Monday, August 15, 2005

All That Glitters


Marcus and I stood next to the old, collapsed entrance to the main “addit” of the abandoned gold mine. We were here with his mother’s treasure map, and were trying to find the gold coins and rubies and pink garnets that Farley Kritzoff had said he had buried near here. The sky was the robin’s-egg blue that I had begun to associate with the border between southern Nevada and California, and the desert floor was yellowish-brown in color, speckled with chunks of pyrite-flecked quartz and creosote bushes. One had to be careful where one stepped. Diamondback rattlesnakes were common here, and it would be easy to step on or near one, and risk a potentially deadly bite.

“Don’t go any closer.” Dad was standing next to the Jeep and was taking measurements of something.

“Why not?” I moved closer so I could get a look through the opening. Weathered gray boards were loosely nailed over the entrance.

“Old explosives. Cave-ins. Snakes. Methane gas,” he replied. I edged back. Seeing the interior didn’t seem so interesting to me. It wasn’t worth cave-in or snakebite.

“Why are we here anyway, if we can’t go in?” I asked. “Isn’t this where old Farley Kritzoff supposedly buried the gold along with the coins and the garnets his partner was trying to steal from him?”

“I’m not so sure about that any more.” He took another measurement and wrote it down on the map. “According to my equipment, the location has moved. It was coming up near the entrance of the mine. Now it’s out in the pediment somewhere. But why would he bury it in the pediment? That does not make any sense.”

After his mother died as a direct result of searching for treasure maps, Marcus had felt driven to find out more about the man named Farley Kritzoff who supposedly created the maps she had purchased at a yard sale.

Marcus had told the story to us on the drive. Basically, old Farley Kritzoff had immigrated to America in the 1850s from a place near St. Petersburg, Russia. Back in Russia, he worked as a goldsmith for Peterhof, the sprawling complex of gardens and fountains that Peter the Great had built on a model of Versailles, and which Czar Nicholas I was determined to expand and maintain. Kritzoff’s job was to gold plate the fountain nymphs on the west end of the grand chessboard-like palace.

At night, Farley worked on his experiments. He had developed a method of detecting gold using quartz crystals, gold wire, and pulsing electromagnetism. One night, though, a member of the czar’s secret police saw Farley working with one of his devices. He approached Farley and accused him of selling secrets to the Ottomans. It was at the height of the Crimean War and Farley knew that if he did not flee the country, he would be in serious trouble.

He had heard of the California gold rush, and of a town named Sebastopol on the Russian River. It reminded him of his grandmother’s hometown of Sevastopol on the Black Sea, and he thought it must be a lucky place. Farley never made it that far north, however. Distracted by the Nevada strikes, and then the gold he was detecting to the south in the desert, Farley stayed in the southern Nevada, southeastern California wilds. His equipment told him this was the place to stay.

It was a good idea. The mountain rivers had gold washed out from veins somewhere in the mountains. Farley’s good luck held. He found a good vein – a lode deposit. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any money to open up the mine. So, he partnered with a man from Chicago.

His new partner, Jeremiah Dickerson, owned a couple of saloons and a dry goods store. Everything went well at first. They mined the ore, and had a small mill and processing plant a short distance away near a water well. Then, Jeremiah Dickerson turned up one day at the mine with a mail-order bride from Baltimore. The mine fascinated her, and she came out every day, inquiring about the production methods and chemical processes. With dark, sleek hair, flashing hazel eyes, and skin like the flesh of a pear, she was beautiful.

Also quite ambitious, she loved the finer things in life. Before he knew it, young Jeremiah was having to find ways to finance a mansion in Tonopah, as well as trunk after trunk of silk, jewelry, and furniture hauled over the Sierra Nevadas from Sacramento, and then from Reno.

At the same time, even though Farley and Jeremiah produced the same amount of ore, the mill and processing output began to mysteriously shrink. Farley suspected monkey business. It was said that he stopped trusting his partner and decided to get out of the business. One night there was a mysterious series of robberies. The processed gold disappeared. Then Farley disappeared. Everyone thought Farley had taken the gold as a way to get his share and leave the business.

To everyone’s dismay, Farley turned up dead. He had been shot in the back. There was no gold, no evidence of anything. All he had on his person was a crumpled paper with scribbled writing, “Desdemona or gold. Six steps or an “X.””

Jeremiah’s wife’s name was Destella, not Desdemona. She, however, turned up dead of arsenic poisoning, too, a mere six weeks later. The sheriff suspected that it was suicide and that she had drunk the mercury and arsenic-laced chemical cocktail used to separate the gold from the ore, and to make an amalgam. Jeremiah started claiming he heard Destella reading poetry to him at night, or weeping. Several people heard the sound of a woman sobbing near the place she had planned to build her mansion. No one saw any apparitions of old Farley, but people were certainly curious about his gold.

The missing gold was never accounted for. The missing gold coins, pink garnets and dark fire rubies stayed missing as well. The story soon became fodder for treasure tales and treasure hunters. Legends sprung up around it, and it was considered bad luck to let a woman on gold claims, or to let her have a hand in the operations of the mine.

National Geographic sponsored one treasure hunt, using new radiometric technology, but it turned up nothing. A series of psychics said that the spirit of Destella was there, and that of Farley – and that the real reason for the disappearance of the gold was a love triangle. Destella was, in reality, Farley’s second cousin, and that the two of them had plotted a way to get Jeremiah’s gold, as well as his saloons and dry goods store.

Thus, it was suggested that the loot was not only the missing gold from the mine, but that there were also gold coins and bullion from the operations of the saloons and dry goods store.

“If you find gold in the form of treasure, it’s even better than finding a high-grade deposit,” my dad explained one day. “But it’s best to have a mine and claims, too. Then you can melt down the bullion and say it’s part of your gold mine production. You don’t have to worry about anyone claiming that the treasure is theirs.”

What had excited Dad about this particular treasure tale was the idea of determining how old Farley’s quartz crystal, gold wire, and electromagnetic energy device might have worked.

“I still wish Mom had not bought these maps,” said Marcus. “I still can’t believe what happened.”

“I can’t either,” I said. I looked at the small trees on this side of the mountain. We had ascended the foothills to an altitude with sufficient precipitation to sustain vegetation.

We stood in silence. I did not know what to say. I reflected on the words that Dad had said to me earlier as we drove to pick up Marcus.

“I really hope it’s there. It would be great, especially after what Marcus has been through,” I had said to Dad a few days before. Marcus was not dealing well with the loss of his mother. Granted, their relationship had been troubled, but in all honesty, sometimes the tough relationships are the ones one misses most, I realized.

The sounds of Marcus cracking his rock hammer against a chunk of highly altered rock startled me. I looked at him again. A violet shadow darkened his eyes, and his physique was more wiry than ever.

He was sixteen, but his age seemed indeterminate now. At times, he looked 14, at others, he could have been 18 or 20. His lips still had the alluring curve I noticed the first time we met. They were teen idol lips, I thought. I remembered the way they had felt on mine the first time we kissed. My heart felt it would beat out of my chest. Had I ever been kissed before? Perhaps, but it was on the cheek, and the chaste brush hardly counted.

“I’m interested in finding out how his detection device worked. Sure, I’d like to find the treasure, for Marcus’ sake. If we can get the detection equipment to work, we’ve got something we can build on,” said Dad in the single-minded way he got when he was working on an idea.

Farley did leave behind some notes – a bound leather book, with crabbed handwriting and diagrams. Most of the writing was in Russian. However, there were a few passages in English. There were diagrams, equations and partial maps.

After Marcus gave it to Dad along with the other maps that his mom had bought, Dad put it away. He put it in the drawer of an old wooden roll-top desk in desk rundown antique shop in Sparks when he was shopping for furniture for the Carson City office.

The tale bothered me. I suspected that some of the details were apocryphal. The notebook didn’t seem to have any personal details at all – it looked like a lab notebook of a mad scientist.

I read Farley’s notebook. What bothered me was the strong, misogynistic underpinning. For him, women fell into various categories. Women were either prostitutes (with hearts of gold, of course), cruel and controlling madams, or grasping opportunists (gold-diggers). The “nice” women were schoolteachers or long-suffering wives who could drive long distances, tend horses, and mind their place. There was nothing else.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Marcus. “About Farley?”

I nodded.

“Yeah. Farley was a weird person,” he said. “And not in a good way.”

“Do you think we’ll find anything?” I asked.

“No,’ said Marcus. “I don’t expect anything good any more. I don’t expect anything. I am going to start reading the Stoics. I just wish I had paid more attention in Introduction to Philosophy last year.”

“You took Philosophy?” I asked, incredulously. “Your high school offered it?”

“Yes. We could also take film-making,” he said.

“We read Kafka,” I said. “A guy turns into a cockroach in one of the things we read. I dies because someone throws an apple and it sticks in his back between his wings. It rots and then he rots.”

“Cool,” said Marcus. He slammed the rockhammer into another large chunk of rock containing a quartz vein and prominent crystals.

“The other Kafka story was really disgusting,” I said. “A guy invents a torture machine for a prison. It is like a jeweler’s engraver’s needle. It engraves a message on the scalp of the prisoners. It engraves it over and over.”

“Stupid, obvious metaphor,” said Marcus.

“What? In Kafka’s story?” I asked. It hadn’t seemed all that stupid or obvious to me. But, it was not like anything I had ever read before.

“No. This rock. This rock hammer. My head. Pain. My thoughts,” said Marcus.

I thought of me lying on the x-ray table at Palm Springs Regional Hospital and Dr. Spangarten raising my hopes, then dashing them again as he allowed the possibility that I was troubled psychologically. I was, to put it less than politely, probably a nut case.

Marcus smashed the rock again, this time with blinding force. I smoothed the features of my face and tried to look unperturbed and imperturbable.

“I think Dad’s ready to go in,” I said. It was not quite true. Dad wasn’t thinking of anything of the sort. He was busy taking measurements with his equipment. But, we needed to move things along.

“Yeah. Let’s get this over with,” said Marcus, darkly.

“Yeah.” I responded probably too vehemently, but it didn’t matter. We needed to go in. We needed to move to the next level.