Rip-Snortin’ at Animas Forks

The soft autumn sunlight hung on the edge of the porch toasting the cabin in much desired warmth. The nights had turned flat cold since the August rains had quit, leaving Eliot T-Bone wondering what winter would bring.

At 74, he hardly made it over to American Basin anymore, where he had toiled for some 45 years in search of the big bonanza that was always at the end of tomorrow’s pick and shovel. With the Finns he had mucked out enough rock to build a city larger than any in Hinsdale County. When claims played out they had survived working for wages at larger mines and tending to their placer digs on Henson Creek. Hand to mouth and back to work. It was worse over there in Europe according to the Austrians with wars overlapping wars and peasant sons plugged in for cannon fodder on the battlefields while kings grabbed the glory and the gold.

After a lifetime he had accumulated worthless piles of ore, shafts almost to China and tobacco stains on everything. Living on beans, flour biscuits and elk meat had taken a toll on the system but there were few vegetable gardens at 9500 feet. Sure, his claim was secure and they couldn’t run him off, at least today. He still had his mules and the friends who hadn’t died off yet. He had this fallen down cabin at Animas Forks. Living off the land he was, or wasn’t it the other way around. He just didn’t see any reason to travel up over Cinnamon to Lake City anymore.

Silverton was another matter. He still made weekly trips to Howardsville for supplies, and then traveled on for a night on Blair Street with all the desperate Silverton miners and the far more desperate Silverton whores. When the weather was bad he would just stay home by the fire soaking beans, making jerky, firing up his dutch oven. He had been home on one such night last winter when one of the prostitutes went mad killing three miners with a butcher’s knife, accentuated by well placed sticks of dynamite. That was some big excitement and he almost wished he had been in town to see the blood and the fireworks. Yes, things were that boring out in Animas Forks now that everyone had deserted the place and morbid rock faces stared him down every morning and night.


He scratched his ribs under a dirty union suit and stretched. The deer and the whistle pigs didn’t worry or fret about this life. They just lived it happy to survive another afternoon. Why were people so damned difficult? He had become a near recluse but still welcomed several of his old friends to the porch Emil Turlough, the local doctor, long retired came by every Thursday on his way back from Gladstone. Stan Celkirk still ran sheep up toward the pass in the summer. Oral Stishnik and Peter Leary quit guiding hunters up and down these mountains some time ago. Now their sons did the deed while the old men gave advice and smoked their pipes. They still stopped in and he visited them in a town that boasted electric lights and carriages straight from Paris, or so they said.

The rest of them could pretty much go to hell. Pistol wielders, flimflam men and painted women, and let us not forget the righteous out to save souls and make a profit too. The Ute and Chinee were mostly gone. Disappeared in the dust of progress and comfortable living. What about the souls of the dead?

Most of the newcomers in Silverton had no connection to the place. Why were they here? Were things really that bad other places? They had the combined charm of a pan of burnt eggs, the warmth of a basket of rattlesnakes. Flatlander bastards. They didn’t know a thing about life as it once was in the boom days. They wouldn’t have been able to make it back then. They didn’t pay him any attention, much less a sprinkle of respect, when he wandered into town. They only stared at his bad teeth and skinny string of mules with saddles that didn’t fit any of them. They all dressed up like they were going somewhere, but there was nowhere to go. The mindless march of lemmings served well by the presence of so many convenient cliffs and ravines.

Don’t matter anyhow…since most don’t journey far from town except in the summer. They leave us fellows out here alone and we should return the favor. That new preacher from Mancos said he’d pick up whatever I needed from town and haul it out here but I’m afraid there are celestial strings attached. Before you know it this boy will be holding services and singing psalms right here from the porch. Too much. My few neighbors, the lion and the bear wouldn’t have any of that. They get by without all these fairy tales. They don’t even know where they came from or where they’re going. They just live. The marmots in the ground, the hawks in the sky, the quakie stretching up toward the heavens. They just exist without all the trimmings, the dogma.

He remembered when he had come to this country, seeing the glory of the San Juans for the first time. All the enthusiastic unbroken bodies scrambling for their fortunes in gulch camps and tent cities that sprang up after the Great War. Refugees from the madness embracing another kind of insanity far away in these ragged mountains. The snow covers up the mess. It’s clean and fresh for a while.

The years just went by. More elk stew, beans and biscuits and more dreams of striking it rich. He stared at his pile of firewood, then out across the dim light. There had been bighorn sheep crossing over about a mile down toward Silverton. He had seen the tracks in the snow. He wondered if he had the energy to shoot one and pack it back up here. The price of solitude.

Having never married he had no family to care for him in his old age. He remembered courting and heartbreak, custom brides from far away Missouri and escapes from the entanglements of it all. Sure he’d gone shopping for a wife in Durango back some 30 years ago. He even brought one curious prospect up the hill but by late afternoon it was clear she would grow to hate him and the mountains. Better left alone.

It was quiet here and he had no one to make happy but himself. He went to sleep when he pleased and got up when he damn well wanted to. He snored and wore wool socks to bed. He ate elk stew that he couldn’t taste anymore despite the peppers that he bought in Hermosa the summer before. Every day was pretty much the same.

Just then a sudden explosion ripped through the evening causing bull elk to raise their heads, sending fuzzy marmots scurrying into rocky holes. Fish stopped swimming, eagles stopped soaring, sows looked around for their cubs. This was no mere elk bugle. It was an excurrent discharged, an outburst expelled as if from a buffalo stampede, a bonafide T-Bone bugle that surprised even him. A highly audible sonic boom from the vicinity of his drop-drawers. Thunderous repercussions! Burgeoning landslides! Curious windbreaks! Gaseous dynamite in the digestive tract. The flatulence ripping with major magnitude that echoed down the valley.

Inadmissible punctuation quite relevant for the times, or so he thought. He laughed out loud a little surprised, a little proud of himself. The world stopped for a flash.

“Beans and elk stew,” he snapped, “keeps the system responsive.”

Eliot T-Bone stretched, scratched his ribs, yawned and walked into his cabin.

– Melvin Toole

Filed Under: Lifestyles at Risk

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