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The Prospector's Tale
The Prospector’s Tale
The old canteen didn’t look like much, but after a hot, fruitless day of metal detecting, Hank was happy to have found anything at all in the old mining camp. He had high hopes when he first located the site high in the Bitter Roots. There wasn’t much to reveal its existence but, then again, there never was. Time and nature tended to erase what signs of human activity there might have been. Only Hank’s long experience and some old claim maps gave any clue that people ever lived and worked here. Hank was a prospector. A modern version of the dreamers that preceded him. In his experience old mining camps often yielded the occasional missed nugget or two. In the last mining camp he’d explored, he found a dozen good sized nuggets the old placer miners missed.
This particular camp was typical—a few rotting boards, a gravel bed. A place remote and haunted by the the dreams of hard men and hard work. It was one of dozens of old claims Hank had tracked down over the years. His prospecting methods might have been more high tech than the original miners but it didn’t make things that much easier. Good finds were rare, the old timers didn’t miss much.
These were placer mines. It was damned hard, back breaking work with only your dreams of a big strike and the occasional flake to keep those dreams alive. The poorest of the miners used wide shallow pans with which to swish the gravel and sand around and around throwing off the lighter material and leaving the heavier stuff, like gold, behind. The better off miners built sluice boxes and diverted streams through a rocker box where large amounts of gravel could be washed at one time. The heavy nuggets and flakes got caught in the rocker box’s baffles. In either case the old gravel middens could still yield some treasure for a careful prospector like Hank.
At the end of the day Hank stuck the old canteen into his bag along with the other bits of iron junk he’d picked up—nails, wire and a piece of an old six gun. In the old days a man had to guard his claim and his stash. It was a lawless time and there were always those looking to make an easy score. No coins this time, no nuggets either just an old canteen and some rusty iron junk. It was a disappointed Hank that shook the canteen before tossing it in the back of his old pickup truck. Empty. He tossed in his old detector and drove the dusty miles home.
Hank lived like a 49er. A beat up old cabin in the woods. No electricity and only a spring nearby for water. Hank could identify with those gold rush dreamers who stripped the hills and built the boom towns in their frantic search for riches. Hank dreamed of making a big strike one day too but he was realistic enough to know that picking over a mining camp’s garbage was hardly the way to go about it.
Hank had all but forgotten about the junk in back of his truck until he went to look for his detector and found the bag. He dumped the bag on the ground and examined the old canteen more closely. It looked to him like old army issue probably from the mid 19th century. Probably calvary maybe worth a few bucks to a collector. Hank thought he’d clean it up a bit and take it to an antique shop in town next time he needed supplies.
It was when he began rubbing the rust off that strange things began to happen. The canteen began to glow with a soft pulsation as if a light were being turned on and off inside it and the canteen was made of glass instead of metal. When Hank twisted off the rusty cap, purple smoke poured out causing Hank to drop the thing on the ground and jump back.
His surprise grew even greater as the smoke began to solidify into the shape of a man. As the image cleared, Hank could see that it was a young man dressed in coveralls wearing a western style hat. After a few minutes a figure stood before Hank as real as anyone. Hank was speechless. The strange man looked Hank in the eye and said “Well, I guess I ought to thanking you for releasing me, pardner. It’s awful cramped inside that there jug.”
“B...but how...?” Was all a bewildered Hank could manage.
“How did I wind up trapped in a can, is that what you want to know? Well it’s a long story. You got any whiskey? A man gets awful thirsty after a century or two. What year is this anyway?”
“2004,” replied Hank.
“ 2004? Whoowie! Let me figure this out. The last time I saw daylight was in 1860. That’s near on to 150 years. Don’t that beat all? Now about that drink.”
Both men retired to the cabin. Hank dug out a bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses. He poured them each a drink and left the bottle on the table and told the stranger to help himself. “I’ll fix us some grub,” said Hank. “I reckon you must be hungry after your long confinement.”
“Famished.” agreed the stranger.
“There’s one question I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Hank getting a fire going in the stove.
“Ask away. I got nothing to hide. This is damn good whiskey.” He said pouring himself a glass full. I’m Jacob Walsh, by the way.” And he stuck out his calloused hand.
“Hank,” said Hank shaking the stranger’s hand. “Are you one of them genie fellas?” Hank asked “You know like in that Aladdin story?”
The stranger got a big laugh out of that and laughed so loud and long he was forced to wipe his eyes with his bandanna. When he could speak he said, “Naw, I am sorry. I wish I was a genie and could grant you a few wishes. But I aint. I’m just a normal bloke like you who had the misfortune of crossing paths with some bad people. You go ahead and make us some supper and I’ll tell you my story.”
So while Hank busied himself making biscuits, bacon and Johnny Cakes. The stranger told his story, and what a story it was:
Back in 1859 gold was discovered in the Bitter Roots. Almost overnight little mining towns sprung up and the hills exploded with hard drinking, hard working, risk taking, gun toting miners. It was a lawless and wild time. Fortunes were made and lost either through a lucky strike or a turn of a card.
The miner whose name was Jacob Walsh and his brother, Bill, had come to the gold fields to try their luck. Jacob told Hank how they got lucky on their claim and made a big score. “There was so much of it,” Jacob Walsh said with genuine excitement. “It was impossible to not find an ounce or more in every panful.”
Bill and Jacob worked their claim in secret. Their half a mile of stream turned out to be a placer miner’s dream—gold flakes and nuggets littered the stream bed. The brothers worked methodically and in a few days they had accumulated over seventy five pounds of gold nuggets and flakes which they hid.
Somehow word of the strike got out despite the brother’s best efforts to keep it a secret. The rumor aroused the interest of some of the more unsavory elements in town who conspired to investigate and, if the rumors proved to be true, steal the gold. The most unscrupulous of the claim jumping scoundrels was a hulking Irishman, professional thief, a bully and a coward named Red McClaggart. The kind of fellow who had no luck of his own. He sought to make his fortune by stealing some one else’s luck.
Red’s plan was both clever and nefarious. He and his fellow conspirators pooled what little money they had and hired a disreputable Shoshone medicine man who swore to Red that he had the power to make anyone disappear. The medicine man was named Big Sheep he was a drunk and as corrupt as they come. For a price he would work his magic on anyone. Big Sheep accepted Red’s commission eagerly and set to work preparing his potions. After a couple of days of fasting, chanting and gathering roots, Big Sheep delivered an envelope of yellow powder into Red’s hands. Red was instructed to blow the powder into the face of anyone he wished to “make gone.” Red paid Big Sheep with several bottles of rot gut whiskey and an ounce of gold nuggets he had won cheating at cards. Big Sheep warned Red that the powder lost potency quickly and after five days would be useless.
Originally Red and his boys hoped the brothers would come into town for supplies and thought they would ambush them on their way back to camp. After three days of fruitless waiting, Red decided to ride out to the claim and precipitate matters. Red found the brothers hard at work. He rode into camp with a big “Howdy” and quietly slipped the yellow powder into his fist.
“What do you want here?” asked Bill, his hand resting on his six shooter.
“Well now, hold on a second. I heard a rumor that you boys might be needing some help. I’m a good worker and thought I’d ask fer a job.” Red started to dismount. Bill and Jacob reached for their guns.
“That’s far enough. I don’t know what you heard but we aint looking for no help,” said Bill. “So just get back on your horse and keep moving.”
“Well now,“ said Red, “that aint very friendly. I rode a long way to get here. Least you could do is offer a fellow a drink of water.”
“The crick’s right over there. Get yourself a drink and git.” Red dismounted and took his canteen toward the stream with the intention of filling it with water all the while he was looking around and sizing things up. Our gold was well hidden and there was nothing to see. Red knelt beside the creek and started to take a drink when he reached into the water and pulled out a pebble.
“Hey, aint this a nugget?” he asked. Bill and I ambled over to take a look. As I bent down for a closer look, Red blew that yellow powder right in my face and turned toward Bill to blow some in his. But Bill was too quick for him and slapped his hand away. The powder went flying but it was too late for me. I had inhaled plenty and already felt strange. From my boots to my hat I felt an itchy burning sensation.
“Failing to powder Bill, Red pulled his gun and I heard shots. I couldn’t be sure what was happening as I was shrinking and turning insubstantial. Bill picked up Red’s canteen and scooped what was left of me in it. Bill must have died soon after but I couldn’t tell you seeing as how I was a cloud of smoke trapped in a can for the next 150 years.”
In the next several days, Jacob and Hank got to know each other. Hank told Jacob about how he worked the old claims and lived on whatever he could find. Jacob told him how it was in the days when the Bitter Roots were alive with prospectors and get rich quick types. They talked and drank and after a while they began to like each other and then trust each other. Hank showed Jacob his metal detector. Jacob thought it was something he and Bill could have used to good advantage. Jacob showed Hank where one or two of the old mining camps were but things were so different he couldn’t be certain. It was shocking how little was left to indicate which places were ever inhabited.
After a week or so Jacob asked Hank to take him to his old claim. “You know, the place where you found the canteen,” Jacob said.
“You sure you want to go back there?” Hank asked. “There’s nothing there for you but bad memories, I already looked for gold.” But Jacob insisted and Hank drove the old pick up along forest roads and dirt tracks to the old mining camp where it all began. Jacob got out of he truck and looked around. Except for a wide spot in the stream and a few scattered boards, there was no sign of the drama that played out there long ago.
“Our shelter was over in that grove right there,” Jacob pointed to a group of huge spruce. “Of course they were much smaller then. Over here was our sluice run. You didn’t find any gold you say?”
“Not a single nugget,” answered Hank. “You guys were thorough.”
“That we were,” mused Jacob. And he wandered up stream about a hundred yards where the banks were high and rocky. Hank followed a discrete distance behind. Jacob stopped at a place where a large boulder had lodged in the stream forcing it to flow around the obstacle. “You mind bringing a couple of shovels?” Jacob asked.
They dug down on the high side of the boulder into the soft earth until their shovels clanged on metal. “Is that what I think it is?” asked Hank.
The chest was heavy containing over 75 pounds of gold dust and nuggets. It was more gold than Hank had ever seen in one place. When they finished hauling the gold to the assay office and found the best place to sell what they had, they split the 1.3 million dollars right down the middle. “We’re partners,” was all Jacob would say.
“I guess you’re a genie after all,” Hank said when they shook hands. They both laughed about that all the way to the bank.
micheledutcher - This was a fun story to read - the language style really added to the temperature of the piece. Nicely done!
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