As a little girl, I was fascinated by tales of the old West. I’d sit at my grandparents’ feet for hours, listening. Never mind electricity, vaccines, cars, and telephones—if I could have gone back in time to those days, I would have. It all seemed so romantic to me—riding horses over untamed hills, the rivers filled with salmon before the dams were built, being able to claim a hundred and sixty acres for your own . . .
In his very limited free time, Dad was a prospector, and central Idaho was the perfect place to be a prospector in the 1950s. He sent for geology books, studied them, and became expert. He was both in love with the wild and determined to strike it rich, and many a long twilight found him climbing up to some outcrop with his rock hammer to take samples. He would send off the samples and study the resulting assay reports. He would visit old-timers, sitting on porches with them and writing down their stories of lost mineral discoveries, discoveries that if they could only be found again, would bring millions and millions of dollars in gold or silver. It seemed that there were many of these, and that the old-timers’ memories could recall the gold in the pan and the silver in the vein, but not in which canyon they had been located.
But Dad also paid attention to the “new” minerals, scheelite (ore of tungsten), uranium, and, in this case, molybdenite. He bought a Geiger counter to search for uranium ore and a blacklight to search for scheelite. Molybdenum is neither fluorescent nor radioactive, but he found some while looking for scheelite up in the Pioneer Range.
Molybdenite is quite a beautiful ore. The base rock can be granite or some metamorphic relative, but the bits of molybdenum scattered within are shining silver. (Molybdenum is used as an alloy of steel, to strengthen it.). Oddly, the mineral is soft and comes in thin layers. Each chunk of molybdenum in a piece of ore is like a tiny book. With care, you can peel the soft layers apart with a fingernail, as if you were thumbing miniature pages.
Dad had discovered a large deposit of molybdenite up a narrow canyon. It was an excellent deposit, he told us one night over dinner, maybe even high-grade enough to sell to a mining company. “Tomorrow, I’m going up there to stake a claim,” he said. “I have the blank forms already. I’ll put four posts and some Prince Albert cans into the Jeep and take off right after breakfast.” (Everyone knew that you put claim location papers into Prince Albert tobacco cans and nailed them to the claim posts.) “I’ll set the posts, put in the papers, and then go to Challis to file on the claim.” Challis is the county seat, two hours’ drive from that canyon: rocky Jeep trail, dirt road, gravel road, 2-lane highway.
Are you going to take a hammer and some shingle nails, Daddy?” I asked. I was eleven in 1955.
“I sure am, Danny,” he said. “Do you want to go?”
Of course I wanted to go. It was unusual for Dad to have a day off during the summer. Tomorrow would be a Monday, the 18th of July. I figured that the molybdenum claim must be something really special for him to spend a precious day off filing on it.
In our 1949 red Jeep, we took off up Trail Creek right after breakfast. The top of the Jeep was off for the summer, all the better to search for promising rock outcrops in the mountains. Oddly, Dad had strapped on his holster with the Colt revolver for this trip. He seldom took the Colt unless we were to be camping for several days at a time.
We reached the summit and drove down the narrow valley of Summit Creek for a few miles. Then we turned up the even narrower canyon that I will call Rockfall Creek. The narrow road was suitable for 4x4 vehicles only, and called for an experienced driver as well.
I was expecting Dad to drive all the way up to the molybdenite location, but to my surprise, he stopped near the bottom of the canyon and pulled the Jeep off the road into a grove of pines. “There’s been a rockslide up there,” he told me. “It’s not far, but it’s right in the middle of that long talus stretch, and I wouldn’t be able to turn the Jeep around to come back down. The road has been shifted a bit by the slide, too, and I don’t like the look of it. We’ll walk. It’s less than a mile.”
He carried the four wooden posts and the hammer. I carried the location papers, the nails, a bag containing four empty Prince Albert cans, and our lunch. We trudged up the road and climbed over the rockslide. Eventually, Dad threw down the posts. “Let’s make this the first corner,” he said. “I named the last claim the Dana Lee, so this claim will be the Vicki Lee.” (Vicki is my sister.) He nailed a Prince Albert can to one of the wooden posts and, setting it upright, built a pile of rocks around its base to hold it steady. He took one set of the location papers, the one marked SOUTHWEST CORNER, folded them tightly, and slotted them into the can. “That’s one,” he said, snapping the lid shut. “Three to go.”
We went on to the next corner and set that post. The final two corners of the claim were to be set uphill from the other two, above a large rock outcrop some considerable way toward the ridgetop, hidden in stunted pines. Dad and I sat on the uphill side of the rock outcrop and opened the lunch bag. Mom had packed us egg salad sandwiches, apples, and two brownies each. I opened my bottle of grape Nehi and Dad twisted off the top of his bottle of beer.
Far below was the thread of road in the rocks, and the rockslide, a teardrop lump of paler talus in a slope of fawn-colored talus. Still farther below was the small creek, too tiny to have trout, but clear as molten glass. Nuthatches and camp robbers called from the trees, and below us in the rocks we could hear the occasional “Geek! Geek!” of a pika.
“This is just what the old-time miners did,” I thought blissfully. I listened while Dad analyzed the canyon for me, a tale of uplift, melting and re-forming, with stress cracks being healed by the upward seeping of minerals.
Suddenly, Dad leaned forward and whispered, “Look, Danny. Look down there. Be quiet.”
I looked. Two men were climbing up the talus slope to the first location post we had set. They looked like cowboys or miners from the old West, in heavy boots, jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and cowboy hats. Both wore gun belts.
We watched as they came to our first location post. One of the men opened the Prince Albert can and took out our papers. We heard his laugh as he tore them into bits and dropped them into the rocks. From a pocket, the second man took a folded paper and shoved it into the can, snapping the lid shut with a click that we could hear all the way uphill in our hiding place.
“Dad?” I whispered.
“Claim jumpers, Danny,” he said. “Those men are jumping our claim.”
I stared at them, chilled. Claim jumpers? This wasn’t back in the old days of Gramps and Grandma Lily and travel by horseback. This was now. Dad had been silent, watching. The men were now climbing over the rocks to our second post.
“It’s the old West,” I whispered, goosebumps coming out on my arms. “What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to be smart,” he said softly. He picked up the bag with the papers and added, “Take our lunch stuff but leave everything else here. Follow me and don’t make a sound.” He began to climb for the ridge.
I followed, glad for the twisted pines that gave us cover.
In a few more minutes, we gained the top of the ridge, slid a few yards down into the next canyon, and made our way to the bottom. Then we walked the bright meadows back to Rockfall Canyon and found our Jeep, still hidden in the grove of trees there.
We looked up the road to the lower edge of the rockslide. An old pickup was parked there now, a black one mottled with patches of rust. We got into our Jeep. Dad backed out of the trees, and in less than five minutes, we were back on the main dirt road.
“Do you think they would have shot us?” I asked then.
“I don’t know,” Dad said, “but I wasn’t taking any chances. The thing to do about guys like those,” he said, “is to be smarter. I’ve got a stack of blank claim forms in the glove compartment, plus the two that we hadn’t put up yet. We’re going to the courthouse in Challis. I’ll file on the Vicki Lee. By the time we get back here, those guys will be done with getting rid of our papers. They’ll head out to file. When those men get to Challis to file, and guess what?”
“They will find out that we already did it!” I said. Dad was really smart.
“Maybe they will even have set the last two posts for us,” Dad said. “We’ll take out their papers and put in our own.” He began to whistle.
We drove the 90-plus miles to Challis with light hearts. I waited in the Jeep while Dad went into the courthouse, paid the fee, and filed on the Vicki Lee. Halfway back to Rockfall Canyon, the black pickup with the rust spots passed us on the highway, going east as we drove west, no doubt on the way to the courthouse in Challis.
It was late afternoon when we got back to Rockfall Canyon. The canyon was already in shadow as we walked up the road and over the rockslide. Sure enough, those men had put in their own papers. They had also set the final two location posts.
Dad kept their papers. “I’ve got their names and addresses,” he said, stuffing the folded papers into his back pocket, “just in case there’s any trouble later. And their fingerprints, if it comes to that. I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see their expressions when they get to the courthouse in Challis and find out that they’re too late.” We put our own papers, now impressed with the official seal of Custer County, Idaho, into the Prince Albert cans and drove home in the long twilight.
The Vicki Lee was ours now, an official claim on the molybdenum sulfide and chalcopyrite of that mountainside, inside the rectangle formed by those four wooden posts. Dad said he would move the two outlaw-placed posts later, better to fit the coordinates on our location papers.
When we walked through the door, it was almost dark. Mom said, “I’m really glad to see you two. I was starting to get worried.”
“We ran into some claim jumpers,” I said in the deepest tone I could muster. “But we outfoxed ’em.”
My dignity was a little bruised when Mom began to laugh.
Dana is a biologist and a poet who has spent many years studying the plants and animals of Idaho, plus taking college students on study expeditions to far places, including Arctic Alaska, Australia, and Mexico. She is the author of the SCAVENGER series, the Little Demon Creek Series, A Grazing History of Southwestern Idaho, and her autobiography, Wildflower Girl. Dana lives in the high desert of Idaho with her husband and Shetland Sheepdogs.