He turned off the highway onto the gravel road, stopping at the gate. A heavy chain hung between two crumbling pylons that blocked the entrance.
He climbed out of his truck, fumbling for the key in his pocket then opened the lock. He repeated the process past the gate.
Beyond him, California Mine Road stretched up the hill and disappeared around a bend. Stan put the truck into gear and lurched forward.
The road was private. He’d made sure of that. For the past twenty years, Stan had plotted to keep the property owners from accessing their land at the road’s end.
Stan had been denied the chance to buy the claim decades ago and had decided that if it wouldn’t serve him then it would serve no one else.
In the early nineties, Stan began switching the lock on the gate. He’d give the owner of the neighboring parcel a new set of keys, leaving the clueless man scratching his head when they didn’t work.
Stan never heard a word of complaint
Determined to control all access, Stan then bought the two parcels next to the highway, reserving the rights through the road to himself when he sold them. When the patented mineral claim went onto the market, the gate remained closed.
The two valleys that provided the sole means of entry through the otherwise steep terrain, were on Stan’s land. Without vehicular access, the owners of The California Mine would be unable to develop it.
Stan’s interventions effectively brought all development of the mine to a decades-long standstill. The tunnels, tailings piles, and crumbling structures sat dormant aside from his own ventures.
Had the previous owner not lived across the country, Stan would not have been able to pull his scheme off. He used the isolation to his advantage, bulldozing through the neighbor’s tailings to make a road to his other claims.
That was mineral trespass – a felony – but no one was there to see. He’d also combed every inch of the mineral claim in search of ore containing high grades of gold and silver. Any artifacts he found he brought home or sold.
One of Stan’s parcels, the Happy Go Lucky at the north edge of the group – was the only way into the neighbor’s landlocked claim. Stan had also used his position in the county government to manipulate access to public records and stonewall any efforts to uncover the deception.
The Happy Go Lucky now served as a barrier to physical access while the portion of the claim containing the cabin remained a focal point for recreational activities. The aging structure once housed single company employees with families staying in cottages. The mine office once stood near a dance hall. That was all gone now.
He’d destroyed what was left of the historical community as it had become a curiosity – most often to younger people. They snuck onto the property when no one was around to have parties. He would come to the cabin to find trash strewn about and graffiti painted on the sides of the buildings.
Some thrill seekers hiked up to the mine and dared creep into the entrance.
He was relieved when it finally collapsed into what was now a growing sinkhole. The cavity was filling up with earth, pulling everything around it down from the surface as if the mine itself was determined not to leave empty-handed. An infinitely slow battle raged between the inexorable forces of nature and man’s attempt to leave his mark.
The shaft house would be the last to go.
Stan had grown up in the area, often sneaking up to the mine. He’d come to see it as his own and had helped himself to its rewards without conscience. He’d mined a tunnel at his property line for years. Hell, there was no one to see.
Little did he suspect that satellites were recording images of the changing landscape his bulldozing left behind – impressions revealing the ruts of the roads Stan had built across the neighboring property. His thoughtless plundering would later come back to haunt him.
They haunted him: the people who’d bought the property a year before. Great efforts were made to deny them access but in the end it had all failed. After years of domination, Stan’s reign was at an end – and worse.
He glanced at the mountain as he pulled into his property. The road he traveled originally passed through his claim and wound up the hill through the woods to the ore bin. There, the wagons were loaded at a dock then drawn down the northeastern portion of The California lode,. It was then shipped by train to the smelter.
He parked his truck and looked again at the small mountain. A wind blew suddenly, carrying an old piece of paper to his feet. Curious, he picked it up.
The paper was yellow and cracked, reminding him of something you would find in a museum. To his surprise, the handwriting was carefully written out – like it was from a period where people took pride in such things.
He began to read: “You who would block our rightful access to our mine: scoundrel – the Ghost of the Mountain comes.”
He was going to have to pay the attorney’s fees for the people who’d bought the mine. Damages too. He was also facing criminal charges for mineral trespass. Worst of all – he would no longer have access to the property as if it was his own. Financially, he would be ruined.
It was over. He wistfully looked west toward the sunset as he unlocked the door to the cabin.
Dark had fallen by the time Stan finished dinner by himself. Sighing again, he left his plate on the table and trudged up the stairs to bed.
************************************************************Beware: you who have denied those with rightful ownership passage. You who have plundered what is not yours. Be aware and listen at night for the sound of creaking wagon wheels bearing a heavy load of gold ore. Down The Old California Mine haul road, ancient hands grip the reigns steadfastly; cold as winter and cracked by time.
Eyes that see in the darkness guide the mule team forward. Awakened from his slumber by a call for help, He comes.
Just around the corner now and out of sight the plodding of hooves, approaching.
Stan pulled back the covers and eased slowly out of bed, his joints reminding him of his humanness. Drawn to the window, he pushed the curtain aside. The moon illuminated the landscape dimly. No one was there.
He shifted his gaze once more toward the mountain. The old haul road disappeared into the trees but Stan knew where to go as he found himself walking. He rounded a corner and stopped in front of the loading platform; the beginning of The Old California Mine Road.
Or the end.
Once busy and alive, all was now silent and dark. Wistfully, Stan turned and pushed through the overgrowth, following the trails he played on as a child. He remembered them like the back of his hand. He turned onto the path that lead to the main shaft.
Standing near the edge of the sinkhole, he looked into the ruined opening at the bottom. He sighed. Deep inside, the gold still waited.
At the window, Stan heard the clanging of chains against metal and the rattling of the lock he’d welded shut a decade ago. Eyes wide in the dark, he turned to his bed.
The sound of hinges, long rusted and protesting as the gate slowly opened, broke the silence of the night.
The Ghost In The Mountain has come.
He fell to the floor, clutching his chest.
At the mine, he stepped forward.
An owl hoots, black eyes staring into the hole.
Now hugging the horizon, the moon shines through the trees, fracturing the light as it illuminated the timbers that lay strewn about. Hand hewed supports thick lay in heaps, spiking out at odd angles.
A cold wind blows from the entrance to the shaft, drowning out the mournful cries issuing from the depths.
Near the cabin, a grizzled figure flicks the reigns – smartly urging his team through the open gate. He passes the cabin, dark and silent and nods, tipping his hat.
The wagon flickers, then blinks out. The road is vacant again.
The next morning, a couple pulls up to the chained gate and parks. The man pulls out a pair of bolt cutters and opens The California Mine Road.
They have a mine to open.
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