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Just a Little More - a short story
Just a Little More.
It was an old, leather tobacco pouch, and badly weathered, so he almost ignored it until curiosity made him wonder why it was under a small pile of rocks. It had obviously been hidden by someone, but why? He bent to retrieve it, and that’s when he spotted the gleam visible through a crack in the deteriorating pouch. He found a slab of bark from a dead mesquite, and gingerly slid it under the bag so that the contents would be safe.
It was at least five hundred dollars in gold dust and nuggets. But where had it come from? He had been sample panning the small stream for weeks, and had found little. And what happened to the man who owned the pouch? Jed Blalock was a deliberate and thoughtful man, so he sat on a flat rock on the far side of the stream and pondered the find while he ate his lunch.
The stream had been worked some fifty years ago until the placers played out. It was a minor rush in the Territory, and the tailings piles were still readily visible. He’d been told that more than a thousand miners had worked this stream, but he also knew that there was always an undiscovered concentration for the man willing to look for it and figure out the stream.
The gold in the pouch puzzled him. Placer gold is gold that weathering has released from the mother rock and has washed downhill into a stream, where it has been pounded by rocks during thousands of years of periodic floods, until it’s smooth and worn. But the gold in the pouch was far rougher than most placer gold, meaning that it had not been subjected to eons of wear. But where was the mother rock?
The bank on the far side of the stream was about ten feet high, and the meadow had good grass, so he decided he would move his burros over there after eating. Beyond the grass was a bench some fifty to sixty feet high, and then desert, sloping upward toward the distant blue mountains. Something on the bench looked out of place, and he realized it was a long pole resting against its face. He decided to look at it after he picketed his burros.
The pole had been cleaned with an ax, and a similar pole lay on the ground five feet away. About seven feet up was the remains of a crosspiece, still bound by weathered rawhide. Similar crosspieces lay scattered about. It had been a ladder. For the second time that day, Jed Blalock sat and studied the situation.
The lower part of the bench was fractured granite, populated by various types of vegetation that had succeeded in gaining a precarious root-hold in the cracks. Around twenty feet up however, the face changed dramatically. It was weathered and rounded rock and gravel, cemented together with ancient mud that was now stone hard. Near the top of the pole was something white protruding from the gravels. It might be a piece of quartz.
Jed Blalock realized that he was looking at an ancient streambed, or what was left of it. It ran for perhaps a thousand feet and then disappeared, eroded away centuries ago. Above what looked like a piece of quartz was a small section of gravels that had collapsed, and Jed was a curious man. He set about repairing the ladder.
He had been a surgeon’s helper during the war, so he knew instantly what was in front of his face. The white object was the remains of a human ankle and it was still attached to the lower leg bones. That and the now obvious collapse of the gravels and river rock told the tale. The owner of that leg was buried along with it, and crushed under tons of rock. Ancient stream beds were sometimes fabulously rich with placer gold at bedrock, but tunneling under a streambed’s precariously balanced rocks, sand, and gravels to retrieve the gold was fraught with danger. This miner had gambled and lost.
Now he knew the source of the gold, but getting it out was in doubt. There was at least thirty feet of streambed to remove to get at the bed rock, so that was out of the question. Tunneling was far easier and cheaper, but one mistake meant death. He climbed down and sat on a boulder, studying the problem.
Some fifteen feet to the left of the collapsed tunnel, he spotted a crack in the bedrock that was nearly a foot wide and perhaps two feet deep. If that had been there when the stream was running, it would have acted as a trap, and could be rich with gold. He would try that, and then decide.
Two days later, he made up his mind. He had moved the ladder to the crack, and using a hand pick, dislodged some of the materials caught in it. With a hammer on a flat rock, he crushed it up and panned it out in the stream. He found good color immediately, and the deeper he dug, the better it got. Now he was in about two feet, but that was as far as he could reach. If he wanted to continue cleaning out the crack, he would have to tunnel. He decided to cut shoring. It wasn't fool proof, but if a man was careful...
Two months later, Jed Blalock had lost nearly twenty pounds, and his eyes were haunted. He had tunneled in nearly twenty feet, following the crack which was now wider, deeper, and richer. He had a Dutch oven hidden away in a tree hollow that was half full of dust and nuggets. He already had enough to retire in luxury or buy a good sized ranch, so he promised himself that tomorrow would be his last day. It was a promise he had made and broken several times, but this time, he intended to keep it, no matter what.
The day dawned gray and cold, with the promise of rain. Jed ate a small breakfast and picked up his tools. He untied the burros and turned them loose, as he had done every other day. If anything happened, they could fend for themselves. He walked to the foot of the bench, and looked up. Finally, he swallowed hard and began to climb the ladder.
His gunny sack was as full as he allowed it to be, and he was making ready to back out of his tunnel when he heard a low rumble. In a panic, he began to scramble backwards, still holding on to his sack. He was less than ten feet from the entrance when he saw the blinding flash of light, followed instantly by a clap of thunder. A storm! It was just a storm and thunder. His shoulders began to shake as he laughed at himself.
At last, he began again to back out of the tunnel, and for the last time. He felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. It was over, and he had won!
His sack caught on something, and in his jubilation, he unthinkingly gave it a hard tug. In the light from the tunnel mouth, he saw the pieces of shoring fall away. For a horrifying second, he froze and then the tunnel collapsed. The air from his crushed lungs blew out of his mouth and nose, and his last thought was of Mary. What was to become of Mary?
Big Albert unconsciously tugged at his beard as he studied the situation. What had happened was obvious. He had climbed the ladder and found the remains of leg bones jutting from the first collapsed tunnel, and had caught the faint odor of death from the second tunnel. He also found the hollow tree and the Dutch oven by following the tracks, so he understood the reasons. He was an honest man, so he looked around for a way to identify the dead men, and send their gold to relatives, but he found nothing.
As a miner, he understood instantly the risk and the reasons, including the cleaned out crack in the granite. In fact, he had found another crack that looked even more promising. At last he made up his mind. He would shore up the tunnel, and only go in a few feet. That was a promise, he told himself. Only a few feet.
He picked up the ax, and began to cut shoring.