Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
In the mid 1800's, establishing a presence in the Western territory was of prime interest to the U.S. Government and the discovery of gold in California was a perfect “opportunity” to entice people to head west.
The Eastern press seized upon the gold topic. Sensational articles and headlines about the rush for gold in California and the ease at which one could become a wealthy man not only sold a lot of papers, it also convinced a lot of people to go West.
And so it was with Jim Jenkins. A young man caught up in the madness. One of multiple thousands, on his way to California with dreams of striking it rich.
But the plain truth is, most of the people who made their fortune from the California gold rush were not mining gold, at least, not in the literal sense. Opportunists, those who sold supplies to California merchants and miners at extremely over inflated prices were the ones who made the real money.
The media hype had gotten people so obsessed with the topic of gold, it became known as “gold fever.” The “fever” could bring out the worst in a person. It could cause a wise man to make foolish decisions and a good man to do wrong.
Jim Jenkins was no exception.
He traveled with a group of twenty-five wagons. Some were homesteaders, young families moving West looking for a new start with nothing more than a wagon full of basic essentials, a few dollars in their pocket and the promise of cheap land.
Others, like Jim, were on their way to the California gold fields drawn by the lure of great wealth gleaned from the headlines of the Eastern press.
The wagons had been on the trail for fifteen long weeks and were getting close to their intended destination of Fort Sutter.
With each passing day, those who were after gold grew anxious. The closer they got to Fort Sutter, the more anxious they became. Arguments and disagreements were becoming commonplace. If the wagons didn’t make fifteen miles a day tempers would flare. Most knew it was hard on the stock and even harder on the women and children who were tired and weak from the difficult miles they had already put behind them. Only the foolhardy would try to keep up such a strenuous pace.
Some of the less burdened men were talking about breaking away from the wagons altogether. It seemed as if the last hundred miles was about to turn into an all out sprint.
Those who still had some common sense about them were determined not to let that happen. They banded together and did their best to keep the situation from getting out of hand, and the wagons moving at a more natural pace. They stopped and rested the stock when necessary, took on water when they could and in spite of the objections and grumblings from the “sprinters”, they held their ground. If the trail allowed them to make fifteen miles in one day, they would make fifteen miles, if not, too bad. God and the trail set the pace. It did no good for any man to think otherwise.
At one of these stops Jim was in the process of filling the water barrel on his wagon. As he was walking past one of the young girls from the wagon next to his, something she was playing with caught his attention.
“Whatcha’ got there Molly?” Asked Jim, as he stood over the young lady playing in the dirt.
Molly turned and shaded her eyes from the afternoon sun as she looked up at the figure towering above her. “Oh, hi Mr. Jenkins, I’m playing a counting game.”
Jim stooped down near Molly and picked up one of the small rocks she was using for her game. He held it up and looked it over real close. Turning it in his fingers he examined it from all angles. He rubbed it on his trousers to remove some of the dust and dirt. It had a rough texture to it and an unmistakable shine. Jim quickly realized that what he held in his hand was a gold nugget. Instantly his expression went from one of curious examination to one of surprise and excitement. It was all he could do to keep control of his emotions.
Jim stood up clutching the nugget in his hand. “Why how many of these pretty little rocks do you have Molly?”
“I have a whole bunch,” Molly replied. “But my daddy took them and put them away. He’s saving them for me. He doesn’t know I have these.”
Now the wheels in Jim’s head were spinning faster than a pinwheel in a prairie wind. He wanted more facts so he continued the questioning. “How long have you had these pretty rocks Molly and where did you find them?”
“Oh, I don’t know, a little while. I found them by the stream we stopped at.”
“And what stream might that be Molly?”
“The one where Mr. Hunter stayed at when we left.”
Jim recalled the day Frank Hunter separated from the other wagons. His wife and two young boys were worn thin. They didn’t look like they could make it all the way to California. Their decision to stay behind seemed genuine enough and even though several of the others tried to get them to change their minds, it was of no use.
Jim had heard enough. The important thing now was to collect the gold from Molly before anyone else saw it.
“Well you know something Molly, I don’t think your pa would be too happy to find out you didn’t give him all of these pretty rocks, so I’ll tell you what, why don’t I just keep these here rocks for you and I won’t tell your pappy that you have them. That way you won’t get into any trouble. It will be our little secret.”
Molly looked up at Mr. Jenkins. “Do you promise not to tell?”
“I promise,” stated Jim as he stooped to pick up the rest of the nuggets. He pushed them deep into his pocket and gave Molly a reassuring pat on the head as he hurried back to his wagon to hide them.
That evening Jim sat alone in his wagon. With the lamp turned low he fondled the gold he had taken from Molly. He wasn’t real experienced with gold, but he had read about it in the papers back East. He was sure he had real gold and he was excited, to say the least.
His mind was going non-stop. He had to make some quick decisions. Do I continue on to California or turn back to Cherry creek where Frank Hunter had decided to stay? Frank must have found the same nuggets Molly had found. Why else would he have stayed behind? His wife and kids didn’t look that wore out.
Cherry creek was four days back and Frank had probably found plenty of gold by now. Maybe there wouldn’t be any left? Maybe there's more than enough for both of us? Maybe Frank won’t want me there? Maybe he really doesn’t know about the gold? Maybe…
“Hey Jim, you in there?” came a gruff voice from outside the wagon. Jim quickly came to his senses and covered the nuggets with a handy piece of cloth.
“Ya, I’m here,” he replied as he quickly made his way to the back of the wagon.
Ben Sharps stood just outside looking up at Jim. “I have a favor to ask. I got a wheel on one of the wagons up front that needs to be pulled and I could sure use some help. Are you up to giving me a hand?”
“Sure, I’ll give you a hand,” answered Jim as he jumped to the ground.
Ben was in charge of keeping the wagons in working order. He had worked on most all of them along the way and was well liked by just about everyone. He was the curious type. Always wanting to know what people were up to. Some thought he pried into their personal lives a little too much, but it was all in innocence. He loved to talk and was usually just looking for a good conversation. He struck one up with Jim before his feet hit the ground.
“We should arrive at Fort Sutter in just over a week. Where are you heading to from there?”
Jim pondered the question for a couple of seconds before he replied. “Well, to tell you the truth Ben, I just don’t know if I’m going all the way to Fort Sutter. I’ve been giving some serious thought to turning back towards Cherry creek and meeting up with Frank Hunter. It was a nice area with plenty of water and open space. A man might not do any better than that. I think Frank had the right idea by staying back and maybe he could use an extra hand.”
“I agree” Ben admitted. “That was some nice country, but I thought you were going after California gold. I never would have took you for the homesteader type.”
Jim stopped and turned to Ben. With total sincerity in his eyes and a bluff that would have made any decent poker player envious, he replied. “This trip has given me a lot of time to think it over and to tell you the truth, I may have been a little too hasty in my decision to go to California. I’ve come to realize that gold isn’t the most important thing to me. I think I’d like to try putting my hand to the plow for a while. In fact, I’ve made my decision, I’ll be pulling out and heading back to Cherry creek first thing in the morning.”
Ben could hardly believe his ears. Jim had done nothing but talk about gold since he started out. To just up and change his mind in such a radical way didn’t make sense. Besides, Jim was outfitted for gold, not farming. Ben had a gut feeling something was up but he just couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
“Well gee whiz Jim, I’m sorry to hear that. I thought for sure you would be going all the way to Fort Sutter with us. I’ll surely be missing the extra hand. I know that much.”
Ben and Jim took care of the broken wheel in short order and then called it a night.
Early the next morning after a hearty breakfast of hotcakes, bacon and a cup of strong coffee, Jim said his good-by’s. He turned his wagon around and headed back towards Cherry creek. Gold fever was alive and well in Jim Jenkins. He was about to make his fortune and he wasn’t going all the way to California to do it.
For the next few days he pushed his team hard and late into the evening stopping only when it was too dark to see the trail.
Gold fever will make a man do things he wouldn’t ordinarily do. Jim Jenkins was no exception. He was alone in the middle of nowhere heading toward a place he had only seen once and that was more than a week ago. He had one wagon and two tired mules. His provisions were low and all he carried for protection was an old pistol. And… he was doing all this on the information he had gotten from a seven-year-old girl.
After three days he had no choice but to stop and let the mules rest. They were exhausted, and no good to him dead. He needed them to get back home along with all the gold he would find at Cherry creek.
It took longer than he had expected but Jim Jenkins finally reached his destination. It was the exact spot he and the others had camped and the exact spot where Molly said she had found the gold. Jim didn’t see any sign of Frank Hunter, but then, he really didn’t look too hard.
Probably gathered up all the gold he could carry and was heading back East a rich man, thought Jim. And I’ll be right behind him in a day or two.
Little did he know, Frank Hunter was unaware of any gold in Cherry creek. In fact, Frank and his family were not that far away. They had made camp up stream on a high spot above the creek, away from potential winter flooding.
Jim spent the better part of two days feverishly searching the banks of the creek for signs of gold. But lady luck was not on his side. He found himself sitting on a log next to the water late one afternoon feeling a little frustrated and wondering if he had made a big mistake turning back to Cherry creek. Maybe he should have stayed with the wagons and went on to Fort Sutter. He would have been there by now.
As he stared at the swiftly flowing water he contemplated on what to do next. He habitually scanned the shoreline where the afternoon sun shone on the gravel in the shallows next to the shore. As he stared at the gravel he happened to catch a glimmer of something just beyond his reach. Stepping into the water he searched the gravel and soon pulled out a gold colored nugget just like the ones he had taken from Molly.
He held it up to the sun as it glistened in his fingers. Jim was sure this was gold, and it was enough to get him re-energized and back into the water searching for more.
He sifted through the gravel and eventually began to find more nuggets. He was so excited about his good fortune he lost track of time and the evening was soon upon him. He was a good distance from his wagon on the opposite side of the creek before he realized just how late it was. The Stream was too deep to ford where he stood, so with his pockets heavy with gold he began to search for a crossing.
The beaver were active in the area and he soon found a downed tree he thought he could scale to the opposite bank. The tree was quite slippery and he was moving quickly. About halfway across he caught the toe of his boot on a branch. It caused him to lose his balance and he slipped off the log and fell into the creek on the up-river side. The tree had caused the water to back up some and the current was extremely strong as it swept down beneath the log. It pulled at him as he held on tight but the heavy load in his pockets and the swiftness of the current made it too difficult to climb out. He fought against the current for some time but the steady pull never eased and eventually his hands began to lose their grip.
When he could no longer hold on, the current pulled him under the log. He struggled to free himself from the tangle of branches beneath the surface but it was too dark to see and the current was more than he could overcome. He held his breath until his lungs were about to burst.
The struggle was soon over, and unfortunately for Jim Jenkins, so was his quest for gold.
Two days later Frank Hunter happened upon Jim's wagon and mules. Judging from the sign left by the mules, he could tell they had been there for some time. He looked around for the owner but didn't find anyone, so he decided to feed and water them. He kept a close eye on things for a couple of days as he continued to search the area. Not seeing any recent evidence of the owner and concerned that some wild animal might kill the stock, he claimed them and the wagon as his own.
It was a sunny Monday morning when the wagons rolled into Fort Sutter.
Molly’s father wasted little time. He grabbed up the pouch of nuggets Molly had found at Cherry creek and headed toward the assayers office. A middle aged man sat behind the counter. His weather-beaten skin made him look older than his years. His clothes were well worn and in need of a good washing. He certainly wasn’t much to look at, but he was a man who knew his business.
Molly’s father handed him the pouch and asked for a price on the contents. The man emptied the pouch onto a tray. He slowly searched through all the nuggets carefully looking over each one. When he had finished his examination he put the contents back into the pouch and handed it back to Molly’s father.
“Do you know what you got here, mister,” asked the old man.
“Why sure I do,” replied Mollies father. “It's gold.”
The old man chuckled at the reply. “I’m afraid not. What you got here is called pyrite, otherwise known as 'fool’s gold.' It’s not worth a dime.”
Molly’s father could hardly believe it. “I never heard of pyrite. Are you sure?”
“I know my business and I'm positive,” came the reply. “I've known men who risked their lives for it. At least those that didn’t know the difference. It looks like gold, don't it. It fooled ya, didn't it? That’s why it’s called fools gold. Sorry about your luck mister, but I can't make you a rich man today. Not with this.”
Molly's father was disappointed. He walked away from the assayers window and handed the sack to his daughter. “You might as well have these pretty rocks, Molly. They're not worth anything to me.”
The following day Molly sat by the wagon playing with the pretty rocks she had picked up at Cherry creek.
A stranger walking by happened to take notice. “Whatcha got there little lady,” he asked as he stood over the young lady playing in the dirt.