I park the old Ford pickup in front of the old Placer Café and Hotel. Pausing inside the door, I look over the five-six people having dinner. The only stranger is a pretty blond lady in a green plaid shirt, jeans and hi-top hiking boots. I walk over, “Hi Miss. I’m Jake. Are you the artist painting pictures at the old placer diggings up stream of here?”
With a half-smile of challenge for being interrupted, she had watched me approach. “Yeah, I am that artist. The aspen this time of year compliments the history of this area. The golden leaves and white trunks in the fall sunlight create a beautiful light that is hard to capture in paints. It is a challenge to any artist. My name, by the way, is Elaine.” She left me standing.
I grin, “That’s good to know. Clears up some of the rumor I heard of a lady looking for gold in those diggings. I keep an eye on that area as the western half of it is mine.”
With a “Hi Jake.” Mrs. Sutler starts across the room with her old cook stove coffee pot. “Sit down, for heaven’s sake. People are beginning to stare, thinkin’ you two are quarreling.”
I shrug with sheepish grin at Elaine pulled out a chair. Mrs. Sutler pours me a mug and a refill for Elaine. Giving me two pats on my shoulder.
“I guess we been told to mind our manners.” I chuckled.
“Yes, we have. Please, will you join me for coffee or dinner?” She smiles an apology.
“Don’t mind if I do.” I grin at her. I wave at Mrs. Sutler and ask for the regular. Since Ma died a few years back, I eat the same thing every time I am here; fried steak, fried potatoes, green beans, and coffee. Food is food and no big deal.
With a serious tone, “That your truck out front? The one I parked next to? The one with the pick and shovel and gold pan in the back? Along with paints, easel, and stool?” I ask.
With a genuine little laugh, “Okay, Okay, I’m busted. Gold mining tools makes me look bad. But truthfully they were props for a painting idea I had. Spent an hour trying to make an arrangement with them but nothing seemed real. So I just painted the aspen and the mountain. You can check them when we leave. There’s no wear on the edges of the pick and shovel.”
“Tell me about your ranch and the history of the diggings.”
So we spent the next hour and more talking. Well, me talking and Elaine asking questions. It took several coffee refills and even cherry pie and ice cream to finish the tale. Gold had been discovered in 1869 and shut down in the 1890’s. It was too small to dredge so it stayed small diggings with the Chinese slowly taking over. Ranches developed in the meantime and the town of Placer shrank to its present size supplying the ranches and cowboys. Grampa was an early rancher, building and expanding his ranch as land became available. He died in 1912. Pa took over at the age of 20 and he died early in1929. I am still here ten years later at 26 years old. Got a patented section of hay and four sections of range and forest for 600 head. Ole man Pryor’s ranch to the west of me is in probate. The grandkids are arguing and deciding the future of the ranch. Maybe, just maybe, if they sell, I can buy up the rest of the diggings and its pasture along the creek.
We did get around to last names; hers is Reynolds and mine Hawley. Last names makes us more than acquaintances but less than best friends. She is a Senior at the state university in art and botany. A friend of a professor had told her of the large aspen groves here at Placer. She is staying at least one more day maybe two if the weather stays clear.
I agree to ride over to the diggings tomorrow and show her around.
In the morning, I send my four men off on their rounds of the cattle looking for sores and worms while pushing them off the mountain to the pastures. Fall round-up comes in three weeks. I saddle my horse and a gentle one for Elaine. Load some roast beef sandwiches, and pickles. Strap on my chaps, my pistol; slid my Winchester into its saddle scabbard and climb aboard. All cowboy, all the time, showing off for a pretty lady.
I ride up to find the easel and paints laid out, but Elaine kneeling at the stream panning for gold. I dis-mount ready with pointed questions.
“Shhhhh.” She whispers.
“I thought I should try panning since I am here,” she declares aloud.
She whispers again, “There is a man in the bushes with binoculars couple hundred feet up stream on the opposite side. I’m scared.”
Aloud she declares, “Look at that, several big flakes. Gold! Real Gold!”
Shaky whispers again, “Figured I should give him what he thought he’d find. Maybe, you should have a talk with him.”
“Of course, I am good with a Winchester,” I declare loudly. “Watch this. See that bunch of pine-cones up stream.” I pull my rifle and shoot the pine cones off the branch. Then put a shot into the bushes on either side of the man.
“You in the bushes stand up, or the next bullet is dead center. NOW.” And fired another shot on either side of him.
The bushes began to shake and the man shouts “don’t shoot me.” as he stands up.
“George! you old brush popper. What are you doing, spying on the lady?” I yell. “You need a bullet to remind you to mind your manners? Get on down here.” I order.
“George is the stable hand in town. Good with horses but not much with people.” I explain.
“What are you thinkin’, George? That there is gold up here? That this artist lady from the university can find gold in this gravel after 25 years of miners working it over?” I take the pan from Elaine and rinse it out. Handing it to George, “pan it fer yerselves, George. Go on, run a half dozen pans,” I command, waving the Winchester at the stream at his feet.
Cowed, George kneels, and scoops a shovel full of gravel and sand into the pan. Puts it into the water and starts picking gravel out. Giving a little swirl to the pan. Soon he is washing the sand around and pouring it over the edge.
“You are pretty good at panning, George. You have practiced a lot. Ever find much up here, George?” I ask.
He shakes his head no. And starts another pan of gravel and sand. “Sorry Ma’am. I heard you talking about all the gold color up here and you being from the university. I thought you knew something nobody else knew. Just had to find out; before you left.”
“Any color in that pan? Okay, Let’s go look at Miss Elaine’s pictures. George bring the tools. I un-cocked the Winchester and cleared the chamber. Reloaded and stuck it back in the scabbard.
Elaine grabbed the half begun picture off the easel and walked to her truck to get the other two paintings. The first is a golden aspen grove against the evergreen mountain. The second one is a close up of the aspen grove with detail of leaves and bark. The beginning of the third was splashes of gold and streaks of white like the painting was out of focus. Her golds and yellows nearly capture the light and texture of the aspens.
“There, George, is gold to an artist, a good artist, a rare artist. You have just seen art that belongs in a museum. Won’t see that again up here in Placer.
Elaine came back to Placer four times, painting the ranch in the snow and with the spring flowers. The last visit, I was getting scared she would soon graduate and I’d never see her again. I tried to ask her to marry me, but she put me off.
“Come down to Graduation at the end of May, and ask me them. I’ll know what my future is then.” Asking her in letters did no good, and I got no hints.
Graduation came, I bought a ring; I bought new clothes; I drove down to the University; happy for her, nervous for me. After the ceremony was complete, and the congratulations of family and friends began to wane, Elaine in her cap and gown announced she and I needed a minute to settle our long discussion. So people stood around and watched us as we walked out of earshot.
“Okay cowboy, what is on that nervous mind of yours,” she teased.
“Elaine, I love you. Will you marry me?” I blurted out as I dug the ring out of my jacket pocket.
“Yes, Jake, I will marry you. Just as soon as we can make arrangements. Then we’ll celebrate it again for your neighbors and friends in Placer.”
“But, I must confess, my mother was a Pryor and I finally convinced my brothers to give me the eastern third of my grandfather’s ranch. I have the deed here in this envelope. We have each other, you have room for more cows and I have all my yellow gold aspen.”