Ben Coolahan had been dreading this day—it was now here. His arms hung long as the tips of his fingers repeatedly tapped his pants. With a shaky hand, he swept his hair from his forehead and rubbed his nose. Next to him, with eyes full of both pity and grief, Aunt Loretta squeezed his other hand reassuringly. He was not alone with his loss.
Ben’s eyes wandered up the stately granite columns that rose high above him; the National Bank of Boston was an unfamiliar place, just waiting to swallow him, to devour life as he’d known it. Between the columns, tall windows presented a view of a part of Boston that was foreign to Ben—the financial district. Irish immigrants were not welcome here, but with Ben’s family connections, they made an exception.
“Did you know this bank is steps away from the site of the 1773 Boston Tea Party?” his aunt whispered. Probably to distract him, though he doubted anything could do so at this point. Still, he glanced up at her feeble attempt to smile. “This year will be the one-hundredth anniversary,” she continued.
Leave it to her to somehow find a teaching moment.
Ben’s chest swelled; he was proud of Bostonians’ rebellious nature and his Irish roots. Hard work was in his blood. He knew he was one of the lucky ones, with a life of relative luxury—a home in the safe neighborhood of South Boston and admittance to a private school—provided by the unlikely success of his family’s gold mining business.
Now, he stood inside a sterile wonderland where everything was white marble, even the table in front of him.
He swallowed the dryness in his throat, and his bow tie felt tight around his neck. What’s taking so long?
A hefty man appeared from the vault, carrying a long metal box. Ben’s pulse quickened as he watched the man slide it onto the white table. The family lawyer, Mr. Marcy, who also stood at his side, reached into his pocket to give the clerk a key. Placing it into the keyhole, the man twisted it back and forth until it clicked. The hinges squeaked as the lid rose. Mr. Marcy grabbed the two items from inside and handed them to Ben, saying, “In accordance with your father’s will, I hereby give you the contents of his safe deposit box—upon your departure from Boston.”
Why is this happening? His life was here in Boston, but now a court order had changed everything.
Ben froze for a moment before taking one of the items, an envelope. Tears swam in his eyes at the sight of his name written clearly across the front in his father’s handwriting. He shook his head, refusing to cry in front of all these people, and held his hand out for the other item. His eyebrow rose in wonder. The object was cold and surprisingly heavy—a copper medallion. Something he’d never laid eyes on before. Why would his father leave him this?
“Mr. Marcy, would you please sign these documents?” asked the clerk.
The lawyer obliged. “Thank you for your promptness on this matter,” he said to the clerk. “We need to hurry. This lad must catch the 10:40 train.”
Ben pocketed the envelope and the medallion, a million thoughts racing through his head, not one he could say aloud.
They headed for the door in a whirl of commotion as his aunt followed, crying out, “There certainly must be something more you can do, Mr. Marcy! This is just not right— sending a young boy to live with that woman in that sinful, barbaric place. This must be stopped! Patrick would never have allowed it!”
His aunt Loretta had raised him, been more mother to him than any other could. And now they were being ripped from one another, and no one would explain why. Mr. Marcy strode across the polished floor. He nudged Ben through the twirling glass and brass doors, down the steep steps, where he held the door open as Aunt Loretta entered the carriage. Ben sat across from her, avoiding the pain in her gaze, while Mr. Marcy took the space next to Ben.
Aunt Loretta, hankie in hand, dabbed her eyes before saying in a broken voice, “I expected better from you, Mr. Marcy.”
“Madam, I followed every legal avenue. The letter of guardianship is legitimate.”
Ben could not keep silent. “I am twelve. Why can’t I choose to stay with my aunt?”
“The law is the law,” said Mr. Marcy in a flat voice. “The letter states Delilah is now your guardian.”
“Why now? It’s been a year, and now this letter appears out of nowhere.” Aunt Loretta’s fist clenched. “That Delilah, she is—”
Mr. Marcy shot Loretta a sharp glare. Ben caught it. She cut her words and puckered her lips.
“Delilah is what?” asked Ben, leaning forward.
“She’s a fine woman,” Aunt Loretta said with a forced smile. “Don’t you worry. She will raise you right well.”
“I don’t need raising,” Ben shot back. “I’ve learned what I need from you.”
Her face softened.
Ben sat back with his arms folded, hoping to disguise the shake in his hands. Deep down, he knew they were keeping something from him.
They stood on the platform at the train station, and Ben gave his aunt a last hug. Mr. Marcy ushered him to his seat on the coach, where he knelt and said in a direct voice, “I must tell you, Ben, you’re going to a place very different from here. When you arrive, look up Mr. Waters. He will tell you the details of your trust. So, chin up, and best of luck to you. Meanwhile, Willie here”—he motioned to the smiling conductor—“will ensure your safety and comfort.”
Rising to his feet, Mr. Marcy shook Ben’s hand and left.
Ben sat squarely in his seat, hoping it was all a dream. He just wanted to wake up cocooned in warm blankets at his home. Instead, his back tensed, and his head felt heavy. He twisted in his seat to look for Willie. The conductor was at the other end of the car, helping a family get settled.
Ben’s body jolted a bit when the train jerked forward. Craning his neck, he looked out the window. His heart sank. The two people who cared about him most slowly drifted out of sight. Would he ever see them again?
The train chugged past rows of factory buildings. Tall smokestacks sent billowing clouds of black smoke into a once-blue sky. The train's pace quickened, and the sight of men huddled around burning barrels became a repeating image like a flickering film. Through the rows of dirty windows, he caught glimpses of women hunched over sewing machines, only to be interrupted by the occasional sight of men shoveling coal into smoldering furnaces. He hadn’t realized any of this existed.
As the sights drifted by the window, he thought about the journey ahead. He reached into his pocket and felt the medallion. Its cool touch brought an odd comfort. He pressed it tightly between his thumb and forefinger.
The train picked up speed. The ugly sights of the city transformed into the crystal-blue waters of the Charles River. Ben’s heart calmed as he caught sight of a cluster of sailboats gliding across the water with full sails. Oh, how he would miss sailing with his friends. It was his true joy, an escape, a freedom, to be on the open water moved by the wind.
The sight was short-lived as the train turned away from the river toward open fields with random patches of dense forests. He was going to a place far away, which he had only read about in letters from his father, Patrick Coolahan. Those letters had ended a year ago, shortly before Ben received word that his father had been killed in a devastating mining accident.
Ben’s attention returned to his pocket. He took out the medallion. It was slightly larger than a silver dollar and had a deep copper color. In the middle was a small hole in the shape of an eye. The letters R, S, A, and U were etched randomly around the hole. The medallion's outer edge had a series of notches, which made him think it could be a key. The words Save the Life Within ran around the top edge, while the bottom read, Safety in the Hole. Several irregular lines and a string of numbers were also etched on the surface. In contrast, the medallion’s back was smooth and blank. Strange, he thought.
He put the medallion in his pocket and felt for the envelope. As he pulled it out, his breath quickened. It was a letter from his father. It had been so long since he’d received one, and he missed him so much.
Ben held the envelope firmly and carefully removed the letter.
Dear Ben, my son,
Reading this letter cannot be easy. I can’t imagine or bear the thought of you living without us. You can be sure your mother and I are looking over you from above. I have kept you away from this place, but forces stronger than me are pulling you here. Temptations are plentiful in these parts, and life has little value. I have felt out of place here, and so will you. Everything you need to know is on the medallion and in this letter. Remember what I taught you. It will serve you well. Stay strong and be proud of who you are.
Keep everything I tell you a secret. Tell no one—the key word is trust.
P.S. Go to my study. Follow my instructions. Your safety and theirs depend on it.
jerk warmest outcast
Ben peered out the window. He wiped his cheeks and looked back at the letter. Turning it over, he saw a math equation. His father always included math problems and crazy word games in his letters. It made them fun and exciting.
He reread the letter. What struck him was the last line: jerk warmest outcast. He furrowed his brow and concentrated on the words. In a flash, it came to him: It’s an anagram. Rearranging the letters and phrases would create new ones. Each one would have a keyword that needed to be found. He would remove the letters of the keyword, which would become the phrase's first word.
The last line in the letter clearly stated that the keyword was trust. Those letters were in jerk warmest outcast. So, Ben pulled them out and worked with the remaining letters. After many different combinations, he ended up with Trust Jack, Waters, Moe. Unclear what all this cryptic communication meant, nervous and excited at the same time, he bit his lower lip.
He pulled a blunt pencil from his pocket and went to work on the math problem next:
7x – 35 = 4x – 8 + 2x – 27
It was odd that the equation came to zero. Maybe there’s a mistake, he thought. He tried again. First, he simplified the equation to 7x – 35 = 6x – 35 and then added 35 to both sides and subtracted 6x from both sides. Again, x = zero. Ben frowned. Was his father trying to say zero?
Four days passed as the train crossed the Great Plains and climbed the Rocky Mountains. With every mile, Ben’s longing to be back home in Boston grew stronger, but the train kept chugging westward, despite his wishes.
As they neared the California border, a buzz of excitement filled the train. Passengers peered out the window at the majestic Sierra Mountains looming tall above the desert floor. From the shouts and commotion, Ben sensed this must be the place everyone was headed.
He listened as three men standing in the aisle with glowing faces gushed, “There’s gold everywhere, I hear—hills where every other rock is a nugget and streams glimmer with the stuff.” The speaker wiped his brow with the sleeve of his homespun shirt.
A hulking man, his body squeezed into his suit and his dirty white socks showing, chimed in, “I read in the newspaper back in Boston that one man quit his job in Vermont, sold his house for a stake, left his family with his kin, and got in on the early days of the Gold Rush.”
A third man interrupted. “That be old Kevin McKnight struck gold his second day out. Lucky bastard. He’s been following that vein of gold for years.”
Another piped up, “Yeah, and I heard if it weren’t for them Tommyknockers, he’d be a dead man.”
“There’s no such thing. That be an old miner’s tale.”
“Not what I’ve heard. Them little creatures led him right to the gold. I’ll take any help I can get. Old McKnight is eatin’ at fancy restaurants and wearin’ fifty-dollar suits, and we be scrounging the land for our piece of the Mother Lode.”
A familiar chuckle caught Ben’s ear. He glanced over to see Willie standing in the aisle. The man knelt so only Ben could hear. “You know, these folks are in for a rude awakening, young Ben.”
“Oh? How come, Willie?”
A broad smile filled the man’s face. “What the newspapers and the gossip don’t tell is for everyone who hits it rich, there’s a hundred who end up broke, freezin’ all winter, and beggin’ for crusts of bread. But what can I say? They been stung by gold fever!”
Willie straightened his posture to continue down the aisle, ordering passengers to take their seats. Ben gazed out the window to the distant mountains—he did not share in everyone’s excitement. Instead, his heart ached. Oh, how he missed his home. Now somewhere in the distance was his new home. He swallowed with a dry throat as he adjusted his collar and loosened his bow tie.
“You mind if I sit here?” asked a man with a jovial voice. “It’s a better view on this side of the train.”
“No, not at all,” Ben replied.
“We’ll be up there soon,” the man continued as he peered out the window.
Ben nodded and turned to look at him. Small tufts of hair rested above the man’s ears while the rest of his head shone like a bright penny. Like Ben, he stood out, sporting a gray tweed suit with a yellow and gray polka-dot tie.
“Let me introduce myself. I’m Mr. J. P. Wiggens. Most people call me Wig, as I need one.” He chuckled, reached out, and shook Ben’s hand firmly.
Ben instantly liked this friendly, funny-looking man. He wished he had met him earlier. Mr. Wiggens could laugh at himself, and Ben hadn’t met many people who could do that.
“What’s a young fella like you doing traveling in these parts? You come out west to strike it rich?” He winked.
“No,” Ben replied tentatively. “I’m on my way to Gold Flat to live with my step-grandmother.”
“Well! How about that? That’s where I’m headed too. My uncle, Abe Turner, asked me to help run his general store. His business has been booming. His biggest client pays him in gold.” He paused. “I decided it was time for a change. Need a little adventure in my life. Know what I mean?” He patted Ben’s knee.
“An adventure,” Ben mumbled to himself.
The train crept deeper into the Sierra Mountains through long tunnels, across tall trestles, and over plunging ravines. On a bridge crossing a particularly deep canyon, Mr. Wiggens leaned over to say, “Now I know how a bird must feel.”
Ben glanced out the window to see nothing but sky. Snapping his head back, he stared at the floor nervously, tapping his knee. Not wanting to appear rude, he nodded in agreement.
“Now, don’t you worry; these trains are mighty safe,” Mr. Wiggens assured him.
Ben didn’t move until the bridge ended and the jagged hillside reappeared out his window. Glancing up, he followed the wall of rock skyward to spy countless trees perched precariously on top. It appeared a good gust of wind could send them tumbling down. An unsettling thought, but everything in this new world was unstable to Ben like something awful was going to happen at any moment.
Off in the distance, Ben noticed a stark mountain. As the train drew closer, he saw it was entirely stripped—just tree stumps protruding from the ground. On its hillside stood a tiny, wooden shack with a tall mound of dirt next to it.
He turned to Mr. Wiggens. “Look! What is that?”
Mr. Wiggens peered out the window. “Well, I’ll be! That’s our first look at a mine.”
The others saw it as well and jumped to their feet in hopes of getting a better view. What’s all the ruckus for an ugly sight? Puzzled, Ben glanced at Mr. Wiggens blissful gaze. Is there something I’m not seeing?
“Why did they cut down all those trees?” asked Ben.
Mr. Wiggens scratched his head. “Hmm, I don’t rightly know.” He raised his brow and blurted, “Maybe the roots get in the miners’ way.”
A burst of laughter came from a young man seated directly behind them. “Ah, don’t you know nothin’ about mining?” the young man said. “You’re a couple of greenhorns! They use wooden timbers to keep the mine tunnels from cavin’ in.”
“But why the whole mountain? It looks so ugly.”
“You have to go really deep to get the gold,” the young man chuckled. “You need lots of timber. Why, in these parts there are more trees down in the mine than above the ground.”
Ben shook his head. “I still think it’s ugly.”
Mr. Wiggens cleared his throat. “Well, Ben, don’t worry. There are lots of mountains.”
Their travels took them deeper into the range, where peaks and valleys were cut clean of every tree, and more mine shafts dotted the barren landscape. Some mines were still in operation, while others appeared abandoned.
Hours later, the train descended into a valley lost in a thick layer of gray haze. Low hills flanked it to the east and a towering mountain with a white stone top to the west. The openings to mine shafts covered the low-lying hills as if giant gophers had burrowed into the ground to make their home. Ben caught glimpses of the valley floor, which appeared naked, stripped of all life. Beyond the sea of stumps, he spotted a cluster of buildings.
Mr. Wiggens, who had dozed off, jerked awake at the sight. “Boy, oh boy, there sure is a lot of mining going on around these parts. We must be getting close.”
“Gold Flat! Gold Flat!” yelled the conductor.
Mr. Wiggens’s face brightened. “Did you hear that? This is it. Yes, sir! Smoke in the air gotta mean lots of activity.”
Ben nodded. He couldn’t believe it. This was his new home? Why, why did it have to be this place?
Mr. Wiggens glanced at Ben. “Well, what do you think?”
“It’s ugly,” Ben mumbled.
The train crept to a stop in front of the station. Behind it lay the town, where crowds of rough-looking miners filled the main street's boardwalk. Visions of Boston came back to him—the tree-lined avenues and brick buildings with their swept sidewalks. This was another world, a world covered in dirt. The buildings, made of rough-sawn wood, looked so flimsy that a healthy gust of wind might take them down. Only one was made of stone. He squinted to read the sign; it was the bank.
He watched the people moving about, not in the orderly fashion he was accustomed to, but pushing and shoving as if something were about to happen. Their faces were worn and weathered like the stark land.
“Good luck, Ben,” said Mr. Wiggens, grabbing his bag. “Nice chatting with you. Look me up when you get settled,”
“Goodbye, Mr. Wiggens. I will, and I wish you the best.”
Ben could see him serving customers with his gracious manner and kind heart. A warm feeling overcame Ben as he watched Mr. Wiggens disappear into the crowd. Then the pit of his stomach turned cold.
This was my father’s home? Ben shook his head in anger. It will not be mine.