Western Short Story
Uncle Charley Flynn was one of the last of the Forty-Niners, but not one of the lucky ones.
Charley came ‘round the Horn at the beginning of the rush and progressed from camp to camp across the Sierras with the horde of other Argonauts, Chinee and other foreigners, battling the elements and the Indians for a share of the wealth that never fell to his lot.
I was a late-comer, traversing the overland route, dazzled by dreams of wealth but ignorant of the means to acquire it.
Coming down to the Feather late one afternoon in the midst of a snow squall, a cinch broke on my pack animal and the mule and all my supplies plunged into a chasm. Charley found me, near froze, half devoid of my senses. He rescued me, took pity on my innocence for reasons he never divulged and took me under his wing. I took to calling him uncle, though we weren’t of the same blood.
From that day forward, we were partners and I profited from his knowledge and experience. The use of breast and breeching straps to keep a pack from slipping in hilly country was among the first of his valuable instructions.
We were together another 12 to 15 months (it’s difficult to keep track of the passage of time in the mountains) and Charley tutored me in panning and miscellaneous other mining skills as well as camping and the care of our animals. While I benefited greatly from all this, it added naught to our mutual fortunes.
Occasionally, when we came near towns or established camps, Charley would leave me for what he termed a “poker adventure.” He never invited me along on these excursions and I, having no interest in cards or cash to spare for gambling, did not object.
It was after one of these excursions Charley returned in company with a woman he introduced as Ida. She was a portly, plain-faced and taciturn person who immediately commenced to undertake the womanly tasks of cooking, washing of clothes and general cleaning up after us, responsibilities that evoked no complaint from me as they had previously been my assignment. Charley nor Ida ever explained her presence in our company and I was content to accept the addition since it freed me of chores and eased rather than increased my duties.
Charley made no more poker excursions and Ida’s presence seemed to give him a modicum of happiness I had not observed before. At night they bedded down together in his tent and what transpired therein was not my business. As far as I was concerned if Ida was important to Charley and gave him joy, then she was as welcome as the mules that made transport of our supplies less burdensome.
Life continued in this manner for perhaps another month.
That night, Charley and I shared a final cup of coffee and discussed plans for the morrow as Ida cleaned up our supper dishes. A gentle breeze rattled foliage overhead, the fire crackled in response and a coyote yipped off in the distance. Night falls early in the mountains and after a hard day’s labor, I was ready for sleep by the time I’d emptied the dregs of my cup into the camp fire.
It seemed I’d barely drifted off to sleep when Charley was at my side, shaking me awake. “Hide yourself, kid,” he whispered. “Don’t come out until I call you—no matter what you hear.”
Puzzled but obedient as always, I grabbed my clothes and snuck off into the brush as told. Concealed behind a clump of Manzanita in the rocks, I heard the rattle of horse gear as strangers came into camp, several voices raised in dispute followed by a burst of gunfire. Ida screamed. A male voice shouted. And then, silence.
I rose from my hiding place, intent on going to Charley’s aid. Alas, I must confess to being a coward. Fearing for my own safety, I remained in the woods for I know not how much longer, before chastising myself for my lack of courage, rising and returning to the camp.
I found Charley sprawled on his back, his body riddled by bullets and life fled. Ida was gone as were the men, whoever they may have been, who had taken the life of my mentor and friend. Shocked and confused by the turn of events, I sank to my knees and bawled like a child in despair. What had become of Ida and what role she’d played in the demise of Charley were of no concern in light of my own plight.
As morning broke and the sun lit the abominable scene and my shame, I knew the least thing I could do for Charley to redeem myself—give him a decent burial.
Employing shovel and pick in the professional manner he’d taught me, I chopped through the forest turf to prepare a final resting place for this man to whom I owed so much. Despite the coolness of the early morning, the difficulty imposed by the rocky, root-tangled soil raised a sweat and tested my muscle before I’d gone three feet down. Dangling my feet over the edge, I dropped the pick into the pit and gazed into space, musing on the tragedy that had befallen our peaceful little camp.
I know not how long I sat thus before something more mundane drew my attention. A shaft of sunlight breaking through the trees fell across the hole and a glimmer at bottom reflected back and caught my notice. I peered a moment, wondering did my vision betray me. No. There it came again as the rays of the sun spread across the pit.
I dropped into the grave and bent for a closer look. It couldn’t be. Yet, as I rubbed the fingers of a hand across an outcrop of stone, brushing off a clod of dirt, my heart leapt and a cry broke from my lips. I brushed again, then lifted the pick and chipped at the stone. My heart began to pound and I was wont to cry out again.
There in the rock I’d exposed a vein of quartz studded with nuggets of gold. More gold than I’d ever seen in all my days in California. The grave I’d dug for my mentor disclosed the fortune we’d both sought for so long.
Climbing out of the hole, overwhelmed with joy, I saluted Charley once more. I’d dig another grave and give him the burial he deserved. I knew he wouldn’t mind if I delayed the project until I’d gone to town and filed a claim.