Chapter V.

30 Mar

“The Continent must have the true history of what happened,” asserted Dey, looking out the side window of the speeding locomobile at the profile of mountain peaks. “Until now, no one has been able or willing to give all the gruesome facts.”

Without warning, Veta broke in with a question.

“Why you? Certainly you owe nothing to those people. What happened cannot be changed. There were unforgivable crimes, but they cannot be reversed. Why should you be so concerned with those tragic events in the past?”

Dey turned his eyes on her. “I have my own reasons…”

The pressure brakes suddenly shook, making a loud, squeezing sound. Dey and Veta looked to the driver as the road car came to a halt on the ridge of a steep ravine.

“There is a road block down below,” said Mentin at the controls. “It looks like uniformed troopers with beam weapons.”

Bato peered downward through the wide, panoramic windshield. He made an instant decision. “Since this way is watched, we will have to make a detour in order to reach Corundum. There is an abandoned mine a short distance from here, if I am not mistaken.”

The driver pressed a button and a roadmap of the region appeared on a dashboard screen. For several moments, he studied the web of connecting mountain roads. His eyes focused on tiny details of the map.

“The road to the village of Amethyst is about two miles back,” he said after a little thought. “If we go there, we can make it to Corundum on one of the old back roads. The ride will not be too comfortable, though.”

Bato smiled, then turned the vehicle around and drove back to the Amethyst cut-off. Once they were on the side road, the ride became extremely rough.

“I’ll have to slow down,” mumbled the driver as he steered. “We will lose some time doing this, but there is no alternative.” The miners’ agent looked back at his passengers. “The old mine at Amethyst was one of the earliest and largest producers of vanadinite crystals in the country. There was once a great foreign demand for them, when they were the prime source of refined vanadium. But mineralogy advanced, leaving this locality far behind. The mine became depleted and too expensive to operate at its previous pace. In time, the Xartic owner was driven out and excavation ceased. The economy of this area has never recovered.”

Dey appeared interested in the subject. “People live there now?” he inquired.

“Ex-miners, some very old.”

I have to talk to some of them, the writer vowed to himself at the center of his thoughts. They can possibly provide me useful information.

Amethyst lay in a narrow ravine between parallel forests of tall conifers.

Its streets looked empty, the houses abandoned, from the loco slowly entering the outskirts of the village that had grown into a mining town. The pavement, full of holes, had not been repaired in decades. It was only possible for Bato to avoid the largest of the ruts and potholes. The smaller ones were too numerous to miss.

“We shall stop where the next road crosses,” announced Mentin. “That is the center of Amethyst. There is an inn that is still open. We can get something to eat.”

He stopped the loco before the door of an establishment with a high sign shaped like an octahedron.

“Let’s go in and see what the proprietor can dig up for us,” proposed the miners’ agent.

The single-storey structure looked warped and decrepit, used too long and fallen into advanced old age. Nothing could be seen through the thick grime of the front windows.

Bato opened the tavern door, inviting his two companions to enter first. They stepped in, surveying  the empty interior. Chairs and tables of varnished ashwood stood unused, unoccupied. The place was still and uninviting. It appeared to be more dead than alive.

“Is anyone here?” yelled out the burly leader of the group.

An old, bent little man with snow white hair and beard appeared from a rear opening. He gave a start upon making out the strangers.

“Hello,” he stammered with visible confusion. “I did not expect anyone today, especially from elsewhere. Are you looking for someone or something?”

Mentin did the talking for the trio.

“We are driving through on our way to Corundum. Road conditions forced us to get off the main trunk line and make an unplanned detour. Since we are here, could you scrape up something quick and simple for us to eat? Nothing special, just your everyday fare.”

“For the three of you?” hesitantly said the innkeeper. “My wife is back there in the rear, where she and I live. Travelers from elsewhere are quite rare and infrequent hereabouts. If you wish, I will tell my woman to make you some griddlecakes. How would that suit your tastes?”

“Good,” grinned Bato, speaking for himself and his two companions.

The threesome took chairs at a round table near the opening into which their host had disappeared.

“I can imagine that the young people left Amethyst once the local mines closed down,” Dey said in a casual way.

From across the table, Mentin answered him. “Throughout this area, there were at one time rich deposits of vanadinite. That mineral occurs in beautiful crystals of red and yellow. It is the only source of the metal vanadium. While the mines were active, this region was the only source of that element for the entire Continent. Today, all supplies come from mines in the far north, making vanadium impossibly expensive to use in the old manner.”

Dey considered a moment. “I have read that many communities that once had rich mines have decayed like Amethyst. It is a tragic history of decline into decrepitude. Are there many places in the Mineral Mountains that have suffered that way?”

Bato looked down and away. “Innumerable, I can tell you,” he replied in a hollow voice.

He was saved from further explanation by the sound of the front door opening. All three sitting at the table turned to see a towering beanpole of a man move across the inn toward them. His pants and coat were a faded green, the miners’ color. A gray mountain cap covered the stranger’s long, narrow head.

Stepping close to their table, he addressed the group in a high, uneven voice.

“The owner of this inn sent his boy to tell me of your presence. Since I act as the local judge and public authority, it is my office to welcome you to Amythyst. Is there any way that I can be of service?”

The thin scarecrow smiled ingratiatingly.

“Sit down with us and share our meal, sir,” said Mentin. “By the way, what is your name?”

“Otus,” answered the newcomer. “Otus Kelik. I was once a foreman in the central cross-shaft of the Amethyst Mine. But that was years ago. Since the spodumene gave out, everything around here has changed entirely.”

“Tell us how the closing affected your town,” requested Dey, all of a sudden. He hoped he could draw out some important information from this veteran miner.

Otus Kelik stared at him a moment, wondering if there was any danger in speaking candidly to these travelers. He decided there was little risk involved to a person as obscure as himself. Therefore he proceeded to answer Dey.

“Life has become hard for us. We have all sunk into absolute poverty. The young flee our town as soon as they are able. Only the old and hopeless remain. Our condition is a tragic one.

“That is what has come from the death of our once opulent mine.”

The innkeeper appeared from the back with a large tray covered with plates of griddlecakes. No one spoke as he served each of his guests.

“I will bring you some food, too,” said the old man to Otus, then returned to the busy kitchen.

Eating the meal started, except for Dey. He continued to question the local leader, seated across from him.

“The closing of the mine occurred years after the Cataclysm, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” muttered Kelik, furrowing his brow as he remembered the past.

“I suppose that the crystal deposits were taken out of the ground at a very fast pace before exhaustion resulted.”

“That is right,” confirmed the beanpole. “The new owners worked the mine too hard. They wasted a lot of spodumene that might have been salvaged and sold if they had taken it more slowly. But they were reckless in their colossal greed.”

“You called them the new owners. Were they the people who took over after the displacement of the original developers, the Xarts?”

Otus nodded, but said nothing more.

“I am a writer whose subject of interest is that dark period when there were expulsions from this country. That was over fifty years ago, so you can have little personal knowledge of what happened here in Amethyst.”

“I was only a small child then, but my parents told me what was going on. The family that owned the mine lived on a peak overlooking their mine and the town. I remember looking up and imagining what it was like living in the big mansion. People said they were kind and generous. There was never any conflict with the miners for them.

“But then the raiders came from Corundum and set fire to the home up there. The entire family of Xarti was slaughtered in their beds, my father told me the day that the flames lit up our valley. There were never any police sent from outside to investigate the awful fire.

“Then, the new owners came and ran the mine down to the ruin it is today.”

Dey decided he had to press on. “Can you take us to see where the burned down mansion was?” he asked, then waited expectantly with his eyes fixed on Kelik.

The latter hesitated, allowing Bato Mentin to intervene. “I am an officer of the Miners Organization. It would be a great favor to all of us if you would show us that site of the mansion. No one else need know of what we do.”

The innkeeper returned with cakes for his friend, Otus Kelik.

“If there is that much interest, I shall have to oblige,” the latter said, overcoming any qualms about the matter.

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