Excerpt from Robbing the Pillars

Grass Valley, California—April 1866

The man with the silver-headed cane was late. It was an honor to be included in the inner circle, and here he was, out of breath, and hopelessly without excuse. The gloom of drizzling rain dampened his spirit and caused him to consider if he really belonged. Perhaps it was too soon. If he pushed the mare harder, he risked the splatter of mud on his clothing. Appearances mattered in these circumstances.

He arrived at the deserted mining office and dismounted. The door opened and a guard nodded for him to come inside. He swung the silver-headed cane out in front of him with an air of bravado he did not yet feel. The cane’s original owner was a man to be reckoned with, and he hoped to conjure up the same steely confidence by leaning on it.

He removed his cloak as he followed the guard down two ill-lit levels of stairs and a maze of dingy, narrow hallways. The walls were slightly damp and gave off a musky, earthy odor. This level contained nothing but former workrooms used to store and sort ore. He squinted to see a cramped entrance, a barely discernible door in a far corner. The door’s windows had been blackened. In fact, as he glanced back down the hallway, an entire row of blackened interior windows lined up like a jack-o-lantern’s missing teeth.  These portals of observation were no longer needed to thwart the pilfering of profit. The guard knocked twice, quickly. At the sound of a latch being drawn, the man took a deep breath, and set his face with a look of unapologetic distinction.

The room, plain and nearly void of furnishings, was dimly illuminated. The speaker proceeded without a hitch, fully engaged in oratory as the man entered.

“After all, gentlemen, what is it we are exploiting?” boomed the enthusiastic voice. “Only greed. It seems logical for theirs to be channeled appropriately to feed ours.”

A mild chuckle arose from the assembly of men in well-tailored suits seated in a semi-circle. The speaker glanced up, acknowledging the new arrival, and nodded towards an empty chair. He took his place silently amongst them as the speaker continued.

“What are we taking from them, really? Once they have taken care of their basic necessities, there seems a need amongst them to squander all else on vices of proximity and choice. Gambling. Whiskey. Women of ill repute. Oh, I grant you, they came as we did—with big plans. They are as children on summer holiday from school. Freedom! To do as they please. And they do. Without regard or forethought for their own futures. They mean to look into that … someday.” The orator shook his head, affecting a concerned air. “Much like a man on his deathbed … only beginning to consider his place in the heavenly realm.”

As late as he was, the newcomer found himself immediately drawn to the charisma of the speaker. Young, sharp, eloquent, and savvy. Momentarily startled, he recognized the bearded man sitting next to him. Indeed, as he glanced discreetly around, he saw an impressive quorum representing most all the giants of industry—banks, railroads, mines, shipping, freight. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, leaning heavily upon the silver-headed cane.

“In every society …” the orator pontificated, “there is this stratum, this station of men who live only for the moment. They lack the education and motivation to move their community forward to the growth and development that improves the lives of their families.” He paused, allowing the gathering to reflect upon the plight of their fellow man.

“Think …” began the speaker in a solicitous tone, “what can be done for the public good with control of these mines in our hands, under our direction? Proper streets … railroads … profitable businesses. Governing of resources in our mining towns is key to our state’s advancement.  It is the opportunity for our city to grow in stature in the eyes of the world. Temporarily displaced miners will prosper by our leadership, by what we create for them.”

He walked slowly towards his audience as if joining them. “They’ll need advocates,” he said more softly. “They’ll need leaders with power and money behind them.”

He stopped behind the chair of his colleague with the silver-headed cane and placed hands on his shoulders and stated, “Political careers … are made from opportunities such as these.”

The orator turned with renewed vigor, pointing his finger in the air. “Few fortunes are made in the hands of the simple minded and are more likely recklessly lost. A sophisticated hand creates a society caring for the needs of all. That’s what we seek to accomplish here, gentlemen. I ask you, with the advantages available to us—how can we not step in? How can we not lead them to greatness?”

The authoritative, bearded gentleman seated in the first chair remarked, “Local city officials are paid for service such as we provide, yet they have not the power, acumen, or reach for that matter, to bring such vision into being. We are successful businessmen. Our efforts in governing this massive undertaking, while setting aside our own endeavors, need to be compensated accordingly. We are here to amass a conglomeration of power.”

“Exactly!” cried their host. “If this business does not prosper, if we do not prosper, then Sacramento does not move forward. Any city not moving forward is moving backward. We have already lost the state capital once, gentlemen. I do not intend to see that happen again.”

Nods and murmurs of assent echoed down the line of seated men.

For the first time the speaker smiled, a dark and dazzling smile. “Each of us possesses a unique purpose … skills, connections, backing. We each hold an essential element for what we hope to accomplish. Roll up your sleeves, gents. We have details to work out.” He made a grand gesture towards yet another locked and bolted door behind him. “Shall we adjourn to the war room?”

The swarthy speaker of the event produced a brass key from beneath his Savile Row–cut coat and removed the hefty lock. He pushed the heavy door open, nodding for his staff to enter. Two men carrying long poles tipped with wicks moved quickly around the room, lighting the hanging lanterns. With a sweep of his hand, he ushered his guests into the massive chamber. Oil lamps posted around the room at regular intervals cast an eerie glow against the sooty tinted glass of the windows. The war room was impressive. This elite assembly of men gazed in wonder at their covert surroundings. The man with the silver-headed cane entered last, stepping just inside the entrance.

The orator proceeded to follow when a short, portly man grasped his elbow. The man’s bushy eyebrows raised in irritation as he hissed lowly, “Where the devil is Burke?”

The smile vanished from the speaker’s face as he answered in hushed tones, “He assured me this was a priority.”

“His presence is essential!”

“The support of his office is essential. His actual contributions are limited. We’ll simply have to make our apologies …”

The portly man interrupted angrily, “He’s of little use now. Changes will have to be made …”

“Father, our guests …”

“Quite right.” The portly man collected himself. He nodded with a strained smile at the man with the silver-headed cane watching the exchange from the other side of the threshold. The man tipped his head in reply and wandered uncomfortably away, though still within earshot.

“What about him?”

The swarthy man smiled and lowered his voice. “He is useful on so many levels … position in the community, connections … you might say he’s my new project.”

Nevada City, California

Charlotte stiffened with the first toll of the bell, the ever-present threat of cave-in surging to life with one note. Pushing her way into the street, she saw townspeople rush from shops and homes, grabbing shovels, axes, and levers as they sprinted for the mines. She found herself running with them, her throat aching from tension, preventing her from swallowing, almost from breathing. Each clang threatened as she raced franticly along the wooded path. “Not Da, not Da, not Da,” her mind chanted rapidly, chiming in with the sound of her feet striking the ground and the bell pealing the alarm.

When she arrived, sweaty and struggling for breath, a dry, earthy mist began sticking to the dampness on her face, hair, and arms. A crowd formed at the mouth of the mine. She darted amongst men shouting in confusion until she reached the front. She heard someone yell, “Number nine has collapsed!”

Clouds of dust spilled forth from the cavernous maw. Men covered in dirt, their features barely distinguishing their identities, stumbled out coughing.

She recognized Clancy as he spit the grime from his mouth and swiped the same from his eyes by rubbing his face against his shoulder.  He dragged an unconscious man. “Nine’s down; over a dozen trapped,” he called as he approached the foreman.

“How many injured?” shouted Miller.

“Three more by the entrance, hit by rubble. One with a broken leg; another got a chunk of scalp hangin’ loose; the last got bumps and scratches.”

“What about them that’s trapped?”

“Not sure. We hear voices, not much else. We won’t know ’til we break through.” His wheezing came in short gasps and he spit again as he lay the man down. “It’s nearly a half mile in.”

She watched as Sean Miller bounded on top of a nearby rock to stand above the gathering crew. “All right, let’s organize teams to dig and move debris! Pritchett! Grab those men there around you and start hauling out timber and smaller rock. Get the shovels; clear the area for the boulder busters. Everson! Take those men with the picks and start swinging at stone like the devil’s after your own ever-lovin’ mother! You boys over there … get down to the creek and haul some water up here! Let’s move!”

As rescuers bolted to position, three injured were carried out. Charlotte stood with her hands clasped in front of her silently praying. Someone slipped an arm lightly over her shoulders.

“It could be a long wait,” Althea breathed.

Charlotte nodded, gazing ahead at the mine. Althea’s son Justin darted past them, a shovel in hand.

Althea continued, “I brought medical supplies with Lodie in the buckboard. Rather slow going with half the town flocking to the path on foot. Your father rode off on horseback at first warning.” She gave Charlotte a squeeze. “He wasn’t in there when it came down, but I imagine he was first to arrive.”

Not assured by Althea’s comforting words, Charlotte whipped around, “But it’s still falling! He’s no safer now than when it hit.”

In the distance a man screamed in pain, a bone poked cruelly through his flesh. Charlotte blocked out his screeching, searching the faces of men scrambling to the liberation effort. A towering figure emerged from the billowing gloom, covered in dust. Her heart danced a syncopated beat. “Da!”

James’s hawkish eyes raked the crowd until he found her.

Relief washed over her, awakening her from the stupor of anxiety. She ran and flung her arms around his waist, burying her head in his chest.

“Thank heaven you’re all right!” she exclaimed.

“Whatever is wrong with ye, girl?” He pushed her roughly away. “Can’t ye see there are injured ta be tended ta? And here ye stand? Doing nothing!”

“James!” Althea stepped forward. “She’s worried sick about you!” She stood behind Charlotte, placing her hands gently on her shoulders.

“A fine thing! Standing here idle and useless when men cu be dyin’,” he fumed.

Charlotte’s eyes filled with tears.

“She thought one of them might be you!” Althea raised her chin.

“I’m na raising the girl ta stand around being afraid of fear.” He looked squarely at his daughter. “I’m fine, lass. Whether I’m standing before ye, or buried in ore, yer place is helping the wounded. Twisting yer hands helps no one. Live or dead, I’ll always be one of the last out. I’ll na be rearing any faint of heart. Now, get over there and be of some use.”

Charlotte bit her lip and lowered her head as she moved past her father. She heard Althea chiding furiously, “How could you be so cold?”

“This world is cold,” he said flatly. “She has ta learn the most important person in the world ta her can be taken in a blink of an eye.”

“I think she’s learned that already,” she snapped.

Startled, Charlotte turned to see James stare angrily at Althea. She watched as his eyes softened with pain. She threw back her shoulders as she listened to his words.

“And she has ta learn ta survive it. She can only rely on herself. There may come a day …” he broke off abruptly. “I’m needed within.” He turned to leave.

“Compassion, James. She needs your strength.”

“She needs ta build her own.” And with that, he left.


James paced as he scolded, his heavy boots resonating in a measured way against the timber floor. The men still coated with chaff from the cave-in assembled in the schoolhouse.

“Ye got greedy.”

He stopped. He glared at them. “We’ve always worked together ta avoid this very thing.” He resumed striding in his attempt to walk off mounting anger.

“How many? Put at risk today? Because ye were foolish.” He shook his head in disgust. “Robbing the pillars, yet again,” he muttered loudly. “It’s bad enough ye’ve torn up the entire hillside above the city. Trying ta get ta the last little bits, and when ye cu na reach far enough down, ye tried ta cheat yer way out, grab the last few dollars as ye backed out of there. The most dangerous tactic there is …”

“Easy for you to say, James, now that you’re out,” Clancy grumbled.

“Not so out that I did na come running ta pull yer arse out of the hole. I don’t appreciate the opportunity ta leave my daughter an orphan yet.”

“It’s still ours to do with what we please,” called a man from the crowd.

“Then don’t expect the rest of us to pick up the pieces!” yelled another.

Infuriated opinions burst forth, men demanding to be heard. Frustration, fear, desperation, and need, all commanded a voice on the floor. James noted Lodie leaning against the back wall with his arms folded tightly. His friend’s tall, hunch-shouldered form represented an authoritative presence as he took stock of clamoring viewpoints. Lodie shook his head at him, and James knew his friend wondered how to bring the multitude of voices to accord. Trouble had been building, layer upon layer.  The prospect of unity dissolved in the melee as miners stood up howling accusations and townspeople retorted. James decided to let them exhaust themselves in their bawling. He saw Lodie fix fatigued eyes on him as he headed for the doorway, abandoning them all to their quarrels.  James held his gaze—an unspoken acknowledgement passed between the two as he departed.


About the Author

Kalen Vaughan Johnson is a historical fiction writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She graduated from The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill with a BA in mass media and worked in television for eight years.
Together with her husband Gary, she has raised three children on the move in Tokyo, Chicago, Sydney and New York before returning to her southern roots.