Western Short Story
“Luck haint nothin’ but an accident, boy, and that’s the truth,” the old man told his companion.
They were sitting in the pines on a bench overlooking the little town that was Boone’s destination. The town was only a few weeks old and Boone had headed for it as soon as he heard about the strike that precipitated its growth.
A gambler’s life hinges on hope and Nat Boone’s was running short. The town was a new ray of opportunity and now the old man was disparaging the very idea of luck which was its foundation.
Boone could have mounted and gone on. But he was tired. He and his horse were weary after the long climb into the mountains. He’d paused, thinking to let the animal graze while he rejuvenated himself here finally in sight of his objective.
It was a pleasant spot, the earth spongy with a cushion of moss and pine needles beneath him, the cool air sweet with the scent of pine, birds singing in the trees around him. A fine vista of rugged mountains surrounded the town spreading out to fill a little valley below and drifting up from it with the smoke of new-built cabins he fancied now and again that he heard the clamor of men at work, their “eureka” shouts, the clang of pick and shovel, the rattle of gravel washers.
Then the old fellow had come out of the woods and intruded on his reverie.
Boone usually welcomed the company of others and he did not now discourage the stranger from joining him. Initially, their conversation was that of wayfarers whose paths cross and it gave Boone no reason to regret his hospitality. After all, he reasoned, he did not own this spot and had no right to turn away others who might choose to emulate his own appreciation of the view.
Besides, the man had the appearance of one who might give him insight to what lay below. Boone assumed him already in residence since he was afoot and carrying only a day pack. He had the grizzled look of a veteran prospector, his hat and tattered clothing stiff with alkali and grime, his large hands callused from years of hefting a pick.
The old man limped up, lowered himself and sat with his back against a mossy stump. After accepting a swallow from Boone’s flask, the two engaged in a little conversation before the younger man voiced his hope of improving his lot here. That was when the old man made his comment.
“Maybe,” Boone allowed, “but it looks like some’s enjoying it no matter how it come about.”
The old man faced him with a grin displaying snaggled teeth as it became a laugh. Boone couldn’t be certain if he was laughing with or at him. He tried not to be annoyed. After all, this fool didn’t appear to be sharing in the luck of the camp. Jealousy, he told himself, pure jealousy.
The stranger produced a plug and a Barlow knife from his pockets. He sliced off a sliver which was offered. Boone declined but dug out his fixings and proceeded to roll a cigarette.
“You hear tell of Nolan?” the old man asked, rolling an eye at him.
“Him what made this strike.”
“No. I just got here.” He lit his cigarette, inhaled, savoring the rich flavor of the tobacco.
“Well,” the other drawled, taking time to spit, “if you knowed about him you’d understand what I’m talking about.”
Boone glanced at his horse, thought about leaving, then decided to stay and enjoy his smoke first.
“Down south where I spent some time, the Mex’cans have a sayin’. They say no man who looks for gold ever finds it,” the prospector told him.
“Guess they’re wrong.”
“Why it appears this Nolan found some.”
The old man grinned and cackled again. “You got the time, sonny, I’ll tell you about him.”
Boone shook his flask. There wasn’t much left. It was still early and he didn’t have far to go. Might as well finish it before getting back in the saddle. He shrugged, took a swig and passed the flask.
The old man drank, held onto the flask in one big hand laid between his boney knees and gazed out at the valley. “Nolan come west five-six year ago and misfortune follered him every step of the way. Dang near drowned crossin’ the big river, had to fight Injuns, critters and pestilence the whole way out. Guess you might say he’s the kind of man steps on a stick its just got to rise up and whomp him, because things didn’t improve once he was here.”
“It happens. Streak of bad luck,” Boone said, remembering how recent turns of the cards had left him with only the clothes on his back, the Derringer in his pocket and the horse he rode. Now the horse would have to be sold to raise a fresh stake.
“Uh-huh, it surely does,” the old man said, raising the flask to his lips. He passed it back to Boone. Empty.
Boone snuffed his cigarette in the moss and stared out at the valley. A cool breeze caressed his face and, behind him, he heard the horse chomping at a clump of broom.
“But men like him and us don’t give up,” the old man went on. “There’s always tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. He worked the bars at camp after camp and kept comin’ up empty. When he ran out of cash he swamped barrooms or cleaned stables to raise another stake. Once he took a job tunneling but a runaway car smashed his leg and he was laid up for a month. Would have starved had it not been for the kindness of others who fed him.
“Two years ago he come up here with a gang after somebody found color in these hills.”
“Sounds like his luck was finally changing,” Boone said, fixing another cigarette.
The old man grunted. “Might think so if you didn’t know what was gonna happen next.”
“It got worse?”
“Mean is what it got. Some of the boys found rich pockets of placer. Nolan couldn’t find a thing. Took to workin’ for shares but every time he did the pockets played out.
“Then, just when he was about discouraged enough to quit, the wife and three kids he’d left behind showed up. That was about as rough as it could get. But the fellows, they looked on that poor woman and her scrawny brats and they was touched. They built them a shack and gave beans and flour and rabbits and such.
“Old Nolan, he was so downhearted he would have left if he could. Fact is, like I said, the pockets was peterin’ out and most would have gone if winter weren’t comin’ on. Some vowed they’d stay on anyway because the lode had to be somewhere near and somebody had to find it. That’s the spirit keeps all of us goin’, haint it?”
Boone stood up and stretched.
“Where you goin’, boy?”
He grinned down at the man. “I guess I know the rest of the story. Nolan’s luck changed. He found the lode.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Sit down till I finish.”
Boone did as he was told.
“Well, sir, Nolan’s wife, she knew his pride. Told him to keep on lookin’. She’d take in washing to pay for their grub. It was a foolish idea, but with the snows comin’ they had no choice but to stay anyway.”
“What was foolish about it?”
“Why there’s no water down there. Nothing’ but a dry ravine that used to be a crick eons ago. All the water has to be carried down from springs farther up in the hills. Nolan took to feelin’ sorry for his wife and kids wearin’ themselves out truckin’ water day in and day out. So, he took it to mind to dig her a well right there by their shack.
“Built bonfires to thaw the ground and he dug and he dug. As you might expect, he found nothin’ but sand and rock. Still, he kept diggin’, went down near thirty foot. And the boys, watchin’, was ashamed, hidin’ their grins behind their hands, shakin’ their heads over Nolan’s lack of luck.
“And, his missus, she kept pluggin’ away, melting snow to wash miner’s rags, makin’ herself weaker with each passing day. Just about spring it was when a fever took her away and everybody thought for sure that would be the end of old Nolan, too. Downright dispirited he was. Her gone, three kids to support and not an ounce of hope left.”
“What did he do?” Boone asked.
“That morning after he’d buried her, he walked to the edge of that pit he’d dug and just stood there. Everybody figgered he might be fixing to jump in and cover himself up, and maybe that’s what he was thinkin’. Then he took the pick he had slung over his shoulder and hurled it into the pit. Those watchin’ saw the look that come over his face as he trembled and cried out.”
“What? He finally struck water?”
“No, you fool,” the old man said with a grin. “That blow of his pick uncovered gold. A thick vein runnin’ through the quartz. There it was glittering in the sunlight before him. Enough to change any man’s life.”
“But, he wasn’t…”
“That’s right. It was purely accidental. He found what he wasn’t lookin’ for.”