Prospecting on Island X
by Charles C. Cole
My mine, the Hell Hole, was 30 feet by 40, and 35 feet deep, a footprint in the earth shaped like a house. I had to sacrifice “business” surface, working alone, by leaving a narrow ramp that wound down from ground level to the pit’s bottom. Otherwise, short of an elevator, there was no easy way out. Believe me, at the end of the day, when shadows grew long and dark, I was conscientious about getting indoors.
After two long months, I was dead-on-my-feet weary and low on provisions. I’d unearthed just enough of the “good stuff” to warrant the three-hour hike to the nearest outpost where I could exchange unrefined precious metal for more supplies, a net profit by my estimation.
Most of my bounty lay hidden, buried in a large tin about fifty feet southwest of my primitive box-like shelter, safely out of sight while I toiled away in the island’s sweaty belly-button. I wore three vials’ worth on my belt, close to me always, to keep me inspired.
I was recovering from the heat one particularly dry week when three uninvited opportunists came calling. They wore filthy khaki uniforms and “snow goggles,” but no guns. I knew them.
“Hot day,” said Leander, a tall fellow with a long red beard.
“I don’t need any help,” I answered, straight to the point.
“We can see you’ve been successful,” he said, indicating the vials on my belt. “We can help you be more successful. Strength in numbers.”
“Can we peek for ourselves?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Not very welcoming,” said Leander.
To them, the vials were cold currency. The men were imposing but desperately hungry, with an offense strategy limited to the threat of brute force. They weren’t motivated by my dream of a better life.
* * *
My friends call me Sadly Acres because I once lived on an uninhabited island in the Pacific that’s mostly unwelcoming sand, overrun with enormous centipedes at night. While no vacation spot, there had been a rumor of a “platinum field” seeded by an ancient asteroid shower, one that could generously reimburse a hardy prospector.
My research had uncovered the mid-20th century tale of a shipwrecked sailor suffering from a “platinum splinter” in his infected foot.
Using some family connections, I hitched a ride on a passing freighter, dropping my sailboat, Kachina Doll, about three miles off the coast.
I learned mining tips from published memoirs, some from an “armchair safari” professor, while others I learned the hard way.
In preparation, I’d trained with a wilderness expert who used humor and repetition while teaching the ABCs of outdoor survival. In conclusion, he’d stressed, “Three of anything in a straight line and an equal distance apart is a worldwide emergency signal, assuming someone flies directly overhead, and they’ve taken my course.”
“I’m directly under a mail route,” I assured him.
I was a pioneer without weapons or communication devices. Money being limited, I’d spent mine on a three-months’ supply of packaged tube-food, not daring to consume untested native resources. Two high-calorie sludge-puppies got me through each day. On paper, a case would get me through my first tour.
In my corner of this wasteland, the human population was just one. At night, I kept the door closed tight, ignoring the inquisitive scratching of the insect life.
Let’s be clear: the animal to fear most on Island X was one that looked and talked like me. Though there were no indigenous people, contemporary lore said human scavengers dotted the wilderness, seeking the telltale plumes of dust from an expensive mechanized facility.
Aggressive nomads “volunteered” their labor to promising enterprises, in exchange for a serious piece of the action. Fortunately for me, I could only afford primitive, motorless hand tools, which meant my modest operation was harder to discover.
* * *
“I think you should give us a tour. It’s the polite thing to do,” Leander insisted.
It wasn’t enough to demand my hard-won earnings, they insisted on inspecting my dig, to see if I was hiding more. With crude bats, they escorted me down my booby-trapped ramp.
“This is your last chance to walk away,” I said. “I consider this an aggressive act, and I will respond appropriately.”
They laughed as they shoved me. But having something nobody else had naturally made me overprotective and careful; I was prepared.
By pulling loose three strategic knots, I destroyed their way out, then I climbed an emergency rope ladder and quickly severed it behind me. I was going to wait them out, even it meant watching them starve to death.
“Stalemate. We can’t get out. You can’t get down,” said Leander, his voice calm, but he must have seen I had the upper hand.
“I have food and shelter. You have nothing.”
“We have three of us to your one.”
When the late afternoon shadows began overflowing the pit, I warned them about the giant “man-eating” centipedes in the area.
“Don’t do nothing rash,” said Leander.
“I need your word that you won’t try anything.”
“We didn’t hurt nobody,” he said.
“But you would have. Admit it, and I’ll help you up and give you food.”
“Sure, fine,” he said.
“I have a gun. Let me show you how it works.” I introduced them to my “pest control,” a .22 rifle, a gift from my grandfather when I was in junior high. I fired a round.
“We would have hurt you, but we didn’t.”
“I’m writing down what happened. You’ll sign it.”
“Fine. Be quick already. I hate them centipedes. I hate this whole damn island.”
I tossed down a rope, an end looped snugly around a boulder. After one climbed out, I pulled it back up, wrapping each visitor like a wrestled steer.
I tied them to large surveyor stakes, swathed in strips of red fabric, in a straight line and an equal distance apart. Then I waited. The island courier was on schedule; someone flying overhead sent for the authorities.
And that’s the story of how I humbly began my first fortune.
Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole