Saturday, November 20, 2010

Old Bones

It’s a gray day here in Central Oklahoma, my two kitties, Buster and Buttercup, searching for even a scant patch of sunlight in which to bask. The gloom reminds me of a search I made many years ago that resulted in an eerie discovery.

A chill weekend in November found Gail, my ex, and I deep in a piney forest in southwest Arkansas. A graduate student in geology, my thesis concerned long forgotten mineral deposits in a sparsely populated corner of the universe. Years before the invention of GPS tracking devices, we relied on a very old Brunton compass to navigate through the stark loneliness of the southern Ouachita Mountains.

Tall trees, mostly pines, grew everywhere, covering the rolling terrain. While the Ouachitas aren’t high, rapid elevation changes of several hundred feet or more are common. We were moving slowly, picking our way through undergrowth as we traversed an east-west trending ridgeline, looking for an old lead mine hidden deep in the forest.

Prospectors searching for silver in the 1830’s had found lead and antimony instead. Last mined during the Civil War, the Davis Mine used horses and slave labor to mine lead for the Confederacy.

The mine is mostly forgotten and few accounts of its operation remain. Those that do, obliquely refer to abuse, torture and even murder of Union prisoners of war conscripted to work there. Some say ghosts still haunt it. When we crested a ridge and saw the barren pile of disturbed earth that was all that remained of the mine, we could feel their presence.

A scar, roughly a half-acre in size, was all that was left of the old mining operation. Vertical shafts had collapsed, or were filled with standing water. We soon began digging beautiful ore specimens out of the talus pile strewn with old bottles and broken timbers.

It was already past noon when we found the old mine, days short and our time there limited. We took photos and collected specimens, all the while feeling as if there was someone present other than ourselves. Rapt with discovery, I felt as if eyes were on my back. When I turned, I saw only fleeting shadows. The distinct sensation that we were disturbing a place where something terrible had happened was unmistakable. I felt it and so did Gail. When she dug up the remnants of a human skull, I knew we were disturbing a haunted place.

It was almost dark when we exited the forest to our old faded green Ford truck, waiting for us on a muddy dirt road. The portion of the skull we found was weathered from decades of lying at ground level. Not wishing to disturb it further, we buried it, voicing a few words, hoping they would somehow relieve the endless torment of some forgotten Union soldier’s soul.

When we returned to Fayetteville, I sent some of the ore samples to the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver for analysis. The results surprised me as I’m sure they would have the prospectors that discovered the Davis Mine. The ore wasn’t just lead and antimony; there was silver present and it was richer even than ore from the Comstock Lode.

Many years have passed since Gail and I felt the presence of ghosts at the remote Davis Mine, hidden deep in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Today, as an overhead cloud cast a shadow on my kittens, sleeping on the hood of my car, I remembered in vivid detail.


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