Grunt, Chapter 60: Salt

MICHAEL

There was no question that a pack train load of salt would be invaluable when it came to trading, yet two questions burned through my mind as we searched for the Smith family’s westernmost secret salt lick: How likely were we to actually find it, and if we did, how on earth did one go about mining salt? Neither question could be taken lightly. This was new territory for me, uncomfortable territory with control turned over to somebody else. Very uncomfortable territory.

Not every Before rancher knew about natural salt licks hidden in the mountains, but according to Mace, some did. Patriarch Zebediah Smith had researched the topic extensively during his alone years, long before he and mother Sara came together to produce all those boys, and in fact beginning before the Fall. The early information hadn’t helped him much, what with earthquakes and volcanoes and magnetic pole changes shifting the planet around so that old maps became useless in short order. It had, however, taught him one key secret: Follow the animals. If a subsurface mineral deposit ended up surfacing even a little, every critter within miles would know of it.

But there were endless square miles of timbered mountains west of the rolling plains. Mace had been a mere child when his father had taken him on one of his longer explore-and-trade journeys. Whether or not it made any sense, I was hopeful and pessimistic at the same time.

When it came to mining the salt, Mace’s memory was no help at all. He thought he recalled Zeb developing the site in some way but freely admitted he might be mixing that up with one of the salt licks closer to Smith Mountain. Thus we were prospecting, in a sense facing no better odds than a boomer racing to stake a claim in early California, Nevada, Montana, or Alaska. We could have headed some other direction, maybe intercepted a herd of migrating bison. I began to wish I’d never agreed to this harebrained scheme.

And then he found it. We’d long since crossed the trail that led to Fear Trace, striking north by northeast, many tall ridges into deep timber, across half a dozen tiny rivulets that most likely ran full and fast every spring. Past several great-antlered bull elk, countless deer, and three different grizzly bears. Only one of the bears gave our point man serious pause, standing erect like a man to face Mace as he rounded a raggedy curve. Julia was right behind him, leading the pack string, then Lauren, then me as tail end Charlie. I couldn’t see much farther than the rearmost pack horse’s rump, though it was obvious the horses were almighty nervous all of a sudden. Up front, Mace readied his carbine and Julia clicked off the safety on her AK-47, but neither of them was carrying the ideal bear gun. My .358 Winchester was the best we had; I was in the wrong spot. They couldn’t leave the trail, couldn’t back up. They were stuck. “Mr. Bear,” Mace breathed softly, “the ball’s in your court.”

His mount was hard to control, as was Julia’s. There isn’t an equine alive that doesn’t know enough to run from a big old boar grizzly. Fortunately, Yogi thought about it for several long seconds, then whuffed once, dropped to all fours and turned away, ambling downslope, disappearing in the forest, leaving only his smell behind.

Less than a mile later, Mace came to a fork in the trail, took the right hand fork, up over a tiny but sharp ridge, down into a draw, up the twisty-turny draw, and into what turned out to be a box canyon. An entire herd of blacktail deer scattered at our approach, panicking in every direction before finally realizing they could get around us and out of the box without being slaughtered. The ground on and around the lick was a textured mass of prints, everything from little rabbit traces to great tracks made by moose, bears, cougars…to a tracker, it was information overload.

“Well,” Mace announced as we gathered in the sizeable clearing, “this is it.”

“Never doubted,” I responded, straight faced. Lauren shot me an amused glance. The woman could read my mind.

I said it was a clearing, but to clarify: Hundreds of hooves and/or paws kept much of the area trampled down so that grasses, herbs, and tree seedlings didn’t have a chance. Not that many plants would have found the soil conducive to growth in the first place, what with all that salt right there, either at the surface or close to it in an area covering at least an acre. Inspection revealed the presence of three different springs, two of them salt-laden.

Julia summed it up rather nicely. “We can dig that one fresh water spring out enough for us and the horses, but if we’re going to be here after dark, we’d better figure out some serious defenses. This is Wildlife Central. And the sun’s going to drop behind that canyon wall before we know it.”

She had a point. Slowly and carefully, I scanned the area in all directions, including vertical. Human snipers, had any happened to be in the vicinity, cold have fired down from the box canyon’s rim with impunity except for the trees, of which there were plenty. As it was, towering old-growth pines and firs of great girth provided perfect cover for any would-be salt miners. We needed to consider our campsite with caution. It had to be positioned on the far side of the lick, not between the salt and any incoming critters craving a taste of sodium chloride. Near the treeline but not in it, a place we could rig to hold the horses and also to erect our tents. In the end, there was only one real choice. One back corner of the little park, or clearing, extended well beyond the rest. It had pretty decent, unsalted grasses and herbs for cover, a grazing area that should feed our horse herd for a couple of days, though three would be stretching it. I wondered at that grassy area for a long moment, puzzled that it existed. Shouldn’t it have been grazed down to bare dirt by ungulates long since? Then again, perhaps the deer and elk were smarter than that. Every predator for miles around probably visited this lick from time to time. Smart grass-eaters would know better than to tarry after getting their mineral doses. Dumb ones wouldn’t last long. A plethora of gnawed bones in the area attested to that grim truth. Mother Nature culls her unfit children without mercy or remorse.

Great coils of rope were unlimbered from the pack panniers, serving corral duty as they were strung from tree to tree around the back three-quarters of home base. Closing off the wide front opening required the planting of a dozen post-quality stakes, a much simpler and quicker job due to the abundance of fallen deadwood lying around. Mace unsaddled his horse but left the pack animals to me and my ladies in order to do a little prospecting. “More memory is coming back,” he said. “Dad sank a bit of a shaft, dug a wide hole straight down, alongside the salt deposit instead of on top of it. Told me mining from the side of a deposit was a good thing, much better than going straight down on top of it. If I can find his shaft, it could save us all a bunch of time and hard work.”

We left him to it, ignoring his remark about trying to find his Dad’s shaft. Julia gave me a twinkling look, but I wasn’t sure Lauren appreciated off-color humor. No use taking chances.

By the time it was pitch dark, we had a fire going and supper heating. Mace appeared out of the gathering gloom, packing a huge armload of gathered firewood. “Found it.” He dropped the wood near the fire, then dropped his body as well, planting his tired butt firmly on terra firma. “Or at least I think I did. Didn’t want to start mucking around in the dark. We’ll know in the morning.”

We didn’t bother to set a sentry that night. Exhaustion was the boss of us, the horses would let us know if anything truly dangerous approached–bear, cougar, wolf, whatever–and anyone approaching would have to run the gauntlet, sharing the salt trail with countless predators as well as prey animals. I slept like a baby.

Come the dawn, Mace went directly from breakfast to the panniers he and Sandy had packed personally before leaving the Roost. I’d paid no attention to the contents. Smith rummaged around inside one of the boxes, producing a heavy, long handled hammer and two huge chisels, one sporting a tip that tapered to a rugged point, the other with a broad, flat edge. “Grab the shovel and let’s go see,” he said, starting along the clearing edge without further ado.

Fair enough. With our lone digging tool in one hand and the .358 Winchester in the other–none of us were willing to abandon firepower just to get a bit of work done–I followed. Julia strode at my heels, AK-47 cradled in her arms, sword riding at her hip. We didn’t much like leaving Lauren alone, but as our smiling wise woman pointed out, she had the horses for company and we’d all be in sight of each other.

Although that last part wasn’t quite true, as it turned out.

Mace’s discovery would never have been recognized by anyone who’d not been present at its creation, hidden as it was beneath a low rock some three feet across. “Dad was a muscle monster in his day,” Mace admitted. “He shifted this stone by himself. I certainly wasn’t big enough to be much help.” It took two men to move it now, Julia standing watch while Mace and I lifted one edge of the granite guardian far enough to tip it over, exposing a vertical shaft that seemed to disappear into the depths of mother Earth Herself. I cringed back from this mouth of Hades. Claustrophobia was not one of my weaknesses…except if the tight space happened to be underground. I had not known this until now. The shaft was round, no more than two feet across at the surface, though the dark interior seemed to widen a bit farther down.

“Are you okay, Michael?” Julia’s voice seemed to come from a great distance, distorted by a rushing wind. Except there was no wind. And she was right there, three paces away, staring down at me with concern as I swayed on my knees, feeling the pull of the portal sucking at me, urging me to topple into the abyss from which there was no return.

“Hey!” Mace didn’t hesitate. His powerful right arm swept across my chest, hauling me back from the edge.

For a long moment, or many moments, or maybe eternity, we all waited. Waited for me to come back to myself. To admit my cowardice, my extreme terror that had unmanned me unlike anything since my first whipping at Fort Steel as a nine year old slave boy with murdered parents and a big mouth full of hate.

This time it was Mace’s turn to read my mind. “No shame in it,” he said quietly. “Two of my brothers can’t go underground, either. They feel like the whole mountain is going to collapse on them, bury them alive until the breath is crushed from their lungs. Brave as a mama bear with her cubs in danger in any other situation, they fall apart at the very idea of caving or mining. It has nothing to do with courage.”

I managed a shaky laugh. “Thanks for the visual. That might have been more reassuring if your description was a bit less graphic.” Mace grinned at me, but I could see the concern in his eyes. “Thing is, if I can’t work underground, we’re kind of short handed for a mining operation, aren’t we?”

“Not so much. We’d have needed one man down below and one up top anyway. Let’s drop a line down, see how deep it goes.”

As it turned out, Zebediah Smith had dug to a depth of nineteen feet, three inches. We had to rig a ladder, using two slim lodgepole pine trunks for the side rails, lashing smaller branch pieces to the rails to serve as steps. Once the ladder was in place, Sandy rigged a tool bag and lowered himself carefully downhole, a pine pitch torch clutched in one hand. “Plenty of room down here!” His voice sounded confident, even cheerful. Zeb must have spent most of one summer here with his young son, considering how much earth and salt he’d removed. There was no pile of tailings in evidence; he must have carried every pound of dirt and rock to the woods, scattering it all so that no later explorer might discover his shaft. His mine shaft. Huh. The feeble shaft joke had lost its power to amuse. Wait. Feeble shaft? That was moderately funny.

According to our lone hardrock miner, the salt vein was mightily exposed, a literal wall nearly nine feet thick, or tall. How may eons of seawater evaporation must have been required to produce a deposit like that, I had no idea. A small part of me wanted to see that underground wall of salt in its native state. A very small part.

By the second hour after sunrise, we’d settled into a routine. Working by the light of his single, flickering torch, which he jammed into a crack in the earthen wall–not the hard salt–Mace chiseled away at the deposit, chip-chop-prying whichever way his intuition shoved him, bandana masking his mouth and nose from flying salt bits. The point was not to be neat and artistic but to fill our empty pack panniers with salt as rapidly as safely possible. Not that the boxes were loaded to the top; the weight would have been too much for a pack horse over the long haul. Half a pannier weighed, we estimated, about one hundred pounds. Light enough that any one of us could hoist it for lashing to a pack saddle, one to each side. So, two hundred pounds of salt per horse (plus another eighty pounds of miscellaneous gear lashed atop) times seven horses available for salt duty…fourteen hundred pounds of salt, light-sand colored with tiny speckles throughout. Rich in trace minerals needed for optimum health. Tasty. A mobile fortune.

If we could get that much mined and loaded in two days of backbreaking-for-Mace work. I cursed my weakness but could do nothing about it. Downhole, Mace swung his hammer relentlessly, accumulating a pile of salt at his feet, everything from fist-sized chunks down to sprinkle-sized grains. When he had enough, he filled our cooking kettle–Lauren had to do without that for the duration–hollered up, and I pulled the loaded kettle up with a rope. Dumped the kettle into a pannier. Lowered the empty kettle back down. Used any slack time to pound some of the salt chunks with a rock until loose grains filled the gaps in the box. Lifted the box to check its weight. Waited for Mace to holler up again. Lifted the kettle on the rope….

When we broke for lunch, we had three panniers ready to go. Three fourteenths of the desired load, so…a shade more than a fifth of the desired output. Could Mace keep going long and hard enough get it done? Man, we needed Sandy! Or was Sandy one of the brothers who couldn’t go underground, like I couldn’t? If I’d ever had a past life as a cave man, it must have been a crushing experience. Heh. Not funny. None of us said anything, but Mace already looked like a tired demon from Pluto’s fabled underworld. From his hair to the soles of his boots, he was smeared with both salt and dirt, dried-sweat stripes streaking his face. Filthy tired already.

The guilt was killing me.

Then Julia spoke up and made it worse. “I could probably swing a hammer for an hour or two. Give you a little break, Mace.”

To his credit, he gave her offer consideration before he spoke. To my relief, when he did speak, he rejected the offer. “Thanks, Jules. I appreciate that. But I don’t think it would gain us anything. You’re a strong woman, but swinging a hammer with one hand while holding a chisel with the other…it takes time for muscle memory to lock in. Dad started me young, even before we came here that summer. A four pound sledge is as much an extension of my own body as your sword is of yours.”

“Fair enough.” My mate sounded almost disappointed. “I wouldn’t want to turn my sword over to you on short notice, either.” Or ever, I amended silently. “But if we wear you out….”

Smith sighed wearily. “I think I can make it. I got my rhythm back. I’ll be one sore puppy by the end of it, and worn out, but I can sleep on the trail.”

“What?” I blinked, startled. We never dared sleep on the trail, not when there were so few of us.

“Sure.” He shrugged, unconcerned. “You know the way now, so you could take point. Put Julia at drag, leave me in the middle, leading the pack string. I don’t figure to sleep-ride all the way out of these mountains, but if I nod off a bit, any sudden trouble would wake me right back up in a hurry.”

“Huh.” I’d have to think about that.

In the end, Mace pulled it off. The last load of salt came out of the shaft in failing light on Day Two, but all fourteen panniers were ready to go. Smith slowly dragged himself up the ladder, leaving his last torch to sputter out on its own. He was so weakened by his Herculean effort, nearly twenty hours of hammer swinging in a two day period, that he wasn’t much help when it came to moving the camouflage boulder back into place. Julia had to pitch in.

There remained the need to work over the entire area, hiding as much as possible the traces of our work near the portal. We’d tackle that in the morning before heading out. About the campsite itself, there was little to be done; nothing but time could fully erase the evidence a dozen horses left behind. Thanks in part to a young doe Julia had shot at dawn, Lauren had a special shish kabob ready and waiting. Chunks of succulent backstrap alternated with liver, heart, and several different plant foods she’d foraged from the edge of the woods. I had no idea what most of them were, except tasty. Mighty tasty. I sprinkled a bit of salt and gall on a chunk of liver for flavoring, wolfed the delicacy down, and turned to see how Mace was enjoying the feast.

He was sound asleep, slumped over on his side, snoring softly.