Western Short Story
Chest of Gold
Louis M. Serra

Western Short Story

My name is Prairie Pete. You may recall me tellin’ you about the yung’n with the old Winchester 73 rifle. Then agin’ if you’ve been outta town for awhile, ask some of your friends about it. I can’t retell it right now because ol’ Jake Withers is on my back about tellin’ you how we were this… close… to havin’ all the gold we would ever want. It happened like this.

There’s me, Jake and Shotgun Hanks, the third guy in our little group of what everyone calls the ‘ol’ timers’ out here in Iron Hole, Utah. We all work at my saloon/inn, and tack store. Out here you gotta cover yourself having everything for sale to survive.

One of the tourist favorites are old gold mine fold-out maps. Shotgun has been printin’ these things fer years. He ain’t never cheated no one though. On the back of the map in the bottom corner is what them lawyers call a discrediter thing. It may be small print so as not to discourage the people too much, but it do say… for entertainment only. It even has one or two games fer the kids to play. As I was sayin’.

Shotgun was checkin’ to see if he needed to print up more maps when he let out a low whistle and then called out real loud, “Hey, you two ol’ coyotes, come here and see what I gots. You ain’t never gonna believe it.”

Jake and I went over to his table and waited for him to stop smilin’ so hard. Jake wasn’t havin’ any more waitin’. “Just what is so dad-blamed important that you gotta yell out instead of just asking nice-like?”

Shotgun showed us one of the maps and smiled.

“What’s so durned funny?” Jake asked, pointing to the map in Shotgun’s hand “Its one of our maps. It’s a toy. Have you gone…?”

Shotgun pulled the map back and kept that crazy smile on his face while he tried to tell us why the map was different.

“Look here, you sand-rats. Take a close look at this map.” He waited a minute while we looked at the map, then at him and back again to the map. Finally I said what Jake and I were both thinkin’.

“Hot damn, you ol’ codger. I thought we agreed to no hooch until after sunset. You know we can’t be sippin’ stuff whilst we gots tourists. Just go and lay back fer a spell. We’ll take care of things. You need…”

He shut me off, fast like. “Drinkin”? I ain’t drinkin’. Lookey here. See this?” He put his finger on top of one of the mountains on the map. “See it? See it?”

Jake was not up for anymore of our friend’s actions. He sat Shotgun down and looked him straight in the eye. Then he turned to me and said, “I’ll be hanged. He ain’t drunk. He’s as sober as Ol’ Judge Harper.”

Now I was getting confused, and right-bit upset. Shotgun Hanks wasn’t the kinda man to get excited or nervous with out no good cause. “What’s all the commotion, you ol’ sidewinder? You damned near scared us to death with that god-awful yellin’ out like that.”

“Look, look. Here on the map. Are you two foolin’ wit me? You don’t see the difference on these maps?” He placed another map next to the one he had shown us.

Jake saw something that was a little different, but shook it off, sayin’, “nah, that ain’t it. That’s just a blob-ah’ ink.”

Shotgun yelled out ‘alleluia’ so loud that Jake an’ I both jumped back. “You got it, Jake. That ain’t no blob. Look real tight. That’s a pen mark. You remember that Eastern Coast feller who come out here back in ‘12? This is his map.”

It seems we were quiet for about two hours instead of the twenty seconds that went by. I finally spoke up. “Now I know you been hitting the hooch. You, me, even Jake the oldest man here wasn’t around in ‘12. Our folks’ were just yung’ns’ themselves. You screwball, you’re talkin’ about a hunerd years ago. If’n that’s the case, then how did you get this here map you swears by?”

“I’m talkin’ ‘bout the stories we heard over the years. Don’t fergit that we have the museum with all them magazines from way back. I give up with you two.”

Shotgun was not talking anymore. He decided to go back to restocking the gold mine maps. We tried to get him to open up again, but it seemed like he wasn’t havin’ any of it. Jake and I figgered we’d leave him alone to stew about the way we wasn’t so nice to him. We figgered that tomorrow we’d all be rested up and willin’ to talk more about what our friend was trying to tell us. That’s where Jake and I made our mistake. When we got up the next mornin’ Shotgun was nowhere to be found.

Jake had an idea. He said we should let the yung’ns in town take care of any tourist that might come strollin’ thru and he an’ me go lookin’ for Shotgun. I had my wonders about that.

“You mind tellin’ me where we’s gonna look for him? We got no idea on where he took off to.”

Jake stared at me like I was two headed. “Boy, I am surprised at you, Pete. You were there when he showed us the map. We’ll just use one of the other maps to find him.”

I poured me another cup of coffee and sat down and looked up at Jake and shook my head. He looked back to me and said, “What? What’s bad now?” He poured his coffee and sat down across the table and looked real hard at me. He took a sip and like a teacher tellin’ the class how things is done, he comes out with, “You know, and I know that the maps are toys. Shoot, Shotgun knows that too. I’m thinking that somehow he got himself the real map. Maybe by accident. Maybe by Devine intervention. Heck! I don’t know. But, I’m pretty sure he thinks he has the real map.”

All the while he is tellin’ me his thinking I got to rememberin’ some of what Shotgun had said to me just the other day. When Jake finished talking. I told him what Shotgun said. It was some thing like:

“Well, the new load of paper for gold mine maps is in. Funny thing though. Instead of comin’ the regular way, they was brought in by a feller who says he’s the new salesman for Iron Hole and a few other small towns out here. I ain’t never seen him before. He dresses kinda funny too. He looks like one of them folks in the magazines we hold in the museum. He’s got a big ol’ long hat and a funny lookin’ coat what gots two tails on it. Says he knows a good place for gold up on Cruel Run Mountain. Then hands me a map that looked just like the ones I print out.”

I waited to see if Jake caught what I was sayin’. He did.
“Cruel Run? Ain’t that where Shotgun was pointing to? I’m sure his finger was on Cruel Mountain.” He grabbed for one of the maps. His eyes was running all over the foldout pages. Finally, he said what I was hoping he wasn’t gonna say. “Pete, there ain’t no black mark on top of Cruel Run. There ain’t no black marks anywhere on this map. You supposin’, maybe Shotgun is having them crazy dreams again. My gawd! It’s been what? Twenty years since the accident that started his batch of bad dreams.”

I looked Jake in the eyes and said, “I hope not. It weren’t his fault those people got killed. He told them not to go up there. He warned em’ that Cruel Run Mountain is properly named. It’s not a good place to hike or dig for gold anytime, especially in the winter when they went up there. Those four people died because they didn’t listen to him. Now it looks like maybe he’s up there now. We gotta get him back down here. He’s too old to be up there. Especially by himself.”

Jake shook his head as he said. “You’re right. Shoot, Pete we’re all too old to be up there. Ah, damn. We gotta do it. Let’s get ready. You want to go by horse or Jeep?
“Horse.” I answered. “No motor car is gonna get up the path to Cruel.”

It takes two days to get to Cruel Run. That gave Shotgun a good lead. I prayed that we would get there in time… just in case. By the end of the second day we made camp at the base of Cruel. If Shotgun is up there the angle of this nasty pile of rocks wouldn’t let him see our camp fire. We weren’t worried about that. We were worried that he may be needin’ our help. He’s tough, but old. Shoot, So’s Jake an’ me.

We was getting’ set for some sack-time, which includes passing around the red-eye. It not only helps you settle in for a good sleep, but it ain’t half bad to sip a bit. Two, maybe three helpin’s of the stuff is all you need. No sense in wakin’ up with a hammer banging on your head.

Jake was reaching over to the bottle for one more snort when a voice came out of the dark calling out our names. Gotta say that it plumb scared the stuffin’ out of both of us. “Excuse me, I see I took you gentlemen by surprise. I am truly sorry for that. I guess I should have made some sort of innocuous noise before calling out to you. At least your hearts wouldn’t have had to race around in your chests. Oh, I am sorry. There I go again talking and carrying on as if we’ve known each other a lifetime. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Harold Finn.” He bowed slightly.

Jake bein’ Jake, wasn’t about to let some tinhorn think that he got the best of him. He poured himself a drink and calmly passed the bottle to me. He swallowed the hooch and then very dryly said. I’m Jake and this here ol’ mongrel is…”

“Prairie Pete. Yes, I know.” Finn answered.
I spoke up before the two of them could out-talk each other. “Doctor? Nobody called for a doctor. Shoot, we ain’t got no way of callin’ fer one anyhoo. Who’s hurt or sick? Don’t tell me they found Shotgun in not too good a shape.” I was going to ask more, but he cut me off.

Finn explained: “I am not a medical doctor. I am a geologist. I hold several Phds. The last time I saw your friend Shotgun was back in Iron Hole. I journeyed out here when I heard the two of you discussing where he may have gone to. I do hope you are correct about his being here.”

Jake was still not too happy with this feller waltzing into our camp the way he did. He asked the man, “How did you get here? I heard no horse nor car, or truck. Hell, I heard nothin’ at all, then you was here.”

Finn quickly changed the subject on us. I didn’t realize it until much later that he bamboozled his way out of tellin’ Jake or me, what we wanted to know. He passed by the question by asking us how long will it take to get to Shotgun.

“Why?” I asked. “Why do you care? Has he got something of your?”

Finn quickly answered no, then paused and said, “Yes. He does have something of mine. I can never have it back, but he can change everything for me by doing the right thing.” He stopped and stared at us, hoping we understood what he was saying. Jake assured him that we had no idea of what he said.

Finn tried again to explain what he wanted. “I have been roaming these hills for many years, trying to leave them. Every time I try, something stops me. It took eighty years for me to be able to get as far as Iron Hole. Before I could go further I was pulled back here. What I did manage to do though was to communicate with your friend, Shotgun. That, by the way is an interesting name. Back in my home state you would never hear someone called a name like that.”

I figgered it was time to ask some questions for our need. “Just where is your ‘home state”? Why are you out here, now? Did you say eighty years? How do you know Shotgun?” I quieted down. Figgered he had enough to answer for. I could always start up again.

“Fair enough.” He said. “I will try to answer all of your questions, but we must hurry through this. If Shotgun makes a mistake up there,” he pointed up, “then it will not do me any good to pursue my endeavor.”

“Your endeavor?” Jake asked. “What’s that mean, endeavor?”

“My dream. My dream of dreams.” Finn said.

“Shoot,” Jake bellowed from feeling the hooch taking effect on him. “Next time just say dreams. So, what is this dream you got?”

“To be able to leave this mountain and join my family once more. I did terrible things to get the real map for the gold on top of this mountain. There is no gold mine. It’s a buried treasure. It is the gold stolen from the ’07 train robbery. Trains back then were slow and easy to rob. This particular train was carrying almost two million dollars in gold. When it came through Buzzard Path it slowed down to climb the steep hill. That is when the Mexican General’s men stopped it and took the gold.

Knowing I was better off than Jake, I asked, “Mexican General? The onliest Mexican I knowed of was Poncho Villa. He was no general then. Right?”

Finn seemed a bit flustered, but told me, “As far as the rebels cared, he started out as a general. I’m not really sure if Madero promoted him or he promoted himself. That is neither here nor there. My problem exists on this mountain, not in Villa’s history.” He seemed to pause as if thinking something over. He looked over to Jake, and then to me and real sad-like said, “gentlemen, please forgive me. I do not wish to be insolent toward either of you. These are pressing times. I have waited for a long time to be free of this mountain. I hope I am making my plea for help clear enough to you.”

Ain’t real sure how it happened, but Ol’ Jake Withers suddenly became as sober as could be. He had sat down while Finn was talking up a storm. Now he sprang up and bellowed, “I know what you want. By hangin’… I recall reading the story in our museum anchovies. Yep it was…”

“Archives.” I corrected him.’ Museum archives.”

“Archives, anchovies… who cares.” Jake grumbled. I read about you. You done turned spy on the U.S.of A. You helped Villa stash the gold, nobody ever found it.”

Finn looked beaten down. “What they wrote is not true. My mission was… “

The hooch we brung along mustuf hit me more than I figgered. But for some reason it wore off real quick. It was like somebody throwed a bucket of cold water on me. My poor old brain suddenly came back to life. I looked at Ol’ Jake then at Finn and back to Jake. I said, somewhat half-shocked in my boots, “Hey! This guy is dead!”

Jake looked at Finn and shook his head slightly and softly said in an almost smart-ass way, “I figgered he’d catch on… sooner or later.” Then he laughed until he had to sit down again. Poor Finn was starting to doubt his choice of people to help him free his spirit from Cruel Run Mountain. He looked at us and decided to tell us what needed to be done to help him.

“You must get up there and stop your friend from finding the wrong boulder that covers the gold. If he chooses wrong, then my eternity will be spent roaming here. This is my only chance for redemption. I need the letter that is in the gold chest. It is from General Pershing. It explains that I was recruited by him to infiltrate Villa’s army and find where the Mexican Generals secret headquarters were. Everything went wrong when we, … they, robbed the train. I was their lookout. They decided to come here, figuring nobody would look this close to the robbery.”

Jake saw the pause in Finn’s thinking and like a jack rabbit, jumped right in with, “So, you’re sayin’ the Union troops caught up to you and shot you as a traitor. If that happened, then they musta took the gold too. Right?”

“No.” Finn said kinda nonchalantly-like. “It was not the U.S. troops who shot me. It was Villa’s own men. They decided the gold would be better use to them than General Villa. What they did not know was that I had been aware of the plan for the train robbery before they were and I also knew where the gold was to be buried. I came here and dug three holes and rolled one boulder to create a hidden hole. I knew my actions would confuse them. Per General Villa’s orders, I, and I alone was to bury the gold and report back to him of its location.

All went well the first night here. His man-in-charge had two loyal guards make sure no one could follow me around up there in order to know where I buried the gold chest that also held my letter of innocence. I had placed it in there for safe keeping. I was sure I would be the one to give Villa the gold. I would have removed the letter first… of course.

It was after I buried it, that Villa’s loyal lieutenant rode off with all but two men assigned to protect me until Villa called for me. With the others gone, the two bullies decided they wanted the booty. When I refused to show them where it was, one of them threatened me with his revolver. Unfortunately… for me… he accidentally shot me. One shot, but immediately fatal. I have no knowledge of what they did after I died. I assume they never reported back to Villa for fear of death.”

Me an’ Jake listened the best we could considerin’ we was part full of hooch. We was clear-headed enough to hear everything Finn was sayin’, but hooch is still hooch. I tried to sound as sober as Jake says ol’ Judge Harper is. (Never did know any Judge Harper.) “So, you’re sayin’ the gold is still up there along with your letter. How is we supposed to help on that account? Shotgun is up there and we’re down here. If’n he’s usin’ the map you gave him, then it ain’t no problem. Right?”

“No!” Finn said, all serious-like. “If he reads that map wrong he will open the wrong hole. If he does that he will cause all the holes to fill in. It’s a trick I learned from the Aztec when I was studying in Mexico. It’s difficult to explain. Let me just say that each hole supports the other holes. The hole with the boulder will prove to be the deadliest.” He stopped to see if we understood what he was talkin’ about.

Satisfied that Ol’ Jake n’ I was still understandin’ him, he told us why he chose Shotgun Hanks go up the mountain. “You see gentlemen I can only have someone I not only trust to unearth the chest, but be able to detect any traps or problems. I am sure about Shotgun Hanks. Anyone else may unknowingly cause the holes to seal for good. Worse yet, they may take the gold and never see or read the letter that can save my soul from an eternity here at Cruel Run. I am sure you have known your friend Shotgun for most of his life. Did you know he comes from a very respectable family on the Eastern Coast? By the look on your faces I have to believe you did not. His great-great grandmother was my grandmother’s mother. Her name was Elvira Hanks. You see now why I need him to retrieve the chest. Only a relative of mine can save my name and free me. Shotgun Hanks is in my bloodline.”

I sobered up after he said that. I don’t know if Shotgun is his cousin or uncle. All I know is I’m getting’ to where I just want to get Shotgun off the mountain and go home.

Jake told him exactly what we we’re both thinkin’. “Looky, here Finn, can’t we just go and get him down? We don’t need to know anymore about who is blood to who. Tell us what you want us to tell him and we’ll go. Right now. The hell with mornin’.”

Finn saw he was losing us so he agreed to tell us what Shotgun had to know. When he finished telling us. We headed up the hill. It took us almost two hours to get up that mountain. Being an old man can sure make things hard on ya. We kept stoppin’ fer air. We finally got up there, but Shotgun was nowhere to be seen. We sat for a spell to catch our breath and saw the sun rising. Daylight was a welcome sight.

While we we’re sittin’ an’ restin’, a voice came out from behind a large boulder. It said, “You boys gonna help me or not? Well? Come on, give me a hand.”

Shotgun’s voice sounded as gruff as always, but in a wonderful way. We shot around the boulder to see him laying there with a pile of rocks on him. He looked OK, ceptin’ for a few red marks on his head. We got off all the rocks and dirt that kept him lying there. No foolin’ he was glad to see us. Of course he told us so, in his own way. “Bout danged time you two got here. Thought fer sure I was gonna haf to git out of this by my own.”

We didn’t say much. Just kept gittin the rocks off of him. When we finished Jake started right in about the chest and the spooky guy down below. After we got through tellin’ him everything he just smiled and asked only one question. “Why didn’t he come up too?”

I looked over to Jake and he looked back over to me and we both said the same thing. “Yeah, why didn’t he?”
Shotgun laughed and said, cause he can’t. He was cursed here when they killed him. The curse, according to them magazines back in the museum, can only be cleared from him when proof is given that he weren’t never a traitor. It just so happens that I have the proof.

“You have the letter?” Jake asked, surprised. How did you know where to dig for it? How did…”

“Easy, Jake. That ol’ brain o’ yours is gonna blow up ifin you keep thinkin’ so hard.” Shotgun belly laughed as he tried to calm Jake. From what that ol’ guy said and what I read in them magazines, I put it together. It twern’t hard to do.”

I told him Finn said there was four different places the chest could be. If the wrong place was dug up then the whole kit’n kaboodle was lost. How did he know which is which?

“Shoot, that was easy. The map showed me. Remember the map I had and showed you two ol’ sand-rats? There was one different thing about it from the ones we sell. It had that black mark on it.”

“I remember that.” I said.

“Well the ol’ guy… Finn… put it there. It twern’t a black mark. It was a boulder colored in. He used black because the map ink is black. If anyone found it, it wouldn’t do them no good. They wouldn’t knows to figure the mark was a boulder. Well… I did. So now I have the letter. When we get down again, I will read it to Finn so’s he can finally rest.”

He hadn’t said anything about the gold, so I asked him. He told me something that really blowed me away. Before he said anything Jake looked at a log laying there and decided he would sit down for the answer. He was pretty sure it wasn’t good.

Shotgun reached into a supply bag he had. We braced ourselves planning on seeing this gold chest. I remember thinking, ‘Sure is a small chest.’ Well there was no chest. It was his bottle of hooch. He offered and we took. Then he told us about the chest.

“You see, I was so happy to have Finn’s letter that I wasn’t payin’ no mind where I was walking around in all happiness fer what I did. I got to gitin giddy about it and started dancing around. That’s when it happened.” He stopped for another pull from his bottle.

“What happened, you ol’ coot?” Jake shouted in disgust.
“I tripped and fell into the hole the boulder had covered. When I did that I set off some kinda avalanche. The ground opened more than what it was and the boulder rolled back to its first spot, knocking me into a pile of loose rocks. I mean real loose rocks. That’s when I realized the chest was still in the hole. “Now, it’s really in the hole. I ain’t got no idea how far down it went, but I do know half of the rocks went with it and the boulder went on top of the hole again. I couldn’t do anything because the other half of the rocks was on me. Sorry men. I am… honest, I am.”

He actually had tears in his eyes. Both Jake and I knew that Shotgun Hanks would never lie to us. The onliest good thing to come out of this is all three of us went down the hill alive.

When we got to camp, Finn was standing there with a worried look. I figgered because he didn’t see the chest, we didn’t have the letter. Shotgun pulled the letter from his pocket and a loud cry of happiness filled the midday air.”

“My God. You did it.” Finn cried out. “Praise the Lord. Please read it aloud. Please. I want so much to rest with my family. Of course I thank you three for setting my soul free. Especially you, Shotgun, my blood, my friend.”

Shotgun waved him off lightly. “Shucks cuz, I think cuz. Whatever we are, it was my pleasure. These two ol’ coots didn’t have to be here, but they wanted to be. Well, here goes. Shotgun read it as loud as he could. I reckoned he wanted the whole spirit world to hear.

[Let it be known by all that Harold Finn is on a mission vital to the safety of our United States of America. He is to be treated with the utmost respect and granted any wishes he may have.]
Signed by
General J.J. Pershing.
June, 1, 1906

Well that’s it. Finn was finally released from the curse on Cruel Run Mountain.

Oh, the gold chest? Nope. Never tried to go back. That trip up there was the last time for these three ol’ coots. Never thought I’d miss seein’ tourist runnin’ aroun’ here, but… come on down. We’ll find something for you to do. How about a gold mine map?