush any moment.  “While he was away at the war, a special book was delivered to the house.  It came in the middle of the night.  The courier was not human.  I saw him.  His cloak slipped when he handed me the book, and I saw his demon eye.”  Charlie shuddered, as if he faced the man now.  “I have that book, but I cannot read it.  Will you read it for us?”

So I found myself back in the tent, crouched before the lantern, the black miners surrounding me as Charlie handed me the volume.  It’s cover crackled unpleasantly against my hand.  The men hummed in their throats like huge bees, pressing against me when I opened to its first page.  In the lamp’s yellow light, I could barely make out the spidery writing.  “It’s in Spanish,” I said.  Fortunately I read Spanish well, along with French and Latin.  Many of the best mining texts are in Spanish.  I canted the book toward the lantern to show the letters better.  The title was, El Libro de los Normos de los Perdidos, and below that was the date, 1579.  “It says the author was Miguel Cervantes, ‘Upon My Captivity in Algiers.’  Ah, not the author, the translator.”  I wondered if this was the same Cervantes of Don Quixote fame.  I turned to the next page carefully, although the nearly two-hundred-year-old paper seemed supple.  I only read a few lines before I came upon an epigraph, which I translated out loud,  “That is not dead which can eternal lie/and with strange eons, even death may die.”  The lantern guttered and nearly went out.

“Do not say the black magic words, Master Jonas,” hissed Charlie.

His beliefs that would under any other condition provoke incredulity, chilled me.  The men leaned away, some with their hands over their ears, still humming.  Their fear and sweat hung in the air.

I nodded my assent and read on silently.  This was no Christian superstition.  Nothing of witchcraft in this book.  It was cosmology and history and strange references to monarchs or gods with unrecognizable names who existed as exiled sovereigns.  Most of it I didn’t understand, but my bile rose while reading, and I felt the same kind of nausea I’d felt in the Bernice.  Is it possible that there is the equivalent of bad air in words?  “There are incantations here for calling forth a creature named the Lurker at the Threshold.  See, there are notes in the margins.”  My finger shook while pointing.  Charlie moved to where he could see.

“You will have to tell us how to speak it.”

“The notes are a warning, not a translation, but commentary from Cervantes.  He says, ‘Under sanity’s blanket lies chaos.’  Then he writes, ‘The spell of summoning costs a human life.  Yog-Sothoth consumes.’” 

One of the men started shaking.  His lips drew back from his teeth, and his teeth ground together.  Eyes rolled back so there were only white marbles in his head.  He collapsed, falling slowly between the men crammed so close together.  No one paid him heed.  They continued their moaning, rocking back and forth.  I looked down at my hand on the page.  For an instant, it seemed the spidery writing glowed black on the paper, as if the volume couldn’t contain the letters anymore, and the ink wasn’t ink at all, but thin slits to nothingness behind them.

I dropped the book and fled from the tent.

When the sun rose, I was still walking.  My agitated pacing had taken me past Idaho Springs, past the stamper mills and abandoned sluice troughs.  Down river, below the town, broken equipment sat in piles beside the path.  As the sky lightened, I saw first the black holes opened into the mountain, lost claims, dead-end shafts that led to nothing, abandoned when their owners ran out of money or patience, left as futile evidence.  In my exhaustion, I fancied the mountain was a great face and the mines were eyes.  If eyes are the window to the soul, then the mountain’s soul was blank and heartless.  No compassion twinkled in those inanimate sockets.  I thought about the tunnels burrowing through the canyon’s sides, some beneath me, miles and miles of lightless passage stretching through the rock.

During my life in mining, I had never thought of mountains this way, not the way I did that morning after reading Cervantes’ horrifying translation.  For me, a mountain presented itself as a beautiful, ages-long story.  An open, striated cliff face, bands on bands of mineral and different colored rock told a geologic narrative, as moving as any of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, as epic as Homer’s Odyssey, but that day I didn’t see them as lovely.  The yellow tailing piles seemed pestilent, as if the mountain oozed from sores.  From one end of the valley to the other, no trees hid the granite bones.  Only stumps until just below the ridges, and if the mining continued, those would be gone too.  The creek splashed up ocherous, scummy water where no fish could live.

I would stop Montgomery, then leave this terrible valley, where black miners trusted frightening books, and a crazy Confederate dropped rocks on his men.

But as the sky grew lighter, and the sun crept down the mountain wall, my fears lessened.  Montgomery was evil, this was true, but last night’s performance in the tent had nothing to do with him.  Perhaps I had a touch of fever myself.  Who knew what diseases passed from man to man in these filthy conditions?  Certainly nothing I’d seen in London, where a doctor was no more than a few blocks away at the worst.

I’d deal with Colonel Montgomery, and I’d do it without “supernatural” aid, but I could use his own fears against him, his ignorance of the mines.  What man would own a collection of witchcraft and superstitious drivel who didn’t believe in it a little himself?  No wonder he wanted to scare the Negroes.  He was nearly heathen himself.

All I needed was preparation, and then to get him into the claim.

“You need to see the vein yourself,” I said, holding the gold-threaded quartz in my hand.  “It’s the richest ore I’ve ever seen.”

Montgomery lounged in his chair like a slothful cat, his arms draped back over the low top, his feet on the table next to the open bottle.  Behind him, his travel cases lined the tent’s walls, each with a huge clasp lock.  Charlie told me that some contained liquor, but books filled many, his entire collection of supernatural studies.  From what I remembered of American history, if Montgomery had been caught with the same books in Salem in 1692, he would have been hung.

His feet came off the table.

“Give it to me,” his whiskey-roughened voice growled.  He found a hand lense in the desk’s clutter to examine the pebbles.  At length, he said, “This came from my mine?”  The lense magnified his eye into a black ball as lifeless as those dead-end shafts I’d seen that morning.

“There’s a cavity at the end of Bernice.  I wanted to find out how deep it was, so I chipped a wider opening.  It wasn’t until I got to the surface that I thought to look at the stone I’d removed.  I exposed a band the same as that at least six-feet wide. It could rival anything in California.”  I tried to sound optimistic, but not over-eager. 

Montgomery bent over the rocks again.  “We’ll need to do an assay to be sure.  I want to inspect it first, though.  Get Charlie Crump to run the bucket.  I don’t trust any of the others.”

He noticed my hesitation.

“Oh, Charlie has been with me a long time.  I swore to him if anything ever happened to me, I’d haunt him.  These African folk are big on hauntings.  Very simple that way, so don’t worry about riding down with me.”

As we took the steep path to the shaft, Charlie bringing up the rear, Montgomery said to me, “You’re not superstitious, are you?  A man died in here yesterday.  Lot more ghosts than him in this mine.”  He laughed, and I remembered what the sheriff had said about coming out to this claim before.  How many other “accidents” had there been?

“Are you worried about ghosts, Colonel?  I don’t remember you in the tunnels before.”

His hand went to his chest, feeling something under his shirt.  “I don’t believe in ghosts, Jonas.  A schooled man like yourself should know better.  It’s the coloreds who live in a spiritual world.  That’s why the Klan will be so effective.  Properly funded, they will win back the South.”  He paused, then said without irony,  “Just in case, I wear a warding.  My kitchen woman made it for me years ago.  If there were ghosts, it would keep them off.  Belts and suspenders is what I always say.  Besides, the richest gold strikes in history are associated with tragedy.  The Buluma deposits in Austria were discovered after a cave-in killed fourteen miners.  The ancient Egyptian kings shored up their mine walls with slave bodies.  The greatest treasures in the world were founded on death.”

Charlie made no noise as he followed.  I couldn’t help but think of him last night, as I read from the book, eyes wide, too frightened for me to even read the words out loud.  Belief is a powerful thing.  Charlie and the others believed in haunts and witchings and ritual.  I’d seen them pinch spilt salt to toss over their shoulders.  I’d seen one spin counterclockwise three times after accidentally killing a spider.  I’d seen the small sacks they wore round their necks filled with little bones and bits of feather. 

I’d seen mine owners too, on a “hunch” pouring thousands of dollars into worthless projects in the belief their fortune resided only a few feet deeper.  I’d seen prayers said over open pits, hoping divine intervention would put wealthy deposits in that day’s diggings.

That’s what I learned to resist during my geologic studies.  Minerals congregated when the conditions were right.  No “belief” or ritual would put gold ore where the geologic conditions were not favorable.  Science guaranteed success where faith could not.  That was why I studied Earth’s stony mysteries and turned away from men, like Montgomery, who were too puzzling to fathom.  I longed to return to the classroom.  Perhaps I could become a lecturer in England, where a man of learning could be respected for his education and not be relegated to sleeping in Brown Town because he was not white.

I reached for the square shape in my ore bag.  The book was there.  If this worked, the men would be rid of Montgomery one way or another.  No matter what, when I left, their lot would be better.  If I’d felt my brow then, would I have felt fever?  The plan was insane.  The sheriff in Idaho Springs wouldn’t arrest Montgomery, but there was law farther east.  I could write to the magistrates in Kansas City.  Still, we pressed on.  My memory of the trek up the hill is filled with garish color: igneous rocks so dark no shadow showed on them, clouds bleached as if the sky had been erased and the stark parchment of the universe shown through.  More than once I stumbled.  Granite scree imbedded itself in my palm.  I put my mouth against the wound and sucked.

Charlie manned the windlass.  Montgomery lit an oil lantern, a luxury he never allowed the miners.  They carried shadowgees, tin cans or buckets shaped to hold candles.  I stepped into the bucket beside him.  Overhead, the noon sun beat down, but a cool draft blew from the mine.  The cavity at Bernice’s end must be vast indeed to push this much air from the tunnel.

I nodded to Charlie, and he unlatched the windlass.  The headframe pulley creaked as the cable played out.  Ground rose to our eye-level as we started the long descent.  Crudely carved granite walls replaced the sun-washed mountainside in our view.  Montgomery bumped me when the bucket lurched.  “Be more careful, you charcoal buck!” he shouted to Charlie.  In the shaft’s close confines, his voice resounded.  The lantern smoked and stank.  He had not properly trimmed the wick.  He smelled of unwashed clothes and old liquor.  I half hoped Charlie would drop a stone himself.  Surely providence would have it hit him and not me.  I looked up.  The opening glowed like a white-hot coin. 

“If this ore assays out, we’ll hire more crew,” he said.  “Cornish miners who know what they’re doing.  Not this shiftless crowd of buffalo heads.  My investors, my Southern investors, will be very happy.”

“Always proper to turn a profit, sir,” I said to keep his suspicions away.  Would he notice the new timber work in Bernice?

At seventy feet we passed the northward-wandering Agnes, the oldest of the Epitome’s three tunnels and the only one with track for ore carts.  As always, I grimaced at the few support pillars the light illuminated.  They were ill-fitted, coarse beams that needed to be hammered back into place periodically as the uncured wood contracted.

At a hundred-and-ten feet, Charlie stopped the bucket with nary a jostle only a foot shy of Bernice’s floor.  We stepped out.  Montgomery’s oil lantern cast a much brighter light than the candle in my shadowgee.  I checked my pockets.  There were plenty more candles there, not that I expected to use them all. 

“You should lead, sir,” I said.

Bernice bore north-east into the mountain, following quartzy rock in a zig-zag fashion for hundreds of feet.  We passed short exploratory adits, horizontal tunnels that petered out in a few yards.  The farther in we went, the lower the ceiling became.  I kept one hand above my head, running it across the rough rock.  Something felt wet, and I brought my fingers down to the light.  They glistened from seep.  I’d seen no sign of water this high in the Epitome before.  I rubbed my fingers together.  The water was slimy, and the tunnel smelled fetid.  I wiped my hand hard against my pants.

Soon we were bent at the waist.  Even shrouded in glass, Montgomery’s lamp flickered from Bernice’s steady, moist exhalation.  The light surrounded him in a circle, while his black form eclipsed the lantern itself.  He passed two newly-hewn timbers without pausing.  I stopped.  The cavity was only thirty yards farther around another bend.  Over his head, fresh boards covered the ceiling for ten feet.  He didn’t even remark on the change.  Perhaps he never had been in his own mine.  I put my shadowgee in a niche on the wall, waited until Montgomery went past the corner, then kicked the first support under the new boards.  It didn’t move.  I kicked it again.  What if he heard?  What if he discovered me at work?  Maybe I’d miscalculated the weight.  I sat, braced my hands behind me and kicked the beam again with both feet.  It slid over a few inches, and pebbles dropped from between two boards.

“I don’t see your vein,” said Montgomery, his voice echoey and small.  “Where the blazes are you, Jonas?”  The turn in the tunnel brightened.  He must be coming back.  I scooted closer to the beam and kicked a last time with all my strength.  The timber slid another half foot.  A board cracked farther along.  More dust dribbled from the ceiling.  Montgomery’s lantern came around the corner, and I reared back for one more desperate kick, but I didn’t need it.  With a loud pop, the center board snapped and rock roared into the tunnel.

Instinctively, I rolled away, covering my head.  Rock on rock makes a particular sound, a crisp clack.  For several seconds, lying on the stone floor, I heard the rocks hitting each other, clack, clack, clack.  There was dust.  It took me a minute to light a new candle.  Broken rock choked the tunnel closed from floor to ceiling, and shards reached to my feet.  If I had not moved, the cave-in would have killed me.  The flame bent toward the shaft.  My blockage had not stopped air flow.  If my calculations were correct, there was no more that twelve feet between Montgomery and myself.  Of course, he wouldn’t know that.  He would have no way of knowing if the entire drift had collapsed.

“Montgomery,” I called.  “Are you still alive, Montgomery?”  I placed my hands on the jumbled rock.

“Thank God!” came his answer, his voice clear through the breakdown.  “Jonas, is the drift clear behind you?  Can you get help?  My leg . . . I’m hurt.”

I didn’t say anything for a while.  He had stood on the edge of a mine shaft and dropped a stone on four men, killing one.  I remembered his eyes when he looked up, no different than if he’d stepped on an insect.  The breeze blew cool air through the rocks beneath my hands.  I let it play off my face.  “Who would come to help you, Colonel?  Should I call Charlie Crump?  How about the other men on the bucket yesterday?  Do you think come down the shaft for you?”

No answer.

You may think at this point that surely I meant to kill him, but I didn’t.  I’d loosened the ceiling, but only enough to fill the passage.  Montgomery could dig his way out in a day or two, all the while without light, an unknown cavity behind him, my planted fears flourishing in the dark.

I sat on the floor, extricating the book from my ore bag.  It seemed even more repugnant than when I’d held it in the tent the night before.  Perhaps the moist air penetrated its cover, or maybe the environment–my heightened senses–affected me, but the tome felt heavier, more gruesome.

“How much oil do you have for your lamp, Montgomery?”  I knew exactly how much he had: no more than a half-hour’s worth.

Rocks rattled on the floor.  He grunted in pain.  I imagined he was trying to remove the fall.  Had he seen the cavern at Bernice’s end?  Even a man of limited imagination might conjure up a monster from such circumstance, but Montgomery was not so limited.  I wondered too if the bad air had cleared out.  The air’s movement was brisk enough, but there could still be patches.  If they were concentrated enough, they could render him unconscious, possibly kill him. 

The book rested on my lap.  My single candle cast enough illumination for me to see a few feet of tunnel back to the shaft.  All tunnels look the same when you are by yourself.  The walls around glow with light, the tiny minerals catching the flame, reflecting it in glisters, but the light fails so soon, and the circle’s middle in both directions is darkness like an eye’s pupil, surrounded with color, centered in black.

I began reading the words.  They were different underground.  Even a rational man like myself can be affected by the mine’s solitude, by odd echoes and tinkly drips tapping into unseen pools.  Any miner can tell you that a mine is not a quiet place.  The silence itself creaks.

“What is that you say?” shouted Montgomery.  He sounded frightened.  Stones continued to clatter on his side.

I spoke a bit louder.  For this to work, he had to hear what I was reading and realize what it was.  The sentences hurt my throat.  Saying them was like a vomit.

When I reached the spell’s end, I started over.    When I finished the second time, there was no sound on the other side.  Either Montgomery was resting or he was listening.  He’d said to me once, “Plant an imp in a man’s head, and he’ll walk always in darkness.”  If he was scared to the bone, so scared he’d flee the mines, then his men would be safe.

“Is that the Spanish book?” he yelled.

I took up the chant.  Somehow it was easier to say now, and the rhythm fell more naturally.

“Don’t read from that one, Jonas!  It’s not safe, Jonas!”  He swore vehemently.

My eyes no longer strained to see the words on the page.  Without stopping, I looked up.  The candle flamed brighter, unnaturally radiant, and the wax gave way before the assault.  It wouldn’t last a minute at that rate.  Shaking, I drew another from the bag.  When lit, it too burned like phosphorous.  By the light of the twin suns, the pages became transparent, and the text hung suspended, all the words visible at once, but it didn’t matter; I wasn’t reading anymore.  My voice became powerful, not my own, and the spell boomed the tunnel’s length.

Montgomery screamed through the stone, his imprecations no longer coherent.

Then, all became still.  The chanting stopped; I did not stop it.  It was as if a presence that had taken me had left.  Montgomery cut off a curse in mid-utterance.  Since I’d entered Bernice, the candles’ flame had bent toward the entrance as the breeze exited the mountain.  Now, they stood straight up.  Then they tilted the other way, as if a door to a much larger universe than our own had opened on Montgomery’s side.

Something was coming.  Montgomery screamed again, a pathetic whine like a kicked mongrel.

“Let me out, boy!  Let me out, you goddamned nigger!”

The wind pushed at my back and whistled through the rubble.  Whatever lived on the other side drew everything toward it.  Fine sand peppered my neck, then disappeared into the broken rock.  The first candle went out.

The entirety of my being demanded I run away.  I felt it in my muscles and bones, an instinctive aversion, but I forced myself to stay. The thing that approached could not be of this world.  I imagined it rising from the cavity, flowing into the opening I’d made, filling the small shaft.  By lamp light, what did Montgomery see?   He made a non-human screech, then a soggy gasp.  Green-limb snapping.  Hollow slurping, and Montgomery continued to scream, a mindless, noisy babble.  Finally, there were only wet noises.  Moist rippings.  Damp slaps.

Rocks slipped from the top of the pile, and the jumbled stack lurched toward me.  Twelve feet of rock, four-feet wide and high, chocked tightly against the mine’s wall slid a foot toward me.  There were two or three tons of rock blocking the mine, and it moved!

I scrambled down the tunnel on all fours, stood too soon, whapped my head against the ceiling, reeled from wall to wall until I collapsed in the bucket.  Behind me, rocks tumbled.  The thing beyond was dismantling the blockage.  Weakly I pulled the bell cord twice and prayed that Charlie Crump could pull me up before the thing from the mountain broke through.

No trip in my life was ever longer.  As the bucket crept up the shaft; the wind vacuumed me back, whistling by.  Slowly, ever so slowly the light at the surface grew larger, while every second I expected a clawed hand or a tentacle to drape itself over the edge, and when I reached the top, I didn’t talk to Charlie.  Instead, I staggered up the slope to the powder cache. 

The explosion shook the valley.  By the time I made my way to the tents, a crowd had gathered, a hundred miners, picks resting on their shoulders or shovels at their sides, expecting to hear the news.

“Was anyone in the mine?” someone shouted.  “Do they need rescuing?” 

I must have presented quite a picture.  Blood from the bump on my head streaked my face, my fine coat was torn.  Dark smudges streaked my white shirt, from starched collar to the belt.  They waited for my answer.

“The Colonel was in the dig, but no one is alive,” I said, finally.  “There’s no mine left.”

Shaking their heads, they dispersed until only the Idaho Springs sheriff stood there, his hands deep in his unwashed pockets.

“I came by today to talk to Montgomery,” he said.  “Don’t seem like I’ll get the chance now.”  I couldn’t discern his purpose in eyes shaded under his hat, and I didn’t care.  My hands started quivering.  My legs lost their strength.  I sat on the ground.  He sat beside me.  A hundred yards downhill, Clear Creek roiled in sullen, muddy, sun-drenched muttering.

“Nobody will miss the bastard,” he said. 

I tucked my head between my knees, on the verge of sickness.  I’d left a monster in the mines.  Poor Montgomery.  I’d only meant to scare him.  What would happen when the next prospector broke through into the cavity?  Did the Lurker on the Threshold wait there, or did it only appear when I read the spell?  Had it gone back to the nether regions past the stars that Cervante’s book talked about?  I could still hear it pulling rocks down, coming toward me.

In the meantime the sun pressed like a warm kiss on my shoulders.  The sheriff sat with his hands wrapped round the top of his hob-nailed boots.

He said, “Guess you’ll have to find another employer, although I don’t know what luck you’ll have, being you are . . . what was it you said you were again?”

I looked up.  There are awful things in the world, beneath it, beyond it.  The sheriff waited for an answer.  I’d thought of him as unwashed, white, uneducated American, but now his fingers laced firmly across his boots, and his hat shaded curious eyes.  He had arms, legs and a familiar torso.  Our differences were small.  Whatever he was, he wasn’t claws or tentacles or a rending thing that rose when called.  He wasn’t a part of the real invisible empire.

“I’m human,” I said.

This story originally appeared in The Children of Cthulhu.


Data?1536446947
James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."