Gold Fever, a short story by George C Glasser at
Paul Marwood

Gold Fever

Gold Fever

written by: George C Glasser



San Francisco seems like a big city if you don’t live there, but if you’re a regular it’s a small village. If someone is looking to find you, all they have to do is ask around.
Stan, an off-the-books private investigator knew all the nooks and crannies and made a decent living from his knowledge of the city; however, sometimes, he found himself in a jam and had to skip town until the dust settled. He would head up to the Sierra Nevada mountains for a few months and pan for gold in the rivers and streams until things cooled down in the city.
A lawyer who hired Stan to do research and investigations owned property on the Yuba River and shared an interest in prospecting for gold. He always flashed jewelry made from nuggets claiming to have found them on his property while bedrock mining.
Numerous times, Harry propositioned Stan about mining his property for fifty percent of the action and paying all of his expenses. Stan always turned down the offer knowing all too well the grueling task of bedrock mining.
Gold percolates down to the bedrock over the years and collects. Most of it is dregs from the Forty-Niners, but people did find occasional caches the early miners missed. One might spend a backbreaking month or so digging an area and come up with less than an ounce.
An occasion did arise where Stan found himself caught up investigating a fraud case that went south. It seemed all the parties wanted a piece of his hide and had a pack of subpoena-serving hellhounds nipping at his heels. He went to Harry, told him he needed to blow town for a few months, and accepted his offer.
Shortly after that, Stan was headed east across the Bay Bridge and out of harm’s way.
Gold fever: Stan knew what it was all about. It’s more addictive than cocaine or heroin. Panning for gold is mesmerizing as you gently wash the rocks, pebbles, and raw sand away while continually dipping the pan in the water and repeating the swirling motion until only the black sand is left, and almost magically, the golden flakes like glittering stars jump out in stark contrast to the black iron oxide granules. Finding the tiniest nuggets in the mix is akin to achieving nirvana. Stan never found more than a few grams of gold for his efforts, but he enjoyed the pursuit.
Harry stocked everything Stan needed, shovels, pickax, a nine-pound hammer, rock chisels, a sluice box, pans, and an old hand-crank gasoline-powered dredge.
After he dug a few test holes and panned the contents, a few specks of gold appeared but Stan knew all too well that in gold country you could dig a shovel load of dirt from almost anywhere, pan it out and come up with specks of gold. As Stan got into it, he thought bedrock mining was the most brutal job he ever did, but after finding the first little nugget, nothing seemed to matter anymore except the manic pursuit of finding another.
Focused, Stan just kept digging and panning. It didn’t matter whether it was raining, snowing, or a beautiful day, he never took a break to look around. One day, Stan was moving a large rock with a tattered block and tackle. The rope broke releasing the stone. It rolled down onto his thumb and smashed it.
Stan dipped the mangled thumb into the freezing river to wash it and stop the bleeding. Upon inspection, his thumb was almost twice the size it was previously revealing crushed bone and pale pink sausage-like flesh. Wrapping it in a piece of rubber inner tube, he cinched the thumb back together and secured it with wire then continued digging and panning as if nothing ever happened. He worked for six or seven hours and never felt the slightest pain because of the numbing anticipation of finding more gold.
Every night when Stan finished for the day, Stan poured an ounce or two of mercury atop the black sand, washed it around, and watched the golden sparkles vanish into the shiny silver globules. After a few days, like an alchemist of medieval times, he distilled the amalgam, and as the mercury evaporated a small gold nugget began to appear.
Stan’s total existence was devoted to finding gold. It was the first thing on his mind when he awoke. At night, upon closing his eyes, visions of gold dust glittering against the black sand fused into his consciousness and surfaced in fragmented dreams about finding one of those almost mythical ten-pound nuggets.
Working in miserable conditions for almost a month crashing through shale rock, earth, and river stone to hit the bedrock, he got little rewards for his efforts. Unfortunately, Stan was going about everything the wrong way. One morning, he stopped off at Rough and Ready on his way into Grass Valley for a decent meal and supplies. Everyone in the tiny town knew that Stan was working on Harry’s property.
An old man approached Stan and said he worked the big gold dredges up and down the American River, did mining, and prospecting since he was a kid, and offered to teach him how bedrock mining was done. He appeared to be in his seventies and introduced himself as Bo Wilkins. Stan knew he was real by the telltale leathery skin, gnarled hands, and sinewy builds that men get from a lifetime of hard work out in the elements.
The next morning, Stan drove into town and Bo was waiting in front of the store with a brown paper sack. Stan didn’t find out what he was carrying until they reached the property – there were about five or six sticks of dynamite, blasting caps, and fuses.
The first thing they started doing was measure off the area in grids. He had Stan dig a few keyholes and blasted them into a big hole. By the end of the day, he had Stan set up and operational.
After that, Stan managed to complete mining of the area in a few weeks, but the haul only amounted to about three thousand dollars which was only a thousand-five for him. He made more money a week doing investigations, and it was hardly worth the effort.
At that point, Bo’s motive for helping Stan surfaced. He had been feeding Stan stories about lost gold mines, famous Gold Rush bandits, and hidden treasures that lie undiscovered in the mountains. Bo was obsessed with a legendary Gold Rush-era bandit named Joaquin Murrieta, “The Robin Hood of El Dorado.”
He was interested in the loot Murrieta’s gang supposedly hid in the mountains near Rough and Ready and believed he figured out where they might have stashed a cache of gold. Stan never believed there was an outside chance of finding any treasure from the first time Bo approached him, but had some time to kill before he headed back to the city.
He figured that you never know – there might have been something to the stories and he might get lucky and hit on something. Stan hiked up and down the Yuba River looking for the treasure a few times, but he always came back empty-handed, but Stan did enjoy trekking through the wilderness although he spent more than a few nights soaked to the bone and shivering trying to keep a fire alight was a far cry from the comforts of city life.
One afternoon, Bo was excited and said that he finally thought that he had figured it out. Stan was somewhat reticent at the prospect of freezing his ass off and possibly dying from exposure, but Bo said it would be an easy run and should only take a few days.
Bo laid out a topographical map and as far as getting to the destination, it didn’t look too bad. All he had to do was follow an old Indian trail up the river, and he reluctantly agreed to take one last look.
He headed out the following day. At first, everything was just as Bo said, but old trails are just what the term ‘old’ infers. Sometimes, they get washed away and that’s what he encountered on several occasions. This time, Stan found himself clinging precariously to the side of an almost sheer cliff fifty feet above the Yuba River with nothing but rocks and white water rapids below. There was only one direction to go and no chance of going back the same way. He kept inching forward hoping for the best.
By late afternoon, Stan reached the area they talked about, and to his amazement, there were signs of people having stayed there from the Gold Rush days. There was a foundation built from river rock which stood several feet above the ground. It wasn’t very large, and it appeared as if it was constructed for a small temporary dwelling. Stan knocked up a lean-to atop the old foundation. He learned the hard way from his first trip out to gather enough firewood to last through the night and well into the morning.
Stan was feeling good as he started dinner over the fire, settled in for the night, and had a warm place to sleep. Glancing skyward, he noticed ominous steel-gray clouds gathering above that became darker and darker, soon it began raining, and then it turned into a deluge. He set the camp up for that possibility and remained somewhat comfortable even without a campfire. The rain turned back to snow, and he was caught in a late Spring storm.
The temperature dropped into the low teens as the snow ceased and the sky cleared. As the night gave way to the first shades of gray light in the ravine, shivering, Stan looked around to see the ground covered with about two feet of snow, and by the look of the sky, he was in for another round of bad weather.
He was stuck there for two days waiting for the weather to break so he could leave. The only way out was climbing up a steep hill rising four or five hundred feet, and Stan wasn’t looking forward to the torturous trek even on a good day. He was out of food and had to make a move. The weather was still bad when Stan decided to leave.
The climb up the hill was probably the worst experience of his life. Sometimes, he’d go up twenty feet, step on a chunk of slippery clay, and slip back for what seemed like forty feet caked in mud and grit. There was the occasional mesquite tree hugging the ground appeared to offer a friendly branch to cling onto only to break, sending him sliding down the hill and into deeper despair. Several times, he begged God to send down a bolt of lightning to strike him dead because he was so exhausted and frustrated. His only thought was, “Just put me out of my misery.” When he finally reached the top, he just kept moving toward the west/northwest where he knew there was a road.
The rain started up again, and although it was cold, it felt good as the clay coating on his body washed away. He caught a whiff of burning wood and noticed smoke rising above the trees about a half-mile west of him. It was salvation. As he got closer, he smelled the aroma of food mingled with burning wood.
Stan arrived at the shack, knocked on the door, and a grizzled old man appeared as the door creaked open. His mouth fell open when he saw Stan standing at the door looking like a drowned rat and asked, “Are you lost?”
Stan said, “No. I’ve been stuck down in the ravine for a few days because of the weather and just got out. I was doing a little prospecting. I’ll pay you for a ride to my truck and a little of the food you got on the stove.”
Sizing Stan up, he said, “You can come in but not in them clothes. Take them clothes off and I’ll get you a blanket.” He came back with a moth-eaten wool blanket, and said, “I don’t usually let strangers in, but you look harmless enough.”
The next thing Stan knew, the old man was bending his ear about lost gold mines waiting to be found and the old days when there was still gold in the rivers.
Sitting comfortably in front of a potbelly stove, the previous sleepless nights and exposure verging on hypothermia started to catch up with him. Stan found himself drifting in and out of consciousness as the old man rambled on until he finally passed out in the chair. He didn’t wake up until the old man shook him the next morning, handed Stan dry clothes, and said, “We’ll get going after breakfast.”
A day later, when he was rested, Stan dropped by Bo’s cabin and he burst out the door like a hound anxiously awaiting the arrival of his master. He told Bo that there might have been something there, but over the years, it was either washed downstream or buried by landslides.
Stan said that his boss contacted him and he had to go back to the city. Undaunted, Bo said possibly the greatest find of all was the head of Murrieta that Nick Love and his posse lopped off and pickled in a jar of whiskey. They shipped it around California and charged a dollar to view it in saloons, and as the legend goes, the head was on display at a San Francisco saloon and lost in the 1906 earthquake.
Bo tried to persuade Stan to locate Murrieta’s head when he got back to San Francisco. It was another futile endeavor, but Stan humored him and said he’d give it a try.
While Bo was disappointed to see Stan leave, he was excited about the fact he came across the old camp, and maybe, come back in better weather to look for the lost hoard.
In parting, Bo told Stan that Harry bought all the gold he wore from a goldsmith in Downeyville and never did any mining and offered everyone in town the same deal as Stan.
Driving back to the city, an anti-climatic feeling came over Stan. On one hand, he was happy to be going back to the creature comforts of the city while on the other, he wished the adventures with Bo weren’t over. For Stan, it was all about the experience. He felt like he was a character in a Jack London novel or Samuel Clemens’ story – an experience you can’t buy with any amount of gold.


The End

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