At the Gold Claim by Randall E. Morris

Abbie and Mollie took a room for the week at the Pine Hotel. Friday was payday on this side of the mountain and they had ridden Abbie’s new 1924 Ford Roadster over the pass from Atlanta for the party. Mollie was simply looking forward to dancing with some different men. Abbie was hoping a certain handsome gambler might be back in the country. One thing you could say about gamblers: if they had money they liked to show a lady a good time.

The ladies walked into the Pastime Club for lunch on Saturday and who should be sitting right by the door but Bert and Harvey. Good sense should have told the women to turn around and walk out quickly, but they both had awakened with big heads from the Friday night revelry. They’d taken a few shots of remedy in their room but now they needed to eat.

Harvey worked the night shift at the mill over the pass in Atlanta. The workers were organized and had eight-hour shifts. That gave him plenty of time for fishing during the day and socializing at the end of his shift because the mine ran three shifts per day. At the end of the week he had nearly three whole days off because he did not have to report until three P.M. on Monday.

Bert, well, Bert did odd jobs—or rather short jobs—and usually spent the winter in Boise, but he worked placer claims with a rocker during the summer. He never seemed to have much money, but he always had a pint, especially to sell.

“Well, look-e here, Harvey.” Bert said. “Two doves just flew in.”

Abbie thought about mentioning what the cat had already dragged in, but she held her tongue. “You fellas sure get around.”

Mollie said, “Hi,” but Abbie noticed how she smiled at Harvey, and Harvey jumped up to pull out a chair for Mollie. Abbie rolled her eyes for two reasons: the way those two had looked at each other, and the way Bert just sat there. She pulled out her own chair.

Bert had two squat, white, cold cream jars on the table. “I was about to show Harvey my latest find.”

“Something new for your complexion?” Abbie said and chuckled.

It took a second for Bert to get it, but then he laughed. “I guarantee it’s good for the eyes.” He unscrewed the cap on one jar. “I washed this over the last three weeks. There is at least fifty dollars here.”

The ladies had both grown up in mining country and both knew gold dust—nothing shines like gold—but Abbie had inherited several mining claims, and she’d learned a few details from her father.

“You might have two ounces there,” she allowed, “but what’s it alloyed with?”

Bert sputtered before saying, “A little platinum, probably. Don’t matter.”

Abbie liked to ruffle Bert’s feathers, but no, it didn’t matter, and she finally admitted to herself that she was impressed. Working a claim was hard. She let it go. “Just wondered.”

“Now, take a look at this.” He uncapped the other jar. It held about the same amount of gold but in the form of tiny nuggets about the size of wheat kernels. “I dug these out of a ledge in about an hour a couple days ago.”

“Gosh, those are big.” Mollie said.

“Sometimes you find a little ledge above the river,” he continued.  “It was down at bedrock when Noah was a pup, but the river kept cutting on down and left it high and dry. Sure a lot easier than digging down to bedrock and mucking bucketfuls of gravel out of the river.”

Mollie and Abbie had seen a lot of placer claims, of course, and they knew it was rare to find such big grains of free gold in this part of Idaho.

“Aren’t you afraid somebody will jump your claim while you’re gone?”  Mollie asked.  She doubted Bert had registered the claim and he had probably jumped an older claim himself.  Not that she held it against him. 

“Naw. It’s too hard to get to,” he said. 

“How come?”  Abbie asked.

“It’s down in the bottom of the canyon.  You couldn’t get a boat down through the rapids and most people couldn’t find the trail. Wanna see it?”  He proceeded to try and talk the women into going camping.

“I spent half of June sleeping on the hard ground,” Abbie protested, “and beds feel awfully good.”

But Mollie was a bit smitten with Harvey, and Abbie did not protest hard enough, and that is why a few hours later Mollie and Abbie were pushing a tick-mattress out of their hotel window. Bert and Harvey were standing in Bert’s old, open touring car in the alley below, grinning up at the emerging mattress. 

Abbie was pushing on the back end of the mattress. “I hope you hoodlums have an eye out for the constable,” Abbie grunted. “You’ll get us in the hoosegow, yet!”  

“Oh, we’re just going to borrow it from the hotel,” Mollie said, really putting her shoulder into moving the mattress. “We already rented it when we paid for the room.”

“I’m not sure the judge will agree.”

The mattress finally popped through. There were two grunts below as the mattress landed. Mollie looked down through the open window and laughed at the young men wrangling the awkward object onto the back seat. Abbie poked her head next to Mollie’s and quickly looked up and down the alley for the constable.

They sneaked out of town through the alleys—if two men in a big open touring car, can sneak through town in broad daylight, with a mattress and fishing poles sticking out behind two young women in the back seat.

Bert drove a few miles downriver to where the road grade climbed up onto the rim and turned the touring car around. Abbie and Mollie looked at each other, considered the odds, stepped from the automobile, and led the way up the grade as Bert slowly ground up the grade in reverse—the lowest gear in the old touring car’s gearbox. Harvey walked alongside to guide because Bert could not see around the mattress.

Bert turned around when he reached the plateau and everybody climbed in. They drove on through sagebrush and pockets of Aspens and yellow balsamroot withering in summer sunshine to a grove of grand old yellow pines that marched all the way down the mountains to the edge of the canyon.  

Bert backed onto a sidetrack and the boys lifted out the mattress and trotted into the trees.

“Treat it like a babe,” Abbie yelled after them.

The girls sipped at a pint as they waited in the shade for the boys to return, then Bert backed along the sidetrack through the trees nearly to the rim and parked more or less hidden from the road. The mattress leaned against a tree.

“I think the timber ants found the babe.” Abbie shook her head in disgust.

“Won’t hurt a thing,” Bert said. 

“I already hear them chewing on the stuffin’s.”

Bert sputtered but didn’t reply, then led the crew through the bushes to the inevitable animal trail along the rimrock. They looked over the lava rock edge to where the South Fork crashed and boiled through the depths six hundred feet below.

“There’s the trail.”  He pointed. 

The faintest outline of a path could be seen in places hundreds of feet below, hugging the nearly vertical canyon wall atop the sloped talus of rubble rock. It took faith to imagine that somewhere a path turned off and continued the rest of the way down to the river, weaving invisibly through icebox-sized rocks on the steep slope. Abbie and Mollie, and even Harvey, were shaking their heads.

“We’ll just flap our wings and fly down,” Abbie said. “You first, Bert.”

“Nothing to it,” he said.

“Start flapping.” 

Bert grinned. “Over here.” He walked them four or five rods along the rim to—well, a slot. Here a huge block of the canyon wall was breaking away; had been breaking away for centuries and one day would join the great blocks of rubble on the talus slope—but probably not today. It was wide enough for three people to walk side by side at the top but narrowed to the width of a single person’s shoulders at the bottom where it met the talus. Centuries of crumbling debris had filled the slot with a slope of stair step-like rocks and cobbles, with a few chokecherry bushes growing near the top. It looked tricky but passable. A person could press their palms to the walls part of the way.

Abbie was not so sure. “That?”  She exclaimed, pointing down the passage. “How are you going to carry the mattress and gear down there?” 

“Engineering,” Bert said. “Mining is all about engineering.”

Abbie rolled her eyes. Burt always gave Abbie a lot of eye exercise.

Now, Bert felt really compelled to demonstrate his ingenuity to Abbie.  He walked them back toward the car and pulled a lodgepole pine bole about twenty feet long from its hiding place in the bushes. He retrieved an iron pulley from a cache in the rocks, and tied the pulley to the end of the limb with a few winds of black iron wire.  

He opened the wooden box on the rear rack of the touring car and began to pull a three-eights inch manila line from the box.

“I have most of a full cable length in here—two hundred yards—more or less.” He grinned. “A cable’s two-forty.” Now, he sounded like a grammar school teacher.

No one asked how Bert, who rarely had two silver dollars to jangle together, had come into possession of this much high-quality, nearly new, expensive rope. Or how he happened to know how long a cable length was. It was not a common term of length even in mining country, where rusty old steel cable seemed to grow from rocks like blackberry brambles. Or, why he had just a little less than a full cable length.

He began dragging rope from the box, walking it around a substantial tree—“Gotta have a brake,” he said sagely—and marched the end of the rope out to the rim. He threaded a few yards of line through the pulley, and tied the end of the rope around a sagebrush trunk. He dropped the limb into a cleft in the rimrock so that the butt-end wedged beneath one of the massive granite boulder that had rolled off the mountain centuries ago. (Oh, to see one or those big rocks tumble over the rim!) The pole, pulley, and rope hung suspended out over the abyss.  

He walked back and lifted the big coil of rope in the dusty old touring trunk up on end. He found the other free end at the bottom of the coil and tied it off on the rear bumper. He flopped the coil back flat in the box.

“When I want to take things out of the canyon, I just tie off the middle of the rope on the bumper and drive up the trail.” He was grinning broader than usual. “Pretty clever, huh?”  Abbie and Mollie both rolled their eye.

“Looks like a lot of work, to me,” Abbie said, standing hands on hips, feet spread, looking skeptical. She was losing interest in the engineering project. She stepped to the car and retrieved the pint from under the front seat. She took a tug and passed the bottle to Mollie, who partook genteelly and passed the bottle to Harvey, who continued the tradition and passed it on to Bert. Bert took a big tug and the bottle made the return trip back up the line.

The girls moved out of the way. Bert and Harvey lifted the mattress and laid it across the touring car from door to door. Bert folded a scrap of canvas ground cloth onto the mattress and wedged an axe protectively within the canvas folds.

You two are talking to the sheriff,” Abbie said.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” said Harvey.

“Uh-huh.”

“It won’t hurt the mattress at all,” Bert explained, “and this way it guarantees the axe makes it down in good shape.  One clunk against the rocks while you’re hiking in and you ruin the edge.”

“Uh-huh,” Abbie said.

Bert lifted the gunnysack stuffed with the cooking gear, the canned food, and half a side of paper-wrapped saltpork and sat it upon the canvas. Bedrolls went on last.

Abbie scowled. 

“It’s easy when I just have supplies,” Bert said, “but since we have a mattress.”

“You wanted us to come!” Abbie said.

“Harvey wanted you to come. I’m just being a nice guy.”

“Uh-huh.”

Bert knew it was risky to match wits with Abbie for too long. She was starting to get that look.

The boys carried the mattress loaded with the gear to the rim, untied the rope from the sagebrush, and tied the rope twice around the mattress. With some effort they managed to fold the mattress over the supplies. While Harvey kneeled on the folded mattress, Bert used a ratty-looking length of twine to tie the fold tight.

Bert returned to the car and pulled a pair of old leather gloves from the cornucopian box. His thumbs hung out when he put them on, but his palms were covered.

He put a foot against the tree trunk, lifted the rope, and held it tight. “Fire in the hole!” He cried. The girls backed away from Bert and joined Harvey at the rim to watch. “Cargo away!” Bert cried.

Harvey tipped the mattress over the rim and jumped back. The cargo dropped a yard, swung toward the far rim, and crashed back against the canyon wall. Abbie cursed like a muleskinner. Bert began to let out rope.

It is hard to say exactly what happened.  Maybe it was the distraction of the women’s shouts as the mattress scraped down the canyon wall. Maybe he had miscalculated the weight. Maybe it was the heat of the rope sliding through the gloves. Maybe it was the moonshine. Somehow the rope got away from Bert. It whipped around the tree like a great flailing snake and only a madman would have tried to grab hold again so close to the rim.  He ran to the edge and joined the others looking over.

The mattress descended more and more rapidly until it struck a great rock alongside the trail. The mattress unfolded, dumping its contents, and sprang remarkably high, like a great soaring kite with the rope still tied about its middle and trailing along as a tail. The mattress swooped gracefully through the air several times, transformed, now, into an eagle, moving out away from the canyon wall, flying east, free if only it could shake its trace.

Suddenly it upended and plunged straight down into the raging river and was carried away.

Meanwhile, the axe was driven through its protective wrapping. The end of the handle struck dead-center vertical on the big rock as canvas and mattress unfolded. The handle hurtled away, liberated from the axe head; the clang of steel-on-rock rose to the rim a fraction of a second later.

As if not to be outperformed, the gunnysack burst like a bloated carcass, spraying its contents across the boulder field.

They all stood stunned, motionless, gaping on the rim.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Harvey said finally.

Abbie and Mollie would have a lot more to say on the trail down to the river, but meanwhile, the last of the rope played out of the trunk box, dragged downstream by the mattress in the raging river.

Time had slowed to a crawl as the disaster unfolded, but Bert came to his senses as the rope snapped taut and dragged along the rimrock. He struggled to draw his pocketknife as he ran toward the car. The tires had begun to slide sideways, the wheels skidding toward the rim. The taut rope cut easily from the bumper like spaghetti al dente, snapping like a banjo string, unraveling with a hum as it leaped over the rim.

Abbie was the first to speak after Harvey. “We have a week before the posse comes looking for us.”

#

The steel axe head had been driven right down the length of the handle shaft, rendering the tool useless, and both pieces had bounced quite a way. It was a remarkable feat to recover both remnants, but Abbie and Mollie were driven by intense desire for hard evidence to reproach the boys.

The mattress had sunk in a pool by the time Bert and Harvey swam out and retrieved it, driven by the acrid tongue-lashings of the ladies. The fellows struggled to haul the muddy, dripping thing to shore where they leaned it on end against boulders to drain.

At this juncture, the ladies lifted their bedrolls and followed the path on downstream to the claim and camp, leaving a trail of hoots and comments about engineering marvels.

The camp was just below the big bend where the river turned from north and flowed west. Across the water the canyon rose straight up for hundreds and hundreds of feet, but on the camp-side the sheer walls moved back from the river. The talus field widened and flattened and a few yellow pines rose among the great blocks of stone. The narrow riverbank widened into an attractive plain where cottonwoods and willows pressed close upon the water.

Bert’s camp was surprisingly orderly, even inviting, the girls agreed. A canvas lean-to stretched between two cottonwoods protected his bedroll. He had erected a serviceable fire ring-cum-chimney from rocks, with a flame-blackened plate of iron for a grill. A navy hammock hung, rolled up and tied, on the side of a tree trunk in the shade—a retreat during the few hours each day when the sun blazed vertically down into the canyon gap.

The girls put down their loads and found a path to the river. Here, below the rapids, the water spilled into a clear pool perhaps three rods across and white granite sands formed a pleasant beach. The girls soon stripped and frolicked in the river, to the limits of goosebumps and purple-chilled flesh.

It was harder and more dangerous work for the boys to retrieve the valuable hundreds of feet of rope from where it had wedged in the talus rocks and tangled up and down the rapids.  

The sun was well beyond the rim before the boys made their way—huffing and puffing—into camp carrying the soggy mattress upon their heads. The torn gunnysack, re-stuffed with recovered cooking gear and food, rested atop the mattress.  

Mollie and Abbie had found Bert’s moonshine jugs and were really not feeling very vindictive when the lads returned.

“Good fishing?” Abbie whooped, and let it go at that.

#

The mattress draped limply between tree limbs—like a slab of meat being jerked above the meager campfire—dripping water from the lowest pinstriped corner. They were burning small limbs, trying to build a fire large enough to ignite two un-split rounds of yellow pine from the neat stack Bert had cut days before with the bucksaw. The useless axe handle and defunct axe head rested atop the splitting block. Perhaps tomorrow the boys could find a good limb and whittle down a new axe handle.           

Bert was using his pocketknife to open two dented cans of pork and beans while Abbie sliced off wafers of saltpork. Harvey and Mollie were still fishing eddies of the river below the rapids in the near darkness. The half-moon nudged a glowing limb over the east canyon rim. All was not quite right with the world, but it was as close as it usually got for Harvey and Bert.

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