J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 7-25-11 | TheFencePost.com

J.C. Mattingly: A Socratic Rancher 7-25-11

J.C. Mattingly Moffat, Colo.

Tom calls himself a “tramp miner,” with a certain amount of pride.

It took several visits with him, during which it accidentally came up, for me to understand that tramp miners roamed the West back in the days of the jackass and pickax, the image most people have when they think of miners. Some had incredible stories of finding a motherlode when digging a latrine, others had nothing but hard luck in search of a grubstake.

Pride and brotherhood were the marks of a real tramp miner, a person free to roam the rough and rocky hills of the West in search of a find, or that failing, a job at an active mine.

According to Tom, one such tramp miner named Itchy, “had the worst luck of any man who ever wore boots.” A giant rock once shifted onto his foot leaving him with a pronounced limp. He’d been trapped by a couple of harrowing cave-ins, kicked by mules, swindled by highgraders and high rollers alike, bitten by ticks, head-knocked by jig-backs, fallen from trestles, fooled by women, duped by fools, snigged by bull wheels, and he had yet to dig into a claim that produced anything more than a lot of work.

But Itchy’s luck changed the day he bought a jenny named Rose.

“He told me he could feel it,” Tom said. “I guess he somehow rescued the jenny from a cruel master who hated to feed, and that danged long ears worshipped the rocks Itchy walked upon. And then there was the 2-inch pipe fulla silver dollars,” Tom added with a grin.

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“Tell me about it.”

“The week he saved that jenny, he found a stack of 2-inch pipes in a cave. The pipes were about 2, maybe 3-foot long, and heavy. So Itchy broke into one and found it fulla silver dollars. Back in the day, this is how a tramp miner banked his savings. He never had a bed reliable enough for a mattress, and never owned a mattress anyway, so a tramp miner never had a mattress to hide his money under. Two-inch pipe worked just fine.”

“So Itchy was in business.”

“Indeed. He even hit a decent vein of string silver, and started to ramp up in the world. Then, one afternoon Itchy’s jenny came a-honkin into the town saloons, from the He’s Not Here to the Swing Inn, from the Barmaid’s Arms to Swallows, finally catching the attention of a few of us at the Motherload.

“In our drunken state, the jenny reminded us of Lassie running for help, and for once, a joke turned out to be a lifesaver. The jenny kept honking and pointing her nose outta town. We staggered out and followed, where we found Itchy pinned below the belt by the main trunk of a ponderosa pine. Lodgepole grow in a twisted fashion, that being why it’s called pinus contortus. We hefted the thing up enough for him to get loose. He limped after that, but he limped before.”

“Is he still going? Itchy?”

“When that jenny died, Itchy fell apart, went back to being lonely and luckless.”

“Do you suppose, Tom,” I asked, “that this might have something to do with the expression about losing your …”

“No,” Tom said firmly, “that came from way back.”