The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

I Buried Him With His Eyes Wide Open

By Royce Q. Holland © 1990

Issue: June, 1990

It was time for me to go see about my neighbor. He lived in a small hovel beside the Dolores River. It had been too quiet down there for the last three days. I had heard no wood chopping nor had I heard the sound of his shoveling sand, pebbles and loam into his sluice box. His hovel was less than a mile down the mesa from where I was working my uranium and vanadium claim. Western Colorado is an unyielding place along the Dolores during the winter.

He and I had been separately snowed-in for the last three months. This was the first day the snow had melted enough for me to go down to his hovel.

I was fifteen and being snowed in alone for three months had been lonely. I had only one half gallon of commercial peanut butter left from five gallons I had bought from the cook when I left the C.C.C. camp. One gets tired of only peanut butter, after a time. It was hard to believe that my old burro and I had eaten nearly five gallons of peanut butter. I gave him three or four ounces a day to go with his pinion bark.

I had not been able to hunt in the deep snow for antelope or deer for the last six weeks. Only peanut butter; that was it! I ate porcupine; no more of that, thanks! He tasted like pure pine resin. I would get my friend's 30-06 rifle and try for a deer, today. I had heard them pawing around the dry rock shelves for grass. I had no more rounds for my old 30-30 rifle.

I struggled through the snow and sat down and slid the last one hundred feet to the door of his hovel. No one greeted me. His front door was slightly ajar.

That's strange, I thought, because there was no smoke curling from his makeshift chimney. The weather was still about eight degrees below zero. I pushed open the door and called out, "Hey! Old Man Of The River!" That's what I had called him since we first met over five months ago, when I located and staked my claim. He always laughed at the new name I gave him.

He was one of the last of the old Gold-Pan- Washers, I guess. That's the way he collected his meager amounts of gold from the almost colorless sand of the Dolores. He told me he averaged about one-fourth of an ounce a day, when he worked. Gold was standard; about sixteen dollars an ounce during the thirties.

I stood in his door until my eyes adjusted to the dark room after the bright snow. His fire was dead in his fireplace, but there was ample wood stacked neatly in the corner of his room.

I don't know at what moment death entered my mind. He and I had talked about it a lot but it always happened to someone else. He was lying on his bunk facing the wall. I laid my hand on his shoulder and gently turned him over, calling his name again.

His death mask; unseeing eyes; mouth partly open and powder white face told me I was in the presence of death. I had never seen a dead man before, except at funerals.

I staggered backward and fell into his old chair beside his fireplace. There were feelings coming down on me that I'd never felt before. I sat there, at least, twenty minutes looking at his lifeless face. I felt more alone than I'd ever felt in my life. He was the only human that I knew within nine hundred miles.

I had been alone many times during the last three years. Because it was in the middle of the Great Depression. Since twelve I had been alone traveling where ever a rumor of work or a job led me. When my father was put into the State Hospital, my brother and I had to provide food for our mother and three baby sisters. Strong men were without jobs. A kid weighing less than one hundred twenty pounds had a very slim chance at hired work. This took me to the government C.C.C. induction center at Wynnewood, Oklahoma. I lied about my age and I was accepted.

Off they shipped me, by train, to Parodox, Colorado, a U.S. Forest Conservation Camp. This was a lifesaver for me. The government sent twenty-three dollars each month to my folks, and they gave me seven dollars each month. I sent Mother five dollars of my share because there was no place to spend the two dollars I kept for myself. My salary was thirty dollars a month. We were fed well and housed warm.

After four months, they found out my real age and discharged me. That's what put me into the Colorado Mountains prospecting. I waived the bus ticket home, the government offered me, because I knew there was no work back in Oklahoma. My mother and three sisters had to have food. There was no welfare or Social Security.

Everyone around Parodox and Uravan, Colorado were prospecting for uranium and vanadium. In fact, the town's name, Uravan, was the first three letters of uranium and the first three letters of vanadium. Strangely enough both ores were found together in the same strata. In those days the only publicized use of uranium was for medical x-rays used in hospitals. Vanadium was a steel alloy. It made steel more flexible.

I caught an old burro near our camp. There were numerous half-wild burros roaming over the mesas. They had been left by old prospectors who perhaps died, or in some cases they just wandered away from a mining operation and joined the wild herd. My little dog, Napanee, my old burro and I lived several months while I picked up ore from the muck-piles and dumps of old diggings of about 1920. I averaged about one dollar and one half per day, more than I could depend upon elsewhere.

Then I discovered this outcropping of uranium and vanadium. It was low grade but I could cull some high grade and make from three dollars and a half to five dollars per day; a king's ransom in those days. It was a week before I discovered that I had a neighbor.

I climbed down to visit him. He taught me how to use dynamite in working my claim. He gave me some dynamite and fuses with caps. He and I became great friends. We were inseparable, I thought, but there he lay stone dead. I guess death has a way of separating everybody.

Before this tragic day I used to visit him often to watch him use the mercury to separate the gold from the course sand he had panned. His hands were nothing but twisted joints from the effect of the many years he had handled mercury.

He told me once that he had a heart condition. He also told me that if he ever died, just bury him and mail a package and a letter he had made up and stamped. It always laid on his little table. He asked me to read something nice, from his Testament, over him if he ever died. That was the only time we ever talked about one of us dying.

When some realism came back to me, I remembered the package and the letter. I glanced at the table; they were there. His Testament was on the other corner of his little table.

I found his shovel and pick and dug a grave between two large boulders high above any possible flood water. I was not very large and it was a trying task to carry and drag him form the hovel up to his grave before dark.

I finally got him placed comfortable. He looked comfortable anyway. I spread a blanket over his face because I could not get his eyes to stay closed. When I pushed them shut and took away my hand they just popped wide open again. I gently covered him with a layer of fresh dirt. Then I rolled some large boulders in the fill to keep the armadillos (grave robbers, they were called) from digging him up. I'd seen this once in a movie and that's what they said. But later I learned that armadillos are vegetarians and they dig in a new grave to eat fresh roots growing in the grave fill. I wasn't sure if armadillos ever ranged that far to the Northwest anyway.

The strangest thing was how upset my old burro was. He liked the old man too. For the first and only time ever, he braced his front legs and kicked me down in the snow with his hind feet. "Wham!" He let go with both hind feet. I had walked up behind him.

It was my fault though, because Dad had always taught me to stay away from the "business end" of a mule, especially if there was a norther blowing or oddities like something being dead. Dad said death of any kind really upset mules. I didn't notice that he was so upset.

Lying there in the snow, I came to a conclusion. I don't think he ever liked me; he only tolerated me. Another conclusion formed in my mind as I unraveled myself from the brush and snow; I didn't like him too much either. Who can ever figure a burro? I was ever grateful that my brother hadn't been there to see that.

My mind snapped back to attention. I had to get back to the grim business of burying. However it just didn't seem Christian for me to bury my friend while I was so angry at that darned burro.

He had run away and hid out of throwing range of some rocks I had gathered to stone him to death. He was smart. He seemed to know that he was going to really get it for pulling a caper like that ... and right in the middle of my friend's funeral services too. I finally got my emotions under control and limped back to the job of burying my friend.

I sat on a boulder and thumbed through his Testament. It was early dusk already. I fell upon the Twenty-Third Psalm. It was underlined with pencil in red and it seemed appropriate. I read it over him. Then I finished filling his grave. I used the pick to scratch out three lines on a large stone beside his grave:

"This is my friend. He died beside the river. He had a Christian Burial".

It may have been from sheer loneliness but I sat down and cried for almost a half hour. Darkness had long overtaken me. I had to slide back down to his hovel and get his lantern to light my way back up to my claim. I also picked up some salt, dried fruit and his 30-06 rifle.

It was a lonely climb back up to my claim. I lived just inside the mouth of my tunnel. My old burro lived in the other side of the mouth of my tunnel with my little dog, Napanee.

The next day, early, I got ready to pack out my high-grade ore. I would first load my burro with about one hundred twenty-five pounds of high-grade. Then I would carry about a seventy-five pound sack on my shoulder. We would walk, skid and slide down to the river. We would wade the river and place the ore beside my other ore piled beside the small truck road. We made the first load, then we waited for the ore truck to come by. I sent the old man's small package and letter, along with a short note from me, to his folks in Ohio. I told them that he died and I read over him and buried him beside the river. The driver said he would mail them in the Uravan Post Office.

About ten days later I was digging back in my claim tunnel when a big shadow blocked my daylight. I turned around and saw the outline of two huge shoulders blocking my light. I was a little concerned because some of the high-grade uranium claims were being "jumped" by renegades.

"Are you Holland?" A gruff man's voice yelled out.

"Yes, I'm Holland." I replied. I walked out of the tunnel. There was a County Sheriff and a large deputy. They were both really sizing me up. The deputy did the talking. "Did you mail a letter to Ohio about two weeks ago?" He asked.

"Yes!" I acknowledged. "Where is the man buried that you spoke about in the letter?" I climbed laboriously down the steep grade to the grave and they followed me. The Deputy looked a long time at the grave. Then he looked up at me. I think we are going to "run you in," he said. He was staring hatefully at me. "You may have killed him." He went on. "His folks in Ohio may think you murdered him." He kept looking me in the eye. "Why did you not report this death to a County official?" he asked.

The Sheriff hadn't said anything. Then he frowned and spoke up, "Take it easy on the kid, Jack. He's been snowed in all winter. I know these Dolores mesas," he said. My answer wasn't quick enough for the deputy, so he blasted out, "How long will it take you to open this grave so we can confirm the body and see if he was murdered?"

My temper and fears were getting the best of me. "It's going to take a long time," I said. "because I am not opening that grave! I put boulders in that fill that ten men can't lift out."

The deputy walked boldly toward me a few steps and said, "You ain't gonna do what?" He asked.

"Open that grave! That's what!" I replied, staring him in the eyes. "The Law of Montrose County has to see in that grave, Kid." said the deputy.

"Then get opening the grave!" I said.

The Sheriff raised his palm. "Kid, did you see the man in the grave?" asked the Sheriff kind of friendly like.

"I saw him in there after I put him in there." I said.

"What Jack, the deputy, meant is that usually one calls a coroner to sign the death certificate when a man dies." said the Sheriff. "But you were snowbound and you found the man dead and you buried him! Right?" He asked.

"Yes!" I replied.

"I will have to have you sign a short statement of how you found him and why he died."

"I will sign anything that's true, but I don't know why he died. I just thought it was his heart." I said.

"It probably was," answered the Sheriff. "You are not a doctor, nor am I. You don't have to prove why he died," said the Sheriff. "You just found him dead and buried him! Right?"

"Yes!" I replied again.

I thought everything was over with then, but the deputy was just getting wound up again. "Why is that grave running North to South?" He asked.

"I don't know, that's just the way I dug the hole." I answered.

"Nothing but a dumb fool would bury a Christian with his feet to the South." He went on. "Which way will he be facing when he raises up to face God on Judgment Day?" yelled the deputy.

He kind of had me there, and it took some time to think of an answer. "First of all, mister, this man isn't going to be raising anywhere because, as I said, there are boulders on him; boulders half as big as that burro." I pointed to my old burro whom I'd named Laredo.

"Don't you believe in Judgment Day?" questioned the deputy.

"I really didn't know there was a rule of burying, telling which way he'd face if he raises up," I said. "I really don't think he can ever raise up," I went on.

"Look Kid, in Colorado, we bury folks flat on their backs with their feet to the east, so when God comes the person will raise up facing God, who will come from the east." said the deputy.

The Sheriff laid his hand on my arm. "Look son, if this man's number is in God's book on Judgment Day, god will find him even if you buried him on his belly." He turned to the deputy. "Jack! I told you once to lay off the kid and I meant it. Do you understand me? I'll hear no more of it!"

The deputy got real quiet and they both walked down to the river. The Sheriff turned around and called out to me, "son, we are in the Montrose office. Anytime you need me, call or drop in. We are there to help you." He turned and followed the deputy wading the river. At the edge of the water he turned and said, "Thanks again for signing the statement."

He's not such a bad guy, I thought.

After they left I knew I would not stay very much longer here. I needed to get back to Oklahoma and attend some school. I usually spent about three months a year in school. I did not know how long it would take me to hitch hike nine hundred miles to Oklahoma. I loaded up Laredo with about one hundred fifty pounds of high-grade, and I carried a sack of about one hundred pounds. We slipped and skidded down to the river. It was rising from the melting snow. I had never seen it this high before. After studying it for awhile, we waded into the shallow edge. Then we walked slowly into the swift current. I looked around and Laredo was still walking on the bottom but he was completely submerged. I could only see the top of the ore sack on his back. He was floundering in the water. I scratched for my pocket knife and bent and dived into the icy water and slashed his pack saddle girths. He came up coughing and swimming, but he was turned around swimming back to the shore from which we'd come.

I waded and swam until I reached the side of the river near the truck road. About that same time, Laredo climbed out on the other shore. He looked at me across the river. There was a three foot lead rope tied to his halter; not long enough for him to hang up anywhere.

I finally waved good-by to him and he turned and started the climb back up to our claim, near where I'd seen my first dead man. I would shortly see many more dead men in World War II, but none of them affected me like the death of my friend. A kid of fifteen takes death pretty seriously.

I waded back into the river and salvaged Laredo's pack saddle and most of my ore. I sat on the ore sacks waiting for the ore truck. I felt very grim. When my close and only friend died, it made me feel like I was the only person left in the whole world; just me, alone sitting there among snow capped mountains looking down a strange road.

What the deputy said about the way a person buried must lay, bothered me. So during the War, I developed a very short prayer. All I had to do was look around me sometimes and see that my chances were very slim. I felt God was very busy because there were a lot of people praying. I made mine short:

"Please don't forget me God, I am still here and I'm doing the very best I can. And don't forget my friend buried beside the Dolores River with his feet to the south."

After I left Colorado I rarely thought of uranium until a few years later. I was on a ship with a large flotilla of merchant ships and warships rendezvousing a slow build up near the Philippines. Most of us knew we had one more battle before victory over Japan; a calamity that could possibly dwarf the Normandy Beach invasion. The fanatic Japanese had pledged the lives of every man, woman and child; vowing to never surrender. We had to yet assault the beaches of the mainland of Japan.

I sat in my gun-tub weary and tired. A shipmate handed me a News-Gram. The U.S. had dropped an unbelievable bomb on Japan that could end the war. The bomb's power source was uranium. I was struck numb for a second. Then I just sat there in my gun-tub and wept. It was not for joy. I don't think it was for grief. I couldn't determine what it was.

I was remembering the Old Man Of The River, Napanee, Laredo and my short stay mining uranium in the snow bound mesas of western Colorado. I bet my gunner's mate thought I was a strange one. I didn't tell him why I was crying. I really didn't know why.