A while back I posted a story, Ambush (http://wp.me/p6LAko-GA), about Zeke and his gold mining adventure. This story takes place shortly after Ambush.
Zeke was hardly any better than the horse. Jumping at every sound, distracted by any leaf blown across his path, he hardly blamed the horse. The Apache had left, as far as he could tell. That left him with the worry about the Indians coming back, but more so about the gold he was finally getting out of the ground. For such an out in the middle of nowhere spot, there seemed to be a lot of people around.
The ore he was having the donkey and horse crush generally came out of the quartz in fair sized nuggets that could be easily handled. Once he had the arrastra cleaned out, the quartz tossed to the side, he swept the hard floor for the gold dust. Tinning, the man told him the process was called. This was new for him and he only had an old miner’s word that it would work.
On his last trip into town, he acquired two items, potatoes and mercury. Mr. Burell, the grocery owner, cautioned him on the shining silver in the three bottles he bought. “It’s dangerous stuff, mercury, son. They used to use this in making hats. It’s poisonous, and the old saw, mad as a hatter, came from the worker’s exposure to it. Don’t get it on your hands or skin, if you can help it.”
He pulled one of the vials he’d purchased out of his pocket and poured a few drops of the silver toxin into the pan, rubbing it all around the inside. Then he panned the dust, separating the dirt from the gold. The gold stuck to the mercury, leaving little nuggets and put the pan to dry while he prepared the next step.
Now, next to the campfire, Zeke cut one of his potatoes in half. He scraped the amalgam of gold and mercury into the hollowed out potato and wired it back together. He tossed the potato into the fire. “Wait until that tater is black as sin,” the old-timer told him. Zeke took a deep breath. This was going to take a while. He got up and fetched Butter’s harness. If he wasn’t digging, he could at least fix her harness while he waited.
He was just finishing his repair when he heard horses. Laying the harness to the side, he picked up his rifle. After the Apache attack, always at hand. Butter and the donkey’s head rose and the animals looked toward the noise.
Three men rode into camp, dusty and bearded. Zeke’s stomach clenched. He didn’t want any trouble. “Hello, the camp!” The center man called out. “You mind if we rest a bit, get some water from the stream?”
Zeke wanted to tell them to move along but that was just rude. “Water ain’t mine. Take what you need.”
The men tied their horses to Zeke’s picket line and walked over to the fire. Zeke could see them eyeing the little arrastra he’d built. They know what I’m doing. Will they move along?
“I’m Dan’l Thomas. Appreciate the kindness.” He pointed at the man to his left. “My brother Earl, and this here’s, Nate.” The three men squatted down around the fire. They eyed the rifle still in Zeke’s hands.
“Had much trouble?” Daniel asked.
“Some Apache not long ago.” Zeke nodded. “I ran them off.”
Earl spat to the side. “Kill any?”
“No bodies left behind, so probably not. I know I hit at least one. There was blood.”
Nate rubbed his beard. “I don’t know why the Army doesn’t kill them all.”
Zeke nodded out of politeness. He didn’t care as long as the Indians didn’t bother him. It was their home first, after all. “Travelin’ far?” He hoped they’d get the hint to move along.
Daniel chuckled. “We’re takin’ it slow. Heard there was gold around here. Looks like you found some.”
“Not much,” Zeke said. “I’m about to move on. Last haul was barely enough for supplies and a beer.” His hands were sweaty on the rifle.
“That’s too bad.” Daniel looked around Zeke’s camp. “Nice little set up.”
“Yeah. But like I said, not much return. I heard there was big gold in California.”
Daniel nodded as he pulled a wrapper of tobacco from his inner coat pocket. He offered the packet to Zeke. “Chaw?”
“No, thank you. Never picked up the habit.”
Daniel pulled some tobacco from the packet and passed it to his brother. “Probably best. Nasty habit.” He stood up. “So you won’t mind if we set up camp for the night.”
Zeke’s heart sank. “Suit yourself. There’s a flat spot over there,” he pointed a hundred feet away. “Mind the rocks. The whole country is nothin’ but sharp rock.”
The others stood. Daniel tipped his hat. “Much obliged.”
They walked to their horses and led them to the spot Zeke had pointed out. Not good. I’ll have to watch all night.
End of Part 1, next week, Part II.
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