Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Double Down.

Zach Neal

There was always the roar of whitewater in the background.

After a while, you got so used to it it kind of went away. Almost anything was better than the desert, but around here it was uphill all the way, no matter which way you looked. It was a little too wet, no matter how you looked at it, in that infernal country.

There were five of us originally, but Sammy Doyle died of a fever three days after we broke off from the wagon train.

There might have been other human beings within thirty miles of us.

There was no one, for certain, within five or ten miles in any direction, or we would have known about it. It was awfully quiet out there sometimes, and the ringing of an axe carried a long ways.

We all had our own thoughts, and there was this hollow sensation in the guts, not from hunger but from sorrow.

That left just the four of us.

Sammy was the one that bought the map from a man, a Mister Stephen Dexter. Headed back east, Dexter was desperate for a meal and a drink. That was at Fort Laramie, which lay far behind us now, and quite a ways south, too. He said Sammy could come and look him up when he was filthy, stinking rich, and they could shake hands, have a laugh over it, and have a drink on it.

We laughed when we heard that. Of course we looked at the map, and laughed again. Off in the distance, the coyotes laughed too, echoing on the chill night air. The moon was just rising and the night was still except for the crickets.

“We never should have let him wander off on his own—” That was Clay, but Sammy laughed just as hard as the rest of us.

He was a persistent devil though.

“Oh, come on, boys! This could save us a lot of time. That is, if it’s legit—”

Snickers and grins finally got to him, and he folded up his map and glowered at us over the glowing bowl of his pipe.

Poor old Sammy. He was a true innocent, but then we all were.

The bottle went around the fire. It was very late and the rest of the camp was asleep. After thinking on it some, and drinking on it some more, we decided it was worth a look. It looked, at most, a week’s hard travel to the north off from the main route of the California trail. A few days looking around and then it would be another week back to where we were now. While we would be pushing our luck as far as the snows were concerned, we had left Independence in plenty of time, May 22, and we’d had good luck so far. Just the other day our wagon-master, Harold Bondy, who’d done the trip several times before, had been saying that we had a few days in hand on this one.

The story was that the fellow, Dexter, the one that made the map, found this creek. He told Sammy he was the one and it wasn’t no second-hand story. He found a deposit of placer gold. He was pulling four and five dollars out of some pans…with a proper hand rocker, you could do all right, and the actual ore bed, which must be nearby, somewhere upstream, well that would be quite a find.

But the season was late, and it was coming onto winter in the high mountains. On his way out Dexter was ambushed by Paiutes, but managed to keep his hair. Sammy seen the scar and Everything. A big old Paiute arrow came in through the shoulder blade and just missed the heart, as Sammy said, stopping only when it hit the insides of the front ribs.

Well, that didn’t mean so much, and we all knew it, but the story was the man spent the next few months convalescing. Mister Dexter was just plain lucky to be alive. With time on his hands, he had reconsidered one or two things, regarding the nature of life and his own place in it.

He needed to get home, back east, where he had kinfolk that could look after him, as he wasn’t ever going to be the same man again.

As for the map, it showed the river and its tributaries. It showed a good number of native villages, the Maidu and other tribes, some hostile and some not so hostile.

We were young, we were game and we were there looking for gold anyways.

That’s where Sammy had a distinct point. One place might be as good as another when we knew damn-all about mining and were pretty much relying on luck and God’s own blessing.

This fellow, he said he had even left a poke of dust and nuggets up there. He’d cached it for safety, as it represented his life’s fortune. He carried what he figured he needed to live in town for the winter. He would buy more tools, more grub and then head on up there again in spring. After being ambushed, and not being able to move around much, and because the Injuns had robbed him of everything, and because he was just prospecting…the man wasn’t even all that sure of exactly where he was, he had staked the claim but never registered it. Yet he had described it right down to a T.

If we could find those stakes, we could find his poke—and maybe the place where them nuggets came out of.

It was a dream, and a chancy one at best. We all thought it was bogus, and yet we were ready for almost any sort of adventure. All them shiny new guns, among other things. I suppose there are worse reasons, but it was an open country up that way and it was sort of a question; as to what all that really meant. But this country had a future.

The five of us had pooled our resources, bought a rig and supplies. We were the Coffee Pot Mining Company.

The problem really arose when we got into a heated argument and decided to put it to a vote.

Predictably enough, it was two against and three in favor.

The real gold rush, down by Sacramento, was still a long ways away and it seemed like everyone in the world had gotten there first anyways.

I was against it, myself. What the hell do I know?

But I thought they’d soon tire of it and we could maybe come back down and hitch up with another wagon train, if there were any more.

Hot as hell, at least in daylight, mid-summer seemed so friendly, so benign.

It was already late enough in the season. I tried to tell them that but they just wouldn’t listen.


Turns out to be a lot like work.

That danged map cost Sammy twenty-five dollars. I was mad, where the others just laughed.

We had agreed to save our money as much as possible, not to make outrageous purchases, buying strictly what we needed, not to eat in a diner when we could cook our own grub, and even to share our bottles. We had so much tobacco and we rationed it out.

For the most part we stuck to it, too

Twenty-five dollars was a lot of money. None of us had much more than a hundred or so on us to begin with.

The rig, the wagon, the mounts, pretty much all of our money was tied up in them. If we had to winter up in those mountains, there wasn’t going to be enough food, and even with Sammy gone the situation didn’t look much better.

We buried Sammy on a bench overlooking the Feather River, under twisted pines that leaned back as if from a great wind. Hacking through the roots, we found clean black dirt under there and that’s where we put him.

Sammy was a farmer at heart, always talking about what he was going to do and what piece of bottom-land he was going to buy when he got back home.

Sammy would have liked that dirt.


After unpacking what we could and hiding the wagon, we went forward on foot and on horseback, and ultimately found the place no trouble at all.

Now, with as little as two or three weeks until the first really good snowfall, things weren’t looking too promising.

The funny thing was, we found the poke full of dust and everything.

“Dale and I have been doing some thinking.” Clay looked at Jamie and me with a solemnity that I hadn’t seen before.


Jamie was a bear-like fellow, narrow of the hips and solidly built.

The friendliest man I’d ever known, he had a way of speaking out and reaching out to everybody he met. It was interesting to watch, and on sheer percentages the technique probably did well enough with the opposite sex.

“Well. We obviously ain’t found it—and we been all up and down this valley.”

True enough. Our campsite was a muddy hell, surrounded by shallow, water-filled pits and the mounded gravel of our diggings here, there and everywhere else.

“Damn!” Jamie saw it coming, I didn’t.

The terrible thing was that we had been pulling gold out of our pans. There were a few tiny grains here and there. It was just that the working of it was very hard indeed. Our pickings were nothing next to Mr. Dexter’s and so we were convinced this was the wrong place.

“Yeah. Well. You got an idea, spit it out.” I spat as if to underline my point.

“Here we are. Right where the man said it would be.” Jamie snorted.

He sucked hard on his pipe. His hand stabbed the air with it.

“We found his campsite. We have his map. It’s just a matter of time…” He trailed off. “That’s what we all figured.”

We found the hearth, just thirty yards up a little side tributary of the Feather River. The flatter part of the creek was shallow enough to walk across at gravel bars and small rapids. The flat ground, all of that appeared marked on the map. The man’s lean-to, his fire-pit and even his partly filled-in latrine were all right there. Or so it appeared. And lifting the stone in the front of his impressive, well-built fire-ring…sure as hell, there was a small, dirty bag of gold.

It was nowhere near as big as we’d been told or had thought possible, or imagined it would be—but it was there, and it was gold. It was mostly sand-sized grains, dust, small flecks that The contents appeared glittery and black at the same time. There were also a few nuggets. The largest one was at least half quartz but the size of a robin’s egg.

There might, admittedly, have been a couple of hundred dollars there—maybe three hundred if we were lucky.

“If we had just taken it—and then just taken off again.” Dale had said that before, several times over the last ten or twelve days. “Sammy would have had a clear profit, and we’d all have a bit more money than we started with.”

That idea held some merit, and we all sort of agreed on that, but by then it was too late.
Like the rest of us, Dale had run up and down the hills, shovel in hand, and making a damned crazy fool of himself.

Just like the rest of us.

“Okay. So what do you have in mind?” I sounded it out slowly, like a teacher with a dumb school-child trying to learn.

I was getting a bit tired by that point. Tired—of all of them and their foolishness.

Clay looked away. He looked embarrassed, and so did Dale.

“We was thinking maybe it’s time we was heading back, Ewan.” Clay stared at me with those small blue eyes surrounded by huge whites, and licked his lips and couldn’t quite keep it up.

While his straggling blond beard and mustache weren’t getting much thicker, they were certainly getting longer.

Jamie looked at me.

“Well. I ain’t going. You boys done dragged us up here—we’ve eaten half our food, and now you want to go gallivanting off again.”

He kept staring at me.

I shook my head.

“I can’t do nothing to stop you boys from running off. What did you have in mind?”

Finally they came out with it.

Dale was the better thinker of the two, but Clay was more of the talker—definitely.

There was one hell of a long silence right about then. Something cracked in the ashes of our breakfast fire, but that was about it.

I sighed, deeply.


Jamie said it again.

“I ain’t leaving.”

I looked over.

“Neither am I.”

Call me stubborn, call me stupid, call me any danged thing that you want. But there were those itty-little bits of gold sticking in the bottom of my pan—and in the hindermost recesses of my mind, like when I tried to go to sleep at night, or when I woke up in the morning, or pretty much any old time of day when I took a breath or a minute or a pee-break.

Clay explained how they could unload most of the supplies from the wagon and be on their way. If we got hungry enough, we could come and get it. If we wanted out, it was there for us on the way down the mountain. They’d cache it under an oilcloth tarpaulin and put rocks on it. We had horses. Admittedly it would be a heavy load, and we wouldn’t be able to make much time.

They had it all figured out, apparently.

That would be the best they could do. If, or rather when we caught up to them, which was their line of thinking, or at least their line of talk, we could still go on as a company.

I suppose I knew them well enough, and didn’t believe them guys for a moment. They were as good as their word though. It was all anyone really had.

Jamie heaved his big sigh and we exchanged a long look.

“I don’t know, Ewan. What do you think?”

There were too many questions and too many things being left unsaid.

“What happens if we find gold?”

That’s when Dale spoke up, and he looked me right in the eye, which he hadn’t been doing for quite a spell.

“To hell with the gold. We just want out of here.”

“So it’s like that, eh?”

There was more, of course.

We talked it out, pretty well.

We shared a bottle around, more than one of us cocking a speculative eye when the realization hit that we actually had an odd number of bottles of rotgut and that would be hard to split.

Jamie had charge of the map and they were fine with that.

In the end, it was all very sad and we had a hard time saying goodbye.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Clay and Dale saddled up and took one last look around.

“See ya, boys!” That was Clay.

Dale couldn’t quite look at us. They had their half of the poke split between them, and who knew when we’d see them again. Probably never, and I think we all realized that. Finally Dale gave me a quick look, a nod, and then his heels hit Pal’s sides. They moved away.

I’ll never forget the clink of their hooves, as they turned their mounts down the first part of the slope below our camp. They were obscured by brush, then abruptly disappeared into the dark timberline down along where the river turned south.

Other than a few raucous birds, the sun was up, the temperature was climbing, and with the head I was developing, this might not be much of a working day.


When I woke again, lying beside the ashes of our breakfast fire, Jamie was still awake.

He was on the hard-packed ground with pine needles all over him, so he might have slept too.

He was head down, immersed in that damned map.

“Oh, give it a rest, Jamie.”


I sat up, giving him a sour look.


My body creaked and ached as I rose and went to the bucket. My clothes were stiff with dirt and perspiration. My boots were perpetually damp and when you sat a certain way you could smell yourself, up around the neck area where the shirt was open. When you squatted for a dump you could smell that part as well.

The dipper was right there and I had myself a long drink. My head felt all right in spite of the early drunk. The water in the bucket had a quarter-inch of ice on it this morning, but it was clear now. The sun was warm enough, but there was something about the soft grey clouds down low on the western horizon, and the sighing of a stiff breeze in the treetops, that did not bode well for
our continued presence here.


The bottle stood right there on the end of our primitive table, part of a log split in half by lightning and propped up on an X-frame held together by baling wire. Shaking my head, I took the cold coffee pot out of the ashes. Putting my hand over the fire, there was still heat. I put a couple of handfuls of dry dead saplings, some finger-sized kindling on there.

Blowing into a gap I had created with another stick, I was rewarded by a red glow, some small crackles and a thin ribbon of smoke coming up. The breeze would take care of the rest.

Taking the coffee pot, I went down to the riverbank to flush it out and rinse some of the ashes and pork grease off it.


The Coffee Pot Mining Company.
Clouds draped long shadows across the valley. The sky was a blue that no artist has ever matched. The air was lovely, soft and warm and we had to get out of there.

We both knew it. Neither one of us wanted to give it up. The funny thing was, I was against coming here right from the start. Jamie had been the only other dissenting vote.

Where were them boys right about now? A few hours but not that far away. If they camped in the right place, we could see their fire and they would be able to see ours.

It would take them a good three days to get clean off this old mountain. We could catch up if we needed to.

Jamie took a gulp of scalding coffee, thick, black and sweet with three spoons of sugar.

Strong enough to float a bullet, as people said.

“So. What’s the plan?”

As if I had any inspiration.

“I don’t know. I just don’t know…” All around lay the evidence of our labors.

You didn’t dare walk around there at night without a light.

It seemed there wasn’t any place hereabouts where we hadn’t already looked, dug, looked, and then dug some more.

“I’ve always wondered about this map.” He handed it over to me, narrowly avoiding spilling coffee all over it from his brimming cup. “Shit! I’d better watch that.”

It wasn’t like we didn’t all know that map by heart by this time. It would be a kind of a hard thing to forget, at this point.

“So?” I set my cup aside, sighing for another pipe but I’d just put one out.

I set that well clear as well, and spread out the danged map for another look.

“How come there’s no north marked on there?”

“I don’t know, Jamie.”

He was right. The river was there. The name was written in. The curves back and forth, the valleys it ran in, they were all there in faded blue ink, on a soft yellowing paper that showed signs of being chewed on by rats on one end of it. We’d often wondered if something important had been lost in that little section.

“And another thing.”

“What’s that?”

“There’s that pin-hole there.”

I nodded. We’d all remarked on the map’s little inconsistencies. None of the nearest boom-towns were marked, but then they were all too new. They hadn’t been there, or the original prospector hadn’t known about them when the map was drawn. There was the one little pin-hole, and not in a corner or at the top, or anywhere you might reasonably expect it to be.

“Yeah. That one…that one seems to be right where this camp is. We all agreed on that.”

It was a curious point, perhaps significant.

“So, Ewan. We found the poke, and the shelter. It’s all right here. This is where the pin-hole is on the map.”

“I thought we figured that was better than putting a big, black, X-marks the spot…that kind of thinking.”

“Right.” Jamie looked around and set his cup down. “It’s a natural assumption. But just ‘cause we all agreed, that don’t make it true. Right?”

“Fair enough.” We were all idiots, and that’s fair enough too.

Jamie got up, moseyed over to his pile of gear and rummaged around. Coming back, he held up a pin, a simple, straightforward pin that a tailor might use to shore up a cuff or pant-leg before sewing it. Jamie had done some of that kind of work.

Jamie had some notion that he might take in a little work in whatever place we ended up at.

All of us had some skill or occupation before the madness took over and we chucked it to come west.

“Come on.”

I handed him the map and we went to our table. He laid the map down, and stuck the pin carefully into the hole, getting his eyeball right down in there.

“You’ve got an idea.”

Jamie shook his head.

“Not really. But why would he stick a pin there?”

“To keep the wind from blowing it away…?”

“But why not just put a couple of rocks on the corners?” He had me there.

No good reason.

Shaking his head again, Jamie bent and looked at it from the edge of our table.

He straightened up.

“That hole’s too small for a proper thumb-tack.” That was his sole observation.

In fact, we had probably made it bigger by using it again.

Right about then, a strong puff of wind from the left took up one corner of the map and lifted it bodily.

I was slightly bemused to see the map rotate a few degrees on the table-top, still secured by our pin…the nudge of an idea came then.


“What? I was wondering if that pin was some sort of surveying device—you know, you stick it in and then line it up with something. But that’s just nuts, as we have no way of knowing how big the original pin was, how far he stuck it in, or where the man might have been standing—other than right here, when he looked at the danged thing.”


He looked at me.


“Shit.” I waved him off.

“What? What?” His voice came up in impatience, catching a little of the dawning excitement in my voice.

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking…Damn! I’m thinking…”

Knowing me well enough not to interfere with such an uncertain and time-consuming process, Jamie went back to his place by the log and the fire and I walked around the immediate area of the table, staring fixedly at that table, that map—and that pin. My head lifted and I stared up the side-creek, mentally trying to fix and remember all of its little side-branches.


After a while, I sat down too. My coffee was getting cold and I wanted proper words for it or Jamie just wouldn’t get it. Hell, maybe I didn’t get it. But we’d been up there, all over, for that matter.

Finally I had it. I sucked back the remains of the coffee. I chuckled, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and sort of enjoyed his suspense for a moment. I rose and he did too.

We went back to the table.

“Okay, Jamie, my boy.”

His lip curled He knew that tone, and his eyes stabbed into mine.

“Out with it.”

I reached over and took one corner of the map, and rotated it ninety degrees or so.

“Anything strike you, good sir?”

He stared at the map, and then at me. He shook his head, and yet he had this gleeful look on his homely mug.


“Look behind you.”

Jamie turned and looked up the small notch of a valley, the one our little side creek ran in, dropping in great foaming leaps from above and zigzagging down the mountainside in green pools and foaming white torrents. He looked up the hill, and back at the map.

His jaw dropped.

“No.” He stared up the hill.

There were several tributaries up above. They came in from left and right, collecting into one big set of rapids, plunging over the ledges and cataracts. My thinking was that maybe it was a sort of scale model of the bigger river…or something like that.

“No. It’s just too simple.” He stared at the map again. “Can it be…can it be pure coincidence.”

I didn’t know and said as much. But it seemed well worth looking into. We’d been convinced we were right on top of it—the fellow had camped right there after all. We were convinced that he would have found his sweet-spot and set up shop not too far away.

But what if this place—now confirmed almost double, if my hunch was correct, was merely the starting point? What if, in the paranoia that some men felt after being on their own too long, going cold and hungry and without human conversation for too long. What if he got a little tricky and worried that the map might be taken from him?

He might have had one or two tricks up his sleeve, and for that matter, good old Sammy might have held one or two things back from his friends as well. Sammy might have spent quite some time talking to Mr. Dexter.

No one likes to be double-crossed, as I told Jamie.

By this time it was getting near on to suppertime, and we agreed to rest up. We’d been digging for weeks. Surveying the nameless side creek above us wasn’t going to be the work of a moment.

It was with a renewed sense of optimism that Jamie and I had our stew, finished the bottle, knocked out our pipes and turned in by nine o’clock that night.

We would make an early start in the morning.


We spent three days trudging up and down those creeks.

It was the usual story.

We found color; a grain here, a few flecks there. A small nugget the size of a bean.

We sat in front of the fire, considering the fact that there was frost this morning and a half inch of ice on our water-bucket.

“I reckon we ain’t ever going to find it.”

That’s when it struck me.

“What if we have found it?”

He gave me a disgusted look.

“That’s just nonsense. Look at what he had—one poor old fellow, all on his own, messing about with a pick and a shovel.”

“Yeah—and he had three hundred or so in a pouch. He had enough money on him to keep him for the winter.”

Jamie shrugged angrily, looking off into the distance, where more purple and iron-grey clouds loomed.

“What I’m saying is, what if we have found it.”

He eyed me with a kind of disdain.

“What the hell are you trying to say?”

“I’m just saying. You and I are sitting on top of a gold mine, James. A bloody gold mine—and the whole silly bunch of us was just too danged foolish to see it.”

It was too much like work—and so that couldn’t be right.

What fools we were. And here we had it all the time. Crazy old Dexter knew what he was doing, all right. But then, that was just the way. It took some doing—and he knew what that meant, too. Jamie and I, and the others to whatever degree, were no strangers to some kind of daily work. But we were also possessed by the madness.

It had blinded us to the real possibilities.

I think it hit me then.

Having risen to reach for the bottle, the way I slumped to the ground, looking stupified and maybe even a bit foolish as I yanked out that cork—the way I slugged and gurgled and gagged on the best handful of corn whiskey I ever tasted.

Jamie flinched when I hollered.


He stared in disbelief.

“Halleluyah, brother! Hot-damn! Yee—hah, boy!”

I jumped up and danced around, poking the bottle in his face, whooping and hollering and carrying on something awful.

Jamie shook his head, but he took the bottle anyway. There was a kind of violence in the long pull he took, never taking his eyes off of mine.

“What in the ever-lovin’ tarnation are you talking about?”

“Congratulations, Jamie—we’re rich.” I took a long ragged breath and tears sprung to my eyes. “Or as good as—there’s gold in them there hills, brother!”

Jamie took a mouthful and handed the bottle back. I held the bottle and he swallowed slowly.

His eyes watered.

I threw my head back and laughed like I hadn’t laughed in a while.

It hit Jamie too, right about then.

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

And he who laughs last, laughs best.

I forget exactly who said that.