A hint of winter still lingered in the air although the calendar said it was May in Haypress Meadows. A lone honey bee flew lazily past the small cabin while Ezra sat on a nearby stump enjoying the warm sunshine. He aimed a stream of tobacco juice at a small stone, turning the gray rock brown in one splash. In the mountain meadow stretching before him, elk cows and their new-born calves were contentedly feeding on the lush grass. It was a quiet, pastoral scene, one that Ezra had come to appreciate in his 63 years.
* * *
The ramshackle log cabin looked older than its eight years. Ezra had built the cabin himself, mostly by trial and error–the errors had been many but all chinked up with mud and moss. The one room cabin was barely high enough for Ezra to stand up straight, but it was big enough for the old widower. Rags of clothes, tools, pans and pots, a rifle and coffee cans filled with odd collections of things were scattered about the cabin in a disheveled pattern.
There was no order where things hung on wooden pegs. A rough wooden table was the only furniture other than a single chair and a corner bed. In the center of the room stood a small, pot-bellied stove that served as both cook stove and heat source. And heat meant survival for Ezra throughout the long winter months when snow measured four feet deep outside the cabin door.
He could have been like other prospectors, packing up and heading for town to avoid the brutal Idaho weather. But Ezra enjoyed the months of white silence and solitude. Winter was a quiet time without work or hurry, a time when Ezra could reflect about a wife long dead and two sons he last saw 35 years earlier. It was a time to regret the fight in the saloon when he hit the stranger just once with a bottle. Sheriff Dobbs never thought it was a friendly fight and tried to lock Ezra up for murder. That's when Ezra fled to his self-imposed exile in the wilderness. He often wondered if the sheriff had retired and the event forgotten in McCall. Eight years in the wilderness ought to be enough to atone for the error. Then Ezra chuckled as he considered the incident was about to make him a wealthy man. Another brown stream arced through the air as he leaned back against the cabin wall and dozed in the mid-day warmth.
There had never been a lot of gold, at least not until he stumbled upon the miner's pick half-buried in the litter of the forest. Ezra had been prospecting on Deerhorn Creek when he found the rusted tool and suspected there might be something of value nearby. After several days of exploration, he discovered a small cave that had been carefully concealed with brush, rocks and logs. There was barely enough room to crawl through the opening, but once inside a vein a of glittering quartz and gold greeted Ezra's eyes. There was a shovel with a handle long since rotted away, an old lantern, a hammer and a drill bit. The original prospector had met some unknown fate and the mine now belonged to Ezra. Only he knew of its existence and he guarded his secret closely.
The Grim boys had already dropped off Ezra's springtime supplies at the cabin–flour, coffee, dried beans, tin milk and a large pouch of chewing tobacco. Jim and Ben were the local packers out of Yellowbottom. They managed a meager living packing supplies to what few miners still lived in the mountains. They packed in supplies in the Spring, packed out miners and their gold in the Fall, all except for Ezra who stayed in Haypress year round.
Ezra had come to trust the boys; they packed out what little gold he found to deposit it in the Citizens Bank of Yellowbottom. Always they returned in the spring to drop off supplies and the bank receipt. Jim and Ben pretended to be friendly relating all the local gossip after each trip to town–who had died, who gave up and pulled out, how the preacher and the school marm had taken up together. Ezra politely listened each time although he was quickly bored with the talk. He thanked the boys and then closed the cabin door to end the conversation. The Grims seldom took offense at this and simply knew it was time to depart. It had been the same every year and this spring had been no different.
Ezra dreamily swatted at a bothersome fly near his face. The lazy movement was enough to startle a nearby elk cow and her calf, sending them galloping across the meadow. They stopped at the meadow's edge to stare at the old hermit and his cabin and then trotted up the hillside to find another place to graze.
"What do you think, Jim? You suppose he's found it yet?" Ben stirred the embers of the campfire trying to coax a little more heat from it. Two hours after sunset the temperature was falling rapidly in the clear sky.
* * *
"Can't really tell, Ben. He don't seem no different then last Fall, 'cept he did smile once this year. Never known him to smile in all these years we've been packin' for him. We took out 22 ounces for him last year, some pretty big nuggets. If he hasn't found the mother lode yet, he's sure getting' close." Jim sat on a log staring into the dying fire. His sheepskin vest and rough slicker still could not ward off the cold and his 28-year-old body shivered in the dark. Old boots, old jeans, dirty Stetson–everything about Jim seemed old and worn out.
"We've worked this friendship thing for a long time, all because he showed us a few big nuggets. We've packed out a couple thousand dollars worth of gold for the old coot and all we got to show for it is a good crop of saddle sores. I say this is the last year. We keep a close eye on him this season and figure out where he gets the gold. If nothin' turns up by the time we pack out in the Fall, we just take whatever gold he has and keep riding. He won't know anything's wrong until we don't show up next Spring. By then we can be in Colorado or California." Ben waited for a reaction from his older brother and stared into the campfire.
Jim grunted in agreement. The pack string had flourished until the gold strike played out, leaving the Grim boys with a lot of expensive horses and gear but no supplies to pack. There were few miners left in the wilderness, not enough business to provide the brothers with more than a minimal existence. Every winter they hibernated in a cabin near McCall; neither had ever married and they were looked on by everyone in a gay sort of way.
The next morning it was time to go to work. No one else was around the meadow and Ezra could slip away to Deerhorn Creek. He grabbed up two wooden buckets and disappeared into the forest.
* * *
"He's not at the cabin, Ben." Jim slipped off his horse and began loosening the cinch of the saddle. "He's gone off somewhere again. We'll have to keep our eyes open. If we find him, we can always say we're out scouting for elk."
* * *
Ben nodded. He had been busy with camp chores while Jim had ridden the mountain trails. "He'll turn up. Always does before long."
Ezra watched his back trail, making sure no one had followed him to his golden ledge. He figured the Grim boys were the only ones about, but he did not want even them to know his secret, not yet anyway. He carefully moved away the screen of brush and a shaft of sunlight bounded among the crystals and flecks of gold. He began chipping quietly at the ledge with his pick, breaking off just enough to fill his two buckets. Ezra would conceal the mine and return to his cabin to separate the yellow mineral from the worthless quartz. Even at just two buckets a day the gold was accumulating quickly. By Fall Ezra planned to have enough gold to quit the wilderness forever.
* * *
He kept at it every day, filling his two buckets with gold ore and panning the gold back at his cabin. Some nuggets were as big as his thumb and Ezra danced a little jig whenever he discovered a large one. His small poke of gold became two pokes, then four. He was running out of places to hide the gold in his small cabin. It was proving to be a rich strike, more than enough to get him out of Idaho and out of the country.
"He's on to something, Ben. He's never at the cabin in the morning, but always back around noon, down at the creek, panning from those two buckets. I've been watchin' him from up on the ridge. Once I saw him do a little jig after he picked something from the pan. He's found it, Ben. He's found the mother lode."
* * *
Ben nodded, his steel eyes narrowing to gray slits. "You're probably right. A couple times I stopped at his cabin to snoop around when he wasn't there. Plenty of old tailings down at the creek. And there are four nice-size pokes hid under his bed. Let him do all the work for now and we'll help him divide it up come Fall. 'fact maybe we ought to be neighborly and pay Ezra a visit this afternoon. You still got that bottle tucked in your bedroll?"
Jim smiled and nodded. "Yeah, sure. We'll just be neighborly today."
" 'afternoon, Ezra." Ben was just gushing with friendliness. " 'figured you might like some company. How ya been? Any luck?"
* * *
Ezra heard the clank of horseshoes on the rocky trail before he saw two riders enter the meadow. He had already hid the biggest nuggets in the soft mud, to be retrieved after the Grims had left.
"Oh, been having a little luck. A few flecks here and there but pretty sparse. Why don't you boys step down and I'll brew us up a pot of coffee?" Jim and Ben looked bewildered-never before had Ezra asked them to stay awhile.
"We'll do that. Well, lookee here what I found." Jim fumbled in his saddlebag to find a bottle of Wild Turkey. "Maybe we can use this to kill the taste of that mud you call coffee." At the sight of the bottle, Ezra's eyes widened and he grinned.
"By golly, you boys is all right!"
While Ezra disappeared into the cabin to boil coffee grounds, Jim and Ben each found a comfortable stump close to the cabin door. In short order Ezra returned with three tin cups and a pot of coffee. He poured each cup half full while Jim added the Wild Turkey sweetener, making sure Ezra got a double shot.
"Looks like there'll be plenty of elk come Fall. Most of the cows we've seen have calves. Saw a couple of branched bulls up on the ridge."
Ezra nodded in agreement. "Yeah, an' I've been seein' quite a few moose. Do you suppose I could have another shot of that Turkey? Was a long winter, ya' know. Pretty soon I'll be able to buy all the Wild Turkey I want. That is, if I have any luck this year." Jim filled Ezra's cup about half full, leaving just enough room for a splash of coffee. Ezra resumed his place on the stump, enjoying the warm sunshine and the effects of the whiskey.
"I sure appreciate you boys haulin' my supplies every year. I can always count on you. But you won't be packing supplies to me no more. I've had enough of this place and I'm going out with you in the Fall." The whiskey was taking its toll on Ezra. "Let me show you something." Ezra staggered into the cabin, rummaged around a bit and returned with a fist-size leather pouch.
"I mean for you boys to have this when you get me to Yellowbottom. I know I ain't been the best of neighbors, but you've been plenty good to me. Look at this."
Ezra grabbed a semi-clean tin plate and poured out the contents of the poke. Flakes of gold dust and small nuggets cascaded into the plate. Jim and Ben fairly jumped from their stumps to see the gold.
"Why you old coot! All this time you been tellin' us you ain't hardly found nothin'. Must have taken you months to scrounge up this much. Where . . . "
Ezra's tongue had been well loosened and he was enjoying the attention. "Naw. Dug it up in just a couple of days. And I sure can't tell you horse thieves where 'cause you might jump my claim. Har! Har! Har!"
Jim and Ben glanced at one another. He really had found the mother lode. All their years of saddle sores and fake friendliness was about to pay off. Ezra was the key to their wealth and the one obstacle to be eliminated.
"How about another splash of that joy juice?" Ezra was feeling no pain.
The drinking and laughter continued till sundown. Every time the talk turned to the mine's location, however, Ezra changed the subject. The Grims knew it was close by since he never disappeared more than a few hours. Meanwhile, Ezra bragged about the $20 pans he had been taking out all summer.
"Well boys, I've had enough of this place. When you figure to pull out?"
"We're going out for supplies in two weeks. McGregors and Johnsons up on Beaver Creek need some things. Then we'll pull out for the winter."
"That will be just fine. By then I ought to have a few more socks filled." Ezra carefully gathered up the gold from the plate. "I'll just keep this for you boys till then. Mark my words, it's yours just as sure as an elk sheds its horns."
Ezra staggered to the cabin door and disappeared inside. A rhythmic growl soon issued from the cabin and the boys knew the party was over–Ezra had passed out.
"Did you see the size of that poke? And those nuggets? Big as marbles. There must be $5000 worth of gold in that one pouch." Ben was gasping with excitement and anticipation. "He's got more and gonna get more. You heard him Jim, didn't you? Give him a couple more weeks and we'll be rich!"
Jim let his horse walk the moonlit trail without guidance. "I got an idea. When we go out with him, we'll put him on old Cleaver. That horse will spook if he sees his own shadow. We'll just ride along nice and friendly until we get to the Estep Trail. Then there's gonna be a little accident when Cleaver gets spooked off the trail and takes Ezra with him. Can't be more than 700 feet to the bottom. It will just be one of those unfortunate mountain accidents and we'll forget to tell anyone about the gold."
In the darkness surrounding the Idaho trail, Ben smiled with satisfaction. He could always count on his older brother for a plan. Maybe that's why he loved him so.
The elk were bugling by early September, but Ezra paid them no mind as he panned his buckets of gold. The Grims continued packing supplies from Yellowbottom to the solitary miners scattered along Beaver Creek. Every time they passed Ezra's cabin, they stopped for a friendly visit. Ezra never suspected their true intentions and even came to enjoy these times. He showed the boys more pokes of nuggets, complaining how his mattress was getting mighty lumpy. Each time the Grims fawned bewilderment that such good fortune would befall the old hermit. And each time the Grims rode away, more determined to have it all.
* * *
By late September the high mountain frost had performed its alchemy on the aspens, transforming the green leaves of summer into golden flakes that shimmered in every breeze. Ezra had run out of leather pokes and was filling his socks with the yellow mineral.
October bit with a vengeance when the first storm arrived out of the north. For two days all was silent and white, blanketed by a foot of snow. Ezra stayed in the cabin to avoid making any tracks to his mine, staying close to the stove and dreaming about his new wealth. He cleaned and oiled his .30-30 carbine, and then resacked all the gold dust and nuggets–two flour sacks, a coffee tin, five pokes and a couple socks held all his wealth and future happiness. With his savings in the Yellowbottom Bank Ezra figured he had close to half a million dollars, more than enough to bypass McCall and get to San Francisco.
The early storm was short-lived and the returning sun quickly melted the snow. Ezra basked in the Indian summer weather and waited for the Grims to return. He was dozing when a nickering horse announced Jim and Ben were coming.
"Are you ready, you old coot?" Jim and Ben laughed as they handed Ezra the bottle of whiskey to celebrate the departure.
" 'bout time you two showed up. I was beginning to wonder if you remembered that poke."
"We remembered, Ezra. C'mon we got two pack horses for your gear. We brung old Cleaver for you to rest your bones on." Both boys tried to hide their surprise when Ezra brought out the sacks of gold. "You gonna make us haul all this yellow gravel clear to town?"
"Now boys, be nice to me. These old bones haven't straddled a horse in a long time." Ezra tied his carbine to the saddle horn with a piece of twine. "That's in case some notorious bandits try to bushwhack us on the trail. Har! Har! Har!"
"How about one for the trail? A toast to the Hermit of Haypress Meadows." Ezra took a big gulp of the offered whiskey, and then another for good measure.
"That's the last time I go through that cabin door. You boys are welcome to the place next year."
"Say, Ezra, you never did tell us the where-abouts of your mine. Now that you're pullin' out, how's about telling your good friends here . . . " Ben tried to coax the old man out of his secret.
"Why, I can't tell you that. 'suppose I want to come back someday and make another withdrawal? You boys might call me a claim jumper and shoot me. Besides even if I told you exactly where to look, you couldn't find it if you were standing on top of it. I hid it real good." Jim and Ben winced a bit but there was plenty of gold in the saddle bags, at least for now.
With that they all swung into their saddles and started down the trail towards Yellowbottom. Ezra never even glanced back at the cabin that had been his home for so many years. It would be a 25-mile ride to town and after sundown when they got there. Jim took the lead with the two pack horses now weighted down with gold. Ezra followed on Cleaver. Ben trailed behind with a single pack horse and more gold.
The horses walked easily along the trail while the riders relaxed in their saddles. Ezra soon began a soft, rhythmic growl as his head bobbed and drooped under the warm sun. Jim swung around to look behind, and Ben silently nodded. It wasn't far to the Estep Trail.
Jim deliberately slowed the pace as they approached the narrow path carved into the rock slope. Ben slipped quietly from his horse and climbed above Ezra on the steep slope. Cleaver, already skittish from the narrow trail, saw Ben approaching from above.
"Ezra, it's time to go."
"What the . . . "
Ben gave a loud whoop and sprang towards the horse. Cleaver never hesitated and jumped away from the fright and off the trail. Ezra grabbed for the saddle horn and reins but it was already too late. The horse was pointed straight down the mountain and beginning his first cartwheel. Ezra was catapulted from his saddle trying to distance himself from the tumbling horse and the flailing hooves. The canyon was filled with the screams of a terrified horse and an old man. A small avalanche of rocks and dirt cascaded down the mountainside as Ben and Jim stared in fascination at the horrific sight. A hundred feet below a cloud of dust obscured the rolling carnage. As suddenly as it had begun, the silence of the wilderness returned. Only a cloud of brown dust marked the tragedy that had just occurred.
"Well, that's that. Let's get to Yellowbottom."
"Don't you suppose we ought to go look, Jim? What if he ain't dead?"
"Oh for crying out loud. How many times have you seen anything fall off this trail and live?" Jim silently shook his head. He'd seen horses and mules go off before and every one of them was dead before it quit rolling down the mountain.
"C'mon, it's finished. Let's get to the trailhead before dark. We've got some celebrating to do tonight." The two riders with their gold-laden pack horses resumed their ride down the steep trail.
An hour later Ezra opened his eyes. The blood had dried and crusted on his face, and it was a struggle just to see. He coughed heavily, spitting out two teeth in the process. He was lying on his back staring into the sky atop a patch of brush. It was the brush patch that had cushioned his fall and kept him from tumbling further down the mountain. Before he even tried to move, he knew his left arm was broken.
* * *
He was stunned, laying on the mountainside, trying to remember what had happened. There had been a gentle ride, a drowsy nap in the saddle and then the terror of falling. Where were Jim and Ben? Only the silence of the wilderness answered his thoughts.
As his head cleared, the memories came flooding back. His horse had reared and fallen, frightened by . . . Ben! He and Jim meant to kill him for his gold! They had only to keep their mouths shut when they rode through Yellowbottom and keep riding. It would be spring before anyone would discover that an old man and his horse had fallen off a wilderness trail.
Ezra wiped his face with his right hand. He dislodged another tooth and coughed out more blood. As the shock wore off, the waves of pain began–smashed jaw, broken arm, twisted knee. It took several tries before he could even sit upright. The hills spun crazily around as he tried to focus his eyes. His left arm hung uselessly and painfully at his side while he slowly struggled to stand. Ezra clutched at the wisps of brush to steady himself.
He could see his mangled horse at the bottom of the draw. Ezra staggered on his feet and began to slowly hobble down the steep hillside knowing the draw would eventually cross the trail that led to Yellowbottom. Another loose rock sent Ezra sliding down the slope and a loud groan filled the canyon. It would be a long walk to Yellowbottom.
Jim and Ben leaned heavily on the rough boards of the Silver Shoe Bar. "Give us another shot with a chaser. That trail was really dusty. We worked up a sweat coming down Estep." They looked at one another with a wry smile and a wink. Hilda the barkeep obliged them with another round. They were the only ones in the bar.
* * *
His broken arm dangled uselessly at his side; every step reminded him with a shot of pain. Ezra undid his belt to use as a crude sling and immobilize the arm. He looped the belt around his neck and ever so slowly lifted his broken arm into the sling. Twice he nearly passed out from the pain but it was finally done and he tottered down the slope.
* * *
In the bottom of the draw a mountain stream flowed toward Beaver Creek. It was mid afternoon when he splashed some of the cold water on his parched lips and washed away some of the caked blood. After a short rest Ezra continued to stumble downhill to a well-used elk trail that followed the stream. Two hours later he discovered the pack trail leading to Yellowbottom. And again he rested, gathering strength for the long walk to town.
"Whoa. Good grief what in the hell happened to you?" Kell sat astride his gray saddle mare staring down at the broken prospector. Ezra turned his head slightly to acknowledge the young fur trapper but said nothing. Kell slipped from his worn saddle and walked over to Ezra.
* * *
"Did you get throwed off your horse? Looks like you landed pretty hard." Kell was hesitant to even touch Ezra fearing he would only hurt the old man. He drew a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and dipped it into the nearby stream. Ezra accepted the rag and dabbed at his face.
"Damn kids scared my horse up on Estep in that steep spot. Horse and me went rolling down the hill. They done it deliberately, Kell. They meant to kill me."
"Who did it? The Grim boys?" Kell knew that, other than he, they were the only "kids" in the backcountry.
"Yeah, it was them. They were being real friendly 'cause I was going out with all my gold. Damn them anyhow."
Kell was still unsure how to exactly help Ezra. He turned to his saddlebag and found a used t-shirt that he ripped into bandage-like strips. With that he fashioned a sling for the broken arm to hold it securely against Ezra's chest. Ezra groaned from the pain but accepted the help.
"Let's get you up in my saddle. I've been meaning to stretch my legs anyhow. It ain't but a couple hours to Yellowbottom." With that he helped the old man into the saddle on Rosie.
With his arm secure in the new sling, Ezra heaved a sigh of relief. Kell began to lead Rosie, followed by the two pack horses. Only the sound of hooves on the stony trail were to be heard as they plodded toward Yellowbottom.
"How about it, Hilda? Just one more round? We'll be going out for good in the morning. Had enuf of this country." With that Jim slapped a leather poke of gold dust on the bar. Hilda's eyes bugged out as she realized what it was.
* * *
"Now you take just what's due for the drinks and then take an extra little pinch for yourself so that you'll remember us. I gotta go out back for a minute but Ben will be watching you." Jim turned around and staggered towards the privy out back.
"Well, we're just about there. Maybe Hilda can find you someplace to rest up in the back room, maybe fix you up better than me."
Ezra stared down at the ground and then Kell. "I'll make this up to you somehow when I get all healed . . . "
Ezra stopped in mid-sentence as he looked past Kell towards the hitching rail in front of the saloon. The darkened street was deserted except for the five horses standing there. He knew instantly who owned them.
"Why those . . . " Ezra eased himself off his horse. It took a minute to steady himself and then he limped towards the Silver Shoe. Kell tried to stop him.
"Ezra, you're in no condition to do nothing. Let 'em go for now. In a couple days I'll get you to McCall and the sheriff can handle it."
"They'll be long gone by then. Better take care of things right now." Ezra continued walking unsteadily towards the dim light. Kell stood there holding the reins knowing something bad was about to happen.
Ezra peered through the glass into the dimly lit saloon. Ben was leaning on the bar watching Hilda measure out the gold dust–his gold dust! Jim was nowhere to be seen. Ezra guessed Jim just might be out back in the privy. He silently slipped away from the window and shuffled around to the back of the squatty building.
In the dim moonlight Ezra could see Jim leaning against a tree and unfastening the buttons of his pants. Ezra looked about and saw the rusty hatchet Hilda used for cutting firewood atop the chopping block. Then he knew what to do.
Jim was still leaning in the same position, quietly humming to himself, unaware of Ezra. He was in a drunken stupor dreaming of the gold and all that it would buy in Colorado. He was still dreaming when the rusty hatchet split his skull wide open.
Ben was also supremely drunk, swaying at the bar, watching Hilda, telling her how they struck it rich. He bragged on about himself, his brother, the vein of gold and all that it would soon buy them. Hilda only nodded while coyly working the gold poke for a couple extra pinches.
"Hey, Jim. Jim? Where'd you go? Where'd he go" You know where he went?"
Hilda smiled towards the back door. "Must still be out back." She schemed that, if Ben would wander outside, she might replace some of the gold dust with rocks of equal weight.
"Oh, maybe you're right. I'm gonna go find him," and Ben walked unsteadily towards the door. He slipped the latch and swung open the heavy door.
"Ez . . . Ezra??" He never finished his thought but the hatchet finished it for him. Ezra had been standing there in the doorway waiting. The hatchet was still imbedded in Ben's forehead when he fell back into the barroom.
Hilda stood speechless behind the bar, eyes wide with terror. One dead man gushing blood and brains on the floor, another man looking half dead standing in the doorway. Kell had just stepped though the front door as Ben went down. He grimly looked at Ben, then Ezra.
"Geez, what a mess you made, Ezra." He carefully stepped around the body and the growing pool of blood to grab Ezra's arm. "If you're done, maybe you ought to sit down," and he guided the prospector to a chair. "Hilda, do you suppose you could find something to splint his arm and wash some of the blood off? Maybe get him something to wash that trail dust down his throat?" At that Hilda disappeared into the back room that served as her bedroom.
"'Tried to kill me and steal my gold. That ain't right. Ain't right at all. They had it comin'."
Kell sympathized. "Yeah Ezra. I know. Self defense, plain and simple. Backwoods justice is done."