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Authors: Marlys Millhiser

The Threshold

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The Threshold

Marlys Millhiser

To Kathy and Dick Ralston

for introducing me

to the wonders of Telluride

THE DEEP, BLACK STOPE

Click—click—click, boys, down in the deep, black stope.

The babies are sleeping, the stars are keeping, vigils on those above.

Strike—strike—strike, boys, for this is the only hope, to sweeten the life, of the faithful wife, who gave the world for your love.

It is not so hard to labor, boys, it is not so hard to wait, till sturdy, honest, and faithful, we lay by a little store.

It is not so hard to struggle, till the generous smile of fate, shall shed its lustre, on those who cluster, inside the miner’s door.

But down in the awful blackness, in every tunnel and raise, at every shaft and station, about each timber and rope,

The angel of death is lurking, while the faithful mother prays, for him who sings, as his hammer rings, down in the deep, black stope.

Clean out the holes and load, boys, tend to your business well.

This is a ticklish matter, where brains with danger cope.

Handle the powder with care, boys, that yellow quintessence of hell.

On every level, you’re facing the devil, down in the deep, black stope.

Tramp—tramp—tramp, boys, to the toll of the old church bell, marching in solemn order, out to the barren slope,

Out to the dead man’s city, his ghastly ranks to swell, for another soul signed death’s pay roll, down in the deep, black stope.


Miners’ Magazine
,

February 1900

PROLOGUE

The first time Aletha Kingman met Callie O’Connell, Aletha was sketching the disintegration of a miner’s shack in the ghost town of Alta, Colorado. Callie O’Connell looked like a real child, alive even to the slight sheen of moisture across her brow, to either side of a pert nose, and above the bow formed by her lips.

Aletha had been sitting cross-legged on the littered floor of an extinct building with the sketchbook on her knee and staring across the dirt road without premonition. The shack was of rough-sawn pine boards so weathered that some of the harder grain and all of the knots protruded, the softer material around them etched away by winter gales and high-altitude sun. The protrusions marked intriguing shadows too slight for her pencil to capture.

A marmot sunned in the crumbling door frame. Another stretched along a windowsill vacant of window.

A soft bur of wind in the pine tops heightened the silence Insect wings whispered on the thin air—flies in the sun shafts, bees among wild yellow blossoms that thrust between fallen boards or crowded long-dead tree stumps. The water drooling out of the dark mouth of the mine tunnel in the mountainside above cascaded over the ledges of wreckage behind her with a muted babble. The air was cleansed of all but the faint and gentle smells—earth and dust, tree bark and weeds, rot too old to be offensive. Even the tang of pine needles seemed subdued this afternoon.

Aletha was trying to portray the mood of the black blankness behind the door frame which had no door, impatient with her lack of skill, when the girl appeared as though through a tear in nothing to stand on the road before her. The tear widened and that part of the road within it narrowed to a track. The tear shaped to an oval with blurry edges.

Aletha was too startled to react, not only by the girl but by the pounding roar that intruded with her, the accompanying shaking of the floor. A choking odor of sulfur seared Aletha’s eyes and throat, the tender linings of her nose. She could see the shack behind and to the girl’s right. One marmot still sunned in the doorway, unconcerned by the blurred edge of the tear just inches away. The window had emptied of the other marmot and had filled with glass panes. Below the window a platformed porch ended abruptly in the blur. A section of sheet iron was in place on a roof that looked sturdier and newer. And all the trees around the shack were gone or had become waist-high stumps. The lovely forest looked ravaged as if by war as far as the tear permitted sight.

The girl stared back, sun gleaming off rich brown sausage curls going limp and stringy where they touched her neck. Tight sleeves buttoned to the wrist, her skirt hitting some inches below the knee, and dark stockings covered her legs to the scruffy leather shoes. She seemed more surprised than frightened. Finally she smiled and Aletha had a sudden memory picture of the head and shoulders of a child with just such curls and dimples, plump and innocent and framed in an oval of entwined flowers on the lid of an antique cigar box her mother had given her.

This child stepped forward and spoke words that lost themselves in the din. She walked directly up to the concrete foundation on earth that was lower than outside the tear.

“How’d you get in there?” she yelled to Aletha.

“Callie, what are you doing?” A woman with skirts brushing the dust swirled into the oval. “I asked you to help with the washing,” she shouted, and grabbed the child’s hand, turning them both away, and the oval was gone.

The fat, furry marmot again reclined on a windowsill with no glass. The pine forest crowded up to the shack once more and the panel of sheet iron sagged sadly from its roof. Aletha Kingman reached into her jacket pocket for a tissue to wipe away the sulfur from her eyes. She gulped in clean air. The experience had taken but a moment, and had not bothered the marmots in the least. But now Aletha had time to react, and she shook, instead of the floor. Sweat seemed to prick out of every pore on her face and her fingers ached from the stranglehold she had on her pencil. Her knees threatened to cramp and she had to uncurl them with her hands. Stretching her legs out over the edge of the foundation floor, she reached for her sketchbook. She couldn’t find it.

The marmots scurried into the blankness inside the shack when she stood up. Her legs worked pretty well and suggested she head for her car and away from this place, while a stubborn little thing in her mind demanded to know the whereabouts of her sketchbook. She made a thorough search of the weeds at the base of the foundation, the floor on top—knowing there was no place for the damn thing to go.

The sun, the quiet, the forest, the clean air—everything was normal and trying to convince her that nothing had happened. The sound of an engine grated up from the hillside below. Grated on her tingly nerve ends, until a jeep packed with people and a dog appeared around a curve. Aletha scurried, like the marmots, into the blankness behind the doorway of the shack across the road. She needed a little time to sort out her thoughts and calm the adrenaline still coursing through her body.

And all over the dead town the marmots began to whistle, each taking up the cry and passing it on.

PART ONE

Alta

1

“But. Ma’am, didn’t you see the lady sitting in the hole in the mill?” Callie turned for a quick glance to be sure the lady was really gone.

“Well, there’s nothing now.” Luella, who’d felt distinctly peculiar for a moment back there, looked over her shoulder again. She hurried her daughter around the cabin to the platform porch on the back, the tubs, and the scrub board.

“The lady was wearing pants,” Callie insisted as she spread Bram’s pants on a tree stump to dry.

“Then she was no lady.” Luella handed Callie a pair of John O’Connell’s overalls, washed but still reeking of burnt-powder smoke and damp tunnels deep in the earth. “Turn over the petticoats. They should be about done.” Callie’s mother dumped the soapy wash water out onto the porch and set to scrubbing the boards and steps with a broom. Part of her hair was coming down.

“The lady had a book on her lap. It fell off in the dirt—”

“Callie!” Luella leaned the broom handle against her bosom and fastened her hair up into place with side combs. “That is the last I wish to hear of your imaginary lady. Now, go peel the potatoes.”

The cook stove overheated the tiny kitchen and Callie gazed longingly out the paned window. But shadows already stretched across the road and the stove’s warmth would soon be welcome. And the lady’s book still lay up against the concrete foundation of the mill. The hole in which she’d sat had not returned.

Callie cut bad spots from potatoes that were old and rubbery and sliced them and three big onions while Ma’am pounded beefsteak with the edge of a thick plate. The table where they worked jumped with Luella’s blows as she attacked the meat. She paused to take pinches of salt and pepper from the palm of her hand, sprinkle them across the steak, and pound them in. Callie tried to think of an excuse to nip over and get the book as she helped Ma’am layer pieces of steak, potato, and onion, all dotted with suet, into a greased pan. Luella poured in water and crumbled dried sage and bay leaves over it. Callie rolled out the thick pastry crust to put on top.

The fruit pie and flat cake came out of the small oven, the meat pie went in. They washed the cooking dishes, and Ma’am combed up her hair again and put on a clean apron. “We’ll mix the biscuits and shell the peas later. I’m going over the hill to see if your Aunt Lilly has a cup of tea for me. You do your lessons.”

Neither young minds nor young hands were meant to go idle, Luella had determined long ago. Idleness led to such imaginings as Callie had known this afternoon and to puzzlements that were worse. She glanced back at the child perched on her powder keg, bent obediently over the worn copy of
Barnes’s Complete Geography
.

The table was an upended spool that had once held iron cable for the tram that carried the mill’s concentrates two miles down the mountainside. It took up well over half the kitchen. The proper table Luella had brought with her from Central City graced the sitting room now, covered with a fringed cloth, upright books between bookends, her prized stained-glass lamp, family pictures, and the Bible. It was too small to service the gigantic meals the men required after a shift in the mine.

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