Year ago I worked with a woman who's great, great, etc. etc. grandfather was the honky-tonk piano player in Silverton, Colorado. This is what I imagined his story might be, enjoy!
“The Invisible Man”
He could feel the heat and the damp on his skin, and could almost taste the green, and he was positive he could smell it. This was a good smell, one that reminded him of those days when as a young boy he would fish along the creek running behind the little shack the boss let his folks use in return for their labor in his fields. This was a summer smell that made the old man feel that time was standing still. He lifted a trembling hand to half heartedly swat at the small insects buzzing around his face as he watched the water move slowly past the overgrown bank, creating quiet whirlpools , catching leaves and twigs that fell off of overhanging branches. He watched intently as they twirled round and round only to finally break apart and continue their slow journey to a small waterfall and then into the faster moving river below. He knew that eventually those very same leaves and twigs would find their way under the log bridge he had helped build in the early years of the bustling town of Leadville.
The old man sat quietly on the mossy bank, leaning gingerly against a rotting stump, feeling every one of his eighty years, he felt his eyelids droop as head nodded forward, it was one of those summer days when napping seemed to be almost as important as watching his bobber in the water. He figured it didn’t really matter if any of the fish would take his line he’d been here a thousand times and was sure he had at least a few hundred more visits to this special spot left in him. The fish and he had a pact, they would provide a meal when needed and their home would provide a place for him to ponder the world around him, and today he had lots of pondering to do. He often talked out loud to the fish, and he swore he could almost hear their answers. Of course he’d never tell a soul that he thought the fish answered him, but then there was no one left in his life to tell.
His wife of sixty years had passed on five years earlier, he still missed her terribly, and wished every day that she were still here beside him. She was laid to rest at the edge of the pretty little cemetery up behind the small church where he played wonderful hymns every Sunday.
The boy wasn’t here any longer either, he had moved away to the big city looking for a better life, not that he blamed him; this town hadn’t anything to offer his son.
He guessed he could always tell someone at the church what he had heard the night before, but it wasn’t something he wanted to burden anyone with, and he wasn’t sure anyone could do anything anyhow, besides it might be dangerous for him to reveal what he knew. Even if he told the preacher man he didn’t think he would have any power to thwart those two no-goods and the plan he’d heard them hatching last night.
He chuckled quietly to himself as he thought of what those same men would think if they heard him talking to the fish. Of course, if they knew what he was telling the fish today there would be Hell to pay. But Lordy, even those fish couldn’t come up with a solution for him.
The old man had left his cozy cabin the night before and walked the rutted dirt trail that meandered almost three miles into the bustling mining town. He walked slower these days, bent over, steps faltering slightly as he turned into town, but somehow he always managed to make it to the wooden building with the fancy hand painted sign that would sway back and forth above the swinging wooden doors when the wind blew. The ‘Silver Lode Saloon’ was set off the main street, just around the corner from the new Opera House. He had made this same trip many times over the past years and was amazed at the changes that had taken place in the town during that time. This place had gone from a sleepy mountain village to become a rowdy boom-town almost overnight when gold was discovered back in 1859. Thousands of men poured into the area, working the mines day and night, taking breaks at the end of the week to come into town and spend their newly acquired wealth in one of the many saloons that had sprung up over night inside canvas buildings, their false wooden fronts, trying, but failing, to look like some fancy big city saloon.
Only a year and a half after the gold was discovered it started to play out and the town started to die, nothing had been left but mountains of black slag leaving an ugly blight on the once beautiful mountainsides. These mountains of sludge were left over from when the miners separated out the gold they found in their sluice boxes and gold pans. After the gold petered out the mines were abandoned or sold for little or nothing and most sat empty for years, leaving only a bleak landscape surrounding the once pretty village.
Some twenty years later, new miners arrived and realizing that the “black slag mountains” that had been left abandoned were actually loaded with silver ore. They quickly bought up the few mines that remained and claimed those that were abandoned, and a new boom era had started. The silver boom was to be the making of this town and a steady growth started to take place, making the town even richer than the gold had those many years earlier.
One of the miners who had come into town from St. Luis in 1880 was James Joseph Brown, J.J. as he was known. Brown, along with his wife Molly, a feisty woman, who worked right beside her husband in the mine, quickly became one of the richest couples in not only the state of Colorado, but in the Country. The Browns and another miner Horace Tabor along with his second wife, quickly became the reigning royalty of the region,
The town the old man lived outside of now boasted a number of newer wooden buildings including a general store, a haberdashery, the church, a one-room schoolhouse, three saloons, and of course the pride and joy of everyone in town, the new opera house that Tabor had built for his new wife, Baby Doe, so she could perform the latest operas of the day.
Instead of a town consisting only of thousands of grisly miners and the businessmen who sold those miners the goods and services they needed, and a few “ladies of the night” the town was now growing with a steady stream of actual families, wives and children moved into the area while their husbands went about the business of silver-mining. These family women always went out of their way to avoid the “sinful” saloons and colorful “ladies of the night” by carefully lifting their long woolen skirts up above high topped boots that covered their ankles, then stepping gingerly onto the narrow wooden planks that had been placed across the muddy streets.
The large room that the old man now turned into smelled of old beer that had soaked into it’s pine plank floors, and of stale cigar smoke that caused a constant grey haze in the room.
Shuffling over those scarred wooden planks the old man made his way to the far corner of the large room where he sat down on a familiar oaken stool, a stool someone had brought with them from their home back east. The stool would spin up or down depending on the height the old man wanted it to be. He found lately he had to change the height slightly as he seemed be getting shorter. There was an indentation in the seat that had formed itself smoothly to his body over the years.
Slowly he lowered himself onto his wooden “throne” as he thought of it, scooting forward until he was comfortable with the distance between the ivory keys and his dark hands. He kept his long fingers limber by years of playing rousing tunes like “Ta Ra Ra Boom Dee Ay” on this same upright piano. The sound that came out was tinny, it had been years since the bar owner had paid someone to come to town to tune it, but the old man could still coax a sweet song out of it. Sitting down, he said a quiet prayer as he did every evening, giving thanks for having this steady employment. He felt he made up for working here on this out-of-tune honky-tonk piano by playing the beautifully tuned piano at the little church on the hill every Sunday.
His parents had been given a used piano when their son was young and his mother had soon taught him to play the beautiful tunes that seemed to flow from his fingers.
Every Sunday he found himself setting in a different sort of corner than the one he was in now, and over the years, he found he and his family were not just welcomed for his talents, but they were honestly welcomed as members of the congregation, and in the community. Molly and JJ Brown particularly had taken the old man under their wings.
Some of the men in the church who proclaimed to be holy on Sunday were the very same men who proved they weren’t so very holy on Friday and Saturday nights. The only time the old man mentioned this was to the fish, so their secret was safe, so far. But after what he had heard the night before the old man was in a quandary about what he should do, and how he should handle what he had heard.
He had played the tinny piano at the Silver Lode for so many years that the men who came into the saloon didn’t even notice him there any more, he might as well not even exist. The only time someone did notice him was when one of the drunks decided he was fair game to harass and then the bartender always stepped in and protected him from those encounters, after all what would the Silver Lode be without their honky-tonk piano player.
This particular night the smoke was thicker than usual and the noise level made playing on the out of tune piano a chore instead of the pleasure it usually was.
The assayer had left town on the well-armed stage for Denver hours earlier with his strongbox filled with pouches of the silver that the miners had pulled out of the mines and the slag hills surrounding Leadville. With money burning holes in the pockets of their canvas work pants the miners were anxious to take advantage of all that the Silver Lode had to offer. In turn, the Silver Lode was all to eager to take advantage of the miners and relieve them of the gold and silver coins they now possessed.
Fist fights broke out earlier than usual, men fighting over cards, over the flowery women they were anxious to visit in the upstairs rooms, even over what tunes they wanted the Honky-tonk player to play. The old man took it all in stride, ducking a couple of times when bodies came crashing down on the floor just behind his stool, even lifting his left arm to repel a ragged work boot thrown at someone in the card game at the table to the right of his space, while still creating a catchy tune with his right hand.
To the left of the piano was the doorway leading to the private games, the big money games the men who owned the large mines up in the mountains played in. The door was covered with a heavy red curtain and usually a big man in a bowler hat guarded the entrance, tonight the big man was nowhere to be seen.
Every time someone pushed the drape aside to walk into the back room the smothering smell of dust and smoke rose from the red velvet and would tickle the old mans nose and throat.
The night before, while playing one of the quieter tunes the old man had heard two muffled voices arguing behind the curtain. One of the voices was raspy just like one of the regular gamblers who usually frequented the Rose Garter Saloon around the corner, but had come to the Silver Lode for a particularly high stakes game of cards. As the argument grew more heated the old man could hear raspy voice mention Baby Doe’s name, along with an angry retort from the other deep voiced man, to “keep it down”, “we’ll keep her til we get what we want from that Kabob Tabor, I don’t care if we have to bury her a hundred feet under in one of those stinkin mines.”
In spite of Horace Tabor’s tarnished reputation in Leadville, having been ostracized since divorcing his first wife and marrying Baby Doe, the wealthy miner had always had a kind word for the old man, so when Tabor’s new wife’s name caught his attention the honky tonk player realized something horrible had happened.
“How can I find out where they’ve put Doe”, thought the old man, “without tipping them off that I know what’s going on?” The old man continued playing the notes to “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage” as he fretted about a plan to find Tabor’s wild young wife. “She could be in any one of hundreds of mines in the area,” he thought, reaching up and wiping the sweat that was collecting on his worried brow.
(to be continued)