Pyrite and Flowers
 from High in a Colorado Gold Town

                                                     by Pat Cypher


It’s the curse of Niwot, Helen thought, flexing her fingers to ward off the mountain’s chill.  “You will always leave, but you’ll always come back”, her father had reminded her two years ago when he drove her in the livery wagon to catch the train from Columbia City to the University of Chicago.  Now he was dead and she was back.


How her heart had pounded when she finally caught sight of the Rockies looming in distant splendor after three long days on the train, chugging across the endless plains.  Her blood had pulsed at the powerful beauty of the mountains, with the excitement of coming home, and with apprehension at the decision she would once again have to make – to stay in Colorado and give up all she had worked for – to leave and have her heart ache again.


Helen crouched in the dark moonlight on the vast, stark mountainside.  “On top of the world," she breathed deeply, "I'm on top of the world again.”


She sat with her back to the howling November wind, sheltered by a semi-circle of jagged rocks and a low clump of stunted, deformed cedars.  Her slender body shivered as the early November wind swept down from the snow-dusted Arikerees.  Pulling her pale cheeks deeper into the fur collar of her long black coat, she wrapped the layers of her heavy ankle-length wool skirts more tightly around her boots.


Two hours earlier, in the dim grey light of the waning moon, she had followed the grade up from Columbia City to windy Niwot Ridge.  She had picked her way up through the town meadow, past the Honest John, up through silhouetted lodge pole pines until she reached her outlook, high above tree line where she now waited for the sunrise. At her back lay the Great Divide.


Huddling against the stinging winds from the jagged peaks of Mt. Arikeree and Pawnee, the Ute Indian “home of the Gods”, Helen again marveled at their power.  They grind boulders into rocks, rocks into scree, and make life possible for only the marmots and lichens – those who can burrow deep or somehow survive the endless winter.  Not flowers--not people.  Just long frozen months of howling winds, deep snow, and numbing isolation.  Not even the Indians stayed here in the winter, only the crazy white man.


Below her in the greyness lay her town, Columbia City, built on veins of gold by seekers of miracles.  Her father had been one of them before he began his livery business.  And now, she thought, Columbia City lay dying, littered with rusting ore carts, boarded-up houses and towering piles of gold-coloured dirt, mine dumps, they called them.  Helen shivered and blew on her numbing fingertips.


Straight ahead and far below, the great plains of Colorado stretch from the base of the mountains at Boulder and Denver, as far as the eye could see.  Out there lay what mountain folks jokingly called “the real world”.  Out there, too, lay Chicago.  Chicago was her life now.


It was strange, Helen thought, listening to the wind, that she had ever left the mountains at all.  She knew they considered her an aberration in Chicago.  A twenty-five-year-old-spinster from a remote gold-mining town high in the Rockies, she was one of the few graduate students in the entire nation in 1920.  But she was a Botanist, an expert in alpine botany, and that they could understand.


Helen pulled on a handful of dead grass.  No flowers in the winter.  Autumn’s willowy scarlet Fireweed is long gone.  It will be endless days until spring’s harbinger, the delicate Pasque flower can thrust its pale pink buds through the carpet of heavy wet snow.  But it's November now and the snows will soon be upon us.


Helen's fingers found a clump of dried sage. She tore off a piece and sucked it.  Like her father always did. After her mother died, he had given up trying to make her a lady.  He ignored her tree climbing and bare back riding, allowing her free rein to explore, gather her wildflowers, and borrow every book in town.  In the short summer, she disappeared for hours into scarlet meadows of Indian Paint Brush.  In winter, she found refuge in the warmth and the scent of burning ponderosa that came from the huge barrel-shaped stove in the center of the bare wooden schoolhouse.


Father was the one who sought out his friend Dr. Halzed at Colorado Normal College in Boulder.  Dr. Halzed helped her turn her love of the alpine tundra into a true vocation. Her papers on Uva Ursi had been published in leading botanical journals, gaining her invitation to graduate study at the University of Chicago. 


Now, her research was finished, and she was sure to be offered a position teaching at a college back East.  Her advisor, Dr. Jorgen, had hinted that Vassar might require her.  But her father was dead, and she was back.  She had a decision to make.


Glinting her eyes in the greyness, she surveyed the vastness of bare Niwot Ridge.  “Land poor” was what John Clark, Esquire, her father’s attorney, had told her two days ago at their meeting in Boulder. 


“Helen my dear, Dr. Halzed has kept me informed of your progress.  He’s indicated that you’ve accepted at position at Bryn Myr,” said John Clark, stroking his coal-black mustache from across his large oak desk.


“Well not quite, Mr. Clark.  They have expressed interest in my work and notified me that a Botany position is available.  However, nothing is settled yet.” Helen shifted in her chair.


“How wonderful for you Helen dear.  You’ve become quite the talk of the Front Range, you know.  And you look so cosmopolitan now.  Your life suits you well?” he asked leaning forward.


Helen’s eyes darted around the office.  She twisted strands of brown hair that barely brushed her shoulder.


How could she tell him how she missed her mountains?  How could she admit life was so trying in such a huge city. The people – the traffic– no air.  That more and more she had turned down social invitations and retreated to the solitude of her tiny boarding house room, climbing at night to the rooftop, searching the skies to make out the stars through the city lights and trying to regain her bearings from the constellations.


“Well, it’s such a change from the way I grew up on the mountain, it’s different  . . . It’s so – it’s so stimulating – the theater, debating societies, city life--even electric lamps and indoor plumbing.”  She laughed.  “And I met the most wonderful woman, Miss Mary Simms from Connecticut.  She’s the first to successfully climb Mt. Bradford in the Wrangell Mountains – in Alaska, that is, and she's being honored by the Geographical Society.”


John Clark came around from behind his desk and towered over her.  “Helen, my dear, you should consider selling everything.  Everything that’s left,” he said.   “The proceeds from the sale of the house, the land , and the livery would be enough to purchase a bungalow or town house back east, and perhaps augment your salary a bit.”


Helen searched his eyes, then nodded.


“But don’t expect too much.  The boom is over for Columbia City --– the Denver, Boulder and Western Railroad is bankrupt – no more packed trains of summer wildflower excursionists on the Drink, Beer and Wine Railroad to Columbia, no more mine whistles blowing, almost impossible to get up there now,” John Clark frowned.


“Tommy Barnes has continued to operate your father’s livery, and he’s expressed interest in buying it," John said, “but it’s not worth much.  Your father only ran two mail trips a week from Columbia down to Boulder last year.  I’m sure the Postal Delivery will continue its contract with whoever purchases it, but other than that, there’s just no business.  No tourists, no mining,  I hear even the Columbia school is closed.  The town people can’t even afford to pay a teacher.”


John Clark leaned closer, “Your father barely broke even these last two years.  His only business was when he brought tourists up to Stapp’s Lake to fish or connect to the Stanley Steamers to Estes Park.  And that lasted only a couple of months before it got cold again.  Now there’s no more Switzerland Trail, the rails have been torn up and even Colonel Brainerd has given up plans for his hydroelectric plant in Left Hand Canyon and gone back East.  There is just not much left up there, but I’ll do what I can.”


John Clark wanted her to ship whatever she wanted to keep to Chicago and get out of Columbia City before the snow came.


“Last winter with the railroad gone, the town was shut out for six weeks before your father and Tommy could finally get a wagon through.” he warned her.  “Best get out now.”


Mr. Clark arranged for a wagon from Boulder to ferry her up to Columbia City after it made its freight run to Gold Hill.  “You should be able to handle all your details and catch the train out for Chicago at the end of next week,"  he told her as he bade her goodbye.  “We’ll handle the sale of whatever we can and mail on your funds to you.”


Helen licked a salty drop from her stinging cheek and thought of her father sitting proudly on his teamster wagon, waving and nodding as he passed through the narrow canyon on his five-hour run  to  Boulder. City He would understand her dilemma, know how she was torn.  He could have had an easy life somewhere else, but he had struggled all his life because he loved the mountains so.


Sensing a warmth and a stillness about her, Helen broke from her reverie and spit out the tough sage stalk.  She sat unmoving, watching the greyness fade to light and the vast western sky take on a saffron hue.  A huge ball of red flame crept slowly into the distance.  She stared as rays of the orange and magenta sun climbed out of the earth and turned the snow-covered peaks the color of summer’s goldenrod and the sky a brilliant blue.


Unfolding herself from the tiny rock ledge, Helen stood up stiffly.  Slowly, she lifted her arms toward the sky.  Throwing back her short nut-brown hair, she stretched out her body and closed her eyes, taking deep breaths and swaying in the sun.  Then she lowered her arms and with sure steady movements, made her way down the rocky hillside.


Helen rotated the wooden latch and stopped as she heard the familiar tinkling of the brass bells hanging on the dried-out leather strap on the weathered front door.  She stomped her feet on the tilting porch and entered the small sagging house.  The musty chill of the dim kitchen greeted her.  She removed her black alpaca coat and hung it on the peg by the stove.  "Fire’s almost out,"  she mumbled to the empty room.


As Helen re-kindled the black iron cook stove with small rounds of Aspen from the woodpile, a tap at the door made her start.


“Come in," she called out.


A grizzly gray-bearded face poked in.    “Miss Helen, I don’t mean to bother you so soon after you’ve come home, but at dawn I saw smoke from your chimney.  I knew you was here and had been out early so I figured I could come by now.”  Tommy Barnes shuffled his long bony legs.


“Oh Tommy, I’m so glad to see you,"  Helen exclaimed, pulling him in with a giant bear hug and a kiss on his scraggly cheek.  “Oh yes, do come in.  I just came down from Niwot.  I couldn’t resist.  It’s so beautiful, like always, nothing has changed.  I feel reborn again, like a child . . .”


“You  don’t look like no child Helen, you look like one of them Gibson ladies,” said Tommy grinning and motioning towards her short, bobbed hair.


“Oh, take off your coat and have some coffee.  I just got the fire built up and the water will be ready soon,” Helen’s eyes twinkled.


Helen ground the coffee in the glass grinder nailed next to the small wooden sink.  With blackened, gnarled fingers, Tommy unbuttoned his jacket and two layers of fraying wool shirts.  He laid his clothing on the green enameled daybed opposite the stove.  Helen measured four heaping spoonfuls of coffee into the grey-speckled tin pot.  A rich, nutty aroma filled the room.  Setting two rose-covered cups on the table by the window, she motioned for Tommy to sit down.


“Tell me, Tommy,” Helen said, “tell me everything that’s happened.”


They sat for what seem like hours as Tommy told her about the mines playing out and the railroad shutting down, about Calvin Ward leaving the Depot and taking a job with the Appraiser's Office in Boulder, about the closest telegraph now in Jimtown, about the McClancy Hotel and other two saloons closing, and of only The Columbia and one general store left.  He told her of the Stanley Steamers and motor freighters on the road up Boulder Canyon and of the new hotel in Estes Park.  He told her of who had left town, and who was left, and how they needed a school teacher now, and he told her about her father and how it was.  Twice she refilled the coffee pot.


“After your father complained of his arm and chest, he just passed quietly in the night,"  Tommy said,  “It fell to me to take care of things, except of course, all the folks pitched in.  Calvin John rang the church bell to let the folks around here know.  Curly Smith started building the pine box, and Katherine Peters organized the telegrams to you in Chicago and Mr. Clark in Boulder, and Serena Helms and Harriet Dawkins and some of the other ladies washed and prepared your father.  John Wright rode over to Jimtown to the telegraph and got word out about the service,"  he said, stirring his spoon round and round in the cup.


Helen touched his arm, "Tell me," she said.   


“Well, nearly a hundred people came.  Everybody brought food and their music, and after church, we carried him down to the graveyard below town and all took turns saying how well we knew him and what a friend he was, and we laid him in the grave that Carl Bob and Rex Hawkins and Michael Roth dug, right next to your Momma.  We covered him and asked God’s blessing on him," . . . Tommy's eyes glistened, .… "and on you too, Miss Helen”.  He cleared his throat.


 “Then we all come up to the School House for the get-together.  We visited and feasted and played music, and then everyone bedded down all over town.  The single men spread out pallets on the floor of the school house, and some children camped out in the barns, and in the morning folks gathered at the different houses for breakfast.  Then they all packed up their horses and wagons and went their ways.”


Tommy reached out and patted her forearm, “Everyone said, Miss Helen, how they’d wish you could be there.  You’d been so proud.”


 “Oh Tommy, thank you, thank you all”, Helen whispered, burying her face in her hands.


Tommy got up and picked carefully though the woodpile, choosing three small rounds of Aspen to add to the firebox of the Home Comfort.


“Well Miss Helen, day’s are short now that it’s mid November, and by the looks of the sun past the school bell already, I’ve got to be getting, but I have to tell you that Miz Katie Johns asked me to pass on that she’s expecting you for supper tonight, and tomorrow after church, there’s a potluck in your honor, so I’ll be seeing you later," he said beginning to layer himself with wool.


“There’s wood put up in the woodshed, and Miz Bishop came by and stocked up the pantry with whatever you’ll need so I’ll be getting on and letting you be now.  We’ll talk business later on.  And about the school.  If you need anything at all, just holler off your porch, and Mrs. Labell across the way will send Jeffery to get me at the Livery,” said Tommy, backing out of the kitchen door.


For a long time, Helen sat without moving.  She stared out her window at the familiar wooden school house on the hill across the road.  “They want me to stay and be the school teacher," she said silently to herself, “they want me to stay here in Columbia City.”  She bowed her head.  “All my research – all I’ve worked for –- all I love. . .”   The sun made its way past the ridge to the west and cast its early-winter pall over the dusty town.


Helen rose and inched her way around the room inspecting each section as she would a flower under glass.  She ran her fingers over the smoky glass of the half-empty kerosene lamp.  She stooped and fingered the splintered pine floor and frayed beige-flowered carpet.  She caressed the threadbare quilts layered three-deep on the rickety day bed.  Her body shivered.  So harsh a life…


With tears in her eyes, Helen surveyed the faded green paper on the wall behind the daybed.  In the corner, the wallpaper peeled down from the wall.  Her eyes were drawn to crumbling layers of yellowed newspaper that lay behind the sagging wallpaper. She crept to the corner and began tearing away bits of paper, exposing the bare wooden wall.  Tiny streams of gold-brown dirt cascaded from the cracks between the wide horizontal wall boards.  She could see twinkles of fading daylight where the dirt insulation poured out of the dirt-filled walls.


Helen cupped her hand and captured a palmful. Moving toward the window, she lifted her palm and shook the golden dirt, playing with the sparkles in the fading light.  Her gaze swept past her fingertips to the school house across the road.  She froze.  “Going to ask me to teach here – give it all up and stay here.”


Helen drew her hand close and examined the golden sand.  She drew tiny circles in the sand and separated the tiny grains with her fingertips.  Around and around she stirred the golden sand.  Around and around she stirred as she stared at the tiny sparkles.


Her  eyes flashed.  Helen threw back her head and laughed. "Ha," she said.


“Pyrite”, she said,  “Fool’s gold," she sputtered,  "it's just fool’s gold.”


Her eyes widened, “But not me – not now….”


A tear began to form, then a slow smile crept over her pale ivory face. 


“The curse . . .  oh yes Chief Niwot . . . your curse . . . just like father said.”


“I will always leave . . . “


She flounced her skirts and danced a tiny jig.


“But I will come back someday for the flowers.” 


Then Helen lifted her palm, pursed her lips, and blew the sand away.







                    copyright 2006      Ward, Colorado              contact: pat cypher    patcyp (a)                           Hazel SchmollWard, Colorado Resident  1890 - 1990